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An Eden of Trees

This 3-acre property sports only
edible plants for people and wildlife alike.

Story and photos by Lisa Truesdale

Like any avid collector, Scott Skogerboe will go to just about any lengths to obtain the ideal addition to his collection. He’ll search high and low, far and wide, to hunt it down, not stopping until it’s finally in his possession.

Above, a tree grown from a cutting obtained from an Ohio Johnny Appleseed tree (below) that was planted in the early 1800s.
Above, a tree grown from a cutting obtained from an Ohio Johnny Appleseed tree (below) that was planted in the early 1800s.

But Skogerboe doesn’t collect anything like stamps, coins, first-edition books or even antique furniture—he collects trees, and edible ones at that.

“I like edible trees that have a history,” he explains, “and one day I decided I really wanted a cutting from an apple tree planted by Johnny Appleseed in the early 1800s.”

After exhaustive research and a long chain of phone calls in the mid-1990s, Skogerboe finally tracked down a specimen in Ohio, and the tree’s caretaker was more than happy to send a cutting to Colorado.

Today, the famous tree resides in a prominent place on Skogerboe’s 3-acre Fort Collins property, where he lives with his wife, Dianne, and their family. Skogerboe often opens up their property to guests for a tree tour. “Scott knows everything about trees,” says Leesly Leon, adult programs coordinator for the Denver Botanic Gardens, which sponsored a tour. “We are so privileged to be able to visit.”
A two-hour tour is not nearly enough time for Skogerboe to discuss every edible tree and plant in the orchard—although he’d love to—but he does take the time to share his thoughts about certain ones along the way.

trees4   “Every tree has a story,” he says, and his pride in his collection shines through as he shares the fascinating details of as many of them as time allows. There’s the pecan tree from southern Iowa, and the oak “from mile marker 140 on Interstate 40 in Oklahoma.” There’s the infant Flower of Kent apple tree that’s a direct descendant of the tree Sir Isaac Newton was famously sitting under when an apple fell from the tree, helping in his formulation of the theory of gravity.

Point out anything in the yard, and Skogerboe has a tale to tell—whether it’s the ‘Edelweiss’ grape, the ‘Opata’ plum, the ‘Balaton’ cherry, the ‘Clove’ currant, the ‘Black Jack’ fig or the Shagbark hickory, just a few of the more than 200 common and not-so-common varieties he has collected over the years.

Skogerboe also enjoys telling the story of how he got his inspiration for an edible orchard in the first place. When he was living in Florida in his mid-20s, a kind elderly gentleman named Ed Levengood lived next door. “His whole yard was edible,” says Skogerboe, “and I was fascinated.”

Remarkably, Ed’s own inspiration, in turn, had come from a kindly old neighbor of his in Pennsylvania when he was younger. Ed’s neighbor happened to be the J.I. Rodale—one of the early advocates of sustainable agriculture and organic farming who went on to found the Rodale Institute and Rodale Inc., a publisher of books and magazines on all aspects of healthy living. As Ed used to tell it, Rodale’s favorite saying was, “If a plant doesn’t feed me, I don’t plant it.”

“And that was going to be my mantra, too,” says Skogerboe, who has a horticulture degree and has worked as the head propagator at a wholesale nursery for almost 20 years. “But I love all plants, so it didn’t quite work out that way.”

Feeding the Planet

Although nearly every tree, bush, plant and vine on the Skogerboes’ property produces something edible, not all of them are people edibles.

Scott Skogerboe grows only edible plants on his 3-acre Fort Collins property.
Scott Skogerboe grows only edible plants on his 3-acre Fort Collins property.

“Just because you can’t eat something, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t grow it,” Skogerboe advises. “I still grow stuff just for birds and wildlife, and to attract beneficial insects.” An Ohio buckeye, for example, is there “because the squirrels like the nuts, and the showy flowers and vivid fall colors are a nice bonus.” A particular tree’s trunk in the middle of the front yard is “where the deer like to sharpen their antlers.” The grass is kept long for the zillions of grasshoppers: “If it’s too short, they jump up and eat my trees.”

“In 2011,” adds Dianne, “those grasshoppers ate every single tomato in our garden.” And, despite the fact that there are eight cats and five dogs roaming around, “the birds still come,” Skogerboe says.

If you’d like to plant your own edible orchard, Skogerboe has some helpful tips—just don’t ask for advice about where to plant. “I’m a plopper,” he laughs. “I just find something I like, then bring it home and think, ‘OK, that looks good there.’ And I plop it down.”

He does offer suggestions on planting techniques, however. “My most important tip is probably that you need to keep the grass away from fruit trees. My mentor, Gene Howard—longtime superintendent of the USDA Horticulture Station in Cheyenne until it closed in 1974—called grass ‘green death’ because of its ability to steal almost all the water and nutrients from the newly planted trees and shrubs up at the station.”

trees6To combat this problem, Skogerboe suggests using a cardboard barrier and a heavy mulch of wood chips to a depth of 4 inches around plantings, and to renew the mulch every couple of years as it breaks down into soil.

As far as where to find specimens for your yard, he says the plant sales at Denver Botanic Gardens are a great place to start. Other than that, he says, just find a tree or plant you like and ask the owner for cuttings. More than once, he and Dianne have seen a plant on the side of the road or in someone’s yard and knocked on their door. “We’ve found that most of the time, people are more than willing to share”—which is just perfect for this enthusiastic collector.

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