Milias: Seeds of dissent at the Community Garden

Elizabeth Milias
The Red Ant
Elizabeth Milias

For over 40 years, across the Marolt Pedestrian Bridge lies the Aspen Community Garden. In 1978, Larry Dunn, aided by Ed Compton, “the official dean of Aspen gardeners” who lived nearby in senior housing, created a place for local residents of all ages to get close to nature with a dedicated area within the Marolt Open Space.

The victory gardens of World War II became the community gardens of the late 20th century. The idea was to start with a small plot, learn to garden, and graduate to a larger plot with success, as determined by Compton and his “garden leadership” team. Prospective gardeners originally stood on their plots to claim them, and the garden flourished, yielding a cornucopia ranging from snow peas to garlic to sunflowers to rhubarb and more. The Aspen Times’ archives report few instances of poaching.

Due to popular demand, the garden was expanded in 1980, and it continued to thrive with a focus on self-sufficiency and education on organic food growth. In 1985, a benefit concert at the Wheeler raised money for the project, which by then had become a cornerstone of the community.

Goals of the garden were explicit: to ease financial pressures on seniors and other local employees by enabling them to grow their own produce. Participants were aided by 10 kids a day whose working parents “volunteered” them. In short, the community garden gave a sense of purpose to local seniors and provided free day care for several parents!

Like most everything else in Aspen, those idyllic days are long gone. Today, the community garden still thrives but has become yet another bureaucracy within the city of Aspen. A low priority, buried in the Parks and Recreation department, overseen by a secretive “garden leadership” group and managed by a local volunteer, the organization and most notably its elusive waitlist are shrouded in mystery. There is no public roster of who has plots, nor will the city allow the waitlist to be posted with anything more than initials.

Comprised of 57 large plots (roughly 10 x 40 feet) and 26 smaller ones at the west end, the community garden has space for 83 gardeners, and at press time, 105 wait to be assigned a plot of their own. Inquiries about the garden over the past year have been met with obfuscation, dismissal, and suspicion, which only piques my interest. I was given a numbered and lettered plot map, but nothing further due to “city rules.”

Reports of friends gifting plots to friends, individuals combining multiple plots, and plots assigned yet neglected proliferate. Such a public amenity with a robust waiting list has no grounds for operating like a private club, with special rules for special people and zero transparency. Yet it does.

Notably, in the past year, the official regulations have been updated to include a residency requirement: You must be a resident of the Roaring Fork Valley for at least nine months of the year to qualify for a plot. So apparently, anyone in the region can have a plot in our community garden, ahead of city residents who pay taxes for this open space and despite the explicit request not to drive cars to the garden.

Whether that overly lenient rule is even enforced is unknown. Other listed rules prohibit structures or internal fences, yet the garden, especially at this time of year before it’s filled in with plantings, looks like Sanford and Son’s junkyard. Plastic garden chairs and other bric-a brac indicate that many plots are utilized as remote backyards and not necessarily gardens, if the one with the kids sandbox and toys is any indicator. Meanwhile, higgledy-piggledy fences delineate various plots. It’s a mess.

If you’re thinking that the community garden sounds a lot like APCHA, another government program that started with the best intentions yet came off the rails over time because no one was paying attention, you wouldn’t be wrong. The community garden has sadly become one more entitlement to be taken advantage of and junked up instead of respected as a privilege. That’s probably also why one rule expressly prohibits camping in one’s garden.

It is worth pointing out that there are indeed many legitimate gardens out there. Several local chefs enhance their menus with farm to table offerings. And numerous serious gardeners have beautiful and bountiful plots, reflecting not just their green thumbs, but also their pride and community spirit.

It only takes one bad apple, and at our community garden, it’s the city of Aspen’s administrative state that has destroyed the original intent. The lack of transparency and oversight as well as the concentration of power among a mysterious group has turned a unique community resource into an exclusive and lawless benefit for a select few.

A simple, straightforward, and equitable fix would be to restructure the garden by dividing the existing larger plots in half, creating 10 x 20 foot gardens for an additional 57 Aspen gardeners, thereby clearing over half the waitlist. And establishing an independent and dedicated, citizen leadership committee like they had in the good old days.

When it comes to the Aspen city government, you reap what you sow. Contact


Jack’s Jitney: Coors Field

Baseball is for everyone; hipsters, gamblers, and drinkers, it doesn’t matter. It brings people together sans the hostility of most sporting events, maybe it’s the calming effect of the greenest possible green that is the field’s grass.

See more