Sunny Slope Orchard

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

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.