Schools across the state are investing in domed greenhouses as a way to transform gardening into a year-round learning activity for students and to supply school lunchrooms with homegrown fresh produce regardless of the season outside.

Students from Crest Academy in Salida examine plants growing in the domed greenhouse a block from their school.

Students and parents at Flagstaff Academy, a public charter school in Longmont, last month completed building an 850-square-foot domed greenhouse, a project three years in the making.

In Colorado Springs District 11, officials have partnered with Pikes Peak Urban Gardens to build an even larger greenhouse at Galileo School of Math and Science on the school’s old tennis courts. Funded through a federal Magnet Schools of America grant, construction on the $50,000 dome will begin within the month and should be complete by the time classes resume.

“There’s definitely a lot of interest in school greenhouses now,” said Allen Werthan, founder and executive director of Global Children’s Gardens, an Evergreen-based non-profit that over the past few years has helped seven Colorado schools install greenhouse domes, including the one at Flagstaff Academy.

“There’s just more awareness that healthy eating is significant for kids,” he said.

Werthan recently partnered with TV chef Jamie Oliver to build a dome in Arizona for Navajo youth.

“They’re fighting challenges there of a fast food-only diet and no fresh vegetables, and rampant obesity and diabetes. The dream of the tribal elders was to connect kids back to their traditional diet,” he said.

In Colorado, Global Children’s Gardens helped the Southern Ute Academy in Ignacio built a 22-foot domed greenhouse in 2006 for similar reasons.

“At the Ute Academy, their motivation is to fight the twin plagues of diabetes and obesity,” Werthan said, as well as to preserve the wisdom of tribal elders in the area of traditional medicinal plants.

“Four years of Sundays” to build a greenhouse

Werthan, who ran a mountain school for children and a natural foods restaurant in Evergreen for many years before starting Global Children’s Gardens in 2003, has always had a passion for connecting children with the natural world.

Growing Spaces, a Pagosa Springs company, offers domed greenhouses in different sizes.

He says he spent “four years of Sundays” building his first greenhouse, only to watch it collapse under 4 feet of snow one winter.

“That led to the search for a greenhouse suitable for global distribution, regardless of climate,” he said.

He found it at Growing Spaces, a Pagosa Springs company that sells domed greenhouses in sizes ranging from small 150-square-foot structures to domes covering more than 2,000 square feet. Solar-powered, the domes stay warm throughout winter, even though they’re off the electrical grid.

Launched in 1989 as an offshoot of John Denver’s Windstar Foundation, Growing Spaces has sold domes to 80 schools around the country, including 18 in Colorado. The company has seen phenomenal growth in recent years, said CEO Puja Dhyan Parsons.

“We grew from a company of four to a company of 23, and most of that growth has been in the last five years,” she said. “2008 was our biggest year until this one. It’s just been steady growth because of all the interest in sustainability.”

“Schools are interested in our Growing Domes because they’re really designed and built for the Rocky Mountains,” she added. “We feel we’ve mastered the climate here, the snowload. And sometimes schools want to put a dome in the South 40. It can be remote and not even tied into the main water system, and still be sustainable.”

Schools who partner with Global Children’s Gardens get assistance from Werthan in figuring out how to fund and build a dome from Growing Spaces. Prices start at $5,000 for materials for a do-it-yourself 15-foot-diameter dome.

“I can speak to PTAs, guide them through the process. I can share from my experience what they can create, I can offer help with siting, with budgeting, with fund-raising suggestions,” Werthan said.

Erecting a dome “like an old-fashioned barn-raising”

That’s by no means the only way to get a dome. Domes can be purchased direct from manufacturers, and professional crews can be hired to install it. Growing Spaces will supply a crew to build its largest domes because they’re so tall. But Werthan prefers the community-built to the professionally-built dome.

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“It’s like an old-fashioned barn-raising,” he said. “You have so much sense of ownership when you build it yourself.”

Montessori School of Evergreen built its dome, with GCG’s help, more than seven years ago. It’s proven a blessing time and again, said Beth Heller, the head of school. Initially built for use by middle schoolers at MSE’s Marshdale campus, the school later added a second greenhouse for its younger students on its Troutdale campus.

“Part of Montessori is real-life problem-solving, and our middle schoolers were thinking how they could get money to go to the Teton Science School for a week,” Heller said. “They figured out if they grew herbs, they could make herb vinegar and sell it for a profit. And we thought a greenhouse was something we could integrate throughout our curriculum.”

Now the middle school students take greenhouse and cooking elective classes, using fresh ingredients grown there. At the Troutdale campus, each class from pre-school through third grade has its own plot of land inside the greenhouse. The greenhouse also houses turtles and fish.

“The children love taking care of the animals, and we talk about how a symbiotic system is created, what they need from us and what we need from them,” Heller said.

Domes spreading in school districts across the state

Among the other domed greenhouses sprouting on Colorado campuses recently:

  • Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale built its dome in the spring of 2010 to serve as a hands-on agricultural science classroom for students. The project is a partnership between the school and Fat City Farmers, a sustainable agriculture education program, and the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt.
  • Yampah Mountain High School in Carbondale installed a domed greenhouse in 2009.
  • Clear Creek High School in Evergreen installed a domed greenhouse a year ago in partnership with Rotary Club and Beau Jo’s Pizza. The students sell back the herbs they grow in the greenhouse to the restaurant. “It’s a cool model in terms of the funding for it, and the motivation,” said Werthan. “It’s an offshoot of the biology department but with an entrepreneurial component.”
  • GCG owns a greenhouse in Salida that is used by students from nearby Longfellow Elementary, Chaffee County Montessori and Crest Academy. Students there have grown an abundance of fresh vegetables inside the greenhouse and have been very successful in selling their fresh salad green at a local farmer’s market, Werthan said.

Springs dome to be used for science classes

At Galileo School in Colorado Springs, the Growing Space domed greenhouse will be used to grow produce year round and the district’s Food and Nutrition Department will buy all the produce grown for use in the school cafeteria. The funds from the sales of produce will pay for a part-time master gardener to oversee the growing spaces.

In addition, some areas inside the greenhouse will be set aside for students to conduct plant and soil research for science classes, said district spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

Besides the covered dome, the remainder of the tennis courts at Galileo will be converted into raised beds, with gathering areas for school classes. Immediately outside the dome, the school will install a sensory garden and a permaculture garden, she said.

“When the grant was written four years ago to establish Galileo, a greenhouse was included as something they wanted to do as part of the curriculum,” said Jessica Sharp, director of grants for the Colorado Springs district.

“At that time, we couldn’t find the appropriate person to contract with. It’s taken us this long to find something of high enough quality that it was worth the money, and something that didn’t require a lot of construction-related costs.”

Charlie Warren, science director at Flagstaff Academy, a K-8 charter school with a science and technology emphasis, said he expects every child in the school to log some greenhouse time during the coming school year.

“This is a big part of our answering a challenge of how you do outdoor education in a suburban environment,” he said. “This is a big chunk of outdoors where kids can get their hands into the dirt and find out where their food comes from.”