Rising out of the ashes | AspenTimes.com

Rising out of the ashes

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

BASALT Trees and plants bearing bananas, papayas, Asian pears, figs and pistachios will once again flourish on the sun-baked southern slope of Basalt Mountain next year.The master gardener who saw 20 years of hard work go up in flames when his greenhouse burned last October is rebuilding a bigger and, in some ways, better greenhouse on the same site.The new greenhouse is called the Phoenix because it is rising out of the ashes, said Jerome Osentowski, a permaculturist, or someone who uses natural techniques to grow perennials, annuals, vegetables, herbs and exotic plants. Were trying to turn a problem into a solution.The fire also threatened Ostentowskis two other small greenhouses and his home about 2 miles from Basalt on the hillside high above the Fryingpan River Valley.Osentowski, 66, had what can best be described as a George Bailey moment after the devastating fire. Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character in the classic Christmas movie, Its a Wonderful Life, learned how many friends and supporters he had in his community when tough financial times threatened to erase his familys savings and land him in jail.Osentowski learned when his future appeared bleak after the fire just how many people love him and support his cause of local food production. Donations flowed from his friends in the Roaring Fork Valley and from former students who took classes at his Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, a nonprofit that teaches everything from greenhouse construction to permaculture techniques.Interns swapped labor, by cleaning up the trashed greenhouse, in return for free tuition for classes. And students, such as those in an advanced greenhouse planning course, worked on the design and inventory of plants for the new greenhouse.Osentowski said his insurer, Farmers Insurance, has been great to work with. Payments to cover losses were generous and timely.The old greenhouse had a wood frame; the new greenhouse has a metal frame salvaged from Planted Earth, which decommissioned the structure some years ago. Myers & Co. Architectural Metals of Basalt rehabbed the old metal frame at a very favorable rate.Osentowski found unused rebar and stove pipe as well as salvageable lumber in the seconds pile at the Pitkin County landfill. Footings and the underground piping for the heating system in the old greenhouse could be reused. All that recycling is allowing Osentowski to practice what he has long preached about reusing material rather than consuming new products. Its also keeping construction costs at about $50,000.The old greenhouse was 60 feet by 22 feet; the new greenhouse is 72 by 25 feet. The new structure will fit on the footprint of the old greenhouse plus an adjacent chicken coop.Michael Thompson, Osentowskis friend and partner in a greenhouse building company called EcoSystems Design, worked on the design for the new greenhouse. The concrete foundation is in place along with the metal framing.Its more like a little erector set now, Osentowski said.Panels of strong polycarbonate will be attached to the frame within the next two months to give the greenhouse a tough shell that can be penetrated by sunlight.Once it is closed in for winter, Osentowski and students will create four distinct plants zones in the interior beds.Its nice because now we have a clean slate, Osentowski said. The mix of plants in the old greenhouse was jumbled as it evolved between 1987 and 2007. This will be more like an arboretum.A desert zone will have plants like mesquite and pistachio. The Mediterranean zone will feature figs, rosemary and pomegranate. The warm, temperate zone will have Asian pears and persimmon. The tropical zone will have banana trees and papaya.The interior design also will feature little nooks where people can enjoy a cup of tea or even place a hammock for an overnight stay to hang out and commune with the plants, Osentowski said.The plants will be placed next spring. Osentowski and his helpers will be harvesting the fruits of their labors by this time next year.While all the plants were fried by the hot fire, surprises sprouted from the exposed earth this spring. Grape vines snake around the ground. Black bamboo shot up. A Jujube or red date emerged. They will be dug up before a killer frost this fall and stored in two smaller greenhouses at the institute.Despite those saves, a lot of exotic plants were lost.One thing I miss is my night blossoming jasmine, Osentowski said, recalling he planted it from one seek he brought from Hawaii. But he is looking to the future rather than dwelling on the past. He is excited to get the new facility functioning so he can resume growing on a massive scale. (Much of the amazing compound was unscathed by the fire. Pear, plum, cherry and apple trees are producing; gooseberry bushes have abundant fruit; tomatoes and cucumbers flourish in the smaller greenhouses.)Thompson said he believes the rebuilding of the greenhouse is rewarding for Osentowski. But the support he received from the community after the disaster was even more important and fulfilling than the physical recovery.A lot of people have said, This guys really doing something worthwhile lets help out, Thompson said.He never doubted his friend would bounce back. Gardeners are nothing if not optimists, Thompson noted.scondon@aspentimes.com

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