It may have been a record snow year in the Sierra, but that hasn't stopped locals from growing their own produce. In addition to the usual covered garden beds, some ambitious Tahoe gardeners have opted for a more engineered option: the Sierra Growing Dome.
Designed in partnership with the Tahoe Food Hub and manufactured by Colorado-based Growing Spaces, the dome comes in a variety of sizes and has been engineered to withstand heavy snow loads. The geodesic greenhouses look a bit like glass golf balls and require no external heat source, which makes them fairly economical to operate. Instead of heating and cooling equipment, the domes' temperatures are moderated via the sun, a large tank of water and some ingenious vents that keep things cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
At around $25,000, the domes run the risk of being a luxury that only wealthy foodies can afford for individual use.
The dome at the Tahoe Food Hub, however, also serves as the organization's agroecology center, where experts share a variety of tips for growing food in alpine climates. The food hub connects local farmers with restaurants, schools and hospitals in the region in an effort to reduce food miles. Executive director Susie Sutphin said she hopes some local cities and organizations might consider taking on a dome. "It would make a lot of sense for some of the ski resorts up here. They'd be able to grow some of their own produce, which would reduce the amount of stuff they need to have trucked in and would also provide really fresh ingredients for their restaurants," she said. "I could see one of the towns maybe putting one up, too, and they're great for schools."
In fact, one local school, Sierra House Elementary in South Lake Tahoe, raised enough via donations and grants to buy not one but two domes, and start an ambitious gardening program that provides fresh produce twice per week to its students, two-thirds of whom are on the free and reduced lunch program.
"A big reason for supporting the domes was we thought it would not only improve the kids' diets, but would also provide a benefit to the broader community if they were going home and encouraging their parents to buy more vegetables," said Ryan Galles, principal of Sierra House.
It was actually parent Michelle McLean who got the program off the ground after touring the Tahoe Food Hub's dome in Truckee. She has now helped the school raise enough to add a pollinator garden, garden-pegged curricula, a garden mural in the cafeteria and even a job for herself coordinating it all.
Twice each week, the kids go out to the domes and learn everything from basic gardening to more advanced biology and engineering. Once per week, they line up for a salad bar stocked by the domes, and you've never seen so many 6-year-olds this excited about salad.
"You can really tell the difference between the students who have had the domes all along and the ones who were older when we got them," said McLean. "The younger ones make much healthier choices."
The teachers love the domes, too, and use them as a teaching aid for everything from science to vocabulary. Second-grade teacher Denise Pillsbury said the treks out to the domes help her kids get their wiggles out during the day, and that the program is improving their diets. "Most kids don't know where food comes from, so they're getting a much better understanding of it, helping to plant and weed, and then enjoy the food they grow," she said.
And principal Galles' goal of reaching the broader community has been achieved, too. Hector Ochoa, the UC CalFresh Nutrition educator for Lake Tahoe, said he's seen how kids are influencing their parents' shopping and cooking decisions.Ochoa's been fielding lots of requests at the Family Resource Center for tips on what to do with kale, and has been coordinating cooking classes filled with advice on how to make fresh produce stretch. "Sometimes it is more expensive, so we work with people to figure out how they can use every part of the vegetable, how they might be able to cook and freeze things," he said.
The kids, though, just think it's fun. They love to visit the fish in the aquaponic pond that sits in a corner of one of the domes; they like to eat everything from strawberry to mint to kale salad; and they're noticeably chilled out after getting a little dose of nature in the middle of their school day -- even when it's snowing out.