Archive for the ‘progress reports’ Category

Cider Weekend 11 – Mast Year

October 31, 2015

 

Last weekend marked the 11th year we have made cider with Holly, Becky, and an ever-expanding group of pedal-powered cider enthusiasts.  We’ll remember this year for the record cider production and the massive apple crop that fueled it.  With help from Holly, Andy, and Emily we gathered the usual two bins of mixed sweet apples from Autumn Hills, plus a bin of Dabinet and mixed sharp and bittersweet apples from Poverty Lane, totaling a bit over 2000 lb. And the orchard finally started to kick into gear, producing perhaps 3 bushels from a number of the trees. But what made this year special was the massive influx of semi-cultivated and wild apples harvested all over Georgetown by my parents, and all over southern Maine by the folks who came to help us make the cider.  I’m told this was what the botanists call a ‘mast year’ – a year when trees deliver fruit in reckless profusion, and we took full advantage. (Thanks to Eerik Hantsoo for the photos in this post – if you have good pics please send along or post on your own site.)

buckets of apples

I managed to get up to Five Islands the weekend before the big event, and with Dave’s help I got the equipment down from the loft of the barn, hooked it up, and got the basic functionality tested.  Already by then he had dozens of buckets full of apples from around the property and around the island – at least a bin’s worth (about 600lb).  The gear came together smoothly, and I attribute this to our liberal use in recent years of ‘Fluid Film’ aerosol lubricant, a WD-40-like product that goes on with a satisfying fizz of bubbles and leaves a cosmoline-like film on everything to prevent rust.

The big event started early afternoon Friday when I arrived with a truckload of apples and a trailer of random gear; I cleaned and provisioned the cabins, set up the water system, and organized apples.  Holly and Becky, Holly’s mom, and the kids arrived well before dark and set up camp in the lower cabin, then he, Dave, and Ben Wilkins worked to assemble the latest addition to the pedal equipment collection, a cast aluminum hand-cranked grain mill adapted for pedal power.  Holly and I had coordinated beforehand, and we had pulleys, 5/8″ shaft and pillowblocks, bike chain, and adapters that go from shaft to the fine-pitch thread that accepts a bike freewheel.  With these parts they soon had the rig set up and working smoothly.

pedal-power grain mill

A cold front had come through and a cold wind was blowing straight off the water, so we elected not to do dinner at the shore, but rather serve out of the barn, and we refried a big bucket of black beans and folks made burritos followed by Emily’s chocolate chip cookies and smores around a campfire.

In the morning we ate delicious baked goods and breakfast wraps provided by the Kaufman/Wilkins/Kneen clan, then we got to work.  We set up the usual wash station to clean the apples going into the process, but many of the feral apples in the mix were really small, so for expedience we set up a parallel processing step to clean them using a pressure washer.  Even the ones that got pressure washed got individually inspected and bad spots cut out – I think this attention to detail is an important part of why the cider ends up tasting so good.

The grinder worked smoothly all day with the exception of the chain coming off the starboard bike once, and the derailleur on that same bike lost a sprocket once, but we were able to pilfer the missing part from another derailleur and get back online within a couple of minutes.  The press ran smoothly, thanks in part to new press cloths that were properly cut to size and thick enough to do the job (mostly) with a single layer.  Now that Holly has discovered the joy of sewing pants from used press cloth, we are going to cycle new canvas and muslin through the process each year to keep him and his family in trousers, since he refuses to buy pants.  All through the weekend he was wearing the first pair he made, which look awesome, and the construction process is detailed on his blog.

violet runs the press

holly and millie peel apples

Meanwhile we set up the carbonation and bottling system, washed 750ml glass bottles, and set to work bottling the 2014 vintage.  We ended up bottling 7.5 tanks of cider; there was half a tank left over when the capper broke just before dinner, so we left the remaining cider in the root cellar.  The bottling rig could definitely use some streamlining; the janky linear guides I made out of copper pipe and scrap mahogany don’t work that smoothly, and a foot-actuated spring- or gravity-balanced system using 80-20 linear guides could make a big difference.  And the failure of the capper was a wake-up call; now that we are processing this much cider it makes sense to keep some redundant equipment around.

cider and baby on back

My folks made up the usual Nebraska Cream Can Dinner for lunch, along with random tasty food that folks brought.  We paused the process briefly to eat, then got back to grinding and pressing.  We filled the 100 gallon bulk tank with sweet cider, washed and filled plastic jugs, then started on the hard cider mix, using a combination of Dabinet, Bramtot, Wickson, etc. from Povlane, mixed sweets from Autumn Hills, and a wide variety of feral apples.  We filled the tank again with hard cider mix, filled all the carboys from it, and still the cider kept flowing – and more people kept showing up with more apples.  By the end we were searching everywhere for clean jugs, and even resorted to using a few of the 2.5 gallon jugs that my folks use to collect maple sap.

Holly brought some whole kernel corn and wheat to grind for cornbread for dinner, and it went through the grinder fine in two passes (even though we didn’t have the special large-grains auger for the mill). In the afternoon we experimented with grinding the buckwheat that we grew this summer between two rows of trees in the orchard.  We succeeded in winnowing and sifting the grain, but it still had thin black hulls on the groats.  After some experimentation we determined that we could grind the grain extremely coarsely, which would crack off most of the hulls while leaving the groats mostly intact.  We then winnowed a couple of times using a box fan, which drove off most of the hulls, then we ground finer and passed through a mesh strainer which pulled out still more hulls. Finally we ran the material through with the grinding plates quite close together, yielding a satisfyingly fine flour. There was still a fair amount of dark hull material in the flour, but we figured this would be good for our digestion.  Later someone looked online and read that the trick is to size the grain using a series of graduated sieves, then crack the hulls off each size of grain separately, so as to get more of them off without breaking up the grain too fine.  If we grow buckwheat again next year maybe we’ll get some better sieves, instead of just using the hardware-cloth versions I made for this year.

Dinner was served just as we finished the last of the pressing, and it was delicious as we have come to expect, with chili, cornbread, and apple crisp made entirely with apples from the orchard.  Then more sitting around the campfire, and more cleanup as light rain was predicted in the morning.  All day and all evening the ragtag tribe of kids ran around with spears and bicycles; Bodhi faceplanted at one point and banged up his face a little, but it’s a miracle there wasn’t more carnage.  We got most of the equipment put away and a rough squeegee-ing of the floor, then folks retired to the cabins.

shifting carboys

Saturday night was warmer, and a light drizzle set in around breakfast time.  We made pancakes with 100% Five Islands buckwheat flour topped with Five Islands maple syrup, and some had Five Islands blueberries as well. Plus home-fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, etc.  We did some more cleanup, including breaking down the water system and pressure-washing the barn, then said goodbye to most of the crew who headed home mid-morning. We transferred 9 carboys of cider to the root cellar, sulfited, and set 2 gallons of starter going to pitch on Monday. Holly and family stayed through leftovers for lunch, then got on the road in a zipcar minivan heavily-laden with cider.

All in all we produced a massive 292 gallons of cider from 3448 pounds of apples on Saturday, with a calculated 71% yield.  This smashes the 2014 record of about 230 gallons, and it was such a prodigious amount of cider that I don’t feel the need to exceed it next year; rather we can make however much comes natural from year to year depending on the crew and the crop.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in and made Cider Year 11 such an amazing success!  Here is the final tally sheet:

IMG_20151025_095152

2014 pruning

March 30, 2014

Despite crummy weather and the press of work, I ran up to Five Islands on Saturday to prune the trees in the main orchard.  After a summer’s growth, the trees typically look like this:

 

pruning example before

 

There is a lot of advice available in books and online about pruning, and I took an afternoon class a few years back, put on by MOFGA and taught by a professional orchardist, located at one of his customers’ orchards in Waterboro ME.  Some basic principles include:

  • Start with the big picture, looking at the structure of the whole tree, so you don’t end up snipping a bunch of twigs only to remove that entire branch.
  • Eliminate watersprouts (vertical branches that leap off the branches and the trunk), crossovers (i.e. conflicts between two branches vying for the same space) and anything that points back toward the center of the tree.
  • Aim for an open structure that lets sunlight into all parts of the tree; the old timers say you want to be able to throw a cat through the tree.  In a healthy tree that’s growing fast, you might remove half of the new wood or more in the spring.
  • For standard apple trees I aim for central-leader form, with scaffolds of 3-5 branches evenly distributed around the points of the compass, at 1.5-2′ vertical intervals.
  • The scaffold branches should be approximately horizontal, since that induces the tree to produce fruit.
  • You want the angle between the trunk and the scaffold branches to be close to 90 degrees, since shallow angles cause inclusion of bark that leads to weakness and breakage as the tree grows.  I use string (usually) and weights (occasionally) to tie branches down.
  • Different varieties have different habits.  Some shoot straight up and need to be tied down extensively to form a good structure; others spray out aimlessly and need all the help you can give them just to throw up an identifiable leader.

That same tree above, after I attacked it with the felcos:

 

pruning example after

Pics of 2013 planting

May 3, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some photos that Emily took a few days after we planted.

ring of goodness around tree

 

 

 

redfield leafing out old tree, newground, fence

 

new pear tree new fence new peach tree

Orchard Weekend 2013

April 29, 2013

On Saturday several friends joined Alexis, my family, and me for an action-packed day of orcharding.  We put up a permanent woven wire fence at the south end of the orchard enclosing enough newground for about 8-10 trees, and planted new trees in that area and also between the existing apple trees.

We had done the preparation for the new fencing on the last orchard weekend two years ago, but had not had time to put up the fence.  So on Saturday we installed and tensioned the 6.5′ woven wire, stapled it to the posts, and braced it to convenient locations on nearby bedrock outcrops or stone wall boulders.  The woven wire (between 4×4 posts at about 22 foot intervals) makes a much more handsome and stout-feeling fence than the combination plastic netting and tensioned electric fence system we have been using, and counting the maintenance of the plastic netting and wires, I suspect it will actually end up being significantly less work in the long term.  Meanwhile, other folks raked the mulch away from the trees and spread manure and lime, as well as seaweed that was collected from the intertidal zone by an ambitious group of kids under the leadership of Jake and Joanna.  Emily and Joanna also patrolled for borers, finding a few small infestations in most trees and a couple of cases where the tree would clearly have been doomed without their efforts.  I didn’t paint the trees with latex and rotenone last year, and that might have been part of the problem – in any case, greater vigilance is needed.

We then planted new peach trees from Fedco, primarily in places where previous peach trees had died (some from apparent blight of some type, others from porcupine damage.  I’ve gotten reasonably good at bud grafting peaches, but I haven’t started a new batch, and I didn’t want to wait at least 2 more years, so I ordered several varieties from Fedco.  I also ordered another cherry tree just for fun, and we planted it on the southeast corner near the only other cherry tree.  We also transplanted a couple of apples to replace failed trees, and planted a new block of pear threes in the newground.  That area had been outside the fence, and was cleared and stumped a couple years previously, and left neglected to grow weeds and a rough sod.  Pear trees grow slowly, so I made the decision to plant them in the freshly broken newground rather than wait a year or two to cover crop it and smooth it out – we’ll see how that decision turns out.  Most of the large rocks and roots came out previously with the chisel plow and mini-ex, but I think it could use a final treatment with the moldboard plow and disk harrow before seeding down with oats and clover.  I’m going to try that mix because I’m sure the new area could use nitrogen, and the orchard grass I planted in the rest of the orchard is pretty aggressive, so it takes a fair amount of work to keep it tame around the trees.  I also turned over the sod between a couple of the newer rows at the west end of the orchard, to be planted in clover and pumpkins for the summer.  I’m going to try a mix of white and red clover in hopes of getting a long-term clover-dominated sod that can help feed the bees.

Thanks to everyone who helped out, thanks to MomJones for being with us in spirit and contributing to the tree fund, and thanks as always to my family, who enthusiastically go along with my orchard obsession.

 

Spring is on!

April 22, 2013

Yesterday Dave and I worked the newground on the south edge of the orchard – one goal for orchard weekend this year is to enclose the southerly boundary with permanent woven wire fencing, and while it had been cleared and stumped by Evan Holbrook a couple years ago, it was still pretty rough.   First I hauled off over a cord of firewood from the selective thinning we did in the woods to the south of the stone wall.  Then we used string to establish the fenceline grades, and the excavator to get as close as we could to those lines – the woven wire does not bump up and down over the terrain as well as electric or plastic netting does.  That being done, I hitched up the disk harrow and spring-tooth plow and worked over the new area, turning up a number of very large rocks which Dave shoved to the margins.  There are still a lot of roots in there and surely plenty more rocks, but the soil looked good, and with a bit of luck on the weather, we should be ready to string the fence and plant new trees in there next weekend.

2013 spring pruning

March 17, 2013

With apologies for radio silence, a brief report.  It was a cold, windy day, but it was the day I had, so Jake and I pruned all the apples in the orchard, and also the older trees in Pops’ garden.  We were a bit more aggressive with the older trees than I have been in the past, since they looked brushy despite several years of diligent pruning, and haven’t been fruiting well.  I also collected up some scionwood, in case by some miracle I get some time to do some topworking on the north side at Stroudwater.

The birch of Damocles; thinning south of the orchard

November 25, 2012

After the last storm blew through, someone in Five Islands noticed that a birch tree just to the west of the orchard had partially crumpled about 20′ up, and leaned over into a tall maple tree to the south, where it threatened to crash down on the orchard fence.  So while I was up for the holiday, Dave and I pulled it down and added it to the firewood pile.

The leaning tree was perhaps 14″ at the butt, one of a cluster of three, and all of them were dead or dying – we’d been watching them for some time, but obviously should have acted sooner.  We winched the two west-facing trunks downhill with a rope-a-long into a slot we cut in the underbrush, then skidded them out to the firewood area opposite from Um and Pops’ house.  The leaning tree was trickier – the trunk was flattened and bent maybe 15 degrees, with more than half of the fibers of the trunk broken.  The top was pretty well enmeshed in the maple it fell against, so it wasn’t likely to roll off to the west if we winched the whole tree that way; it could easily slide off to the east and crush the fence if we pulled the base out from under it.  There was enough dead wood in the top of the tree to make a serious headache for anybody standing too close to the base when it started moving. I considered just hooking the cable of the logging winch to the tree above the break and attempting to rip it off the lower trunk and drag it toward the northwest,but there was a chance that the lower trunk would force the top against the fence as it fell.  So we ended up with a hybrid approach, and in the end it worked out slick.  We put up a ladder and rigged chokers both above and below the break, and I put a little bit of tension on the cable.  Then Dave cut the tree at the base, leaving a hinge significantly stouter than normal, and cleared well out of the way.  Then I winched it over, with the chokers holding the two ends together after the wood broke, such that the whole mess just doubled up on itself and fell clear of the fence, landing with a big crash. It turned out the break corresponded to a giant hole that had been made by a pileated woodpecker, who was probably after ants in the soft core of the tree.

Then this morning we had an hour and a half free, so we went back over and started thinning in the woods across the stone wall to the south of the orchard, in preparation for finally putting up the woven wire fence to define the permanent southerly extent of the orchard.  We cut out a bunch of small maple and oak that had been topped over by the dominant trees; my thought is to thin down to the really nice specimens (mostly oak) closest to the fence, so as to let more light in, and then there are a bunch of nice maples a bit further south, so selectively thin that as sugarbush.  The route around the east side of the orchard is mostly high and dry, and gives good access to the woods to the south and further down the hill to the west, so someday we will probably use that access to improve the stand further afield.  But for now, keeping the orchard project moving forward is at least as much as I can handle in sparse free time.

Pics from cidering

October 28, 2011

The two bins of drops we bought from Brackett’s had set in the shade for a week, and required some picking through. The washing crew requests a pedal-powered apple washer for next year.

Um and Pops surveyed the scene while tub after tub of apples met their fate:

The post-crushers eject finely shaved and mashed apple guts. Except for a few loose set screws, the grinder worked well this year – note for next year: LOCTITE!

Rhonda and Nelle load apple pulp into the press. The overwhelming power of the hydraulic press resulted in some ruptured herniations last year, so we double-bagged this year and didn’t have any further blowout problems.

Holly and buster pedal the press:

Joshua and Jo run the press:

Cider flows (this is like 1/20th of the max flow when the stack is first pressed):

Filling carboys:

New this year was a bottling/drinking station. We bottled about 20 gallons of hard cider (minus some for the operators and assembled crowd) using the twin counterpressure bottling setup:

There were more kids than ever. There was a play tent set up in the middle of the field with a brand new air mattress for jumping on, which was promptly popped. 3/5 of the Gates family:

Cider Year Seven: 183 gallons in about six hours

October 23, 2011

Just got back from Five Islands; a full report will follow when I can get some pictures, but Cider Weekend was fantastic. The weather was great, light overcast and still on Saturday with just a few sprinkles in the afternoon, then beautifully sunny today. Things were a bit chaotic, but as best we can tell we made about 183 gallons of cider on Saturday. The equipment ran smoothly for the most part; we got the upgrade to the hydraulic return line done, the kids pedaled the press (till they got tired of it), and the only issues with the grinder were when set screws came loose or a key fell out. We also bottled four tanks of 2010 cider which had been sitting in carboys in the root cellar all year, ate like royalty thanks to the efforts of the entire crew – especially Stroudwater South (homemade puff pastry, breakfast burritos, coffee cake) and Summer Street (wood-fired pizza in the Glenwood C) – and the and the increasing large flock of kids ran around like banshees. Our cups, jugs, and carboys runneth over. Thanks to everyone for making it the best cidering ever!

Wild apple trees, firewood

September 10, 2011

A stunning, glorious late summer day. This morning I took the chainsaw-on-a-stick over to the north side and spent some time cutting branches to let some sun in on a bunch of reasonably healthy wild apple trees that are growing on the property, mostly in the shade of huge, unruly pasture pines (at least that’s what we call the white pines with half a dozen crooked interwoven trunks). There are already a goodly number of small apples on some of the trees, and I think with some additional clearing and rough pruning we will have at least as many wild cider apples as we’re willing to backpack/wheelbarrow across the bridge. We’ve also made a start at grafting over some of the younger and better-formed trees to recognized varieties.

The danger in this is the potential to give aid and comfort to invasive species. We’ve already got glossy buckthorn and bittersweet established on the property, and creating openings in the canopy risks allowing them to run rampant. So far my approach is to only work in places that I imagine are tending towards orchard in the future, and that I’m willing to scythe once a year – the buckthorn can’t grow bigger in a year than can be cut with a scythe, and the bittersweet can’t do much if it doesn’t have anything to climb. We’ve been attacking the buckthorn groves with chainsaw and loppers, and spraying the cut trunks with glyphosate to keep them from suckering the next year. The place it gets sticky is where you want to leave some undergrowth, say some bayberry or wild blueberry is growing; this makes it labor-intensive to cut out the bittersweet without damaging the natives. One thing we’ve learned since last year is that we need to be really fastidious about swamping out all the brush we create; it’s a nightmare to try to scythe around fallen brush, especially once the vines start twining around it.

By the time I managed to put a whole tank of gas through the pole pruner and swamp the brush, it was early afternoon, and my forearms were totally spent, so I took a bit of a break, then worked on firewood. I hauled the oak from the tree that blew over in Irene, and Alexis and I split it up – we don’t have a hydraulic splitter here yet, but AC is getting pretty good with a six pound maul. I think we’ve got about as much wood stacked under cover as we’re going to have for the winter, and there’s a bit more left to split that will get stuck on a porch or somewhere. I have a notion of a design for small, skid-portable (when empty) three-sided woodsheds that would hold 2-3 cords and encourage us to get a year ahead on firewood. But that’s lower on the priority list that a lot of other house projects, so it will probably be some years before it comes to pass. It would be a lot more satisfying to build them out of wood harvested off of our land, but that would require we come up with some sort of traction solution for the north side, and a high line or something to get across the river.