Sunny Slope Orchard

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

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.

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