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Orchard economy depends grafting and pruning skills

Montezuma Orchard Restoration project will host grafting and pruning workshops. (Courtesy Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project)
Cultivar science preserves genetics of heritage apples; workshops scheduled in March and April

A key component of perpetuating the heritage apple orchard revival going on in Southwest Colorado is passing on tree grafting and pruning skills.

Workshops by Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project are scheduled for March and April in McElmo Canyon, Dolores and Durango.

MORP has been a leader in bringing back the apple market for the region, which thrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The organization has found heritage apple tree varieties at risk of extinction and saved them by propagating through grafting.

The technique grafts scion, a DNA sample of the parent tree, to a root stock that then grows into a clone of the parent, said Jude Schuenemeyer, MORP co-founder and grafting instructor.

“We have grafted hundreds if not thousands of (heritage) trees. Without repropagating, they go extinct,” he said.

Market apple trees are cultivators, meaning to replace the same variety requires selective breeding made possible by grafting. The natural seed of an apple tree will not produce the exact DNA fruit variety of its parent, Schuenemeyer said.

“The importance of preserving old genetics is really valuable, otherwise those special varieties will fade out,” he said. “When we graft, we are touching the past and also touching the future by taking material and moving it forward so it is there 100 years from now. It is important that the work gets done.”

Jude Schuenemeyer, co-founder of the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project, leads a tree grafting class at the Mount Lookout Grange in Mancos during a previous workshop. (Journal file photo)

Cultivar and grafting science requires practice and patience, with the understanding that many factors can thwart success. Collecting good scion from the parent tree is an acquired skill, and proper care of the newly grafted tree is also critical for it to grow and thrive.

The benefits are worth it, Schuenemeyer said.

Not only does it preserve local apple history, it also creates economic incentives.

A person can buy one or two heritage apple trees suitable for market, and then use grafting techniques to create more.

A profitable apple orchard only requires an acre of land or less, making it an ideal option for small-scale farmers, Schuenemeyer said.

MORP’s goal is to foster a micro-economy of small to large apple orchards in the area. The group has added an industrial juicer to its base operations south of Dolores to help farmers get their apples to market.

“Planting an orchard is good supplemental income for small acreage farmers, and there is more of that with all the subdividing going on,” Schuenemeyer said.

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Pruning is essential for a productive apple tree or orchard. It also helps to produce good scion needed for grafting.

Proper pruning creates a healthier tree, bigger apple yields and opens up access for harvesting. A well-pruned apple tree enjoys good air flow that reduces disease and insect problems.

Grafting and pruning take place in winter in dry conditions when the trees are dormant.

Upcoming workshops

MORP is offering a series of pruning and grafting workshops in March and April at a reasonable cost. Instructors are Addie and Jude Schuenemeyer.

Grafting participants are provided with four root stocks, scion and instruction, and take home the newly grafted trees.

  • March 11: Pruning workshop at Historic Gold Medal Orchard, McElmo Canyon, 10 a.m. to noon.
  • April 1: Pruning workshop at Animas Valley Grange, Durango, 10 a.m. to noon.
  • April 8: Grafting workshop at Dolores Orchard Hub in Joe Rowell Park, 10 a.m. to noon.
  • April 15, Grafting workshop at James Ranch, Durango, 10 a.m. to noon.

To register, visit the MORP website.