As interest in heirlooms and organic growing methods expands, Gordon Tooley and Margaret Yancey of Tooley’s Trees in Truchas, New Mexico, may have a bit of an edge in an economic downturn. By maintaining a smaller inventory than larger, factory-type growers can afford to, as well as minimizing tree loss by holistic practices, the couple are savoring the success of spreading the word about delicious heirloom fruit in a small but growing market.

New Mexico, vast in size but small in population, offers extensive horticultural challenges to homesteader and homeowner alike, including strong, searing winds, hot days and cold nights, and alkaline soils and water. In the 18 years they have been in business, Tooley and Yancey have concentrated on selling hardy cultivars and species that are well-adapted to these conditions. They also work to ensure their customers’ success by providing extensive instructions on site selection, soil preparation, hole digging, watering, fertilizing and protecting the tree from predators.

Scant rainfall is perhaps the most daunting reality for anyone who commits to planting trees or gardening in New Mexico. With a strong tradition of small-scale farming and agriculture, those native to New Mexico jealously guard water rights through a system of acequias, or ditches, that allow seasonal watering of small holdings. Newcomers, of whom there has been a steady stream over the last few decades, may find the paucity of water a discouraging prospect as they consider buying trees and shrubs. If they are not city dwellers with an assured source of water, or like Tooley and Yancey, participants in the acequia system, they may have a range of dicey options, which include hauling water, community wells, collecting water in a cistern or barrels, or digging a well of their own. Thus, even small-scale horticultural plantings may require considerable investment to provide a reliable water source.

Nevertheless, many of these newcomers find encouragement in the methods Tooley and Yancey have developed over years of trial and error on their own farm. News about Tooley’s seems to have traveled mainly by word of mouth, and people flock to Tooley’s workshops to hear about the 14,000 varieties of apples that were once grown by early European settlers before the advent of the modern supermarket doomed most of them to pass from commerce and to near extinction.

A midget crab apple, Malus micromalus.

For instance, here are some of the outstanding plants from Tooley’s catalog that not only provide delicious fruit, but also survive the high desert’s cold winters:

  • Albemarle pippin – long-lasting and good for cider.
  • Liberty – disease-resistant and an all-around favorite, good for snacking, canning, cooking or dessert.
  • Green Gage – a plum beloved in America since the time of Jefferson, favored for dessert, cooking, canning or preserving.
  • Consort black currant – introduced in Ottawa, Ont., and hardy to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, with soft black berries for making jams, jellies, preserves, juice and wine.
  • Meteor cherry – hardy to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, producing tart, juicy fruit for pies.

The well-informed customers that Tooley’s appeals to are no longer content with the picture-perfect Red Delicious or Granny Smith apples they find in supermarkets. They want to taste the complex range of flavors our rural ancestors knew, and also want to experiment with these trees to determine for themselves which are most likely to prosper on their properties.

Located on the high road between Santa Fe and Taos at 7,960 feet on 10 acres, Tooley’s Trees also offers grafted peaches and nectarines (bare-root only), grafted pears, and trees and shrubs such as fir, maple, hawthorn, hazelnut, ash, juniper, crab apple, spruce, pine, cottonwood, chokecherry, apricot, oak, rose and elderberry. The couple focuses on varieties that are drought-tolerant and adapted to high pH. Although not certified organic, Tooley’s uses organic methods and practices integrated pest management.

Tooley trades trees with locals for a steady supply of horse manure. He mixes it with rotting straw and humates for composting.

Tooley’s specializes in small-caliper trees with well-developed root systems, maintaining that “root control bags [RootMaker] and pots are key to building a fibrous root structure.” Tooley says, “Smaller-caliper trees establish more quickly with less transplant shock and grow more vigorously in difficult sites than large-caliper trees.”

Established in 1993, Tooley’s found a niche promoting some of the old, hardy apple trees that had flourished among the European settlers. But, to keep a hold on this niche, Tooley realized that a big part of his sales strategy would have to be education.

Tooley offers extensive information on his nursery stock through his catalog and website, and has built a reputation for generous sharing of his expertise. He participates in seminars and offers intensive workshops – like the one he gave to a group of about 35 people in the Ramah-El Morro area of New Mexico in 2009. The three-day workshop required a considerable commitment from the attendees, but most came all three days. The first day was spent in a small gallery/community center, with Tooley talking about the challenges of establishing orchards in the high desert Southwest, as well as his proven methods for overcoming them.

Tooley supplements drip irrigation from a well with water from a seasonal acequia, or ditch irrigation system.

Nearly two years later, those who followed Tooley’s instructions – from situating the tree where there is well-drained soil, to eliminating nearby allelopathic junipers, to building a properly constructed fence to deter deer and elk – are reporting a high rate of survival of the trees they bought from Tooley’s.

Some of the practices Tooley regularly teaches his customers:

  • Improve soil with manure and rotting straw, and by planting legumes, whose roots contain bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen so it is available to plants.
  • Plan for adequate water supply until roots are established.
  • Plant trees 15 feet apart, in a northern exposure (if possible) to retard flowering in the spring – hopefully until the nighttime temperatures warm to the upper 20s. Dig a shallow hole two or three times wider than the root ball.
  • Be mindful of currents of cold air and try to construct hay bales and other plantings to shift the currents away from the orchard trees.
  • Use 2 to 3 inches of mulch for newly planted trees.
  • Weed regularly, preferably before the weeds go to seed. Keep the orchard floor clean.
  • Pick up all debris and solarize it in a trash barrel. Use pest traps to monitor for insects.
  • Watch for predators that attack at root level, such as mice and gophers.
  • Create a habitat for beneficial insects such as ladybugs by refraining from using inorganic pesticides.
  • Use the nontoxic organic substance Surround, a kaolin clay used in toothpaste and such products as Kaopectate, which forms a barrier between pests looking to overwinter in a tree and the bark of the tree.

“You can attribute some success to quality material, but with even the best plant in the world, treat with neglect and you will fail miserably,” Tooley told his El Morro customers.

Tooley, who favors semidwarf cultivars because they are more manageable, and whose operation encompasses 4,000 to 6,000 trees and shrubs, employs all the above practices and more on his own tree farm.

As mentioned above, he makes use of the ancient acequia system, but also supplements watering through a low-flow drip irrigation system – only 6 gallons a minute – from a well, encompassing 30 zones. To fertilize, he uses a proportioner, dialing parts he wants to inject by means of the irrigation system through a Dosatron.

Besides compost, he also buys humates by the ton from a source who digs these rock powders from the nearby Jemez mountains, and adds them to improve the soil.

Like most entrepreneurs, Tooley and Yancey enjoy trying “something new.” Recently, they decided to cut back on the extensive kinds of fruit they were growing and focus on apples, pears, hardy plums and apricots, and grow fewer varieties of peaches and sweet cherries.

Also, “when things slow down” after the spring rush, Tooley is going to work with Michael Phillips, an apple grower and author, to establish the Holistic Orchard Network, including a website and periodicals to share information on management practices in the different regions of the continent. The network will include information on conventional growing, certified organic, biodynamic or naturally grown, and will be for farmers with 5,000 trees or people with two trees. And while such ventures don’t necessarily result in a direct boost to the business, sharing the knowledge has the obvious benefit of encouraging more customers in the high desert Southwest to look for nurseries such as Tooley’s Trees, where sustainability and holistic practices take precedence.

“Growing our stock using organic methods is time-consuming and labor-intensive,” Tooley says, “but the result is healthier plants, soils, water quality and beneficial insect populations.”

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