February 1, 2017

Urban Micro-Orchard Year 3

2016 saw the third growing season for our espalier micro-orchard project. Some things are going easier than I thought, like training to the trellis, pruning, and grafting, while other unexpected challenges have emerged. Things are shaping up well, and I can see the way to a wonderful established planting. But it is going to be a longer and more winding path I had originally thought!

Pruning began in February as I clipped a few pieces to send to scion seekers from GrowingFruit.org. The rest of the pruning was done in March, after giving my Bahco pruners a freshen up on the sharpening stones.

There really wasn't much to prune. I think with espalier if you are keeping up with pinching and strapping during the growing season, there just isn't that much wood that needs cutting when dormant. Here is what I did:

- slightly head back rungs which were not grown out all the way, to stimulate growth
- even up rungs that were uneven in growth from last season
- headed off leaders where I wanted to induce branching at a new rung level
- thin out side branches that were too extensive or thick, particularly on the bottom two rungs and near the leader

The previous season I made a bad mistake by painting undiluted pure neem oil on the trunks of the trees in high summer. This was particularly toxic to the G.11 interstem pieces the orchard was hosting; the other rootstocks and all the scions seemed unaffected. The middle tree, at position #4 was girdled by bark death on the G.11 piece and quickly crashed in August. We dug this tree out in spring and replaced it with a King David on G.222 from Cummins, which is barely visible in the below picture behind the tulips.

Pretty much all the south side bark on the G.11 piece of the Ashmead's Kernel at #6 was killed too, and this tree has been growing sluggishly. To help it along and maybe give it some extra vigor, I planted a piece of G.30 rootstock right next to it and tried to attach it as an inarch graft to the scion above the interstem. We'll see how that works out.

We also added two apricots this year down at the lawn level, destined for stand alone growth rather than espalier. Espalier is trickier with stone fruit because you have to continually let new wood grow to get fruit. I got Tomcot on Citation from Bay Laurel, which arrived very early in the season bare root with most of the roots chopped off. Child 3 and I planted it in an area next to the compost we had prepared the previous fall.

The other apricot was Hargrand on Pumiselect from Cummins. Both trees grew a ton, probably about a meter, though they had a tendency to wilt without daily watering in the hottest part of the summer. Hopefully they will send some better roots down as time goes on. It would be awesome if we got fruit in 2017, but my experience with apples has led me to temper my expectations.

I mulched them with 99.99999% pure solar grade silicon chip, which was getting tossed from work.

Looks cool, though I think the bigger #2 chipped Seimens rod would make better mulch. I also planted chives, Yellow Wonder alpine strawberries, and arctic raspberries in the bed with the trees. Here are the trees as they were leafing out.

Here is the Tomcot in the fall.

And the Hargrand, getting mauled by runaway morning glory vines on the left of the tomato trellis

Chives and alpine strawberries did well, but the raspberries all died which is too bad since they sounded like a good plant to put around the yard. Anyone grown those successfully?

This was the first season of topworking new varieties onto the trees. Very exciting!

I had done a handful of grafts on wild trees along the bikepath to work the previous two springs in an attempt to learn the skill. This was certainly instructive and gave me some hands on experience, as well as time to see what worked and what didn't. I also enjoy following the GrowingFruit.org forum, which has had a few excellent threads on grafting with great advice from a wide variety of people about what works for them.

In 2016 I did 13 grafts in the orchard, mostly clefts but a few whip and tongue. All of them took, though some met their end later by way of fireblight.

Here is what I have to say based on my limited experience about getting good grafts. Generally, think about getting good, compressed cambium contact between scion and stock, keeping foreign material and water out of the graft, and keeping the scion from drying out while the graft is healing. Some tips that have helped me:

  • wrap scion with parafilm before cutting/shaping
  • seal the tip of the scion wood, either ahead of time or after grafting. I've using parafilm but I think a dab of some kind of sealer might be better and easier
  • cut scion back to two or three buds. The more wood you have out there the more moisture has to transport through the healing graft to keep it alive. You are only going to keep one bud of growth anyway, so keeping two or three gives you plenty to work with.
  • use electrical splice tape, either straight or on top of an initial wrap of parafilm. This stuff is amazing for grafting; you can get loads of compression on the graft very easily, and it comes off without peeling the bark later in the season
  • harvest scion when fully dormant (but not TOO early since it will then spend a long time in the fridge getting moldy), store well
  • wait until stock is waking up and showing green before grafting
  • take off black tape later in the season by slitting gently with a razor and unwrapping. Don't bother taking off parafilm, it will come off on it's own and won't hurt the tree.

I had never done clefts before, but I think they are if anything easier than whip and tongue, especially if the stock and scion are different diameters. This didn't seem likely to be the case for me, since I'm grafting onto 1-2 year wood that should be similar in size to typical scion. But scion is quite different in size depending on who cut it and what the variety is. For instance, Redfield scion I got from Fedco the other year to put on wild trees was probably no more than 4mm in diameter. But the Bramley I got this year from Northeast Cider Supply was at least 10mm. I've since heard Redfield has a thin and twiggy habit. If I cut a scion from my Sweet Sixteen, it would be very thick since all the wood is that way on that particular tree.

After posting some pics of my cleft grafts on GrowingFruit, I got some great feedback that I should push the scion to or even what seems like slightly past the outer diameter of the stock to get cambium alignment. Someone else added that a very slight angular misalignment could give you a better chance of getting at least some cambium contact. After that I went and unwrapped all my cleft grafts and reset about half of them.

If you have the opportunity and interest, I highly recommend trying your hand at grafting apples. It is so cool that it works at all and satisfying to see one of your grafts succeed and start growing out. There is almost nothing easier to graft than apples, so it is a good place to start.

The varieties I put on this year:

  • Indian Point Russet - Probable seedling by Indian Point near Georgetown Island, ME. The previous fall, we had noticed how delicious and clean the fruit was which Ben's parents had gathered from this feral tree for our annual cidering. Makes a smallish russet with very white flesh. Ben has already grafted this into some trees at his place near Portland. He very obligingly sent me a bundle of sticks when I asked if I could get hold of some scion.
  • Centennial
  • Bramley's Seedling
  • Callville Blanc d'Hiver (later lost to fireblight)
  • Chestnut
  • Karmijn de Sonnaville (later lost to fireblight)

Growth and Training
Most mornings before work I walk by the trees with a roll of plant velcro in my pocket. I pinch side shoots at 2-3 buds up and secure growth along the trellis with the velcro, leaving the last 15-20cm free to curve up in its natural way. I also fret about aphids and pick a few weeds, maybe water any seedlings that need it.

A good technique to encourage a slow or missing rung is notching. 5-10mm directly above the area needing a boost on the leader, I notch out about 1mm of cambium 20-30% around. Here is a good thread on the notching technique at GrowingFruit. I believe it has helped me in two cases where I was missing a rung but didn't want to cut back the leader to that level.

The trees which bloomed this year were lovely in May. First below is Roxbury Russet, with a piece of Indian Point Russet grafted on the leader at the top.

Here is Gold Rush, another prolific bloomer.

Sweet Sixteen and Tydeman's Late Orange have yet to bloom; hopefully next year. Probably not a coincidence these are on G.30 roots instead of interstems like the others. Opalescent put out a few flowers and set some fruit (it was on interstem B.9/B.118), but was later completely wiped out by fireblight before I could taste one of the apples.

Ashmead's tried to set a ton of fruit, but this tree is struggling and not too vigorous so I took it all off.

I allowed Roxbury and Gold Rush to keep one apple per rung off the leader, if it was more than 1/2 grown out. Probably about 20 apples made it to fall, though we were not able to pick a single one fully ripe.

Growth in the early season was steady, and I spent 6-8 weeks actively strapping down or pinching new growth. Grafts all grew out nicely.

Microscopic Pests
Not much Cedar Apple Rust (CAR) this year on my trees. I took this cool photo of a CAR gall on a cedar tree in May at Habitat in Belmont.

This was my first year to experience FIREBLIGHT. I don't recommend it.

I hadn't paid all that much attention to this issue since I had got the sense it wasn't that big a deal in New England. I'm pretty sure it came in on scion I grafted in at the end of April. As I told Becky, "I traded genetic material with someone I met on the internet and contracted a horrible disease! My limb is wilting, cankered, and leaking fluid!". My apple limb, ok?!

No sign of trouble until June, when I noticed one of my new grafts suddenly started wilting.

At first I thought maybe the graft failed, but it had been growing so well up to that point and was already pretty far grown out. The graft union looked ok. Then another new graft and an old rung which had been severely aphid munched in spring started showing the same effect on my Opalescent tree.

Then I noticed dark splotchy sections of wood leaking fluid on the Opalescent.

The infection was spreading. I did some research and posted pics on a forum. Quickly an answer came back that it looked like the shoot version of fireblight.

At this point, there is not much to do other than amputate or see if the tree recovers on its own. I was afraid of the infection spreading to the other trees, so I opted for amputation.

Which was painful psychologically since the Opalescent was among the furthest along and best looking trees in the lineup, as well as carrying two grafts I wanted to keep. It had also set fruit for the first time this year and I wanted to taste it.

I took it down to one last rung which had no signs of infection, hoping to keep the roots alive enough to graft onto the next season and hoping to eat that one apple you can see to the left of the big flowering leek.

But alas, it succumbed to the infection later in the season and had to go.

So this tree will get dug up and replaced in spring. Opalescent is described in at least one source as being Highly susceptible to fireblight. In future I will give more thought to not choosing varieties with that characteristic.

While losing a tree is tough to bear, it isn't as bad as I might have thought. As time goes on my ideas about which varieties I want and which do well in my location evolve, and a dead tree represents a chance to start fresh with a new collection of ideas. It is also easier to stomach losing one tree if you have others that are doing well.

Macroscopic Pests
Aphids were very heavy in the latter part of spring. I sprayed neem a few times, but the aphids would be back within a day or two. We brought in a tin of ladybugs on two occasions but that didn't have much effect. Next season I'll just keep soapy water in the sprayer and hit them every few days. I think putting tanglefoot or similar ant blocker around the trunk of the trees would not be effective because the trees are touching the trellis all over and it would be annoying to tanglefoot all the places the trellis touches the fence. Here are some aphids on a nearby lovage plant.

The other major pest I had this year was squirrels. Roxbury Russet and especially Gold Rush put on a lot of fruit. But the squirrels would mar the fruit with scrapes and bites and knock it off the tree long before it was fully ripe. Within hours of hitting the ground, a squirrel damaged apple would be covered in ants and slugs.

I did wash off and eat a few of these, but it is hard to get excited about being third in line to eat under ripe fruit after squirrels, slugs, and ants have had their way with it.

Tried putting some poly mesh bags around the last 6 apples on GoldRush, which did seem to keep the squirrels off for a few weeks. But then they figured it out and ravished all the remaining fruit on the same day.

The tree rats do not confine their mischief to the apples unfortunately; they also dig up anything I plant in spring whether seed or seedling, dig up garlic I plant in fall, and destroy sunflower heads if I grow them. So I've started a program to reduce the local squirrel population by mechanical means. I don't imagine this will eliminate them altogether because there is an essentially infinite supply, but if I can create a sort of local squirrel sink the lower concentration of squirrels in my yard will surely benefit my garden.

General Tree Health
In year 2, I sprayed the Michael Phillips holistic orchard spray probably 6-8 times but this year my enthusiasm for spraying had flagged so I only did it a couple times. Would my fireblight outbreak have been less bad if I had sprayed more? Impossible to say, but I feel more motivated to keep up with sprays next year.

The trees toward the west side of the yard continue to do better than those on the east. They are more resilient to stresses like aphids and fireblight, grow more vigorously, and have fruited sooner. It is difficult to attribute these observations entirely to position because they are all a different mix of variety and rootstock. But it reinforces a trend seen with other types of plants across the yard too. Next year I really want to get my irrigation hooked up so I can see if some extra water on a regular basis would improve things for the east side.

Companion Plants
As is typical in the garden, it seems rare that a perennial is doing exactly as good as I want it to do. Plants either do too well and expand too much or spread themselves around with seed, or else they are languishing. Why can't plants be sensible and just grow exactly as much as I want them to?

The bulbs in spring are a wonderful bit of color after the drabness of winter. Crocuses first

Then tulips, then irises and oriental poppies

Sage and the oak and olive leaf sylvetta arugula are too big and aggressive. I cut them down to the ground twice a year, but they come back strong. We don't use more than a handful of sage in the year (for homemade breakfast sausage), and while we do eat some of the arugula Becky does not like it much. It has a much stronger flavor than annual arugula and is more work to pick and get ready to eat because the leaves are smaller and stems woodier. I like it as a minority component in salad.

In the above pic, besides the rampant arugula and sage, you can see green onions, horseradish, patty pan squash, and the limb of Sweet Sixteen I had to cut off due to blight. On the left is asparagus and corn. The tree with all the apples is GoldRush.

Egyptian onions are going great, though they tend to grow too high and interfere with the first rung of the espaliers. But they look cool, and we chop them down to eat mercilessly in the spring. They are not great later in the season, but by then the regular green onions are ready for eating.

I have a mix of 3-4 types of green onions including Ishikura, Guardsman, and Evergreen. They don't spread quickly like the egyptian onions and are a short lived perennial. As a consequence they are not as widespread or as dense as I'd like. But we cut and eat them from summer through fall after the egyptians are too big and hard.

We've developed a way of eating armfuls of green and egyptian onions that is simply the bomb
  • cut the thick parts near the base into 5cm chunks
  • cut green leaves into 20cm chunks
  • separate out wilted parts, bugs, etc
  • coat everything in olive oil, then some salt, arrange in a monolayer
  • roast on cookie sheets in the oven at 200C for about 15 minutes, then turn down to 160C for about another 20-40 minutes. You want the green leaves to get completely desiccated and crunchy but without burning to black. As they finish up, take the fully hard ones off and leave the soft ones to cook a little more, checking in about every 5-10 minutes. The leaves condense greatly, so don't over salt them at the beginning. They are almost like chips now; they taste like sour cream & onion pringles but better
Here is a picture of a typical onion roast day, with some sea kale in the other pan

Thick parts can cook at 200C the whole time for a more roasty product, or get turned down with the leaves to make things easy. Child 1 likes these "soft" onions the best. Child 2 loves the "hard" onions made from the leaves. The sea kale turned into kale chips.

We also do this with leaves from leeks and regular onions picked before the leaves die.

Chives and Garlic Chives are kicking along but not excelling toward the east side of the orchard. You know conditions are rough when chives are struggling. My favorite use for chives is to put a huge pile on top of homemade pizza, so they get roasted and burned at the edges while the pizza cooks. I made a jar of kimchi with mostly garlic chives last summer, and I'd like to do that again. The garlic chives from the local asian stores are so much bigger and more tender than mine, but our chives are better than store chives (and far cheaper).

I divided the Sorrel this year so maybe next year there will be enough to eat more of it. It makes pretty good salad when mixed with other greens.

This spring I pulled up the rest of the Salad Burnet; while it's flavor is ok (a little like cucumber, as billed in the seed catalogs), it is too hard to pick the quarter size leaves in enough quantity to make an impact on a salad. I'd rather have more green onions.

Child 1 had a little rosemary which is still alive out there in January since our winter has been mild. Here she is eating a cupcake at her birthday party with a friend in the fall, with the new King David tree and her rosemary in the background.

Another troublesome companion has been horseradish. I tried to move it last year, and put cardboard and mulch over top of where it used to be in the orchard. Midway through the season, new shoots came blasting up through the cardboard and refused to be stifled (you can see it coming up to the right in the above picture). I took to cutting it to the ground every week or two and eating the greens. They are on the bitter side for me, but edible certainly. I'd rather eat kale, but there is something to be said for a perennial green which is nearly impossible to kill and which you can cut almost weekly.

Tried to plant leeks from seed in the east half of the bed with an eye towards perennializing some, but they mostly dwindled as the summer got hot. There were a couple that overwintered from the previous year, but they died after flowering.

This season and last I've grown squash and beans up bamboo poles leaning against the top trellis wire in 4 places between apple trees. Man have we got squash vine borer wicked bad! I planted two patty pan squash that got off to a great start but got wrecked by vine borers along with all the other pepo and maxima curcubits in the yard. One of them limped along to make a couple squash, but most then rotted at the blossom end for an unknown reason.

Some purple pole beans got a great start and I picked from them once, but then the leaves were skeletonized over night by some kind of insect.

Plans for Next Season
First order of business will be to plant a Redfield on G.935 from Cummins at position #5, and to dormant prune the other trees. Next, I'll graft on four new varieties to the other trees. Here is my current plan for the orchard. Black is mostly grown out rungs, gray has yet to grow out, red is up next for grafting, blue is for grafting in some future season.

Tree # 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Rung #
5 IPR Centennial RdR Wickson Hoople's Chestnut Rubinette
4 IPR Gold Rush RdR Wickson Hoople's Chestnut Rubinette
3 Rox.Russ Gold Rush Bramley Calville Gold Rush Pit.Pineapple Rubinette
2 Rox.Russ Gold Rush Sweet 16 King David Gold Rush Ashmead's KdS
1 Rox.Russ Gold Rush Sweet 16 King David Redfield Ashmead's TLO
Stem/Root G11/M111 G11/M111 G30 G222 G935 G11/M111 G30
Inarch +G935 +G935


IPR - Indian Point Russet
RdR - Reine des Reinnettes
KdS - Karmijn de Sonnaville
TLO - Tydeman's Late Orange

Its fun to revise this plan continuously as I read about yet more varieties I can't live without. I do wish I had more space. But what I have is plenty to keep me busy, and if I could figure out how to be a better gardener I could get lots more food from the space I have. You can see I've taken advantage of the sort of 1/3 rung available at the top of the chevron trees at positions #2,4, and 6 to add a little bit of yet more varieties. While allowing asymmetric rungs as far as variety goes could increase the number available for graft positions, I think keeping the same variety on either side will be easier.

I've been thinking about inarching a chunk of G.935 into the other interstems damaged by neem year before last, like I did for the Ashmead's. I think I'll take all the flowers off Ashmead's and put some blood meal down to try to encourage it to grow more.

The sage will get chopped out, a new layer of compost put down, and salt marsh hay put on top. I'd really like to get my drip irrigation system put together too.

I want to try to grow an Orangeglo watermelon and Zucchino Rampicante squash (both of which should be resistant to borers). Maybe I'll try sending them up the bamboo poles in the orchard. The pole beans worked out well the year before last so I'll do some of those on the poles too.

I will do a dormant spray of copper to try to tamp down any fireblight still around from last year, and I also plan on spraying Serenade. Copper is OMRI compliant, but I don't especially want to spray it unless I feel I really need to. Serenade I don't mind spraying if it is helpful since it is pretty harmless as well as OMRI. Also going to try out Serenade for control of powdery mildew on curcubits, which is my second worst problem with that plant family (after squash vine borer).

After the difficulties of last year, I'll probably return to spraying the Michael Phillips organic orchard brew more often. Fedco has a blurb about it on page 21 of their Organic Growers Supply pdf catalog (looks like pg 137 of the paper catalog, thanks for the tip Ben). They are hot on a different oil to supplement neem called Karanja. How do we know if this stuff actually works?? Well, I'm going to spray it anyhow.

Last season I bought a new backpack sprayer. The one I had was 16L and pretty cumbersome. I don't have much to spray, so I thought a really well made one with smaller capacity would make the experience better. This led me to a Birchmeier Flox 10L, which was really expensive but seems nicely made and has been easier to wrangle the couple times I've used it so far. It is swiss made, has a stainless frame, and an external pump.

Plus, when I bite into that slug eaten, squirrel ravaged, underripe GoldRush next fall, I want to know it cost me dearly.

So here is what I'm planning on loading up with for the coming season. I keep a 1/8 cup measure with my sprayer supplies, so recipe is in increments of that measure:
  • 1x Neem oil
  • 1/2x Karanja oil
  • dash (1/2 tsp) Dr. Bronner's liquid soap
  • 2x molasses
  • 4x liquid fish
  • 1x liquid kelp
  • 2x EM-1
  • 8L warm water
This will get sprayed at green tip, pink tip, petal fall, 1-2 weeks after petal fall, and after half the leaves have fallen post-harvest (minus kelp). During bloom I'll spray Serenade. Including the copper, that is 7 sprays! Geez, I thought growing fruit was going to be easier :)

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