Teaching kids and adults about healthy eating and food sustainability in Aspen’s cold climate is a whole lot more effective with a greenhouse.
That means the environmental-education group called Aspen T.R.E.E. is about to become a lot more effective. Its small staff and an army of volunteers recently finished construction of a 42-foot-diameter geodesic greenhouse dubbed the Aspen Glow Dome, named after the group that provided a major grant for the project.
The group hosted hundreds of kids and adults last summer at its grounds on the Aspen-owned Cozy Point Ranch at Highway 82 and Brush Creek Road. Kids are allowed to wander among the 80 chickens of 20 different varieties. Executive Director Eden Vardy is fond of reaching into where the hens roost and handing a visitor an egg so fresh it’s still warm.
The chicken coop was built from scrap wood and materials salvaged from construction sites of multimillion-dollar homes in the Aspen area. Outside the coop in the livestock pen, some of the chickens peck away at food scraps and droppings left by the alpacas and pygmy goats. The chickens break down those substances and leave behind waste that is highly valuable as fertilizer.
The original three-quarter-acre compound features seven garden beds with winding footpaths. It’s an awesome place to visit, even with a thin white blanket from a late-fall snow.
“The focus here is education,” Vardy said. “We’re connecting people to place. We’re connecting food to source.”
T.R.E.E. stands for Together Regenerating the Environment through Education.
Vardy and his staff like to show what’s possible by demonstrating, researching and practicing high-altitude farming, gardening and integrated livestock management. They don’t hammer students and visitors with messages about the bleak potential of global warming and population explosion.
“We don’t focus on the ‘we’re screwed’ mentality,” Vardy said.
Despite staying positive, the organization wasn’t reaching its potential. There’s only so much you can do with outdoor-oriented facilities at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet.
“We figured we needed to do something extra to get past three months,” Vardy said.
Monroe Summers, who holds the contract to manage Cozy Point, gave Vardy the green light to pursue expansion at the ranch and construction of a greenhouse with city officials. The approvals were granted after lengthy review.
T.R.E.E.’s compound was expanded into an adjoining pasture, allowing for substantially more outdoor garden space, as well. The groundbreaking for the dome was Sept. 23. A kit was purchased from a company called Growing Spaces, which also provided supervision. The metal frame and polycarbonate panels were erected by Oct. 4 with help from more than 60 volunteers. Then came the hard part — hauling in 480 wheelbarrow loads of soil, roughly 120 yards, to the interior beds.
The dome has 1,300 square feet of space. Roughly 900 square feet of floor space will be dedicated to beds, but Vardy and program director Paul Huttenhower have a grand design to maximize growing space. Basalt architect Michael Thompson assisted them with the design.
“There’s not that many tropics in Aspen. You have to take full advantage of it,” Vardy said.
The effectiveness of the greenhouse is evident upon entry. It was about 32 degrees with sunshine one recent morning but 75 inside as snow slid off the exterior the dome.
Now comes the fun part — executing the plan for the interior. Vardy and Huttenhower can’t mask their enthusiasm while describing how they will transform the interior, which is now bare dirt.
“The vision is you walk into a tropical jungle,” Huttenhower said.
Two large aquariums will be filled with fish, frogs and lizards rather than just fat tilapia often used in greenhouses. The reptiles will help with pest control. Bugs flock to greenhouses as the weather cools. “Ah, let’s all go in there and eat everything,” is how Huttenhower describes it.
Shelves with a variety of plants will be erected above the fish tanks for an aquaponic system. Naturally fertilized water will replenish the plants. Naturally filtered water will return to the fish tanks.
Arbors will be erected from the eastern end of the dome to the middle, over the walkway. That way the space chewed up by the walkway is gained back. Growing on the arbor will be vines and hanging plants such as beans, tomatoes, passion fruit and kiwis.
“If we get the angle right, we shouldn’t lose too much light behind,” Vardy said. And the arbor with plants will provide valuable shade when the sun is overhead in summer months.
They have plans to plant tropical varieties such as mangoes, papayas and possibly a coconut with more standard varieties such as leafy greens, root crops and fruity crops. Plants will be integrated, with taller ones providing shade for smaller ones.
“Instead of rows of carrots, it will be little patches all around,” Huttenhower said.
They are equally excited about a system they will establish to distribute the fruits (and vegetables) of the labor. Aspen T.R.E.E. will establish a standard community-supported-agriculture system, where people can buy shares and, at certain specified times, pick up crops. The organization favors schools and seniors with its shares.
But there also will be a cooperative where enrollees volunteer labor in the greenhouse and reduce the cost of their share.
“They’re not just people getting produce. They’re getting an education,” Vardy said.
They have high hopes that it could be a model for battling hunger worldwide. People with little or no money could provide labor to earn their food. They also would be learning how to feed themselves.
The greenhouse will be planted in the next few weeks, with many plants coming from the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute on the southern flank of Basalt Mountain. The first harvest of summer plants will come in June.
The project would have cost about $130,000 if not for the organization’s volunteers. The donated labor and in-kind service knocked the cost down to $80,000. Funds are still needed to cover the cost of the project. Visit www.aspen-tree.org.
They are holding a thank-you for all donors and volunteers from 3 to 7 p.m. today at Cozy Point. Once you’re on the ranch, the dome is easy to spot east of the big red barn. Beer will be provided. Those attending should bring a potluck dish.