Sunny Slope Orchard

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

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Some pruning tips

The orchard trees are dormant and now it's time for their annual pruning. This job is essential for maintaining tree health and fruit production, and keeping their size manageable. It is a big job involving hundreds of cuts on each tree. But it's also a creative one, like a type of sculpture, where I get to guide the tree's form and hopefully maximize its health and vigor.

In a previous post I discussed some general principles and objectives of pruning stone fruit trees. These were:
  • controlling tree size and shape
  • stimulating growth of new fruiting wood
  • opening up space for sunlight and air to reach all parts of the tree
  • removing dead or damaged wood
Here I'll show some of the details involved in good pruning practice.

Pruning tools
The photo above shows the basics - a three legged orchard ladder (the only type suitable for uneven ground), loppers for medium cuts, pruning saw for larger cuts, and bypass type hand shears for smaller cuts. Most importantly the tools need to be sharp and the pivots of the loppers and shears kept snug and oiled. Dull, loose tools make ragged cuts that will not heal quickly. I touch up my blades with a file or stone every few hours of use.

What to cut
Since most stone fruits are born on 2-3 year old shoots, always look for opportunities to remove older wood in favor of newer. The photo below left shows an older, silvery looking apricot shoot next to a newer, two year old shoot. The area is too crowded so the right side photo shows the older wood removed along with one shoot of the newer.

The photo below shows young apricot fruit spurs. These will bear for several more years so this branch would be a high priority to keep if possible. If the newest growth from the end is too long or hanging too low, that portion can be cut back to a few inches long.

The left side photo below shows the effect of pruning, namely that it stimulates future growth mostly right at the point of pruning. The red arrows show where two long shoots were cut back in January 2012, with the result that 2-3 buds near each of those cuts grew into very long shoots in the Spring. Left unpruned, this dense growth will shade out growth lower in the tree, will leave the tree taller than I want, will rub together in the wind, and with a heavy fruit set may break off. The right side photo shows the shoots thinned from 3 to 2, and the remaining ones shortened by 3/4 or more.

Dead wood can attract disease, adds to clutter in the tree, and can damage fruit that might rub against it in the wind. So always remove dead wood, even small twigs as pictured at right.

Where to make cuts
The bigger the cut the more easily disease can enter the tree through the wound. And large saw cuts may never heal over completely. But careful and neat pruning can minimize the risk. When completely removing a side shoot from a branch you should avoid leaving a stub. This does not exactly mean cutting it off "flush" but rather just beyond the "collar." The photo at right shows the pruners positioned slightly away from the main branch, at the narrow point of the collar. This will leave a wound about half the size of one made perfectly flush to the main branch. It also creates the wound at an area of intense sap flow and hence faster healing.

And by the way, applying a sealer or "wound dressing" has not been shown to speed healing and may even harbor disease organisms in pruning cuts.

When making heading cuts (shortening a branch rather than completely removing it), you can somewhat direct the resulting new growth. In the photo at right, the cut is made just above an outward facing bud. This will tend to encourage further spreading of the tree. But when a branch is already extended quite far you might choose to cut to an inward facing bud or side shoot.

When heading a branch back to a lateral, that lateral should be at least one third the diameter of the branch being cut. Otherwise the lateral has little chance of surviving. The photo at right shows the wrong place to head back (red X) versus the better choice (removing completely at the green line). If a cut is made at the red line, the tiny lateral will be right next to a large wound and will likely die.

The next two photos show a small apricot tree before and after pruning. Too-long shoots have been headed back to make the tree strong and stocky, and many have been removed to eliminate crowding and allow light penetration. All cuts were made with an eye toward replacing older wood with newer, keeping the tree to a workable height, and maintaining ladder access for thinning and harvest. Another critical point for our hot summer climate is leaving plenty of small shoots on the south and west facing branches to prevent sunburn. It's hard to show all this with two dimensional photos, but clicking on each to enlarge might give give you a better idea.

Before pruning

After pruning
Of course each type of tree has its own growth habit and therefore slightly different pruning needs. Here are some resources that might be useful:

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Our Fuyu persimmons are plentiful now and we should have them through mid December. For those not familiar with this tasty Fall fruit, Fuyus are the type of persimmon that can be eaten firm. They are mild and sweet, delicious eaten like an apple or peeled and sliced into fruit or green salads. They also make a great dried fruit.

Fuyus with lime
But once again we have to mention our favorite special fruit plate: sliced Fuyus with lime. This simple yet exotic taste combination always gets "wows" when served to guests. Just peel with a vegetable peeler, slice into rounds about 1/4" thick, and drizzle with a bit of fresh lime juice. The sand dollar-like markings inside the fruit also add visual appeal to this amazing dish.

More information on persimmons can be found here and here.

We also have Hachiya persimmons. These are the type that need to be ripened off the tree until fully soft before eating. Once gooshy soft they are like jam inside a skin, super sweet and perfect to spoon directly over oatmeal or pancakes. The sweet pulp can also be used in cookies or fruit bars.

Always call ahead (707-448-4792) before coming out to make sure we're here and have fruit for sale.

Wild grapes decorate the creek banks each Fall

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The first rainy days, it's time for soup!

The first rains of fall delivered many pleasures, freshly-washed air and gorgeous clouds among them. The trees appreciated the shower; their leaves immediately perked up and absorbed the moisture. Our soil is now soft underfoot and the dried leaves and grasses are quiet too, no longer crunching underfoot. We now turn our thoughts to planting the winter cover crop in the orchard. If there is a good dry spell this weekend we'll have our chance.
Meanwhile, we have a new recipe to share. Our neighbor Judy gave us a butternut squash from her garden. We had apples from Bill’s mother in Mendocino County and some onions from our garden. The result was a smooth and hearty soup, perfect for autumn.

Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup
Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees. Put a large roasting pan on the lower middle rack and pre-heat it too.

Roasting Ingredients, group 1:
  • Butternut squash, about 2 pounds, peeled, seeded and cut into 1 ½ -inch chunks
  • 2 medium size onions (or 3 shallots) peeled and quartered
  • Golden delicious apples, 1 pound, peeled, quartered then chopped in half
  • 1 Tablespoon canola oil
  • ½ tsp. salt (or less)
  • ¼ tsp. pepper (or to taste)
Put all the above in a large bowl and toss. Put this mixture into the pre-heated roasting pan, spreading it out evenly.  Roast it until the squash is soft and slightly brown, probably 50 to 60 minutes. Stir the mixture halfway through the roasting time.

Soup Ingredients, group 2
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup half-and-half
  • 1 Tbsp. Maple syrup
  • ½ tsp. curry powder
When the roasting pan comes out of the oven, add about ½ cup of the broth to the pan, then scrape up the brown bits off the bottom; add a little more broth if needed to get the bottom clean. Return pan to the oven for a few more minutes if there is still liquid visible. Otherwise, turn off the oven and get out the blender.

Combine the broth, water, and the roasted mixture in the blender until smooth, working in two or three small batches. Put everything in a Dutch oven or soup pot and add the syrup, half-and-half, and curry powder. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Heat gently until hot enough to serve.

Recipe taken from America’s Test Kitchen Light & Healthy 2010, pp. 38-39

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Checking Soil's Vital Signs

We are finally getting some cooler mornings, the sun's path is moving quickly south and we're occasionally treated to beautiful cloudy sunrises, all signs that Fall is approaching and it’s time to prepare the orchard soil for the wet season. Our annual load of compost is ordered and I will soon spread it in the orchard along with any needed amendments, then sow the cover crop seed. Just like our body chemistry, soil chemistry needs to be balanced in order to maximize plant vigor and disease resistance. So each September I pull soil samples and send them off to an agricultural testing lab for analysis. The results will give a snapshot of chemical balance in the soil and point out amendments that might be beneficial to the cover crop and fruit trees.

Of course a perfectly balanced, rich soil alone does not guarantee good plant health since there can be many other problems like plant disease, poor drainage, harmful nematodes, fungi, root eating rodents, or aggressive competing roots from nearby non-crop trees. I occasionally sample soil for others, and in fact in some cases have seen the most obvious reasons for their poor plant health to be invasive roots from nearby landscape trees as well as severe gopher damage to roots. Those problems need to be dealt with, but a balanced soil will give plants the best chance of coping with most other stresses as well as maximizing nutrient content and flavor of the food harvested from that soil.

Soil testing probe
Taking soil samples
For meaningful results soil samples must be correctly taken, and to spot trends over time they should be taken at the same time each year and sent to the same lab. I use A&L Western Agricultural Labs in Modesto which provides excellent service. Of course once you have the results you need to figure out what they mean, and soil balancing is as much art as science. A&L will provide broad recommendations if requested. Another option is to order their test through Peaceful Valley Farm Supply and order the soil test package that comes with the booklet, "Understanding Your Soil Analysis Report." I send my samples directly to A&L and interpret the results myself using several books and publications along with observations from over the years.

The soil test report contains measurements of available major nutrients, the proportions of certain positive ions, pH, soil organic matter content, the presence of salts, and for the comprehensive test we order, trace mineral amounts. Before amending soil to correct imbalances there are several important points to remember:

-If a soil is too acid or alkaline (pH too low or high), some nutrients become unavailable to plants. Generally calcium in the form of lime is used to raise pH in acid soils and sulfur is added to lower pH in soils that are too alkaline. However there can be other reasons for a pH problem and just adding calcium or sulfur to soils already high in those elements may cause other problems.

- Higher nutrient levels are not necessarily better. If the level of one element is too high it can "tie up" other elements making them unavailable to plants. So the aim of fertilizing should generally be to balance nutrients rather than assuming that "more is better."

- Trace elements are critical to plant health and balanced soil chemistry. Just as our bodies need very tiny amounts of vitamins along with macro amounts of carbohydrates, proteins etc., elements like boron, copper, manganese, and zinc need to be present in single digit parts per million amounts for balanced and healthy soil life.

- Building a high organic matter content should be a top priority. Organic matter (decaying plant and animal residue) is the engine of soil health. It improves soil structure, aeration, drainage and water retention, it increases soil biological activity and thereby provides for the slow steady release of nutrients to plants, and it tends to buffer nutrient levels so they naturally come into balance. But as with other amendments the type and amount of organic matter is important. Too much raw high carbon material like wood chips or straw mixed into the soil use up nitrogen as they break down, causing a shortage in the crop. So well decomposed compost is best.

- It can take years to increase organic matter content, and tilling is the enemy of organic matter, causing it to quickly oxidize and disappear. Three steps to building soil organic matter are:
  1. Park the tiller.
  2. Never leave a bare soil surface, instead always keep either a crop or cover crop growing, or cover the ground with compost or mulch when between crops.
  3. Before planting the garden mow the cover crop closely, then run a stirrup hoe down the row to slice off roots just below the surface without inverting the soil. Then plant and apply more mulch or compost.
Aggregation or tilth are terms used to describe the physical condition of soils that are porous, high in organic matter, and crumbly, all important qualities of a healthy soil. Our untilled soil has by now developed the texture of an oatmeal cookie, bound together loosely by root hairs and the excretions of biological life but easily crumbling in the hand.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Summertime, and the livin' is hot

Here in early August we're moving more slowly. Done with the frantic June/July harvest, we can now afford a more relaxed pace better suited to the summer heat. Not that there isn't plenty to do, but we are free from the unrelenting flood of ripening fruit during peak season.

Figs in the solar dryer
Our only commercial crop right now is second-crop figs; there are only two trees which we can easily manage. We are drying most now but starting next week will begin restaurant deliveries.

We seldom have extras for sale to the public, but this wonderful fruit can be found growing wild along many local roadsides. For recipe ideas check our previous posts here and here.

Drip irrigation in the orchard
With the apricot, peach and plum crop done for the year the trees are storing food in their roots and developing buds for next season's fruit. This period between harvest and winter dormancy is an important time in the cycle and despite our very dry summer soil the trees manage well. Their leaves will flag in the heat of the afternoons (as do we!), hanging limp and closing off their stomata to conserve moisture. But they perk right up overnight and put on vigorous growth year after year despite getting only a tiny fraction of the water lavished upon conventionally irrigated orchards. Our water supply is very limited so I use small emmiters dripping through mounds of compost to serve as watering/feeding stations that apply about 20 gallons of water per tree per week along with nutrients leached from the compost.

Juliet tomatoes
As the trees store up food for next winter we are busy doing the same. We've canned, dried and frozen loads of fruit and now are hoarding garden crops. As usual our favorite tomato variety, Juliet, is producing like crazy and Fern is filling the pantry with canned tomatoes, soup and salsa.  Green bean vines are growing inches a day and okra is producing heavily.

Okra blossom

A rattlesnake waits for a passing rodent

Of course everyone has to eat and rattlesnakes are no exception so this time of year we have to be careful where we step or reach. We recently were treated to the sight of two big gopher snakes mating. They seemed quite enthusiastic and not at all self conscious, writhing and twisting for several minutes as we stood there watching!
Gopher snakes making whoopee
Our resident hummingbirds are entertaining us with their feeding frenzies, emptying two large feeders daily. While too numerous to count we estimate that hundreds must live in the area.

So mid-summer offers much to do but also lots to see and enjoy. Life is good and we experience each sunset with appreciation for the day's gifts.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Plum Crazy

Santa Rosa Plums are a complex fruit. When fully ripe, their skin is dark purple, almost black, while the flesh is reddish-pink underneath, turning golden yellow closer to the pit. The fragrance is heady with hints of wine and spicy freshness. Our Sunny Slope Santa Rosas are exceptionally juicy this year. Put all this together and you have a knock-out plum that combines tart with sweet and subtle with bold.

a plum & fig galette
Right now we have the last of our 2012 crop available for sale.  We recommend them for baking into tarts or galettes, topped with ice cream for your Fourth of July celebration. They make an amazing plum sauce, which is delicious on pancakes or yogurt and is terrific for home canning.  Of course, you will enjoy eating these plums fresh, out of hand or in your fruit salads. And did we mention plum sorbet?

Our past blog posts have links to all of these favorite recipes….
For plum sorbet recipe:

For links to plum galette and plum compote recipes:
Plums in the cooler
All our trees have been harvested as of today and we have a limited supply of our #2 grade plums in our cooler. These are fruits that are smaller or have minor skin blemishes. Flavor is still first-rate since all our fruit is truly tree-ripened.

You may buy a large box of Santa Rosas for $45; each box contains 18 pounds of fruit at $2.50 per pound. For smaller quantities, weighed out by the pound, the cost is $3.00 per pound. If you are coming from a distance or want us to reserve fruit for you, please call or email us ahead of time to be sure we have the amount you want.

Have a happy Independence Day!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Harvest update - Last chance for peaches!

We are having the shortest peach season ever. Sudden hot weather has them all ripening with our last pick likely to be Wednesday June 13th. It has been a heavy crop so we have plenty for making that Father's Day peach pie, but cannot promise we will have any past mid-week.

We are picking apricots every day and filling orders on a first come, first served basis. We are hoping this week's forecasted high heat will not damage those still on the trees.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The 2012 harvest has begun

This morning, June 2nd, I picked the first of our Royal Blenheim apricots and Springcrest peaches. Up on a ladder, watching a Red Tail hawk circle and hearing a Pileated woodpecker call in the distance, eating any fruit that was too tempting to put in the bucket, I almost didn't mind the blazing sun.

So far the flavor of both cots and peaches is exceptional. We had enough winter rainfall and now enough heat for proper fruit development, but have been spared extreme conditions that can stress the trees and lessen flavor. For an added boost I did several foliar feeding sprays on the peaches and plums during the critical bloom through fruit development stage, applying liquid fish and kelp extracts as well as trace minerals. This appears to have given the trees everything they needed during this stage of intensive growth of leaves and fruit. Leaf and fruit color, fruit size and flavor, and overall vigor have never been better.

We expect cots to start coming on heavy around June 10th or so. How long they last depends heavily upon the weather as too much high heat can ruin the last of the fruit.
Peach trees are showing a strong response to foliar feeding
with deep green leaf color, dense growth and high fruit flavor

Peaches should be available starting June 7-10 and lasting about 2 weeks.

A Santa Rosa plum tree exploding in lush growth

Our all out assault on the leaf curl plum aphid this year has been a real success. The trees are now completely free of the pest that in the last few years has sapped their strength and reduced fruit quality. Tree vigor and fruit size are outstanding once again. We expect plums to ripen starting in late June.

Fruit Sales: To check on fruit availability just give us a call at 707-448-4792. Also check out "What is Ripe Now" link on this blog.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Good bugs, bad bugs

A lady bug feasting on green aphids

When the subject of organic agriculture comes up people often ask, "But what do you do about bugs?" My answer starts with, "well, there are good bugs and there are bad bugs. We do everything we can to encourage the good bugs so they will help us to control the bad ones."


It’s a basic fact of nature that all life is interdependent and is generally in balance until we humans come along and upset things. Where there is a crop damaging pest there is usually a predator present that feeds on that pest. The photos above and below are examples.

Eggs from the green lacewing (on stalks), a
major predator of aphids, laid among the aphids
So the conventional approach of indiscriminately using broad spectrum pesticides kills not only the pests but the predators that help to keep pest numbers from exploding. That often causes a more serious problem by upsetting nature’s equilibrium. In the worst case this can lead to worsening pest outbreaks requiring ever more powerful pesticide applications, leading to a host of problems from toxic residues on the crop to environmental pollution to pests developing immunity.

A more natural approach of working with, rather than against, nature can yield the best results. This means identifying the pest, learning its life cycle and natural enemies, and then creating conditions that make life difficult for the pest and favorable for the beneficial insects that prey upon the pests. Most importantly this means accepting a certain amount of pest damage, since without pests there would be no reason for their predators to stick around and help to control them.
A case study
Tools of the trade, a microscope and loupe for
identifying the pest curling these plum leaves
So how does one go about this type of natural pest control? Here is one example. One of the most common springtime pests are aphids, and over the past couple of years we have had a serious outbreak of the Leaf Curl Plum Aphid on our Santa Rosa plum trees. Last year the infestation reached the point of weakening the trees and reducing fruit size and quality, so this year we launched a "shock and awe" campaign, deploying every available strategy against this pest.

First, following the admonition to "know your enemy," I researched its life cycle and consulted with the county ag commissioner, a supplier of beneficial insects, and UC Davis resources. Eliminating ants is essential to controlling aphids since they "farm" aphids just as humans farm cows, so when ants are present any aphid control effort will have limited success. We had carpenter ants in the plum trees, so step one was to set out ant bait stations to gradually kill the colonies but also to band the trees with sticky Tanglefoot as a barrier to crawling insects.

This particular aphid lays eggs near plum tree buds in the Fall, so step two was to apply two dormant season sprays of an organic mineral oil to smother the over-wintering aphid eggs.

Strips of legume and mustard cover crop left
unmowed as habitat for beneficial insects
The aphids begin to hatch around bloom time, so step three was to maximize predators that feed on aphids. We always grow a winter cover crop that attracts and nurtures lady bugs, lacewings and other beneficials. It needs to be mowed down in the Spring to conserve soil moisture, but I leave unmowed strips as beneficial insect habitat as long as possible. But this year I went a step further by doing three releases of lacewings and a predator midge (a tiny fly with a voracious appetite for this particular aphid), purchased from an insectary as eggs.
Pheromone lures hung in plum trees
to attract beneficial insects

Step four was to hang pheromone lures in the trees that attract beneficial insects, as well as cards painted with beneficial insect food - a mixture of soy flour, nutritional yeast, and calf milk replacer - to keep the beneficials as healthy as possible. In addition I have found a pheromone attractant to draw the aphids to a sticky card trap.

Even with all these efforts we have had some spot outbreaks, but they are very minor compared to past years. I am currently employing a final step of clipping off the worst aphid infested shoots, dousing them in a bucket of soapy water and discarding in the trash. And here I need to grit my teeth and remember the principle of nature’s balance: there have to be some pests present in order to keep the pest’s predators around. So when I reach to clip off an aphid infested shoot and see lady bugs or lacewings present, I am reminded that in this instance "zero tolerance" is not the best approach. My hope is that the benefits of all these efforts will compound in future years, as the life cycle of the pest is disrupted and the beneficials gain the upper hand.

Toads live under cover during the day,
come out and eat slugs at night
Once you start thinking in terms of maintaining nature's balance, many pest control strategies become obvious. Those spiders that build webs in your potted plants? They are ferocious hunters of many plant damaging insects so it is best to leave their webs alone. That toad hanging out under your garden stepping stone? He comes out at night to eat slugs and snails, so it's helpful to install more toad housing in the yard. And that pest control guy that comes and sprays all around the house? He's ensuring job security for himself by killing pest and predator alike, making it easier for the pests to rebound.

Some information and products for natural pest control can be found here:
  • Your county Ag Commissioner’s office can help identify plant pests and diseases and suggest remedies
  • UC Davis has excellent online pest & disease information at
  • Cornell University has a great guide to biological controls at
  • There are a number of online suppliers of natural pest control products, here are two:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Orchard Acvtivities Winter to Spring

This winter was the wet season that wasn't. The Fall rains we count on to get the cover crop growing were few and too far between. But by moving drip lines around several times a day for weeks, the peas, bell beans, vetch and mustard mix actually put on some respectable growth. Despite our very limited well water the place has looked like an oasis of green since November compared to the surrounding hills.

A couple of teaser storms in January raised our hopes, but as the trees awakened from dormancy in early February there was no rainfall in sight. So I mowed down most of the cover crop to stop it from consuming soil moisture, and began doling out meager amounts of water again, this time to benefit the trees.

Little apricots
We were rewarded with a very heavy bloom and the promise of a heavy fruit set. And so far things look good, with most trees bristling with little apricots, peaches and plums.

So now we continue into Spring with our usual conflict of interest: we want lots of rainfall to help the trees through the coming dry summer and to recharge our aquifer, but apricots, especially, are really prone to fungal diseases in wet weather so a dry spring makes for clean fruit. With some luck we will receive the right balance of help and harm from mother nature.

In other news: Composting
Following pruning, one of winter's chores is chipping up all the orchard brush and making compost. Like everyone else I used to burn orchard prunings every spring. But after awakening to the huge value of compost as a soil additive, I can't stand to see this resource go to waste. One only has to walk into an undisturbed forest, scrape away the top two inches of rotting leaves and bark, scoop up a handful of soil and take a sniff to understand where soil nutrients come from. It will smell moist, earthy, sweet and fragrant, teeming with fungus and microbes cycling nutrients back into the soil. In contrast, grab a handful of dirt from a finely cultivated agricultural field and you get finely powdered minerals smelling of dust. One is soil, the other is just dirt. One feeds the plants, the other just keeps the plants from tipping over in the wind. Organic matter is the difference. So any crop waste we can return to the soil is a net gain in fertility.

Composting is a process of maximizing the nutrient value of organic matter while destroying weed seeds and pathogens with heat. This requires the right proportions of moisture, carbon, and nitrogen for biological life to digest the raw ingredients and turn them into plant-available nutrients. To the chipped prunings I add horse manure from a neighbor's ranch and enough moisture to dampen. When the recipe is right the microbial activity heats the pile up and breakdown happens quickly.

Healthy decomposition needs to be aerobic, so to keep things cooking well I assemble the pile with perforated drain pipes inside to keep oxygen available. For the first 20 days or so I turn the pile every few days with the tractor to ensure all materials are evenly digested. After a few weeks the pile cools off and earthworms, molds, and other critters continue digesting the raw materials into fertilizer. It then goes back into the orchard and ultimately into new growth of trees and fruit.