Urban spelunking: Behind the scenes at The Domes
In addition to the horticulturalists there is a person at the Domes who is in charge of tending to the birds that make their homes in the arid and tropical domes. In addition to feeding the birds, the person also is tasked with catching and releasing rogue birds that manage to get into the Domes through the loading dock and other connections to the outside.
But, come on, you know what we all really want to know...
Do you eat the fruit of the plants in the tropical dome?
"I just picked some coffee beans today," French said.
She's been trying her hand at roasting them properly. She also has attempted to make chocolate from the beans in the cocoa pods, but with zero success so far.
Kehoe then plucked an ambarella fruit and sliced it open for me to try. It's juicy and fleshy and tasted something like a mix between a lemon and a persimmon. It was my first taste of Domes fruit, but not my last. As we walked on, discussing soursop, yellow guavas and the avocado tree that's no longer there, the conversation turned to bananas.
"Do you eat the bananas?" I asked Kehoe.
"We do and they're delicious," he said. "We just happen to have a plant that has ripe bananas on it now, if you'd like to try it."
We walked back behind the gate and Kehoe scaled a ladder above the pit and cut down a handful of bananas which he gave to me to try and to bring home to share with my family.
They were small, but sweet and tasty. The latter is not true of all the fruit growing in the Domes, however. The plants grown in the Domes are not hybrids created for human consumption, said Folaron.
"It isn't the kind of fruit that you find at Pick 'N Save. It's not grown to be eaten; to really be something that American palates are used to," she said. "So we may think, 'Oh there's so much membrane in this.' Because it's a natural environment, too, we might just open up a grapefruit and find an insect in it."
But the fruit is most definitely edible.
"If there was an Armageddon, that would be the dome to go to," quipped Folaron. "That's the dome where you could best survive. Rather than the other two."
Speaking of the other two, we took a pretty quick look at the show dome, which is currently the most popular because the annual train show is taking place and that draws many eager onlookers, especially ones under the age of 10.
"The show dome is a whole 'nother animal in itself," said Folaron. "Mary Braunreiter designs those layouts. We grow those things for her. They're installed by the forestry department. People from all across the county come to help up install those shows. So as much as I hate that 'It takes a village' (maxim), it really takes a county to get those shows on."
We then spent a little more time strolling the arid dome, where French works her magic.
In there, she's been working to freshen up exhibits and replace tired plantings with exciting new geographically themed areas. A lot of pruning has helped spawn growth by allowing plants more access to sunlight.
Next we checked out the dome-ish transition greenhouse, where the behind the scenes horticulture work takes place. There are also greenhouses out at the County Grounds with two full-horticulturalists. Work is currently underway to building replacements for them right behind the Domes. The new greenhouses will make things a lot easier for staff, saving transportation time and loosening limits on the size of plants that can be grown in the greenhouses.
Attached to the transition greenhouse is an orchid room where sensitive orchids are nurtured and where the horticulturalists test out ideas and carry out experiments.
Next we went underground through the massive boiler room – with four huge boilers – and past the giant tanks that hold water (for watering) and a mix of water and fertilizer and into what looks like the most organized basement you've ever seen. Here, rows and rows of shelving hold props to celebrate every holiday you can think of.
Finally, back upstairs, we took a look at the small but powerful system that controls the light show and the old heating control panel, before peeking in at the computer that now runs the systems in the Domes. On the screen we could see temperature measurements for just about every spot in all three domes. The automated system makes sure the plants are kept in appropriate conditions at all times.
And, as much as we love the events and the light show and everything else, The Domes is still really about the plants.
"I'm hoping the new greenhouse will allow us to do more hands-on stuff with the kids," Folaron said. "About 20,000 kids comes here for tours every year and that's just kids that come in a classroom situation. Education is a huge element here. That's our core mission.
"The Domes are not just about the grandmas anymore."
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