Sunny Slope Orchard

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

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.