A solid weekend of orcharding

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.

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