They call it the dormant season, and compared with the buzz of springtime and the madness of harvest, these are quiet days, even if some fierce January winds scared us. We only lost one tree to the storm, and that was a eucalyptus that will make great firewood. We started pruning shortly after Christmas. The books tell you to cut all crossing and inward growing branches and spindly growth, and show you pictures of perfectly groomed trees. The reality is less tidy, especially when you are dealing with cranky old persimmons, some of which insist on sending vertical shoots thirty feet in the air like bamboo, while others languish and threaten to kill themselves if you even show them a pair of loppers.
Anyway, we finally wrapped up the pruning around Valentine’s Day, The young European pear trees are growing like mad, and may well bear a first crop this year. Baby peaches got moved into their permanent spots, and if last year’s two Indian Blood samples are any indication of things to come, we are in for some amazing treats. We also moved half of the baby French seeded table grapevines to an old kiwi trellis, where they will be shaped into a great big arbor. Yesterday we planted the rootstock for all the new French heirloom plums and peaches Laurence wanted, and are eagerly awaiting the budwood from the UC Davis Germplasm repository. Jeff will do the grafting under the supervision of the hummingbird who has taken watch over the whole orchard.
Buds are beginning to swell. We got the dormant spray done just in time, organic superior oil and Bordeaux mixture. Jeff used the flail mower to reduce five foot tall tangles of prunings into mulch, which we spread around the orchard to increase tilth. Speaking of soil improvements, last year’s clover and wildflowers seeding worked out great. The clover gives our bees almost year-round food, and the wildflower patch is providing habitat for beneficials. We are expanding it another 3,000 square feet. We also are planting nasturtium seeds under the apple trees, to deal with the yearly plague of rosy apple aphids, and scattering sweet alyssum around to provide the poodle with a fragrant bed while he watches us work.
Laurence has found a source for nettles seeds – not easy, since most folks consider them a noxious and painful weed, but she came back from France saying that French farmers swear by a spray of decomposed nettles tea to feed their crops, so she wants to try it here. Oh, and while she was in the South of France drinking wine and researching medieval farming superstitions, Jeff got to drive to Montana in a blizzard to fix broken sewer pipes at a friend's ranch, which serves him right for not going to France with Laurence while he had the chance.
A little known fact about fruit trees, one that does not seem to be advertised to the general public, is the need to thin the set fruit. Unless you are very lucky, or resort to chemical thinning sprays, there will be too much fruit on your trees, varying from 50 percent in the stone fruit, to an insane 90 percent in the Asian Pears. If you are a deft pruner, and a willing gambler, you might be able to reduce the set fruit with dormant pruning. If you are confident in your bee population and the weather, you can blossom thin. If you are adverse to even more risk than growing fruit inherently offers, you wait until the “June drop”, which happens in April and May, and hand thin the trees. I use a pair of industrial scissors that Laurence found in Chinatown for a fair price, snip, snip, to thin the pomes and persimmons. The stone fruit is easier to thin by hand. The rule of thumb is to leave a fruit on every six inches of tree. However, there are varying degrees of artistic sophistication that can make or break the finished quality of the fruit. Things to keep in mind about thinning are sun exposure, weight to branch strength ratio, whether the fruit is hanging clear or jammed against the branch, and proximity to neighboring fruit. Under no circumstances should the fruit be allowed to touch. This is not some holdover from our Puritanical beginnings. Pests love to attack the fruit where they touch, in the relative darkness, where you cannot see the damage. With practice, you can learn to gage the relative strength and vigor of the trees, and thinning will go a little faster. You must thin in a timely manner in order to enjoy the benefits of increased fruit size, and reduction in the tendency to crop. It is a painstaking and tedious process that you must complete as fast as possible.
The first day of summer is officially here. At this point in the growing season the orchard is drifting like a long haul truck on a flat stretch of good road. The irrigation is cycling, mostly automatically, but not entirely, and the daily temperature and pest trap catch numbers are religiously entered into the spreadsheet, with degree days dutifully calculated and totaled. Now is a good time to wander about aimlessly, with all the tools you have, looking for trouble: a leaning tree, an overburdened limb, noxious weeds, fireblight in the pomes, powdery mildew, a misbehaving sprinkler, leaks in the mainline, dead chickens, downed fence, lost parts, to name a few. I have had good success with pruning the more aggressive growth in the plums and pears about now. Pruning is traditionally done in the dormant season because it is easier to do when the foliage is gone, and you tend to have more time in the winter. However, the best time to prune is when it is the most difficult, in the summer, when it is hot, you are busy, and you cannot see what you are doing, of course. The pruning wounds have a better chance at fending off disease when the sap is flowing, and you can put the summer growth to better use by inducing branching where desired, and eliminating crossing branches and watersprouts early, so the tree’s energy is not wasted. While you're at it, you can touch up the thinning you did in April and May.
The weather is finally cooling off, the fruit is ripening at full speed and this season’s race with gravity is off and running. What is that strange sound in the night? Dropping fruit and breaking limbs. It is a delicate and strenuous operation to pick the fruit just before it drops without disturbing its still ripening neighbors or bumping a limb. This is all done at the top of a tall ladder, in the sun, early in the morning before the fruit heats up. It is a lot like a ballet, except not all that pretty. My companion dancers are a myriad of props and tall, wet weeds. My audience, the Poodle, sits nearby, under a well mulched tree in the shade, and keeps one eye out for intruders, and the other quizzically on the dance. Welcome to color picking. When each piece of fruit is ripe, even if it is only one, fourteen feet up, I gently pick it and rush it to the cooler. This morning’s effort yielded the first Elephant Heart Plums, and the most beautiful Shinseki Asian Pears and Satsuma Plums I have every grown. While I have worked hard to shape, fertilize, irrigate and thin the Shinseki trees, the beautiful Satsuma Plums are a gift from nature. Yet another mystery.
Back from another successful market, I am trying to wind down and balance the books. It gets really hectic at the market, especially in the hot sunny weather. Later in the season the sun will be behind the theater across the street and we and the fruit will not get so hot. A note of general advice for shopping at farmers markets: if you see something you like, buy it. Farmers are there to sell out. If they do not sell it, it will probably get hammered by the trip rendering it unusable. So a farmer will bring what he thinks will sell, and no more. The really savvy customers order ahead. You will always get the best product if you do this, at least with me, because I can bring all my experience and efforts to bear on the immediate issue of picking the perfect fruit at the perfect time according to your order. Each piece of fruit I pick involves a major decision. If I pick it too early or too late, it will not be perfect. If I also have to worry about selling it, which of course I do, then each one of the thousands of small picking decisions I make each day is amplified becoming almost impossible. This is a major shift in the way we have been trained to shop, but it is worth the effort in many ways. The most obvious, you get the best quality. But hidden in a pre order is the benefit of a relationship, and the beginning of trust, the building of community and perhaps holiday cards and shared experiences, life. Also hidden in a pre order is the beginning of a vicarious reconnection with nature. My entire life is dictated by nature. I like to joke that the fruit calls the schedule. However, it isn’t a joke. I work when nature tells me too. Building a relationship with a farmer will bring you that much closer to that understanding without having to carry a heavy ladder in the hot sun, a deal at twice the price.
The effects of the recent typhoon on California’s nascent persimmon crop are obvious to world famous grower and opinionologist Jeff Rieger: “all the persimmons are just super good this season. Everything else being exactly the same, what else could it be?” When asked to postulate, Rieger responded, “it only goes to reason that persimmons, being from Japan, evolved in a symbiotic relationship with Typhoons; probably some science thing like reduced vapor pressure and high humidity coupled with magnetic variance and gravitational attraction.” Other growers, asked if this was indeed true, reply “yeah, sure, sounds about right”. A UC Davis grant application to study this phenomenon will quickly prove the theory once it is determined to cost way too much and have absolutely no practical application. Fox News’ science division is expected to declare the theory true and valid soon, as there is none of that tricky science related study stuff involved.
It is not unusual to be up in the middle of the night around here. Last night was different though. I was awakened shortly after two by security, with a message I could not at first decipher. A skunk would elicit single barks from different locations about 100 yards apart. Raccoons, Possums, Rats and Feral Cats require a personal visit to the site of the endless high pitched hysteria, lest the neighbors be bothered. Last night, I got a variation of the two, high pitched hysteria and full speed circuits of the perimeter, six revolutions in all. From this I deduced a Coyote or a Bobcat was interrupted stalking the Chickens, Sheep or Guinea Fowl by my trustee Security Poodle. Whichever it was chose to beat feet over the fence, leaving Taylor to make super sure he was gone for good. Since 2 of the Guinea Fowl are raising the recently orphaned clutch of six keats by hiding in plain sight on the orchard floor at night, and a splinter group of militant hens has decided to roost in the tree over the coop, and the sheep’s only defense is sheer bulk, I was lucky to have the help. Turns out the standard poodle makes a fierce and dedicated farm dog. I am happy for the help and I am sure the animals concur.