Thursday, February 18, 2010

Salad Days, Part 4

This salad tasted great in my mind, but not so great in my mouth. It wasn't bad; instead, the individual ingredients were overwhelmed.

I tossed chilled barely-steamed sugar snap peas from the garden (one of my favorite foods) with long ribbons of a farmers' market carrot and batons of beets my mom grew and pickled. I dressed the salad with a dressing of tahini, lemon juice, pickled beet juice, salt, and pepper.

Usually a finger staining treat, the pickled beets ended up usurping any power the other two vegetables had. Those poor, sweet snappy peas never had a chance against the beets.

But it was fun to eat and make, and it sure was beautiful, reminding me in its bellowing colors of the canvas awnings we saw all over Lisbon. And if a salad can't taste as good as one imagined it would, at least it can flirt a bit on the plate.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Salad Days, Part 3

For this salad, I harvested a mahogany burnished head of self-seeded lettuce.

Also from the garden, I collected a handful of pink fava blossoms, some Egyptian onion greens, and a small bunch of young salad burnet leaves. To this combination, I added peeled grapefruit sections from a friend's tree and slivers of aged cheddar. I dressed the salad with a grapefruit-poppy seed dressing, made from a little mayo, salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar, olive oil, a splash of reserved grapefruit juice collected from peeling the grapefruit sections, and a generous spoon of poppy seeds.

While the dressing was a nice balance of bitter, sweet, and textured, what surprised me about this salad was how much I loved the salad burnet in it. This warm weather feels like summer, making it just right to have the herbal cucumber flavor of salad burnet in the combination. The salad matched the day.

Don't know what salad burnet is? Try growing it. A ferny plant with soft, geometrically folded leaves, it is one of the rare perennial vegetables, and it grows well in nearly every climate.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Salad Days, Part 2

A farmer's market Comice pear, and from the garden, deep green mache and arugula.

I composed last night's salad with relatively traditional ingredients, pear, mache, arugula, toasted almonds, and Stilton, but instead of using the balsamic vinaigrette I often use with this combination, I played with the dressing. I smashed the peel of a quarter of homemade preserved lemon with two cloves of garlic until the lemon and garlic combined to make a paste, stirred in some sherry vinegar, then strained the mixture into a jar, removing the chunks of lemon and garlic that I couldn't break down. To the strained liquid, I added a drizzle of honey, a very large pinch of Spanish smoked paprika, some ground pepper, a few glugs of olive oil, and a little salt. Finally, I lidded the jar and shook and shook until the mixture was emulsified then dressed the salad. The smoked paprika worked well with both the blue cheese and the nuttiness of the mache. I'll be playing with it as an ingredient in future salad dressings.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Salad Days, Part 1

A challenge for myself and for all the green goodness that is coming out of the garden right now: a salad for each day of this week, starting yesterday, based on what is coming out of the yard, accented with farmer's market extras.

Sugar snaps, de Cicco broccoli, and Meyer lemons: none of these made it into last night's salad.

Crimson flowered favas: they'll be showing up soon in a salad near you.

Um, a not-so-Crimson flowered fava: I better pull this out to keep the line pure. It's a purty little thing.

Red Acre cabbage: It is all heading at once (note to self for next year, stagger your red cabbage plantings)!

Yesterday, I made a salad of shredded cabbage and carrot, with toasted pistachios and sliced avocado. I dressed it with garlic, red pepper, spicy brown mustard, mandarin juice, and olive oil.

The pistachios were the killer ingredient in this one. Their sweet nuttiness made the avocado even more avocado-y.


Several readers asked for more information about how I organized the orchard out front. In response, I've put together a few ideas that I'm testing out and resources where I found information. As I mentioned in my last tree-oriented post, this orchard is an experiment, one that will have some successes and failures from which I hope I can learn to be able to organically grow a large variety of fruit in the space I have available.

(First, please excuse the mess. My entire yard has been and will continue to be in overhaul mode for the next couple years as we turn this place into our own version of paradise. Right now, there are shrubs that still need to be pulled out, flags on each sprinkler, sprays of orange marker on the lawn, piles of dug out turf, and general disorder: the dirty laundry of gardening.)

Here are a few pictures of the very front part of yard, where I've planted my apricots, peaches, nectarines, and cherries.

As you can see, with the exception of one planting, there are two trees planted together about 20-24" apart. I've cut the trees down to just above knee height to encourage low branching, and if there were any branches on the side of the tree facing the other tree, I removed them. I'll continue to prune the branches on the insides away so that, looking down on the trees, each will become a semi-circular tree. Eventually, as they grow, they should look like one large bush, rather than two separate plants. I plan to keep the trees at around 8' tall, which will require both winter and summer pruning. Right now the "beds" for each pairing are small, but I'll build them up as the trees grow in order to match the trees' expanding root systems. Each bed is approximately 10' away from the next.

Some things I kept in mind when planting:

  • I built a chicken wire bucket for each planting to protect the central root balls from the scourge of gophers.
  • When possible, I paired trees that were grafted on to the same kind of rootstock.
  • However, cross-pollination trumped rootstock, so if the trees were likely to bloom at the same time and pollinate each other, I paired them.
  • I planted trees on an east-west axis so that no tree would be stuck on the north side and overly shaded.
  • I did not amend the soil in the holes as trees have a better long-term success rate if planted in native soil; the tree won't reach a wall as it grows beyond rich amended soil in the planting hole and shockingly meets the "real world." Instead, I mulched the area with well-rotted manure, protecting and fertilizing the whole area from above.

Last year, in another part of the front yard, I planted apples individually. These trees are approximately 8' apart. I'm carefully training these trees to be small and horizontally branched so that the fruit will be reachable. This is a view from above of the Golden Russet.

As you can see, the tree is small, but has branches radiating in all directions. When there have been too many small branches in one direction, I've pruned them off. Following this guideline, I'll probably need to prune off one of the branches that is growing toward the top of this picture this summer. I've also (as you may see in the picture) weighed branches down with rocks to help train the branches to be more horizontal than vertical. This should help produce more even fruit-set, and, according to some literature, help apple trees grow more healthily in this warm climate.

And finally, a tree in Plumville, a third area of my front yard. (It's a really big front yard, folks. There's a rose garden too!)

This is a Bavay's Green Gage, and it is the center tree in a line of three trees, each approximately 10' apart. These trees have a little more space, so I didn't make their initial cut quite as low when I planted them. The crotch (hee hee, I just wrote crotch) of the tree is about 2 1/2' high. As I mentioned in the previous post, two of the three trees are Asian plums and can pollinate each other, but one is a European plum and will have better fruit set if I can provide another variety for cross-pollination. Below, you can see a close-up of one of the branches on which I've tried a cleft graft of an Italian prune.

I cut one branch and split it, pared the scionwood down to a wedge shape, and stuck the wedge in the split, trying to line up the cambium layers as well as I could. I then tightly, tightly wound the whole thing with parafilm, including the entire piece of scionwood, and used a rubber band to wind around and hold everything in place. I tried this on three different branches. I hope at least one takes.

I hope this answers the questions that people have asked. Please feel free to fire more questions away.


A few annotated resources on pruning, grafting, and home orchards:

CRFG shares Dave Wilson's approach: Here is a write-up of the approach the fruit tree company Dave Wilson recommends for home orchards. It also includes another link to diagrams of high density orchard layouts. Although Dave Wilson is clearly trying to sell as many trees as possible, and I hesitate to take the company's suggestions as completely practical, I know enough people who have succeeded with this approach using organic methods to try a version of it myself. Because I have space available, I'm giving my trees more space than the company recommends for high density planting.
Grafting Dormant Deciduous Fruit Scions, Idell Weydemeyer, Golden Gate CRFG: This is a practical handout explaining what trees are able to be grafted to each other. While the actual process of grafting receives scanty explanation here, the other information is very helpful.
How to Prune Fruit Trees, by R. Sanford Martin: I love this little book, first published in 1944. It explains how to prune everything, and it's easy to use and personable.
Fruitwise apple grafting videos: Many thanks to Patrick from Bifurcated Carrots for leading me to this excellent collection of podcasts on heirloom apple culture, including how-tos on many types of grafting.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

A Veritable Forest

I've been spending a lot of quality time with a shovel lately.

What's Already Here:

Two lonely fruit trees lived on this property before we got here: a Meyer lemon and a (Giant?) Fuyu persimmon. They needed company. Though I have many subtropical fruit trees in pots awaiting permanent homes (these will get another post on another day), in the past year and a half I added only a few trees of any sort to the fruiting neighborhood. I put in an Owari Satsuma, two apples, and two plums. The satsuma grew really well for me in its first year, giving me many more fruit than I expected, though still not enough to satiate the six-fruit-at-a-time habit. The deciduous fruit trees grew well for me too, and I may even have a decent flowering this year from the apples.

Tempted by the possibility of brewing my own cider (somewhere I must have bootlegger ancestry), as well as having darn good eating apples, the two apples I planted last year are a Golden Russet and a Wickson Crab. Golden Russet is an old (dating to the 1700s) American variety, perhaps the seedling of an English russet of some sort, and traditionally used as a dessert and first-class cider apple. Introduced by Albert Etter, Wickson is a California "native," or at least as Californian as an apple tree can be. This little apple, at least according to everything I've read about it, has a remarkably high sugar content but has a flavor balanced with aromatics and acid. Supposedly, it makes a great single-variety cider as well as a "fun-sized" snack apple. While not every apple will grow well in Southern California, quite a bit of recent research shows that we have more options than we once thought. Both russets and crabs are selections that have proven their ability to create high quality fruit, even with our high heat and lack of chill.

The plum trees I planted last year have grown well for me too, but are probably still a year or two away from fruiting. The two trees I planted last year are an Elephant Heart plum (an Asian plum, another California "native," introduced by Luther Burbank) and a Bavay's Green Gage. On the little ranch my family lived on in the Central Valley while I was growing up, we had an Elephant Heart tree, and when I think plum, this is the fruit I see and taste in my head. It's large, dusted with an elegant silver blush, and the flesh is the darkest, bloodiest lusciousness I've ever tasted in a plum. Some people pick and consume it far too early; it is best when it is soft and dripping its juice. The Bavay's Green Gage is a European plum, an oldie, and one I've never tasted. According to reports, it is firm-fleshed and sugary, true to its European plum heritage.

What's Going In:

Asian plums and European plums don't cross pollinate, and since most fruit trees produce much more readily if cross pollinated, I needed to provide something for the Bavay's Green Gage to be get down with to be able to have fruity babies. I want lots and lots of plant sex to be happening up here at the ranchito. Luckily, a friend has a gorgeous Italian Prune plum and offered me scionwood to graft to my tree. I took her up on the offer and embarked on my first attempt at grafting. In case they don't all take, I tried grafting in three different places on the little tree. Let's hope at least one graft takes so Bavay's and the Italian beauty can make sweet plummy babies.

I also planted another Asian plum, a Howard Miracle, a plum that my mom tells me is the greatest plum of all time, one that she grew up with; this plum hails from Montebello, CA, so it should grow well for me here in Altadena. It should help the Elephant Heart produce plentifully. All of the plums are planted ten feet apart in Plumville, the north side of our driveway.

We have a large front lawn here at our little corner of the world, and we've both been dreaming of the orchard it could be. Wanting small trees but lots of variety and lots of continual production, we decided to try high density planting. Here is how we went about it. We have two rows eleven feet apart. In the row farthest from the house, we have three "beds" spaced ten feet apart from each other. In the first bed, I planted a White Tiger Nectarine and a May Pride Peach, planted two feet apart; in the second, an Arctic Star Nectarine and a Desert Delight Nectarine; and in the last, an Eva's Pride Peach all by itself. The closer row has two beds: in the first are two low-chill cherries, Minnie Royal and Royal Lee, and in the second are two apricots, Royal Blenheim and Goldkist. This approach is based on three guidelines: 1) the gardener must prune mercilessly to help keep trees "human-sized" and harvestable by hand; 2) the competition over root space helps to keep the closely planted fruit trees smaller; 3) planting a variety of trees in a smaller space allows for fruit to both cross pollinate more easily and to ripen at different times in the summer season, encouraging constant summer fruit rather than a one-time, overwhelming glut. We've planted a mix of heirlooms and modern introductions, hopefully balancing the best of both.

Finally, I have two more apples on order that have not yet come in. One is Lady Williams, the mother of Pink Lady, and from all reports, a great Southern California apple. The other is one of the oldest apples in continual cultivation (grown at least since the 13th Century, perhaps longer), a Winter Pearmain, that sounds like it might make it down here in our climate. How can I not try growing something that farmers have found worthy to grow for hundreds of years? The apples are in a different part of the front yard, closer to the house, and are spaced ten feet apart.

It's all an experiment at this point. Will the high density planting work well? Will all of the trees grow well in our microclimate? Will I be cursing the day I ever set about this orchard? Hell if I know.

What I do know is this: I want homegrown pie. Jams, jellies, they're great, but it is the pie that I can smell in my dreams.

Resources for heirloom fruit trees and scionwood in California:
Kuffel Creek
Trees of Antiquity
CRFG (California Rare Fruit Growers)
Greenmantle Nursery

About the peacocks: They're beautiful despite the rain; I had a chance to be in close proximity to them; and, right now the trees are just sticks, not much to look at. These birds, on the other hand . . ..