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Alamosa’s Community Greenhouse

Article by Marcia Darnell

Agriculture – January 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

GREENERY, FERTILE EARTH, and the mossy scent of growing things. A miracle in the middle of a San Luis Valley winter.

Welcome to the Alamosa Community Greenhouse, where, for a mere $5, members can reap fresh produce as well as the benefits of community service.

“I cook and bake a lot with what we grow here,” says three-year member Audrey Liu. “I never buy tomatoes, I just pick ’em here.”

The greenhouse was launched in the late ’70s by a group of community-minded folks who wanted to educate the public about organic gardening. The building took three years of co√∂perative effort.

“The walls are rammed earth,” says Terrance McClaughry, a member since the early days. “The dirt is from the site. Akira Kawanabe designed the greenhouse, which is all solar.” The current members are planning to redo the roof to better utilize the summer sun “and get more peppers and tomatoes,” adds McClaughry.

The greenhouse is a non-profit corporation, with 501(c3) status. The current members, 10 to 15 individuals, meet once a month to decide watering schedules and other projects, and once a year to elect officers. The facility’s yearly budget is a little more than $2,000, most of which comes from Valley Community Fund, an umbrella fund-raising organization in the San Luis Valley.

The rest of the greenhouse’s money comes from donations and the sale of flowers (at summer solstice) and produce (at harvest). Each member’s $5 dues just cover the cost of a key to the building.

Community greenhouse members work when they can, in exchange for fresh produce and transplanted cuttings. The workload varies according to season, even in an indoor facility. Watering is needed daily in summer, but only a couple of times a week in winter.

The site includes a 27-by-42-foot outdoor garden that increases the autumn bounty, as well as the work.

“We experiment a lot here,” says Liu. “This year we planted a new leaf basil and lemongrass. And we planted tons of garlic — the hottest garlic I’ve ever tasted.”

The gardening is organic, from the fertilizers to the pest control. Recent problems with aphids and whiteflies are being battled with ladybugs and other natural remedies.

The community greenhouse is an educational facility for Alamosans, particularly children. The greenhouse is in a low-income residential area, and neighborhood children have come to see it as a place for food, learning, and safety. There was some vandalism of the greenhouse in its early days, until the members reached out to the children in the area, offering them the chance to take home something they’ve helped grow themselves.

“For some of the kids around here, this is the only healthy food they get,” says McClaughry.

Member Jennifer Landry brings her children, Curry and Ciara, with her when she works.

“I think it’s important for children to understand that food comes from the earth,” she says, “and that we have a responsibility to help grow it because we consume it.

“Besides,” she adds, “what kid doesn’t love catching sow bugs?”

Landry also points out that children are more likely to eat broccoli, cauliflower. and other veggies if they had a hand in growing and harvesting them.

McClaughry would like to expand the greenhouse’s role in the youth community, coordinating with schools to provide “horticulture therapy,” which he believes would benefit kids and subsequently their families, their neighborhoods and their hometowns.

“We’d have less gang conflict and illegal activity,” he says. “They’d be busy growing their food.”

Future projects also include more open houses and workshops on gardening, solar energy and nutrition. The growers welcome new members, and seem just as happy if people take their knowledge home to their own gardens and greenhouses. The focus is on education and growth, (horticultural and personal).

New member Gina Candelaria was introduced to the greenhouse by Liu.

“I grew up around a lot of green things,” she says on her first visit, “Audrey has planted a new seed in me.”

The community greenhouse grows more than just basil.

Marcia Darnell lives and writes in Alamosa. Her gardening skills are limited to the mold which flourishes in her refrigerator.