Sunny Slope Orchard

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

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Rain, sweet rain!

As I write this we are in the middle of a wonderful rain storm, a real one with the rainfall measured in inches instead of fractions of an inch. The feeble and disappointing showers of October and November dropped only tiny amounts which barely wet the soil surface, doing nothing to quench thirsty plant roots. So after a solid inch of rain a week ago, 1.35" yesterday and 1.3" so far today with more expected tonight and tomorrow, we are practically euphoric!

Now, such excitement over rainfall statistics may seem odd to city dwellers but it is the norm for most rural folks who depend directly upon life giving rain for growing plants, crops, raising livestock and replenishing aquifers. This time of year typical conversations between country neighbors include such statements as, "It looks like we should get some rain next Tuesday, what have you heard?" Or, "I got six tenths of an inch out of that last rain, what did you measure?" I can always count on a couple of neighbors to phone or stop in after a rain to compare notes.

So the rain gauge pictured above is the essential tool of the trade for tracking progress during the rainy season. I've maintained rainfall records here every year since 1971. During that time we have averaged 35" of rain per season, with the wettest year getting 65" and the driest only 11". Multiple dry years in a row, such as we have had the past three years, are what really cause problems. Deep soil moisture diminishes, stressing trees, and shallow wells go dry as aquifers dry up.

I sometimes have to shake my head at the inane comments of TV newscasters, who, after a small storm will announce that "experts say this will not end the drought." Gee, do you think? Let's see, after three below average rainy seasons, with lake levels and aquifers drastically low and farm fields withering they conclude that a couple of early small rains did not fix it all? Who knew? When water always appears reliably at the mere turn of a faucet, I guess people lose perspective on where it really comes from.

So to put rainfall amounts into context, what does an inch of rainfall accomplish? A good rule of thumb is that an inch of rain will wet the soil 6" deep. Our first four tiny storms were only about 1/4" each and weeks apart, so their meager moisture only soaked in for an inch or so and quickly evaporated. Finally we got a 1" storm followed quickly by 1"+ a week later. So that 2"+ was enough to soak down about 12". I took the picture below just after that second inch had fallen, and sure enough the soil is wet about a foot deep. But notice the dry soil at the bottom of the hole. Even though the top of the ground is plenty damp and the cover crop is growing nicely, moisture has not yet reached the root zone of the orchard trees. So despite a verdant green orchard floor the trees still suffer from bone dry soil.

2" of rain has wet the soil 12" deep, but here
the soil is bone dry below that
After this current storm drops another couple of inches, moisture should finally reach down fairly deep into the root zone for the first time in many months. That should keep the tree roots well hydrated and the cover crop growing well through the next few weeks. But in terms of year long water needs we will need many more storms to saturate deeper soil strata and to recharge the aquifers that feed our wells. Our old hand dug well is just 36' deep and has been almost dry for months. Over the years I've observed that the water level in the well only recovers after we receive 20"-25" of rainfall. On an average year that happens by February or March. But after three below average rainfall years we likely will need 35"-40" of rain this season to really bring the old well back to good production that will hold up through next summer.

And so the cycle goes: we're hopeful for early and ample rainstorms through fall and winter, we celebrate each additional inch measured in our gauge like some people cheer on sports teams, we hope it keeps coming well into spring, then we endure another long dry summer and start the cycle over again. But for the moment we are happily breathing lungfuls of fragrant moist air and relishing the beautiful music of rain pounding our metal roofs. Our faith in the weather is temporarily restored.

Here are some sights we're enjoying lately:

The last of our fuyus are picked and in the cooler for sale

Dripping branches give me a break from pruning until things dry out

The legume-mix cover crop is jumping out of the ground

Apricot leaves decorate the orchard floor 
Approaching storm clouds give us beautiful sunrises

Monday, November 3, 2014

It's Fuyu persimmon time

Our Fuyu persimmons are now ripe and plentiful. They are wonderful in salads, sliced with a sprinkling of lime for a fruit plate, or just eaten like an apple. Sold by the pound at $2.00/lb. Please call ahead for availability. We should have them through at least mid-December.

Fuyus peeled, sliced and drizzled with lime juice make a
knockout appetizer
We also have Meyer lemons available at $1.50/lb.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Summer 2014: Feeling the drought

The ponds in our hills are mostly dry now, so many cattle herds have been moved
elsewhere. And the local wildlife must travel further to compete for drinking water
in the few remaining water holes.
Persistent drought has now established itself as one of the organizing principles of daily life here at Sunny Slope Orchard. We see its effects everywhere in this third dry year. As we have mentioned before, our orchard has always been dry farmed since water resources are historically scarce here. So conserving water has always been our habit; but now it is a true necessity.

Since last November we have been watering the fruit trees, in rotation, via drip irrigation to give them some moisture to replace the winter rains that never came. These periodic sips of water helped them but the stress was obvious. Our apricots, peaches and plums arrived earlier than usual this season and the peak harvest time was quite compressed, lasting only 3 weeks instead of the usual five. The trees clearly wanted to drop their burden quickly. To reduce their stress, we thinned all trees heavily this spring. So most trees survived, but some suffered major branch die back and leaves are dropping earlier than usual now.

Borers are always present but are expelled
by good sap flow during normal years. But
during dry years infestations can get the
upper hand in weaker branches.

Fuyu persimmons are not yet ripe but are more sunburned than usual
since the stressed foliage is not providing enough shade

Weaker branches, like this walnut limb, succumb to drought
stress and have to be removed.

We ration out precious water supplies to all our
trees in turn, but the flagging leaves of this apricot
beg for more.
To reduce competition for orchard water we recently removed some "weed" trees, ones that might give some useful shade but that produce no useful crop and send their roots to rob from the fruit trees. Many were black walnut trees with invasive root systems that feed heavily on water and soil nutrients. Plus the nuts they drop are a real hazard underfoot. So, we successfully removed eight mature black walnuts, one of which was right next to our oldest well. Luckily, the right tool for the job came our way at the perfect time. A neighbor sold us his old pruning tower, an Afron Mechanical Ladder, made in Israel; and it made the job possible. And as a bonus, the chickens have a huge supply of black walnuts for the winter!

Our new "old" pruning tower helps with trimming tall trees and
harvesting big nut trees

Naturally the animals around us are also constantly looking for water. Birds rank high among our favorite neighbors and we take great interest in their daily lives. Dozens of hummers flock to our hummingbird feeders and bird baths; but now the honeybees from neighboring hives have taken over the bird baths entirely. The incoming and outgoing bee traffic is so intense that no birds can make an approach. The hummers can still drink sugar water at their feeders, but we are left to wonder where the other birds are getting water now. Most ponds in our area are dry, so all local wildlife has to travel further to drink.

The honeybee swarms achieved a hostile takeover of the
birdbaths. Even large birds like the acorn woodpecker don’t
manage to penetrate their ranks.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Santa Rosa plum Galette - Possibly the best dessert ever!

With the very last of our Santa Rosa plums off the trees, we're enjoying a break from the frantic pace of picking, sorting, selling and processing fruit. The bird scare machines are taken down and stored away, windfall fruit has been cleaned up and discarded, and we're back to our normal summer routines of irrigation, summer pruning, canning and freezing for our own use, and even taking a little time to relax on the porch to enjoy sunsets like this gem above.

We have long enjoyed making simple rustic tarts (galettes)in fig, apricot, and plum varieties. So with plums winding down and a bit of time on our hands we decided to reward ourselves with our favorite, Santa Rosa plum galette. This amazing dessert is quick and easy to make and can even be frozen for baking later (think a cold winter day where you long for the fresh fruit taste of summer). We provided a link to this recipe in a 2011 post but that link no longer works. So here are instructions below:

Making the crust
For the crust, you can use your favorite pie crust recipe. Here is our current version:

1+1/2 cups flour (we use half whole wheat pastry and half white flour)
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp corn meal
1/4 tsp salt

Combine the above in a bowl and chill the bowl in the refrigerator.


1+1/2 sticks unsalted butter cut up into tiny cubes; keep very cold in the refrigerator.
3/4 cup of ice cold water (For a flakier crust, you can substitute cold vodka for up to half of the water.)

This recipe yields enough for two crusts, each of which rolls out to about 10" or so in diameter.

To absorb excess juice from the plums, spread 1 T. sugar and 1 1/2 T white flour evenly in only the middle of the rolled out crust, leaving a 2"-3" rim around the edges alone. Slice the plums into thin wedges and arrange them in the floured area, then add 2 to 3 T. more sugar. Lastly fold the edges of the crust inward  partially covering the filling.

Ready to bake

Bake in a 400 deg. oven for 40 min. or until nicely browned. For added decadence serve with vanilla ice cream!

We had to eat some right out of the oven.

The inspiration for this came from Mary Jo Thoreson, pastry chef at Chez Panisse Restaurant. For more complete instructions, her recipe is on page 3 at this link.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The heat is on, the cots and peaches are off

We've put in long days the past week as the cots and peaches came on fast. The good news is that temperatures were mild so both we and the fruit held up fairly well. The bad news is that we are now in the middle of a multi-day hot spell that will likely ruin any cots still on the trees.

Apricots, especially our Royal Blenheims, are very delicate and prone to damage from heat. This is often a problem since our hilltop location tends to stay warmer than valley areas at night. And since Royals ripen first from the inside, when we get several days of high heat the apricots build up too much heat inside and suffer from "pit burn," decay around the pit. Heat and drying winds also cause the skin to shrivel.

We are still trying to salvage some cots still on the trees, but with each additional hot day more are damaged and unsaleable.

Shriveled apricot skin caused by 100+ degree
temperatures and dry north wind

Peaches set a new record for a short season, ripening so fast that we got them all off in only three pickings over one week instead of the usual 6-7 pickings over two weeks. Despite the loss of some cots we are feeling satisfied that we've made good use of most of the crops so far, filling orders for many appreciative customers and restaurants. So we are now moving on to picking plums and figs.

One pleasant surprise is how well the trees appear to be holding up to their third dry year in a row. I know they will be looking stressed in another month or so, but for now their leaves are open and full even on this 103 degree afternoon. Despite very dry soil and having only very limited drip irrigation available, they have put on near normal (which is to say explosive) growth and are a vibrant green. 

We hope for early fall rains to bring them relief.

Apricot trees show 3'-4' long shoot growth despite the dry winter

Peach trees are thick with lush growth

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Harvest has started!

Just a quick announcement here to let everyone know we have begun picking our Royal Blenheim apricots and Springcrest peaches. Beauty plums will start around June 6th and Santa Rosa plums around mid-June.

Our cot crop this year is much lighter than average and many have cosmetic defects due to untimely spring rains (but flavor is outstanding as usual). From what we have heard most growers have few to no cots on their trees so we may not be able to satisfy everyone. 

Be sure to email or call us before driving out, especially if you want a large quantity. We will open our gate for sales each afternoon from 2pm until 7pm starting Wednesday, June 4.

Thank you!

Bill Spurlock and Fern Henry
Sunny Slope Orchard
3574 Cantelow Rd
Vacaville, CA 95688

Saturday, May 10, 2014

When will our fruit be ripe?

Ripening time
In the past few weeks we've had several people ask when our peaches/cots/plums will be ripe and our answer so far has been, "We have no idea." Typically we will see the first ripe cots and peaches in the first week of June with the main pick around mid-June. Recent years have been quite variable from two weeks early to almost two weeks late. But as I write this on May 10th I can at least say that the harvest is not likely to be early.

We check the green fruit daily, watching for signs of pest damage and just to monitor their progress. Right now the cots and peaches are still smallish and very green, and have not yet begun the rapid sizing that happens in the last three weeks before ripening.

A recent mixture of sun and thunderstorms produced
this partial rainbow
Ripening time is determined by temperature and rainfall amounts throughout the winter and spring. Given that, all bets are off since this past winter and the current spring have been the most erratic I can recall. Winter gave us weeks of above average temperatures punctuated by a couple of brutal cold spells. Rainfall was completely absent for many weeks, then finally arrived in good amounts in March and April. Meanwhile the temperatures continue to yo-yo up and down between the 60's and 90's, with next week predicted to approach 100.

Rain damaged fruit
We are thankful for the better-late-than-never rains we received this spring, but the downside was bad timing. Wet conditions during bloom and early fruit stage promotes fungus, so many apricot blooms rotted and fell off while the fruit that did set ended up with a fair amount of cosmetic damage from shothole fungus. This is a very common problem in apricots that causes spots on the fruit skin and holes in the early leaves. And this year the Santa Rosa plums even suffered the affects, something I have never seen before. Happily there is no effect on taste and no need to trim away the damaged skin unless perfect appearance is necessary. 

Shothole fungus spots on apricots caused by spring rains

Peaches were unaffected by the rains, and are now golf ball size

Tree vigor looks good
During the record dry spell before the March rains we had all but resigned ourselves to stripping all fruit from the trees to save them the double stress of growing fruit while suffering extremely dry soil. But with the minimal rainfall we finally got plus meager but nonstop irrigation starting last fall and continuing to the present, the trees look remarkably vigorous. Leaves are glossy green and shoot growth is only slightly less than during a normal year, so we are now confident that the trees will have no problem putting the needed energy into good sized tasty fruits.

Fast growing new apricot shoots show their characteristic red tips
So for now we wait and watch, and will post again here when we start seeing ripening fruit. To be notified of new posts just enter your email address in the "Follow by Email" box at the upper right of this page.

In the meantime we're busy mowing, hoeing, and weed eating trying to keep things neat and prepare for the coming fire season. The hills are still green but the first signs of brown are showing on the knolls and ridges. Summer is getting close.

Friday, March 14, 2014

February rains deliver spring beauty

Rain runs off the shop roof during a downpour

Two strong rain storms last month finally brought us some drought relief. Our rainfall total is still only about 30% of average and is not nearly enough to replenish aquifers. But finally, for the first time in almost 10 months, the soil is damp from the surface on down and life is springing forth. The transformation in the orchard and surrounding hills is dramatic. After months of dry days we are now savoring a green spring we thought might not even happen this year.

The orchard cover crop is suddenly almost knee high. On a
normal year it would be double that, but we are glad for
at least some growth that will provide soil protection this
summer after mowing down.

Peaches are in full bloom

Apricots had a heavy bloom and are now bristling with pea-sized fruits

Our native Western Redbud trees are ablaze in bloom and
pushing out new foliage

Our Valencia orange trees are loaded with ripening fruit
and ready to burst out in blooms that will form next
year's fruit

After months of scratching in dry dirt the chickens are glad
to have lush green grass and worms on the menu again

Every day the hills turn a bit more green as the fresh grass
slowly grows up through last summer's dry weeds 

We know we have a long dry summer to get through, so for now we are taking every opportunity to savor the beauty of a green spring that almost didn't happen. And we're still hoping for a bit more rain.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Pruning citrus trees

A well pruned citrus tree has open space inside
As with all fruit trees, citrus benefit from regular pruning. Though they require less radical work than many fruits, regular pruning provides several benefits:

  • It maintains the tree at a manageable size. Left unpruned a citrus tree will continue growing higher and wider each year until eventually reaching 20' or more. It is common to see unpruned citrus trees hanging over neighbors' fences and rubbing on roofs. Even dwarf citrus will easily grow too tall, they just take a bit longer.
  • Pruning allows light and air inside the canopy, improving fruit quality and quantity and reducing pest infestations. Left unpruned the foliage becomes so dense that deeply shaded areas stop bearing and small branches die back. Mites and scale insects thrive in the dark crowded spots that tend to stay damp. A well pruned tree is a healthy tree.
  • Pruning makes harvest much easier. Over time small dead twiggy branches accumulate, making picking difficult and painful. Cutting out the dead and thinning the crowded shoots really improves access and visibility. I like to maintain big enough openings around the canopy that I can step inside.
  • Keeping branches up off the soil prevents fruit mold and limits access for ants and other pests.
Dead shoots clutter up a grapefruit tree

The same view after pruning out dead wood and crowded

Before pruning . . .

 . . . and after

Vigorous upright shoots called "water sprouts"
should always be removed. Left alone they quickly
grow right through the top of the tree and they
seldom produce decent fruit if any.

Water sprouts can be recognized by their
flattish shape and are often thorny

These naval orange trees maintained at no more than 7' high
can be picked without a ladder. Lower branches are pruned up
off the ground so the lowest fruit will not touch moist soil
and get moldy.

The view from inside shows the open spaces created by pruning.
These oranges can be picked without getting scratched hands.
When to prune
Heavy pruning on a neglected citrus tree is best done in the late winter/early spring before the spring growth spurt. Then strong spring growth will nurture the tree to recovery. If topping the tree to reduce its height exposes bare bark to the sun, be sure to paint those areas with 50/50 white interior latex paint and water to prevent sunburn.

But for trees that are regularly maintained, pruning time is not so important since little growth is removed each time. I normally do touch-up prunings twice a year, in late winter and again in mid summer as needed to control height. Since pruning promotes new growth, late summer pruning should be avoided since the new growth could still be tender in early winter and easily freeze damaged.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Drought times four

A bone dry pond and parched hills on a nearby property. The
pond normally fills by December, providing water for grazing cattle.
Well, these past few days the media has suddenly awakened to the fact that California is in the midst of a drought. Stories of low reservoirs and dry river beds abound. But to those of us who depend directly upon the annual rainy season to fill our wells and irrigate our crops, this is old news. For us every fall begins an anxious time of hoping for rains, preferably in the form of generous storms at regular intervals. But this season's weather has dashed our hopes early, often and cruelly, not just from lack of winter rains alone but by four compounding factors.

First, so far this year we have had barely 2" of rainfall, and have had none at all since December 6. That is the longest mid-winter dry stretch in the 150 years that records have been kept. At our 800 ft. elevation we normally average 35 inches of rain per season, most falling between October and April. So what should be emerald green hills saturated with water are instead still golden and parched. Our ground is bone dry except where we can manage some minimal drip irrigation from our low-producing wells. And those wells, which would normally be recharging this time of year, are continuing the drop that started at the end of last year's rains. Long range weather models predict little chance of significant rain this spring.

Second, the previous two seasons have been quite dry so we started out this season in the hole. The 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons gave us only about 60% of average, so we entered last fall with a two year deficit. We have been through droughts before, notably three years in the mid-70's. But then we got at least 10"-13" of rain each year. Right now 10" would seem like a bonanza.

Third, except for one very cold week most of our fall and winter days have been unseasonably warm and sunny. Temperatures have regularly reached into the 70s. While the tropical temps are pleasant for working outside they quickly dry out plants and soil, requiring us to winter irrigate, something the rains normally do for us. And even that freezing cold week hurt, since cold air is very dry and pulls moisture out of everything.

And fourth, we have had an unusually high number of days of north wind, including several multi-day episodes of horrendously strong blasts. As anyone who lives in northern California knows, north wind is a fiendishly dry, irritating weather occurrence that desiccates plants and people, often blows with destructive force, and makes us all grumpy. In addition to sucking away any moisture we received from our measly rains, the strongest windy spells scoured the floor of our orchard, clearing off most of the fallen leaves and other mulch that normally provide protection for the soil surface.

So we are hoping for the best but preparing as well as we can for the worst. I spread compost and planted a legume cover crop as usual last fall. A couple of light rains were enough to germinate the seed, but since then it has been barely clinging to life.

This legume cover crop would normally be waist-high
and lush by now
It is important to keep the orchard trees' roots hydrated even during the dormant season, so since early December I have been moving circles of drip tubing from tree to tree. This boosts the cover crop directly under the trees, but more importantly helps to store some water in the soil for even drier months ahead. With our limited water supply I can only afford about four hours of soaking per tree, three trees at a time. This means each tree gets this tiny ration only once every 20 days or so.

Drip irrigation tubing circling a tree
Ground water is notoriously short in our area, and the aquifers that do exist mostly flow through small cracks in sandstone or shale. So although there is some water underground, it cannot flow quickly into a well. This means that water has to be pumped slowly from the wells into large storage tanks above ground. That way we can accumulate it while we are not watering and have a temporary supply for fast use when we need it.

One of our four water storage tanks sits on the highest spot
on our property, providing gravity pressure for drip irrigation.
A rope and float system indicates water level in the tank.
We have four wells, all low producing. Together they produce around 1000 gallons per day. While that might sound like a lot, a single inch of rain falling on our 4 acres would deliver 110,000 gallons!

Our original well is pictured below, an old hand dug hole in the ground that is only 36 feet deep, 4 feet in diameter at the bottom and lined with random sandstone rocks placed without mortar. It is likely over 100 years old, and one has to marvel at the immense and dangerous labor required to construct a well like this.

The beauty of a dug well is it's volume - it acts as a storage tank in the ground, accumulating water whenever we're not pumping. We have a solar powered pump in this well, and since it only pumps during daylight the water level recovers overnight. Surprisingly after an average rainfall season this is our best well, holding a steady 12 to 15 feet of water inside. Sadly, during dry years the water level falls sharply and is now only about 2 feet deep in the mornings before pumping.

Our old hand dug well
So for now we search the long range forecasts daily for signs of hope, trying to stay optimistic but knowing we are experiencing a drought unprecedented in California recorded history.