GARFIELD COUNTY - It's late February, and the Roaring Fork Valley is finally getting a steady dose of snow, but Terrie Swerdlove is thinking months ahead while immersed in onions, peppers and all sorts of other vegetables.
Swerdlove is the manager of the Roaringardens at TCI Lane Ranch in the El Jebel area. She's been nurturing seedling plants of various varieties since putting the first of them under fluorescent lights in January to spur seeds to grow. She's already stockpiled hundreds of bedding plants that will be taken outside and plugged into the ground once the frost danger eases in spring.
She's simultaneously caring for 13 vegetable beds in the 2,160-square-foot greenhouse. It's home for more than 50 varieties of vegetables and greens. With the days getting longer and sometimes warmer, plants are shaking off the winter doldrums. Peas are starting to blossom. The orange blooms of zucchini are starting to pop.
"You can just see that everything is happy," Swerdlove said.
The greenhouse was created as an amenity to help draw interest to the TCI Lane Ranch development, approved by Garfield County, between the Waldorf School and Blue Creek Ranch subdivision. Developer Ace Lane put plans for the 71 single-family homes and 18 duplexes on hold when the economy tanked.
The homes eventually will be built, and once the subdivision is completed, the homeowners will have access to vegetables and greens in their backyard, said Dave Marrs, chief financial officer of Geronimo Ventures, which planned the project for Lane.
Since Swerdlove doesn't have homeowners to work with yet, she decided to offer the bounty of the greenhouse to customers who sign up for a Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program. Customers sign up for a 10-week commitment. They get regular bounty that features different varieties of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. It's regularly supplemented by beans, peppers and onions, and by other goodies when possible.
It's proven popular enough that there is often a waiting list to join.
The greenhouse was designed by EcoSystems Design, a firm started by Basalt residents Michael Thompson and Jerome Osentowski. It was built three years ago using the latest in greenhouse technology. When the air temperature hits 55 degrees, the heating system is triggered. Air is drawn into tubes buried underground and recirculated at a higher temperature. When necessary, such as during the extreme cold snap in early January, a stove that burns pellets from beetle-killed lodgepole pine and spruce in Colorado helps warm the atmosphere.
"Sixty degrees for the soil, 50 degrees for the air, minimum - that's what I'm striving for," Swerdlove said.
During summers, the greenhouse is vented and the warm air is circulated under the soil to cool it down. It reached a maximum of 85 degrees during the hot summer of 2012. Many older greenhouses battle to stay below 100 degrees on hot summer days, Swerdlove said.
Roaringardens also taps Mother Nature for water whenever possible. Snow melting off the roof Friday morning was captured in the gutter and routed into a primary indoor tank and then directed to storage tanks strategically placed around the greenhouse. The tanks feed sprinkler hoses placed in each bed. Well-water supplements the cachement to get through dry periods.
Roaringardens also features a unique aquaponic system. Three 530-gallon water tanks each contain tilapia in a various stage of growth. The water and fish waste from the water tanks is pumped to growing beds stacked above. The water filters through the river rock and sea shells of the upper bed and delivers natural fertilizer. The water runs through a second, larger bed filled with clay balls that restores the water's balance for its return to the fish tank.
The mature Tilapia are harvested and sold to local consumers. Meanwhile, their waste fertilized mint, Anaheim peppers, kale, basil, tomatoes and Brussels sprouts.
Swerdlove and her small, ever-changing cast of volunteers change out most of the vegetable plants every eight months - sometimes more, sometime less. There are four bean crops. Some cherry tomato plants are a year old. She's trying to nurture suckers to make the plants a perennial. One pepper plant is in its third year.
Ten of the vegetable beds are oriented north-south to take full advantage of the sun. The other three go east-west. "Vertical is the way we grow anything we can, to take advantage of space," Swerdlove said, standing before towering tomato and bean plants attached to or climbing string.
This is the seventh year Swerdlove has been growing indoors. She previously worked at Osage Gardens in New Castle. While greenhouses extend the growing season throughout the year, they also rely on an artificial environment rather than a healthy outdoor ecology. That creates challenges, Swerdlove said.
For example, even the indoor conditions are too cold for a short period to plant cucumbers. It takes trial and error to determine "when they're going to go in the ground and whey they're saying 'forget it,'" she said.
Both the indoor and outdoor gardens are organic. That means natural defenses must be employed against aphids and other pests. There are tricks to the trade, like interspersing parsley among tomato plants to ward off pests, and planting smelly marigolds at the end of rows. The larvae of the Lacewing insect feed on aphids. She also uses an extract from the seed of the neem tree as a spray.
Swerdlove acknowledges that managing the greenhouse is a wonderful opportunity. "The universe set this up," she said.
That's not to say it's without its taxing times. "People always say, 'What a fun job you have,' but some days you want to sit down and cry," she said, recalling days she discovered aphids attacked a row of plants.
Fortunately for Swerdlove and the customers in the Roaringarden CSA, those days are few and far between.
More on the midvalley operation, including classes and opportunities for tours, can be found at www.roaringardens.com.