by Sally Colby
When crops are grown in climate-controlled greenhouses, the growing season never ends — even if those greenhouses are at 5,550 feet above sea level. That’s the case for Osage Gardens, in New Castle, CO, where herbs for wholesale and retail customers are carefully grown year-round.
According to Theresa Rumery, daughter of Osage Gardens owners Tom and Sarah Rumery, Osage Gardens started 1992 as a small-scale operation and grew as a result of customer demand. With two acres of greenhouses, Osage Gardens is Colorado’s largest organic grower of culinary herbs.
“We started by growing organic tomatoes in a greenhouse, selling them to local stores and restaurants,” said Theresa. “We were growing basil on the side, and started selling that too. There was an increasing demand for organic, fresh herbs, so we started growing more and more basil and other herbs, and eventually specialized in organic culinary herbs.”
As the farm operation expanded, Osage Gardens started selling to major retailers. “About 15 years ago, Whole Foods opened their first store in the Rocky Mountain region,” said Theresa. “We became their herb supplier, and we continued to grow as they opened up more stores in Colorado.” Osage Gardens’ herbs are currently in 27 Whole Foods stores, including stores in Utah, Kansas, New Mexico and Idaho. Chefs from several local restaurants also use herbs from Osage Gardens.
Basil is Osage Gardens’ biggest crop, with about 5,000 basil plants in the greenhouses. “We harvest an average of 500 pounds of basil each week,” said Rumery. “During a holiday week, it’s closer to 800 pounds. We grow four types of basil: Italian (Genovese), Thai, purple and lemon. Lemon and purple basil are available in summer; Italian and Thai basil are available year-round. Thai basil has smaller leaves and has more of an anise flavor; Italian basil is sweeter — the kind that’s used for pesto or traditional Italian dishes.”
In addition to basil, more than 20 different herbs thrive in the greenhouses, including what Rumery refers to as standard herbs: chives, cilantro, dill, parsley, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, marjoram and thyme. Several specialty herbs including sorrel and savory are available, along with chervil, which is popular with chefs. Osage Gardens offers a packaged blend for poultry that includes fresh rosemary, sage and thyme. Although Osage Gardens is a year-round operation, November and December are their busiest months. “It works out fine because the most popular herbs for the holidays are rosemary, sage and thyme; and those are hardier,” said Rumery.
Osage Gardens’ tomatoes and salad greens are popular with customers. Theresa says her father has cultivated a reliable beefsteak variety that does well in the greenhouse, so they concentrate on growing that. “We also grow salad greens,” said Rumery. “It’s one of the things we grow very well, and we can grow them year round in greenhouses. Customers can pick up a salad mix that’s cut and packaged, or full lettuce heads.” Osage Gardens employs 25 full time employees, half of whom work in harvesting and packaging. Herbs are fresh picked and packaged in clamshells.
Osage Gardens offers a unique opportunity for customers to purchase fresh herbs and produce through that they call the ‘Fresh Eats CSA.’ Rumery says it’s a free choice program in which customers use market bucks to purchase what they want. “Unlike the traditional CSA where you get a box of vegetables each week, we have our members come to us and pick out what they want,” said Rumery. “They get ‘share dollars’ instead of a box, and can use their dollars on any of the items we sell, including local cheeses and meats.”
Weekly share dollars are added to accounts on Monday and if a customer exceeds that amount, they simply pay the difference. If the customer is away or doesn’t spend it all, the dollars roll over to the following week. “I tell people it’s like a renewable gift card,” said Rumery. In addition to servicing CSA customers, Osage Gardens offers locally grown local vegetables and fruits in their on-farm retail store known as ‘The Little Red Farm Store.’
Because Osage Gardens is growing year-round, the double-layer plastic greenhouses are heated with natural gas heat in winter. The business recently received a grant from CLEER (Clear Energy Economy for the Region) to purchase energy curtains for the greenhouse that will help reduce energy costs for cooling the greenhouses in summer. Because Osage Gardens is certified organic through USDA’s NOP (National Organic Program), IPM is critical. Ladybugs and other natural predators are brought in to help control pests.
To help educate people about what they do, Osage Gardens offers farm tours. “We just finished a series of spring tours,” said Rumery. “We’re open to the public and have ongoing tours every Saturday. We also do scheduled group tours so that people can see how we grow things — like basil plants that are 6’ tall.”
Kids’ activities offered with school tours include a harvest demo, a session on beneficial insects, composting, a mini greenhouse tour and a tasting station. Each child takes a transplanted herb or vegetable plant.
The Osage Gardens website includes information for those interested in learning about how to use fresh culinary herbs. Suggestions include when to add fresh herbs to stocks and soups, how to incorporate fresh herbs in homemade breads, and how to use fresh herbs for roasts, ground meats, fish and pasta dishes.
Visit Osage Gardens on line www.osagegardens.com, and follow them on Facebook.