Sunny Slope Orchard

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

Friday, March 14, 2014

February rains deliver spring beauty

Rain runs off the shop roof during a downpour

Two strong rain storms last month finally brought us some drought relief. Our rainfall total is still only about 30% of average and is not nearly enough to replenish aquifers. But finally, for the first time in almost 10 months, the soil is damp from the surface on down and life is springing forth. The transformation in the orchard and surrounding hills is dramatic. After months of dry days we are now savoring a green spring we thought might not even happen this year.

The orchard cover crop is suddenly almost knee high. On a
normal year it would be double that, but we are glad for
at least some growth that will provide soil protection this
summer after mowing down.

Peaches are in full bloom

Apricots had a heavy bloom and are now bristling with pea-sized fruits

Our native Western Redbud trees are ablaze in bloom and
pushing out new foliage

Our Valencia orange trees are loaded with ripening fruit
and ready to burst out in blooms that will form next
year's fruit

After months of scratching in dry dirt the chickens are glad
to have lush green grass and worms on the menu again

Every day the hills turn a bit more green as the fresh grass
slowly grows up through last summer's dry weeds 

We know we have a long dry summer to get through, so for now we are taking every opportunity to savor the beauty of a green spring that almost didn't happen. And we're still hoping for a bit more rain.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Pruning citrus trees

A well pruned citrus tree has open space inside
As with all fruit trees, citrus benefit from regular pruning. Though they require less radical work than many fruits, regular pruning provides several benefits:

  • It maintains the tree at a manageable size. Left unpruned a citrus tree will continue growing higher and wider each year until eventually reaching 20' or more. It is common to see unpruned citrus trees hanging over neighbors' fences and rubbing on roofs. Even dwarf citrus will easily grow too tall, they just take a bit longer.
  • Pruning allows light and air inside the canopy, improving fruit quality and quantity and reducing pest infestations. Left unpruned the foliage becomes so dense that deeply shaded areas stop bearing and small branches die back. Mites and scale insects thrive in the dark crowded spots that tend to stay damp. A well pruned tree is a healthy tree.
  • Pruning makes harvest much easier. Over time small dead twiggy branches accumulate, making picking difficult and painful. Cutting out the dead and thinning the crowded shoots really improves access and visibility. I like to maintain big enough openings around the canopy that I can step inside.
  • Keeping branches up off the soil prevents fruit mold and limits access for ants and other pests.
Dead shoots clutter up a grapefruit tree

The same view after pruning out dead wood and crowded

Before pruning . . .

 . . . and after

Vigorous upright shoots called "water sprouts"
should always be removed. Left alone they quickly
grow right through the top of the tree and they
seldom produce decent fruit if any.

Water sprouts can be recognized by their
flattish shape and are often thorny

These naval orange trees maintained at no more than 7' high
can be picked without a ladder. Lower branches are pruned up
off the ground so the lowest fruit will not touch moist soil
and get moldy.

The view from inside shows the open spaces created by pruning.
These oranges can be picked without getting scratched hands.
When to prune
Heavy pruning on a neglected citrus tree is best done in the late winter/early spring before the spring growth spurt. Then strong spring growth will nurture the tree to recovery. If topping the tree to reduce its height exposes bare bark to the sun, be sure to paint those areas with 50/50 white interior latex paint and water to prevent sunburn.

But for trees that are regularly maintained, pruning time is not so important since little growth is removed each time. I normally do touch-up prunings twice a year, in late winter and again in mid summer as needed to control height. Since pruning promotes new growth, late summer pruning should be avoided since the new growth could still be tender in early winter and easily freeze damaged.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Drought times four

A bone dry pond and parched hills on a nearby property. The
pond normally fills by December, providing water for grazing cattle.
Well, these past few days the media has suddenly awakened to the fact that California is in the midst of a drought. Stories of low reservoirs and dry river beds abound. But to those of us who depend directly upon the annual rainy season to fill our wells and irrigate our crops, this is old news. For us every fall begins an anxious time of hoping for rains, preferably in the form of generous storms at regular intervals. But this season's weather has dashed our hopes early, often and cruelly, not just from lack of winter rains alone but by four compounding factors.

First, so far this year we have had barely 2" of rainfall, and have had none at all since December 6. That is the longest mid-winter dry stretch in the 150 years that records have been kept. At our 800 ft. elevation we normally average 35 inches of rain per season, most falling between October and April. So what should be emerald green hills saturated with water are instead still golden and parched. Our ground is bone dry except where we can manage some minimal drip irrigation from our low-producing wells. And those wells, which would normally be recharging this time of year, are continuing the drop that started at the end of last year's rains. Long range weather models predict little chance of significant rain this spring.

Second, the previous two seasons have been quite dry so we started out this season in the hole. The 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons gave us only about 60% of average, so we entered last fall with a two year deficit. We have been through droughts before, notably three years in the mid-70's. But then we got at least 10"-13" of rain each year. Right now 10" would seem like a bonanza.

Third, except for one very cold week most of our fall and winter days have been unseasonably warm and sunny. Temperatures have regularly reached into the 70s. While the tropical temps are pleasant for working outside they quickly dry out plants and soil, requiring us to winter irrigate, something the rains normally do for us. And even that freezing cold week hurt, since cold air is very dry and pulls moisture out of everything.

And fourth, we have had an unusually high number of days of north wind, including several multi-day episodes of horrendously strong blasts. As anyone who lives in northern California knows, north wind is a fiendishly dry, irritating weather occurrence that desiccates plants and people, often blows with destructive force, and makes us all grumpy. In addition to sucking away any moisture we received from our measly rains, the strongest windy spells scoured the floor of our orchard, clearing off most of the fallen leaves and other mulch that normally provide protection for the soil surface.

So we are hoping for the best but preparing as well as we can for the worst. I spread compost and planted a legume cover crop as usual last fall. A couple of light rains were enough to germinate the seed, but since then it has been barely clinging to life.

This legume cover crop would normally be waist-high
and lush by now
It is important to keep the orchard trees' roots hydrated even during the dormant season, so since early December I have been moving circles of drip tubing from tree to tree. This boosts the cover crop directly under the trees, but more importantly helps to store some water in the soil for even drier months ahead. With our limited water supply I can only afford about four hours of soaking per tree, three trees at a time. This means each tree gets this tiny ration only once every 20 days or so.

Drip irrigation tubing circling a tree
Ground water is notoriously short in our area, and the aquifers that do exist mostly flow through small cracks in sandstone or shale. So although there is some water underground, it cannot flow quickly into a well. This means that water has to be pumped slowly from the wells into large storage tanks above ground. That way we can accumulate it while we are not watering and have a temporary supply for fast use when we need it.

One of our four water storage tanks sits on the highest spot
on our property, providing gravity pressure for drip irrigation.
A rope and float system indicates water level in the tank.
We have four wells, all low producing. Together they produce around 1000 gallons per day. While that might sound like a lot, a single inch of rain falling on our 4 acres would deliver 110,000 gallons!

Our original well is pictured below, an old hand dug hole in the ground that is only 36 feet deep, 4 feet in diameter at the bottom and lined with random sandstone rocks placed without mortar. It is likely over 100 years old, and one has to marvel at the immense and dangerous labor required to construct a well like this.

The beauty of a dug well is it's volume - it acts as a storage tank in the ground, accumulating water whenever we're not pumping. We have a solar powered pump in this well, and since it only pumps during daylight the water level recovers overnight. Surprisingly after an average rainfall season this is our best well, holding a steady 12 to 15 feet of water inside. Sadly, during dry years the water level falls sharply and is now only about 2 feet deep in the mornings before pumping.

Our old hand dug well
So for now we search the long range forecasts daily for signs of hope, trying to stay optimistic but knowing we are experiencing a drought unprecedented in California recorded history. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Our mobile chicken coop

Chickens are wonderfully peaceful, productive and amusing animals to have around. Their gentle clucking and enthusiasm for all things food add a wonderful presence to our farm. And their talent for converting kitchen scraps, worms and bugs, and feed into fresh eggs while adding fertility to the soil is recycling at its best.

But these busy eaters need to be contained and also protected from predators. About a year ago I built a mobile chicken coop, often called a "chicken tractor." This pen on wheels is a 5' x 10' cage with a secure roosting and nest box space above. The wheels allow easy moving so the hens can enjoy fresh ground to scratch for worms or eat fresh greens while staying safe from hawks, raccoons and other predators. The mobile coop makes it easy to use the chickens' scavenging and fertilizing skills to good advantage in the garden. After digging potatoes, I move the coop over the spud plot and the hens dig and scratch for slugs and wire worms, cleaning out pests while leaving their fertilizer behind for the next crop. Prior to planting broccoli and carrots, I roll the coop over the plot to pre-weed, de-bug and fertilize the ground. And when a garden plot is to be fallow for a season I plant it with a chicken-friendly cover crop and when seed heads mature, roll the chickens in to feast on seed heads and bugs.

Our mobile chicken coop, made from 2x2 redwood and plywood

Retractable wheels raise the coop 4" off the ground. The wheels are just behind the balance point of the coop, so after lowering the wheels it is very easy to lift the front handle and pull the coop around. The video below shows the lifting mechanism: a steel lever (1" x 2" channel iron) pivots on a shaft running through the coop. The wheel axles are offset 4" behind the shaft, so when the lever is rotated 90 deg. the coop lifts 4".

The nest box lid opens for easy egg collection

Nest boxes inside view

The side door opens for cleanout of the roosting area

A sliding door keeps the hens extra safe from predators that might dig under the coop at night. I added a mechanism to automatically open the door at dawn for those times when I might not get outside bright and early. It is operated by a used automobile window motor I found on ebay, powered by an inexpensive gate opener battery, a timer and some switches. I designed it so that I must manually close it in the evening since I want to check that the hens are safely at roost before closing. A cheap 1/2 watt solar panel keeps the battery charged at all times.

An automotive window motor operates a door that automatically
lets the hens out of their roosting box each morning

A battery, timer and switches operate the automatic door. A 1/2 watt
solar panel keeps the battery charged.
The video below shows the door being operated manually. The mechanism contacts switches at the fully closed and fully open positions, to interrupt the current and stop the motor.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Frittata
With our steady supply of fresh eggs, one of our go-to meals is frittata, a baked mixture of vegetables, potato, onion, cheese and eggs. The recipe link below containing butternut squash is a great variation. The creamy squash blended with the eggs really covers up the "eggy" character of regular frittata, making a slightly sweet rich body for the dish. Since we grew sweet potatoes in the garden this summer we have started substituting them for the butternut squash and can report that this version works equally well.

Link to Butternut Squash Frittata recipe

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Indian summer views, and a book report

Here on November 12th we are enjoying beautiful T shirt weather, perfect for working outside. Unlike in the heat of summer or the usual November cold, we have been able to tick off projects comfortably and in good time: knocking and shelling walnuts and pecans, weekly harvesting of persimmons and lemons, spreading compost and planting the winter cover crop, and much more.

The only thing not to like is the lack of rain. After the previous two low-rainfall years our wells are barely producing and the trees are stressed. So we wait impatiently, eagerly checking long range forecasts for some sign of relief. So far every projected storm has been a mirage, but we keep hoping. In the meantime there is nothing to do but enjoy the beauty of fall. Here are some recent orchard views:

Apricot trees are a blaze of yellow

Peach trees combine red and yellow

Persimmons leaves go all out to capture "best of show"

We are picking Fuyu persimmons weekly for restaurant
and on-farm sales
Our Meyer lemons are showing their appreciation for the
compost, kelp and minerals they received this year with
great size, color and flavor 

Our winter wheat plot is off to a great start and we look
forward to many great loaves of bread next summer

A great book for the home orchard enthusiast

For anyone wanting to grow backyard or small scale fruit and nut trees, the book The Home Orchard, Growing Your Own Deciduous Fruit and Nut Trees is an invaluable resource. Published by University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, this book offers a wealth of information from choosing the best varieties for your climate, to soils preparation and planting, to growth cycles and tree care, through cultural practices such as irrigation, fertilizing, pruning, thinning, harvesting and pest control. I recommend it highly, available here:

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Homemade Bread from Home Grown Wheat

Why grow your own wheat?
With bread flour being inexpensive and easily available, why would anyone want to grow their own wheat for flour? Certainly not to save money, since small scale grain growing is a long and labor intensive process. The ground must be prepared and planted, the crop needs to be tended for many months, then harvested and the grain threshed from the heads and cleaned of chaff, and finally ground into flour.

For us there are two reasons to grow our own wheat: First there is flavor. A wheat berry is a complex, nutritionally dense seed that will keep very well when stored whole and dry. But once ground into flour, oxidation begins to degrade flavor and aroma. Taste a nut right out of the shell compared to chopped nut pieces from a plastic bag on the store shelf, or fresh squeezed orange juice compared to that from a plastic bottle and you get the idea. Fresh baked whole wheat bread made from just-milled flour is an experience in taste and aroma that makes pre-sliced store bread seem a very sad imitation.

Of course one can easily buy wheat berries from a food coop and eliminate all the work of growing and harvesting, so reason #1 is not critical. But another reason to grow grain might be for the satisfaction. Just as someone might grow a vegetable garden even though great produce stands abound, or raise a few laying hens even though eggs are cheaper at the store, growing grain can be as satisfying as growing anything else. Since wheat is such an ancient and basic part of agriculture and a fundamental part of the human diet, growing our own feels an important way to connect to something greater than ourselves. So despite the fact that it doesn't "pencil out," it seems important and we really enjoy it.

What to plant
There are many varieties of wheat: high and low protein, winter or spring grown, white or red, modern hybrids or heritage varieties. Because I use wheat for yeast-raised breads, I want a high protein (high gluten content) wheat. And because I want maximum yield for my trouble, I want a high-producing modern hybrid. And having little water for irrigation, I plant a winter wheat, sowing in the fall so it can be watered almost entirely by rainfall. For the second year I am using this hard red variety.

TIP: When buying wheat berries at a coop or such to mill your own flour for yeast breads, you will want to know that it has a high gluten content that will produce a tall, light loaf. A simple seat of the pants test is to put a dozen or so berries in your mouth, lightly mouthing them until they soften enough to be chewed. Once they begin to break down keep chewing but do not swallow the grain. A nice high gluten wheat will soon transform to the texture of chewing gum. In fact you can easily continue to chew it just like gum. You can be sure that that wheat will have good yeast bread rising qualities. But if the wheat just becomes mush then it will make loaves the texture of bricks unless a high proportion of white bread flour is added.

Preparing the ground for planting
I will plant the wheat in rows about 8" apart, giving enough space to run a wheel hoe down the row while the wheat is small, but close enough together so that the tall spring growth will help shade out weeds later in the season. But the most important weed control strategy is to first pre-irrigate the plot to cause existing weed seeds to sprout. Then after a couple of weeks I spread compost and any needed amendments and lightly till the plot, killing all of the initial weeds.

This year's wheat plot has been irrigated to sprout weed
seeds, then for two weeks our mobile chicken coop is moved
across the plot for some free fertilizer and chicken feed.

Compost has been spread and the ground is lightly tilled

I use a simple Earthway seeder set up to drop about 16 seeds per foot with rows 8" apart, at a planting depth of 1-1/2". Another planting method is to make shallow grooves with a harrow or by hand with the corner of a hoe, then dropping the seeds in by hand and covering with a rake. In any case it is best to keep the depth between 3/4" and 1-1/2", and to firmly press the soil over the seeds to ensure good seed/soil contact.

The Earthway seeder has a variety of seed plates for
different sized seeds, and a scribe to mark the location
of the next row. 

Ideally enough early rain will fall (or irrigation is available) to germinate the wheat by mid November so it will achieve some good growth before the cold weather of December - January. Then as spring days warm and lengthen, growth will jump and form many large grain heads for a high yield. Weed control and adequate nitrogen, phosphate, and water are key needs in the spring. 

At the end of January 2012, last year's wheat plot was off to
a good start. Growth will stall over the coldest months,
then take off in February.

A wheel hoe is a real labor saver for weeding between rows,
possible only when the wheat is very short. The stirrup part
is available in different widths to fit row spacing.

In spring the stems are tall and the grain
heads emerge from the terminal leaves

Barley (left) and wheat (right) later in spring, with heads
well filled out and starting to lighten in color

As the crop matures the leaves and stems will turn dry. At that point it is time to test the grain by picking individual grains from a head and squeezing them. First they will have a milky liquid inside, then progress to a doughy consistency, and eventually the grains become very hard. The wheat should be harvested as soon as it is completely dry and hard. It will then be fully mature and will store without molding. But waiting too long will risk loss to birds or heads shattering during harvest.

The grain is ready to harvest when all leaves are dried and
the wheat berries can no longer be dented with your teeth
For our very small plot we have found it easiest to walk down the rows with fruit picking buckets and snap off the heads at their base. This avoids dealing with all the straw during the threshing step.

A Youtube search on 'threshing grain" will provide many methods of small scale threshing. We have found that dropping the heads into our chipper/shredder (with the engine just idling slowly) works well. This knocks the wheat berries out of the heads thoroughly but damages almost none. We then winnow using a fan to separate the wheat berries from the chaff. The secret here is to drop the threshed grain and chaff in a slow stream like a waterfall, starting the drop well above the fan. The grains, being heavier, separate and fall faster than the lighter chaff so when the mix enters the air stream the chaff is easily blown away. Shown below, two large bins and a trailer catch the material. the first bin catches almost all grain, the second a few grains and some chaff, and the trailer all chaff. The first two bins are then winnowed a second time and finally the grain is poured into shallow trays and any remaining bits of straw are pulled out.

Winnowing the grain after threshing in a
chipper/shredder. Dropping the grain from a bit
above the fan works best

Final drying and storage
Once clean the wheat needs to be more thoroughly dried before storage. We put the grain into a tub with a screened bottom and set it over the fan inside our solar fruit dryer. Other methods are to build a wooden box with screen on the bottom, set it up off the floor on blocks and attach a fan to the bottom to force air through. When thoroughly dry the grain will store well in an airtight(and bug tight) container in a dark place.

As with any crop, yield varies widely depending upon plant variety, growing conditions, soil fertility, etc. An average wheat yield could be about 5 lb./100 sq. ft. with reasonable growing conditions. Last year despite very low rainfall we were right on average with 35# of wheat from 650 sq. ft. and 39# of barley from another 650 sq. ft. We grew the barley for chicken feed.

Milling flour
We have used three different grain mills and are totally sold on our latest, the Nutrimill. It is extremely fast (4-1/2 cups of flour takes just over one minute), dust free, simple to use, and is adjustable from medium to very fine flour. We normally mill the flour just before making bread so the flour is still warm from milling and is as fresh and aromatic as possible.

Nutrimill grain mill

Baking bread the easy way
To simplify the process we use a bread machine since they do a wonderful job of kneading. But few do a great job of baking. We used to use an older machine just for mixing and kneading, then we would remove the dough, form the loaf, let it rise and bake in the oven. Results were good but it took lots of baby sitting the dough through all the steps. Recently we've upgraded to the Zojirushi Virtuoso and can report that it does the job start to finish perfectly, turning out beautiful loaves just by adding the ingredients and pushing a button. It's expensive but worth it.

The Zojirushi bread machine

The finished product, 100% whole wheat bread from
home grown wheat!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Tomatoes on My Mind

From our pantry, L-R: Whole canned Juliet tomatoes,
tomato soup, pizza sauce, tomato puree, and tomato salsa
As the summer days grow shorter, it is comforting to gaze at our pantry shelves weighted down with jars of garden produce. For us, tomatoes are a sturdy year-round staple, so we preserve them in several ways. Here are two of our current favorites:

Both of these are tested recipes which can be canned safely at home with a conventional water bath or steam canner. We recommend them highly.

However, for years we have also successfully canned a friend’s delicious tomato soup recipe, even though it hasn’t gotten an official seal of approval from a university or government testing lab. Our research into food safety gave us confidence in this recipe. Here are a few of the resources we found very helpful in our research:

  • The Ball Blue Book was introduced in 1909 and is still a must-have for every home canner, even those of us who grew up canning with our mothers.
  • The National Center for Home Food Preservation is another invaluable resource.
  • In California, contact the University of California Cooperative Extension office to find food preservation classes in your home county. The Extension classes are taught by trained Master Food Preservers.

But, back to our untested recipe: to can or not to can was the question. Traditional wisdom (Mom) always held that botulism cannot grow and form toxin in acid fruit. Tomatoes are an acid fruit. Ergo, there is no botulism toxin in canned tomatoes. However, in recent years many low acid varieties have come onto the market. In addition, non-acid additions like onions or celery reduce acidity of the recipe. Several lessons that we learned helped us decide how to safely can and use our soup recipe.

First, at the recommendation of a Master Food Preserver, we now use a digital meter to test the pH of every batch of tomato soup and all other tomato products before processing. The readings we get are consistently between 4.0 and 4.3 depending on the recipe.  Any tomato product over 4.6 is too low in acidity to be canned safely without the addition of bottled lemon juice, citric acid or vinegar. When measuring pH, we always test the tool with the correct calibration solutions before using it. The soup (or other product) should be tested at room temperature, not when it is too hot or cold. As with any tool, it is important to read the instruction manual and follow the directions.

Digital pH meter for testing acidity
Secondly, the bacteria Clostridium botulinium itself does not harm humans and is in fact widely found in soils. But it produces a toxin under anaerobic, low acid conditions that is potentially fatal. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control  and Prevention, “Despite its extreme potency, botulinium toxin is easily destroyed. Heating to an internal temperature of 85° C [185° F] for at least 5 minutes will decontaminate affected food or drink.”  See

Further, food-borne botulism poisoning is rare in the US. The CDC reports that In the United States, an average of 145 cases are reported each year. Of these, approximately 15% [22 cases] are food borne. And the mortality rate for these cases is 3 to 5% [one death].
See for more detailed data.
Since traffic accidents kill over twenty thousand each year, it would seem that driving to buy your canning lids is actually much more hazardous than eating carefully-preserved home-canned tomatoes.

Finally, a pressure canner raises the internal temperature of the product higher than the boiling point, which will kill botulism spores. So, a good pressure canner might be a wise investment for the serious food preserver.

Sometimes though, the simplest methods are the best. Our fast and easy way to can tomatoes is to run them through our Champion Juicer, a sturdy workhorse from the 1970s. The juice oozes out of the throat of the machine and is captured in a small bowl. We save this juice to freeze for risotto or soup stocks. The pulp is thicker and extrudes through the mouth of the juicer into the larger bowl. Nothing is wasted.

Our trusty Champion Juicer

The pulp is heated to the boiling point, poured into jars and canned either in a pressure canner, boiling water bath or steam canner, following the directions for timing as per the relevant manual. We abandoned the boiling water bath in favor of a steam canner years ago; the water bath kettle full of water was heavy to lift and slow to come to the boil. And the steam canner uses far less water and thus require less energy to heat.
The steam canner is fast and energy efficient

So we encourage everyone to do a bit of research, sharpen your knife, and get in the habit of home canning to bring year round nutrition, economy and above all home grown flavors to your pantry.