Before you go to Hillside Gardens for the first time, you might want to know what it’s like.
The gardener, Terry Mitchell, will tell you it’s a beautiful place. All 4 acres of it. She’ll say it’s eclectic and drop this as an example: Right when you walk in, you see a reservoir filled of bowling balls.
Hillside Gardens is full of more odd collections belonging to owner Larry Ash. He’s planted old gas tanks and lawn mowers around the place. Flowers bloom all over, too.
Mitchell won’t say.
“You should just come out to the gardens,” she says instead. “You should really see it.”
Ash keeps things similarly short. He opened Hillside Gardens 20 years ago as a plant nursery. Over the years, the family-run place has turned into a venue for weddings and celebrations of life. He doesn’t really remember why he started hosting concerts there.
“I guess we thought we’d have a blues concert one night,” Ash said. “And that morphed into every Wednesday night for the last 15 years.”
The concert series has morphed into a summertime tradition, drawing 400 or more people each week.
“It’s different than going to a typical concert,” Ash said. “I’ve never known anything else like it.”
You might be thinking something along the lines of ... how so? Ash doesn’t have an answer.
“Once you come out, you’ll see how it’s different,” he said.
And so you do.
You pay $10 to get in and that includes a drink. You hear the music before you see it. And you see the beautiful flowers and trees and view of the mountains and gazebos. You walk around the narrow paths and see Ash’s odd collections of metal objects — from bed frames to wagon wheels — and a guy playing the didgeridoo, and a blacksmith at work. And beer taps attached to an old truck. And you see people talking to each other like it’s been awhile and like they hoped they’d see each other here. It feels like you’ve stumbled on a wonderland in someone’s backyard. Your hear someone else call it an enchanted forest.
This — how Hillside Gardens stands out as different — might be what keeps hundreds of fans coming back to the enchanted place. Luckily for them, Hillside Gardens is back this summer and is one of just a handful of live music options in the Colorado Springs area. The series started nearly two months later than usual because of concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.
It opened following public health guidelines, as recommended by El Paso County Public Health. Guests are encouraged to social distance and wear masks. Hand sanitizing stations will be available.
Four acres is plenty of space for social distancing, said Mitchell, who has booked the bands for the past several years. She sticks with local artists as well as a Celtic band from Fort Collins to fill out the schedule, which will run through at least August.
John Wise has been a regular on the lineup for five or so years. Of all the gigs he plays around town, Hillside Gardens stands out.
“It’s really something to see,” he said. “It’s a concert series that has stood the test of time. And that’s for a reason.”
By now, he recognizes a lot of the faces walking around. And he knows there’s plenty of newcomers each time, too.
“When someone comes for the first time, they say, ‘This is totally out there, it’s beautiful and it’s bizarre and it’s fun,’ ” Wise said. “And this is in Colorado Springs?”
“It’s not just a park with music,” he added. “It really is a unique setting for Colorado Springs and for Colorado.”
Ash knows he’s built something unique using the old stuff he loves to collect.
“It’s pretty rewarding to have people come out and just enjoy the stuff we enjoy,” he said.
He particularly likes how a friend describes the concerts: “Wednesday nights at Hillside Gardens are where Colorado Springs becomes a village.”
“I think that says it all,” Ash said.