A fall breeze cut through the end-of-summer sun in Franktown, a cool signal to volunteers at the Hidden Mesa Research and Demonstration Orchard to bring in the last crops of the season.
Green thumbs from the Douglas County Master Gardener program gathered the remaining canary melons, lemon cucumbers, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables as roosters and chickens continued their patrol for freeloading grasshoppers.
“I thought it was a great year overall,” said Andy Hough, environmental resources coordinator for Douglas County's Division of Open Space and Natural Resources, of the late September harvesting.
The orchard — which also shares its bounty with the Parker Task Force — is in its fifth year of trying out new cultivation methods and various crops that can thrive in Colorado's temperamental climate.
This season's above-average temperatures had some positive and negative outcomes on the orchard's output, Hough said. “We had the best fruit yield of any year we've ever had.”
A warm spring, he said, kept damaging frosts at bay, benefiting the apples, elderberries, grapes and plums.
The spring warmth turned to summer heat, though, and Hough said that may have contributed to a decline in melons, squash and tomato production.
“Certain garden vegetables didn't perform as well as we would have hoped,” Hough said. “Maybe it was the heat.”
The ups and downs from season to season are all part of the orchard's mission to determine the region's heartiest crops.
“To us a failure is not a failure,” Hough said. “If a certain crop doesn't do well in our climate, then that's valuable information.”
But Diane Roth, volunteer spokesperson for the Parker Task Force, has a purely positive take on the year's harvest.
“It's a great year,” Roth, said. “It's such a treat for the clients that come to the food bank to have fresh strawberries and raspberries. It's all organic, freshly picked high quality fruits and vegetables from the garden.”
Low-income clients at the task force's food bank would normally have to spend between 40 and 70 percent of their food budget to get the high quality produce the orchard provides, Roth said.
“The support of the master gardeners just increases the amount of fruit and vegetables our clients have access to,” she said. “It improves their diets tremendously.”
Roth's husband, Jeff, is project coordinator for Hidden Mesa. It was his idea five years ago to do more than mere data collection with the crops.
The projects the master gardener program oversees often provide good information, he said, but the orchard is unique in its ability to help the needy as it provides valuable agricultural research.
“It's not just something that you can look at,” Roth said. “It's something you can eat… We're excited to be able to put that bounty to good use.”