Backyard Orchard Culture

How small can you go? An image from the Dave Wilson website demonstrating one way to keep a fruit tree a manageable size.

Damn. I wish I had heard this lecture twelve years ago when we bought our house. “Rock star orchardist” Tom Spellman, a sales manager with Dave Wilson nursery, gave a remarkable talk last night on how to create your own backyard orchard. He began by dismissing most advice on growing fruit trees, noting that it is intended for commercial orchards and is completely irrelevant for backyard fruit growers. Few of you reading this blog, after all, have to worry about having space to maneuver a tractor. Spellman outlined what he considers the three key components of a successful small scale backyard orchard:

1. Successive harvest. With careful choice of varieties you can create a mini orchard that produces consistently throughout the year (or growing season in colder climates). You don’t want a bunch of trees that all ripen in July. In his own yard Spellman planted four varieties of avocados, each of which produce fruit at different times, so that he can have a crop year round. You could also, say, plant three kinds of peaces that each mature successively. Or, plant a fig, an apple tree, a pomegranate and a lemon tree that will produce in different months. The Dave Wilson nursery has a handy ripening sequence chart, that you can use to plan what to plant.

2. Size control. Basically you don’t want fruit trees in a backyard orchard, you want fruit shrubs. Rather than one 30-foot tree in a 10 by 12 space, plant four or more and prune them vigorously so that their  branches are within easy reach. The possibilities for intensive fruit tree planting are endless: trees can be planted four or even six in one hole, espaliered, grafted, arranged into hedges, even braided together. But whatever the techinque, the goal is the same–tight spacing, short trees. You don’t want to have to go up on a ladder to harvest, and you don’t want 300 pounds of apples all at one time. Follow commercial standards and you’ll have huge, hard to manage fruit trees in your backyard. Follow Spellman’s backyard orchard guidelines and you’ll have many small trees and never be without fruit.

3. Grow what you will use. Spellman told the story of someone who went down to their local big box store and bought six trees for five dollars each. The problem was that he had bought six quince trees and did not know what to do with the fruit. Grow flavorful varieties that you can’t buy at the market. One quince tree is fine (we have one) but six is way too many.

Some other points Spellman made:

  • Pruning: Spellman suggests size control in the summer and detail work in the winter. (Note: this pruning advice is for our climate in California.)
  • Commercial growers focus on eye appeal over taste. You can’t buy decent stone fruit at the market, so stone fruit is a great thing to grow at home or buy at a farmer’s market.
  • It’s never too late to start a backyard orchard or to modify what you’ve got. Even huge fruit trees can be knocked back to a manageable size through radical pruning. You may lose a season or two of fruit, but you’ll have more room to squeeze in more trees. Don’t be afraid to bust out the chainsaw!
  • Be wary of most fruit tree growing advice as universities focus on research intended for commercial growers. In particular, the spacing suggested by many sources is way too far apart. Even many commercial growers are beginning to space tighter and keep trees shorter, a result of workman’s compensation lawsuits (workers falling out of those tall trees). More intensive growing has resulted in greater productivity as an unintended result of those lawsuits.
  • Pay attention to rootstock! Rootstocks are developed for varying soil and climate conditions. Every grafted fruit tree should have two tags on it–the tree and the rootstock–don’t buy a tree whose rootstock is unknown and make sure you grow trees with rootsocks developed for your climate and soil. Dave Wilson has a hand guide to rootstocks on their website, with their advantages and disadvantages here
  • Mulch like crazy! Mulching brings bioactivity to the soil, reduces weeds and saves water.Use 2 to 4 inches–according to research less than 2-inches is bad, more than 4 a waste of effort. 
  • Fertilize fruit trees with with organic fertilizer low in nitrogen and high in potassium and phosphorus. Nitrogen promotes vegetative growth at the expense of fruit and, again, you get a tree that’s too tall to manage. Fertilizers should also contain humic acid and micro nutrients. I’d add that a soil test is always a good idea. Our soil is already very high in potassium and phosphorus.
  • Make your first pruning cut knee high–i.e. chop that little tree off at the knee. This will be the start of a pruning strategy that keeps your tree small and manageable. 
  • When you get trees at the nursery buy small trees–don’t waste your money on large trees that have been sitting around in their pots too long. The small tree will quickly catch up to the large tree and you’ll save money.
  • When you plant four or more trees in one hole keep all the trees pruned to the height of the weakest tree.
  • In heavy clay soils, plant trees in raised mulch beds.
  • Fruit trees and berries work great in containers, just remember to prune them and keep them small.
  • Squirrel control: get a dog, use a have-a-heart trap or shoot-em!
  • Another reason to keep trees pruned small is so that you can throw bird netting over them. Use the netting for only a short time–2 to 3 weeks. Roll the netting up on a cylindrical object, like a piece of pvc pipe, for storage.
  • To get decent sized fruit, thin the fruit off the tree when it’s the size of a pea. Some trees you might have to thin upwards of 90% of the fruit.
  • Whitewash trees with sensitive trunks if you’re in a hot sunny climate. To make whitewash use a 2/3rds water to 1/3 cheap white paint mixture.

For extensive how-to fruit growing advice see http://www.davewilson.com/. Dave Wilson also has a “Fruit Tube” video channel here. I’m canceling Netflix!

Dave Wilson is a wholesale nursery. To order their trees, Tree People fruit tree expert Steve Hofvendahl recommends ordering through Bay Laurel Nursery. You can order trees now for January delivery.

A special thanks to Altadena Heritage who hosted this talk and put on an amazing series of lectures. Friend them in Facebook to get the lowdown on upcoming events.

Hops in Containers Update

“And I behold in breath of space
The autumn’s winter sleep.
The summer’s life has given
Itself into my keeping.”
-Rudolf Steiner The Calendar of the Soul Week 23

We’re going to drink “summer’s life” this winter. Year two of my hops (Humulus lupulus) in self irrigating pot experiment has yielded enough of a crop for at least one batch of beer. Read more about how we grew our containerized hops here. Some things I’ve learned:

1. There are two types of hops, bittering and aroma. Beer recipes call for both. Find out what varieties of hops grow in your climate, choose a type of beer you like, and plant at least one aroma and one bittering variety for hops self-sufficiency. I settled on cascade (very easy to grow) and nugget, both of which, when combined, make for a nice American pale ale.

2. Plant your hops somewhere where you will see them every day. I’ve enjoyed watching our hops bines grow just outside our bedroom window. They’ve come to symbolize summer for me as well as a restful night’s sleep. Plus the harvest window is brief and you need to keep a close eye on those cones–when the they get papery it’s time to pick them. I dry them for a few hours in our solar dehydrator, but you could also just let them dry for a few days inside with a fan pointed at them. After drying they go into bags in the freezer.

3. Plant hops in such a way that you can access them for easy harvest. Hops grow upwards of ten to twenty feet and beyond. If you can harvest them safely without cutting them down you might be able to squeeze more than one crop out of them in a season.

4. Hops need rich soil. I’m considering putting them in the ground next year with a lot of compost. I fertilized them in their containers, but clearly they could have used more nutrients. I did not get as much of a crop as I did the first year.

5. Hops are apparently deadly to dogs, so  be careful if you have a pooch. I don’t know if they will eat them off the bine, but they’ll definitely try to get them in the compost pile.

6. Prune to the strongest two bines for each plant and train them in a “V” shape. It’s really important to keep different varieties labeled and separate so, come harvest time, you know which one is which.

While painting the south side of our house I put up a pulley and rope system so that I can grow more hops. The pulleys will enable me to lower the bines during the August/September harvest season. More on our hops planting plans next spring.

Citron

The Citron (Etrog) and its anatomy.

I just attended a fascinating lecture by fruit expert David Karp on the history of the citron (Citrus medica) or etrog in Aramaic. I’ve only encountered citron in a candied form buried deep within a fruit cake. I’ve also seen the bizarre Buddha’s Hand, another kind of citron popular in Asia as both food and medicine. What I did not know is the significance of citron in Jewish history. Citron is used in the rituals of the harvest festival of Sukkot. According to Karp, a tree mentioned in a passage in the Torah, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of goodly trees.” was, at some point, interpreted as citron.

For orthodox Jews the citron must be perfect. Teams of rabbis equipped with magnifying glasses and jeweler’s loupes carefully inspect each fruit, with prized specimens going for several hundred dollars.  Karp said this has had unintended consequences. It’s virtually impossible to grow perfect citron without pesticides. Workers in citron growing areas have increased rates of cancer. And it’s forbidden under Jewish law to use the fruit of a grafted citron tree, or even a tree descended from a grafted tree, making growing healthy specimens even more difficult.

I have to say that after taste-testing citron products in the courtyard after the lecture I was not at all tempted to snag one of the trees that Karp gave away. And the intricacies of Jewish law make growing citron for ritual use an arduous and expensive proposition–sadly, citron will not be a road to riches for us, even in our perfect growing climate here in Los Angeles. We’ll stick with our quince and apricot trees which, incidentally, along with citron are contenders for the forbidden fruit of the garden of Eden (most apples don’t grow in Mediterranean climates). 

For more on the history of citron see, “The Secret Life of Etrogs” in the Jewish Journal.

Behold the Squash Baby

He’d lay down his life for his squash baby

Mrs. Homegrown here:

It’s 36 inches long as of today, and mystifying passers-by. I think I underestimated its size in the first post, where I claimed it was 20 inches. It was probably closer to 30″ at that point. The curvature makes it hard to judge. (I love the way it arches out of the raised bed–see the pic below). The thing is actually inching into the driveway now. Every time I pull the car into the garage I worry that I’ll clip it.  How would I ever face Erik again?

(For backstory on this, click here.)

I wanted to remove the nasturtium and other leaves blocking the view of the squash for this photo, but Erik cried, “No, you’ll ruin the camouflage!”

A Hairy Cucumber: Mezzo Lungo di Polignano

There’s a crass joke or limerick to be made here but I’ll leave that up to you, our dear readers. I’ll just say that this cucumber, an Italian heirloom called Mezzo Lungo di Polignano, has done well for us this summer. No powdery mildew and it’s tasty. I got the seeds from Craig Ruggless at www.gardenedibles.com. I wrote Craig to ask him about it and he replied,

“This is one of my favorites. They are also very good when left on the vine to get larger. Be sure to peel and remove the seeds. They make a great “boat” for salad fillings Like tuna or salmon with lemon and capers in maybe a mayo or yogurt dressing.”

The salad boat idea, in our case with tomatoes and a yogurt dressing, made for one of my favorite meals this summer. As for the hairy skin–biodiversity in action–and there something to be said for variety and aesthetics even though that crazy skin never ends up on the dining room table.

It’s Official: Erik is Insane

Our parkway garden

It’s true. Erik has gone insane trying to protect his baby. His squash baby.

A little background:

We’ve long gardened in two raised beds in the parkway in front our house (the parkway being the space between the sidewalk and the street). This is officially city property, though we are responsible for maintaining it. It gets great morning light, so it’s a valuable growing space. It’s also fun to garden out in public, so we can talk to our neighbors and get all the fresh gossip, and show little kids what food looks when its growing.

The drawback to a public garden, of course, is that it is defenseless. This means that dogs and cats and sometimes people tromp through the beds, scattering freshly planted seeds and smashing delicate seedlings. If the plants survive, then they become subject to theft. Now, we don’t mind sharing food. The parkway isn’t really ours, after all, so we figure what grows down there is fair game. Generally we either grow things down there that are easy to share–like beans or cherry tomatoes–or things people aren’t likely to pilfer–like greens.

This all changed this year, because Erik decided to plant squash down there. Not just any squash, but this fantastical Italian winter squash called Lunga di Napoli. It’s a green skinned squash, rather like a butternut in shape and texture, except it can reach a meter in length.

At the time of planting, I did the wifely, “Honey, are you sure that’s a good idea?” thing. It’s just not a good idea to plant high-investment crops in the parkway. He assured me he knew it was a risk, but he wanted to try, and we didn’t have space to plant it anywhere else. “No big deal,” he said. Back then he was reasonable.

Since then, our parkway has turned into a dense jungle. *** Note: We love our tolerant neighbors!!!! *** There’s not only squash growing in those two small beds, there’s also scarlet runner beans, strangely hairy cucumbers, volunteer tomatoes and giant lamb’s quarters going to seed. The giant squash tendrils are spreading across our driveway and walk. Sure, it’s better to be lush than bare, but it looks crazy. Grey Gardens type crazy. In my more optimistic moments I think of it as a “food forest.” I tried to take pics, but it’s hard to capture the wildness of the space.

Very like the jungle swallowed the ruins of Palenque on the Yucatan peninsula, our Scarlet Runner bean long ago swamped its trellis.
Hairy cucumber and tiny tomatoes growing together. The beds have their moments of beauty.

Back to the squash. It only bore two fruits. Erik began to obsess over them as soon as they appeared. How would they ever live to maturity? He just knew a thief would take them at zucchini size, and then they’d never reach their potential. Suddenly, it was of utmost importance to him that these squash reach their full one meter length. I trembled with dread and ill foreboding.

The remaining Squash Baby, currently measuring 20 inches or so.

One morning the inevitable happened. Erik stomped into the house, crying, “The %$#$!*s took my squash! They took my squash!” The smaller of the two squashes was gone, picked long before its time. After a brief period of depression, which he spent either cursing the unjust nature of the universe or reiterating his desire to chop down all the trees in our backyard, so as to maximize secure growing space (which is not going to happen as long as I’m around!), Erik began to scheme.

And now, we are the proud proprietors of Garden Guantanamo. The remaining squash baby –and it really is baby sized, and growing fast–soon I will have to refer to it as the squash toddler–is wrapped in layers of chicken wire and spiked deep in the earth. But that was not enough. He’s also surrounded the entire parkway with a cordon of bright yellow rope (invoking police tape?) and most alarming of all, fashioned little signs that say “Warning: Experimental/Not For Human Consumption/No Es Comida” and staked them at 3 foot intervals on all sides.

Lousy pic of one of the signs, obscured by windblown lamb’s quarters.

I’ll admit I’ve put up my share of signs in my time (Keep Door Closed, Turn Off Lights, Don’t Eat the Cake in the Fridge, etc.). But age brings wisdom, and I’ve learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who read signs and those who don’t. And the great irony is that those who read signs don’t need the signs in the first place. And those who need the signs never, ever read them.

In other words, I don’t think the signs are going to work. And I’m dreading my neighbors asking me what’s experimental about our food.

In the meanwhile people, pray for Erik and his squash baby. And I’ll keep you updated.

Blue Garlic A-OK


Mrs. Homegrown here:

Note the lovely blue tinge of the garlic in my latest pickling adventure. Turns out that there’s a few reasons garlic might turn blue or green when prepared, but whatever the case, the coloring is harmless. What most likely happened here is that the garlic I used wasn’t fully dried, so it reacted with the vinegar in the pickling mix. I remember noting how moist the garlic cloves were as I worked with them that day.

If you want to read up more on this topic, and learn some of the science behind it (I’m too lazy to retype all the big words), check out this garlic fact sheet from What’s Cooking America. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.

By the way, the pickles I’m making are tourshi–Armenian pickles. If they work out, I’ll share the recipe.

Figgy Rebuttal

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I had to register my disagreement with Mr. Homegrown’s Mission Fig vs. Kadota Fig post. Seems Erik decided to hold a taste test and invite only himself. The Kadota figs are certainly very good. But much of that goodness comes from their sweetness. They are sweet as honey, but not cloying. I respect that, but I don’t crave it. Unlike Erik, I don’t have a sweet tooth. Therefore, of the two I prefer the less sweet Black Mission figs–they’re figgier, for lack of a better word. So don’t go to bed thinking that you’re really missing out by not having one of them fancy Janice Kadota trees in your yard. They’re very good figs, but they’re not all that.

Black Mission Fig vs. Janice Seedless Kadota FIgs

Janice Seedless Kadota (top), Black Mission Fig (bottom)

Who wins the flavor battle between Black Mission figs and Janice Seedless Kadota figs? The verdict: Black Mission figs are damn good, but Janice Seedless Kadotas are damn better! We’re jealous of Homegrown Neighbor who has one of these beauties.

Patented in 1993 and sold wholesale by the Dave Wilson Nursery, Janice figs are white and incredibly sweet. Ask your local nursery to order one from Dave Wilson for you. But note, this is a variety for Mediterranean climates.

For excellent directions on growing figs see this info sheet from the California Rare Fruit Growers.

Italian immigrants desperate for the flavors of home pioneered growing figs in northerly climates. See this discussion over at GardenWeb for cold climate fig strategies.

Extreme Recycling

Over at Edible Geography a post, Upgrade Excreta, on three artists and designers working with human waste. Above, design student James Gilpin, who has allegedly figured out how to turn the pee of elderly diabetics into fine single malt scotch. Now that’s what I call recycling!

Meanwhile, Chicago artist and activist Nancy Klehm has completed her Humble Pile humanure project, releasing a stunning t-shirt in the process.

Lastly, designer Tobias Wong has created little glittery pills that make your poop sparkle.