When February hits Southern California, the fruit trees begin to bloom; thus, when I emerged from sickness, I stepped out of my house to find pink and white bee-buzzing boughs. It's been a year since I've written about the orchard I've been installing since we moved in, and now that the trees are so laden with springtime potential, I figured it would be a good time to reflect on what I've learned about my home orchard this year.
1) An ounce of prevention . . .
Two years ago, when I planted the first trees, I was careful. I whitewashed the trunks to protect them from sunburn, and I built hardware cloth cages to protect the young trees from damage from rabbits and other small animals. I'm glad I did that. I so wish I had done that with all the trees I planted last year. It turns out that rabbits and other critters are minor dangers to my trees; I'm the biggest threat.
This is Howard's Miracle plum. Last year, soon after planting, I dropped a shovel against its trunk, and knocked off a nice slice of cambium. Argh. The wound, likely aggravated by sunburn, became infected and grew. The edges are beginning to look healed now, but I'm not sure I haven't given my own tree a fatal bacterial infection that will become more malignant each year. We'll see. I'll baby the tree along this year with lots of worm tea and compost and hope for the best. If I lose it, I'll start again with another Howard's Miracle because, gershdarndit, I really want that plum.
Had I built the protective cage and whitewashed the tree, I wouldn't have to be worrying over losing it.
2) Graft wisely . . .
So much of me wanted to push luck and nature and grow a green gage plum here in Southern California. The history of green gages is just so deep and fascinating, and they taste like candy, drying so well and so sweet, but I knew I was hoping for fruit that would happen rarely, if at all. The winters here are just too mild. But I tried anyway, and trying even harder to ensure fruit, I grafted a couple scions of my friend's Italian prune on to the gage for cross pollination.
The grafts took beautifully. It's amazing to watch a graft heal and grow into the host tree. It feels like I performed some kind of magic; it feels like something I shouldn't be able to do.
But, though those grafts took off beautifully, they sucked all the vigor from my on-the-edge green gage. The green gage never broke dormancy. This is the tree in July, leafed out and growing happily from the grafts while the main tree is naked and sad. In short, I learned not to graft a much more vigorous tree onto one that is limping along if I ever want the limper to run.
I pulled the tree out this winter and replaced it with a Mariposa, a local heirloom plum. I did try some more grafting this year; for example, I've started two scions of Black Velvet apricot on the host Goldkist apricot. Goldkist is a vigorous, healthy tree, right at home in my yard, so I think this combination will work if the grafts take.
3) Be nice and roll with nature . . .
The majority of my orchard I installed a year ago. This summer, my baby White Tiger Nectarine set fruit. I know, I know, I shouldn't let such a young tree fruit, as it is hard on its development, but it was just two and I was so hungry for success in my orchard that I kept the fruit around. (It is worth pointing out that the tree paid for my choice; it clearly grew less vigorously than its brothers and sisters last summer.) As the fruit matured, however, I started to worry. Look at the picture below. Do you see the problem?
My White Tiger Nectarine had set two peaches. I wanted to grow this nectarine because it is a hard-to-find heirloom, and because it is an heirloom white nectarine that would fruit in my low chill climate. Heirloom + white + nectarine + low chill is an unusual combination. So, I emailed the vendor, the fantastically helpful Trees of Antiquity, with pictures of the tree and fruit.
Within a day, Neil, the owner of Trees of Antiquity responded:
Surprisingly, nectarines (and peaches) will produce a few fruit on occasion which is a peach (or nectarine) since a nectarine is simply a fuzz less peach. That said I’m not confident this is the case. This problem can also develop when collecting the grafting wood from peach and nectarine trees. On an occasion the bud will be the opposite of the dominant fruit on the tree. There are a few options to pursue. We can send out another tree (any tree preferred) next year or simply refund for the tree. This is a variety which is grafted by one of our contracted nurseries which I’m forwarding the e-mail so they can reassure me this tree simply an anomaly. Thank you in advance for your understanding and let us know how you would like us to proceed. Hope you have a nice weekend.I accepted the offer of the replacement tree, but I hadn't given up home on the fruit of my perhaps misidentified tree. When it ripened at the end of June, I cut it open.
Oh, it was delicious: superbly sweet, yielding, freestone, fragrant. Perhaps it was "throwing" a peach and will, this year, revert to nectarine. I doubt it. It doesn't matter because it is a tree worth keeping, whatever it is. This tree has been nice to me, so I'll return the favor.
4) Layers are probably a good idea . . .
I'm using a high-density planting approach to my orchard because I don't need huge trees, and I want a lot of diversity. Several readers have expressed concerns about this approach; they've worried that it will be too water intensive and too hard on the trees themselves, as they'll compete so fiercely with each other for nutrients.
These are concerns I've considered thoughtfully, and, I turned to other gardeners I know to see how they dealt with these potential problems. I visited some gardens, talked to folks, and read a lot. Looking at all the possibilities in my climate and area, I decided that frequent applications of mulch, sometimes quite rich mulch, will be the best way to deal with both drought and nutrient needs. To see how if this is successful, I set out to convert part of the orchard.
This past November, we dug an edge to the mulched bed and lined with with local stone. To make sure that water goes only to the trees and nowhere else, we switched the sprinklers out to a drip system. Then, in order to burn out the grass and enrich the soil, we covered all the existent grass in the area with hot manure. After spraying down the manure, we covered the entire surface with a double layer of cardboard, sprayed it down again, then a laid down a four inch layer of wood-chip mulch. This is how it looked the day after we completed the project.
This is how it looks this week, after the trees have been pruned and are blooming. In this picture, both the mulch bed and non-mulch bed trees are visible.
If I find the orchard robust this year, I'll finish the project in other parts of the orchard this upcoming fall.
5) Dream big . . .
These pictures tell the tale. I don't need to say any more.