Rituals of Spring

Cardinal on car – 2020The earth is waking up in our neighborhood, and all her creatures. I love the cacophony of bird song that I hear when I walk in the morning. The other day I saw this little red fellow pecking at the side mirror of an automobile parked in a driveway next to a long hedgerow of bushes. It is a common cardinal thing. When he sees his reflection in the glass, he thinks it is a competitor, and tries to defend his territory. If you look closely, you can see his reflection in the glass too, though most of the time, I see him pecking the side mirror, not the car window.

But what is so funny about this to me is that it has been the same cardinal, the same driveway, and the same car for the last three years.  Or it might be the same cardinal. They say they live about three years on average. If it is not the same cardinal, I am sure it would be the son of the previous cardinal, learning these important spring rituals from his father. I went back into my photos app to confirm my recollections and found these photos from the last two years.

Cardinal on car 2019

Cardinal on car, 2019–He had jumped from the side mirror just before I snapped the shot.

Cardinal on side mirror – 2018

Cardinal on car, 2018

As for me, I finally braved my spring ritual of pruning the cherry trees in our food forest. I am still such a novice about all things concerning fruit trees and each year I forget the whole process and have to relearn it, and then hope for the best. After reading all the entries on pruning in the Holistic Orchard book, I felt even more confused. So then I looked at several Youtube videos on pruning cherry trees. (By the way, there wasn’t one perfect one, or I would recommend it here.) Finally, I ventured out, and with a prayer to the trees themselves for help, I trimmed back wayward and unruly branches so the three-years-from-planting trees will have strong scaffolds, and lots of light. Next, I’ll have to venture to the peach tree, which has a totally different method for pruning.

I have also started a bit of terracing next to our asparagus bed near the side of the garage. There is a slope there that didn’t work to hold grass or clover, so our hope is to make a path a little lower than, and next to, the asparagus bed, with logs on either side to stabilize the soil. Then we might put in some sort of annual vegetable bed on the other side of that path. Most likely, we’ll do a small sized hugelkultur mound raised bed.  But more on that later. If we do it, I’ll write another blog post about it.

I hope you are finding time to get outside and observe your own spring rituals.

Pruning

Our friend, Mihku, who is a master gardener, gave me more advice about pruning last Sunday.  We looked at all the orchard trees, and she reminded me that these first few years are all about creating a good shape for the tree, thickening up the trunk, and creating strong scaffold branches, while not letting them get too leggy or long.

So for example, here is the peach tree before pruning (on May 27th).  It looked bright and happy, and even had a few flowers, (which you can see if you zoom in). But the branches were quite long, and the tree is too young to give energy to making fruit this year.  On the right foreground of this photo, you might also notice a very leggy branch from one of our cherry trees, dividing into new shoots at its tip.

Peach tree before pruning

Peach Tree before pruning

The next day, I went back to my Holistic Orchard book to read what Michael Phillips had to say about pruning, too.  It seems I need to read it at least once a year, because in between, I forget.  There are different methods for different fruits.  Apples and cherries prefer a central leader, with several scaffold layers of branches nicely spaced out as you go up the trunk.  Peaches prefer an open vase style, in which there is no central leader, but the center is opened up to give good sunlight to the flowers and fruit.  But it is far beyond the power of any book to give what a wise friend can give–especially for gathering the courage to actually do it.  (It seems counterintuitive to do all that cutting of new branches.)

This kind of pruning at this season of the year is meant to encourage growth in the right form and direction.  Mihku suggested cutting about 1/3 off from the long branches, and once again staking the cherry branches to make a better “crotch angle” (where the branch angles from the trunk.)  They tend to grow almost straight up, and should be reaching out to form a 45-60 degree angle.  Flat cuts at the end of branches will also help them to thicken up. Header cuts on the central leader, will encourage lower branches to grow–which was especially important for the Lapins cherry, which had a big gap between lower branches and higher shoots. I was excited to see that there were some new branches starting to form at a better height.

After I did the cherries, I went to the peach, picked off the blossoms, and cut away branches that were growing inward, to favor those that were growing outward. And those that I wanted to keep got about 1/3 headed off to help them become stronger, choosing a spot just above an outward facing bud.

Peach Tree after pruning

Peach after pruning

Finally, I checked our semi-dwarf apple tree, which is still quite small, and found that there were three branch shoots reaching upward at the central leader–just like Michael Phillips suggested there would be, and I chose the strongest to be the leader, and snipped off the other two.

Pruning accomplished for the season! Thanks Mihku!

Myke & Mihku in the garden

Photo by Margy Dowzer

 

Pruning

Cherry Tree prunedFriday and Saturday I pruned and trained our young fruit trees.  I did a lot of research beforehand, because it seemed so sad to actually cut them at all.  But the Holistic Orchard book, and most other resources suggest that pruning helps them to grow into a shape that gives them enough support and sunlight for fruit.

Of course, after the research, I realized it might have been better to prune the cherries more drastically last summer, when we first planted them.  But all we have is now.  Here is a photo of the Black Tartarian Cherry with its central leader cut at the top–to promote another tier of scaffolding (outward facing) branches.  The small bud near the top should grow into another central leader.   If I didn’t cut the top, the next outward facing branches would have grown too high up on the leader.

Next, I cut the ends of the first tier of scaffold branches, because they were too long and leggy and uneven.  On this cherry, they are also rather low to the ground, but the only way to remedy that would be to cut them all off, and I couldn’t do that.  I tied them back to encourage them to grow at a better angle to the central leader.  I did this for both cherry trees.  (We had also done this last summer, and took off the ties for the winter)

I also pruned our new young apple tree by making a heading cut on its central leader to promote scaffold branch growth.  For the peach, I did a more drastic cut on the central leader, to create a “vase” shape, where there is no central leader, but four or five main branches, which is the form most recommended for peaches.  Some sources recommend that for cherries too, but we had started with a central leader form last year.  After I was done with all this cutting, I said a prayer to the trees–I am so new at this, that I barely know what I am doing–so please forgive me for that, and grow and thrive anyway!

Funny to think that plants can thrive by being cut back so drastically.  Is there a message in that for humans too?  That the most difficult experiences of our life can shape us for greater beauty and fruitfulness to come?

I took a cut branch with cherry blossoms from the Lapins Cherry, and put it in a cup of water on our deck.  Maybe the bees will still want to visit them.  For now, it is a sign of the years to come, when we can let the flowers bloom and hope for fruit.Cherry Blossoms

Winter Trees

IMG_0224

I got off to a slow start today, and waited until afternoon to take a walk, after the sun came out.  The bright light and shadows were playing over the cherry trees we planted last spring.  (Further back are the stakes around the raspberries.) I feel such protective tenderness toward these trees.  They are so little still.  There is no way to tell how they are surviving the ups and downs of winter.  We’ve had long bitter freezes, thaws, ice, snow storms… but so far, no deer nibbling.  Sleep well little ones! Another storm is on the way for tomorrow.

Oh!!!!

Digger ProblemI had a revelation!  I have been thinking I was having a tug of war with a groundhog, because despite the fact that I had been using a very potent deterrent liquid, each morning I would discover this mess around my cherry tree beds.  But no more plants were being eaten.  So what to do?  I did more research and discovered that the mess in my garden was likely not caused by a groundhog at all.  Because the digger is nocturnal, and groundhogs are not.

Rather, it is likely a skunk (who is a nocturnal digger) is rooting in the mulch for the grubs of Japanese beetles.  And then I realized that the rooting appeared about the same time as the Japanese beetles on the cherry tree leaves (which I have been picking off and dumping in soapy water).  So I don’t really have a digger problem, I have a grub problem.  In fact, the skunk is helping get rid of the Japanese beetles.  But I’ve ordered some Milky Spore disease to inoculate the soil to create a more permanent and organic solution to the Japanese beetle problem and that will eventually deal with the digger problem.

I learn so much every week about gardening, usually through problems.  But I haven’t seen the groundhog lately!  (Knock on wood chips.)  Thank you, skunk!

Permablitz, almost here!

We’ve been getting ready for our Permablitz this coming Saturday–a big permaculture work party where 20 or more people gather to do projects in our yard.  We’ve gathered cardboard for sheet mulching, had a great big pile of deciduous mulch delivered, got a bucket of granite dust, ordered concrete blocks for rain barrel stands, got clearer on a few design elements, met the wise and wonderful folks who will be team leaders for our various projects, and many other details.  And we’ve talked to our blitz coordinator and friend Heather many many times.  Thank you Heather!  We still have to gather seaweed, and get pallets, and make food, and….  You can find more details about the blitz here:   https://www.meetup.com/maine-permaculture/events/240585144/

In the meantime, our cherry tree polycultures are now green with clover. Cherry Tree clover rings

Here are some “before pictures for the yard, first, where fruit tree, raspberry and herb and flower beds are going to be created.

Permablitz before photo

And here the yellow markers mark a future bed for hazelnut bushes to form a little hedge.Permablitz before photo 2

Cherry Tree Guilds

Cherry Tree GuildsToday I almost finished soil work and guild plantings around each of the cherry trees–still 1/3 to do around the second tree.  First I aerated the soil with our garden fork to a five foot radius around the tree. (The soil was already covered with mulch from last fall-wood chips, cut grass, sea weed, and dead leaves.)  Then I put down newspaper or cardboard along the outer half of each circle, and covered it with compost.  I planted the companion plants for each cherry tree guild.  Guilds are plants that work together so that each does better than if they were planted alone.  In this case, the primary focus is the health of the cherry tree.

The plants I used and their functions:

  • Comfrey is a nutrient accumulator–its roots go deep and bring up calcium and other vital nutrients, and then the leaves can be cut several times a season, and used as mulch. It also attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects.  It can be used in herbal medicine. It was recommended to plant it at least four feet from the trunk.
  • Chives accumulate nutrients, deter pests, are anti-fungal and attract pollinators… They bloom at the same time as the cherry will, and are also a culinary herb.  I had enough to do two per tree.
  • Oregano is an aromatic pest confuser, is anti-fungal, can take some foot traffic, and of course is a culinary herb.
  • Thyme is another insect pest repellant and culinary herb (my favorite.)
  • Chamomile accumulates nutrients, is anti-fungal, and attracts beneficial insects..
  • Rhubarb is another perennial food, and can be cut in place for mulch.
  • At the outer edge of the circle around the Lapins Cherry, I also planted a row of annual kale.  The cherry tree won’t reach that far for a couple years, so it works okay.  I mulched them with egg shells, which I understand will deter kale eating pests.
  • That guild also got one Sweet Cicely plant, which attracts beneficial insect predators to kill insect pests. Plus I hear it tastes like licorice/anise.
  • The other tree guild also got Lemon Balm, and maybe a Bee Balm plant–I haven’t planted it yet and I’m deciding if it will get too big–if so, maybe it will go nearby.  The Lemon Balm was from the plant swap, and attracts pollinators and repels ants and flies.  I just read that it will spread.  Bee Balm attracts pollinators.
  • Between all the other plants, I planted Red Clover seeds–they are a nitrogen fixer, and this variety is best for a fungally dominant soil.  It is a good ground cover to keep weeds away, easy to walk on too. I put some straw mulch on the seeds to get them started, but I think I will add wood chips over it all.

Later in the fall, I plan to add daffodils in a ring about 2 feet from the trunk, to deter munching pests.  I also ended up designating two paths into the tree for each circle–so I can get to the center easily.  Once again, I end the day with sore muscles, but so happy.

Training the Cherry Tree

Training the Cherry TreeToday was a day for food forests! My friend Mihku and I went to a tour of Edgewood Nursery in the morning, and then later she showed me how to train the branches of the cherry tree so that it will grow into a good shape for growing and picking cherries.

Aaron Parker of Edgewood is so knowledgeable about perennial fruits and vegetables, and also has so many great permaculture plants to taste and buy.  I fell in love with Turkish Rocket, a perennial vegetable that tastes somewhat like broccoli.  More on that in a later post.  But I also got to see a grown up cherry tree, and get a sense of what they might look like and how they are shaped at maturity.  Back at home, Mihku and I used kite string and tent stakes to bend three branches on each tree closer to the ground, so they grow into a stronger shape–which means developing a wider “crotch angle.”  One branch was left in the center as the leader.  I am so grateful that Mihku and others are willing to show me how–it is so much easier to see it done, than to try to figure it out from books.

After that, because our new garden fork had arrived in the mail, I started aerating the soil around the trees–or I should say, I got 1/3 of the way around one tree–it was a lot of hard work.  Our soil is very compacted, so this is important for soil health, but my whole body is aching now.  In order to feel a bit more accomplished, I focused on that one section, laid down some thick newspaper sections over the soil, added compost on top, and then planted 14 (annual) kale plants, a patch of thyme, some chamomile, and a sweet cicely plant.  These were all plants we got at the plant swap, and the kale were getting pretty leggy.  I added a bit of mulch.  Still much more to do tomorrow.

Finally, I put together a holistic spray that I learned about from The Holistic Orchard book, but was presented in a simple recipe at Fedco Seeds.  Fedco actually sells all the ingredients, but before I knew that, I had searched around and got Neem Oil at Lowes, and ordered two more ingredients on Amazon.  I didn’t have exactly what they recommended, and I didn’t “activate” the EM-1, but as I understand it, this spray will help to colonize the trees with helpful microbes so that they can resist pests and disease, just like probiotics for humans.  Margy had already purchased a sprayer for other yard uses, so all I had to do was mix it up, and spray all over our new trees; and then I also sprayed what I could reach of our ornamental cherries which have been very neglected for years. Here are the important ingredients of this tonic:

Fish Hydrolysate: Feeds soil and arboreal food web.
Neem Oil: Contains Azadirachtin compounds that deter pests and disrupt their life cycles. Neem also is said to stimulate the tree’s immune system, give nutrients to foliage and feed the arboreal food web. …
Liquid Kelp: Promotes growth and helps trees adapt to stress.
EM-1: A probiotic inoculant that colonizes the branches and fruit with beneficial microbes to promote fruit growth and disease resistance. Click here for info on fermenting, or “activating,” EM-1.

Cherry with new underplantings

[Cherry with branches trained, and thyme and chamomile below, plus if you look closely, you can see kale at the very bottom.]

Composts & Mulches

Who knew that there were so many kinds of compost?  According to Michael Phillips in The Holistic Orchard, tree fruits prefer a fungally dominant compost, which you can get by using lots of leaves and not turning your pile.  So that is the kind we’ve accidentally been making at home, since we use lots of leaves and hardly ever turn our pile.  Vegetables prefer bacterially dominant compost, which likes to be turned a lot.  To quote:

Orchard soils ideally contain a fungal presence ten times higher than that of bacteria…. Fungi respond to surface decomposition, whereas bacteria prefer soil disturbance.  We are building a fungal duff of organic matter where the biological action desired is going to take place.  Compost, deciduous wood chips, seaweed, and raked leaves can be added atop [the soil.]

So, last fall, when we spread the wood chips from the old maple tree, we were beginning to create this fungal duff.  Margy topped the wood chips with cut grass and seaweed and leaves.  But when we planted the cherry trees, we had to dig a big hole, so all of that was disturbed, and we put regular compost as part of the soil back fill in the holes; I guess that is not actually recommended so much.

I also learned that the type of mulch matters.  Margy had arranged for us to get some free wood mulch, (hurray!) which turned out to be from evergreen trees.  She had put some of that mulch, along with straw, around the newly planted cherry trees.  But I learned, in The Holistic Orchard, that fruit trees especially love mulch made from wood chips from deciduous trees–most particularly “ramial” wood chips made from twig wood less than 7 centimeters in diameter–because that contains soluble lignins.  The evergreen mulch actually contains compounds that suppress other plant growth.  Who knew?

Fungal DuffSo the very next day, I went out and moved that evergreen mulch away, and dug up some of the starting-to-decompose deciduous wood & leaves mulch, piling it up in a six-foot diameter circle around each tree, careful to leave open space around the trunks themselves.  Next time, Margy can ask our wood chip supplier to save us some of the ramial chips.

All this to say, we just got 4 yards of compost delivered today from Wilshire Farm, composted manure to be exact, which we hope to use for creating growing medium for companion plants for the trees, some surface feeding for the trees, and for Sylvia’s herb garden.

I learned about The Holistic Orchard and Wilshire Farm from a workshop on fruit trees by Aaron Parker of Edgewood Nursery, held at the Resilience Hub.  It all seems much more complicated than just planting a tree and getting fruit a few years later.  I am trying to take it one or two steps at a time.Composted Manure