When I arrive at the Telluride Community Garden for my first workday of the season, I find dandelions exploding in the uneven walkways, a robin singing its lungs out from a nearby aspen and a fellow gardener named Sarah dropping pea seeds in her just-tilled bed.
I greet my plot, which is mussed and mulchy following its winter hibernation. After pulling bindweed from the dirt, I turn the earth with a shovel, exposing dark soil and squirming worms.
Despite the fact that the calendar says May 14, it’s early at the high-altitude garden, an overlooked and unruly pocket of wild in Telluride that’s tucked behind the high school’s tool shed. It’s not much: four wobbly rows carved into a 35-degree hillside where rocks separate beds of all shapes, vegetables come up scrappy and a fence offers little protection from the outside world. But it’s ours.
Two days ago it snowed. Despite that, here in the garden at 8,750 feet, it’s time to plant. Garden manager Jason White, a gentle long-haired hippie (who doesn’t see the point of pulling all the dandelions just because they’re branded “weeds”), arrives in bare feet and munches spicy volunteer arugula that has sprouted on the fringes of his plot. A hummingbird preens on a fencepost. And the long light catches on the dandelions, creating tiny fiery suns.
I’ve been working a patch of rocky soil here for seven years, in which I’ve learned that to grow food at altitude is a lesson in non-attachment. The less attachment you have, the less it will hurt when your chard grows as tall as a Lego man, your carrot seeds don’t sprout at all and a deer wanders through on a September night and decimates your beet patch.
It’s also taught me there can be big returns in small victories. The yields may be paltry, but when you eat a hand-grown salad, roast your own potatoes or pick cilantro, each bite is all the more miraculous.
Here is a town at the bottom of a shadowy box canyon where the mountains that give it so much beauty also rob it of sunlight and where snow can fall every month. Our growing season, around 50 days, is laughable.
And yet, a group of idealistic townspeople got together about ten years ago and decided to build a community garden in town. They secured funding and a piece of land, carved terraces into the red hillside and obtained permission from the school district to use its water. A decade later, the garden is still going (now under the umbrella of the San Juan Institute for Resilience and the mellow management of White, a volunteer.) These days, the fence shows evidence of many break-ins and subsequent repairs and the water tank sags under its own weight, but each year people return to share in the victories and hardships of growing food at altitude. In a town where worker housing is mainly constrained to apartments, the garden offers a chance to claim a small patch of earth as your own.
The animals seem to like it, too. Sparrows flit along the fence line, chipmunks build homes in the rocks and magpies hop through beds. The garden’s location on the fringe of town offers a convenient location for deer, and chipmunks get downright chubby.
Gardeners run the gamut, from dread-locked youngsters to middle-aged mothers. Many stay only a season, discouraged perhaps by the amount of commitment required to water each day or the relatively small return on investment. Others come back year after year. All of them have one thing in common: optimism.
Courtney Childe, a fourth grade teacher, signed up for her first time last summer with a friend. The pair aimed high, planting greens, carrots, beets, cabbage, potatoes and even zucchini. Not everything succeeded: the carrots were sad, the zucchini were hollow and all the beet greens were eaten by a deer. But, she said, the potatoes were astonishingly good, and the cabbage supplied her with the best slaw she has ever tasted. She thinks gardening here is amazing, as long as you adjust your standards. “It’s not at all like the gardening I grew up with. You are very limited in what you can grow,” the Pennsylvania native says. “But it makes it all the more satisfying when you do grow something.” Childe and her friend are back this summer. This time, they’ll skip the zucchini altogether, and put those carrot seeds in earlier.
Luke Wells lived in Telluride for a couple years before he knew there was a community garden. He signed up for his first plot this spring. Wells, who worked at an organic farm in Illinois before moving to Telluride, said he jumped on the opportunity to grow food outside.
“When I found out, it was awesome, because all I had been doing was growing herbs on this little balcony,” he says. “It’s tough, with the high altitude and cold nights, but I’m going for things that will hopefully work out. I’m excited. It should be a fun summer.”
When I was a first-time gardener, I learned the hard way that you can’t get crazy ambitious. My first year, I attempted to grow green beans, and the plants came up stunted and anemic-looking. My squash got blasted by a late freeze and never recovered. And the basil plant I transferred died straightaway. Despite that, that season was punctuated with moments of triumph. My lettuce sprang up happy, and my heirloom red spinach produced delicious leaves of deep purple. It wasn’t until an evening in early July that I was able to harvest enough greens for a salad, but, oh, how that salad made my heart sing! Every green filament that sprouted from the earth, edible, felt like a miracle.
And it’s these little miracles — Jason’s arugula, Courtney’s cabbage, my purple spinach — that keep us going.
White has been gardening here since the beginning. “I got a plot because I was living in a condo, and it was something I felt like I was missing in my life,” he says. “The garden was a way to have a little piece of dirt that felt like it was my own. I could work with shovels and wheelbarrows and Youtube nerdy things like how to plant potatoes and just jump into that world.”
It’s a tiny piece of earth, he says, “but when the birds are chirping and the sun is shining and you have dirt underneath your fingernails, you might as well be an organic farmer in Costa Rica. You tap into the same thing.”
White has also had his fair share of heartbreak. But he’s fine with it, he says, because filling his fridge is only part of why he gardens. It’s more about digging in the dirt, being close to nature and the human camaraderie.
“If it’s enough to be there and enjoy the process, then the fruits of your labor are a bonus,” he says.