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Branching Out: Life and community in imperfection

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

As a teen growing up in the nation’s capital, my life was made rich by my Opa (“grandpa” in German). A former ambassador, he lived in Washington, D.C. near Embassy Row. Sunday meals were a thing, and as such, we were privy to unique dining experiences — the most memorable of which were meals shared in restaurant garden patios. They’ve since become my favorite indulgence: sunshine, food, beauty. Clinking glass and silver. Murmuring waves of warm voices. Laughter, relaxation, connection.

My last column was a response to a (perhaps) newer Carbondale resident criticizing Carbondale’s landscapes and “sense of place.” After thinking my way through a response, exhorting him to engage more, I then asked myself, “Am I doing enough?”

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When asked, “Why garden?” award-winning podcast host Jennifer Jewell replied, “It’s not a matter of whether I’ll garden, but when and where!” 

Carbondale Beer Works took over the old Carbondale Arts space in 2010 and Bonedale gained a massive, sun-drenched patio… wrapped in asphalt and dark, close, lattice fencing. I eyeballed the unmet opportunity for a few more years before I finally piped in, “Could we do something here?”

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Patrice Fuller had just bought the place that year, 2016, and she was immediately responsive. Hops, Baby, hops.

Every garden starts with the soil, and in this case, a pick ax and rock bar. The demo was a blast, ripping out dark lattice, building soils, planting hops. All along the way, people stepped in to help. Bob gave me bolt cutters for the cattle panels, which would be lighter, airier. Keith donated end-of-season annuals for all the hanging baskets (that would drive us nuts the rest of the summer). Aldo installed drip irrigation. My lil daughter Juniper helped me deadhead and water, string the hops along wires. Co-owner Chachi helped with watering, a small grin on his face.

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I spend a lot of time on that patio, and love overhearing the patron’s pleasure. We did it. “We” being the operative word.

I still learn as the gardens evolve. I talk to more and more people, answering questions and brewing ideas for “next” year. I grow unusual things from seed, hoping to provoke patrons. I love watching the garden hit them as they notice purple green beans, squeal at a huge winter squash or finally realize what hops look and smell like: within the hollows of each pale, papery cone is a nugget of pollen endowed with the heady pungency of a great weed.

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People have asked for root sections, eager to grow hops, too. They’re twining up ropes throughout town these days. Friends have donated extra flowers or seeds. Artists have added their touch: painted river rocks, ephemeral street art, sculpture. Last year, Beer Works landlord Rocky and his son James expanded the patio, breaking ground themselves, sweating in the sun, building new seat walls. 

My flyfishing friend George and I excavated more beds on the new patio. With as much as he’s contributed, he’s taken on stewardship of the beer garden too. As has darling Andrew, the best guy bartender there. Andrew tends the towering sunflowers, guides the hops along the supports he strung up on his days off. Yesterday, he pointed out a Mexican sunflower, electric orange against the blues of the beer keg planter— I could see his pride and pleasure in it. 

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This year, we went big. With leftover COVID stimulus grant funding, Patrice was down with integrating water-wise perennials. I was ecstatic at the commitment. I had been wanting to integrate some of the landmark species that scream the season. Next June, we’ll have huge, red tissue paper poppies. September, as summer slips away, purple asters will splay all over, similar to the ones that explode when the rabbitbrush blooms (I’d love to sneak in rabbitbrush).

Patrice had asked for red from the beginning, so red it is, lots of it, which will mean lots of hummingbirds, too. This definitely worked the biodiversity and habitat angle. Andrew and I chuckled over a tiny native bee, cruising around the sunflower, keeping the world and its ecosystems ticking along. Some of the species chosen, I worked my way backwards — how can I invite the hawkmoth? The black capped chickadee? Make the very air come alive?

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It’s never perfect, Mr. Letter Writer. Plants fail, get trampled, or too dry or shaded out. The morning glories and surprise veggies take forever to move from seed to splendor. But this place of imperfection? It stokes the feels. Beer gardens are a celebration of Life, a place to raise your beers in salud: you are here, in this moment. You are alive and human and connected in community in so many unknowable ways. A richness no money can buy, nor perfection, mar.

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