Community profile: Glenwood Springs woman grows community — and many gardens
It was sometime in the early 1950s, 72-year-old Karen Garrison reminisced.
She was a little girl living on a farm in Silt Mesa. At a nearby sugar beet field, Garrison remembered watching Navajo women place their babies on makeshift swings made from cradleboards and gently dangling them from tree branches.
Then, the velvet-skirted mothers proceeded to harvest the sugar beets.
“Western Garfield County was the sugar beet capital of the world at one time,” Garrison said. “Then, they closed down the sugar beets and moved production to Hawaii.”
Nowadays, Garrison is a part of a different harvest. For the past six seasons, the avid green thumb has helped plant, grow and pluck organic produce for Garfield County’s seniors and food pantries, as well as pretty much anyone else hungry for a bite.
From spring to fall, in fact, Garrison harvests enough potatoes, carrots, peas, beans and onions and “anything else you can put into potato soup” to feed about 2,000 people a year, she said.
Every Monday and Thursday, Garrison fills about two wheelbarrows to the brim with vegetables freshly picked from one of her 11 plots at the Glenwood Springs Wulfsohn Community Garden. The loads are then given to the Garfield County Senior Nutrition Program.
The program helps feed seniors throughout the entire county by offering free-meal pick-ups from Parachute to Carbondale. The only thing the county asks for in return is a $3 donation with each meal.
“I get thank-you cards from everybody filled out from all these dear souls that say I haven’t had a tomato this good since I was a little girl,” Garrison said. “That makes a grower happy.”
Growing food, however, means more than just producing a good yield and simply feeding people. Garrison said people with Alzheimer’s disease biting into something ripe can trigger their memory.
“Food is an important component in everyone’s sustainability, whether they’re a little, bitty kid that just tasted a tomato or a senior that forgot what a tomato tasted like,” Garrison said.
Fresh food, farm life and a drive to survive have sustained Garrison most of her life. They also reach deep within her roots.
Garrison’s grandfather, Dewey Williams, long ago owned ranches in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys. Before his tenure as Garfield County commissioner in the 1950s, he’d survive the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which killed around 200,000 U.S. citizens.
“My grandfather was a teenager during influenza and at an early age — I think 12,” Garrison said. “He ended up caring for really sick people and burying the dead because there was no one else around to do it.”
Garrison compares this dark time in U.S. history to what’s going on right now with the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s more of a lesson in perseverance than anything else.
“You find out that the COVID is not so bizarre and weird and deadly,” she said. “It’s like anything else. You make the best of it as you go and don’t get paralyzed out of fear, because that’s never solved anything.”
While she was in about fourth grade, Garrison’s parents, Bill and Barbara Williams, took the family to Arizona and soon California. But every summer, Garrison was back visiting her family ranches here in the valleys, including grandfather Dewey Williams’ properties.
“I was in and out so much. I’m not attached to (Colorado) long-term except in the summertime, so it was always a wonderful adventure to come out and spend the summer with the grandparents,” Garrison said. “We would get passed around to whoever had a spare bed, so I’d stay with grandparents, aunts and uncles. I got to do everything — it was pretty awesome.”
On the other side of the family, grandparents Bill and Hildur Anderson. They owned a ranch in Snowmass and later stables in Aspen. Hildur came to local fame by teaching generations of Aspen students.
“I used to run horses and drive sheep and cattle over the mountain, through downtown Aspen, to my uncle’s ranch on the creek over there,” Garrison said. “When I was a kid, I’d ready horses for Uncle Bill. All the presidents would come in and ride horses when Aspen’s streets were dirt.”
Around 2001, Garrison would move with her husband, Thomas Garrison, and their two daughters, Amanda and Amelia, to a small farm in Silt. Suffering greatly from arthritis, however, Thomas would soon die.
Later on, Garrison had to make a decision.
“I had to switch gears and sell the farm and start all over again,” she said. “I was homeless and had no place to go, so I got into the apartments over here, made a home and now I’m making a difference.”
Garrison lives on Social Security and resides in government housing in Glenwood Springs. Typically before the growing season starts, she keeps hundreds of “plus starts” on her deck, which overlooks the community garden.
What flanks the tall, bristly “Red Mountain” south of the Colorado River, the soil checkerboards of Glenwood Springs Wulfsohn Community Garden are now blossoming with horticultural activity.
On May Day, Garfield County Master Gardener Debbie Martin was giving a small group a tutorial on spring gardening tasks. Skies were grayed and overcast but, still, the day was nice.
“Be sure that you do your clean-up and your weeding,” Martin said. “Don’t plant too early. Get rid of any diseased material and do not compost them.”
Meanwhile, other gardeners who spent $50 to rent one of the nearly 80, 10-by-15-foot plots for the entire year at the community garden wander off toward their plots.
Work needs to be done. Measuring, hammering, installing — anything to prepare their earthy domains in time for a good yield.
Dustin Mazon, a 40-year-old user experience designer who moved to Glenwood Springs with his newly-wedded wife Carly about a year ago, is installing planks of wood around his plot.
Mazon, formerly of West Virginia, said finding this place was a good way to meet people. He’s intent on growing carrots, potatoes, zucchini and squash.
“Yeah, I think it’s nice to kind of clear your mind,” he said. “ I work in tech, so I like getting away from the computer, turning off the phone, leaving it in the car, coming out here, listening to some birds and chatting it up with some people.”
One of those people is Karen Garrison, who’s basically a pillar of the community garden. With the exception of taking a rest on Saturday, Garrison’s at the garden six days a week. Not only does she dig her own dirt, but she’s also almost always around to give advice and tips to fellow gardeners.
“Karen, she’s a superstar here, she’s a rock star,” Mazon said. “She does stuff for us that we don’t even ask, and we do the same.”
Say there’s extra kale or zucchini around — the veggies are always up for grabs.
India Mount, 76, had just E-biked to the garden with her husband Bill, age 81. They also provide food to organizations like Garfield County Senior Nutrition and the LIFT-UP food pantry.
Bill is a former pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in downtown Denver. The two lived there for 20 years before moving to Glenwood Springs to be with their son — a local teacher — and their grandchildren.
Mount was putting up some fencing on her plot.
“I love the touch with nature,” she said. “We lived in Capitol Hill part of Denver… We walked everywhere and enjoyed it, but we like looking up and seeing Red Mountain, we like hiking and biking and swimming in the hot springs pool.”
Mount said she also likes seeing Garrison.
“That’s one of the pleasures of coming here too, is talking to her,” Mount said. “She loves gardening and she helps everybody.”
“She gives us all wonderful advice, too,” Mount added about Garrison. “And she’s a long-time Colorado person. She tells amazing stories about living here, and she’s really dedicated to this program of the Garfield County seniors.”
Nearby is Garrison, talking botany with her fellow gardeners.
Garrison was recently asked about what vegetable she likes to grow the most. It’s squash. They weigh 12 pounds each, and she grows them on a support apparatus so when hikers pass by, they’re blown away by 300 pounds of squash hanging from the ceiling, she said.
For her, the feeling is marvelous.
“I love it,” she said of gardening. “It’s not working, ya know? I’ve had something growing in the ground my whole life. It’s a passion that never gets old. You never learn it all, you never perfect it all and it’s forgiving because all of your errors become compost, so you don’t beat yourself up over things like that.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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