An urban orchard is taking root right in the heart of Boulder.
By Lisa Truesdale
When settlers first moved to Boulder Valley, many of them farmed for a living. The Bachelder Ranch (the present site of Chautauqua Park) had a thriving apple orchard in the 1880s. John Brierly grew fruits, vegetables and flowers on his land, which is now Settlers’ Park. In fact, remnants of old orchards can be seen all over the county, with stray apple, plum, cherry, peach and apricot trees growing wild here and there.
For the past 16 years, Boulder’s Growing Gardens has successfully honored the age-old practice of agriculture. The nonprofit hosts a variety of gardening-based educational programs and projects, with a mission “to help Boulder County citizens connect with plants, the land and each other.”
Now, Growing Gardens is honoring the history of its urban acreage at 16th Street and Hawthorn Avenue in the heart of Boulder. The eastern edge of the property—which was once dense with fruit-bearing plants after J.D. Long bought the property in 1916—is the site of a new ambitious 5-acre organic demonstration orchard.
“We really wanted to reconnect the land to its history,” says Lauren Richardson, the orchard and greenhouse manager. “You can get vegetables of all kinds at the farmers’ market, but we’ve gotten away from growing fruit, so we were anxious to reintroduce it to the community.”
Richardson explains that Growing Gardens’ cofounder and former executive director, Ramona Clark, who retired last year, first started talking about growing an orchard five or six years ago. After about four years of plans, drawings, ideas, fundraising and dreaming, the first real work began this past spring, when fencing was installed and the ground was prepped with compost and cover crops.
On May 13, the official groundbreaking ceremony and planting party drew what Richardson refers to as a “mighty crew” of neighbors, community members, past participants and Growing Gardens staff members for supervised raspberry and strawberry planting on the north side of the orchard. In less than five hours, the volunteers had planted a whopping 2,000 strawberry plants (10 rows of more than 200 plants each) and 250 raspberry bushes.
The orchard will be incorporated into Growing Gardens’ many programs, and program participants will learn how to care for the trees and harvest the fruit. Semi-dwarf varieties are being planted so that children, seniors and wheelchair users can easily reach the fruit.
“The smaller size of the trees is also because we don’t have any big machinery for picking,” Richardson explains. “It will all be done by hand.”
Local backyard gardeners are encouraged to stop by the orchard to gain knowledge and inspiration to plant fruit trees in their own yards and neighborhoods. “Most homeowners don’t have space in their yards for a full-size apple tree,” Richardson says. “But they can come here and learn more about which varieties and sizes will work for them.” (See “Fruit Tree Facts” on page 52 for helpful information about planting fruit trees.)
Those who donate to the fundraising campaign at certain levels can also score a free fruit tree for their yard, with the trees to be delivered in October. Though Growing Gardens has already raised enough to purchase its fruit trees, additional funds raised will go toward the orchard’s final touches—planting hedgerows and riparian cover that will help reduce erosion, provide habitats and forage opportunities for birds and insects, improve water quality, and create wildlife corridors.
When tree-planting is completed (it’s scheduled for spring 2015), the orchard will boast nearly 200 fruit trees, including apple, pear, plum, peach, cherry and apricot, and Richardson expects strong fruit production by the third season. By the fifth year, she predicts the trees should produce enough fruit so that Growing Gardens will be able to share its bounty with a number of local food-rescue organizations.
For now, harvested fruit goes to shareholders in the ¡Cultiva! Youth Project’s Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. ¡Cultiva! is an organic plot operated by teens aged 12-19, who do all the planting, nurturing and harvesting. It’s just one of the many hands-on educational farm opportunities hosted on the Growing Gardens property that is still owned by the Long family.
On July 9, the first bushels of strawberries were harvested from the 2,000 plants established in May, and Richardson says everyone who assisted with the harvesting was excited to see the delicious “fruits” of their labor.
“People need to get used to the idea of looking in their own backyards for fresh food, and our new orchard is all about introducing fresh fruits,” she says. “The best way to do that—and the best way to get kids excited—is through something sweet. Everyone loves fruit!”
We asked Mikl Brawner, co-owner of Harlequin’s Gardens at 4795 N. 26th St. in Boulder, for tips for those who want to grow fruit trees. Here is his valuable advice:
- Spring is the best time to plant fruit trees. Plant trees in sheltered spots that have gradual winter temperature drops and gradual spring warm-ups.
- Fruit trees can be planted almost any time of the year, except not too close to winter because the roots won’t have a chance to grow into the soil, and therefore may dry out and die before spring.
- Fruit trees grow best in well-drained soil. If you have clay soil, mix in coarse organic material, such as aged manure, to a depth of at least 12 inches. Thoroughly mix in the organic material for optimal air and water penetration.
- Most fruit trees prefer full sun. Don’t plant trees too close to buildings, particularly on south and west exposures, as this can cause them to bloom early and subject them to frost damage.
- Buy plants adapted to Colorado conditions.
- Container-grown fruit trees means their entire root system is intact and ready to grow, unlike field-dug trees.
- When planting, the important thing is to dig a wide hole that’s not deeper than the root system (the depth of the pot or the root ball). Water the hole before planting, wet the root ball and dust it with powdered mycorrhizae (a symbiotic fungus), or sprinkle it with water-soluble mycorrhizae.
- After planting, apply wood-chip mulch 3 inches deep and as wide as the tree’s branching. Brawner suggests a finer wood chip made from local trees such as maples, oaks, willows or hackberries. He doesn’t suggest redwood or -cedar, as they resist decay and repel microorganisms, and have a much larger -carbon footprint. Never let mulch touch the trunk, he adds, as the bark will decay. Leave 1 or 2 inches of space between the mulch and the trunk.
- Keep trees watered so the soil is moist but not soggy. After the trees are established, usually in a year’s time, they’ll need less water.
- Not all fruit tree varieties are self-fertile; some need a pollinator. Check with nursery experts before you buy your trees.
Here’s a partial list of fruit trees, shrubs and vines at Harlequin’s Gardens (call 303-939-9403 for current availability).
“Our specialty is growing plants adapted to Colorado’s conditions,” says co-owner Mikl Brawner. “Our apples are resistant to fire blight, the cherries are proven successful and the grapes are very hardy.”
Apples: Sweet Sixteen, Honeycrisp, Mandan, Dakota Gold, Freedom, Hazen, Liberty, State Fair
Blackberries: Triple Crown Thornless
Cherries: Bali, Mesabi, Montmorency
Currants: Blanca, Red Lake, Gwen’s Buffalo
Gooseberries: Hinnomaki Red, Tasti-berry, Comanche
Grapes: St. Theresa, La Crosse, Flambeau
Peaches: Reliance, Redhaven
Pears: Parker, Summercrisp
Plums: Toka, LaCrescent, Green Gage
Raspberries: Anne, Caroline, Fall Gold
Strawberries: Earliglow, Ft. Laramie, Alexandria
Others: Hazelbert (hazel-filbert cross), White Mulberry, Dolgo Crabapple, Jostaberry (currant-gooseberry cross)
—Visit www.harlequinsgardens.com for more info.