Sunny Slope Orchard

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

Monday, May 30, 2016

Cots and peaches are done for this year!

We can hardly believe it, but after little more than a week we are already sold out of peaches and apricots for the year. The peaches all ripened within a very few days, beating all previous records. So instead of having at least two weeks to gradually pick and slowly sell the fruit, we had only days. We were able to get some into a few customers' hands, but ripe fruit can't wait around so we had to sell most of it in bulk to a produce store and restaurant. But at least we made good use of the fruit and little went to waste.

The apricots are another story. They began ripening gradually as usual, and we were picking a few boxes every day as they ripened up nicely in moderate temperatures. Then this week hit, with temperatures in the upper 90's and expected to top 105 in a few days. High heat slows down photosynthesis, especially when the soil is dry as it is again this year. The leaves turn away from the sun, hiding from the heat, and stop transpiring moisture to the air. This slows down nutrient flow in the tree and fruits, and if the hot spell lasts more than a few days, the fruit stops ripening and begins to decay inside. Apricots are especially prone to this problem. So sadly we can only look on as the 80% of our cot crop still on the trees deteriorates. It is too green to harvest and is unlikely to survive until cool weather returns, so this looks like the end of our apricot season. We're sorry for all our customers who will miss their annual batch of cots for eating, jam, and canning. We were hoping for a reasonable apricot year, but it is not to be.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Harvest time is here!

A ripe Springcrest peach meets the sunrise

With the past 11 months of irrigation, weed control, cover cropping, pruning, pest control and fruit thinning behind us, it's show time as we are now literally enjoying the fruits of our labors. Cots, peaches, and a few plums are ripening and we will be picking daily for the next few weeks.

Harvest is rewarding, but is also the most stressful and exhausting season for us. Since individual fruits ripen over a 2-3 week period, each tree must be picked 10 times or more. That way we can allow near-complete ripening on the tree for maximum flavor, rather than picking green and letting the fruit "ripen" off the tree (think flavorless grocery store fruit). The difference in flavor is dramatic, the difference in labor is also huge. And we lose a lot to birds, insects and wind fall the longer it hangs on the trees. But to us, flavor is the whole point. Our loyal customers seem to agree.

The season is short, with peaches lasting barely two weeks, cots maybe three. Plums are in limited supply and will only be around until mid to late June. So an intense few weeks awaits.

Royal Blenheim apricots
For our drive-in customers, please email ahead before coming out, to sunnyslopeorchard [at] gmail [dot] com.



Monday, May 16, 2016

It's beginning to feel a lot like summer

Springtime's green hills are quickly fading to brown

Here we are in mid-May, a time of quickly changing seasons. The vibrant green hills of spring are fast turning dry and golden. Temperatures are rising and most likely we have seen about the last of this season's rain. All manner of plants are doing their best to produce seed, especially thistles and other invasive pests that require constant mowing and hand pulling to control. But our focus is mostly on the ripening fruit crop.

Last year we stripped just about all the fruit from our drought stressed trees, thinking this would help them endure that fourth year of drought. That seems to have payed off, as this year the trees are showing great vigor despite getting only 85% of average rainfall. After winter pruning to ensure plenty of space between trees for ladder access and light penetration, the strong growth has just about filled any empty space.

Vigorous spring growth in apricot trees 
Meanwhile the fruit is showing good color and sizing up nicely. The peaches are looking gorgeous, but are still small and hard. We guestimate the first picking will be around the first of June.

Ripening peaches tease with their vibrant red color, but are still hard as baseballs

As we mentioned in the previous post, our cots suffered a lot of cosmetic damage from untimely rains in March. We stripped off the worst affected fruit, but there will be quite a bit of speckled skin. Still, many are looking quite good and the size is impressive. We are just now starting to see the first hints of yellow among the green cots. And like the peaches, we project our first pickings will be around Memorial Day.

A few cots are just starting to change from green to yellowish
So for now we are feeling the familiar excitement of a fast and furious harvest season racing toward us. We are busy weeding, propping up heavily laden branches, banding tree trunks to protect against ants and earwigs, and setting up our famous bird scare machines. The shade cloth has been suspended over the citrus and figs to protect them from summer's heat.

Shade cloth helps shallow rooted trees like figs and
citrus cope with summer heat and limited water
As soon as picking starts in earnest we will be sending out an email to our regular customers letting you know what is ripe. Anyone wanting to be on our list, please email your contact information to sunnyslopeorchard [at] gmail [dot] com. 


Bill and Fern

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Springtime update

After months of high hopes for a bountiful rainfall year to break the four year drought, mother nature has once again disappointed. So far we have received only 85% of our average rainfall to date. That is an improvement over the past four years, but we really needed an above average year to get ground water levels back to what the orchard and native vegetation need to get through the coming hot summer without stress. 

Still, we did get to enjoy a few heavy rains, and have been feasting our eyes on emerald green hills. And unlike last year, we have decided to go ahead and leave fruit on the trees rather than stripping it off. Bloom time was warm and dry, resulting in a heavy fruit set on most trees. 

An apricot tree bristling with fruit
Unfortunately for the apricots, a week of constant wet weather in March set off a raging infection of shot-hole fungus. Shot-hole is one of several fungal diseases affecting cots, leaving brown speckles on the fruit and "shot holes" in the leaves. Many small fruits shriveled and dropped off, some were just too ugly and had to be stripped, and some had only moderate spotting and will be usable. The spots do not affect taste, but this year's cots will not win any beauty contests.

Shot hole damage to apricot fruit and leaves
One regular spring activity is mowing down the legume cover crop. The mowed debris protects the soil from erosion by wind and rain, helps retain soil moisture, provides food for soil-feeding microorganisms, and shields shallow roots from the heat of summer sun. Timing the mowing is always a compromise: I want it to grow as long as possible to maximize the volume of mulch and to provide habitat for beneficial insects. But the longer the cover crop is allowed to grow, the more soil moisture it consumes, leaving less for the trees to use in summer. So this year I mowed a bit earlier than usual to save as much rainy season moisture as possible.

My walk behind sickle bar mower cutting down the cover crop
Another essential spring chore is fruit thinning, which is removing excess fruit from the trees. After lack of pruning, failure to thin is probably the most common chore that backyard fruit tree gardeners neglect to do.

But don't we want as much fruit as possible? Well, not exactly. We would like as much good sized and healthy fruit as possible, within the limits of what the trees can support. With favorable weather conditions during bloom, most stone fruit trees set way too much fruit. So our goal in thinning is to leave some space between each fruit so that insects and fungus problems do not easily move from one fruit to another. Also we want to limit the weight of fruit so branches will not break during a strong wind. And we want the fruit to attain the biggest size and develop the best flavor. Since each tree only has so much energy to put into its fruit crop, an excess fruit load reduces both size and flavor.

As the newly set fruits begin to grow, many will fall off or "self thin" on their own. So it's best to wait until that happens before doing your thinning. But to get the most benefit from thinning, it should be done before the pits harden. That way the fruit left on the tree will continue to expand to the largest size and reach maximum flavor. Test by cutting open a green fruit as shown below. If the pit is soft and jelly-like and no hard shell has developed around it, the time is right. But late thinning is better than none at all, even if done after pit hardening.

This apricot pit is very soft, indicating an ideal time to thin
How much fruit to remove is the next question. Cots should generally be thinned so they will be at least 3" - 4" apart when they reach full size. That means if they are 3/4" size during thinning time, they should be left no less than 5" - 6" apart. On thin weak shoots even more drastic thinning is needed to prevent stem breakage as the fruit sizes up. Below are before and after shots of a section of apricot branch. The original 25 cots were thinned down to 7. This seems brutal when you're doing it, but once the fruit grows to full size we invariably feel that we were not ruthless enough when thinning.

Apricot branch before thinning, with tight clusters of small fruit crammed together
After thinning, no fruits are left touching, they will grow to much larger size,
and the chance of branch breakage is much reduced
Peaches are about the hardest to thin, since they are tightly attached plus we have to imagine the little almond-sized baby peaches growing to baseball or even softball size. In the before and after shots below, 13 peaches are thinned down to just two. After thinning, the ground under the tree is almost covered solid in tiny peaches, but by the time the remaining fruit grows to full size the trees will still have a heavy crop.

Thirteen 3/4" peaches are jammed together on long skinny stems that are
guaranteed to break as the peaches grow to baseball size
After thinning only two peaches remain
So we are busy preparing for the hectic season ahead, excited to taste the first apricot, peach, plum and fig, hoping for kind weather but knowing that mother nature has her own plans. No problem, we know our place in nature and are just happy to be here.