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Friday, June 28, 2013

First Planting of the Cider Apples

On April 27, our team of twelve planted the first 150 trees in our first cider apple orchard in the northwest field above the farmstead. Procured from a seller in New York, there are 10 individuals of 15 varieties, each dominantly expressing one of the three major components of Wessex style cider: acid, bitter, and sweet. In the Wessex style, ciders are made from each variety of apple and three or more of these blended to produce the commercial product. The varieties were selected not only for flavor but for flowering and harvest season, roughly a third each of early, middle, and late. This should help ensure against crop loss due to vagaries of weather, reduce labor requirements in a given period, and facilitate the production of "seasonal" ciders.

This was a remarkable day. The team quickly bonded, and self-organized into groups responsible for digging the holes, distributing supplies, placing the trees and replacing the soil, watering, and installing the stakes and protective geotextile mulch and translucent tree guards. The work groups cross-trained one another, and traded tasks to prevent burnout. We'd estimated the whole job would take ten to twelve hours but together we got it done in less than five. Yay team!

Here's a little video that Debbie made of Derith & Dave digging a hole with the big tractor and PTO-driven auger.

All of the photos that follow were made by Derith Vogt at D&G Photography in Anamosa, Iowa.

Here are some of the big tractor's hydraulic and mechanical controls. Grr.

Here's the whole operation in one shot. We began at the top of the hill and worked our way down. In the bed of the truck were water barrels we filled from the pond with a sump pump. The little tractor pulled the utility trailer loaded with the bare-root trees and supplies.

Debbie prepares to water just-planted trees.

Derith & Gary strike an American Gothic pose.

After the trees were planted, difficult as it was to do, we pruned away all the side branches, and cut back the central leader to a height of three feet. Eventually the trees, which are on dwarfing rootstock, will be trained to trellises and kept to a maximum height of eight feet. Here, Jeff assists Alan while Mary looks on.

Gary does the initial half-fill of soil. Water was applied next to consolidate the soil and ensure good contact with the roots, then the rest of the soil, and more water.

Scot and Donna complete a planting.

Your faithful, if erratic, correspondent, ready to set a stake and secure the sleeve with zip ties. The fabric mulch is primarily to keep the base of the tree free of other vegetation that would compete for water, sunlight, and soil nutrients.

Team portrait at the end of the job.

From these trees we should be able to clone as many others as we like, by cultivating shoots from the rootstock, harvesting scion wood from the top growth, and grafting the two together. It's a long-term project.

Monday, June 24, 2013

In the Merry Wet Month of May

In high contrast to last year's drought and heat wave, which was well underway in May, this spring has been long, cool, and wet. Perhaps at least partially due to the different weather, we notice many other differences in how the plant and animal populations are expressed. The later onset of warmer temperatures meant that I saw lots of flowering plants and trees that last year I missed by not arriving here on the farm until mid-April.

Whether through the action of squirrels or the whimsy of previous residents, there are patches of tame flowers in unexpected places away from the farmstead, for instance the bearded iris near Eye Chair, the day lilies along the dam and in the road ditch, and these daffodils on the far side of the pond.

This crabapple was festooned with blossoms, though a bit past its prime and beginning to leaf out by the time I made this photograph.

I'm not a skilled botanical taxonomist and so can only say that these looked up close like tiny bleeding heart flowers.

Here are some trillium amidst the dandelions in a sunny spot in the woods.

And – oh dear, that telephone camera doesn't work very well – a wild variety of violet.

The machine shed is flanked on each side by large forsythia bushes, brilliantly golden for about a week. This poor plant grew rapidly afterward, became top-heavy, and suffered a lot of damage in one of the fierce thunderstorms we've had in the past two months. We'll cut it back, and thin it out, and it should be all right again in a year or two. To the right is one of the red raspberry trellises, and in the background you can see the cider apple orchard.

More flowering trees.

At several locations throughout the woods appeared colonies of May apples like these. Once Frank B. identified them for me, I began to see them everywhere. At this time one could still walk easily through the woods but the undergrowth has become rank and impenetrable. Any excursion off the paths is now a steamy, sweaty, scratchy affair with a guarantee of discovering wood ticks afterward.

Lyme disease, carried by deer ticks and other kinds of ticks, is not a great concern in this area, unlike, say, many parts of Wisconsin. Deer ticks are tiny, pinhead-sized creatures, and I've yet to find anything to identify as such, but the wood ticks are very evident, visually and by their movements on one's skin. Squeamishness is pointless, but one does become hypersensitive to, for instance, the feel of arm hairs on sleeves: Was that something moving? The ticks don't settle down for about a day so we almost always find them before they've bitten, and then it's important to not let them escape or they'll climb the furniture and jump on you again!

The second and third week of May are when morel mushrooms tend to emerge, and I had luck enough to find a nice patch of these delicious fungi. Sautéed and in a cream sauce, served over small grilled steaks – oh, so good. Those we didn't eat fresh went into the dehydrator. Some people around here go crazy for morels and we saw classified ads from restauranteurs and others offering up to $60 a pound.

Diligent readers may recall that last fall we recovered a large corrugated metal pipe (CMP) culvert from the creek. It had evidently been placed as a creek crossing but being considerably undersized had washed out. We dragged it with the tractor to the other side of the farm where a tributary flows from The Narrows at the lane and the terraces in the observatory field above.

Re-establishing a crossing here is part of the larger plan to have tractor access to the entire farm without having to use the county road. We found some 6-inch diameter flexible plastic drain pipe just downstream, washed out like the CMP, and again obviously grossly undersized for the application. Good rule of thumb: the pipe area should be about the same as the stream cross-section!

This little stream is ephemeral, that is, it doesn't flow all the time. During a relatively dry spell, Alan used a spade to square and level the channel, then placed a load of gravel as bedding. He set two stout poles at an angle in the channel, then rolled the CMP over the edge where it rested against the poles. He then eased the poles out, lowering the culvert into place.

Next, more gravel to fill the gaps on either side, and the excavated soil on top. Et voilà.

It's barely wide enough for the tractor but didn't have to be. It's smoothed out since this photo was made and now looks a pretty darn professional installation.

The hillside that descends from the lane to the culvert crosses a line of seeps and we had to build a bit of roadway before we could complete the project.

Alan's first attempt to work in the project area was timed a little prematurely, before we realized we needed the roadway, and the tractor just slipped in the mud as he tried to ascend. Donna pulled him out with the pickup. Motive force!

Well, my goodness – I should have separated this post into chapters. Thank you for your forbearance, dear readers. Also in May, we spent an interesting Saturday morning in historic Kalona, about an hour away, at the annual exotic animal sale, alternating between the small and large animal auctions. Based on so-far-limited research at the auction cafes where we've eaten, it appears that the Methodist women make tastier pies than the Amish women (I know this will be controversial – please keep your comments civil).

And then, finally, the weather was warm enough and the ground dry enough to get into the gardens. This next photo shows the soil manufactory, which is to say the compost pile. We collected plenty of raw material over the past year but I was not diligent in the layering and turning operations. A lot of the material broke down pretty well and when screened produced a beautiful topsoil-like compost, just the kind of high organic content stuff we need to improve the tilth and fertility of the garden soil. But it hadn't been cooked (by microbial action) to a high enough temperature to kill the seeds it contained.

Everything I planted using this compost as bedding for seed came up with lots of cucurbits (melon, squash, etc.) and tomatoes, and I've been paying the price since, weeding on my hands and knees. Not to mention the purslane, as overwhelming as last year. More on the gardens in future posts...

Oh yes, the cider apples. Next post.

And the gnats. Ye gods, the gnats.