Resurrection of Basalt greenhouse complete |

Resurrection of Basalt greenhouse complete

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

BASALT – Jerome Osentowski is a happy man as he points out a scarlet running bean vine climbing a papaya tree that is shaded by towering sunflowers.

“We never do one thing in permaculture,” said Osentowski, a 30-year gardener. “We’re always looking to stack something.”

His set-up shows that Mother Nature is mighty resourceful when given a chance. So is Osentowski.

The 1,320-square-foot greenhouse was the centerpiece of his Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute until it burned down one morning in October 2007. The disaster left the forlorn Osentowski wondering if he wanted to start over in his mid-60s.

He got by with a little help from his friends. Volunteer labor, along with donated materials and services, helped rebuild the greenhouse. It’s called Phoenix, for obvious reasons.

Phoenix is larger at 1,800 square feet. It uses the same heating and cooling technology as the old greenhouse, but this system is much more efficient. Three intake fans pull in air warmed in the greenhouse from the sun. They suck the hot air into pipes forming a network under the vast beds of dirt. Cool air circulates out. During winter months, the greenhouse cooling and heating system gets an assist from a sauna rigged by Osentowski with a wood-burning stove. Between 20 and 25 times last winter, which Osentowski said was the coldest in his 30 years on Basalt Mountain, the extra heat from the sauna was needed to keep the temperature above freezing for tropical plants like papaya, banana and fig trees.

The beauty of the system is it requires burning only a minimal amount of fossil fuels, Osentowski said. He only uses a bit of electricity for the three 90-watt fans.

Rain and snow melt fall into gutters, then drain into storage tanks. The water is then used for various plants, ranging from banana and fig trees to avocados and artichokes.

Osentowski pulled baseball-sized artichokes off one plant Monday while a snow squall blew by his compound high above the Fryingpan Valley on the southern aspect of Basalt Mountain. The greenhouse abides to no seasons.

“I call this stream-of-consciousness gardening,” Osentowski said.

When asked to explain, he said there really isn’t a beginning or an end for his greenhouse plants and the ecosystem within Phoenix. The plants are always evolving and maturing. He and his interns might shuffle plants around. Some will die, some will flourish, but the environment is always producing.

Large heaps of leaves are piled underneath plants in containers. The leaves are thick with worms that will break the vegetation down to compost that will rejuvenate the plant beds. The circle of life is playing out again in Jerome’s world.

Osentowski entertains visitors and students at the permaculture institute’s workshops in an area he calls Pebble Beach. It’s a small sitting area with a flagstone floor and a rock wall kept secure by thick wire. The rocks warm up by day and release their heat at night. It makes for a cozy resting spot during a 55-degree, cloudy day. A hammock is strung up in Pebble Beach.

“The cat and I spend a lot of time here, just enjoying the place,” he said.

The October 2007 fire destroyed two-thirds of the old greenhouse. Crews salvaged some siding, vents and underground pipes. What remained standing was knocked down and hauled away along with the charred debris.

“This was a total Superfund site after the fire,” Osentowski said.

The resurrection was a slow but steady process. The metal frame of the Phoenix was erected by October 2008, and 5/8-inch polycarbonate panels with high-efficiency glazing were erected for the roof. The greenhouse was walled in the following spring, and the beds were ready for pioneer plants in June 2009. Osentowski went with loads of annuals as his tropical plants, and other perennial producers also got started. Now, as the plants mature, it feels like home again for Osentowski.

“When I look at it now it’s amazing how solid it is,” he said of the structure and operation.

The same design and technology used in his 72-foot-by-26-foot greenhouse can be applied to other greenhouses, larger and smaller. Osentowski teamed with friend and business partner Michael Thompson to design a significantly larger greenhouse for a commercial operation at a ranch in Steamboat Springs. They are also organizing the effort to build a 42-foot-diameter greenhouse at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale. Their next project will be to design and consult for greenhouse construction this summer at developer Ace Lane’s TCI Lane Ranch project, next to the Blue Creek subdivision in the midvalley.

Phoenix is also incorporated into the permaculture institute’s educational mission, specially for the greenhouse design and management workshops. The next workshop is Saturday. Visit for more details.