Editor’s note: This story is the first of a two-part series highlighting the Albany County Public Library’s gardens.
Bent over a shovel, Gail Shive’s bronze complexion spoke to years spent outdoors beneath the blistering Wyoming sun.
A wide-brim wicker hat shaded her face Friday as she replanted an Asian iris bulb on the South side of the Albany County Public Library.
“We have a lot of raccoons in town,” Shive said, gently nudging the shovel tip into the rich dirt. “And, I think that’s why we keep finding some of these plants dug up. (The raccoons) love the bonemeal we use when planting.”
Straddled by two parking lots, the Library Garden is an oasis of life amid a sea of asphalt.
“There used to be houses here,” Shive said, pointing toward Garfield Street. “But the library purchased them and decided to use the space for parking.”
Created in 2001, the Albany County Public Library Foundation, which owned the land at the time, was approached by a librarian about creating a living space between the southeast and southwest parking lots, library foundation Executive Director Caitlin White said.
“They were going to put about 7-8 parking spaces where (the Library Garden) is now,” White said. “But after being approached by the children’s librarian at the time, the library foundation decided it would be more of a community benefit to turn that area into a garden than a few more parking spaces.”
Shive watered a withered sapling by the curbside, shaking her head as she inspected the struggling specimen.
“I don’t think this one is going to make it,” she said, emptying the contents of her bright purple water can onto the little tree. “It was an implant, and we weren’t sure if it would take or not.”
An avid gardner, Shive’s experience with plants stretches back to her childhood.
“I grew up on a farm in Nebraska, but I’ve lived in Laramie for 35 years and Wyoming for about 50,” she explained.
Living three blocks from the library, Shive said she walks or bikes past the public building on a regular basis. When she saw they were installing a garden nearly two decades ago, Shive said she knew needed to be part of the effort.
“When I see something that needs to be done, I just do it,” she said, digging a weed out of the freshly laid red mulch walkway.
Library Director Ruth Troyanek said volunteers are as vital to the atheneum’s gardens as water.
“Our volunteers have been out there daily,” Troyanek said. “In just August, they logged 126 volunteer hours.”
As technology changed the world at breakneck speed, libraries evolved into a new role — a retreat, Troyanek said.
“Being a place that’s not home, that’s not work, that people don’t have to pay to be there has become increasingly important in today’s society,” she said. “Our foot traffic has increased 6 percent from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018.”
While the library offers several services, including free wi-fi, that contribute to the growing number of visitors, Troyanek said the gardens were an important part of the library’s new role in people’s lives.
“Our foot-traffic numbers only include the people who come through our door,” she said. “On any given day, if I were to walk around the building, I’d more than likely find people sitting outside in one of our gardens, reading, using the wi-fi or enjoying their lunch.”
The green spaces are also used for story time in the summer, and Troyanek said a number of nearby daycares bring their students to visit the gardens throughout the week.
“I think the gardens are part of the overall increase of people using the library for entertainment, to connect with other people and to participate in programs,” she said.
‘Heart of town’
With all the extra traffic tromping through the garden patch, Shive said maintaining the Library Garden became more labor intensive and required a different approach.
“We’ve been laying down a lot of this red mulch to create pathways through the garden,” she explained. “It’s expensive, but we’re trying to make several paths through the area to decrease the wear on the plants.”
Troyanek said the volunteers also installed stone steps leading to the southeast parking lot, reducing sporadic traffic through the shrubbery planted on the east hill.
With funds from an anonymous donor, Shive said the Library Garden is maintained primarily with private money.
“We have a budget to do with what we can, but there is always more to do,” she said.
Designed as a drainage area for the surrounding parking lots, the Library Garden was installed without a water supply, but the rain doesn’t always provide enough water for the whole garden, Shive said.
“I’ve been hauling water for 19 years in a bucket,” the greenskeeper boasted, her eyes twinkling with pride. “But we’ve recently added this drip system, and that’s helped a lot of these little guys.”
With fall on the horizon, gardening season is near its end in the Laramie Valley, but Troyanek said the volunteers planned more additions for next year, and Shive said the gardeners hope to throw a party in the near future celebrating the 20th anniversary of developing the lot.
In the meantime, Shive said she can typically be found working on the south side of library, waving at people passing by as they walk down Garfield Street and fussing over the health of a lanceleaf cottonwood or mugo pine.
“I think it’s lovely to have a garden here in the heart of your town,” she swooned, pruning a blue fescue before quitting for the day.