Early spring always brings a special kind of anticipation among local farmers: “What kind of delectable food could this still-frozen ground produce in just a few months?” Seed catalogues advertise an array of choices and it seems that one only has to pick varieties and get going. There is plenty of sunshine, yet our high country nights are too cold to do more than dream until May. Unless! Unless there is a way to start early.
Erin’s Geothermal Greenhouse tucked up into the beautiful Chalk Creek Canyon southwest of Buena Vista allows commercial growers to do just that. Underneath the canyon’s towering cliffs and babbling stream lies a geothermal hot spring — a natural wonder best known for soaking that also provides Chaffee County an unusual kind of assistance in growing local food.
The natural hot springs deliver the necessary heat to keep the large greenhouse owned by Erin Oliver at a constant temperature. Oliver’s property, tilted every so slightly toward the south, and the greenhouse’s thoughtful design create an orb of warmth and full sunlight to nurture young plants. Add water and some lovin’ care, and you’ve got a jump-start on the growing season.
Plant starts begin every spring with bales of soil shipped to the greenhouse from Canada. They are sliced open and dumped onto potting tables, then mixed with fertilizer made for growing plants from seed.
Sarah Kuhn, a greenhouse employee since 2007, says this very first step of preparing the soil is where many home gardeners get off to a wobbly start by using topsoil from their yards to start seeds. “You need light and fluffy, porous soil that’s going to drain,” she says. “Most garden soil is not that.”
Kuhn fills 12-by-18-inch plastic trays with the rich soil and pokes a small hole in the 128 cups the trays. Using the very tip of a pencil, she places just two seeds in each cell. The trays are stacked in the germination chamber — a dark and heated cabinet that helps the seeds “pop” like some kind of laboratory science experiment.
Two sprouting plants in a cell are eventually culled to the stronger one that is transplanted into a 2-inch pot, and sometimes an even bigger pot, always using the best soil mixture appropriate for that stage of the plant’s lifecycle. “That’s when the greenhouse starts really filling up,” Kuhn says, as rolling tables stretch from one end of the greenhouse to other holding up pots of all sizes and plants in various stages of growth.
Next the “hardening off” process begins, as the plants are brought outside in the gentle morning light for slowly increasing amounts of time to get used to Colorado’s intense sunshine. One hour here, another two hours the next day. Sometimes using a shade cloth and always, always watching the temperature to prevent any freezing, Kuhn says.
Eventually, the plants are placed in the ground at farms around the county — four to six weeks ahead of schedule because they were started in the greenhouse. Starts also help producers grow successionally so they can harvest the same kind of vegetables multiple times in a season.
Starts are a lot of work but it’s a fun time of year because there is the harvest to look forward to when radishes, heads of kale and fragrant basil are at their most glorious and they are picked and packed and shipped.
Right now it’s all about the soil but by late June, it will be time to eat!
In addition to leasing space to local farmers, Erin’s Geothermal Greenhouse sells garden starts to The Lettucehead in Buena Vista and to co-op’s through her website. Greens and herbs are available year-round. Tomatoes and a variety of vegetables are available seasonally May-November.
Erin’s favorite resources & advice for starting your garden
Advice: Don’t start your seeds too early.
Advice: Don’t blindly feed, invest in your soil with a soil test with recommendations.
Advice: Succession plant so you have a consistent supply throughout the season instead of all of your crop at once. Download the succession-planting calculator at this link.