Archive for March, 2010

MOFGA apple pruning workshop

March 24, 2010

Saturday I went up to Raven Hill Farm in Waterboro Maine for a fruit tree pruning workshop.  MOFGA is the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, a great outfit that among other things puts on the Commonground Fair (formerly in Windsor, now in Unity) in late September.  The workshop was taught by a professional orchardist, and consisted of instruction in the AM and demo/practice in the PM.  I learned a lot and more importantly got to see the techniques in action, which is a lot more helpful than reading about it in a book.

The goal of pruning in the style I learned is to end up with a roughly conical-shaped tree with a central leader and approximately four permanent lower scaffold branches at about hip height; none of the branches above the lower scaffold are permanent; you might have a couple more layers of scaffold branches but as they get large they are cut off, and new ones trained to replace them.  This was perhaps the most surprising thing that I learned at the workshop – the importance of thinking ahead several years and strategizing about which branches to encourage to become replacements.  Its also important to train the branches to split off at a broad angle from the trunk; not quite 90 degrees but if the angle between branches is too acute, bark gets included and it becomes a weak point that is bound to break later under a load of fruit or ice.

On Sunday I went up to Five Islands and put what I learned to work.  My grandfather has probably 10 or so semidwarf apple trees of various flavors and ages, and he, my mom and I have been doing our best with them up to now, without knowing exactly what we were doing.  I don’t think we were too far off, but we hadn’t been aggressive enough – the rule of thumb is, you want to be able to throw a cat through the tree, but not a dog.  In pruning, the big decisions are made with a chainsaw-on-a-stick, a truly fearsome instrument; fortunately my folks have one.  My mom and I used it to lighten up the trees substantially, removing crossing, drooping, and crowded branches, as well as those that point back towards the center of the tree.  We had spent a lot of time shortening limbs that seemed too lanky; as a result I think our old trees got sort of bushier than necessary; the instructor tended more towards letting things grow and then removing them entirely, back where they joined the main trunk or branch.

After dealing with the old trees, we went up to the new orchard and gave the new trees their first pruning, according to the principles I learned.  In many cases we tied down branches that were too vertical, or propped them apart with notched sticks.  We’ll learn a lot in the coming years about how to take care of trees.


Goat Craze

March 18, 2010

The weather being nice I rode my bike to work out the Minuteman bike path yesterday; on the way home as I passed through Lexington center I saw a woman walking three dwarf goats along the sidewalk.  I didn’t get a good look at them so I don’t know if they were milking or just pets, but it’s neat to see agriculture returning to the greens of the revolutionary war.

What with the local food movement and the increasing interest in keeping chickens, goats and such at home, I wonder what the minimum requirements are for home agriculture that can actually reach an ecological break-even point.  For instance, if you have a little suburban backyard, graze some chickens/dwarf goats, and eat the eggs/milk, it’s not hard to imagine that this has overall less ecological impact per chicken than CAFO type operations, since presumably the manure will be well-dispersed and won’t ferment anaerobically releasing a bunch of methane, you probably will compost it and use it to grow vegetables in the front yard, etc.  On the other hand, the absolute direct biomass production of a small lot will be small relative to the needs of even a few chickens or goats, and so the aspiring small-lot farmer will end up buying in hay and grain to feed the critters; it doesn’t take too many trips to the farm store in the suburbs in an automobile to wipe out the ecological benefit in a strict climate-actuarial sense.  If I had to guess, I’d bet the break-even point comes when the majority of the biomass intake for the animal is produced on the premises, and the manure can be efficiently composted and recycled into the primary production (grass/grain).  Seems like this might be between a quarter and half acre lot for chickens, and around an acre for goats.

The indirect benefits may be more significant though – realizing how much grain/hay has to be lugged around to take care of a small herd of goats may encourage a line of thought leading to vegetarianism/veganism, and until boutique goat-kenneling operations are set up in trendy markets, people with goats may have a harder time jetting off for trans-oceanic vacations, leading to an unintended reduction in carbon footprint.


March 16, 2010

One of the things about learning to play the fiddle is that most of the time you’ve got a tune stuck in your head.  Lately it’s been one called Arizona, by Vermont guitar/mandolin dude Keith Murphy. It’s beautiful, flowing and bouncy at the same time; you can hear it on Becky Tracy’s album, Evergreen.

“Crop Mobbing”

March 15, 2010

Once again I’m bemused to find that we’re part of a hot agricultural trend, without even knowing it.  The NYT had an article about “crop mobbing” – where large groups of enthusiasts and ag-curious folks descend on a farm and get a lot of work done as a social event.  This spring will be the fourth year in a row of friends coming to the north end to help out with the orchard.  Every year it gets bigger and more fun.

Of course, it’s a really old idea, only it’s been whittled down by modernity.  But the Amish have surely been doing it continuously for centuries.

Black Forest

March 12, 2010

In a room in an old hotel, with snow falling gently down, in a little mountain town in southern Germany, with a nice dinner topped off with some schnapps made from Cox Orange Pippin apples on the banks of the Rhine.  A trip by train and car from Zürich through beautiful countryside; not wild but not entirely cultivated; towns built to live in and buildings built to last.  I got the sense that this was what New England would look like if we had never discovered Ohio, Iowa, California – a landscape fully and permanently inhabited by people who meant to stick around.  Agriculture, industry, and residence tightly integrated into the countryside, seemingly by people who realized that the good lord wasn’t making any more space, and so they had best use it wisely.

Big storm; timber salvage

March 7, 2010

A big storm blew threw a few days back, and it spread havoc all over the midcoast.  We were not spared – a large pine tree growing on shallow soil uprooted to the northeast of the orchard, and it crashed into a second, smaller pine tree.  The whole conglomeration came down hard on the north fence – just the tops actually hit the fence, but still all the electric fence wires were stripped off of the posts, and the deer netting was collapsed as well.  Dave discovered the problem last week, and he, Jake, and Joanna went out and cut enough away to hang the wires back up on the posts.  Joshua and I went up yesterday, cleaned up further, fixed some of the insulators that had shorted out, and put the netting back on the posts.  Fortunately we didn’t seem to have any deer damage (we think they learn to give the fence a wide berth, and that being creatures of habit it takes them a while to move back in once something changes).  I also checked the majority of the trees and didn’t find any more with mouse damage; I guess the massacre of the Opalescent tree despite the spiral wrap was a fluke – freaky though.

Two big pines and a spruce also came down on the southwest corner of the orchard, but these fell away and did no damage. I had been leaning towards removing these to let more light in on the orchard; as it happened nature made the call for us.  These were on very shallow soil above a rock outcrop, and by clearing up to them we both increased the wind load on them and probably compromised their roots.  When you see what these trees are growing on, it’s not hard to believe that just a few hundred human generations ago the coast of Maine was scoured bare by mile-thick sheets of ice.  We yarded the trunks out to the grandparents’ dooryard and added them to the pile of saw timber there, and making some nasty ruts in the south field – need to pick a route and start to establish a proper road through there.

Soon (at orchard weekend if not before) I want to spend some time with the trees, maybe pruning a bit but mostly training some of the ganglier branches outward at a more favorable angle.  Also more mulching, removal of rocks, and maybe establishing a couple of squash or pumpkin beds between rows.

Spring in the air, ordering trees

March 2, 2010

I’m late in getting my Fedco order together this year, but it will go in this week.  I’m thinking to pick it up this year, so as to check out their facility and maybe window shop for more fruit.  Orchard weekend will be in early May as usual; I’m not sure what condition we can have the new ground in by that time so I’m splitting the difference, ordering 1 row of apples and willing to nursery them for a year between the trees in the rows of the orchard if necessary.  I’m also ordering a handful of peach trees again; we’ll redouble our efforts against mice/voles in the deep snow (last year’s crazy snow overtopped the protective plastic spirals; not a single peach tree was spared, though no apples were harmed – lessons learned.)

Also looking to procure another batch of “Sweet Trees” – the Cornell U. selected high-sugar maple variety.  These will be planted along the stone wall leading down to the cove.  The Cornell researchers have teamed up with a company called RPMecosystems, which appears to have a method for growing the trees faster – going to look into this.