From pharmaceuticals to nurturing the edible forest, Vanessa Harmony plants herself in the Roaring Fork Valley

Vanessa Harmony, the owner of Colorado Edible Forest, at Dandelion Days in Carbondale.
Julie Bielenberg/The Aspen Times

There’s nothing mushroom-, CBD- or THC-related to this harvest — rather, heritage and heirloom fruits and berries, some quite rare and expensive. 

What is an edible forest? It’s a grouping of fruit trees or berry shrubs that produces non-toxic, consumable rewards for humans and, often, animal consumption. 

There are over 100 documented species of fruit or berry-producing edibles for mammal consumption in the Roaring Fork Valley. Vanessa Harmony has set out to educate, monetize, and proliferate the region’s natural rooted assets.  

A self-proclaimed tree-hugger, horticulturist, arborist, and edible-plant enthusiast, she grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia, and spent summer breaks in the Colorado Rockies hiking with her dad and camping and backpacking with National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Camp and teen adventure programs.  

“Those summers in Colorado grew my love for the Rocky Mountains, my desire to nurture nature, and my zest for foraging wild strawberries and raspberries along trail sides,” she said. “I earned my bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from University of Colorado at Boulder, then moved to the East Coast, where I spent eight years outside Philadelphia and two years outside New York City.”

This was her first tenure in the pharmaceutical industry, in a cubicle, where she honed her project management, business, and technology skills. It was enough.

“Meanwhile, I discovered and studied permaculture design and forest gardening and came to realize my passion for edible, perennial plants,” she said.

There was one problem: She had zero experience working with plants.

Vanessa Harmony, center, at work with a client for Colorado Edible Forest.
Colorado Edible Forest/Courtesy Photo

This realization led to quitting her cubicle job and accepting a forest gardening apprenticeship at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Sleepy Hollow, notable for education and its burgeoning Blue Hill’s kitchen menu presentation among chefs.

This New York-based learning included tending and harvesting education of edible perennial plants and solidified Harmony’s plant nerdiness.

“I spent two more years on the East Coast working at a tree-care company, and later a tree nursery, before coming to the realization it was time to transplant myself, for good, to the Rocky Mountains. I came to the Roaring Fork Valley with the mission of expanding the edible landscape nursery at Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, learning my trade from Jerome Osentowski,” said Harmony.

Fast-forward three years under Osentowski’s tutelage in Basalt to 2019, and Harmony expanded and partnered with Jared Kerst of Rivendell Farms in Spring Valley of Glenwood Springs. Here, she co-farms and benefits from a big team farm model of support, infrastructure, and mentorship.  

The space provides her the opportunity to grow and thrive in her niche market. 

“While there are farmers who will do fruit-tree grafting, it’s primarily for their own farm uses. I’m the root source for small-scale, commercial fruit trees, edible perennial plants, and edible landscaping plants in the Roaring Fork Valley,” she said.

Tree grafting, one of her specialties, helps propagate fruit trees growing in the region that might have tasty fruit, but also might be aging.

“An example is the apple and plum trees that were brought here by the settlers 100 years ago and still producing,” she said.

She will clone them through grafting — think Dolly the sheep for trees. Harmony can make revenue by cloning edible trees with her technology and nursery, propagating them, and then selling them.

Molly Armour-Carter and her husband, Travis, own Cattle Creek Gardens in Carbondale.

“I had a vision for an orchard on our property, and after meeting Vanessa at Dandelion Days, I knew she was my orchard mentor,” she said. “She helped me map out the timing, provided a variety of fruit trees to choose from, and enlightened me to the permaculture perspective.”  

Harmony continues to mentor her.  

“She helps us care for the vision that is such a beautiful reality. I’m so excited to watch apple, plum, apricot, peach, goji, current, raspberry, grape, nitrogen fixers galore, herbs and strawberries galore to grow in this beautiful, edible ecosystem Harmony helped us created,” Armour-Carter said.

Colorado Edible Forest’s nursery is located on a half-acre of hillside at 7,200 feet in Spring Valley. The public is welcome via appointment. The nursery’s most popular delicacies — grafted fruit trees and apples — are the most requested.  

Harmony has expanded her inventory in terms of quantity and diversity of plants each year of business. 

While bears and bats might be attractions some places in the Valley, its impact on business for her is serious.

“I get calls about bears. Customers are concerned about attracting bears with edible assets. What attracts bears to a home is trash and fruit rotting on the ground. A responsible fruit tree owner doesn’t leave accessible trash in his/her surroundings and doesn’t leave fruit rotting on ground,” she said.

The easiest prevention to bear predation is to harvest the fruit even before it’s ripe, she said, especially when the heavy bear season is overlapping with the fruit harvest. 

Vanessa Harmony at work.
Colorado Edible Forest/Courtesy photo

“Deer are going to munch on anything, so one does have to protect their trees while they are young. At a certain age and height, trees can tolerate deer browsing,” she said.

Sheehan Meagher, client of Harmony’s, said, “She has always been available for any questions I have had. Her approach to seeing the landscape holistically is refreshing, and she encouraged me to plant some comfrey by my chokecherries, and they’re loving it. I need to get another comfrey to add under the apple tree now.”

Harmony’s edible garden thrives sans greenhouse and out in the elements.

“This spring and early summer been exceptionally beneficial for root development in my shrubs and trees,” she said, adding that she’s had no pest issues this season. 

Vanessa Harmony at work for her Colorado Edible Forest.
Colorado Edible Forest/Courtesy photo

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