Sunny Slope Orchard

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

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Making some tough choices

This March our hills look more like late April conditions
Here in early March we've grown weary of the continual waiting and hoping for more rain. We've had a couple of good storms so far this season, but then weeks go by with nothing more than a few clouds or worse yet, days of drying north wind. And temperatures have been way above average through most of the "cool" season. Storms appear regularly in extended weather forecasts, then vanish like a mirage as the days get closer. So the ground is drying up just as the trees begin to leaf out and the blossoms set tiny fruit, right when the roots need to start taking up moisture.

Peaches in full bloom, early March
The orchard cover crop is only half as tall as usual, stunted by lack of moisture. Normally we want the legume and mustard cover crop to mature until it is in full bloom to provide habitat for beneficial insects. And we want the plants to get as tall and thick as possible so when mowed down they provide a thick protective summer mulch on the soil surface. But lacking more rain, the cover crop is using up moisture that will be needed by the trees. So hard choice #1 was mowing down the cover crop a month early. This saves some soil moisture but leaves less residue to protect the soil and destroys habitat for beneficial insects.

Our BCS sickle bar mower
I've just finished the first round of mowing, using a sickle bar mower that cuts the tall stems once at the base but does not grind them up. This leaves the material mostly intact for a longer lasting mulch through the coming summer. As I walked behind the mower green lacewings and other beneficial insects constantly flew up around my face. It felt counterproductive to destroy their breeding and feeding sites, but it had to be done.

Lacking significantly more spring rain we will be facing hard choice #2: stripping off all young fruit to reduce stress on the trees and give them the best chance of surviving the fourth dry year in a row. It's a drastic step and one we hope we don't have to take. But we have to think of the long term health of the trees. All the juice, sugar and fiber in fruit comes from the stored energy in the tree's roots and from the current season's photosynthesis, and both depend upon water uptake through the roots. But those same energy sources also maintain the growth and health of the tree itself. So when trees are drought stressed, fruit production actually competes with tree health. We considered taking this drastic step last year but decided instead to leave the fruit on and dole out our meager water resources to the trees as efficiently as possible. The harvest was good but the trees were badly stressed in late summer. So if this turns into the fourth year of drought we will sacrifice the harvest in hopes of helping to relieve some stress on the trees this summer. 

Scaling back our home garden was another unhappy choice. A nice February rain storm encouraged us to risk small spring plantings of carrots, cabbage, broccoli, onions and potatoes. Normally we would do succession plantings for continuous harvest through early summer, then transition to tomatoes and other summer crops. But we'll not be planting anything more this year. As it is we are already having to irrigate our winter vegetables when they would ordinarily get by fine on spring rains. And tomorrow I will begin doling out water to the orchard trees so there will be even less to spare on the garden.

Small carrots under row cover cloth, protected from birds and wind

Our garden onion plot is scaled back to half size

But enough doom and gloom. We'll get through summer and pin our hopes on next rainfall season to break the drought. Meanwhile we feel privileged to enjoy sights like this double rainbow that appeared a few weeks ago.