Edible garden blossoms into one of Basalt’s most intriguing parks
The Aspen Times
While residents have bickered for the better part of this decade over the size of the Basalt River Park, a “weird other park” has blossomed just a few hops and skips away.
An edible garden at Ponderosa Park has gotten renewed attention since Ryan Mahoney took over as town manager in June 2017. Sidewalks and paths have been improved. Trees and flowers intended for bees and other pollinators have been added. An inviting split rail fence replaced an 8-foot chain link variety. The initial plan to let it have a totally wild feel was tweaked to allow more weeding and maintenance — but no pesticide use.
“We don’t spray at all,” Mahoney said. “The idea is you can come and eat right off the plant.”
The offerings are impressive. Black raspberries are just starting to ripen. All sorts of currants are available in abundance. Apple trees are loaded for coming months.
Wild rose and other medicinal plants such as black beauty elder and sky blue sage make the site pop with pink and purple.
There are Harko nectarines, Chinese apricots and Blue Damson plum trees.
The edible garden is on the west end of Ponderosa Park. It’s a deceptively large site although less than an acre tucked between Basalt convenience gas stations of Valero and 7-Eleven, just off the Basalt Avenue roundabout. It’s next to a high-traffic pedestrian corridor and within earshot of the gurgling Roaring Fork River.
“It’s relaxing here. It’s by the river. It’s a great town park,” said David Huysman. He stopped by the park while walking to the nearby bus stop on Highway 82. “There’s lots of great stuff here.”
He’s collected spices for dinner and chives for tea in past visits. He’s gained extensive knowledge of the park’s offering, obvious and hidden. Many of the plants have signs or placards with their name and use.
There are 80 different varieties of edible and medicinal plants in the park, according to Stephanie Syson, a plant expert who helped create the edible garden in 2014 with Lisa DiNardo, the town of Basalt’s former horticulturist. She credits Basalt with taking a progressive step.
“It was the fifth edible park in the U.S. when we built it,” Syson said.
It is one of a handful of gardens featured in “The Community Food Forest Handbook,” a recently released book by Catherine Bukowski and John Munsell.
It helps people understand where food comes from, even though it can be a difficult concept to grasp. It’s not a community garden, where participants tend to their individual plot of whatever they want to plant. It’s not like a commercial orchard, where one type of fruit tree is typically grown. Instead, it’s a public place where food is growing that can be picked and eaten by anyone.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people ask me if the raspberries were poisonous,” Syson said. She assures them the raspberries wouldn’t be in an edible park if they weren’t OK to eat.
Nevertheless, some people have to adapt to the concept of walking into a garden and pulling fruit off plants they don’t own.
“Some people still ask, ‘Is it OK to pick it?’” Syson said. Numerous signs assure visitors it’s cool.
One of her personal favorite plants is the Chinese gooseberry. Many people don’t like gooseberries because thorns make them hard to harvest and the berries have a tart taste. But the Chinese variety is more like a green grape, she said.
Syson continues to advise the town on additions to the park. Tim Vogel, from the town of Basalt’s gardens, parks and forestry department, sought her advice on what types of trees to add. On Arbor Day, Vogel and fifth-graders from Basalt Middle School planted two apple and two plum trees on the southern end of the property.
“There is room in here to grow,” Vogel said. All it will take is expansion of the irrigation system. A master plan outlines future steps.
Syson said the essentials are a front entrance arbor, an information kiosk and an open-air outdoor structure for education.
She said the edible garden is a great place to take students. She estimated she’s been involved with 200 tours or presentations of Basalt’s garden. She’s enthused about the garden’s future given the town government’s renewed interest in the park. She suspects the debate over the development and green space at the Basalt River Park, the former Pan and Fork Mobile Home Park site, overshadowed development of the Ponderosa Park site.
“It was kind of the weird other park,” she said with a laugh.
Mahoney is a regular visitor of the weird other park.
“Every time I do a bike ride by here, I stop on by and graze,” he said.
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