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Greenhouse Effect

The Greenhouse Project looks at sustainability, community and what can be accomplished with a greenhouse and a vision.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder

 

Before you can leave your message on William Joseph's phone answering machine, it has a short message for you. With weighty pauses, Joseph's recorded voice seriously intones: "You must change your lifestyle, if you are to survive." The uninitiated may be so surprised as to lose their train of thought by the time the recording delivers a few conservation-oriented bits of information and the leave-your-message beep comes along. Certainly it must put off the telemarketers.

Some members of the Greenhouse Project stand behind a raised bed garden in their community greenhouse. From left, William Joseph, Marta Green, Judith Nelson, Wendy Schumann, Connie Adler, Gary Clauss, Dana Bunker and Robert Southworth.

That's okay with Joseph. He's up front about his passion and concern for Mother Earth and the path his extended family –a.k.a. the human race– is on. And he has a message to deliver–a message he hopes he exemplifies through living simply in his Silver City home, biking nearly everywhere he goes, eating low on the food chain and using enough solar panels to power his home and generate a negative electric bill each month. That's right, he gets a credit.

"I've been a social activist all my life," he says softly, his blue eyes twinkling. "I ask myself, 'What do I know? How can I live? What can I model for others?' That's the key."

In earth-toned Carhartt overalls, a rainbow-colored scarf around his neck and sporting a crocheted black beret-style hat adorned with a "No War" button, he certainly looks the part of Tree-Hugger Extraordinaire. His current passions, political leanings and pet projects are evidenced all around his property, in the form of stickers and banners for peace, two solar panels and outdoor solar ovens, and a rainwater "harvesting" system. There's a tepee where he holds spiritually oriented gatherings and ceremonies. "I sleep out here sometimes in the summer," he says.

And then there's this greenhouse. A very big greenhouse.

Shortly after moving to Silver City from Colorado three years ago, Joseph decided to take the 2,000-square-foot open-front garage on his property, turn it into a greenhouse and make the space available for a small group of like-minded individuals to garden as a community. Ranging from long-experienced organic gardeners to green-wannabees, the friends share the workload and the fruits of their labors, united by both a love for the soil and their conviction about what the Greenhouse Project symbolizes in the larger sense.

A button on Joseph's overalls' bib proclaims: "Our Lifestyle Is Killing Us." On this key point he's ready to expound, well-versed in the statistics on the world's energy supply, how such a small part of the country produces the food for so many of us, and the costs–both financial and environmental–of flying and trucking said food all over the country.

"It's about sustainability," he says, which Merriam-Webster defines as a "lifestyle, method of harvest or system of using resources in such a way that they are not depleted or permanently damaged." "People need to learn to see the connections between how we live and what's going on in the world."

Joseph says issues like climate change and "peak oil"–the point when world oil production is expected to start declining (see the December 2005 Desert Exposure)–are all connected to our insatiable collective appetite. At the very root of the problem is our consumption–not just of our literal food, but all the goods we buy, how we travel and spend our time, how things are packaged and what we do with our waste. All these things take a toll on the planet's finite resources, he says, citing environmental experts like author Richard Heinberg and ecological design pioneer David Orr. (See box on the 2nd Annual Silver City Peak Oil/Climate Change Conference coming up this month, co-sponsored by The Greenhouse Project.)

"This isn't about deprivation. It doesn't hurt to live this way," Joseph insists of his down-to-earth lifestyle. "But it is going to hurt if we don't get on top of peak oil and climate change."

 

Eager to share the Greenhouse Project's tangible example of community-based agriculture, Joseph opens the greenhouse door and reveals a colorful maze of raised bed gardens–large rectangular tubs raised up on wood pallets or thigh-high frames. The tubs are recycled (of course!) cattle-feeding troughs, the space between them creating walkways by which the gardeners can easily access their plots.

Green certainly is the watchword here, as the tubs are planted with chard, mustard greens, spinach and more. Golden flowers poke out here and there, adding whimsical bright touches to the profusion of deep green leaves.

Each of the tubs is a garden plot for one gardener or gardening duo in the group. There are 10 people involved in the project, including Joseph himself, the maximum the effort can comfortably and effectively house.

"We started with a much larger group in 2005," he explains. "A lot of good people came on board. There was a membership at that time. It turned out to just be too many people, some worked more than others, and there were privacy issues, too." This is, after all, where he lives and it "got a little inconvenient" having even well-intentioned community gardeners constantly traipsing through his property.

The original group began to fall apart and a new configuration eventually developed through the summer of 2006. The current grouping of 10 gardeners has settled into a comfortable, well-organized rhythm. Joseph points out a grid drawn on a whiteboard, which shows who's coming to work in the garden and when. Each gardener commits to work in the greenhouse for two half-hour sessions per week–one for watering and one for closing the place up at night. They also attend one group meeting per month, to keep in touch, discuss issues, make decisions and just to spend a little time together and build their sense of community. Work shifts can be traded so that no one ever feels "stuck," Joseph says, and he lives right there so there is always an emergency back-up.

Nearly all of the Greenhouse Project members are on hand today to tell their stories–how they came on board and what it means to them to participate.

The 2nd Annual Silver City Peak Oil/Climate Change Conference will be held at the Silco Theater, Jan. 12-14, with a special kick-off feature event Jan. 11. The conference will include live local presenters and facilitators and large-screen DVD presentations. Free admission. More information: 538-5892

Thurs., Jan. 11, 7-9 p.m.
Special kick-off event.
"A Land Out of Time"

Glenn Landers, Southwest Environmental Center. Award-winning documentary film on the gas industry and sensitive ecology, including live commentary after the film on Otera Mesa in New Mexico.

Fri., Jan. 12, 7-9 p.m.
"Peak Oil, Climate Change and Our Future"

David Orr, author, ecological designer. The twin challenges of Peak Oil and Global Climate Change.

Sat., Jan 13, 10-11:30 a.m.
"Peak Oil, A Proactive Response"

Richard Heinberg, author, educator, international speaker. The challenge of Peal Oil and its economic impacts.

1-2:30 p.m.
"Relocalize Now"

Julian Darley, author, director of Post Carbon Institute. Global relocalization and how communities can begin to prepare for Peak Oil.

3-4:30 p.m.
"Energy Efficient Housing"

Mark and Rachel Bighley, Mark Bighley Construction. Local home builders give practical applications for energy-efficient homes.

 

Sun., Jan. 14 1-2:30 p.m.
"Voluntary Simplicity as a Way of Life"

Vicki Robbins, New Road Map Foundation. A viable solution for Peak Oil and way to lead a healthy, fulfilling life.

3-4:30 p.m.
"Sustainability as an Infinite Game"

Paul Hawken, author, activist. A global vision for incorporating sustainable actions.

"It's 'cause we're all crazy!" Wendy Schumann calls out with a laugh. "Aren't all gardeners insane?" This draws a laugh from some of the others, who are digging in their patches, pulling stray weeds or stuffing bags full of freshly harvested vegetables.

Turning serious, Schumann admits she gardens with the project because of her family history. "With my family, it was automatic," she says in a bouncy, Aussie-sounding accent. "We all gardened. Everybody gardened. It's just what you did, every family." She looks around at the raised beds, bursting with greenery, and adds, "My father would have died for an opportunity like this."

A hand-lettered sign on a nearby garden plot reads, "By scaling down your activities, you will have more time and peace of mind to enjoy the ones that remain," a quote attributed to Janet Luhr, author of The Simple Living Guide. Luhr borrowed it from Unplug the Christmas Machine, the seminal downscaling how-to guide by Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli.

"Yeah, that's what it is about for me," Schumann says. "Like they say, 'Live simply so that others may simply live.' It's getting back to basics and being happier with less."

Gary Clauss, a Silver City town council member, works in his nearby plot, wearing working clothes and a baseball cap. "You have to know where your food's coming from," he says of his own motivation and what he feels is the larger purpose for a community gardening effort such as this one. "We need more local food. It's just fresher and you know what you're getting." He adds that he questions the authenticity of some "organic" labels: "With all these companies jumping on board, you don't always know what you're really getting."

Judith Nelson, digging in the dirt one raised bed over, says her gardening comes from a very earthy urge. "I need my hands in the soil," she says, up to her knuckles in rich black dirt. She's planting garlic today, breaking apart an organic bud she just bought at the Silver City Food Coop, inserting the cloves into the holes she's just drilled into the dirt with her fingers.

"Gardening reconnects one to the earth. It's where I want to be. And this," she says, gesturing with her sweeping arm over the expanse of the greenhouse, "is fun and productive. It's great because we all share the work."

Nelson and her partner, Connie Adler, employ solar power at their home, generating a negative monthly bill like Joseph. Adler is adamant about solar and the role it can play in sustainable communities.

"We're hooked up to the grid," Adler says. Since they generate more power than they use, Adler and Nelson get a monthly credit and the excess power goes to the power company. "It's not about the credit, the payback. It's just the right thing to do. If we get enough people to do it, the grid will always be up, for everybody. And now is the time to do it," she emphasizes, "because of the tax credit."

Joseph notes that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has been a strong advocate for solar power use in the state, and is pushing to increase tax credits for households that install solar panels. Joseph says he paid $16,000 for his solar panel system and is receiving $6,000 in tax credits, $4,000 from the state and another $2,000 from the federal government.

In addition to natural solar heating through a heavy plastic south wall, the greenhouse has solar-powered roof vents that open and close automatically according to temperature, keeping the place from cooking the produce before harvest.

 

Though it's cold this December morning, it's downright balmy in the greenhouse, owing to solar gain. The thermometer reads 63 degrees. "It should hit around 90 again today," Joseph says, noting that yesterday's indoor climate ranged from 33 degrees overnight to 90 degrees at the day's hottest. The ideal temperature would be 85, he says, achieved by venting with windows and doors.

The whole structure is amazingly efficient, designed to use the absolute minimum of water and electricity. Water for the crops comes from a rainwater-harvesting 2,000-gallon "catchment" system of barrels and pipes. Rainwater is funneled to a huge above-ground collector, then is doled out into big black barrels inside the greenhouse. Providing all the water needed for the crops, these barrels also function as a "heat sink," gathering solar warmth during the day and then slowly releasing it into the greenhouse over the cold night.

"We have heaters in case it gets too cold," Joseph says, "but we haven't had to use them. The group grew tomatoes over the summer, he adds, which died only recently because of the winter cold. The greens and things now planted are cold-weather crops. "We don't want to be growing things 'out of season,'" Joseph says, adding that the group is still experimenting and finding out what "seasons"–and growing possibilities–are within the greenhouse's special climate.

Marta Green draws attention to her own experience with seemingly never-ending broccoli. "This is my third picking on this broccoli," she says, pointing to the green stumps sprouting new little tight, green heads and leaves. A project member since the inception around November 2005, Green says she's been gardening since she was six years old.

"Gardening is my therapy," she says. "It's interesting and fun and there are always surprises! Like this broccoli." Gardening organically, she says, is very important to her. "I've never used pesticides or poisons, and look how well it's doing! All organic!"

Asked what he feels the value of the greenhouse project is, Joseph smiles and says, "Well, I've had a green salad whenever I've wanted one for over a year now, just by coming out here and picking it."

He looks over the raised beds of green and adds, "We're still finding out what's possible. I mean, how many people could a space this large feed? I don't know. But this is a start, for sure." He says he'd like to see 20 more community greenhouses in the immediate area, neighborhood oases of healthy, local food.

Joseph says the group has begun some outreach into the community, distributing tomato seedlings through the farmer's market. He hopes that as the project gathers steam and experience, it will be able to open itself to the community in a larger sense, offering gardening know-how, a "beginning useful tool for change in society," as he puts it.

"It could become a training ground," he says. "Local gardeners could come to learn sustainable organic techniques. I'd like to see more schools involved, too. It's so important that young people grow up knowing how to grow their own food."

 

Two students from the Aldo Leopold School in Silver City, a school with conservation and the environment built into its very curriculum, are harvesting greens today from their own raised bed of vegetables. Mimi Maynard and Shogpei Benally, two teen girls, have been gardening in the plot since October 2006 as part of an internship for their school.

Attired in a tight T-shirt and what appear to be pajama bottoms, Maynard says, "I didn't know how to garden before. Everything I've learned about this, I've learned in here. It's really cool."

Benally, with long dark hair and a stylish hand-knit scarf around her neck, loosens the dirt around her plants with her long, thin fingers. The two have been learning about sustainability in school. Asked if they think an effort like the Greenhouse Project is important to the larger world, their eyes grow large, their faces earnest.

"Oh, yes!" they answer in unison. Growing one's own food is a great thing to learn, an important thing, they say, checking off some of what they have been taught about sustainable community living.

On the other end of the age spectrum, but in the same beginner's boat as the Aldo Leopold students, Robert Southworth says he's here "to learn from the green wizards!"

Southworth goes on, "It's important to learn how to garden sustainably before it's an absolute necessity"–alluding to the day when those peak oil issues come home to roost and transportation difficulties may disrupt the supply of food across the country, especially to smaller, rural communities.

His pleasant face framed by soft gray hair, Southworth stands beside a garden plot, gently brushing the tops of a few green leaves. "It's just cleaner food. It keeps me healthier," he adds with conviction.

Shumann's Aussie ears seem to pick up and she chimes in, "And it helps us depend less on those big corporations!"

Southworth nods in agreement.

Across the row of raised beds, Connie Adler holds out a handful of colorful plastic cups, offering them to Schumann.

"They're from Alotta Gelato," she says. "They make great seed starter cups."

Heavy talk and large missions aside, the group is down to simple stuff–sharing gardening secrets and tips and resources. Yes, even the simplicity of recycled gelato cups.

"Oh, I almost forgot," Gary Clauss suddenly says. "I want to give you some of the produce." He grabs a plastic grocery sack–recycled, of course–and sets about snipping a variety of greens. "What do you like? That's some chard, kale, some mustard greens over there," he says, snatching up assorted leaves from his own garden plot as well as Joseph's. "We want you to know this is real. You have to see how good all of this tastes!"

Who's to say a handful of mustard greens grown close to home will or won't change the world? The simple truth remains that, served with garlic and white beans over pasta, it was out of this world.

 

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure and can sauté up a mean bunch of greens.

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