The Trees of Gordon Tooley

Date April 30, 2007 at 10:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports


New Mexican bred Gordon Tooley emanates contentment. Unlike most of the world, he doesn't crave more. In his early twenties, while working on a 700-acre farm in Maine, where he had followed his sweetheart Margaret, he witnessed a tree grafting demonstration. "I was like, "€˜That's me!' I wanted to have a tree farm, and to grow things that are not common."€

Not a typical life goal. "I flunked out of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College. I wasn't a theoretical kind of person."€ A hands-on person, he obtained an AA degree from Colorado Mountain College in Outdoor Studies, worked at Mesa Verde National Park, then took a job at Purgatory, where he and Margaret met. His introduction to grafting came in 1984, and it changed his life.

Returning to New Mexico, he worked at Plants of the Southwest in Santa Fe. He and Margaret bought fifteen acres bordering Truchas. "Basically we just wanted to grow trees."€ The two of them (she had worked as a timber framer for years) built their own timber frame house completely off the grid. He did the electrical and plumbing himself.

Unshaved, with a scruffy appearance, Tooley wears a carpenter's belt stuffed with the tools of his trade while giving a tour of his tree farm. He stands straight, looking fit and trim. "What we're doing is producing and preserving varieties that are disappearing. A lot of apples were bumped out of the market because they aren't pretty. But some of the most explosive flavors are in the ugliest apples imaginable."€ Included in the various conifer and fruit trees he's grafted are 94 apple varieties. And he's still adding more. "Diversity in the landscape is important. Woody plants are the backbone of everything."€ They hold the soil, give fruit, shade, pollen.

To the north, a line of houses on a ridge marks the southern edge of Truchas, and behind that the snow-covered, rugged Truchas Peaks rise dramatically. At almost 8,000 feet, the tree farm is much cooler than Santa Fe. He loves the beauty of the natural environment, but it's the intricate magnificence of trees that delights his expert eye.

Plant grafting has been around since at least Roman times. Tree grafters work with twigs, called "scions,"€ say an apple tree from Normandy known for making calvados (French hard cider). That gets grafted onto a root stock, probably another apple tree Tooley chooses for particular characteristics: a semi-dwarf that will grow to around eighteen feet high that puts out well-anchored roots, that performs in both well-draining and poorly draining soils, that's tolerant of infertile soil, that resists disease, that does well in the short, cool New Mexico growing season, and that helps bring the grafted variety into production early.

The Tooleys aren't the only ones preserving tree varieties. Cornell University's germplasm repository in Geneva, New York, holding the world's largest collection of apple (more than 3,000) and grape varieties, supplies tree grafters with free twigs. The Tooleys keep this scion wood alive and fresh by burying it deep in wood chips. He digs out a bundle of some 2,000 apple twigs, over 100 varieties, from the wet mulch. He'll graft four to six inches of twig, usually with three buds, onto root stock. That's all it takes to grow a tree.

"You hybridize things that work for you. It takes twelve months to grow a tree ready to sell. Some have to grow three to five years before being sellable."€ Often he doesn't know how well a variety will work, since he is constantly experimenting. "The trees that interest me, how am I going to get other people excited so they buy them...."€

His own enthusiasm spills over onto others, and so far he's found buyers for his collection, including rarities such as Almata (tart, good for applesauce, survives to -50 degrees F), Ben Davis (originally from Arkansas, the best-selling winter apple in its region in the late 1800s), Esopus Spitzenburg (Thomas Jefferson's favorite), and Roxbury Russet (great cider apple developed in Massachusetts in the 1600s).

In the middle of March, some 1,500 trees grafted within the past ten days are stored in a "hot box,"€ heated to 58 degrees. Some cherry trees are already pushing buds, and Tooley has just grafted thirty-six varieties of apricots from Pakistan. Nearby a grafter's kit holds various knives (the scion and root need to be cut just right), grafting wax to seal the top of the cut so the scion doesn't dry out after grafting, and more. A bucket of water contains fifty cherry root stocks waiting for various scion twigs, to be grafted within a few days. He plans to complete all grafting by April 1. Readers who want to buy trees can see the results of this labor in the thousands of new "whips"€ on Tooley's farm, which keeps up to 11,000 trees in inventory at any one time.

In a world of market globalization, Tooley is bucking the trend. "We don't graft patented stuff,"€ he says emphatically. Agribusiness, contaminating pure varieties and reducing the gene pool, poses a tremendous threat to the health and variety of trees, and he'll have nothing to do with such companies. "We have to go to South America or Asia to get purity. It's important to keep open-pollinated things pure."€ The antithesis of the monocrop, corporate farmer, Tooley views places like his farm as gene banks for the future.

Although most customers own their own orchards, he sells a lot to Plants of the Southwest, where he once worked. "His enthusiasm and his love for each of his individual trees is remarkable,"€ manager Susan Westbrook gushes. "He literally has a relationship with his plants. There aren't very many people that bring the level of excitement to heirloom trees and trees in general as he does. It's really a love affair for him and he passes it on to everyone he touches."€

Rows of trees, most under four years old, spread over ten acres. Comparing the cultivated, flat orchard with the rugged sage and piñon terrain bordering it, you can see the amount of labor that went into creating land suitable for farming. Tooley explains that you've got to use young, vigorous growth for scion wood, and excitedly points out the seemingly endless varieties of fruit trees. Some have pretty, golden bark. He holds personal affection for Kansas Hawthorne, contorted and thorny, considered too ugly by nurseries. Even a hardy blue spruce, grown from seed, its roots accustomed to hard winters, is a far cry from the potted examples you'll find in a commercial nursery. "Every tree has a different agenda and attitude, like us. You have to work with what the tree wants to do."€ White ash, Hackberry, Autumn arctic; he understands and respects their innate natures. "We don't sell instant gratification trees. The gratification is the stewardship of producing a healthy tree. These are going to outlive all of us."€

Christina Bentrup, who studies tree physiology at Northern Arizona University, is devoting several days of spring break at Tooley's Trees. "I spend a lot of time in front of a computer and I miss working with the trees, the roots, the dirt. It's the best vacation I can imagine."€ Tooley shares the sentiment. Business consultants have approached him with offers of boosting his business by 500%. "How can I do that? I don't want to work myself out of the field, with a whole lot of employees."€

Many would consider the Tooleys' life narrow, or a hardship-up at first light, working outdoors until dark, no vacations, no television since 1989. They have created this life consciously, purposefully. "I feel totally spoiled,"€ he says. "It's hard work, but it's like every day's a day off."€ If he says he wouldn't trade it for the world, you can believe him. He has all of the world he wants.

You can buy Gordon Tooley's trees at Plants of the Southwest. In Santa Fe, the number is 505.438.8888, in Albuquerque, it's 505.344.8830. Anyone can buy directly from the farm, Friday through Sunday 9 AM to 5 PM. You can leave a message on their phone 689-2400 to get a catalogue, or to receive a call back. Directions: take the High Road, Rt. 76, toward Truchas. At the 15 mile marker make a left onto 1301 Rd. (If you get to Truchas you've gone too far.) The gate to the farm is right there, and you'll see a sign for Tooley's Trees. Close the gate after you and put the chain around it. You can also email Gordon at