Archive for the ‘honeybees’ Category

Spring Planting 2018

May 6, 2018

Despite limited preparation on my part and very soggy ground conditions, a small but powerful crew came together in Five Islands in late April of this year and made significant progress on the orchard.  Thanks to all who participated, the orchard is in good shape, and our fingers are crossed for another good harvest this fall.

We set up about 330′ of permanent woven wire fence defining the western boundary of the orchard, took down the ratty plastic deer netting that had protected the orchard until now, and planted about a dozen new interstem trees with varieties recommended by Holly and David Buchanan, a local professional cidermaker. (David’s Portersfield Cider operation in Pownal is definitely worth checking out, both for the high quality cider and the beautiful reclaimed timberframe barn full of gleaming stainless steel equipment.)

The kids, led by Bodhi and Nola gathered an impressive quantity of rockweed at low tide, and this was spread along with organic fertilizer and lime around the new trees, which were then mulched with cardboard and wood chips.  Hopefully this will keep the weeds and grass at bay for a season and help them get established.  The crew also cleared a bunch of rocks, roots, and old fencing material in preparation for turning over and seeding the rows in the new ground in the northwest corner.  I hope to put this area in buckwheat and clover for the new bees, which hopefully will arrive in time to do the pollination.  We transplanted five of the Cornell high-octane sugar maples that had been temporarily growing between apples trees at the bottom of the orchard, moving them outside the fence and protecting them temporarily with cattle panels rolled into free-standing rings.

We also moved the last of the apple trees that had been planted in a five-gallon bucket with the sides split and splayed four ways; I came up with this technique after learning to graft, when I didn’t have enough space prepared for all the trees I made.  The usual approach is to dig up the trees bare-root and transplant them, but especially for larger trees it sets them back pretty significantly.  I started using the buckets in hopes of keeping more fine root tissue intact when doing the transplant.  Inevitably as these things go, the trees sit in the nursery for more years than you plan, and in this case the tree (a Wickson) was over 2″ in diameter.  But the roots find their way out between the split sides of the bucket, and the location of the splits gives a good idea where to go looking for them with the shovel.  Emily and I dug out the roots as generously as we could, and between us we could schlep the bucket, tree, and roots onto the platform extension on the front end loader of a tractor.  There was one remaining open spot on the original grid of Seedling rootstock trees (had been thin soil over bedrock, but we piled some extra loam there a few years ago), and we set the tree in this spot, peeling away the bucket at the last moment.

The bucket technique seems to work surprisingly well, and I think it could be the basis of a local small-time nursery business, since the Transfer Station could probably turn up an unlimited supply of used buckets.  But recently I’ve gone over to planting out new benchgrafts directly in their permanent location, resigning myself to replacing the few that don’t make it.

With three sides of the orchard enclosed in permanent fence, and the remaining north side hemmed in by an outcropping of ledge, the natural extent of the orchard is defined.  There is still a bunch of area inside the permanent fenceline that isn’t yet planted; my folks are contemplating adding some berries, and since the peaches seem to be doing well for us, we might plant a block of those in the northwest corner.

On Sunday I put on a hundred gallon tank of dormant oil and copper, with a pound of BT mixed in to knock back the tent caterpillars which were already starting to spin their webs.  There was a light shower as I did the spraying, so I hope it holds on until the first dose of Surround (organic clay protectant) that I will put on when the apples are nickel-sized.  Surround is literally a high-grade kaolin clay product that I sprayed for the first time last year.  It forms a patchy layer of white powder that turns the entire tree a ghostly shade, but apparently the diminished sunlight doesn’t affect the photosynthesis significantly, and I found it to be quite effective against the various curculios and maggots that attack unsprayed fruit.

Speaking of peaches, the peach buds were coming on fast in Five Islands, and when I got back to Stroudwater I was distressed to see that the -25F lows we saw this winter seem to have killed or severely damaged both of the peach trees we have there.  This is an example of where the marine climate on the island is a big help; lows were probably 10F warmer in Five Islands.

The resistance of the Five Islands peaches to a pretty bad winter makes me think I should take peaches a bit more seriously there; to this point I’ve been interplanting them between the apple trees in the rows, which has worked well since the peaches grow significantly faster but die off unpredictably.  But the new block of interstems has a tighter spacing that doesn’t have room for peaches, and the older apple trees are getting bigger, so it will be harder and harder to keep them from getting overspray on them when spraying Surround.  Last year we found that once the peaches get Surround on them, it never comes off.  This is a just a cosmetic issue that doesn’t matter for freezing the fruit, and Surround is nontoxic (I can’t taste the difference eating them out of hand), but if we ever wanted to sell them at Joanna’s farm stand or Heidi’s store, the chalky spots would be a turn-off.

So I’m contemplating doing a block of peaches in the northwest corner, which combined with whatever the folks do with the northeast corner will pretty much finish out the enclosed space.  Our favorite variety so far is Lars Andersen, which is apparently a Local variety that only Fedco offers, but I’ll ask around for other advice before moving ahead.

Thanks again to everyone who pitched in to make the 2018 Orchard Weekend a success!

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Orchard Update: Summer 2017

August 30, 2017

While this blog may have been dead for quite a while, the orchard has been very much alive.  This spring I grafted around a dozen interstems for a new block of semi-dwarf trees in an area of newground that we prepared north of the original orchard area last year.  And at the end of April a small but dedicated crew put in a great day of fence-building and tree planting to enclose the new area and plant the interstems.

Meanwhile, the oldest of the trees are around ten years old, and had begun to produce fruit in previous years, but being completely unsprayed it was misshapen and quite wormy, requiring a fair amount of cutting around by the cider crew.  So this year began experimenting with an organic spray regimen, starting in the spring with dormant oil, copper hydroxide, and Serenade (a competitive colonizing bacterial culture), and following that with two or three sprays of Surround and BT.  Surround is a refined kaolin clay product that makes the trees and fruit inhospitable to crawling and chewing insects, and BT is a parasitic bacterium that is very effective against tent caterpillars, which had in previous years set back many of our trees by defoliating whole branches.

To apply this stuff, I bought a 100-gallon PTO-mounted Kings sprayer, which fits on the small Kubota tractor (though not by much) and it has worked out quite well – if I’m careful I can do the whole ~1acre orchard with one full tank.  I bought most of the supplies from Seven Springs, which has significantly better prices than Fedco for some reason.  Many of the trees are quite laden with apples at this point, and the spray regimen seems to have all but eliminated the tent caterpillars and significantly set back the Plum Curculios, which otherwise scar the fruit badly with their crescent-shaped bite marks.  It’s too soon to tell how effective it will be on the flies and moths that damage the fruit later in the year; some folks use Spinosad or stronger synthetic stuff to knock them back, but Spinosad is expensive and I’d like to try sticking with organic pest control if it provides sufficient protection.

The Surround spray makes the trees a ghostly white, but it doesn’t seem to block enough light to affect the growth.  I also sprayed the peach trees, which turns out to be a mistake; here at the northern end of their range not many insects seem to bother them, and the clay is impossible to remove from the fuzzy skin of the fruit.  It’s harmless and I don’t mind eating it (after all, what’s in Kaopectate?), but it is impossible to wash off, and it makes the peaches look much less appetizing, so in the future I’ll skip them and work harder to avoid overspray on those trees.

Speaking of peaches, like others in Maine we’ve had a stupendous harvest this year; I took home about 65lb last weekend and it hardly made a dent in the crop still on the trees; I would estimate we’ll get at least 300lb of peaches this year, and my folks are having a hard time figuring out what to do with them.  Some of the apple trees are heavily laden as well, particularly the Honeycrisp, with branches drooping down to the ground.  We’ve also had to prop up some of the branches on some of the peach trees.

Meanwhile, the crop of winter rye did very well, and it’s currently drying in the overhead of the red barn – we’ll try to thresh some out at cider and see how it grinds.  I planted about 1/10 acre of buckwheat for a new hive of bees, and they seem to be enjoying it; it’s headed out now and we probably harvest some of that if we liked – or just let it go to seed for next year.  I also planted about 1/20 acre of Waspie Valley field corn from Fedco; it went in a bit late on account of the wet spring and new ground, but it’s way over head-high by now, and I’m hopeful that it gives a good crop before the weather gets too cool for ripening.

All in all a good year so far; despite the recent dry spell things seem to be doing pretty well.  I have noticed that some of the wild apple trees in the woods have gone completely brown; I have never seen anything like it – perhaps it could be a response to two dry summers in a row, though the trees I noticed are not in particularly dry locations – quite the opposite in fact.  I also noticed that many but by no means all of the local red maple trees have very weak-looking growth in the tops; relatively few leaves, and the ones they do have much smaller than normal.  Other maples nearby seem completely unaffected.

Fruit pics 2014

October 11, 2014

Just 2 weeks until the big event!  Meanwhile, Emily sent me some great pictures she took in the orchard:

Peaches (not sure which kind) – we got a great crop this year.  Lars Anderson, then Reliance, and finally Madison.  It was a cool summer, but even so I think I favor the early ones; seems like peaches should ripen in summer, not fall.

peaches

Dabinet (I think):

dabinet

Virginia Crab (I think):virginia crab

Pail of apples from orchard – poor pollination this year (despite two active hives of bees) – not sure what’s up with that.  But we get more apples every year, and hopefully soon we will be awash in fruit.

bucket o apples 2014

Bees, take 2

May 7, 2011

The action didn’t stop Sunday. After cleaning up, I loaded the bottling gear in my car and dropped it off in Gorham for Joshua and Kelsey. I spent the night in Cambridge, and then got up early and headed for Billerica, where I picked up a pre-ordered 5-frame honeybee nucleus (“Nuc”) from Merrimack Valley Apiaries. This is a large honey and pollination outfit that features prominently in a book I recently read, called Following the Bloom, by a guy named Douglas Whynott. It’s an interesting read, about the tenuous business of trucking semi-loads of bees around the country, pollinating fruit crops, and producing literally tons of honey.

Last year my mom bought a package of bees, which she picked up in a parking lot in Yarmouth; the hive never took though, for whatever reason, and we resolved to use a surer method this year. A nucleus is actually a small working hive, complete with a queen, workers, and brood in the process of maturing. The nuc itself was a rudimentary plywood box with a slot in the front edge to let the bees come and go (it was plugged with window screen for shipment). The guys in the yard put it in a mesh bag for me for good measure, and it went in the back of the Corolla, and I headed straight for Five Islands. I got there before 11, and it was a nice quiet warm morning, so Emily and I hived the bees immediately. She has a headnet and gauntleted gloves, and I improvised with a white button-up shirt, a no-see-um netting mesh bag and plain leather work gloves. But in retrospect I think we could have done it bare-handed. With just a slight puff of smoke the bees were incredibly gentle and mellow, and the box was chock full of them. We unscrewed the nuc box with two sheetrock screws, pried the frames loose one by one, and dropped them in the hive in the same order they came out in. We closed up the hive and put in a quart jar of sugar syrup to tide them over, but as soon as we let them be for half an hour they were hard at work; we found them in the dandelions and the magnolia tree, and they seemed to be flying off into the maples and birch trees as well, which were thick with catkins.

There’s something strangely captivating in just sitting and watching a hive of bees coming and going; these tiny creatures with such remarkable evolved social cohesion and amazing navigation skills. They have hardly any processor power at all, and yet collectively they can perform a complicated harvesting task that we humans have no hope of pulling off. Hopefully they will make a difference in the apple harvest, both in Poppy’s older trees, and in our new ones as well. It also got me thinking more about flowers – normally I flip past the flower section of a seed catalog with a scoff, but seeing the bees working the flowers made me think about ‘ornamental’ plants in a whole different way…