Sunny Slope Orchard

Sunny Slope Orchard
In the coast range foothills overlooking the Sacramento Valley

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Making some tough choices

This March our hills look more like late April conditions
Here in early March we've grown weary of the continual waiting and hoping for more rain. We've had a couple of good storms so far this season, but then weeks go by with nothing more than a few clouds or worse yet, days of drying north wind. And temperatures have been way above average through most of the "cool" season. Storms appear regularly in extended weather forecasts, then vanish like a mirage as the days get closer. So the ground is drying up just as the trees begin to leaf out and the blossoms set tiny fruit, right when the roots need to start taking up moisture.


Peaches in full bloom, early March
The orchard cover crop is only half as tall as usual, stunted by lack of moisture. Normally we want the legume and mustard cover crop to mature until it is in full bloom to provide habitat for beneficial insects. And we want the plants to get as tall and thick as possible so when mowed down they provide a thick protective summer mulch on the soil surface. But lacking more rain, the cover crop is using up moisture that will be needed by the trees. So hard choice #1 was mowing down the cover crop a month early. This saves some soil moisture but leaves less residue to protect the soil and destroys habitat for beneficial insects.


Our BCS sickle bar mower
I've just finished the first round of mowing, using a sickle bar mower that cuts the tall stems once at the base but does not grind them up. This leaves the material mostly intact for a longer lasting mulch through the coming summer. As I walked behind the mower green lacewings and other beneficial insects constantly flew up around my face. It felt counterproductive to destroy their breeding and feeding sites, but it had to be done.

Lacking significantly more spring rain we will be facing hard choice #2: stripping off all young fruit to reduce stress on the trees and give them the best chance of surviving the fourth dry year in a row. It's a drastic step and one we hope we don't have to take. But we have to think of the long term health of the trees. All the juice, sugar and fiber in fruit comes from the stored energy in the tree's roots and from the current season's photosynthesis, and both depend upon water uptake through the roots. But those same energy sources also maintain the growth and health of the tree itself. So when trees are drought stressed, fruit production actually competes with tree health. We considered taking this drastic step last year but decided instead to leave the fruit on and dole out our meager water resources to the trees as efficiently as possible. The harvest was good but the trees were badly stressed in late summer. So if this turns into the fourth year of drought we will sacrifice the harvest in hopes of helping to relieve some stress on the trees this summer. 

Scaling back our home garden was another unhappy choice. A nice February rain storm encouraged us to risk small spring plantings of carrots, cabbage, broccoli, onions and potatoes. Normally we would do succession plantings for continuous harvest through early summer, then transition to tomatoes and other summer crops. But we'll not be planting anything more this year. As it is we are already having to irrigate our winter vegetables when they would ordinarily get by fine on spring rains. And tomorrow I will begin doling out water to the orchard trees so there will be even less to spare on the garden.


Small carrots under row cover cloth, protected from birds and wind


Our garden onion plot is scaled back to half size

But enough doom and gloom. We'll get through summer and pin our hopes on next rainfall season to break the drought. Meanwhile we feel privileged to enjoy sights like this double rainbow that appeared a few weeks ago. 


 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Rain, sweet rain!


As I write this we are in the middle of a wonderful rain storm, a real one with the rainfall measured in inches instead of fractions of an inch. The feeble and disappointing showers of October and November dropped only tiny amounts which barely wet the soil surface, doing nothing to quench thirsty plant roots. So after a solid inch of rain a week ago, 1.35" yesterday and 1.3" so far today with more expected tonight and tomorrow, we are practically euphoric!

Now, such excitement over rainfall statistics may seem odd to city dwellers but it is the norm for most rural folks who depend directly upon life giving rain for growing plants, crops, raising livestock and replenishing aquifers. This time of year typical conversations between country neighbors include such statements as, "It looks like we should get some rain next Tuesday, what have you heard?" Or, "I got six tenths of an inch out of that last rain, what did you measure?" I can always count on a couple of neighbors to phone or stop in after a rain to compare notes.

So the rain gauge pictured above is the essential tool of the trade for tracking progress during the rainy season. I've maintained rainfall records here every year since 1971. During that time we have averaged 35" of rain per season, with the wettest year getting 65" and the driest only 11". Multiple dry years in a row, such as we have had the past three years, are what really cause problems. Deep soil moisture diminishes, stressing trees, and shallow wells go dry as aquifers dry up.

I sometimes have to shake my head at the inane comments of TV newscasters, who, after a small storm will announce that "experts say this will not end the drought." Gee, do you think? Let's see, after three below average rainy seasons, with lake levels and aquifers drastically low and farm fields withering they conclude that a couple of early small rains did not fix it all? Who knew? When water always appears reliably at the mere turn of a faucet, I guess people lose perspective on where it really comes from.

So to put rainfall amounts into context, what does an inch of rainfall accomplish? A good rule of thumb is that an inch of rain will wet the soil 6" deep. Our first four tiny storms were only about 1/4" each and weeks apart, so their meager moisture only soaked in for an inch or so and quickly evaporated. Finally we got a 1" storm followed quickly by 1"+ a week later. So that 2"+ was enough to soak down about 12". I took the picture below just after that second inch had fallen, and sure enough the soil is wet about a foot deep. But notice the dry soil at the bottom of the hole. Even though the top of the ground is plenty damp and the cover crop is growing nicely, moisture has not yet reached the root zone of the orchard trees. So despite a verdant green orchard floor the trees still suffer from bone dry soil.


2" of rain has wet the soil 12" deep, but here
the soil is bone dry below that
After this current storm drops another couple of inches, moisture should finally reach down fairly deep into the root zone for the first time in many months. That should keep the tree roots well hydrated and the cover crop growing well through the next few weeks. But in terms of year long water needs we will need many more storms to saturate deeper soil strata and to recharge the aquifers that feed our wells. Our old hand dug well is just 36' deep and has been almost dry for months. Over the years I've observed that the water level in the well only recovers after we receive 20"-25" of rainfall. On an average year that happens by February or March. But after three below average rainfall years we likely will need 35"-40" of rain this season to really bring the old well back to good production that will hold up through next summer.

And so the cycle goes: we're hopeful for early and ample rainstorms through fall and winter, we celebrate each additional inch measured in our gauge like some people cheer on sports teams, we hope it keeps coming well into spring, then we endure another long dry summer and start the cycle over again. But for the moment we are happily breathing lungfuls of fragrant moist air and relishing the beautiful music of rain pounding our metal roofs. Our faith in the weather is temporarily restored.

Here are some sights we're enjoying lately:


The last of our fuyus are picked and in the cooler for sale

Dripping branches give me a break from pruning until things dry out

The legume-mix cover crop is jumping out of the ground

Apricot leaves decorate the orchard floor 
Approaching storm clouds give us beautiful sunrises


Monday, November 3, 2014

It's Fuyu persimmon time


Our Fuyu persimmons are now ripe and plentiful. They are wonderful in salads, sliced with a sprinkling of lime for a fruit plate, or just eaten like an apple. Sold by the pound at $2.00/lb. Please call ahead for availability. We should have them through at least mid-December.

Fuyus peeled, sliced and drizzled with lime juice make a
knockout appetizer
We also have Meyer lemons available at $1.50/lb.



Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Summer 2014: Feeling the drought

The ponds in our hills are mostly dry now, so many cattle herds have been moved
elsewhere. And the local wildlife must travel further to compete for drinking water
in the few remaining water holes.
Persistent drought has now established itself as one of the organizing principles of daily life here at Sunny Slope Orchard. We see its effects everywhere in this third dry year. As we have mentioned before, our orchard has always been dry farmed since water resources are historically scarce here. So conserving water has always been our habit; but now it is a true necessity.

Since last November we have been watering the fruit trees, in rotation, via drip irrigation to give them some moisture to replace the winter rains that never came. These periodic sips of water helped them but the stress was obvious. Our apricots, peaches and plums arrived earlier than usual this season and the peak harvest time was quite compressed, lasting only 3 weeks instead of the usual five. The trees clearly wanted to drop their burden quickly. To reduce their stress, we thinned all trees heavily this spring. So most trees survived, but some suffered major branch die back and leaves are dropping earlier than usual now.

Borers are always present but are expelled
by good sap flow during normal years. But
during dry years infestations can get the
upper hand in weaker branches.

Fuyu persimmons are not yet ripe but are more sunburned than usual
since the stressed foliage is not providing enough shade

Weaker branches, like this walnut limb, succumb to drought
stress and have to be removed.

We ration out precious water supplies to all our
trees in turn, but the flagging leaves of this apricot
beg for more.
To reduce competition for orchard water we recently removed some "weed" trees, ones that might give some useful shade but that produce no useful crop and send their roots to rob from the fruit trees. Many were black walnut trees with invasive root systems that feed heavily on water and soil nutrients. Plus the nuts they drop are a real hazard underfoot. So, we successfully removed eight mature black walnuts, one of which was right next to our oldest well. Luckily, the right tool for the job came our way at the perfect time. A neighbor sold us his old pruning tower, an Afron Mechanical Ladder, made in Israel; and it made the job possible. And as a bonus, the chickens have a huge supply of black walnuts for the winter!


Our new "old" pruning tower helps with trimming tall trees and
harvesting big nut trees

Naturally the animals around us are also constantly looking for water. Birds rank high among our favorite neighbors and we take great interest in their daily lives. Dozens of hummers flock to our hummingbird feeders and bird baths; but now the honeybees from neighboring hives have taken over the bird baths entirely. The incoming and outgoing bee traffic is so intense that no birds can make an approach. The hummers can still drink sugar water at their feeders, but we are left to wonder where the other birds are getting water now. Most ponds in our area are dry, so all local wildlife has to travel further to drink.

The honeybee swarms achieved a hostile takeover of the
birdbaths. Even large birds like the acorn woodpecker don’t
manage to penetrate their ranks.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Santa Rosa plum Galette - Possibly the best dessert ever!


With the very last of our Santa Rosa plums off the trees, we're enjoying a break from the frantic pace of picking, sorting, selling and processing fruit. The bird scare machines are taken down and stored away, windfall fruit has been cleaned up and discarded, and we're back to our normal summer routines of irrigation, summer pruning, canning and freezing for our own use, and even taking a little time to relax on the porch to enjoy sunsets like this gem above.

We have long enjoyed making simple rustic tarts (galettes)in fig, apricot, and plum varieties. So with plums winding down and a bit of time on our hands we decided to reward ourselves with our favorite, Santa Rosa plum galette. This amazing dessert is quick and easy to make and can even be frozen for baking later (think a cold winter day where you long for the fresh fruit taste of summer). We provided a link to this recipe in a 2011 post but that link no longer works. So here are instructions below:


Making the crust
For the crust, you can use your favorite pie crust recipe. Here is our current version:

1+1/2 cups flour (we use half whole wheat pastry and half white flour)
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp corn meal
1/4 tsp salt

Combine the above in a bowl and chill the bowl in the refrigerator.

Prepare:

1+1/2 sticks unsalted butter cut up into tiny cubes; keep very cold in the refrigerator.
3/4 cup of ice cold water (For a flakier crust, you can substitute cold vodka for up to half of the water.)

This recipe yields enough for two crusts, each of which rolls out to about 10" or so in diameter.




To absorb excess juice from the plums, spread 1 T. sugar and 1 1/2 T white flour evenly in only the middle of the rolled out crust, leaving a 2"-3" rim around the edges alone. Slice the plums into thin wedges and arrange them in the floured area, then add 2 to 3 T. more sugar. Lastly fold the edges of the crust inward  partially covering the filling.


Ready to bake

Bake in a 400 deg. oven for 40 min. or until nicely browned. For added decadence serve with vanilla ice cream!


We had to eat some right out of the oven.

The inspiration for this came from Mary Jo Thoreson, pastry chef at Chez Panisse Restaurant. For more complete instructions, her recipe is on page 3 at this link.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The heat is on, the cots and peaches are off

We've put in long days the past week as the cots and peaches came on fast. The good news is that temperatures were mild so both we and the fruit held up fairly well. The bad news is that we are now in the middle of a multi-day hot spell that will likely ruin any cots still on the trees.

Apricots, especially our Royal Blenheims, are very delicate and prone to damage from heat. This is often a problem since our hilltop location tends to stay warmer than valley areas at night. And since Royals ripen first from the inside, when we get several days of high heat the apricots build up too much heat inside and suffer from "pit burn," decay around the pit. Heat and drying winds also cause the skin to shrivel.

We are still trying to salvage some cots still on the trees, but with each additional hot day more are damaged and unsaleable.




Shriveled apricot skin caused by 100+ degree
temperatures and dry north wind

Peaches set a new record for a short season, ripening so fast that we got them all off in only three pickings over one week instead of the usual 6-7 pickings over two weeks. Despite the loss of some cots we are feeling satisfied that we've made good use of most of the crops so far, filling orders for many appreciative customers and restaurants. So we are now moving on to picking plums and figs.

One pleasant surprise is how well the trees appear to be holding up to their third dry year in a row. I know they will be looking stressed in another month or so, but for now their leaves are open and full even on this 103 degree afternoon. Despite very dry soil and having only very limited drip irrigation available, they have put on near normal (which is to say explosive) growth and are a vibrant green. 

We hope for early fall rains to bring them relief.

Apricot trees show 3'-4' long shoot growth despite the dry winter

Peach trees are thick with lush growth

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Harvest has started!

Just a quick announcement here to let everyone know we have begun picking our Royal Blenheim apricots and Springcrest peaches. Beauty plums will start around June 6th and Santa Rosa plums around mid-June.

Our cot crop this year is much lighter than average and many have cosmetic defects due to untimely spring rains (but flavor is outstanding as usual). From what we have heard most growers have few to no cots on their trees so we may not be able to satisfy everyone. 

Be sure to email or call us before driving out, especially if you want a large quantity. We will open our gate for sales each afternoon from 2pm until 7pm starting Wednesday, June 4.

Thank you!

Bill Spurlock and Fern Henry
Sunny Slope Orchard
3574 Cantelow Rd
Vacaville, CA 95688
707-448-4792