On a blue sky, meadowlark morning last week, a new orchard was born in the Helena Valley at Johnson Nursery and Gardens.
And, better yet, it has five sister orchards across the state.
It’s all part of a new Montana State University Extension research project to test fruit tree cultivars and find those best suited to Montana.
Shovels in hand, the movers and shakers on this project, grower Terry Johnson, Lewis and Clark County Agriculture Extension Agent Brent Sarchet and MSU Extension Horticulture Specialist Toby Day devoted the day to planting 60 saplings — a mix of apple, pear and plum cultivars.
Some could bear fruit a year from now. Others could take six to seven years — no one really knows.
That’s one reason for planting the orchard.
Sarchet planted the idea for the orchards.
As manager of the Helena Farmers Market the past four years, he discovered, there is “just a lack of fruit available for our local food system in general. Except for Flathead cherries and Bitterroot apples, there just aren’t Montana-grown fruits. It’s a missing element across the state.”
For those folks who want to grow fruit, there is no up-to-date extension advice, he said. Montana extension hasn’t done fruit tree cultivation since the early ’80s. “To build a successful fruit business in the state, we have to know what would be successful here.”
Within a few years, they should have some answers.
Orchards are going in at five other locations in the state — Power, Columbia Falls, Bozeman, Colstrip and Hinsdale.
“The whole idea is to look at these trees to see how they’ll do in Montana,” said Day. “Power has not had apples for local markets. We’re not using the Bitterroot because the apple industry is well established there.
“We’re trying to get a “new old-industry started across the state,” Day added. “You used to see local apples in grocery stores. Now days we’re getting apples from foreign countries.
“It takes the initiative of people like Brent to start something like this and jump-start the local economy,” said Day, crediting Sarchet for launching the research project.
“People are more interested in locally grown food than even organics,” Day said.
The six new orchards are the result of a successful $20,000 grant Sarchet wrote to the Montana Department of Ag for a specialty crop block grant, which is designed specifically to aid fruit and vegetable production.
Five growers besides Johnson stepped up to the challenge, providing space, irrigation, labor and 30 percent of the cost for the trees.
“We wanted the landowner invested in the trees,” said Sarchet of the cost sharing.
He and local extension agents will visit the orchards several times a growing season over the next five years to record data and share expertise.
In fact, it was through local extension agents that Sarchet found the five other growers.
“That’s where extension shines,” Sarchet said. “It has great local connections.
“We’ll come back in summer to check and see what didn’t make it through the transplant and also to check for disease and pests,” he said. “We will follow up in the fall and help with pruning. And we’ll check again in spring to see which are cold hardy and disease and pest resistant.”
“There’s lots of fun things about this project,” said Sarchet with a smile. “I get to be outside planting trees.
“You don’t have a perfect research farm,” he said of the test orchards. “There’s different watering situations and different soil types. You have to work with what there is. That makes it more real.”
This particular morning, Terry Johnson is looking every bit the new proud father, although the orchard is still in its very early stages — a daunting 50-plus holes still await trees.
“I’m just really excited about it,” Johnson said. “I’ve always wanted to have an orchard.”
And he just happened to have a perfect spot — a sunny open field with irrigation.
“My commitment is to provide the land and maintain them — do the pruning and fertilizing,” Johnson said. “I’ll need some advice. I’ve never grown fruit trees.
“It will probably be a u-pick operation,” he said, “and I’ll take some to farmers market.”
He knows fruit trees could do well in the Helena Valley.
“I got to know Clayton Berg (the former owner of Valley Nursery). He used to have a fruit operation. He was such a wealth of knowledge. I picked apples and pears there. The pears were just incredible.”
Johnson hopes to repeat that success.
“Brent got some real winter-hardy stock,” he said. “We should have some fruit in two to three years. The hardest thing out in the valley is late frosts. I’ve had frosts into June.”
In fact, the blossoms of the few apple and cherry trees he planted by his garden were nipped last June by frost and bore no fruit that year.
“I think the results of this research add some real benefits” for himself and other growers, he said. “Eventually, we would love to grow some cherries.”
This isn’t Johnson’s first research project with Sarchet. Last year, they tested tomato cultivars. And this year, it will be peppers.
For Johnson, who has been selling at Helena Farmers Market since 1976, the orchard fits into what has been a lifelong passion.
“I grew up on a ranch south of Deer Lodge — both my grandfathers were farmers,” he said. “… We had hay, barley, wheat, hogs, chickens — you name it. When I was growing up, I thoroughly enjoyed agriculture. I was involved in 4-H. I started gardening and just always enjoyed it. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”
In Helena, this love grew into Johnson Nursery and Gardens on McHugh Lane, 19 acres of mostly hay fields, with a 1 ½-acre market garden and now a half-acre orchard. In recent years, he’s added a honey bee operation.
This sunny morning, Sarchet took three of the saplings in hand and dipped the roots into a large black tank holding a mycorrhizae slurry, which will help boost root growth.
“You want a hole twice as wide as the tree roots,” said Sarchet, as he widened one of the pre-dug holes. Then he stepped into it and stomped, “You pack the bottom, so the tree won’t settle too deep.”
Before placing the sapling, he snipped some of the dead ends off the root tips.
Holding the tree in place and spreading the roots, he then shoved soil back into the hole and tamped it down. Later, Johnson would add more top soil, heavily mulch the trees and water them. Later in the week, he would kill the surrounding grass to prevent competition with the tree.
“You want the youngest tree you can find, so you can train them,” said Day. “They’ll adapt faster. These look to be 2- to 3 year-old trees. If you put in larger trees, you wait a long time for the fruit.”
These winter-hardy trees were all grown in Montana and Idaho nurseries, Sarchet said.
Among the 17 cultivars planted that day were Mount Royal, Toka and Pipestone plums; Golden Spice, Luscious and Pioneer pears; and Goodland, Honeycrisp and Northern Lights apples.
“My hope is it will be successful production,” said Sarchet. “If there’s room to expand, I’d like to test more cultivars ... beyond pears, plums and apples.” Perhaps cherries.
Some day soon, Helenans just might get to visit a local u-pick orchard and savor the fruits of this morning’s labor — sinking their teeth into a juicy Honeycrisp or Golden Spice.
And who knows what other seeds may be planted. Perhaps more orchards will sprout in the valley.
Millegan Ranch, Green Meadow Farm and Curtis Farm were just a few of the places where orchards once blossomed.
In fact, Sarchet is trying to hunt down historic orchards tucked away across the valley and hillsides, as part of a heritage tourism project he’d like to launch.
In the meantime, another business could be sprouting in the valley. This week Sarchet was planting test plots of grapes out at the Lewis and Clark County fairgrounds.
For more information about the research project, call Sarchet at 447-8350.