Helping out the old-timers
Harvesting the fruits of labor has never tasted so good.The people who launched an effort this spring to inventory the oldest fruit trees in the Roaring Fork Valley and preserve the best of them are holding a Harvest Party on Sunday to – shall we say – give people a taste of their work.The Heritage Fruit Tree Awareness Project was started this year by Jerome Osentowski because he was concerned that some of the best-producing apple, apricot, peach and pear trees were disappearing from Aspen to Peach Valley, a prolific agricultural area between Silt and New Castle.Some of the trees stand neglected in yards and small orchards. Others are cut down for development. And many that have stayed out of harm’s way are simply reaching the end of their natural lives.So Osentowski extended an invitation to fruit tree owners in the valley last spring to let him know if they thought they had a winner of a tree. He and eager recruits like Michael Thompson, an architect from Basalt, did an inventory of the nominated trees this summer, produced a map of their locations and decided which should be selected for grafting.Osentowski said he selected about 200 trees for graft wood. He targeted trees 100 years of age or older but was willing to consider anything more than 40 years old.About half of the 200 grafts were successful. “It’s a hit-or-miss situation,” he said. Among the most impressive scores were two varieties of pear tree more than 100 years old.The old trees are important, Osentowski explained, because the ranchers and farmers who settled the area experimented to develop the best strains for the climate. Often trees were perfected in Peach Valley then planted around the Roaring Fork Valley. Those trees are best suited for the environment.Landowners who supplied propagation material from the grand old trees were given grafted products to replant, if they wanted them. Many of the preserved varieties will be offered by Osentowski for sale. Buyers will know all the details about the parent trees.Thompson said a rewarding offshoot of the program is the interest it has created among some people to adopt a heritage tree. He related the story of friends who want to plant fruit trees but hope to cash in on a harvest before the decade or so it takes before their own trees produce fruit. So Thompson and Osentowski are matching people who want to adopt heritage fruit trees with landowners who possess the trees but cannot care for them.In one case, a family from the Fryingpan Valley will adopt a a “really old apple tree” and plum tree thicket growing in Emma. The adopting family will learn how to prune and properly care for the tree, then invest one to three weekends over the summer before harvesting fruit in a year or two, Thompson said.Thompson said his own experiences with a 75-year-old apple tree in his yard got him interested in the Heritage Fruit Tree Awareness Project. He bought a house on Sopris Drive in Basalt in 1983. It had a “big gangly” apple tree he estimated at 75 years old in the back yard. It had lots of apples but they were small and troubled by insects.He enlisted Osentowski’s expertise in pruning, and soon the tree produced apples that were twice the size. “It has big juicy apples that are tart,” Thompson said in a way that you can almost sense his mouth watering.Placing miniature wasps in the tree also solved his pest problem, organically.He turned on several of his neighbors to the joys of caring for a fruit tree.Osentowski, an organic grower and teacher who has an amazing property on Basalt Mountain, shares the passion for fruit trees.”It’s like having a kid,” he explained. “I don’t have any kids. I nurture trees.”That strikes a cord with people. The program has also sparked interest among a handful of landowners to try to revive small orchards. Ginny Parker, owner of the Happy Day Ranch, for example, is enlisting Osentowski’s help in caring for an apple orchard on her property.”This whole idea’s contagious,” said Osentowski.The Harvest Party is going to be held from 3 to 6 p.m. on Parker’s ranch, where several of the trees “are bending to the ground with apples,” said Osentowski. People can pick the apples and other locally grown fruit will be available. Thompson’s neighborhood press will be there to make cider.Anyone who wants to learn more about the adopt-a-fruit-tree program is encouraged to attend.Parker’s Happy Day Ranch is at the 90-degree bend in Emma Road.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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