The persistent blank spot on Joe Rowell Park’s east side is set to blossom into a vibrant orchard producing heritage apples.
This fall, the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project planted 70 trees in the Dolores park in partnership with the town. Native grasses will be planted as cover for the orchard floor.
“It is here for the community to cherish, a beautiful asset that will be enjoyed by generations,” said MORP co-director Jude Schuenemeyer. “We purposely planted the rarer varieties. It will be a real place of activity where people can learn and be a part of something.”
The Dolores Community Heritage Orchard project is funded and maintained by MORP and owned by the town. MORP has donated $15,000 toward trees, deer fencing, drip lines, town water taps and labor. MORP volunteers will maintain the site, including pruning, harvesting and watering. The town of Dolores will mow the orchard twice a year.
Apples will start to show in about five years. When trees mature in 10 years, they will produce 10 bushels of apples each, with a total orchard yield of at least 700 bushels.
MORP plans to organize workshops, tours, events and harvest days, and promote agritourism. The apples will be fully harvested every year for community and economic benefit. Making use of all the apples also will help prevent visits by foraging black bears.
Each tree will be labeled, and an interpretive sign will be installed that explains the project and directs visitors to other orchards and fruit stands in Montezuma and Dolores counties. The labels and signs are funded by an $11,000 grant from the Colorado Garden Foundation.
The 1.3 acres of young trees were grafted from historic apple trees that once supported a flourishing regional fruit economy in southern Colorado 100 years ago, Schuenemeyer said.
MORP has worked to revive and expand the local apple market through preservation research, orchard revivals, grafting, DNA identification, pilot pressing operations, and by starting community heritage orchards.
“Dolores is the first community orchard. We are working to establish them across the state to reconnect everybody to our orchard history,” Schuenemeyer said. “Before Dolores was a town, it was an apple orchard.”
The new orchard has historic strains from Dolores, Hesperus, Lewis, Lebanon, Mancos, McElmo and elsewhere in southern Colorado, including Cañon City.
One of the Dolores orchard trees is the very rare Orange apple, recently rediscovered by MORP and thought to be extinct.
There’s also a Purple Mountain Majesty variety from Lewis and an unknown golden seedling dubbed The Dolores Star, in honor of the defunct newspaper. An unknown red-fleshed apple strain with a red flower was named Dolores River Sorbet.
The diverse varieties were carefully chosen to ripen at different times. The orchard includes cider-specific, sweet, winter and summer varieties.
“Many of the trees planted have an affinity with the Dolores climate. With the diversity, if there is a frost, it does not hit every tree,” Schuenemeyer said.
Deer fencing was installed to protect the young trees, and tree guards protect against sun scald and small animals.
For now, the orchard is closed to the public to allow the trees to get established. Drip lines will be fed to each tree, and micro-sprayers will get the native buffalo, blue stem and blue grama grass going. The trees will be water efficient once the roots tap into groundwater.
Town residents, the board and staff have been supportive of the new orchard, Schuenemeyer said.
Situated along the river trail, it has generated a lot of interest and excitement.
“Orchards should have a connection to the people, and having this in a town park makes it really special,” Schuenemeyer said. “It allows it to be relevant, a part of town culture, a legacy. We want people to know these trees, for parents to take their kids, then their grandkids.”