Midsummer orchard progress

One full day on the North End. It’s getting time to mow the fields, but when last I was there, the old Kubota was out of commission with some issue in the ignition, and the small walk-behind bush hog was refusing to start, seemingly due to an over-sensitive tilt sensor. In the intervening time, Jake got the tractor running, so I focused on the walk-behind mower. It had gotten progressively more and more sensitive to slope, to the point where it would only work on dead-flat ground, and then finally not at all. The manual was silent on the presence of a separate tilt shutoff sensor, considering the engine a single part. I had a theory that the low oil sensor might double as the tilt shutoff, so first I disconnected it (no luck), then grounded it (in case it was active-high). Neither had any effect, so I dug a little deeper; removed the spark plug and held it against the frame; no spark. I removed the plastic cover between the head and the gas tank, where the throttle and the stop switch reside, and found a nondescript metal module about the size of an ice cube. It was wired to the ‘on’ side of the stop switch, while the other side was wired to ground. The common terminal of the stop switch disappeared inside the housing around the recoil start; presumably the stop switch functioned by shorting the magneto. So I pulled the spade terminal connecting the stop switch to the mystery module, and lo and behold, spark! So I left it disconnected, taped it up out of the way, and reassembled. The mower fired on the first pull.

I wanted to mow in the orchard, but the grass was still wet from a light shower the night before, so I switched gears, and spent a couple hours on dry stonework where the pond outlet runs under the orchard road in a culvert. The crazy rain of a few weeks back had sent a torrent through the culvert, threatening to erode the field below, so I laid the first couple courses of a stone wall to bear the brunt of the outfall where it takes a sharp jog to the south. It was not the best job ever done, as my dry stone skills are strictly beginner level, and the stones that came out of the field were mostly roundish glacial stuff. But I think it will be sound enough to hold, and in any case it’s better than it was before:

The freshly planted field below was remarkably unharmed by the flood, probably because it’s not too sloped, and also I had left a couple of feet of heavy sod between the cultivated region and the drainage. One interesting note was that in cultivating the field we turned up a rusty 12″ smooth harrow disk, the sort that would likely have been used on a horse-drawn implement a hundred years ago. We had known that virtually all of the island was cleared of trees by that time, but most of the rocky land would presumably have been in pasture. This was a pretty solid indication that somebody was tilling that very spot before my grandfather was born – the relatively flat south-facing slope with better-than-average soil would have been considered prime farmland in the years before they discovered Iowa. These days I seem to repair at least one piece of aging farm equipment every time I do some work on the orchard, and I feel a distant sort of kinship to the farmer who must have stood in that very field cursing his broken implement – only they didn’t have ebay and craigslist to go looking for replacement parts.

That’s a closer view of the cover crop I planted. In the foreground is Tartary Buckwheat, in the middle is the Japanese Buckwheat. The seeding rate was the same, so it appears that the Japanese Buckwheat is better suited to the conditions we have. In the background and to the right I planted Fedco pasture mix, which is actually putting up a fine stand, as can be seen in the previous picture, it’s just not nearly as fast as the buckwheat – so the reputation of buckwheat for making a rapid cover is not overstated. I’m going to let it flower, and at that point the usual move would be to mow and incorporate it; I don’t even know how to hand harvest buckwheat, so that’s probably the right move to make. Then, if the clover looks good I’ll just go with that, or if it looks sparse I’ll overseed it with rye for the winter.

By the time I was out of rocks, the grass was dry, so I mowed around the trees in the orchard – not the whole orchard, just strips for each row. I’m going to let the grass grow up a bit higher in the center rows; maybe it will make enough to be worth raking and composting. Really we need something with a sickle-bar on it, as the rotary mowers leave the cuttings in a sorry state. The trees are for the most part looking good, and there were apples on the Roxbury Russet and one on the Yarlington Mill:

I also weeded around the new trees, and checked the grafted apples that I made at the MOFGA class this spring. They’re all still going strong, and the whip-and-tongue grafts look really cool as they heal, like a Harry Potter lightning bolt scar:

I really like grafting, for a bunch of reasons – it’s a craft that seems magical and difficult, but it’s actually pretty easy; the tools of the trade are dirt simple and can be carried in the pants pockets, it involves reuse of materials (trimmings from pruning) that would otherwise be considered waste, and it allows for a dramatic economization relative to buying regular orchard stock. At the end of the day, once the sun was behind the trees I tried my hand at a different kind of grafting, bud grafting, which is done mid-summer. A t-shaped slit is cut in the bark of a rootstock (in this case seedling plums) which we interplanted between the apple trees this spring, and a live leaf with next summer’s bud is cut from fresh growth on a donor tree (in this case peaches, closely-enough related to plums), slipped into the t-shaped slit between the bark and the wood of the rootstock, and taped up. The leaf is trimmed off, and the bud lies dormant over the winter, grows into the bark of the tree, and then comes alive in the spring, whereupon the rootstock above the bud graft is pruned off, and all the energy of the root is channeled into the rapid growth of the bud. Most of the rootstocks I planted were less than a quarter inch and the bark didn’t seem to separate very well, so I only ended up grafting three larger ones – two to Reliance, one to Garnet Beauty, from trees we already had growing on the orchard. The two smaller ones I had tried I taped back up to try again next year. I had it in mind to try budding pie cherries to the wild cherry seedlings that keep popping up in the stone wall on the east side, but I didn’t get to it in time – will try this next visit. Looking at the results I was skeptical that it could possibly work, but I felt the same about the whip-and-tongue grafting, so we’ll see come next spring.

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