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Greenhouse to produce fresh food for Ute Mountain Senior Center

The Ute Mountain Senior Center has a new greenhouse dome to grow fresh food for senior meals. From left are Jonathan Dobson, Jeffrey Denetsosie, Lorna House, Rufina Weeks, Christina Knoell, Classia Hammond, Willa Whiteskunk and Blair House Jr. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Project by San Juan Basin Area Agency on Aging funded by American Rescue Plan Act

A new greenhouse recently built next to the Ute Mountain Senior Center in Towaoc will provide fresh fruit and vegetables for tribal elders year-round.

The geodesic dome structure is one of four indoor gardens planned for senior centers in Southwest Colorado by the San Juan Basin Area Agency on Aging with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

“There has been a lot of interest about our shiny, new dome,” said Rufina Weeks, director for the Ute Mountain Senior Center. “We’re excited and looking forward to growing fresh fruits and vegetables for our senior meal program.”

The large greenhouse dome, built by Growing Spaces, of Pagosa Springs, includes five planting beds, shade structures, ventilation fans and an aboveground pond. The pond helps regulates the temperature by cooling the dome in the summer and warming it in winter. It can be stocked with fish and water plants. Solar panels on the dome provide power.

Senior Center Head Cook Cecily Turtle said the plan is to grow a variety of vegetables, fruits and culinary herbs to incorporate into the menu. Elders will be encouraged to participate in the gardening at the dome, she said.

“It’s good to have. We’ve had gardening programs in the past, but having this indoor facility will be better and probably increase interest, so that is exciting,” Turtle said.

The center prepares about 1,500 meals per month for the elders, she said. In addition to benefiting the menu, some of the garden harvest can also be sent home with the elders.

Ute Mountain Ute carpenters Jeffrey Denetsosie and Blair House Jr. build raised beds for the new greenhouse dome built for the senior center kitchen in Towaoc. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Ute Mountain Senior Center Director Rufina Weeks talks with San Juan Basin Area of Agency Aging Director Christina Knoells about a newly built geodesic greenhouse in Towaoc. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
The Ute Mountain Senior Center has a new greenhouse dome for fresh produce. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

The senior center provides services and meals to the approximately 200 elders in the Towoac area, Weeks said.

“We grew up gardening, growing our own food. We’re proud that this will help bring that tradition back some more,” she said.

Christina Knoell, San Juan Basin AAA executive director, came up with the idea for senior center greenhouses project in the area, which got support of the AAA board and ARPA.

The Ute Mountain senior center was the first to get on board and is the first unit built.

“You don’t see garden projects for seniors as much, so it made sense. It is a community-based project with so many benefits,” Knoell said. “You can even grow fruit trees in here, orange or fig or lemon trees.”

A part-time horticulturist will be hired to help establish the greenhouse for the first year with input from elders and senior center staff. Community education on gardening practices is part of the plan.

Long-term, the senior center will manage the greenhouse with help from volunteers.

“We will all learn together, test the waters and enjoy the benefit of harvest,” Weeks said.

The Growing Spaces domes are also being planned for senior centers in Ignacio for Southern Ute Tribe, Silverton and Pagosa Springs.

The project for the four locations was awarded $645,000 from ARPA, which includes the domes, construction costs, materials and first year staff.

The Ute Mountain Senior Center greenhouse dome project cost $140,000, which includes a part-time hire for the first year.

On Wednesday, sun filtered through the dome as Ute Mountain carpenters assembled the raised beds. Planting will begin this spring.