Douglas County Government owns and operates the Research and Demonstration Orchard at Hidden Mesa Open Space, located about a mile north of Franktown on Highway 86/Parker Road. This five-acre orchard site is part of a larger trailhead & historic farmstead complex. This public facility boasts a seven-mile trail loop and connection to the larger Cherry Creek Trail system open to hiking, biking, and horse riding. Hidden Mesa is a 1200-acre open space property with a huge mesa, rock outcroppings, Cherry Creek and diverse grassland and scrubland habitat. This location is very popular with trail runners, hikers, mountain bikers, horse enthusiasts, people that come just to picnic and hang out amongst the old buildings, photographers, artists, and historians. Electronic counters verify over 12,000 trail users annually, each one passing right by the research orchard and its interpretive signage kiosk.
Purpose: The original purpose of the orchard is to research and demonstrate traditional & cutting-edge fruit and nut species, cultivars and cultural methods adaptable to our unique Front Range Climate. Because of our knowledgeable and committed partners, the purpose has expanded to include lavender, herbs and annual vegetables.
Vision: To expand economic opportunities and strengthen our community by inspiring innovation in scalable agriculture, edible landscapes, gardening, and community gardens and orchards.
To accomplish this purpose and vision, Douglas County and its partners have planted over 500 varieties of fruits and nuts, a dozen varieties of lavender and dozens of types of herbs and annual vegetables. We are now tracking the performance of various crops and performing trials. We are evaluating the effectiveness of numerous innovative cultural methods to overcome the extreme climate challenges of Colorado’s Front Range. Examples include the use of high tunnel greenhouses, floating row covers, shade cloth, mist beds, winter applications of anti-desiccants, vertical growth structures, alternative training methods such as the vertical fruiting wall which saves space and allows for row covers.
Partners: Douglas County Government continues to work with numerous partners in this joint effort. Initial funding came through a Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) grant from the Tri-County Health Department, donations from the Crooked Willow Foundation, and Douglas County Open Space budget. Colorado State University (CSU) and CSU Extension have contributed to technical expertise. Master Gardeners from the CSU Extension program and Douglas County Open Space volunteers contribute over 2000 hours annually to these projects. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Douglas County Conservation District are also partnering with Douglas County Government on this project. Numerous private farmers; viticulturists; orchardists; landowners and organizations such as the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield, Promise Ranch, and Nobel Foundation out of Ardmore, Oklahoma has toured and are involved in this project to one degree or another.
Community Benefit: There are numerous tangible benefits to not only the local community but Colorado’s Front Range communities from this facility and its efforts. Obviously, our primary mission is to research and demonstrate the functionality of various crops, cultivars and cultural methods specifically for use in our highly unique and challenging Front Range Climate. Research done in other regions is only marginally applicable to our region.
Douglas County and its partners are working to make the facility at Hidden Mesa a regional center for agricultural research, education, and promotion. The information and training offered could easily benefit people from Fort Collins to Pueblo and into the Eastern Plains. This center is located right in the middle of that range. With the current amenities and planned improvements, we will be able to not only conduct research but also teach classes, host hands-on workshops and broaden activities to include food preparation, crop processing, and numerous other topics. The broad base of Douglas County’s partners strengthens this effort makes it even more viable.
Most of the vegetable crops grown at the research and demonstration orchard are donated to the Parker Task Force. The Task Force is a volunteer-run food bank and counseling center that benefits the local community in numerous ways. The orchard has donated between 2500-5000 pounds of produce to the Task Force annually.
Future Expansion: One of the next major objectives we have for the Hidden Mesa facility, as resources become available, is to restore the old farmhouses and put them back into service. They are already extremely popular with artists, photographers, and historians. We would like to get them restored to their former glory to provide even more opportunities for these interest groups, not to mention improving the aesthetics and draw of the entire site. The continued growth of the agricultural center operations depend on the renovation of the houses. While the exterior of the house will be restored back to its historical appearance, the inside will be partly historical and partly functional. We have plans to renovate the rooms to accommodate these functions: commercial-grade kitchen, cold storage area, historic dining room for farm-to-table dinners, historic living room for meetings and conferences, and bedrooms for offices and laboratories. We plan to restore landscaping around the facility that would center heavily on time-period functionality, such as kitchen & herb gardens, heirloom fruit trees, and edible landscapes.
Douglas County has secured a rainwater harvest permit for the houses at Hidden Mesa. We intend to show innovative ways of conserving water using rainwater irrigation and heavy mulch in intensive orchard and garden systems.
Four of the five acres of the orchard site are developed. We intend to fence and begin building the fifth acre within the next year or so. This location will be used for various functions, including the use of rainwater irrigation. One of the planned uses that will be of tremendous public benefit is a demonstration area featuring dozens of innovative cultural methods for back-yard and small scale agriculture. It is planned to be several rows of displays featuring these innovative techniques and devices.
In summary, the Research and Demonstration Orchard at Hidden Mesa is already a multi-faceted facility. It is popular within the agricultural, landscape, and landowner communities. We have hosted dozens of tours and have presented at local to state-wide conferences to groups such as the American Planning Association, Colorado Environmental Health Association, CSU Extension, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Conservation District. It provides considerable community benefits, which should only expand as the facility and operations grow.