February 21, 2015

Urban Micro Orchard: Year 1

The narrow strip of bed was planned and built, covering about 15 square meters of bed area, or roughly equivalent to the area covered by one mature semi-dwarf apple tree. The back fence was put up, and the seven apple trees and a bunch of companions were planted.

Many sources recommend letting the apples get established first, then phasing in companion plants. But I decided to just let loose with the companions, which were selected not to be too tall anyway, and with such a small area I thought we could keep things under control as far as invasive spreading goes.

Edible Greens
  • Italian Dandelion (Chicory) - These did extremely well grown from seed (Johnny's), and we ate a bunch of them. Becky cooked and froze a whole lot more, and I could have cut a basketful at the end of the season but I didn't to it and the greens were decimated by frost. I wish I liked them more, but they are bitter and the larger leaves are on the stringy side. I'm a little concerned about keeping them under control next season, assuming they come back. Probably they will want to bolt badly and grow tall flower/seed stalks, unlike their profuse but leafy and low habit this year.
  • Salad Burnet - Developed into a thick, low bush by the end of the season, with nice looking foliage. Unfortunately I don't think it is much good to eat. The leaves are ok, but they are small and tedious to remove in bulk from the stems, which are on the tough side.
  • Sylvetta (wild arugula, hopefully perennial)- Grew in nicely. I love the Wasabi variety; it really tastes like wasabi! Unfortunately it was smothered by the olive leaf and sylvetta types planted next to it. These provided plenty of spicy accents for salad and pizza. The stems are too tough to eat, and it takes some time to pick any volume of leaves.
  • Sorrel - Two transplants from Food Forest Farm got off to a slow start but seem to be doing ok.

  • Sage - made quite a showing, grown from seed. Should have enough for culinary use from now on. Time to grind up some new pork & sage breakfast sausage!
  • Madeline Hill Rosemary - grew well during the season, have to find out if it is really zone 6 hardy. I layered in a bunch of hay around and on top of it for some insulation. We had -20C (subzero F) temps before any snow was on the ground this winter, which will be a real test of hardiness.
  • Oregano - seeds came up but stayed small, now making a kind of puddle of oregano plants
  • Winter Savory - about like the Oregano; not crazy about the flavor
  • Chamomile - making a low green puddle like the Oregano. Suppose I should thin this stuff out.

  • Egyptian Onions - these did very well, and I cut some of them off a few times for green onions. Looking forward to their performance in the coming year. One or two even made a few topsets.
  • Green Onions - Transplants from nurseries did well, seeded ones grew very slowly; we'll see if they survive winter.
  • Garlic Chives - Transplants did well, seeds struggled. I was not in love with the eating experience; texture too tough maybe? I think I'll move some of our regular chives there between the transplants, instead of encouraging all garlic chives in that area.
  • Perennial Leeks - Southern Exposure had issues with their crop, so they sent me a refund check instead of bulbs. Try again next year, in the meantime we put some potato onions from SE in the spot reserved for the leeks.
  • Mystery Allium - Planted some topsets which I which I snuck from a robust allium in the front of Red Fire Farm when we visited in June for strawberries and peas. The lady working the farm store said she thought they were "Crawling Garlic". Maybe it is Elephant Garlic? I've not grown it so not sure what it looks like. The leaves of this plant were huge, dark green, with round cross section. The topsets were pretty large, and took off quickly when I planted them in the fall.

  • Rue - I can't imagine eating this stuff; it smells weird. Here is Child 2 planting some from the nursery.
  • Artemesia - silver mound; did well. The kids love how fluffy and soft it is early in the season, and like it's smell when crushed.
  • Dwarf Tansy - Got two of these from Oikos, which arrived very small and bedraggled looking. They died almost immediately, even though I planted them the same day they got here. Oikos sent me a replacement, but the new ones promptly died too. In general I was not that impressed with what I got from Oikos; super small and unhealthy looking plants. Too bad because they have a great selection of interesting and unusual items, and seem to have a good reputation. Maybe the plants were in the mail too long, or it could be my lack of skill as a gardener.

  • Oriental Poppy - None of my seeds came up as far as I can tell, so I planted two from the nursery. One died; have to replace it next year with another.
  • Baloon Flower - cool looking flowers; started noticing this all over the city once I knew what to look for.
  • Columbine - Not crazy about the way the plant looks, probably will replace it.
  • Calendula - I love this plant. So easy to grow, a profusion of cheery colored blooms cycling through until frost, and some benefits to nearby plants. If I got my act together more I could collect flowers for fabric dye. Self seeds readily too, but the seedlings are not too hard to pull out where they are not wanted. I read that the greens were edible, so one time I collected a pile of mammoth red clover and calendula greens, which together were tough and bitter. Here is the center panel of the orchard design, after it's sunflower was taken out. Still left in there are some of the Christmas Limas that were growing up the sunflower which I tried to relocated to the trellis, calendula, and tiny Nasturtiums which never got anywhere. On the right are the dandelion greens, to the far left is salad burnet. A little red clover visible by the calendula.
  • Nasturtium - Tried to grow it from seed, and it did come right up but then languished and never grew bigger than my hand. Guess I'll go back to transplants from the nursery next year, which I've grown a few times without issues.
  • Irises - put in four from Schreiner's, pretty sure one of the Siberians died. 
  • Bulbs - added tulips and muscari to a few spots in the fall

I read somewhere about planting a sunflower due south of baby apple trees in their first year, to help shade them during the hottest part of the day. This sounded good, so I planted Hopi Black Dye sunflower. I'd love to harvest seeds from these plants, to make fabric dye and cooking oil. That did not go so well this year, but the plants were neat looking, made tons of pretty flowers, and gave the beans something to climb up.

These started more slowly than the hybrid sunflowers I planted elsewhere in the yard; two are just visible in the lower right of the next pic.

but they just kept going

 and going.

and going!

We planted beans next to each sunflower, some of which did well. I think the shade from the huge leaves of the sunflower impacted the beans. Next time I might trim off lower leaves earlier in the season to let more sun in to the beans.

I've seen on a number of companion plant charts that sunflowers and beans are antagonistic, so that may be playing a role in suppressing the beans. But sunflowers look great, and make a wonderful tall pole for beans to climb up, so it is very tempting to use them together. I think the most productive bean varieties were Gita, a green colored yard long type from Johnny's, and either Cherokee Trail of Tears or Black Turtle (something with black beans in pods).

These sunflowers grew way too big for their intended purpose, but they were so cool looking I couldn't bear to take them out. Consequently, they cast a lot of shade on the apple trees. I could claim that was my way of limiting their vegetative growth so they could settle in and get more firmly established in their first year. Yeah, that's it.

The sunflowers also limited air circulation around the apple trees, and made them hard to see so I missed out on some things that would have been good to notice, like pruning and grafting touches that would have been beneficial. Ah well, live and learn. I'm looking forward to growing this variety of sunflower in other locations in 2015; hopefully it will be as successful and I'll be able to harvest significant amounts of seed.

First thing to present itself was a plague of greenish aphids with ants minding them feasting on the underside of new growth on the apple trees in early spring. I bought a squirt bottle of neem at the garden store and gave them a good dose, which knocked them back. The ants started bringing new aphids in, but I think by then the predator bugs had ramped up so they didn't get too bad.

Missing Branches
On some trees, no buds elected to form and grow in the area where the espalier design would have a branch. It is very frustrating how the trees are not growing like I drew them on the computer! Maybe they somehow missed reading up on my blog post on the espalier design. Helping them to get there is my job I suppose, however bumbling I may be at this point, since they won't do it if left to their own devices. On the central tree to the design, the Wickson, there is a little growth that I may be able to turn around to become the leftwards angle lowest rung, but I decided to try to bud graft exactly where I wanted that rung.

This was done in early august after watching some internet videos. I went with the chip method instead of slipping the bud into the cambium of a slit in the bark because it looked less fiddly.

If it takes, I'll cut off the less well placed one. If not, I'll continue trying to coax the other one into shape.

I somehow failed to notice a glaring lack of growth on the righthand lowest rung on the Ashmead's Kernel. I blame the fact that the tree was hidden by an enormous sunflower for a few months. A chip graft was unfortunately not applied to that location, so this spring I'll try putting a little notch in the bark above a bud or twig in that area, hopefully invigorating growth just below the notch. I'll try putting the notch in above the chip graft on the Wickson too.

Extra Branches
After the initial pruning, I did pinch a couple little growths (and the flowers, after petal fall). But I wasn't sure I should keep harassing the trees through the season. I guess I should have done so; the extra pruning might have invigorated some bud action to help with the missing branches issue. Once the sunflowers got going, it was hard to see the apple trees, so easy to miss branches that would have been better off getting snipped. Oh well, I'll take them out with this year's dormant pruning.

Cedar apple rust
I noticed some tiny yellow spots on some of the leaves early in the season. These grew, and eventually started sprouting horns on the bottom of the leaf.

Ah, my first real apple disease! After some research, it looked like cedar apple rust, which I had never heard of before. It was not bad enough to defoliate the trees, but it was quite widespread on some of them. I think the worst hit were Wickson and Gold Rush, with some of the others suffering more mildly. I recall the best off was Ashmead's Kernel. If only I had kept better notes, which is a goal for 2015.

This disease is fungal and has an interesting life cycle. It lives on apple leaves during the growing season, but does not overwinter there. Instead it sporulates and infects a tree in the juniper family. On the junipers, it forms bizarre galls like spiky, slimy christmas ornaments in the spring and sends out spores to infect newly grown apple leaves (image below from the Wikipedia entry on CAR).

I'd like to strive to not spray poison on the plants and soil I'm trying to use to grow food. I figure I can tolerate non-perfect fruit and extra effort more than a market grower. Still, this leaves only a couple options for control of this disease. Once the fungus is in the tree, there is not much to be done for that year, so all treatments focus on the early spring period when spores do their infecting. On the plus side, the tree must get newly infected every spring, so every year is a fresh chance to try a new strategy.

I own a copy of The Holistic Orchard by Michael Philips, and am impressed by his ability to grow apples organically on a commercial basis. He recommends focusing on developing healthy plants and soil, such that the trees can better resist pest and disease pressure. This is accomplished partly by having deep experience with apples, the local microclimate, what different issues look like, and boundless intuition about what the trees need at any particular time. Maybe someday I'll have that, but for now I'm a clueless amateur.

One of the important tools in Michael Philips' routine is his holistic orchard spray, which has neem, kelp, effective microbes, and other components. The neem can act as a fungicide, but it is also an insecticide so can't really be applied while the blossoms are open, which unfortunately coincides with the rust infection window. You don't want to mess with the bees coming to pollinate the apples, right? So Philips says to spray the holistic brew at 6mm green, early pink, petal fall, and first cover.

Apparently sulfur can also be helpful. I don't particularly want to spray copper, since I'm concerned about it getting on the other edible plants around and building up in the soil. There is a product called Serenade which is based on soil bacteriums which sounds promising, is listed as compatible with organic methods, and is low toxicity to humans (can be sprayed even on the day of harvest).

The best method for control of cedar apple rust is to remove all cedar and juniper trees for a few miles around. Ha. That radius is bigger than my whole city. My next door neighbor has a nice big cedar tree in his back yard, maybe 10 meters from these apples.

So this coming season I'll try the holistic spray regimen, along with plenty of water and care. Perhaps the additional air circulation and sunlight would have helped with no sunflowers this year, but they were not big enough to be a factor during the spring infection window. They may however have encouraged the fungus to grow more extensively during the season.

I am not planning on letting the trees make fruit for another year or two even if they want to, so I've got more leeway to experiment. If the trees are still suffering from CAR in a year or two maybe I'll experiment with sulfur or Serenade.

Borers - none yet
I tried to keep an eye out for evidence of apple borers, but didn't see any. From what I read, this is the worst possible thing to hit the trees, so if I can catch them early and kill them in their hole it might not kill the tree. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

Orchard care
After planting, I pruned with an eye towards my future espalier design. After watching how things developed I would do it a little differently now. The trellis was put up, and in late summer I applied a little patch of peastone mulch around each tree, as recommended by Michael Philips but scaled down to micro tree and orchard size.

Gearing up for the end of season holistic orchard spray, I ordered a backpack sprayer from Sprayer Depot, and the ingredients from Amazon. I mixed up a half tank of the stuff to spray on the trees at the end of last season. Whew, pretty strong odor! Liquid fish and neem oil are both pretty powerful on their own, much less mixed together. Well, the trees only used like 100ml of the spray, so I ran around the garden spraying other woody perennials and soil with the remainder. I've got enough ingredients to last me like 10 years at this rate. Probably I'll make up 1/4 tanks from now on, until the trees get a lot bigger.

I tried to work out the holistic spray recipe by volume, then translated to %, then to ml, then rounded to the nearest cup measure. Here is what I ended up with:
I filled the warm water inside, added a dash of soap, then took the sprayer out in the dooryard to add the other goodies. I used a 1/4 cup measure, just filling half full with neem and using two measures for fish.

The whole bed was frosted with some woody compost from Landscape Express, with some help from Child 2 and Child 3.

I worry about giving the trees too much nitrogen, leading to too much vegetative growth in a season, opening the door to disease and pests. But you know, a person can only do so much worrying about 7 tiny apple trees.

Finally, I spread some salt marsh hay over the beds and put corrugated trunk guards on the trees.

Not sure that was worthwhile though since I don't know that we have mice living under snow cover in Somerville. The three trees destined for angled branches have very little run of trunk up from the ground, so it's not clear the guard is going to do much anyway. And it looked like it would be easy to damage tender bark with the sharp edges of the tree guards. Maybe next year I'll use spiral guards instead. In any case, we now have plenty of snow; it is up above the first wire of the trellis now. I wonder if there are mice or voles in there?

For some reason, the Gold Rush and Sweet Sixteen held onto some leaves all the way into February, even through bitter cold and blizzards. That seems weird to me; maybe a sign of some kind of problem or tree health issue?

February 10, 2015

Compost House

A key element in running a bigger garden is dealing with larger amounts of compost and other bulk materials like hay and mulch. I'm enamored with the no-till, compost heavy methods espoused by Lee Reich in Weedless Gardening, and plan to use that approach as a starting point for how I manage our growing areas moving forward.

Our old compost got cleared out when we renovated the backyard, so I could start with a fresh slate. I tried to envision a user friendly, easy to build system sufficient for our newly expanded gardening ambitions.

Over the last 10 years we have tried a few smaller scale compost solutions. The compost was originally set up by our housemate and good friend Alexi Arango,

He took meticulous care of it while he lived with us. When he moved on, I inherited stewardship of the compost, and have been more neglectful of it than Alexi.

First came a black plastic hut thing from the city called the Earth Machine. Actually we got two of them, one to accumulate in while the other was finishing. They don't really last all that long. Eventually they start to crack, then the two halves can't stay together. The first one had to be retired after only a few years of service, injecting several kilos of plastic into the city waste stream in the process. On the second one the flange keeping the bottom hatch on cracked free. Lastly, a rat or squirrel chewed a big hole in the side. It was more than ready for the trash by the time we removed it for the renovation. The capacity was ok for coping with one vegetable loving household, but it was not really big enough to take much extra material from our garden or anything imported from outside.

Alexi purchased and set up a Compost Tumbler after the first Earth Machine fell apart (partly visible to the left in the above photo). This design appears promising because it makes turning the compost very easy. However in practice it was less than satisfactory. Even at what seemed like reasonable loading, the thin mild steel sheet metal that forms the drum would get deformed and dented, making the hatch not fit properly. It was also clear that the sheet metal was going to rust through in not too many years. But worst of all was the fact that the teeth on the plastic pinion gear attached to the handcrank cracked off early in it's life, rendering it just another static receptacle for compost. Without a functional crank, it became annoyingly difficult to get compost out of the drum or to turn the drum around. These things are not cheap either. I don't know, maybe it would be fine if you didn't produce too much volume of scraps.

The last issue I had with the Compost Tumbler was that it was not as friendly for worms. One year Alexi got some compost worms, which really revolutionized the compost. Before, the pile would often stink to one degree or another (probably from us being insufficiently diligent about turning it, or not interspersing enough fluffy carbonaceous material). It also took a long time to break down. For the most part we add to it only slowly, about once a week. This makes it tough to have a hot compost pile, so we are relegated to slower and colder avenues of organic breakdown. But the worms were incredible. When a new bucket of slops was added, they would largely devour it before you opened the lid to put the next one in a week later. There were fewer smell issues, breakdown was rapid, and turning became kind of optional. It was not as sensitive to how much carbon material you added with the veggie scraps.

The worms have never been as fabulous as that first season, but we do have lots of worms in the compost, or at times grubs. Depending on the season, temperature, and slops loading, there can sometimes be a ~5cm thick layer of glistening, seething grubs on the top of the compost. If you put your head close to it, you can hear them all moistly squirming around.

 I don't know what the story is with the grubs, or if the worms we get at other times are descendants of the original compost worms, but in any case invertebrate life is crucial to accelerating breakdown and making less work for the humans.

The Compost Tumbler is elevated from and divorced from the soil. This makes it freeze quickly in the fall, with greater temperature swings during the season. Additionally, worms can't shelter in the soil during the winter and recolonize the compost in the spring. I kept the compost in the tumbler (relocated to the side yard) during the backyard renovation and over the winter. But as spring was beginning to set in, it was time to figure out a better system.

We do have rats, skunks, and other animals around that are interested in getting in the compost. So I wanted something that would provide some resistance to animals, and which I could repair as needed. While we have a lot of space for the city, we don't have a lot in absolute terms, so we favored concepts which would keep the compost from sprawling out. We would be spending a lot of time right next to the compost engaged in other activities, so we wanted it to look tidy and to keep the stink down.

All the zillions of possible layouts we worked on for the back yard all included a substantial space for the compost. But we were not 100% sure where to put it and how big to make it. So I decided to just build something out of cheap locally sawn rough cut pine. This is a low investment in materials cost, and it won't last all that long. When it is rotted and needs rebuilding we can revisit our decisions about placement, size, and design. I drew up a cute plan in autocad with a gable roof and four bins, with the idea of one roof plane being able to hinge up on each bin. The four bins would each have about a meter square footprint. This would give me one for accumulating compost, one for finishing compost, one for hay storage, and one for storage of cut up sticks or maybe mulch.

I ordered the lumber for the design, along with wood for some garden paths and the borders of the experimental grain maze (more on that in a future post). The wood was supplied by Brightman Lumber company, and I had them deliver it to my driveway. Basic cost for 25mm thick boards was less than $9 per square meter ($0.80/bf). Nice!

One thing I hadn't counted on was that the wood would be fresh cut and not at all dry. Let me tell you that moving wet 4m long 2x12 wood is no picnic. Even the 1x boards for the compost house were deceptively heavy. I had some concerns about building with wet, green lumber, but I really needed to get the compost houses built, so I just went for it. Things did shrink as the wood dried out over the summer, but it has not yet caused any serious problems. The wood was fairly pitch-ey, which made for gummy hands and gummed up tools. But the low cost and very short lead time is pretty compelling so I would probably do it again the same way. Everything is fastened with stainless screws, which I can remove at end of life for the structure.

Building commenced in freezing rain in early spring, in the mud pit that was the back yard at the time (grass was just seed at this point).

As I started building up the structure, it looked awful large. We realized that the gable roof was going to look too huge, and would obscure our view of the west side intermediate terrace from our kitchen windows.

So I modified the design to be a sloped shed roof, at a lower level. This was easier to build anyway and left me with some extra lumber for other projects.

Each roof hatch has a galvanized handle, and swings on galvanized hinges. Each has a piece of chain secured on either side by a lag screw to prevent the lid from opening too far. While the structure was in place in early spring, the hardware wasn't fully installed until almost autumn.

I'm curious to find out how long the green pine boards will last given that they are in constant contact with wet compost in one of the bins. But if it is only a couple boards that are bad, I can just replace them as needed. If the whole structure degrades too far, as it must do eventually, it can be composted and rebuilt. Even if it went in the landfill, at least it is renewable and biodegradable material. If it needed to be rebuilt at the right time, when we someday renovate the front yard, I could cut up and bury the remaining wood in the new beds for hugelkultur.

The way I did the front walls, with removable boards in grooves, is working out well. These are easy to put in and out and make it much simpler to load stuff in and out of a bin with a shovel or fork.

Compost Supply
The amount of compost we generate from kitchen scraps is too small for our ambitious gardening plans. I read this book last month from the library, and I love the idea of composting our poo in the back yard:

The book was a great read, mind expanding, and very inspiring. If by chance you have a slate roof, also check out the amazing Slate Roof Bible, by the same author.

If we just composted our poo, we would have plenty of awesome compost every year. And it would make our pile thermophilic, allowing us to compost a higher portion of organic material from the house more fully and quickly. But for a family our size, we would need way more space for compost piles, and would have to get carbonaceous material delivered in bulk, which would need to be stored somewhere. And despite Joseph Jenkins reassurances and numerous testimonials in the book about how it can be virtually zero odor, it is hard for me to believe I could be dumping a bucket of poop slops in the backyard every day or two and not have some unpleasant smells. In our relatively urban setting, we have ~12 other people living in close proximity plus many passers by, and not enough space to move the poo compost away from where people hang out. Spending a couple hundred dollars a year on compost delivery is far easier and will lead to less friction with the neighborhood, even if it is morally bankrupt compared to composting poo. And even if it is a bit of an illusion built on trucked in organic material, the idea of having the back yard filled up with interesting garden features and food plants sounds more charming than having it in large part devoted to systems for digestion of human waste. But who knows, that calculus could change if times get tough!

Last spring I got 2 cubic meters of compost delivered from Cambridge Bark and Loam. This load went to fill up the new grain maze beds,

to top off old garden beds, around newly planted perennials,

with the remainder being spread out over the future lawn area.

We had an intern from Japan named Masa staying with us for a month last spring, and he was happy to help plant the apple trees and spread compost. In the background of the above picture, Child 1 is in mid-air during a jump off into the hay bin.

The new back lawn soil was partly subsoil, having been scraped off for regrading during the renovation, mixed with a little SuperLoam from LSX. The soil test of that area revealed that it was low in lead (boo-yah!), but low in nutrients and organic matter.

I don't know how much the cubic meter of compost spread in the area helped, but the lawn came in extremely well over the summer.

The lawn is a clover/grass mix from EarthTurf, with the grass dominating in the spring but the clover dominating after that. I don't mind clover; it looks lush, mows easy, and it soft to walk on.

In the fall, I had another 2.5 cubic meters of compost dropped off in the driveway from Landscape Express.

Both the Cambridge Bark and Loam and the Landscape Express products are rather woody. The CB&L stuff had more trash in it, like old drinking straws, etc. I guess I prefer the LSX product slightly, but there probably isn't a ton of difference. It almost certainly needs extra nitrogen for use on veggies, which I can supply via seed meal or blood meal. The plus side of it being woody is that it is kind of it's own mulch.

The fall delivery of compost went to frosting the micro-orchard

 and most of the intermediate terrace. I'll compost the strawberries in June after harvest. They were still going strong plant-wise at this time so I hesitated to bury them in compost.

Some went to frosting the grain maze and berry bushes planted last spring.

 I put some in spots I expect to plant more perennials next spring, and the rest went into storage in the compost house for use in the spring.

So far, the compost house has been fantastic. Plenty of room for kitchen compost accumulation and aging. Plenty of room to store salt marsh hay, of which I have brought in 5 bales in the last year. The kids like jumping in the hay bin. At least until it becomes compacted and moldy.

And it provides a kind of convenient counter-like surface in the yard for various tasks,

like chopping up these sunflowers blown down in a summer thunderstorm.

It could be a case of stuff expanding to fill the space allotted to it, but all four bins are presently filled up, so I'm glad I made it as big as I did.

Deep Freeze
In the Boston area, we have had record amounts of snow recently, almost 2 meters in the last month. The compost house is now completely encapsulated in a snow bank. These couple pictures were before the latest storms.

We dug some snow caves in the drifts, one of them terminating in at the hay side of the compost house.

This is what the compost house area looks like now, after more snow. Even more expected in a couple days.

 Going to have to dig the kitchen accumulation bin out again this weekend so I can dump a new load in it.