The Front Range is no place for a fruit tree. Late frosts, harsh winds and rapidly falling temperatures stress most trees trying to flourish in a climate of tough prairie grasses and ponderosa pines. Sure, you’ll find a few sour cherry trees that may, or may not, bear each year. And that stalwart of all fruit trees, the apple, will staunchly try to offer a crop in the fall. But it’s the Western Slope that provides a bumper crop of cherries, apricots, peaches, pears and apples each summer. Reliable weather is the key. Even so, there’s always some factor that determines an abundant or slim crop, usually when the trees blossom.
“This year when the cherry trees were blooming it was too cold for the bees to pollinate very well,” says Heather Burtness, whose father owns and harvests Morton’s Orchards in Palisade, Colorado. “Most people don’t really know what you go through to get a crop. So we’ve had a drop in the crop. No bee population has a big impact.”
MOVING TO THE WESTERN SLOPE
Heather’s parents, David and Mary Morton, moved from Arvada to Palisade in 1978. Both were teachers who farmed in the summer months. “We were driving through the valley one day when it was blossom time,” David says, “and I told Mary that we just had to move here. So we both applied for teaching jobs.”
David began as a conventional fruit farmer with a small orchard of 18 acres—some owned, some leased. The first harsh lesson he learned was to vary his crops: “At one time we had only Standard Elberta. If everyone’s peaches are on the market at the same time, the price goes way down.”
After planting a succession of fruit trees: cherry, apricot, peach and pear, a small but continuous supply of ripening fruit throughout the summer and fall seasons provides a more dependable income. Then five years ago David changed from spraying pesticides for insect control to organic farming.
“To spray the trees, you have to zip up in a suit and feel your body temperature go way up—it feels like it’s 120 degrees in there,” Heather says. David recalls suffering from a terrible cold and cough in the summer months. In retrospect, he believes he suffered from a chemical onslaught. Conventional farmers may be forced to change, too, he says, as the federal government banishes more and more pesticides from the market each year.
So the spray suit was put away in favor of preventative biological methods: a tiny but effective wasp that lays eggs in the grub of a pesky moth, attractive reproductive hormones that convince a male pest to mate with a strip of paper. Various scientific tricks interfere with the reproductive cycle before pests gain a foothold.
So far, Heather says, the measures work. They work because the orchard is small compared to vast commercial orchards and David is able to inspect all his trees regularly. “We have the advantage because we know what the trees look like and what bugs are out there,” Heather says.
MORTON SPACES OUT THE GROWING SEASON
The Morton’s cherries, both Bing and Rainier, are arriving daily now destined for Front Range farmers markets. The two cherries are close companions: “Bing cherries have to be crossed by another cherry,” David says. Scientists at Washington State University developed the Rainier to set fruit for the Bing. Previously, the Queen Anne cherry, which is used exclusively for maraschino cherries, contributed pollen carried by bees to the Bing cherry trees. “The Queen Anne cherries were a throwaway,” David says, “but now the Rainier have become known as gourmet cherries.”
David’s cherry crop ripens just weeks before the apricots. Both are the prelude to a parade of peaches that begins with early semi-clingstones and ends with late summer freestone. Clingstone peaches ripen earlier. They’re well named because their pits won’t break free from the center. David raises a new variety called PF1, as well as ‘Rising Star’ and ‘Red Haven.’ As the summer rolls by, the freestone peaches of ‘Roza,’ ‘Red Globe,’ ‘Sun Crest,’ ‘Crest Haven,’ ‘Angela,’ ‘Blazing Star,’ ‘Rio Oso Gem’ and, lastly, ‘O’Henry’ surface in local markets. Eventually, David’s season ends with Asian pears.
Sweet cherries by themselves are delicious enough. But if you’d like to dress them up even more, the following recipes partner cherries with familiar friends: chocolate and cream for a cool summer dessert. And since cherries ripen so closely to the apricot crop, pair sweet cherries and apricots in a rustic pie. This simplest of fruit pies is one crust rolled out with the edges pulled up overlapping a bit. Even if you’ve never made a pie before, this is a snap. Our last is a savory combination of fresh peaches, hot chilies and shrimp.
- 2 cups sweet cherries pitted
- ½ cup whipping cream
- 4 tablespoons superfine sugar
- 2 ounces fine quality dark chocolate (not baking chocolate)
Add superfine sugar to cream and whip until it stands in soft peaks. Grate chocolate coarsely. Fold in. Gently fold in cherries. Spoon into parfait or small sherry glasses. Chill. This dessert will last for several hours, but not overnight. So serve within a few hours. Serves four.
SWEET CHERRY AND APRICOT RUSTIC PIE
- 1 cup flour plus 2 tablespoons
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 stick of butter
- 3 tablespoons ice water
- 4 apricots, sliced thinly
- 1 cup pitted sweet cherries
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 4 tablespoons sugar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
To make the crust: mix flour, sugar and salt together. Blend in softened butter until it forms a crumbly mixture–this can be done in a food processor. Add ice water and work quickly to incorporate. Roll into a ball and refrigerate for about an hour. When the ball has firmed, but can still be rolled out, roll it thinly into one layer.
To make the filling: Mix all ingredients.
To make the pie: Choose a cookie sheet with a lip around the edge because this pie will exude juices. Lift the pastry and place in the center of the pan. Center fruit mixture onto the pastry and fold up the pastry edges. Leave an opening in the middle so part of the fruit is exposed. Bake until the edges of the pastry are brown, at least 35 minutes. Since this pie is irregularly formed, you will have to check it during the end of the baking. Serves eight.
SHRIMP WITH CHILIES AND PEACHES
This sweet and hot combination is the perfect foil for either shrimp or slices of chicken breast.
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 jalapeno chile, minced with stem and seeds removed
- 1 fresh peach, peeled and chopped
- 10 large shrimp or one sliced chicken breast
- Salt and pepper to taste.
Heat oil in a 10-inch fry pan on medium heat. Add chile and cook until softened. Add shrimp and stir gently until shrimp is nearly cooked through. Add chopped peach pieces and cook until heated through. Taste for seasoning. Serves two.
Morton’s Orchard cherries and apricots can be found at the Longmont, Boulder, Arvada, Westminster, Fort Collins, Loveland, Evergreen, Conifer and Dillon Farmers Markets. New markets open each year, David says, which provide an outlet for the produce of small farms.