Sunny Slope Orchard

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

Friday, November 25, 2011

Persimmon season

Thanksgiving has come and gone and once again our favorite persimmon appetizer was a big hit, with family members vacuuming the plate bare in no time. We described this simple treat - peeled-and-sliced fuyu persimmons sprinkled with lime - in a post last year here. If you have not tried it and want to wow guests at holiday parties or just add a delicious fruit plate to Fall meals, look no further than Fuyus and lime.

We will have Fuyu persimmons for sale for the next few weeks. We are picking every few days so if interested please call ahead at 707-448-4792.
A slice of Fuyu persimmon

Along with tending to persimmons and the Fall vegetable garden we are enjoying the vibrant colors the season offers. Here are some recent sights:
Timothy grass
A wild grape leaf
Wild grape climbs a barbed wire fence
more wild grapes

Toyon leaves after a rain

Apricot leaves are falling

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Walnuts from tree to table

Cooler weather and shorter days are here. It's Fall again, the time when walnuts that have been maturing all summer are falling from their husks. Walnuts are nutritious, tasty and versatile and we eat the majority of our small crop ourselves throughout the year. Here we will share some tools of the trade that speed up both harvesting and shelling this locally abundant food.
For easiest harvesting we wait until most husks are at least split open. Then knocking the branches with padded poles or shaking the branches will easily release a shower of nuts onto the ground.
A walnut ready to fall from the husk

The Nut Wizard picks up objects like a vacuum cleaner
Picking up
Next is picking them up. That used to mean sore back time - bending over or crawling on hands and knees to fill buckets. But not any more! Since a friend told us about the Nut Wizard this once tedious job has become a breeze. This tool might at first look like just another gimmick, but in fact is a well made and very effective tool. Simply by rolling it over the ground it will pick up any type of nut, small to medium citrus, apples, golf balls and more. Roll it over walnuts and as if by magic they instantly pop inside the flexible wires of the rolling basket.

Then when full just lower it onto the included bucket hoop; this spreads the wires and the nuts fall into the bucket. It's so much fun to use you may be tempted to dump the bucket out and pick the nuts up again!

After harvesting, the nuts need to dry thoroughly before shelling. We spread them out on racks or in shallow boxes in a warm dry space for several days, until the meats become dry and brittle.

Once dry it's time to shell the nuts. A hammer and hard surface is the most basic option, but here are two alternatives:

The Texas Inertia Nut Cracker - This is a great little device, easy to use and it yields mostly halves. Just place a nut in the cracking chamber, pull back on the rubber band powered plunger and release. The shell is shattered without damaging the nut meat. Although it cracks one at a time, the job goes fairly fast once you get a rhythm going. Works with most types of nuts.

The Davebilt Nut Cracker - This is a heavy duty hand cranked machine that cracks nuts continuously. Just load them into the hopper and crank away. It is easily adjustable for English walnuts, pecans and almonds. This is the one we use, though I've modified ours to run off of an electric motor. But even hand cranking it works much faster than a single nut device. It yields a good percentage of halves and some smaller pieces of nut meat. Definitely the way to go for anyone with a whole tree's worth of nuts.

Once shelled, the oils in nut meats quickly go stale. So as with much of the food we preserve we use our trusty Foodsaver to vacuum pack the nuts into compact book-shaped bags then store them in our freezer.

Granola Recipe
This is our version of an Epicurious recipe called Everyday Granola; for comparison purposes, you can check out the original recipe at this link. You might want to adapt the ingredients to your taste preferences as we did.

Dry ingredients:
3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 teaspoon cinammon

Mix the above ingredients together in a large bowl.

Wet ingredients:
2 Tablespoons canola oil
2 Tablespoons molasses
2 Tablespoons honey

Mix the wet ingredients together and warm gently on the stove or in a microwave so you can stir and blend them together. Drizzle the wet mix onto the dry ingredients and stir with a large spoon to coat the oat mixture evenly.

Put the mixture in a large rimmed baking sheet, spreading it out evenly. Bake in a 275 degree oven for about 30 minutes, stirring the mixture every 10 minutes or so to assure that it browns evenly. It should look golden brown when done and the nuts should taste pleasantly crunchy.

Serve for breakfast with yogurt, fresh or dried fruits, and/or milk.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Some favorite vegetable varieties

A lot goes into successful gardening, like fertile soil, kind weather, watering method, and pest control. One of the most important factors is expressed in the old saying, "the best fertilizer is the gardener's footprints," in other words, watch the garden closely and you will catch small problems before they become big.

Plant varieties are also important, and with so many available it pays to experiment to find those that are best suited to your soil and climate. Here I will list a few of our favorites, those that consistently do well in our well drained soil, hot summers and mild winters. I will also share some of our favorite sources of seed and starts.
There are loads of great slicing toms, but for a good meaty sauce, salsa, soup and salad tomato we are sold on Juliet. These little guys are the sweetest things this side of Sungold, and bear nice clusters of perfect fruit all summer long. A perfect size to pop into your mouth, people invariably exclaim about their flavor. And since we process loads of soup and sauce, these are fast to process just by dropping whole into our Champion Juicer. We get starts locally from Morningsun Herb Farm.

Green beans
We've decided the only bean for us is a long bean variety. This one is called Red-Seeded Asparagus Bean from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They are stringless, have great flavor, and are resistant to pests and problems. Best of all we find they are much faster to pick and to process than the same weight of shorter beans. We freeze extra for winter meals, and it takes no time at all to drop a big handful into boiling water, fish them out 2 minutes later with tongs, drop into ice water, then lay a bunch across a cutting board and cut into 1" pieces.

Okra blossom
This is the first year we've grown okra, so can't recommend a particular variety. But we can recommend it as a reliable and very heavy producer. While okra might sound like something you serve alongside squirrel or possum, it is actually a delicious and versatile vegetable that is easy to grow and, at least in our experience, has few pest problems. We preserved a lot by freezing. We grew Clemson this year, and may try one of the red varieties next season. The blooms are also spectacular.

Tree Collard
This unusual plant has become a mainstay in our garden. Being big fans of greens, we used to grow your typical varieties of kale and collards, annual cool season plants that live one season and die. But a few years ago a neighbor gave us a start of a tree collard, a perennial variety that becomes a tall bush that can be harvested continuously year after year. The plant looks ratty and flavor gets bitter in our hot summers, but when cool weather returns we can once again harvest from our perpetual fountain of greens without having to start new plants. They are reported to be only possible to propagate from seed, however ours flowered and seedlings sprouted where the seeds fell. Bountiful Gardens is one source of cuttings.

Probably our favorite vegetable, we've settled on Arcadia as the variety that does best for us. It produces huge heads, then after harvest continues to produce good sized side heads for weeks longer. This year we did a late spring planting and kept it under shade cloth. Here in October we are still harvesting side shoots from those plants. Meanwhile our mid-summer plantings are growing vigorously and should be ready to start harvesting in a few weeks.

Known as Romanesco broccoli or Romanesco cauliflower, this unique plant is a must have for its looks alone. Someone once said it looks like a combination of geometry and vegetable. But in addition to its amazing decorative value, the taste is delicious and mild. This particular variety is Veronica.

There are lots of great lettuce varieties, and we often buy seed packets of mixes containing different colors and leaf shapes that really add interest to a salad. The one pictured here is Sanguine Ameliore from Baker Creek.

We are having great luck with a Chinese Napa cabbage variety called Minuet. It is really fast growing and mild flavored. We've had delicious results in stir fries, soups, stews and raw in a simple to make Napa cabbage salad (but we skip the butter and all the sugar in this recipe).

Nelson has been the best performer for us, with wonderful flavor, early maturity and heat tolerance. In fact, starting in late winter we have been eating garden carrots continuously all summer. Because carrot seeds are so small and hard to sprinkle on the ground with even spacing, I like to buy "pelleted" seeds, which are coated with a clay substance to make them bigger and easier to drop singly into the ground.

We always do one special Spring planting of around 500 carrots that we run through the juicer for freezing. And when digging so many carrots there are always a few unusual shapes. So I can't resist showing off this amorous pair discovered during our last big dig.

Sources for onions, garlic, and potatoes
We have had great luck with onion starts from Dixondale Farms. Order online in the Fall and they arrive in January ready to plant. For garlic and potatoes, I use The Potato Garden which has great varieties and service.

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Gardening Year 'round

Our second crop figs are all done now, so orchard work is down to cleanup and some summer pruning of low branches to make way for fall compost spreading and cover crop planting. Next up to harvest will be walnuts, pecans and persimmons later in the Fall.

So this might be a good time to share some of our home vegetable gardening tips. Our wonderful climate allows year round vegetable gardening, and being spoiled by the taste of fresh produce, we take full advantage of that. Our main challenges are getting the most mileage out of our limited summer well water, and extending the seasons by protecting plants from temperature extremes.

Taming the summer sun
In summer most water is reserved to drip irrigate the orchard, especially water hungry figs and citrus. So we don't grow any water-needy garden plants like corn or melons. And what we do grow is always heavily mulched and drip irrigated only as much as needed. We also cover all beds with at least a 30% shade cloth, suspended on PVC pipe hoops tall enough to walk under. The shade really takes the heat stress off the plants and also reduces their water needs. We use a 30% shade cloth for most crops, or two layers for 60% shade on heat sensitive plants.
A PVC hoop shade house
Chinese cabbage and broccoli
thriving despite summer heat
Year round cool season crops
We have even found that we can grow cool season crops like cabbage, broccoli and carrots all summer long by adding extra shade and using intermittent misters during the hottest part of the day. Using a special timer that runs an overhead misting line 3 minutes every half hour, these normally cool season crops grow like weeds. They mature much faster than during the cool months, so by making multiple plantings in succession we can keep the garden producing cool season crops almost continuously.

Cold protection
When cool fall weather arrives the shade cloth will come down so plants will get full sun. Then as the temperatures go from cool to cold, we cover the plants with "row cover", a lightweight fabric that helps protect plants from frost, wind, insects and winter bird damage while still letting in light and rainwater.

Crop rotations plus cover crops
May onions and carrots ready for harvest
To maintain soil fertility we rotate crops, never growing the same family of plant in the same bed in close succession. Adding fresh compost and planting a cover crop in rotation also lets the soil rest and, when later mowed down, provides a grow-your-own mulch and fertilizer. The bed at left grew winter legume cover crop last winter, then was mowed and planted with these onions and carrots.

Volunteer buckwheat cover crop
After harvesting the onions and carrots, I planted buckwheat, an excellent fast maturing summer cover crop that adds lots of organic matter and blooms heavily, providing food for beneficial insects. Not needing this bed again until next spring, I let the buckwheat go to seed, then mowed it down and irrigated which caused the new seed to sprout as shown at right. In another few weeks I will mow this down and plant a winter legume cover crop, which will be mowed down early next spring ahead of planting broccoli, cabbage and potatoes.

Young lettuce transplants, protected
from birds by plastic mesh
These successive plantings and mowings along with additions of compost keep the earthworms and soil microbes happily eating away producing nutrients, loosening the soil, and maintaining a healthy balanced soil. As a result these beds never need rototilling, only a bit of hoeing at most.


I planted these little lettuce starts the other day just by using two fingers to scoop a small hole a couple of inches deep in the mowed buckwheat cover crop residue, then plugging in my transplants. No tilling, minimal disruption of soil microorganisms, and they will grow all the way through final harvest with no added fertilizer.

Next post will be a review of some of our favorite vegetable varieties.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Drying Fruit - An age old method of preservation

Our favorite snack food:
Dried Fuyu persimmons, apricots, pears, figs and walnuts
Because fruit is such a perishable and delicate crop there is always a percentage of our harvest that:
a. is unmarketable due to belmishes, damage, or is too ripe to pack
b. is ripening faster than our customers will buy it
c. is too small a quantity to offer for sale but too much for us to eat fresh

In these circumstances we often turn to the ancient practice of drying. Because drying involves slicing up the fruit, damaged areas can be cut out, allowing us to salvage fruit that might otherwise go to compost. While salvaging extra fruit is one purpose, drying also creates an intensely flavored form of fruit that we can then enjoy well into the future. We do lots of canning and freezing as well, but drying creates a convenient form of fruit that we can grab and eat by the handful for quick energy throughout the year.

Fruit can be dried in a number of ways, from simply laying it out in the hot sun to using an electric dryer or oven. Commercially, most dried fruits are treated with sulfur dioxide as a preservative. We prefer not to use the sulfer treatment, and instead quick dry with either an electric or solar powered dryer, vacuum pack with a Food Saver machine, then store in a freezer. Done this way the fruit becomes super sweet and intensely flavored and retains its fresh dried color, taste and texture for as long as we keep it.

Here is what we have learned over the years:
  • Sun drying is slow, and the longer the process takes the more color and flavor degrade. Unprotected sun drying also invites insects to contaminate the fruit.
  • The faster the drying process the better the flavor and color are preserved, so cut large fruits into smaller pieces.
  • Electric dryers can work well if they have both heat and fan driven air. Simple electric dryers that have only a small heat source and no fan are not efficient.
  • Do not over dry. When the fruit cools off it will seem much dryer than it did while still hot in the dryer, so stop when you think it's not quite dry enough.
  • Unsulfured dried fruit will continue to lose color and flavor, will get harder and is subject to insect attack if left exposed to air, so vacuum packing is best.
  • Vacuum packing and freezing preserves the fresh dried quality for two years or more.
  • Vacuum packing dried figs
  • The texture actually improves further in the vacuum bags, as the moisture content between the fruit's thicker parts and thinner edges equalizes. When opened up later, fruit packed this way has a wonderful soft caramel quality.

During the hottest weather we use our home built solar dryer. It uses a photovoltaic panel to run an electric fan, which draws air across a hot metal plate and through the drying chamber. The chamber has multiple wooden racks where we lay the fruit out onto smaller plastic screens.

View through the top of our solar dryer
When the weather is cooler and we need to speed things up, we use an electric Excalibur dehydrator. This unit is very well made, has an adjustable thermostat, and the drying trays are easily cleaned in the dishwasher. This is the best home sized dehydrator we have seen.

Drying times will depend upon the fruit variety and size as well as the current weather. But typically the Excalibur will dry apricot halves in 15-20 hours. Fig halves will go a bit faster, pear halves may take a bit longer. We like to set the temperature knob to 125 degrees. But if the fruit is close to dry and it's bed time, we reduce the temperature to 95 deg. to avoid over drying.

Second Crop Figs
We're harvesting our second crop of figs now, and they should last another week or two. Most go to our main restaurant customer, but we do sometimes have extras for sale. Please call us at 707-448-4792 if you're interested.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Our dry farmed/No-till soil management

Our last post began a discussion of how we manage soil moisture and fertility. To summarize, our orchard is mostly dependent upon winter rainfall rather than summer irrigation since water is very scarce in these hills. This area was historically "dry farmed." And according to the gospel of dry farming, that meant cultivating the soil as soon as it was dry enough to work in the spring. The object was to plow under all winter weeds so most of the winter/spring rainfall was preserved for the orchards instead of going into weed growth. To "seal in" the moisture, the ground was cultivated repeatedly as weeds re-emerged, leaving a fine "dust mulch." Unfortunately the result of bare, finely cultivated soil is erosion of top soil, death of soil building organisms, and continual loss of fertility.

So our challenge with dry farming is how to save the maximum rainfall moisture for our main crop (orchard trees), while also preserving and improving soil fertility. Our solution has been to simply mimic nature's soil building process, with some enhancements. Some years back I began planting a cover crop in the fall, one that adds maximum organic matter and nutrients to the soil, rather than just letting native weeds grow. I also stopped tilling every spring, opting instead to just mow near the end of the rainy season. The result has been a real slowdown in erosion and a big increase in fertility, all with no apparent sacrifice in soil moisture.

Now instead of a finely powdered soil devoid of life, we have the rich porous soil pictured here, protected from sun and wind by cover crop residue, full of decaying roots that microbes turn into fertilizer, and permeated with earthworm holes that allow air and water to enter. Instead of winter rain runoff looking like chocolate milk, very little rain runs off since it is slowed by dense cover crop and easily soaks into the sponge-like soil. In short, our soil is now capturing and holding more moisture and building more fertility. Our annual soil test lab results show high to very high nutrient levels and steadily increasing organic matter content, all without any inputs other than compost and natural mineral amendments.

Because soil biological activity is nature's fertilizer factory and all soil life requires moisture, we use what meager well water we have to do some minimal drip irrigation through the dry summer season. Call it "dry farming plus." By putting a mound of compost under each drip irrigation emitter, we create small zones where earthworms and microbes flourish. These function as feeding stations for the trees, providing a small but steady supply of nutrients and trace minerals.

A mass of fine feeder roots forms under each mound, absorbing nutrients along with a bit of water. The amount of water is only a tiny fraction of what irrigated orchards get, but our big juicy fruit, deep green leaves, and rampant tree growth speak for themselves. Clearly the trees are getting plenty of what they need. Because they have never been irrigated, the root systems have grown deep to survive the dry summers. And while they will look a bit stressed during low rainfall years, the high soil nutrition gives them the strength to cope until the fall rains start again.

What really drives our passion for the orchard is fruit flavor. We are gratified to hear customers frequently comment, "that was the best I ever tasted," or "I haven't tasted fruit like that since I worked on my grandparents' farm." Producing such exceptional fruit with minimal water and without synthetic chemicals just feels right.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Our June/July harvest limps to an end

The last of our first-crop figs and Santa Rosa plums are picked, and we're ready to get on to other work. Harvesting is usually satisfying, seeing the literal fruits of our labors lined up handsomely in boxes. But this year was a challenge, with the late June rain causing heavy losses and defects due to splitting and mold. But one of the things we value most about rural living is a close connection to nature. And with that comes the frequent reminder that nature is in charge. So we are challenged to learn more about the interaction of weather and tree crops, to have realistic expectations, and to accept a bad year now and then. Not such a bad deal.

On the plus side, the long and wet rainy season is a big boost for our dry farmed trees, which depend upon rainfall moisture left in the soil to last them through the summer. Traditionally, "dry farming" means growing a crop with little or no irrigation beyond rainfall, then conserving that rain moisture by maintaining a finely-cultivated soil surface to act as a dirt mulch. The hills around us were always dry farmed since orchards were first planted in the mid-late 1800's, simply because water is very scarce here.

Unfortunately, the downside of thorough tillage is soil depletion. Bare, loose soil loses fertility through erosion by wind and runoff. Plus, plowing and turning the soil interfere with nature's topsoil building process. Soil is improved when the right plants cover its surface, protecting it from sun and wind; cover crops grow, die, decompose and cycle nutrients on to the next season's plantings.

For many years I followed the traditional dry-farming tilling methods because I was told that was necessary to maintain adequate soil moisture. And after all that's the way it had always been done in these dry hills. But several years ago I began to worry that I was losing too much fertility and decided to take a chance and stop tilling altogether. By going to a "no-till" system of growing a Winter cover crop, I now mow rather than till in the Spring, so the orchard floor is always covered with plant matter. Our best topsoil no longer migrates downhill with each pass of the disc or heavy rainstorm, and though the cover crop uses up some soil moisture, the improvement in soil quality and fertility more than make up the difference. More on this topic next time.

A refreshing summer salad

With hot weather finally here we think of flavorful salads. And with figs and grapefruit on hand we consulted our friend Google and came up with this recipe for Grapefruit & Fig salad

The juicy tart grapefruit pairs well with the sweet fig slices, and the mildly spicy dressing ties it all together. The recipe calls for mango juice, but we juiced the last of our apricots and used that. Pineapple would work well too. And a few nuts would be a fun addition, we're thinking toasted pecans. Enjoy.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Santa Rosa Plums

The good news/bad news saga continues now with the plum crop. We have been able to provide some tasty plums to our commercial clients in the Bay Area. But since the plum crop was light, just like the apricots, we didn't get the yield we normally expect. The rain also affected the earliest Santa Rosa plums, causing some of the cracking and spoilage that we had in the cots. As always, though, our Santa Rosas have great flavor. The tangy purple skin surrounds juicy flesh that tastes sweet, bold and complex.

That being said, there are a few culls available for canners and bakers to enjoy. Give us a call if you are interested in them.

Last year we recommended a Santa Rosa Plum Compote recipe that is found on the web at Here it is again:
Santa Rosa Plum Compote

This year we tried a recipe for Santa Rosa Plum Galette from Mary Jo Thoresen, famous pastry chef at Chez Panisse. Her recipe and detailed instructions can be found online at this link:

A slice of this dessert topped with the best vanilla ice cream you can find is an incredible combination of flavor and texture, combining tart and sweet to perfection.

We are all indebted to Luther Burbank for cultivating this superb plum. In California, Arbor Day is celebrated on March 7, the date on which he was born in 1849. Now is a good time to make a plum galette, freeze it unbaked, bag it in a plastic bag with all air removed and place it in your freezer. On March 7, 2012, pull it out and bake it.

In addition to the Santa Rosa culls, we have Texas Pink Grapefruit available and a small supply of first crop Black Mission figs. Our phone is 707-448-4792.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A rain disaster

Well, the apricot crop that we have nurtured for so many months suffered a major blow on Tuesday June 28th in the form of 1.3" of rare June rainfall. The result is lots of splitting as the ripening fruit absorbed the water and swelled. And with fungus and mold problems already prevalent from our very wet spring, we expect to lose lots to rot. And what we do pick cannot be trusted to have much of a shelf life.

Splits in apricot skin allow mold and fungus
So now with half the crop still on the trees we're in salvage mode, trying to put some of the fruit to good use while disposing of moldy fruit before it spreads its evil spawn.

So canners and jammers, sharpen your paring knives as now is your chance to pick up some bargain fruit.

It's first come, first served, but hurry since the heat wave coming in the next few days will complete a one-two punch on this year's cot crop. And this, folks, is why so many apricot orchards have been torn out over the years.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Apricots are here, time to eat and make jam!

At last, the apricots are beginning to ripen. We have started picking and should have fruit for approximately two weeks. We have lots of orders for apricots and a smaller-than-usual crop, so do call ahead before driving up here to be sure we have what you want. Phone 707-448-4792.

We ran out of our 2010 apricot jam very early this winter. The recipe was new to us and was intriguing because it used both the apricot flesh and the kernel found inside the pit. The full recipe can be found in Chez Panisse Fruit by the incomparable Alice Waters on page 25. This recipe alone is worth the price of the book; but any fruit lover will find dozens of delicious ideas inside as you work your way alphabetically through the crops, one chapter at a time, from Apples to Strawberries. Buy this book!
Alice uses just four simple ingredients for her jam: apricots, sugar, a few apricot kernels (called noyaux) and lemon juice. We followed the recipe as written except that we reduced the amount of sugar to suit our taste. That yielded us a softer jam; it was more the texture of a thick sauce. We loved it on pancakes, toast, and ice cream. Four thumbs up, our highest praise!
Another version of apricot jam, using similar techniques but not calling for cot kernels, is available in Fanny at Chez Panisse: A Child’s Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes, written by Alice Waters, Bob Carrau and Patricia Curtan.
Not all fruit is born perfect; Mother Nature likes variety and is apparently bored by sameness. This spring's weather was unusually wet and the result is lots of scarred fruit. We sort our crops  into three categories. Our #1 grade is the most perfect, with the best size and appearance. The #2 grade has some skin blemishes and oddly-shaped fruits. The #3 grade are the culls; they include over-ripes, bird pecked and insect-damaged fruit. To be frugal and use the harvest to the fullest, we try to find good homes for all our fruit.
Here on the farm, we use a lot of culls for jam making, drying, freezing and baking. This year, for instance, most of our apricots have some shot hole fungus because of the late rains. The taste of the fruit is unaffected but the tongue feel of these “freckles” may not be suitable in all dishes. Over the years we have found it wise to have sharp knives in the kitchen and use them well. I love the fruit that is picked dead-ripe off the tree and am willing to cut my way through lots of culls to get those soft, succulent apricots for my jam.
One final story from a woman who lives in Italy and shops the farmers markets there: At Italian outdoor markets, a customer tells the seller how many fruits she wants and the farmer selects them. If she requests three fruits, she gets one perfect, one somewhat blemished, and one ugly. That way all produce is put to good use instead of ending up discarded. Seems an admirable custom given that in our country almost half our food is wasted.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Harvest update June 18th

Peaches are going, going, almost gone. We've had the shortest peach season ever, and expect to do the seventh and last picking tomorrow, Sunday 6-19. Most #1 and #2 grade peaches are sold or spoken for, but for jam makers or bakers we will have cull peaches available until probably June 21st. These are undersized or damaged fruit best for processing uses where some sugar is added.

Cots are still mostly green(!) so it looks like picking won't begin until maybe June 24th or so. And due to extremely wet and cool weather this winter & spring, the crop is much lighter than in recent years and has a fair amount of fungus damage. So for our longtime customers we will do our best to get you some cots but unfortunately cannot make any promises at this point.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Finally, signs of ripening!

It's been an unusual year so far, with almost continuous below normal temperatures. As a result some of the fruit is very late in ripening. Surprisingly, we were still using the wood stove just a week ago when most years we would be needing to cool the house starting in May. But at last we're seeing some progress.

Peaches are coloring up nicely and we are just doing the very first picking here on June 12th, not much later than usual. The first few to ripen are always "seconds", with split pits or other imperfections. But we expect to have good supplies of quality Springcrest peaches starting around June 15 - 18.

The apricots are another story though, still mostly green and hard. We don't expect to be picking many until around June 20th or later. Just a few are starting to get a tiny bit of orange color, about what you would find advertised at Safeway as "Ripe Summer Fruit!" But we insist on letting fruit ripen on the tree as far as possible, picking when it is just a couple of days from dead ripe. We lose some to wind, rot, and birds that way, but the taste difference is night and day compared to fruit picked too green.

Frequent spring rains keep fungus spores active, so this year we expect to lose more fruit to brown rot, a nasty fungus that can spread quickly over a fruit both before and after harvest. So the fruits' keeping quality will probably suffer a bit. This year the apricots also have much more "shothole fungus," those freckles visible in the picture above. This is mainly just a cosmetic problem though, and after all who among us is completely free from a few warts and moles?

Santa Rosa plums will be later than usual as well, probably starting around the end of June. Please bear in mind that these dates are just rough estimates; hot weather can and often does fool us. So check back here often during the season for updates and feel free to call with your specific needs. We won't be setting up the fruit stand outside the gate until we have cots in good supply, but are happy to take specific orders for fruit ahead of time for customer pickup. Call us at 707-448-4792, or email to

While we wait for the fruit to ripen we're busy setting up our famous bird scare machines, a variety of home built contraptions that limit bird damage and amuse passersby. This photo shows one device in action, with flying plastic bottles tethered to gyrating ropes. An electric motor drives the system and is controlled by an intermittent timer. Videos of the machines in action can be found here:
Follow the link and click on "slideshow." Don't laugh, they work!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fruit Thinning

We've just about finished the tedious task of thinning excess fruit from the trees. Thinning is a vital step in fruit tree care that many backyard gardeners neglect, while others may not realize that it should be done at all. But given the right growing conditions most stone fruit trees will set far more fruit than they can support. Unless much of the excess is removed, both fruit quality and tree health will suffer. Trees that typically need thinning are apricots, peaches, plums, pears and apples. Cherries, figs, persimmons and citrus usually do not.

Here are the benefits of thinning:
  • Thinning matches the tree's energy with the amount of fruit it has to nourish. A tree has only so much carbohydrate stored in its roots, so when too many fruits compete for this nourishment they all end up small and flavorless.
  • Thinning reduces disease and insect damage. Crowded clumps of fruit offer hiding places for damaging insects, which can then damage all the fruits in a group. Crowded fruits also stay wet longer in damp weather, encouraging mold and fungus problems that can quickly infect all adjacent fruit.
  • Excess fruit weighs down branches, especially when trees are not adequately pruned. This often leads to broken limbs.
  • Crowding shields fruit from sunlight, decreasing fruit color and flavor.
  • Thinning is an opportunity to remove smaller, deformed or damaged fruit so more of the tree's energy can go into the remaining perfect fruit.
As we admire small green fruits early in the season and dream of biting into a ripe peach or apricot later on, it can be really hard to pull fruit off. But as with pruning, this is not a time to be squeamish. Apricots should be left no closer than 3-4" apart, and peaches no closer than 6-8". Fruit at the ends of long branches should be thinned even more heavily to avoid breakage in a wind storm. On a heavy year we will often need to remove 90% of the fruit from a tree, leaving the ground littered almost solid with small green fruits.

Apricots before thinning . . .

Timing of thinning is important too. Most trees will self-thin to some degree; at an early stage some fruits will yellow and drop off on their own, so it is important to wait for this to happen before manually thinning. But once that happens we like to thin right away, so the remaining fruit will get the most benefit. Leaving too much fruit on also starves the tree which then reduces next year's crop, so it is always better to thin more, not less!

and after the first thinning
 Thinning can be done by knocking with sticks, but we prefer doing it by hand. It's a lot more work, but gives us much better control and hence more benefit. Ideally the smallest fruit should be removed in favor of the largest.

Peaches before thinning . . .

We will typically thin twice, the first time leaving a few too many to cover our bases in case a bad hail storm or wind should damage much of the fruit. Then after 2-3 weeks when the fruit has sized up a bit more we go back and get more agressive.
and after the first thinning

The pictures at right show a typical before and after first-thinning look at cots and peaches. The second thinning will remove even more fruit. It hurts to do it, but always pays off in fruit size and quality. After 40 years I don't remember ever thinking we thinned to heavily.