EAGLE COUNTY — John Castillo and his family have been munching on homemade salsas and salads using greens, chiles and other vegetables from their garden.
The Edwards residents don’t have a garden at home, but they can still enjoy the fruits of harvest time thanks to their plot at the Avon Community Garden. The garden, a project of the Salvation Army, provides plots for local businesses and residents, as well as families such as Castillo’s that qualify for federal food assistance.
“As a child I used to garden,” Castillo said. “My mom was a single mom, and she was very smart and utilized absolutely everything. My four boys, who range from 9 years old to 16 months, they go to the store and just assume that fruit is just there, so I took them out there to show them how food grows. I did it partly to offset some food costs, but even more it’s brought us together as a family, going out there together and seeing it from the ground up.”
The idea for the Avon Community Garden came from local Meighen Lovelace, a Salvation Army client herself. With manual labor, funds, materials and expertise donated from around the entire valley, the garden was born and boasts 26 plots brimming with greens and veggies.
“Everyone was excited,” Lovelace said. “What a great solution if you don’t have the funds for a huge grocery bill. It’s been such a community effort, and that makes it feel like even more of a success.”
As fall rolls around, here’s a look at harvest time at community gardens around Eagle County.
The Vail Community Garden, tucked into the West Vail Intermountain neighborhood, often attracts the curious who pass by and drivers along the South Frontage Road. Unfortunately, the conspicuous location also attracts hungry deer, which managed to chomp up a good part of the garden’s vegetables and greens.
“We’re learning what works, and it’s a bit difficult because we don’t have a fence here,” said Vail Community Garden President Marian Cartin, referring to town regulations for fencing. “However, the squash, arugula, horseradish, radishes and potatoes did great.”
The 27-plot garden has 32 members, including a number of families, and is now in its third year.
“We have everyone from first-time gardeners to experienced gardeners. There’s a lot of learning and experimenting in this setting for everyone,” Cartin said, adding that the garden has also built a great sense of community. “It’s more than I expected. Now I know my neighbors.”
Of the valley’s community gardens, it is the highest in altitude and has the shortest growing season, but Cartin says gardeners have had success with root vegetables, greens that can be harvested within a month and a half of planting, peas and squash.
“We’re encouraging everyone to plant cold, short-season plants. For us, tomatoes don’t do too well. Temperatures in the 40s can freeze a cucumber. But a 50-day-or-less plant does best and herbs do really well, too.”
Finishing up the second season in the Minturn Community Garden, organizer Patty Bidez says she’s been quite pleased with the crop that’s come up.
“Looking around, I see the peas and lettuce have done great, and lots of beets and carrots are coming,” said Bidez. “A few people risked tomatoes, and they’ll at least get some green ones.”
After working through some problems with neighborhood dogs roaming the gardens in its first year, gardeners put up a fence and have enjoyed experimenting with a number of new plants this summer. Looking around the plots, you’ll see pumpkins, which are ready later in the fall, Brussels sprouts and eggplant.
The Minturn garden has also expanded beyond the borders of the town through a booth at the Edwards Farmers Market. The organizing committee, the Garden Hoes, have been selling garden items, bake items and coffee at the weekly market. Be sure to catch them at the last remaining market weekend to enter a raffle for a catered harvest dinner for four and a number of local gift certificates.
The Eagle-Vail Community Garden has been a flurry of activity this summer, with a successful seed sale fundraiser, workshops, workdays, social events and its third annual chili cook-off coming up on Oct. 20. While most of the 60 plots are gardened by families, 12 are used by local restaurants and businesses including Splendido, Grouse Mountain Grill, Beaver Liquors, vin48 and Loaded Joe’s.
Garden steward Joyce Hildebrand said the summer harvest was bursting with various lettuces, and now the second harvest is just about ready, with robust squash plants and herbs, among others. There were a few strawberries, which unfortunately became mostly critter snacks. This year, the garden has attracted both master gardeners and beginners and is a popular gathering place.
“With so many townhomes and condos in Eagle-Vail, many people are in need of some square footage to have a garden,” said garden founder Cassie Pence. “A community garden not only gives you a space to grow, but introduces you to people in the community who also have a passion for growing vegetables.”
Of all the community gardens, Avon’s probably incorporates the greatest cross-section of the community, involving everyone from corporations to nonprofits to families to jail inmates.
The garden, located behind the Vail Valley Salvation Army headquarters in Avon, is ending its first season and thriving thanks to a drip irrigation system and a sturdy fence built by community volunteers and inmates from the Eagle County Detention Center.
Besides the Salvation Army client plots, such as the one owned by John Castillo’s family, there are also plots owned by various nonprofit groups, corporations and individuals. Several large beds are Salvation Army gardened and produce vegetables that go into the often-used food pantry so that in-need families can get fresh produce. The Salvation Army has also been collecting vegetable donations at the Edwards Farmers Market each week.
Tsu Wolin-Brown, of the Salvation Army, said she’s thrilled to see the garden brimming with lettuces, root vegetables and even plants heavy with big, juicy tomatoes (a tricky fruit to grow in fickle mountain climates) in quite a few plots, despite a gopher problem that plagued the garden in the early season.
“It really helps the families who most need that whole food,” said Wolin-Brown. “And it’s not just low-income seasonal workers. There are a lot of middle income families who were hit hard and find that it’s a stretch to eat healthy.”
The oldest community garden in the valley reported a good year, harvesting everything from onions to tomatoes to broccoli.
“Some years are better than others, with some crops doing well one year and then the next year they don’t,” said Eagle Community Garden President Jenny Lorch. “But in general this year things have done pretty well.”
The garden has about 30 beds, mostly owned by local residents. Unlike some other area gardens, Lorch said Eagle’s unfenced garden had minimal problems with rodents and pests.
As the westernmost community garden, Eagle enjoys a longer growing season, but warmer temperatures don’t necessarily allow gardeners to plant warmer weather crops.
“We still have frost, especially because we are located near the river,” said Lorch. “This year we haven’t had one since early season, but we’ve had them as late as June 15, and as early as Aug. 15, which kills a lot of crops.”