We recently received a letter here at The Sun “regarding Carbondale’s lack of color and appeal.” As a landscape designer, a 14-year garden and nature columnist, and with a decade-and-a-half on town committees and volunteer efforts, I was offered the opportunity to respond.
I chuckled and scowled, agreeing with much that was written, but for different reasons.
Comparing us to Glenwood, El Jebel, Basalt, Snowmass and Aspen, the author (who requested anonymity) points out, “All the city maintained plantings are nothing but weeds; there is no appeal. If you look at the bench on 133 between City Market and 7-Eleven [there are] actually weeds growing up through the bench and starting to hide the garbage can.”
“It would be nice,” he continues, “to see a little color in this town. I think we have the ugliest roundabout in the valley.” The planting design is concept-heavy, with little complexity or vitality, and drew many complaints upon completion.
Listing a few species of plants, he feels, “The city really missed a good opportunity to accentuate the junction of 133 and Main Street with a nice planting. I still don’t understand the statue, but whatever.”
Nonplussed, he reached out to Mayor Dan, who said roundabouts are “too dangerous for people to work in.”
“Apparently only in Carbondale,” retorts the author.
During undergrad and two droughts, I encountered the literary voice of the West, Pulitzer prize winner Wallace Stegner. He penned a gobsmacking observation that still infuses my design and conservation ethos today:
“Every gateway to the West should be guarded by a sign, preferably painted in peeling letters on a weathered board, that reads: ‘You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.’”
Why do citizens not know our town’s ecological goals? Priorities? Are we not capable of truly living into the soul-stretching vastness of our watershed?
“The only decent looking place on 133,” declares our critic, “is RVR’s entrance and [Roaring Fork Family Practice], where they keep their turf looking nice.”
“Nice turf” needs to go.
Years ago, on Carbondale’s Advisory Tree Board, I participated in a Highway 133 Beautification Committee meeting. Two landscape architects were also present, and proposed lining both sides of the highway with turfgrass. I was young, vocal, might’ve made a bit of a scene. l was also on the Chamber board, privy to its “Basecamp Carbondale” branding campaign and the tax dollars behind it.
Around here, we don’t hit running, climbing, backpacking, hunting, fishing or biking trailheads to bliss out on Kentucky bluegrass. We get high off of the scent of sage and freak out over mountains. Lawn? Phhhh. This is Colorado, not Connecticut: I, too, am frustrated with Carbondale’s municipal landscapes. Both river water sources are in code red, and we are the only town in this valley with no watering restrictions.
“Carbondale Main Street flower pots [are] pathetic,” the writer goes on. “Our diversity park – nothing but weeds…We need to do a little maintenance on the little we have and try to add some flower plantings.”
Please meet Aly, proprietor of Batch; DJ to KDNK’s Flow Diggity; and consistent board member for something. She wanted vitality too, so she stepped up, overseeing the flower pot program, three years running now. Before her, it was Erin Rigney, another consistent community builder. Chris Chacos before her. Founder of The Smithy, I watched him haul 40-pound buckets of water from his Prius in his mid-80s. Those downtown pots have mad cache; getting dibs is a frenzy, despite the personal expense each of us assumes, purchasing the plants. I invite you, dear writer, to initiate a fund to support this program.
Weeds and grass are subjective and I won’t get into that — but I will say they are inevitable. “Grass is the hair of the planet,” wrote Oehme and Van Sweden, in their coffee table book “Bold and Romantic Gardens”. We must design FOR grass, because it will come. Native grasses are the salvation of dry landscapes, holding and growing topsoil, shading the ground, providing a co-evolutionary matrix to all other flora — not to mention providers of breeding habitat, cover, pollen and seed to innumerable fauna. To persist in British notions of the “maintained” perennial border of “color” is unsustainable folly. We MUST design with — and for — native grasses. When we do so intentionally, the impacts are outstanding for the planet — not horrific — but breathtakingly beautiful, and vibrant with all life forms, as ecosystems must be.
“I literally had someone tell me the other day that she did not want to move to Carbondale because she thought it was the trashiest town in the valley based [on] driving through town on 133,” our writer concludes. “I can’t disagree.”
Please leave these deadly landscapes where they belong — in obsolete garden books from the last century. We are not Kentucky or Connecticut, we are Carbondale, Colorado: a funky little mountain town still learning how to manage budgets and ecosystems. As a proud village of artists, athletes, ranchers, farmers, and families, we welcome you to step away from your laptop, your Dwell Magazine, and to pick up a garden fork, and please — join us, moving into the regenerative era of aridity.