archive, August 2005

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Heat -- 5 August 05 -- Late July is usually the hottest time of year in this area, and for once the weather did something usual. So my first project on this trip was to clear a new tent site where my shady camp was in the last visit. Over the next few days I got into a groove: get up early and work before the sun gets hot, sit in the shade reading a book until my tent has been in shade long enough to cool off from the morning sun, take a long nap, and do some more work in the evening after the sun goes behind the west ridge.

After a few days I figured out that there's a lot of work to be done in deep shade, and then the limiting factor was no longer heat, but the accumulation of cuts and blisters on my hands. The shady work was fire prevention. Oddly, even though the clouds go west to east, at ground level the wind is usually east to west. So I went into the thick stands of trees on the east side and started cutting off the dead lower branches. There's still plenty more to do.

But the main thing I did, over the whole week, was continue to clear dead wood off the ground and throw it in piles. Here's a photo with a lot of information. This is looking west by northwest from the bottom of the north hill. On the left is what all the open areas on the land looked like when I started -- OK, maybe not quite that bad. On the right, and receding into the distance, is a trail I cleared by throwing the wood, one piece at a time, into piles, and on the left you can see a smaller pile. Also, there in the foreground is a patch of thimbleberries, so far all leaves and no actual berries. And just past the pile is where I'm thinking of building the cabin.

My land is shaped like a big bowl, with tree-covered ridges on four sides and three corners, which is great for blocking wind, but too good at blocking sun. I thought I wouldn't find a cabin site with good winter sun exposure without having to haul tons of building materials way up the north hill, and above the level of the spring. But I walked around, standing at various places and trying to mentally make them work, and I found this spot: near the center of the land, all downhill from the spring, and hidden from the access road by a patch of trees. It seems too shady but I figured out that most of the trees can be pruned so they let in winter sun but not summer sun.

Flora and Fauna -- 5 August 05 -- Exactly halfway through my stay, on the night after the third full day, I heard an animal scratching around my tent. It sounded a lot bigger than a squirrel but smaller than a bear. I made a noise to scare it but it just shambled slowly over to check out my sealed food stores. With a dim flashlight and my glasses, I was barely able to get a good look at it through the tent screen: a porcupine!

Also, on my last evening, I saw a brown rabbit hop into the "parking lot" area and watched it munch clover. And when I checked on my crosscut saw, packed with dry grass in several layers of cardboard under a tarp... I shouldn't have been surprised -- there were mice living with it. I saw plenty of bats at dusk, got a few visits from a hummingbird, heard a woodpecker, saw some distant animals that were bigger and darker than deer, either elk or small moose, and I caught another glimpse of a western tanager, the beautiful yellow bird that I saw on my previous visit and later identified online.

But the star of this trip was a plant, mahonia aquifolium, oregon grape. Unlike the thimbleberries, the oregon grapes are producing lots of berries, even in the shade. Oregon grape berries are very tart, but if you develop a taste for the tartness, they're delicious! I walked all over the land munching them. And then I got to thinking: the plants with berries must be the ones with access to ground water, and the plants with the most abundant and juicy berries must have more ground water.

The permaculture people say you should observe your land for a whole year before you do anything, and now I'm starting to understand why. It turns out I planted a lot of my berry bushes in the wrong place. I've lost half my serviceberries and I expect to lose all my blue elders, and maybe even my drought tolerant sea buckthorns. If I had planted any major fruit or nut seedlings, they would have been totally wasted. One of my serviceberry plants is thriving, and sure enough, a few feet away is an oregon grape plant with berries. I probably never need to water it again. So my next project is to go around the land marking the oregon grape plants with the biggest berries, so after the berries are gone, I'll still know where the water is.

It turns out that the dominant tree on my land (since they logged all the big cedars) is one I didn't even identify until last month, and one that's uncommon in my field-guide bioregion: grand fir. The wood is too soft and weak for building, but at least it has a cool name, and one valuable property: the bark of younger trees is covered with little blisters full of sap, which the Indians used for cleaning teeth. On the last night I tried popping one and coating my toothbrush with the stuff, and it left my mouth feeling great and seemed to still be keeping the plaque down a day later. The eco-yuppies would be envious: They're buying Tom's of Maine natural toothpaste with lots of filler gunk and a few drops of essential oil of something or other, and I'm coating my toothbrush in sap straight from a tree!

Apples -- 15 August 05 -- Most people have no idea how many apple varieties there are. I had no idea myself until I looked through the 75 common varieties in this tree fruit harvest report, the 150 cold-hardy varieties in the St. Lawrence Nurseries list, and the 40 varieties in this detailed personal list of "apple varieties we grow"... and found almost no overlap! Here's the biggest listing I've found, the All About Apples varieties list.

Originally, I was looking for easy to grow apples that keep all winter, and looking only in the Raintree catalog. Now I've spent about 20 hours seeking and devouring the best apple info on the internet, and I still think Raintree is great, but not for apples on my land.

First, the roots: Nursery apple trees are always grafted on special rootstocks, and these are usually dwarfing rootstocks. (Here are the Penn State rootstock summary, the Cummins Nursery rootstock summary, and an index of rootstock factsheets.) A dwarfing rootstock is basically a labor-saving device to keep a tree small without having to prune it. They're useful for casual backyard growers and commercial growers who want small trees for ease of picking. But I have plenty of time for pruning, and plenty of space for big trees. Also, because I have long, cold winters, I need the vigor of non-dwarfing rootstocks. Here's the case against dwarfs from the St. Lawrence site:

Dwarf trees are made by grafting onto rootstocks that are inherently weak growers; they stunt the growth of the tree. There is a popular notion that dwarf trees will produce fruit sooner, but in USDA Zone 3 or 4, the use of a dwarfing rootstock can cause even a hardy cultivar to winterkill or simply linger season after season with minimal growth and no fruit. If you live in a northern climate with a short growing season, dwarf trees will not work for you. You need a rootstock that will grow strongly for 2-3 months and then start hardening off for winter. For our apple trees we use the Russian rootstock Antonovka, an extremely hardy and vigorous standard size rootstock which can produce strong growth during our limited growing season. If you wish a smaller tree, this can be accomplished by pruning. A well-pruned apple tree on Antonovka, when grown in Zones 3-5, will be equivalent to a semi-dwarf tree in size (10-12 feet at maturity), and it will have many advantages. For instance, your tree will have the vigor to compete with grass that grows near the base of the tree, while a dwarf tree must have "clean culture" (no sod) to the drip line. It will not need to be guyed or staked, whereas dwarf trees tend to be shallow-rooted and usually require some support. Your tree might well be producing fruit for your great-grandchildren, while dwarf trees must be replanted every 10-20 years. Finally, the crop yielded by a your mature standard tree will be many times greater than that of a dwarf or semidwarf tree.

The usual argument for dwarfing roostocks is they're more efficient: you can pack more trees closer together and maximize the yield per acre. But I want other things besides efficiency. I want to climb trees for apples when I'm 90 years old, and leave some fruit for birds and squirrels, and leave awkward spaces to be filled in by nature. Here's an argument for standard size trees from Greenmantle Nursery:

In the past few decades there has been a radical shift in the way fruit trees are grown. The old-fashioned orchard of large spreading trees is rapidly being replaced by densely planted, intensively managed rows on dwarfing rootstock. Dwarf trees, once the reliance of the home orchardist, are becoming the backbone of the commercial industry. Agribusiness has begun to treat fruit trees like row crops -- short term investments that yield maximum profits. We foresee a time when the grand old standards will become isolated relics of a less cost-efficient past.

This, we feel, would be a shame, and not just on sentimental or aesthetic grounds. Our years of fruit exploring in old homestead orchards have taught us to respect these venerable giants for their ability to endure. They have stood up to drought and storm, deer and porcupine, grasshoppers and borers. Though no human may come to harvest their fruit, these old standards continue to produce crops against a multitude of odds. Grafted on seedling rootstock, they partake of a health and vigor inherent in sexual reproduction.

It is our contention that these standard-sized trees still deserve a place of honor in the future orchard. It is these magnificently inconvenient specimens that are most likely to bear fruit for our great-grandchildren's generation. So please, where space permits, consider the merits of planting at least a few old-fashioned standard-sized trees. We should remember that a chief beauty of fruit is that it grows on TREES -- real trees that form the foundation of a permanent and sustainable agriculture, that will even tolerate the vagaries of the human condition.

Also, I have dry summers, and the most common dwarfing rootstocks, M7 and M26, are not drought tolerant. I'm not even considering the ultra-dwarfing ones like M27. In addition to Antonovka, I plan to try MM111 -- near full-size, the most drought tolerant, and it loves sandy soil, but it's slow to bear fruit and a poor bearer for its size. MM106 grows a little smaller than 111 and fruits sooner and better -- but it's vulnerable to disease and early frost, risky in this age of erratic weather.

So, I want Antonovka or MM111 rootstock. What about the fruit? There are lots of new varieties coming out of laboratories and breeding programs, but some British sites convinced me that old varieties are better. Here's a George Monbiot article, Fallen Fruit, about how the demands of industrialization and human stupidity are killing off the old varieties with their wonderful and varied flavors, for new varieties with uniform shape and color, shiny perfect skin, crunchiness, bland flavor, and the ability to endure mechanical processing.

You're not going to get good variety descriptions from a nursery, which wants every variety to sound equally and inoffensively good. The best site I found was Apple Varieties We Grow. From there, I picked Ashmead's Kernel, Kidd's Orange Red, Orleans Reinette, Karmijn De Sonnaville, Pitmaston Pineapple, and Suntan. But only Ashmead's is definitely cold-hardy enough for my land, and I can't find it anywhere on Antonovka. [Later St. Lawrence started carrying it.]

Half of the above are russet apples, a category with rough skin, strong spicy flavor, and good keeping quality. [I picked Golden Russet.] Also I want two or three crabapple trees. Crabapples are great pollinators, have pectin for jam, and the best ones taste as good as the best full-size apples. Really the only "disadvantage" is the smaller fruit. [I picked Centennial and Chestnut.] And I want Court Pendu Plat, a russet more than 1000 years old, with priceless genetic material. [Still looking.]

Between the root and the fruit, you've got the tree. The qualities you want are disease resistance, strong growth (vigor), cold hardiness, early bearing, annual bearing (many varieties bear full crops only every other year), and long life. Tree quality tends to be ignored in favor of fruit quality, and also it has a lot to do with your particular climate. [Prairie Spy, which I picked on intuition, is by far my best tree.]

I'm getting my trees from St. Lawrence, but two other good apple nurseries are Trees of Antiquity, with 150 apples mostly on MM 111, and Greenmantle Nursery, with 276 varieties (and no Red Delicious) on four rootstocks, most available only as bench grafts.

Appleseeds -- 18 August 05 -- Regarding the last post, Aaron writes, "This might be a silly question in this modern age, but why can't you grow apple trees from apple seeds?"

Good question! Basically, almost all apples are hybrids, which means if you plant a seed you could get anything. Most often you'll get a "crabapple," which just means a variety of apple that is very small and might or might not have good flavor. If you plant enough seeds, you'll get some really good new varieties. In the long term, I totally want to do that. That's one reason I want to grow Golden Russet and Court Pendu Plat, as valuable breeding stock. But right now, with only a few spots for trees, and needing a harvest of good apples in seven years, I want to plant seedlings that are certain to make good apples.

Crystal reminds me about a great Harper's article on apples a few years ago, an excerpt from the book The Botany of Desire, which says that apples used to be a big part of every homestead, mostly for hard cider. "In rural areas, cider took the place not only of wine and beer but also of coffee, juice, even water." And she also sends me this great link about Johnny Appleseed, possibly the only American folk hero who was even cooler than his legend.

I've read vastly different estimates of the chance of a random seedling producing a good apple tree, and I lean toward greater probability. John writes:

We have grown trees from seed that produced some very good apples. Maybe we just got lucky. Everyone told us you had to freeze the seeds for so many weeks in order to trick them into thinking they'd gone through a winter. We found this to be unneccesary. What we did was to nick the seeds with a pair of nail clippers and place them in some of those peat pellets that you put in water and they expand. Surprisingly we had some viable seedlings before long. A decade later we have some very nice trees that produce a largish apple much like the one the seeds came from.

Summer Kills -- 22 August 05 -- I could make all kinds of excuses why I left my seedlings unwatered for 15 days in August, but the real reason is, when something gets to be too much work, I'd rather let it go and find out what I can get away with. In this case, let's find out how much dry heat these plants can take in their first summer.

Less than I'd hoped. I don't know how brown a plant can get and come back (results of that experiment are not in yet) but I think I lost a goumi, one or two high-price serviceberries, and my male sea buckthorn, and almost everything high on the north hill is looking ugly. (A few plants are still looking great!) On the high west hill, I was expecting to lose everything anyway, and the low west hill is doing fine -- looks like one blue elder is going to make it!

This time I drank almost a pint of raw water from the spring pool, and two days later I still feel great. I got a good look at some chipmunks but they're shy of the camera. And I found a wild turkey tail feather.

Mostly what I did was walk around figuring out what to plant where. If I'd done this properly last year, I wouldn't have lost any seedlings. My original idea was to put the orchard up the west hill, but the clear part is just too narrow to get good sunlight. Then I was going to put it up the north hill, but it's too dry for anything that's not native or very drought tolerant. And the bottom land is too shady. Unless...

I've pretty much decided to massacre a bunch of trees. Where there's enough ground water for a cedar or hemlock, there's more than enough for a full size apple tree. I was looking at oregon grape berries, but duh! That doesn't indicate nearly as much ground water as a giant cedar stump. So if I kill the trees in the bottom land and up the middle of the west hill -- except the really big ones -- I'll have plenty of space for fruit and nuts, and more options for building sites. And that still leaves plenty of forest all around the edges.

Oh, and one bit of great news. I found a mystery conifer, with pointy needles in flat sprays and red peeling bark, and finally found it identified under shrubs. It's a yew -- by many accounts, the best wood in the northern hemisphere for making bows! And it has two trunks, so I can have my yew and cut it too.

Damn Walnuts -- 29 August 05 -- Black walnuts are my favorite nut... I think. I've never tasted them but Persian (English) walnuts are almost my favorite nut and black walnuts are supposed to be better. Also, they're the most valuable of all timber trees, at least in this climate. The problem is, they demand the prime spot in the orchard -- tons of water, lots of sunlight, low wind, and good deep soil -- and then they secrete a chemical, juglone, that's toxic to many other plants. Also, they're big trees and you need two for pollination. So I spent a lot of this trip walking around trying to find a place to put the walnuts.

My original plan, to put them up high, is out. Not enough water and too hard to carry water up. I did find one big cedar stump low on the sunny north hill, proof of ground water, but the soil there is mediocre and there isn't room for two walnuts. (I'm thinking about peaches.) I could also put them downstream of the orchard, but that area only gets half a day of sunlight, unless I kill a lot of trees. Or I could even put them off my land! The canyon bottom runs southeast, onto a plot which I'm told is owned by two old ladies in Oregon who will never sell it. I walked down it and found a nice grassy meadow with room for a couple walnut trees. The risk, of course, is that the land could pass to new owners who cut them down.

Here are two pages on black walnut toxicity from OSU and WVU, from which I learned that the chemical does not carry in ground water, and that Prunus species (plum, peach, almond, cherry) are resistant. So I can use Prunus to separate walnuts from blueberries and apples, which are most sensitive. It looks like elderberries are resistant too, and pecans must be, since they secrete small amounts of the same chemical.

The other thing I did this time was clear more dead wood, mostly from the lower trunks of trees in the wooded patches near the center of the land. I'm also finding some native serviceberry plants, now that I know what they look like. I was expecting shrubs but they look like spindly 15 foot trees that have fallen over. I'm going to try "layering," or cutting and burying part of the trunk to induce it to put down roots.

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