Fruit Tree Care – Fertilization & Summer Pruning

Whether you grow one fruit tree or a home orchard full of them there is always something to learn from an expert and Orin Martin of UCSC Farm and the Alan Chadwick Garden is just the guy to help. With nearly 40 years of hands-on experience at UCSC he says he’s come up with a successful method of caring for fruit trees including pruning and fertilizing . “I’ve made every mistake in the book”, he laughs.

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Orin Martin explaining summer pruning

The UCSC Farm and Alan Chadwick Garden on the campus are both internationally known for training, research and public education. Recently I had the opportunity to join Orin during the Summer Orchard Walk at The Farm as he discussed the care of fruit trees and summer pruning to improve tree shape and productivity. Between jokes he shared many tips including the importance of fertilization and preparing an orchard for fall and winter.

Deciduous fruit trees are genetically programmed to start root growth early as they originated in the cold winter climates of Northern Iran, Uzbekistan and other central Asian areas. Their growing season begins in January or February which is 3-5 weeks prior to any visible bud swell when soil temperatures are still in the low 40’s. With this in mind Orin recommends starting fertilization early. Organic fertilizers take longer to become available to the tree and you want to maximize the early growth spurt in spring.

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Sunflowers attract pollinators to garden

Orin has a recipe for fertilizing young fruit trees that is used throughout the Farm and Garden. It’s comprised of compost and an organic source of nitrogen such as blood meal, 8% Nitrogen Sustane or Dr. Earth granular. A young tree will need additional nutrients in May and possibly July if the tree is not putting out sufficient structural growth. Fast acting liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion and liquid kelp can be substituted for the early summer feeding. The second wave of growth occurs in fall. Slow acting organic fertilizer is best at this time.

Next year’s fruit buds are formed in late spring to early summer at the same time current fruit is growing so nutrient needs are extremely important at this time. If a mature tree is growing well its yearly fertility needs may be met by growing a bell bean crop as green manure over the winter.

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Ginger Gold apples with resident cats

The two resident garden cats followed our group as Orin demonstrated summer pruning of Ginger Gold apples, Flavor King pluot and Seckel pears. Most are trained to a open center with some having a modified central leader. I asked what he would do if no central leader grew after heading back a young tree whip. “Then I’d train it with an open center. You’ve got to play the hand your dealt”, he laughed.

“Ladderless” harvesting and care is the goal to pruning in summer and winter. Summer pruning from early August to mid September stops growth and is done to limit height and length of branches to encourage more fruiting shoots. Winter pruning creates the tree’s structure. “When you don’t want a tree any taller, stop winter pruning”, Orin told us.

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UCSC Farm crops

Throughout the orchard walk Orin Martin shared interesting tidbits of information. Seems that pest problems such as European blister mite and pear slugs are being observed here at for the very first time.

The USCS Farm & Garden has free monthly guided tours as well as a calendar of educational talks and events. It is open daily for everyone to learn and enjoy. Kids tours are offered during the school year in the Life Lab Garden Classroom.

Cool Ideas for Back-to-School Gifts

With the first day of school fast approaching parents are busy getting colored pencils, highlighters and markers for the new school year. Students need backpacks, clothes and other supplies too. Teachers are hard at work also getting their classrooms ready in addition to lesson plans. If you are thinking of getting your teacher and classroom a little back-to-school gift here are some suggestions that will do double duty as teaching moments and a thank you.

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Tillandsia mounted on driftwood

Plants are the perfect choice for a small gift. One easy-to-care plant is the tillandsia or “air plant”. A small one can be placed in a small shell or attached to a piece of driftwood and if given some light near a window and sprayed or dunked in water each week they will flower and reproduce by growing offshoots or “pups”. Turn this gift into a teaching moment to share with the rest of the class by writing out an explanation of their interesting ways.

Tillandsia like their relatives, Spanish moss and pineapple, have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just a spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow on tropical tree limbs. They prefer the light from a bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain.

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Small succulents for the window sill

Another plant that would make a nice addition to the classroom is the succulent.  Succulents are easy to grow. They are very forgiving plants given different watering and light conditions. I’ve seen small ones planted in recycled boxes, old tins and hand decorated or painted clay pots. Succulents have an interesting life history that can be shared with the class, too.

A quick check of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, provides this information. In botany, succulent plants are plants that have some parts that are more thickened and fleshy in order to retain water in arid climates or soil conditions. The word “succulent’ comes from the Latin word sucus, meaning juice or sap. Succulent plants may store water in leaves, stems or roots and have the ability to thrive on limited water sources, such as mist and dew, which makes them equipped to survive in an ecosystem which contains scarce water sources. They can survive on sea coasts and dry lakes, which are exposed to high levels of dissolved salts that are deadly to many other plant species. If they can survive there they will flourish in the classroom.

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Spathiphyllum or Peace Lily

Another gift idea for the classroom is a small houseplant that can clean the air. The first list of air-filtering plants was compiled by NASA as part of a clean air study published in 1989 which researched ways to clean the air in space stations. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as all plants do, these plants also eliminated significant amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Other studies added to the list of chemical pollutants and the best plants to remove them.

NASA researchers suggest that the most efficient air cleaning occurs with at least one plant per 100 square feet. Even the microorganisms in potting soil remove some toxins. Some of the easiest houseplants to grow are some of the best to have in the classroom. Just about all the potted palms are good. Also rubber plant, dracaena ‘Janet Craig’, philodendron, Boston fern, ficus, peace lily, Chinese evergreen, spider plant, snake plant, pathos, English ivy and phalaenopsis orchids are high on the list.

Other gift ideas that would do double duty outside the classroom in life lab would be a packet of quick maturing seeds such as lettuce, spinach or other greens. Sow the seeds thickly into nice prepared soil on the first possible school day and begin harvesting the baby greens ‘cut and come again’ style about six weeks later.

The outdoor garden boxes always need new plants to attract polinizers and 4” pots are readily available. Choose from California native plants such as salvia and yarrow. Common garden plants that attract bees and other insect pollinizers are rosemary, lavender, sweet alyssum, glorious daisy and coneflower.

Growing your own Food for Health & Happiness

I don’t grow enough of my own healthy organic food so I rely on the kindness of strangers and several friends. I do manage to harvest a few handfuls of my own strawberries and cherry tomatoes but that’s about it due to lack of sunlight. Fortunately I have the farmer’s market for other fruits and vegetables and friends that keep me supplied with their overabundance of delicacies like plums, guavas and persimmons.

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Veggie boxes- July 2016 All photos courtesy of Gaylon Morris

I enjoy reading about the gardening exploits of a Facebook friend as she keeps me posted on the progress of her garden. She’s an inventive cook so there’s no shortage of recipes and pictures of the meals she creates from her daily harvest.

Being involved with the food we eat is a sure way to the road to health. My friend Chandra Morris raises chickens in a coop she affectionately calls Fort Clux and includes eggs in many of her recipes. She and her husband Gaylon designed the coop to exclude any raccoons or other predators and it’s state of the art as far as chicken coops go. Then there’s the raised veggie boxes designed and built in an odd-shaped triangular section of their yard. Utilizing every possible square foot for edibles it’s downright inspirational.

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Pink Lemonade blueberry

This is the second season for these raised veggie boxes. Healthy plants need good soil to grow. With this in mind the boxes were originally filled with an organic veggie mix from a local supplier in Aptos that included organic dairy and chicken manure, organic one earth compost, grape pumice, gypsum, organic 4-4-2 fertilizer and humic acid from molasses, seaweed and yucca extract and bentonite clay. The strong healthy plants that Chandra grows attest to the richness of this soil mix.

The progress of Chandra’s vegetables has been remarkable and I’ve been able to track it since May 15th when she posted a picture of the garden at 95% planted. After a couple weeks a picture showed up depicting an afternoon snack of 4 kinds of radish, cherry plums from her tree and a pea pod that “wasn’t ready but I couldn’t resist.” Then came the late June posts showing pea pods ready for harvest on a trellis, then in a colander on the kitchen counter for dinner that night.

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Indigo Rose tomato

I asked Chandra what some of her favorite vegetable varieties are. She said she grows Pink Lemonade blueberry because it’s supposed to be more resistant to birds as it isn’t blue. Blue lake pole beans are a classic she likes but she also grows Royalty purple pod bush beans. Her very favorite tomato is Green Zebra. Runners up are Pink Berkeley Tie Die, a psychedelic-colored beefsteak-type. Chandra describes Chocolate Cherry as “the best cherry tomato I have ever had with a silky texture.” She also grows Indigo Rose so there’s no shortage of tomatoes on the Morris family dinner table.

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Calico corn- a gourmet popcorn variety

I commented on the vigorously growing corn and was told it’s Calico Popcorn, a gourmet heirloom variety. In the middle of each corn circle she plants Christmas lima beans, a speckled butter bean with a rich, mellow chestnut flavor, winter squash and a 4th sister”- Bright Bandolier sunflowers. Growing three different crops in one space is a Native American tradition. The Iroquois coined the term The Three Sisters although they weren’t the only tribe to use the method. It’s a circle of interdependence based on giving and receiving.

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Four Sisters

The three plants work together. Sister Bean fixes, or makes available in plant form, nitrogen from the air. Sister corn provides the support for Sister Bean’s trailing vine. Sister Squash provides ground cover to hold moisture and maintain a healthy soil environments as well as deterring animals invaders with it’s spiny stems. The fourth sister can be Sister Sunflower or Sister Bee Balm. This sister supports the beans, lures birds from the son with her seeds and attracts insect pollinators.

Besides eating fresh from the garden, Chandra is also a good cook and posts lots of good recipes to go along with her harvest. From sauces, to peppers to pickles to soup the list is endless on all the ways she utilizes her harvest of organic fruit, vegetables and eggs in a healthy diet.

Ways to Make a Garden Interesting

Where’s your favorite place to hang out when you’re at home? For many of us relaxing on the patio or reading under a tree is our go-to place. Grilling on the barbecue or sitting around a fire pit is another favorite outdoor activity. For kids and adults who enjoy sports or games it’s the play area that gets all the attention. And for veggie gardeners it’s harvesting and cooking up a delicious meal from produce you’ve grown yourself that’s high on the list. Whatever you like to do in your yard there are simple ways to give your garden a makeover and make your outdoor area more inviting.

Recently I got lost in Boulder Creek looking for a client’s house on the river. I peeked through an arbor and into a small garden surrounded by shade trees and flowers. A couple sitting at a bistro table were enjoying a late lunch. They were kind enough to direct me to their neighbors house which was right next-door. Seems I wasn’t lost after all. I’ll never forget the lovely table this couple had set on their small patio. With a bright tablecloth, colorful stemware and what appeared from a distance to be a luscious fruit salad the scene would have looked right at home in Sunset magazine. These people knew the importance of extending their living space into the outdoors. They told me they enjoy this every weekend.

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Pocket size sitting area

Create atmosphere in your garden. Make sure the entire garden can’t be seen in one glance. A garden room is defined by borders and enclosure. That’s what made the secret garden I discovered by accident in Boulder Creek so effective. It was partly shielded by the canopy of a tree. I’m not sure what the vine-covered arbor at the entry was made of but you could make a rustic arbor yourself from downed branches. Short fences with a gate can enclose your garden room also. Even just a gate between shrubs will blur the garden’s boundaries as will a curved path that leads behind tall shrubs or sheer perennials.

Creating an outdoor room with vines will make your yard feel cozy. They readily provide the walls to enclose a space. Views from one part of the garden may be partially open, framed by vines or blocked entirely. Shrubs can also be used to create garden rooms but vines form a thin living wall that is quickly established. Creating boundaries with vines also adds vertical design elements to an otherwise flat landscape. By adding walls and a ceiling to your garden, you’ll be able to enjoy another dimension in addition to more color and fragrance.

Garden lighting is another easy way to add atmosphere to your garden. As inviting a space a garden might be during the day it becomes magical at night when lit. Solar lighting has come a long way. Walk your property and decide the most effective spots for lighting. Pathway lighting can illuminate the driveway, walkways and steps and mark the edges of areas like ponds and patios. Accent lighting can define a space and show off plantings, benches or illuminate a pergola. Spotlights direct the eye up into trees, show off garden art or accent a focal point.

Each of the senses comes into play in a successful garden. The sense of sight is an easy way to create atmosphere. Use the colors and textures you most admire and repeat them. A green framework holds the garden together but color creates the mood. Whether you like vivid saturated colors or soft pastels broad sweeps of color are more effective than dabs and patches.

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Urn fountain

Sound is important too. In my own garden I have several wind chimes. Ornamental grasses rustle in the wind and adding a fountain with running water is high on my wish list. An urn fountain with pebbles and plants at the base would be a simple choice. A drilled basalt column fountain or basalt dish fountain would look natural in the forest here. But until Santa comes I’ll be content with adding another rustling grass to my garden.

Your sense of smell is important also to create atmosphere in the garden. In the spring the smell of ceanothus fills the air. Then the stargazer lilies start to bloom followed by lily-of-the-valley, daphne, flowering crabapple, carnation, iris, heliotrope, lavender, alyssum and a couple of roses. By enjoying the fragrance of both flowers and the foliage of salvia, lavender and breath of heaven as I walk the garden I’m able to add another dimension to the garden.

Home is where the heart is. There’s no place like home so make yours even more inviting.

Bees- Pollinators for a Bountiful Harvest

Pollination or the transfer of pollen in and between flowers of the same species leads to fertilization and successful seed and fruit production in plants. Pollen can be carried from flower to flower by pollinating animals such as birds, bees, bats, moths, beetles or by the wind but bees pollinate approximately 1000 plants worldwide including apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds and tequila. Clearly we need our bees- both native bees and honeybees.

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honey bee pollinating African blue basil- photo courtesy of Gaylon Morris

Honeybees aren’t native to the United States. The colonist brought them here in the 1600’s to pollinate apple trees and for their honey and wax for candles. They are loyal to the plants they feed on and that makes them valuable to farmers and orchard owners. It works this way. When a worker bee leaves a hive in search of food it will feed on on one type of flower- whichever type it tasted first on that trip. Unlike other insects that might go from a cucumber blossom to dandelion to squash flower the honeybee sticks to one thing. That way it picks up and deposits only one type of pollen making honeybees particularly efficient in pollinating crops.

We know that honeybees are having a hard time of it due to diseases, parasites and pesticides. Planting flowers that bees like can increase the chances of bees’ survival as will cultivating native plants, especially those that provide nectar and larval food for pollinators.

Bees eat two things: nectar which is loaded with sugar and is their main source of energy and pollen which provides proteins and fats. Some of the common native plants that are recommended for the ecological region of our California Coastal Chaparral, Forest and Shrub Province by the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign to attract bees of all types include yarrow, columbine, California poppy, coral bells, silver lupine, penstemon, ceanothus, toyon, big leaf maple, mahonia, monkey flower, buckwheat, western azalea and purple sage.

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honey bee on echium wildpretii

Common garden plants that can attract bees to your landscape and vegetable garden are herbs such as African blue basil, oregano, mint, catnip and cat mint, borage, rosemary, chives, hyssop, dill, comfrey and fennel. Edibles that attract bees are blueberry, pumpkin, squash, sunflower, blackberry, hazelnut, artichoke, beans, cucumber and peas. Crabapple, iris, lavender, salvia, sunflowers, monarda, aster, butterfly bush, sweet alyssum, alstroemeria, red hot poker, gloriosa daisy, scabiosa, coneflower and echium also attract bees of all types.

In your own garden an abundant and healthy population of pollinators can improve fruit set, quality and size. Crops raised in California depends on both domestic honeybees and native bees for pollination of almond, blackberry, cucumber and artichoke crops.

We can all help honeybees and other pollinating animals by being more mindful of the way we tend our yards. Reduce the amount of lawn you have and plant natives and flowers that will attract them. Use organic pesticides carefully and only if absolutely necessary. Buy local honey and support beekeepers. Honeybees and other pollinators need help to survive and we’re the ones to provide it.

Firesafe Landscaping – Part II

Last week I talked about how to make the area closer to your home more firesafe. Here are some more tips.

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Shaded fuel brake information sign

In areas 30-70 ft. away from your house plants should be trimmed and thinned to create well-spaced groups and help prevent a fire from spreading to your home. Be cautious with slopes. If you have a large lot, the fringe area should be inspected and maintained regularly to eliminate any build up of dry brush and litter. This reduces the chance of surface as well as crown fires.

Plant arrangements, spacing and maintenance are often as important as plant types when considering fire safety. Group plants of similar heights and water requirements to create a landscape mosaic that can slow the spread of fire and use water most efficiently. Use plants that do not accumulate dead leaves or twigs. Keep your landscape healthy and clean. On a regular basis remove dead branches and brush, dry grass, dead leaves and pine needles from your yard, especially within 30 feet from your home and at least 150 ft if you’re on a hill. Keep trees spaced at least 10 feet apart with branches trimmed at least 10 ft away from your roof. It’s best, however, to keep trees further from your house. Low shrubs can be closer in and herbaceous perennials and groundcovers can be nearest the home.

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A shaded fuel break

Extremely flammable plants have a high content of oil or resin and should be separated from each other, removed of dead branches and lower limbs and kept free of dry debris anywhere around your property. Extremely flammable pyrophytes like hollywood juniper, pines, fountain grass and Japanese honeysuckle will need a higher level of maintenance. Other common plants that are highly flammable are sagebrush, buckwheat and deer grass. Rosemary and purple hopseed also fall into this category. These contain oils, resins and waxes that make them burn with a greater intensity. If you have these plants on your property yearly pruning and maintenance is important.

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Tree trimmed, shrubs thinned to prevent fire ladder

Irrigation is vital in a fire safe landscape to maintain plant moisture especially within 30 ft around your home. Choose the right irritation system. While all plants can eventually burn, healthy plants burn less quickly. Consider drip irrigation and micro sprays for watering most of your landscape. Use sprinklers for lawns and other groundcovers or turf. Even drought adapted species and natives will benefit from watering every month or so during the dry season. Unwatered landscapes generally increase the risk of fire.

Mulching around your plants will preserve moisture in the soil and in your plants. Plantings beyond 30 ft. should be irrigated occasionally but to a lesser extent. As you get 70-100 ft from the home native plantings that require little or no irrigation should be used.

Using fire resistant plants that are strategically planted give firefighters a chance fighting a fire around your home especially within the 100 foot defensible zone. Each home or property is different and you will need to look at the unique qualities of yours in planning your firescaping. Some of the info for this column was obtained from two valuable booklets, ‘Living with Fire in Santa Cruz County’, prepared by Cal Fire and available free from any fire department or online and another booklet published by the Calif. Department of Forestry.

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