Practical, sustainable and regenerative ways of living
June 23, 2012
Eden Vardy, the President and co-creator of Aspen T.R.E.E. near Aspen, Colo., is truly passionate about the “whole systems” approach between humans and nature, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
“Almost anything that other people consider as waste becomes a resource here,” he explains as we tour the facility and outdoor classroom. “The chicken coop, for instance, was built out of wood salvaged from a barn that was being torn down. Discarded clothing and blankets were used for insulation. We feed 20 varieties of birds the table scraps from local restaurants, along with Colorado-raised grain. As for their bedding, it is first recycled from discarded hay leftover from the goats and alpacas. After the chickens are finished, it’s used for mulch and compost. EVERYTHING gets reused in some way here. It helps keep things out of our landfills.” Best of all, the spacious and clean coop – which has a radio tuned to soothing Classical music all day – is part of a cooperative, where people take turns caring for the fowl in exchange for a quota of eggs.
The staff at Aspen T.R.E.E. – which stands for Together Regenerating the Environment through Education – teaches workshops to all ages, with courses including how to set up high-altitude gardens, backyard coops, greenhouses, orchards, and even bear-proof compost systems. Participants also learn how easy it is to enrich the soil and grow pesticide-free foods: alpacas, in particular, come in helpful for that. “We have lots of organic fertilizer right on site,” Eden says. “Our stock is fed only local hay. A real bonus with an alpaca is that it eats only about one bale per month, plus it’ll pick a place to leave droppings and then return there each time. That makes it really easy to scoop stuff up and drop it fresh onto the garden. The poop is very gentle (much softer in terms of heat than horse manure) so there’s no breaking down time needed beforehand.” Native to the Andes, the Alpacas have an additional benefit in Colorado’s high altitude for they are already accustomed to cold climates.
Since the average growing season around Aspen is just three months, Eden has additional methods for getting the most out of limited time. Hundreds of river rocks, each one painstakingly hauled from an excavation scrap pile, have been artistically stacked to form separate gardening sections. “The rocks hold heat, which adds an estimated one to two weeks” he continues, plus “the beds are raised, or stacked high with soil, because this allows for easy reaching. We start with a layer of cardboard, which not only blocks the weeds but supplies the necessary carbon as it breaks down. It’s followed by manure, which adds nitrogen; straw or ground-up leaves; then compost and topsoil, or peat.” He also has access to the wonderful, clear water which flows down from Snowmass Mountain and Brush Creek.
Rather than following a set square pattern, the gardens at Aspen T.R.E.E. are curved as well as the pathways; they resemble how a deer or other wild animal might walk through naturally-growing foliage. “We cover the beds with leaves in order to preserve them,” Eden says, crouching on his knees and crunching some dried matter in his palms. “You never see bare soil in nature. Things are always breaking down.” Young people, in particular, really benefit from the hands-on approach here. “We show them how humans need to interface with nature and appreciate it. They experience what it’s like to work fresh compost into the ground, plant, and watch seeds sprout. Over the summer they’ll return to prune, pick, wash and eat their own vegetables.” Himself the father of a toddler, Eden smiles, “The kids get really excited when they pluck and eat stuff like carrots and tomatoes. They’ll even call out to each other things like, ‘Try this kale! It’s really good!'”
Also catered to inspire healthy living, Eden and the staff at Aspen T.R.E.E. sponsor week-long, farmyard, wilderness, and other day programs (for ages 7-10 and 11-14) that are referred to as “Camp Regeneration.” That’s where such on-site critters as the extremely friendly Cashmere goat come in handy. Gently stroking off a wad of its hair, he handed it over. “Another thing that’s fun for the kids is learning how something like that can eventually be made into a super-soft sweater.”
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Although Aspen T.R.E.E. got its start due to grants and donations from local non-profit organizations, lately the local community has been building up more and more support. “The actual growing area here is only 1/10 of an acre, but it’s amazing how much food we’re able to get out of it.” Chives (which deter pests) along with horseradish, rhubarb and lemon sorrel had already started growing as early as mid-April. And this year, once again, Eden is going to harvest Quinoa, a complete-protein grain (also from the Andes) that needs only rain in order to grow. That knowledge, of course, will be shared with his students. One day soon, they’ll have additional learning options, thanks to the traditional pizza-style mud oven called a “Taboon” that he’s planning to build. It will join the solar cooker, a parabolic dish that reflects the sun to a focal point, producing enough heat to boil water or fry vegetables.
Walking with Eden towards that proposed site, I paused to look closer at some additional dirt patches that he’d already started to clear. Suddenly noticing that he’d disappeared, I turned to find him squatting by one of the beds, quickly and efficiently pulling the few weeds that had formed over the winter. “Sorry, I can’t help it,” he said apologetically. “I just love getting my hands in the dirt.”