Archive for July, 2010

Where we have been, and where are we going?

July 31, 2010

I was just looking back through early entries here on this blog, thinking about what we’ve accomplished and what comes next. The origins of the orchard seem forever ago at this point, but the first batch of trees went in to the nursery bed just a bit over 3 years ago in the spring of 2007, and it was 2008 before we planted them out in the orchard proper. We added a fifth row in 2009, and two more rows of expansion this spring. At this point the orchard has grown to about 32 trees and a bit over half an acre, and we should get our first (five) apples this fall, hail and bugs willing. At its current size the orchard should produce over 10,000 pounds of apples a year when it’s fully mature. And as much as the pursuit of growth is as American as, well, apple pie, it seems a good time to pause and think about what comes next.


Extreme Weather: Flash floods in Georgetown (and a tornado?)

July 27, 2010

An unusually large and fierce mass of thunderstorms passed through midcoast Maine last Wednesday. My grandfather recorded 4.75 inches of rain in less than two hours, and small roads washed severely all over town. The stream that flows out of the small pond to the north of the orchard overtopped the road above the middle field, where it passes under the orchard road in a culvert, and a bunch of freshly placed coarse crushed stone washed downstream. Miraculously, the freshly planted middle field adjacent to the stream did not seem to suffer any visible erosion; perhaps it’s the soil, which is still springy with freshly composted sod, or perhaps the young roots of the buckwheat, less than 2 weeks old at the time, were enough to hold it together. The old part of the orchard has a bombproof sod by now, and the younger part is pretty well established with red clover under the pumpkins and this spring’s orchardgrass/timothy/clover treatment at the periphery, so the worst it saw was the windrow of wood chip mulch washed away in a couple of places. The freshly planted maples along the stone wall were more battered, as a sheet of water carrying leaves and small branches appeared to have swept broadly down the hillside, but the small fences we placed around them seemed to have borne the brunt of the assault, and though the young trees were in many cases buried in leaf matter, none seemed irredeemably tattered.

The most dramatic effect occurred where the pond outlet stream passed under the shore road in a 16″ steel culvert; directly after the storm there was no visible effect, but with the passage of a few vehicles over the weekend a yawning sinkhole a foot in diameter and three feet deep opened up right in the roadbed – it’s a wonder it didn’t swallow up somebody’s axle. The subterranean excavation extended most of the way across the road around and above the culvert, which was largely exposed as seen through the sinkhole – the bottom of the culvert must have rusted out, and this allowed water to run underneath it and undermine it. This was confirmed by the discovery of some rusty chunks of corrugated metal in the outwash below the road – a few more inches of rain and it would have been washed out entirely. My father and grandfather arranged to have the old culvert replaced with a larger 20″ plastic one – we determined that the old one had lasted over forty years.

More dramatic still, we got word that a small tornado or microburst had touched down on the opposite end of the island, and on my way out of town I poked down Bay Point road to check it out. Indeed, just past Don Wilson’s former chicken barn on the west side of the road, a swath of destruction lay down the side of a hill, with great stout oak trees uprooted or broken off rudely halfway up the trunk. Nearby some trees had been knocked over onto somebody’s trailer. Not being from tornado country, I have never seen the destructive aftermath of such a wild piece of weather.

As I understand it, climate scientists predict that global warming will lead to more frequent and more destructive extremes of weather, and while it’s of course impossible to attribute any one event to climate change, I can’t help but feel a bit under siege. I can take some measures of prudence – staking out the young apples and peaches, clearing trees away from the fence lines, keeping sod on the fields as much as possible; girding the streambanks and crossings with stonework – but all of this may be easily overcome, if it decides to rain 10 inches in one crazy storm, or if a ridiculous warm spell causes the buds to break in February. Perhaps we’ll gain some protection from our proximity to the ocean’s moderating influence, but for the most part our little farm faces in microcosm the same looming danger as the planet as a whole.

A use for Cider Jack

July 22, 2010

We’ve had a couple bottles of Cider Jack in our fridge for nearly a year. Not sure how they got there, somebody must’ve heard we were into cider and brought them. People who take traditional cider seriously don’t consider CJ worthy of the name; it’s way too sweet and bears little resemblance to the dry, unfiltered stuff we make. But I discovered an acceptable use for it yesterday – it makes a decent float when mixed even parts with TJ’s vanilla ice cream in a glass mug.

A solid weekend of orcharding

July 16, 2010

Last weekend I went up to the North End and put in a solid weekend orcharding. I arrived in the morning and helped my sister and her kids pick the blueberries and raspberries. Nola (5) picked almost as many as I did, but Ellis (3) was a wash – any time he accumulated any quantity in his basket, he’d tip it up and bury his face in it, mashing any berries he didn’t eat. That done, I string-trimmed around the plum rootstocks (which had no mulch yet) and spread a big barrow of composted wood chips around each one. I also dragged a few wheelbarrows of rocks out of the orchard, to make fewer obstacles for the mower. The hummocky orchardgrass which we cut only 2 weeks ago is already close to knee high again; it’s amazingly prolific, and with the clover is filling out even the thin spots over gravelly soil. The quantity of weeds in the orchard is way down as well. I would have re-mulched more trees, but I ran out of the stuff from last year; what was once a tremendous mountain of chips gradually dwindled to nothing. I then patrolled the electric fence, and discovered that weeds had grown up in the non-mulched areas to the point where the zap was barely noticeable. By a combination of string trimmer, clippers, and gloved hands I stripped the vegetation back from the wires and refastened the backup plastic mesh where it had come away from the posts. I need to finish extending the mesh around the rest of the orchard before snow flies.

The following morning I resolved to get out ahead of the weeds under the fence; with the large Kubota and a wagon I spread the entire pile of chips that we created in our abortive chipping session two weeks ago under the south fence line. The morning fog burned off to hot and humid conditions, and I was pretty tired by lunch, but the job was done, and another pile of chips was gone.

After lunch I set to work on the middle field, which I turned over this May, disked in June, and later attempted to work with the springtooth harrow. The thick, heavy sod had tended to clump up and wouldn’t settle into a nice bed, so I left it to compost for a few weeks longer, and finally it seemed to be workable with the springtooth. So I first piled the rocks that my earlier work had exposed and collected them in the bucket of the tractor, depositing them nearby for use in stonework around a culvert. I then harrowed the field twice, pulling the remaining roots to a mound at the low end. Joanna and I spread about 1200 lbs of powdered limestone on the ~quarter acre field, and we removed the additional rocks that had cropped up. She tried her hand with the harrow to incorporate the lime. After dinner, I went back over to the field and in the gathering dusk I seeded the new field. First in inoculated and broadcast about 2 lbs of Medium Red Clover on the entire area. After a slow start, the MRC I broadcast under the pumpkins and winter squash in the inter-rows of the new orchard area has filled out into a nice, bright green carpet, which I hope bodes well for the fertility in that area. With the clover done, I marked out 2 rectangles of about 2000 square feet each, and broadcast Japanese Buckwheat on the upper one and Tartary Buckwheat on the lower, two pounds of seed in each case. I originally planned to plant the buckwheat for the new hive of bees, but the bees fizzled out. Still, buckwheat is known as a good fast-growing cover crop and a weed smother crop, so I think it’s a good choice for a new field late in the summer. I’ll plan on mowing and incorporating it late in the summer, ideally without totally destroying the understory of clover, and probably planting winter rye in late september or early October. If this looks good in spring, I might actually harvest it, or mow it and let the clover have that area for next summer.

One of the things that the plantings of wheat and barley up in the orchard have illustrated is the importance of fertility. Just for fun I planted the grains in the orchard to see if they would take off; the stands are established but quite stunted except in the immediate vicinity of the newly planted fruit trees, where they sprung up to impressive height and headed out nicely. Each of the fruit trees got a 5 gallon pail of composted goat manure. It could be lack of water that’s affecting the grains, since I’ve been watering the trees individually, but I tend to think it’s fertility, since it’s been reasonably wet and the much thicker grass higher up in the established orchard has showed no signs of water limitation. By consistent cover cropping with legumes I should be able to tackle the issue of nitrogen supply; there’s lots of wood-burning going on on the land which should provide a measure of potash, but I should probably do something about phosphorous. I can continue selective applications of seaweed, and keep introducing composted wood chips as mulch, but of course what’s really needed is manure. Not being around the island regularly there’s not much I can do about the lack of animals, other than hope my folks or my sister will get inspired to bring on some sheep or goats.

Thinking along those lines, I planted the balance of the newly improved field with 5 lbs of Fedco’s pasture mix, which includes a variety of grasses and white clover (in addition to the red clover I underseeded). Having spent the daylight rather completely I turned in, and a heavy soaking rain set in, which should have contacted the seed nicely with the soil to get it off to a good start. In a couple of weeks I should see how the stands are shaping up.

First apples this year!

July 2, 2010

We’re going to get apples this year! Well, four, to be exact, unless some of them drop. But they’re looking pretty good – three on the Roxbury Russet and one on the Yarlington Mill, which are two of my favorite varieties, so hopefully it’s a fortuitous start. We’ve had the oldest trees for a bit over three years now, and they’re not supposed to really start producing until 5 or 6 years, so it’s great that they’re getting started. By the books we’re probably supposed to pick them off for another year or two, but these are sturdy seedling trees that are way taller than I am by now, and they seem to know what they are doing, so I’ll let them go. If we had planted dwarf trees they would probably already be producing by now, but between the fine selection at Fedco and a bias toward the long-term view, we’ve decided to plant the slower-maturing standard rootstocks. If things go according to plan, we’ll be swimming in apples and cider a few years from now.

Misadventures in diesel forensics

July 2, 2010

Early in the orchard project I resolved to give up large scale burning of brush, both to keep the carbon out of the atmosphere for a bit longer and to recycle the biomass into orchard soil fertility. Accordingly, last Sunday I planned a session with a large rented chipper, to reduce the large windrow of brush from the two rows of apple trees we added this spring to chips that can be used to mulch the trees and the perimeter fence around the orchard. These large diesel-powered wood chippers are fantastic and fearsome machines; the one we rented has a 14 inch diameter capacity. They are heavy and difficult to move, requiring a 3/4 ton pickup to tow them safely, and a sizable crew of energetic folks to feed them. I prevailed on my dad to pick up the machine Saturday afternoon and drop it off on Monday, and convinced some friends to come help feed the thing. Sunday morning I checked the fuel level, which was half a tank, so I poured in about six gallons of diesel, which took it to about 3/4 full, hitched the chipper to the big Kubota tractor, and pulled it out into the orchard. We set to work, and in an hour or so we had ground up the first big pile of brush into a sizeable heap of chips. We took a short break and shifted the chipper up to the next pile, which involved changing direction, to where we were sloped slightly to the right, where we had previously been sloped slightly to the left. We restarted the machine, and started chipping the next pile.

But after a couple of minutes, the machine abruptly started to bog down, and produce clouds of black smoke. It was clearly not right, so we shut it down, scratched our heads, checked the fuel (about half a tank), and tried it again (same result), and called the rental company, which was closing in about an hour – too soon to get it back and swap for another. They didn’t have any suggestions, so we cleaned up, pulled the chipper out of the orchard, and salved our disappointment by going fishing in the afternoon.

Monday morning the chipper went back to the rental shop, and shortly thereafter a phone call – the tank was half-full of gasoline! As soon as I heard that I went and checked the two cans that I had poured into the tank – the dregs in the cans was clearly diesel, by smell, feel, and color. And the chipper was operating normally with good power for the first hour or two – though in retrospect a quarter of a tank consumption did seem too much for the amount of chipping we did. To be double sure I checked the funnel I used, which conveniently was the sort that has screw caps on top and bottom to keep dust out – it surely contained diesel. Piecing the story together, this is what must have happened:

When we received the chipper, it had a half a tank of gasoline (or a gas-rich mix) in it. Before using it, I added a quarter tank of diesel fuel. I poured the fuel in fast and used a funnel with a long tube with a sort of nozzle on the tip, and diesel is significantly denser than gasoline. Though diesel is obviously miscible in gasoline, it must have flowed to the bottom with relatively minimal mixing and formed a pool there – otherwise it could not have run the machine for over an hour. There must have been enough mixing to cause an increase in fuel consumption; otherwise there’s no way it would have burned a quarter tank in less than 2 hours, but not enough to cause a noticeable loss of performance. But why did the machine stall so soon after we moved it? I think the key is in the lay of the land – by the fuel gage we had burned a volume nearly equal to the amount of diesel I added, so the layer of diesel (or mostly-diesel) would have been very thin. I didn’t notice which side of the tank the intake tube was on, but I would lay odds that it was on the side of the machine that was downhill when we started. Then when we turned it around the dwindling pool of mostly-diesel ended up on the opposite side of the tank, and as soon as we burned up the fuel that was in the lines and filter (which allowed us to chip a few armloads of brush in the new configuration) it started pulling the mostly-gas from the upper level of the tank, shutting down the works.

As best I can tell online, running a diesel on a mix of diesel and gasoline causes loss of power (check), dark smoke (check) and may cause excessive wear in the fuel system (since gasoline is much less lubricious than diesel oil). Hopefully we didn’t run the machine for long enough to do any permanent damage. The policy of the rental company is that the machine should be returned to the shop with the same amount of fuel as it left with, so it is likely that the previous renters got the machine with half a tank of fuel, used it for a while, and then stopped at a gas station on the return trip, and accidentally filled the machine back to half full with gas instead of diesel. Obviously we could be making this entire story up, and the rental company doesn’t have much basis on which to judge our story versus that of the previous renters (who would likely deny that they could ever have put in gasoline), but our family has a history of renting equipment from that shop without destroying it, and they haven’t made any effort to get us to pay for repairs, if that’s any indication. So, hopefully no permanent harm done, but getting the crew and the equipment together to finally finish the job isn’t something I relish.