Elle Mullen frolics among the sunflowers at the Basalt Community Garden. Photo by Elizabeth Key

The Basalt Community Garden is blooming in Southside, just west of Basalt High School. In its 10th year of operation, the half-acre garden has reached capacity. Currently, almost 100 garden plots are traversed by bark mulch paths supporting a whole new crop of gardeners. Gayle Shugars, one of the garden’s founders, is looking to the future.

Shugars attributes the recent popularity of the community garden to the pandemic. “During COVID, I think that is when numbers really ticked upward because people had a place to go. They could get out and socialize, in a distant manner, and enjoy life.” Shugars says. The garden acted like a sanctuary where people could escape the ever-present fear of illness and death. Instead of worrying about exposure, community members could focus on cultivating life In a nurturing outdoor setting through roots, bulbs, seeds and starters.

In 2012, Pitkin County and the town of Basalt purchased a 25.5-acre Grace-Shehi Meadows open space parcel for agriculture, recreation, wildlife and land management. Shugars, a career landscape professional and horticulturist, helped supervise the layout of the 8’x10’ plots and irrigation. She explains, “There are underground pipes that run east and west with a spigot every couple of plots, so people can use splitters to hook up individual, independent irrigation systems.” Many gardeners use timers and drip hoses to keep their plants hydrated. This system allows people the freedom to attend to their flowers, herb and vegetable gardens when it suits their schedules.

Initially, the Basalt Community Garden grew from a desire for food security and sustainability. The garden prides itself on being organic. and growing produce locally can save a significant amount of fuel. Grocery stores habitually source produce from a vicinity that can encompass hundreds or even thousands of miles, trucking in produce, especially from the warmer southern regions. Produce can spend a considerable amount of time traveling from harvest to store, arriving less than fresh. A community garden affords people a fresh alternative. With gas prices rising and food becoming ever more expensive, people are looking more to community gardens to supplement their grocery shopping.

Community gardening is also a natural educational opportunity for children of all ages. Some don’t comprehend the agricultural process in this era of supermarkets and food on demand. “There’s so much to learn at the gardens. Just growing a plant from a seed is pretty magical,” Shugars says, “It’s like a little science project out there.” Expressions of enlightened empowerment are evident watching a child pull a carrot from the ground, wash off the dirt and chomp down through its crisp core. The vegetables are as vibrant as the flowers, and the air is scented with fresh dirt and herbs.

And the varieties of gardeners are as abundant as sunflower varietals. Gardeners of any skill level or background can observe neighboring plots to get ideas about prepping, planting, staking, irrigation and weeding. “It’s kind of a fast track to learning gardening, even if you are new to it,” Shugars says. “Vegetable gardening hasn’t been my lifelong work, so I am still learning a lot after 10 years at the community garden.”

People gather around their collective objectives, temperamental tomatoes and scrumptious successes. At the end of the season, gardeners transform their bounties into delectable dishes and exchange recipes at the community garden potluck.

Shugars sees a garden expansion on the horizon because of the brisk pace of development in the Basalt area. ”There is another half-acre allocated for the garden to grow,” She says. “It really is great to have that garden out there now, too, for the employee housing, The Habitat for Humanity homes. There are a lot of young families out there, and they seem to be really excited to have that garden so near.”

The cost to lease a plot for a season is 50 cents per square foot ($40) with a $100 refundable deposit after completing three volunteer hours during a community work day. For more information or to get on the waitlist for next season, visit: www.basalt.net/437/Basalt-Community-Gardens