Monday, January 09, 2012

Getting the Party Started

This is my sixth year starting eggplants, peppers, tomatillos, groundcherries, and tomatoes (oh, tomatoes, I'll always love you best) from seed, and that doesn't make me an expert. Nope. Not by a long shot. But, it has given me some valuable learning experiences that may or may not be helpful as you set out to try growing members of the nightshade family from seed.

I've learned that though I can follow the same basic principles for tomatoes, groundcherries, and tomatilloes, I have to use a different approach for the eggplants and peppers. In short, I start peppers and eggplants in a folded paper towel, dampened with chamomile tea (see rationale below), and place them in sealed plastic bags on a heat mat until they sprout. It can take some species of peppers and eggplants weeks to germinate. Once most are showing roots and the first glimpse of leaves, I carefully plant the sprouted seeds in scrubbed-clean six-pack pots and grow them inside, under lights. Peppers and eggplants need a lot of fertilizer, much more than tomatoes, so I begin fertilizing the seedlings with a very dilute fish emulsion every time I water them until they go in the ground, when it is reliably warm.

A great description of this approach with helpful photos is available here, but I do a couple things differently: I don't have coffee filters around, so I use paper towels, and I carefully cut the paper around the seedlings to remove them, rather than trying to lift them off and break their roots.

My tomato (tomatillo and groundcherry, as well) method requires a lot less special equipment, and reliably gives very good results. I have based it on the information I learned from, a helpful, free resource as well as a place to get free open-pollinated tomato seeds! Tomatoes and their close kin need less heat and less fertilizer than peppers and eggplant to get strong; they can handle more fluctuations in temperature, and in fact, seem to benefit from them. The makeshift greenhouses teaches how to make are a perfect fit for tomatoes.

I start with a large batch of chamomile tea. Drinking chamomile tea gives me a headache, and handling it makes my skin itch like mad, but chamomile works exactly the way I need it to here. It is a natural fungicide, and therefore helps to prevent the dreaded "damping off," when fungus attacks a just sprouted seedling, toppling it over like a felled log.

I use this batch of tea to dampen potting soil in a large bucket. I've tried using potting soil made just for seed starting, and I've found it a wasted expense. I had no more success with specialized seed starting soil than I do with a high quality, fine textured soil.

Here comes the fun part. I start making mini-greenhouses with plastic bottles I've scavenged from work and home. Using an awl, I punch holes in the bottom, and with a sharp bread knife, I cut the midsection of the bottle most of the way through, leaving a hinge.

I lightly tap the tea-dampened soil into the bottom of the greenhouse. I don't want it to be too dense, as there needs to be plenty of air and room for the roots to fill. Before I gently slide the seeds just under the surface of the soil with the end of the awl, I place a few of them on the surface of the soil, spaced about an inch apart.


Finally, I flip the top part back over, screw the lid back on the bottle, and tape the greenhouses shut with their labels. Outside they go, where they live on the patio where they get morning sun but not blazing hot afternoon sun.

Once most the seeds sprout, I remove the screwtop to allow ventilation, as the seeds don't need to be quite so warm once they've gotten going. I monitor moisture, spraying water through the top opening if needed. When the first true leaves grow, I slice carefully through the tape closure to allow the greenhouses to prop themselves open a bit. After there are two sets of true leaves on most of the seedlings—that may vary by variety and some varieties will be ready to pot up before others—I use a utility knife to slice the top completely off; then I slide the knife down the side of the base pot and gently release the seedlings. Each healthy seedling I pot up in its own 4" pot.

As the days get warmer, I move the seedlings to spots and that are gradually more exposed with more sunlight and more temperature fluctuations, until they finally are living in a spot similar to where they'll reach adulthood.

Come spring, there are seedlings to plant and spares to share. I can't wait for that green tomato-leaf smell.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Orchard Report 2012

It's time to prune deciduous trees, so it means it is time for me to write about my trees again. In planning my annual progress report on my deciduous fruit trees, I had fun looking back at what I've written already about them. E and I moved here in the fall of 2008. That winter, I planted a row of bananas and an Owari Satsuma. In the early part of 2009, I planted an Elephant Heart Plum and a Bavay's Green Gage. I dug and dug and dug in 2010. That year, I planted three peaches: Eva's Pride, Mid Pride, and what was supposed to be a white nectarine but turned out to be a peach, White Tiger. I also planted two nectarines, Arctic Star and Desert Delight. Two low-chill cherries, Minnie Royal and Royal Lee, two apricots, Blenheim and Gold Kist, and another plum, Howard Miracle, joined their brethren in the front orchard. In the back, where most of the subtropicals live, I planted a Cara Cara orange, a strawberry guava, a Black Jack fig and a Kadota fig, and a Meiwa kumquat. In 2011, I took it easy: I removed the Bavay's Green Gage and replaced it with a Mariposa plum, added a third apple, a Lady Williams, and in the back, put in a Gold Nugget mandarin and a Nezemetz feijoa. Also, in 2011, I began sheet mulching under the front orchard, a process we continued late in the year. Whew.

So, now we're caught up. That brings us to examine how things are currently growing, and where I'd like to grow from here.

All of the cherries, peaches, nectarines, and apricots were single sticks in 2010. Here they are now.

Minnie Royal (front) and Royal Lee cherries.

Mid Pride (front) and White Tiger peaches.

Desert Delight (front) and Arctic Star nectarines.

Desert Delight is blooming already!

Eva's Pride peach.
Gold Kist (left) and Blenheim apricots.
Of the nine trees above, I received fruit this past year from five of them. The cherries need to cross pollinate, but only Royal Lee bloomed last year, so no cherries. Desert Delight nectarine bloomed beautifully last year, but the frost came and took all its baby fruit away. Gold Kist apricot didn't bloom.

But, I had a few deliciously jammy Blenheim apricots, a few sugary-tutti-fruity Arctic Star nectarines, a handful of juicy but too mild White Tigers, and one mediocre Mid Pride peach. (I'd like to graft varieties that I enjoy more on the White Tiger and the Mid Pride.) The stand-out winner was Eva's Pride, which tastes like what you'd dream a good peach to be: sweet and acidic, juicy, that rich peach funk that doesn't happen in every variety. Yum.

Here is the bed o' plums. They've struggled along in the last few years, and I have yet to receive any fruit from them, but the thick layer of horse manure, cardboard, and mulch, as well as the newly installed drip lines, should strengthen them this year.

Elephant Heart, Mariposa, and Howard Miracle plums.
The two established apples, Wickson and Golden Russet, fruited very well for me in 2011. Wickson ripened in early October, and each little fruit was a flavor bomb of an apple, sweet-sour and snappy. Golden Russet ripened mid-November, and once ripe, the fruit were spicy and dense, a great mix of sweet and mystery. The youngest tree, Lady Williams, went in as a benchgraft last year, so it has a year or two to go before fruiting. Each tree needs its bed enlarged this year, along with another thick layer of mulch.

Golden Russet apple.

Wickson apple.

Lady Williams, with weighted clothespins to direct its young branches.
This summer I made ceramic name tags for every tree variety, every graft I've put on a tree, and each tree's rootstock. I haven't attached them yet, as I'm still deciding the perfect medium by which to do so. It must be sturdy enough for the elements, but not damaging to the bark. Suggestions?


I'll be pruning in the next couple days and getting ready for the local CRFG chapter's scionwood exchange. The best resource I've found in guiding my pruning decisions is R. Sanford Martin's tiny yet extremely helpful book, How to Prune Fruit Trees. Though I am growing a high-density orchard and some of my trees need to be pruned a little differently because of that, this book still gives me so much valuable advice every time I pick it up.

Among the subtropicals in the back, the wind and dry weather have done their worst. The dog hasn't helped much with the smaller trees either; the kumquat has lost a few branches as he's whipped his way through them. The tree most affected by the dry weather right now is my Meyer lemon, a tree I happily inherited when moving into this place. With no rain to wash the buggers off, it has developed a nasty case of citrus scale. I first noticed something wrong when I saw the sooty mold.

Sooty mold on the leaves.
The sooty mold shows up because the "honeydew" the scale releases provides just the right conditions for it to grow. Another clue (though I didn't see any in this case) that a tree is infected with scale is the presence of ants. Just as they do with aphids, ants farm scale in order to consume the honeydew. To combat the scale, which sucks nutrients from the bottom of the leaves, I sprayed the entire tree with Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap diluted with water, making sure to completely drench the underside of each leaf. It's a large tree, and it took forever, but the process is worth it. This treatment isn't harmful to bees or other beneficials, yet it melts away the protective wax of the scale, leaving them to dry out or be consumed by predators.

After washing the tree down, I gave it a present, in fact, a whole container of presents. Watch out scale. Here comes your doom.

So, what's next in 2012 with the fruit trees? I have a lot more grafting I want to try on the deciduous trees up front. I need to mulch under the subtropicals in the back. And, I have one more tree to plant, a very special one: a Reed avocado. 2012, you're going to be a very fruitful year.

Monday, January 02, 2012

It Took A Few Days

The day after school let out, E and I hit the road through the desert for two days towards a week of mountain-y winter, complete with clear, endless skies and a very good smelling kitchen.


E's family met us in my parent's town, and all of us shared a northern New Mexico Christmas.


The road back felt so long this time around, and when we crossed El Cajon pass Friday and entered the basin full of smoke from the Hollywood arson fires, we felt like turning around and driving right back out of California. That night, even after we got home, both E and I were depressed and antsy.

Then, the next day, we picked up Indiana, who we had missed terribly and who was so excited to be home he didn't stop flying through the lemon blossom air for at least six hours.

Close friends came over and we spent an evening of firepitting and talking. And this morning, as I was poking around the garden, weeding, watering, and reacquainting myself to status of each plant, I found a fresh green praying mantis on one of the cymbidiums on the front patio. You know how I feel about praying mantids. Right then, I knew I was home. I also knew, that in 2012, no matter what else happens, I have to write, a lot.