What the Trees Teach

My sap has returned, my cheeks are blooming, and though I'm still fighting a cough, I'm bursting into spring. I'm no longer in bed, and that is very, very good. I learned this winter, no exaggeration here, how the flu could kill someone. And I am so happy not to be that someone. I also learned that I will never, ever go without a flu shot again.

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.

(Royal Lee Cherry)

(Blenheim Apricot)

(Desert Delight Nectarine)


Planting distance for trees depends very much on the rootstock. If you use dwarfing rootstocks then close planting is perfectly correct.

Mulching stops water evaporating directly from the soil, but it won't affect the amount transpired by the trees. See how it goes.
Lucy said…
So inspiring! (Alos, am inordinately pleased to hear that you're on the mend.)

Christina, my inherited orchard was well-established; I had no idea what was going to be what, and we made the decision early on to not net the trees, just so we could see what we had. This year, though, La Nina has struck - a once in 30 year event in these parts - and that side of the property has been continually flooding since November...the cherries have kinda drowned, but the apples and pears and the rogue plum in the middle have fared better, only some of the fruit cracking on the trees. Just when we thought it was over - ack! - more flooding rain. The plum and apples I uncovered at the back, and that were doing so well, have all but drowned, too.

Heartbreak of gardening, right? Lessons learnt...

And as I know that this is not the norm, I'm bookmarking this post for the leaner, drier decades to come!
Carrie said…
Christina – I’m a long-time reader and first-time commenter. You have a great blog, in both a literary and an informative sense. I always enjoy the writing, and have the benefit of learning something as well.

I must ask … have you ever given any consideration to growing nut trees? I don’t know much about the reliability or productivity of the dwarf varieties, but you seem to enjoy the adventure of fruit trees so much and I was wondering if you’ve thought about such an addition. My Grandfather grew many nut trees on his farm in Ohio, and I know they were one of his favorite experiences in the orchard – a challenge and a reward.

Looking forward to watching your garden grow this year. Good luck! – Carrie
Christina said…
Hi Robert: I plan to summer prune as well as winter prune to keep the trees manageably sized--here is the basic theory of high density planting : http://www.davewilson.com/homegrown/BOC_explained.html. All of my trees are on semi-dwarfing rootstock as dwarfing rootstock rarely deals well with drought here. Thanks for the input on mulching--I hope it works anyway!

Lucy: I'm so sorry to hear about your trees. When you say drowned, does that mean they're dead? Argh! I hope you just lost a year of fruit rather than all those established trees. And yes, there is plenty of heartbreak in this business.

Hi Carrie: It's nice to meet you. Thanks for commenting. To answer your question, I'd like to someday plant an almond. At one of the homes we lived in growing up, we had three almond trees, so almonds were always in ready abundance in our house. Shelling them was no fun, but eating them sure was. Another reason to plant an almond is to have another protein-plant at our little ranch. Walnuts and pecans take too much space for what I have available, and hazelnuts (though I adore them) don't grow here. What was your favorite nut tree that your grandfather grew? I'm curious to hear more about it.
Carrie said…
Christina – Nice to meet you as well. I understand almond trees to be very prolific in Southern California, so I am sure you will have great success. Yummy!

Grandpa’s favorites were hickory nut trees and heartnut trees, which are somehow related to a walnut, I believe. My Grandma made the most amazing hickory nut cake with the bounty, something I love recreating today. Grandpa was a sort-of mad scientist farmer, and loved to try grafting and other such projects, much as you do. Sometimes he would have a one-time success and get a few fruits or nuts that were, as far as we know, completely unique. I know he did this with a heartnut once, but I cannot remember the other nut. I must ask my father. Grandpa spent many years as the president of the Ohio Nut Growers Association, and loved every minute of it. I wish here were still around to help me with my little community garden plot, and I am grateful to have the memory of his many lessons.

Also, are you aware of the web store for the Historic Tree Nursery? Ohio is Johnny Appleseed country, and Grandpa purchased several of the trees from the link below. I still enjoy going home to visit my family and biting into one of those apples. Again, good luck! - Carrie

the good soup said…
God, how gorgeous, I COVET your orchard beginnings. I tried the 'hot manure' method on a patch of grass around my custard apple tree, and after several heavy weeks of rain (you might have heard about the floods in Australia), the custard apple started losing it's leaves until now, it looks like it's gone into early hibernation... but it's still the middle of summer?! Perhaps I killed it with too much nitrogen? oh dear. But really, there's so much to learn from death in a garden, isn't there. With every death, this is a fact I comfort myself with.
Christina said…
Carrie: Thank you for the link to the fascinating site--I am such a sucker for the link between history and plants. Your grandpa sounds like my kind of person, always the experimenter. And heart nuts and hickories--those are nuts I have only read about but never tasted. Someday!

Angela: Yes, death is how we learn to garden. I have killed so many plants . . .. I looked up Brisbane, and it appears tha it falls into what we call USDA zone 10, in which we can grow quite a few stone fruits as long as the are "low chill." There are some nectarines and peaches you may be able to grow well there. Can you grow mangoes? If so, I am jealous. The frost took away my little tree this winter. As for space, perhaps you could yardshare? I used to do that before I moved up here to Altadena, and it was a lifesaver--I could finally have my hands in dirt.
Zora said…
Omigosh! You just answered one of life's nagging questions: why do people paint trees white? I have heard every random theory (keeps the ants off?!), but never a plausible one like sunburn. Thank you.

And so glad to hear you're healthy again! Flu is no joke.
Anonymous said…
I'm really glad you're well again, even if you are an absolutely horrible show-off with your grafts and such.
Christina said…
Zora: You're welcome! I'm glad to be of service.

Karin: HA! Hey, I was just thinking about you today when I heard the news about that certain Pasadena family that has gained fame for its "not-rural house-establishing" (because I can't use the real term). It sounds like your theories are even more justified.
Anonymous said…
I really hope you have a good season. My trees have only been in two season, not much fruit. But with a little patience I'm sure this summer (Dec) will be great.
Anonymous said…
To your comment: You were the one who tipped me off. And if these folks are in the mood to sue, I thought I'd stay out of the line of fire and take the high road. Yes, that really is as high as my road goes.
Sophie said…
Oh it is so relaxing reading about your garden. A lovely moment on a tuesday morning.
Kimberly said…
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