JOSH STEPHENSON/Durango Herald
County resident Richard Black doesn’t give a lot of business to the produce section of his former employer.
The longtime City Market employee, now retired, instead has invested big – both in time and money – in a system that allows him to walk out his front door, into his greenhouse and pick a fresh, juicy lemon – even if the temperature outside is subzero, as it had been the night before a local gardening club came to tour his setup.
The geodesic dome that is now home to a bounty that would turn any gardener green with envy is the culmination of a long-time interest in backyard food production.
“I love gardening,” he said, adding that the quality of homegrown fruits and vegetables and the satisfaction of being self-sustaining are central factors.
He said he considered many varieties of greenhouses for his property along U.S. Highway 550 several miles south of Farmington Hill but settled on a 1,300-square-foot Growing Dome from Pagosa Springs-based Growing Spaces because of its aesthetics and potential.
Here are some of the features that make it possible for Black to grow fruit using minimal added energy even when it’s frigid outside:
An above-ground “pond” in the dome holds 4,000 gallons of water and is 12 feet across. The body of water, in addition to being visually appealing, emits heat at night and helps cool the air during the day.
A solar-powered fan sucks in cool air from around the pond and circulates it through tubing buried in the soil. This, too, helps keep the soil temperature stable and plants happy.
Polycarbonate glazing panels allow light in while still being insulative.
Reflective insulation on the north wall reflects light onto plants, prevents heat loss during cold winter months and provides shade over the pond in the heat of the summer.
Vents open automatically in response to temperature elevation through pistons filled with beeswax, which expands when it gets hot.
An insulated foundation wall and perimeter skirt also help moderate soil temperature.
The system, which resembles a living organism in the way its interconnected functions operate in balanced harmony, is the life’s work of Englishman Udgar Parsons, who moved his fledgling company to Pagosa Springs in 1995. Parsons was involved with a large-scale growing dome project in the late ’80s, when he worked with singer John Denver’s Windstar Foundation, based in Snowmass.
The idealistic venture was experimenting with sustainable food production long before the concept had celebrity champions like first lady Michelle Obama.
Parsons’ aspiration with Growing Spaces was to make the potential of the dome available to backyard gardeners. He now feels like he’s got the formula nailed.
“We’ve been doing it for 24 years, so we’re pretty happy that it works,” Parsons said in a phone interview this week.
He said demand for the domes is definitely ramping up as people become more concerned about commercial agricultural practices and genetically modified organisms and more motivated to shrink their carbon footprint by reducing the distance between farm and table.
Parsons said a well-managed Growing Dome doesn’t require chemicals or added energy. Many fruit varieties, including grapes and citrus trees, can thrive in its temperate conditions. He added that truly tropical conditions will require occasional heating.
Black has two portable kerosene heaters that he said he has had to use only on nights the temperature outside dropped below zero.
“I don’t like doing that,” he said.
Here’s an abridged list of plants he is growing: lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, radishes, carrots, chiles, jalapeños, peas, cabbage, garlic, beets, cauliflower, lemons, strawberries, grapes, blueberries, pineapple, avocado and lime.
Black’s dome was installed in October 2011 and he completed the raised beds in July 2012, so many plants are still getting established.
In his pond, a large number of goldfish – offspring of a small group he introduced early on – swim among hyacinth and water lilies. The pond has an aerator to keep the ecosystem healthy.
The gardeners from Durango High Country Gardeners oohed and aahed over the oasis in the snow. One woman called it her “trip to a southern paradise.”
Black broached the topic he acknowledged was on everyone’s mind: How much did it cost? He said the structure was around $30,000 and the final cost, with expenses like additional soil and materials for the raised beds added in, was about $45,000.
Animas Valley Elementary School has a smaller version of the dome; its final cost came to about $20,000, paid for through a grant and fundraisers.
Black acknowledged that he has to keep a close eye on plants for disease and pests such as spider mites and whiteflies. Organic remedies include spraying a soap solution on the plants, pulling out afflicted foliage and cultivating beneficial insects like ladybugs that feed on pests. But the best medicine is prevention, which means keeping soil and plants as healthy as possible.
For Black, that labor is one of pure love.