Posted 18 September 2011, by Scott Condon, The Aspen Times (Swift Communications, Inc.), aspentimes.com
BASALT — There’s a Garden of Eden carved into the piñon and juniper forest on the sunny south side of Basalt Mountain, a one-acre paradise where fruit trees and grape vines flourish outside and greenhouses cradle everything from fig trees to particularly prolific passionfruit.
The Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (CRMPI) is celebrating its 25th year, an amazing feat considering permaculture’s overshadowed status in the gardening world and a catastrophic fire in October 2007.
The paradise is the creation of Jerome Osentowski, who has been involved in growing food in one way or another for more than 30 years and is recognized as an expert in building greenhouses and successfully filling them.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of his career is what he has accomplished — with staff, friends and volunteers — at the 1,800-square-foot Phoenix greenhouse, so-called because it replaced a greenhouse that burned down four years ago. It’s an amazing place, 2.5 miles from downtown Basalt, that makes visitors feel like they’re in a tropical jungle, sans the dangers.
A passionfruit vine dominates a section of the overstory, racing along 40 feet on a trellis in one direction and 20 feet in another. It was allowed to climb all over to shade the greenhouse interior from the sun and keep it cooler during the summer. The vine will be cut back this fall so the sun heats a flagstone patio and stone gabion walls on the north wall of the greenhouse. The rocks will release their heat after dark and help stabilize the greenhouse during the long nights of fall and winter.
Along with the passionfruit vine, the lush overstory in the greenhouse is completed with papaya, guava, avocado and dragonfruit plants along with four types of citrus trees. The banana plants, with huge leaves drooping down like elephant ears, command the entire west end.
The understory looks like a Rocky Mountain garden gone wild. There are common plants — peppers, cucumbers and sweet potatoes — but they reap the constant benefits of a warm, humid environment.
“We take what’s outside, put it inside and bump it up a few climate zones,” Osentowski said.
The subtropical environment of the Phoenix greenhouse won’t drop below 40 degrees at night, and it stays between 70 and 80 degrees during the day. A sauna heated by a wood stove is attached to the greenhouse. Warm air will be released from the sauna into the greenhouse during the coldest periods of winter. Numerous vents keep it cool during warm weather.
Solar panels provide the power necessary for the greenhouses; CRMPI is off the grid.
Mixed in with the veggies in the understory are exotic varieties of plants: fragrant night-blooming jasmine, Chinese date trees and aromatic medicinal plants like ginger.
Osentowski said he and his staff follow the forest-garden model where there are layers of cohabiting plants outdoors. “We try to mimic that,” he said.
All spaces are filled with plants. Sometimes they don’t work out in a particular place, but usually they find their niche.
“We’re not trying to play God,” Osentowski said. “We’re doing some logical mimicking of nature.”
The soil beds in the south section of the Phoenix greenhouse, clear of the lush overstory, is laid thick with annuals and winter salad greens. The diversity of plants means there is always something to harvest — “phases of abundance,” as Osentowski calls them. The idea, he said, is to avoid being one-dimensional like agri-business and most other greenhouses.
A smaller Mediterranean greenhouse adjacent to Phoenix is dominated by a massive fig tree that Osentowski calls “the grand dame” of CRMPI. The fig started from an 18-inch-high cutting 15 years ago and is now a twisting tree with numerous branches that take up roughly 100 square feet and produces mouth-watering fruit.
CRMPI is constantly building the soil of its greenhouses with leaves from the orchard outdoors and from rotting vegetation from the indoor plants themselves. When a huge leaf falls off the banana plant, it’s best left at the base of the plant to provide nutrients rather than tossed out. Tidiness isn’t necessarily a virtue in the greenhouse. Mulch covers the soil beds and certain areas are devoted to particularly thick mulch, where worms are added in heavy concentration. They break down the mulch and create rich humus.
A small pond on the property is home for ducks and tilapia. The soil from the pond is occasionally scraped up and used as fertilizer, as is the manure from chickens and Nigerian goats on the property. The “waste” goes back into the system. That sustainability is central to the permaculture concept of whole systems management.
Osentowski teamed with other instructors to teach CRMPI’s 25th Annual Permaculture Design Certification Course in August. The two-week course teaches students the essential elements of permaculture so they can better design and maintain sustainable systems such as forest gardens and greenhouses.
Osentowski said public interest in permaculture is picking up. The New York Times ran a lengthy article this summer about its growing popularity, and Osentowski and his staff have received a book contract to write about the system and CRMPI’s history.
Still, permaculture hasn’t been embraced to the degree Osentowski thinks it deserves.
“The floodgate hasn’t opened. It’s still a small movement,” he said.
He senses it will grow, particularly if the economic challenges continue to plague the world for years to come. Osentowski is proud that CRMPI has its own woodworking shop so the staff can create what it needs. It produces its own food. Passive solar and solar electric systems supply the power.
“We’re the ultimate survivalists, really,” Osentowski said. “The beauty of CRMPI is it’s built on a shoestring budget, it works and it’s replicable.”