Sunny Slope Orchard

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

Monday, May 30, 2016

Cots and peaches are done for this year!

We can hardly believe it, but after little more than a week we are already sold out of peaches and apricots for the year. The peaches all ripened within a very few days, beating all previous records. So instead of having at least two weeks to gradually pick and slowly sell the fruit, we had only days. We were able to get some into a few customers' hands, but ripe fruit can't wait around so we had to sell most of it in bulk to a produce store and restaurant. But at least we made good use of the fruit and little went to waste.

The apricots are another story. They began ripening gradually as usual, and we were picking a few boxes every day as they ripened up nicely in moderate temperatures. Then this week hit, with temperatures in the upper 90's and expected to top 105 in a few days. High heat slows down photosynthesis, especially when the soil is dry as it is again this year. The leaves turn away from the sun, hiding from the heat, and stop transpiring moisture to the air. This slows down nutrient flow in the tree and fruits, and if the hot spell lasts more than a few days, the fruit stops ripening and begins to decay inside. Apricots are especially prone to this problem. So sadly we can only look on as the 80% of our cot crop still on the trees deteriorates. It is too green to harvest and is unlikely to survive until cool weather returns, so this looks like the end of our apricot season. We're sorry for all our customers who will miss their annual batch of cots for eating, jam, and canning. We were hoping for a reasonable apricot year, but it is not to be.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Harvest time is here!

A ripe Springcrest peach meets the sunrise

With the past 11 months of irrigation, weed control, cover cropping, pruning, pest control and fruit thinning behind us, it's show time as we are now literally enjoying the fruits of our labors. Cots, peaches, and a few plums are ripening and we will be picking daily for the next few weeks.

Harvest is rewarding, but is also the most stressful and exhausting season for us. Since individual fruits ripen over a 2-3 week period, each tree must be picked 10 times or more. That way we can allow near-complete ripening on the tree for maximum flavor, rather than picking green and letting the fruit "ripen" off the tree (think flavorless grocery store fruit). The difference in flavor is dramatic, the difference in labor is also huge. And we lose a lot to birds, insects and wind fall the longer it hangs on the trees. But to us, flavor is the whole point. Our loyal customers seem to agree.

The season is short, with peaches lasting barely two weeks, cots maybe three. Plums are in limited supply and will only be around until mid to late June. So an intense few weeks awaits.

Royal Blenheim apricots
For our drive-in customers, please email ahead before coming out, to sunnyslopeorchard [at] gmail [dot] com.



Monday, May 16, 2016

It's beginning to feel a lot like summer

Springtime's green hills are quickly fading to brown

Here we are in mid-May, a time of quickly changing seasons. The vibrant green hills of spring are fast turning dry and golden. Temperatures are rising and most likely we have seen about the last of this season's rain. All manner of plants are doing their best to produce seed, especially thistles and other invasive pests that require constant mowing and hand pulling to control. But our focus is mostly on the ripening fruit crop.

Last year we stripped just about all the fruit from our drought stressed trees, thinking this would help them endure that fourth year of drought. That seems to have payed off, as this year the trees are showing great vigor despite getting only 85% of average rainfall. After winter pruning to ensure plenty of space between trees for ladder access and light penetration, the strong growth has just about filled any empty space.

Vigorous spring growth in apricot trees 
Meanwhile the fruit is showing good color and sizing up nicely. The peaches are looking gorgeous, but are still small and hard. We guestimate the first picking will be around the first of June.

Ripening peaches tease with their vibrant red color, but are still hard as baseballs

As we mentioned in the previous post, our cots suffered a lot of cosmetic damage from untimely rains in March. We stripped off the worst affected fruit, but there will be quite a bit of speckled skin. Still, many are looking quite good and the size is impressive. We are just now starting to see the first hints of yellow among the green cots. And like the peaches, we project our first pickings will be around Memorial Day.

A few cots are just starting to change from green to yellowish
So for now we are feeling the familiar excitement of a fast and furious harvest season racing toward us. We are busy weeding, propping up heavily laden branches, banding tree trunks to protect against ants and earwigs, and setting up our famous bird scare machines. The shade cloth has been suspended over the citrus and figs to protect them from summer's heat.

Shade cloth helps shallow rooted trees like figs and
citrus cope with summer heat and limited water
As soon as picking starts in earnest we will be sending out an email to our regular customers letting you know what is ripe. Anyone wanting to be on our list, please email your contact information to sunnyslopeorchard [at] gmail [dot] com. 


Bill and Fern

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.