Experimental orchard, garden to yield lessons

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Jane Ferguson, a Parker resident for the last 34 years, helps tend a vegetable garden Sept. 25 near the Hidden Mesa Open Space. She originally went to help construct high-tunnel green houses at the site, but soon discovered what she calls a “fascinating” project with a multiple aims. Ferguson said she has seen quite a bit of change in the area since arriving, and the establishment of an orchard and garden between Parker and Franktown is among the changes she likes to see. Photo by Chris Michlewicz
Blackberries were among the successful crops this season, despite late planting and extreme weather conditions. Photo by Chris Michlewicz
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Chris Michlewicz
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An experimental fruit orchard and vegetable garden will teach Douglas County farmers and novice growers how to care for an increasing variety of natural goods.

The county, in partnership with the Tri-County Health Department and the Colorado State University Extension office, is conducting a research project at the Hidden Mesa Open Space on Colorado 83 south of Parker that will ultimately provide a better blueprint for growing fruits and vegetables in the local climate.

Instead of farmers risking investment on crops that could potentially fail, Douglas County has spent grant money and enlisted the help of about a dozen master gardeners and horticulturists to see how various plants react to conditions like wind, pests, soil, sunlight and seasonal changes.

The lessons, and potentially groundbreaking techniques for growing goods from throughout the world that have never been tried in Douglas County, will be passed on the public, said Andy Hough, environmental resources coordinator for the Douglas County Open Space and Natural Resources Department.

“It’s a place where the public can come look at these methods so they don’t have to put the brainpower or capital investment into something that may or may not work for them when they’re counting on profit as a bottom line,” he said.

The orchard is finishing its second fruiting season and will take a few years to get into full swing. Much of the research will focus on the best ways to produce and care for high-yield nut and fruit trees.

The garden, on the other hand, is more intended to increase the availability and diversity of healthy locally grown food. This year, more than 1,500 pounds of produce picked from the garden was donated to the Parker Task Force (http://tinyurl.com/bq65unx).

Castle Rock resident Dave Smukler, master gardener and the project’s garden coordinator, said the 30-by-60-foot plot thrived and exceeded expectations. He is invigorated by the lessons learned from the few vegetable experiments; changes will be made accordingly next season.

A $120,000 block grant from Tri-County Health kick-started the orchard operation in January 2011 and expired last March. It paid for necessities like fencing, trellises, greenhouses, irrigation systems and plants.

“The theory is that with grant money, local government could set up a prototype to demonstrate what we think works and test what we think might work,” Hough said, adding that hazelnuts, figs and heskap, an edible honeysuckle, are among the plants being studied for the first time.

Likewise, “natural chemical means” are being applied to produce fruits that resist late-spring frosts, Hough said.

Smukler, a semi-retired contractor and construction superintendent who volunteers his time like the other gardeners, said he is curious about the effects of Douglas County’s higher elevation and cooler nights on newly introduced vegetables.

“Maybe they should grow here, but maybe they shouldn’t. That’s what we’re trying to find out,” he said.

Smukler is most excited by the wide-open space and abundant sunlight, which is often constricted by roadways, homes or trees. The master gardeners planted seeds and nurtured the vegetables at home before relocating them to the garden. For several consecutive weeks, they harvested twice a week because the vegetables were growing so quickly.

The orchard and garden, which are just southwest of the Hidden Mesa Open Space parking lot, are fenced in, and the public is not allowed access without an appointment. The county has already hosted a handful of informal tours; more organized learning sessions will be scheduled once research results become available.

The groups involved have utilized extra space to grow additional tomatoes and melons, and there are preliminary plans to possibly expand the garden next season. Maintenance and labor will be funded by produce sales, and Douglas County will continue to contribute.

The Hidden Mesa project, along with a smaller-scale sister project at Lowell Ranch south of Castle Rock, are part of Douglas County’s effort to revitalize agriculture in an area that was founded by ranchers and farmers.

To volunteer, contact Hough at ahough@douglas.co.us.

For more on the donations to the Parker Task Force, click here http://tinyurl.com/bq65unx.

Some of the fruits/vegetables/nuts being grown: mulberries, raspberries, walnuts, apples, hazelnuts, strawberries, watermelons, kiwis, heskap, cantaloupe, figs, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, blackberries, mushrooms, seaberries.