Sunny Slope Orchard

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

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Springtime update

After months of high hopes for a bountiful rainfall year to break the four year drought, mother nature has once again disappointed. So far we have received only 85% of our average rainfall to date. That is an improvement over the past four years, but we really needed an above average year to get ground water levels back to what the orchard and native vegetation need to get through the coming hot summer without stress. 

Still, we did get to enjoy a few heavy rains, and have been feasting our eyes on emerald green hills. And unlike last year, we have decided to go ahead and leave fruit on the trees rather than stripping it off. Bloom time was warm and dry, resulting in a heavy fruit set on most trees. 

An apricot tree bristling with fruit
Unfortunately for the apricots, a week of constant wet weather in March set off a raging infection of shot-hole fungus. Shot-hole is one of several fungal diseases affecting cots, leaving brown speckles on the fruit and "shot holes" in the leaves. Many small fruits shriveled and dropped off, some were just too ugly and had to be stripped, and some had only moderate spotting and will be usable. The spots do not affect taste, but this year's cots will not win any beauty contests.

Shot hole damage to apricot fruit and leaves
One regular spring activity is mowing down the legume cover crop. The mowed debris protects the soil from erosion by wind and rain, helps retain soil moisture, provides food for soil-feeding microorganisms, and shields shallow roots from the heat of summer sun. Timing the mowing is always a compromise: I want it to grow as long as possible to maximize the volume of mulch and to provide habitat for beneficial insects. But the longer the cover crop is allowed to grow, the more soil moisture it consumes, leaving less for the trees to use in summer. So this year I mowed a bit earlier than usual to save as much rainy season moisture as possible.

My walk behind sickle bar mower cutting down the cover crop
Another essential spring chore is fruit thinning, which is removing excess fruit from the trees. After lack of pruning, failure to thin is probably the most common chore that backyard fruit tree gardeners neglect to do.

But don't we want as much fruit as possible? Well, not exactly. We would like as much good sized and healthy fruit as possible, within the limits of what the trees can support. With favorable weather conditions during bloom, most stone fruit trees set way too much fruit. So our goal in thinning is to leave some space between each fruit so that insects and fungus problems do not easily move from one fruit to another. Also we want to limit the weight of fruit so branches will not break during a strong wind. And we want the fruit to attain the biggest size and develop the best flavor. Since each tree only has so much energy to put into its fruit crop, an excess fruit load reduces both size and flavor.

As the newly set fruits begin to grow, many will fall off or "self thin" on their own. So it's best to wait until that happens before doing your thinning. But to get the most benefit from thinning, it should be done before the pits harden. That way the fruit left on the tree will continue to expand to the largest size and reach maximum flavor. Test by cutting open a green fruit as shown below. If the pit is soft and jelly-like and no hard shell has developed around it, the time is right. But late thinning is better than none at all, even if done after pit hardening.

This apricot pit is very soft, indicating an ideal time to thin
How much fruit to remove is the next question. Cots should generally be thinned so they will be at least 3" - 4" apart when they reach full size. That means if they are 3/4" size during thinning time, they should be left no less than 5" - 6" apart. On thin weak shoots even more drastic thinning is needed to prevent stem breakage as the fruit sizes up. Below are before and after shots of a section of apricot branch. The original 25 cots were thinned down to 7. This seems brutal when you're doing it, but once the fruit grows to full size we invariably feel that we were not ruthless enough when thinning.

Apricot branch before thinning, with tight clusters of small fruit crammed together
After thinning, no fruits are left touching, they will grow to much larger size,
and the chance of branch breakage is much reduced
Peaches are about the hardest to thin, since they are tightly attached plus we have to imagine the little almond-sized baby peaches growing to baseball or even softball size. In the before and after shots below, 13 peaches are thinned down to just two. After thinning, the ground under the tree is almost covered solid in tiny peaches, but by the time the remaining fruit grows to full size the trees will still have a heavy crop.

Thirteen 3/4" peaches are jammed together on long skinny stems that are
guaranteed to break as the peaches grow to baseball size
After thinning only two peaches remain
So we are busy preparing for the hectic season ahead, excited to taste the first apricot, peach, plum and fig, hoping for kind weather but knowing that mother nature has her own plans. No problem, we know our place in nature and are just happy to be here.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Welcoming Fall

After endless hot summer days with hazy cloudless skies we are reveling in the cooler air and beautiful clouds of fall. And while the rumored El Nino-fueled heavy rains have yet to arrive, we have at least received enough light rains to begin seeing a slight green tinge to the golden hills. I planted our annual legume mix cover crop a few weeks ago and it is sprouting nicely.

I've also begun the annual orchard pruning. It's a tedious job involving hundreds of cuts per tree. But it is not without its pleasures: being up on a ladder, enjoying the fresh air and sky, watching hawks and other birds go about their daily search for food, and admiring the sculptural look of a nicely pruned tree. With a birds-eye view of the upper branches it is also reassuring to see some of our valuable partners in pest control - predator insects, the good bugs that eat the bad ones. Below are shots I took just recently while pruning an apricot tree.

Green Lacewings are a common and welcome sight in the orchard. They, and
especially their larvae, feed on a wide range of pest insects such as aphids.

A praying mantis egg case stuck to an apricot shoot, waiting until spring to hatch.
When I see one of these I either skip pruning that shoot or cut it off and tie it
to another part of the tree.

An adult praying mantis waits to ambush a passing insect

Of course fall is also persimmon time and despite the drought our trees are bearing a good crop of fuyus. Right now we only have enough to supply our main restaurant customer, but by Thanksgiving the fuyus should be ripening in good numbers. When more are available we will email an announcement to our fruit customer list. In the meantime, below is an artsy shot I took using a creative "watercolor" effect I've been playing with on a new camera.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Neighborhood Watch

Living as we do, beyond the sidewalks, there is a fair distance between houses. So the neighbors we see most often are the "natives," those who don't live indoors. Over the years we have grown fond of many (but certainly not all) of these natural visitors.

Take the deer, for instance. We constructed an 8’ high fence around our place specifically to keep the deer outside. We had to protect the trees: deer love to eat foliage and they damaged a lot of new grafts on young trees. Plus, the bucks would use the tree trunks to scrape the velvet off their horns, thus rubbing off the bark and girdling the trunks. So with our deer fence we can now admire and appreciate the deer…at a distance.

A big buck looks down on our orchard from outside our fence

On the other hand, the deer fence serves to attract some valuable neighbors. Our homemade birdhouses, mounted along the fence, offer sustainable, affordable housing for Western Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, and other insect eaters. Their help is always appreciated in keeping the insect populations in balance.

A tree swallow stands atop a nesting box

Also this past winter we had a sizable bat colony living in a sheltered spot on the south wall of an outbuilding. The hot summer sun drove them away for now, but we hope they will return in the fall. They sleep all day but take the night shift for local insect patrol duty.

Bluebirds, a Linnet and Lesser Goldfinches gather
at the birdbath to discuss the drought

As we work in the orchard each spring it is always fun to discover bird nests.

Lesser Goldfinch eggs in their tiny nest

And a few days later . . . 

On one epic day last winter we had a two-eagle day. While walking with friends in our orchard, we looked up to see a bald eagle, an unusual sight in our dry area; possibly the drought forced him to seek food outside his usual range. Then, an hour later, walking on a nearby ridge, a golden eagle glided above with his huge wingspan. It was unforgettable to be visited by two rarely seen birds. However, hardly a day goes by that we don’t see at least one majestic red-tailed hawk overhead.

Red-Tailed Hawk

But the hummingbirds are our favorite and most faithful visitors. Their flyway takes them up and down the west coast annually and we delight in watching them at our feeders. Their numbers vary, depending on the season, ranging from a couple dozen in the winter to over 100 in the summer. The sugar water disappears rapidly year-round, since the Anna’s and Rufous hummers are incredibly active. They dine on local flowers as well as the fuel we supply but also eat small insects for protein. And they dazzle us with their aerial acrobatics and flashy feather displays.

A little hummer tanks up at the feeder

Amphibians can be fun and even funny. We have singing toads living in our downspouts; they enjoy serenading us with a Three Stooges-like chorus of “Whoop-whoop-whoop.”  It is the most cheerful sound to hear after a rain!

A gorgeous Praying Mantis warming in the morning sun

Our neighborhood is packed with variety and beauty. We feel privileged to live here.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

An extra dry summer fosters extra bad fires

View from our orchard as a fire rages 5 miles north of our property
Here in mid-summer the dire warnings of severe fires have come to pass. After four years of drought, vegetation is extremely dry and more flammable than ever. So it has been no surprise that in the past few weeks we have had a couple of major blazes nearby. First, a fire in nearby Mix Canyon caused evacuations there and burned considerable acreage before being stopped. Then eight days ago a major wind-driven fire erupted near Lake Berryessa, burning 6,500 acres in three days as it raced through remote canyons. Just when it seemed to be well under control, a wind shift ignited still-smoldering trees and sent the fire jumping containment lines to scorch another 1000 acres.

Our property was never in danger since we expect fires and prepare accordingly, keeping our ground closely mowed and clear of debris, trimming trees up away from the ground, and mowing wide barriers on adjacent properties if the owners don't. And we make sure to keep large hoses and full-flow valves in key spots around our property and buildings.

The first evening of the fire I took the time lapse video below from our porch. This really shows a fire with a life of its own.

Amazingly no homes were destroyed in these local fires, only a couple of outbuildings. This is a true testament to the expertise and hard work of firefighters. But though homes escaped it is always painful to see the damage to native vegetation. Huge areas of oak and pine woodlands have been incinerated, and as we've seen in past years, Manzanita and other low growing brush tends to then take over, leaving the hills even more prone to future fires.

A canyon near the start of the "Wragg fire" is left completely barren 
Scorched trees - some will survive, many will not
It has been fascinating to watch the firefighting and learn how their technology has advanced over the years. In these rugged and inaccessible areas, air drops of fire retardant and water are the most powerful tool. This has long been the case but the technology seems to have become more refined.

My fireman neighbor described watching the air drops from a ridge top while listening to the fire fighters' radio channel. A small spotter plane flew along the advancing fire line, in radio communication with the bomber pilots and dropping white powder markers to indicate where the retardant drop should start and end, and recommending the rate of drop and warning of air turbulence and other dangers. Meanwhile the bombers would circle the area getting in position for the drop. When all was ready the spotter pilot would radio, "OK follow me" and lead the bomber along the drop path.

An air tanker drops retardant along a fire line

I watched several drops and was amazed at the accuracy and the skill with which pilots flew heavily loaded large planes very low to the fire, seemingly barely clearing ridge tops at times. We saw a "VLAT" (very large air tanker, a converted DC10 jetliner) used for many drops. It was startling to see a big jet flying so close to the ground.

Equally impressive was how the pilots were able to fly in such close quarters with so many other planes and multiple helicopters, all the while flying in very smokey skies.

A helicopter dips water from lake Berryessa to drop on a hot spot
And not to give all the credit to the air drops, the hard working and dedicated ground crews are equally impressive. Bushwacking up steep hills in 100 degree+ heat wearing protective gear and carrying heavy equipment, often through heavy brush, these "boots on the ground" do incredibly hard work. They labor to hand-cut breaks to contain fires and to save structures.  

So what are the lessons here? First, fires are a fact of life in California's dry areas, so we should expect them. Second, we are lucky to have such skilled and dedicated firefighters. But here's the thing I just don't get: Why do so many rural property owners fail to take basic steps to protect their properties from fire? 

This house is practically asking to burn up in a grass fire, an all too common sight
Why leave thick bushes, low hanging trees and tall dry grass around buildings? Sure firefighters are tasked with stopping fires, but why make their job tougher rather than easier? Why expose them to more personal danger than they are already in? Why not secure one's own property so when the inevitable fire approaches, the firefighters can put more manpower into stopping it from growing and threatening others' property? When seconds count, firefighters are minutes away, so why not give yourself every advantage? I just don't get it. End of rant, thanks for reading.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ready for a long dry summer

Stripped of its fruit crop, this apricot tree puts all its energy into foliage
The deed is done. For the first time ever, we have taken the green fruit off the trees and will have no stone fruit crop to sell this year. We chose to favor the health of the trees over our desire for a bountiful harvest. And, right now, the trees are looking good; so we are satisfied that we made the right decision.

Since the long term forecasts indicate that droughts here will be increasingly common, we also took a hard look at all the plantings on our parcel and did some tree removal too. Some of our Santa Rosa plum trees were in bad shape, damaged relentlessly by aphids and stink bugs; so they yielded gracefully to the chain saw. Also seven black walnut trees are now neatly cut and stacked up as firewood. We will not miss the thousands of black walnuts that had to be picked up and disposed of each year. And those “weed” trees will no longer compete with our fruit trees for nutrition and water.  And while the chain saw was close at hand, the oak trees we have planted got a major pruning. Between that work and the regular mowing of the orchard floor, our place now looks tidy and well-groomed.

So we are as prepared as we can be for the long dry summer. In the years ahead, we will gradually increase our water storage capacity and fine tune our systems to use every drop to best advantage.

The hills are well on their way to summer's dry and golden look
Spring is winding down now, but the wildflowers have been a delight this year. Overall, there were fewer than usual, but scarcity made each survivor more welcome. At Easter we took our annual walk on the ridge to the north of us and captured the photos below.

Owl's clover and miniature lupine grace a March hillside


Diogenes Lantern likes secluded shady areas

An Anise swallowtail butterfly sips nectar from Brodiaea flowers

A Monarch butterfly caterpillar dines on milkweed leaves

And, last year there was a huge fire up by Lake Berryessa which burned thousands of acres. But the lupine and poppies signaled their intention to live on with this extravagant display of color.

Huge carpets of poppies and lupine dominated the roadsides of
Putah Creek Canyon, stimulated by last summer's fire

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