Interest in veggie gardens sprouting in Roaring Fork Valley |

Interest in veggie gardens sprouting in Roaring Fork Valley

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Vegetable gardens are sprouting up faster than the dandelions this spring in the Roaring Fork Valley, where budding gardeners are taking the “locally grown” mantra to heart ” and to their backyards.

Nothing inspires the gardening bug quite like a recession, according to the National Gardening Association, which projects 43 million U.S. households plan to grow some of their own food this year ” up 19 percent from 2008. On a local level, however, the interest in gardening appears as much rooted in the green movement as in the drooping economy.

Jobless rates are up, but so is interest in reducing one’s carbon footprint by plucking peppers from a pot on the porch.

“I think it’s kind of the perfect storm that’s going on,” said Diana Mundinger, general manager of Eagle Crest Nursery in El Jebel, where a Vegetable Gardening 101 class in early May attracted a standing room-only crowd and forced the nursery to offer a second Saturday session, a week later. “We’ve never had a class with this many people in it,” Mundinger told the crowd before launching into an informal talk on soil preparation and plant selection.

Eagle Crest has stocked twice as many vegetable plants as it did a year ago and roughly triple what it ordered two seasons ago, according to Lois Johnson, annual/perennial manager at the nursery.

“Most of the customers walking in early this year were asking about vegetables, asking about seeds,” she said. “It was pretty amazing.”

It has been the same story at Planted Earth in Aspen and Carbondale.

“I bet every day we have one or two customers come in and say they want to start a vegetable garden,” said general manager Sandy Ferguson. “Also remarkable is how many people are buying seeds.”

The nursery has sold 30 to 40 percent more seed packets this year than it sold last spring, reported Ferguson, who estimated she upped her order for vegetable seedlings at the two nurseries this year by 30 percent.

Tomatoes are notoriously difficult to grow in the valley, given its cold nights and short growing season, but Colorado Rocky Mountain School’s annual May plant sale boasted some 1,300 tomato plants ” all grown from seed by students ” after the school came close to selling out its tomato seedlings a year ago, said Linda Halloran, director of the school’s gardening program.

In Halloran’s decade with the program, the balance of the CRMS plant sale selection has shifted from mostly ornamental plants to herbs and vegetables, which now represent roughly 60 percent of the mix. The line of eager buyers at the May 16 sale stretched well out the greenhouse door.

“I had never sold out of tomato plants until last year,” said Pat Vigil, co-owner of Sunshine Farm, a New Castle nursery. Buyers from as far away as Aspen snapped up all 3,000 plants, she said.

Pat McCarty, a Rifle-based extension agent with Colorado State University, has conducted Gardening 101 classes throughout the greater valley this spring and wound up turning people away at a small-acreage workshop in Glenwood Springs. The university extension also recently conducted the first canning class it has held in Garfield County in some 15 years and will offer its first container gardening class ever this fall in conjunction with Colorado Mountain College in Rifle.

“There is a tremendous renewed interest in gardening, canning and these kinds of things,” McCarty said.

That interest has planted the seed for new community gardens in both Glenwood Springs and Rifle, where residents who don’t have garden space at home are tilling plots and sowing seeds. A handful of Redstone residents are taking about establishing a garden there, as well, and in Aspen, where a community garden was founded on the outskirts of town in 1978, 51 garden plots are worked by individuals, families or friends who garden together. There are 10 more people on a waiting list.

In Carbondale, which too has a community garden, plans to build a greenhouse and gardens at Roaring Fork High School are in the works. CRMS in Carbondale has long had an organic vegetable garden, where students under Halloran’s direction grew three tons of produce last year for use in the prep school’s kitchen, representing 20 percent of the school’s annual dining need. The goal is to grow 40 percent.

For area residents who grow their own food, the taste of fresh produce and the satisfaction of the harvest make the effort worthwhile.

“I love to cook, so I love just running out and grabbing the herbs I need,” said Diane Schwener of Basalt, who admitted to limited success at vegetable gardening in Basalt. What she and her husband to manage to grow though, tastes “fantastic,” she said.

“I think the economy is just one of the reasons it feels even better to grown your own food,” she said.

Dave Durrance of Carbondale, who grew basil and tomatoes in containers last year, will convert a flower garden to an expanded selection of vegetables this year. The economy is a key consideration, he said, but so is enjoying the harvest.

Mills Dancy of Missouri Heights joined Durrance and the rest of the crowd in one of Mundinger’s veggie gardening lectures.

“We’ve wanted to do it for a really long time and I think this is the summer to do it,” she said. “I think food is only going to get more expensive, and I really want to teach my kids to enjoy gardening.”

Dawn Lamping of Aspen, who’s aiming to boost the harvest from a plot she’s working with friends in the Aspen Community Garden, embraces an agrarian concept that’s been largely plowed under in the era of mega-supermarkets and produce trucked across countries.

“I do like the self-sufficiency aspect ” to see how much I can do,” said Lamping, who hopes to take the harvest one step further. “I want to try canning this year ” that’s my other goal, to learn canning.”

Jen Hartley of El Jebel will plant a garden for the first time this summer and hopes to teach her young son the value of growing food.

“It’s going to save me money for sure,” she added. “I buy everything organic and it’s getting too expensive.”

Any veteran gardener is likely to scoff at the notion that growing one’s own vegetables saves money. The products one can end up buying in a quest for home-grown produce may outnumber the varieties in a springtime seed catalog. And that’s not counting the labor.

It was the trials and tribulations of gardening, after all, that inspired William Alexander’s “The $64 Tomato,” a hilarious book about the true costs, and joys, of plucking a home-grown tomato from the vine.

“Growing your own vegetables ” it at least has the perception of being cheaper than buying your vegetables at the grocery store,” Mundinger told her audience. “People are thinking about that ” saving money on produce. Gardening is one way to do that ” sort of.”

Once a garden is established and the initial investment is out of the way, gardening can be economical, said Planted Earth’s Ferguson.

“You can grow an incredible amount of food for very little money,” she said. “One packet of dill seeds buys enough seeds to grow dill for the rest of your life.”

And, the seed packet costs less than one small container of fresh dill at the grocery store.

Teresa Salvadore of Aspen, who is no stranger to gardening and is on the list for a community plot, is quick to laugh at the notion that home-grown is cheaper.

“These vegetables are pretty darn expensive once I put all that work into it,” she said.

For most gardeners, something beyond economics planted the gardening seed in their psyche.

“Being outside, working in the dirt and watching stuff grow is just really fun,” said Mary Lackner at the Aspen Community Garden. “And, obviously, enjoying what you grow.”

Lackner’s crop last year included “amazing stuff” ” peas, lettuce, peppers, potatoes and cauliflower.

“I’m not a big cauliflower person, but it’s like no cauliflower you can ever buy anywhere,” she gushed. “It was so good.”

“To me, it’s just very peaceful to do it,” explained fellow Aspen gardener Deb Tullman. “I love coming down and whatever is ready, that’s what I eat that day.”

Austin Dey of Aspen, who has a plot in the garden for the first time this season, is hoping the crop helps his budget, but mostly he loves laboring outdoors.

“It’s very therapeutic ” working in the dirt,” he said.

“Gardening has a tremendous therapeutic value for a lot of people,” agreed the CSU extension’s McCarty. “If you only grow five carrots, sometimes it’s worth it.”