Saturday, 25 July 2009

Apple pollination, management & pruning

When I bought my house, I inherited a yellow transparent apple tree which had been pruned and tended over the years, for which I am extremely grateful, since it's pretty old and could easily have become unmanageable if past owners had neglected it.

I've maintained it as best I could - and despite the ministrations of many caterpillars, the appetites of the birds

and the cack-handed interventions of a tenant who lopped off all those unsightly fruit-bearing branches while I was in Italy, it has flourished and fruited reliably.

Every spring I climb up into the tree to nab the water shoots, and when I can organize myself I give it some dormant spray in the spring as well, but that's about all I do.

Apple Tree Care
Things I've learned this year about helping it further include:

understanding pollination - because most apple trees must be pollinated with another variety (or must they..?) I guess I owe the fruiting health of mine to that of the neighbours' trees; not sure of the varieties but there must be something compatible nearby. My mason bee boxes have provided me with some good little vehicles for neighbourhood pollination.

grafting - my brother's experiments in grafting have given him some interesting variation, and I suppose makes a tree self-pollinating.
don't mess with nature - fruit trees need to pay attention to the season, so no pruning or fertilizing in the late summer or fall, as these will cause it to keep growing instead of hardening-off to protect itself from cold weather.
regular watering - fruit trees need an inch of water a week, same as the grass, and do better with one weekly deep watering than frequent sprinkling.
root space - grass and fruit trees are not, despite human interventions, good bedfellows, since grass wants to crowd everything else out. A dense root structure in your grass means less water gets through for the tree, so you should have an ungrassed region around the tree's base to let water through. Not sure how to approach this since the tree is mature now and its roots must have pretty wide reach. Perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to mark out a big circle under the canopy, bring in some chickens to bare and fertilize the soil, and go from there with the mulching, planting something low-growing, shade-loving and food-producing that will let the water through. Now I just need to borrow some chickens...
feeding - like all plants the tree needs nourishment, though is more resilient than most garden plants. You can apply perhaps some form of (non chemical!) fertilizer in the spring (but not later). Organic mulches and compost are recommended. Same problem as watering in the mature tree in that you might not know where the roots have spread. I've heard that spraying the tree with compost tea will protect it from insects and nourish it as well.
summer pruning - I heard that pruning the water shoots while the tree is in leaf can help it focus efforts on growing nice fat fruit, so I did that this year. I'm not sure the result is any better than in previous years, but I did get some nice leaves for my compost -- although some of them came with freeloaders:

Like most things to do with gardening you get wildly conflicting advice everywhere. Although I was told that summer pruning would enhance fruit development and also bring more light into the ripening fruit in the tree; I also read that removing these shoots removes a nutrient source for the tree ("decreasing canopy photosynthetic efficiency and carbohydrate production") so not everyone recommends it as you're then diverting the tree to replace that lost food. We'll see what happens.
thinning - hard but necessary, removing excess nascent fruit in order to get better, bigger apples

I've been looking up information on pruning in general as it's a complicated business, and my property also includes a neglected plum tree that has not been maintained, no longer produces well and is almost impossible to harvest because of its position and height. Here are a few sources I checked out:
Cognition (now called Canadian Organic Grower) had a helpful article from which I learned the useful issues around renovation vs. maintenance pruning.
Fruitwise has some video tutorials (and a website on heritage English apples) which give great advice on the basics of pruning including choosing the right tools for the job and proper secateur technique.
Oregon State University Extension has an article on restoring a neglected apple tree. has one with notes about pruning issues specific to tree types, including plums.
Wikipedia has a nicely illustrated article that lays out what to do to trees at different ages.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Shoot before you spray

Some wonderful things come of the web. The Pest Identification Photos page, from Pest Control Canada, is surely an example of what the internet does best and is endlessly interesting. People send in photos of bugs and someone identifies them (Ed Saugstad, retired entomologist, Sinks Grove, WV surely deserves a knighthood for answering so many of the questions).

Ladybug larva, from the Pest Identification Photos page

The site also includes a helpful page on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and some tips on Borax in the Organic Pest Solutions (although nothing else; for more organic pest control, check places like Suite101 for do-it-yourself, or Extremely Green for manufactured but allowable solutions or Pest Information for good general all-purpose information).

Monday, 20 July 2009

Wasps, leaf miners and ladybugs

My feelings towards wasps have softened since I saw one nibbling on aphids one day. I'm still nimby about having their nests in my backyard though, as is my allergic neighbour, so I'm afraid we shot this one down with a garden hose.

No change in my attitude to spinach leaf miners. My new skill this year is spotting the eggs before they can hatch and eat the greens.

My last greens harvest included this little feller, an Asian Lady Beetle larva. It's tragic and lethal to our gardens that we are more often than not unable to recognize the ladybug larva than its cuter adult version; it's an important thing to learn to identify. Ditto the eggs. Aphids for lunch!

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Urban gardening

I belong to a neighbourhood urban farmers/food security group and we often pass around articles of interest. Someone spotted this one, which is all about Will Allen and the Growing Power project, which involves 10,000 fruit, herb and veg container plantings in the Milwaukee site alone, and also produces fish, eggs, meat (chicken, goats, rabbits, turkeys) and honey. And a looooot of compost, many worms.

My urban garden has already produced a few tasties this year. I've never grown garlic before so was thrilled to bits today to dig up the first bulbs. They'll hang in the shed for a while - a couple of weeks I gather- to cure.

And here are my containers looking more lush now, in mid-July.

I went tomato crazy this year. Saved some seed from a big tasty heirloom beefsteak last year, grown from a seedling Tom gave me, and was taken aback by how many sprouted. didn't have the heart to do away with them so I have around 25 plants in pots, barrels, a Topsy-Turvy planter,

and an area of my garden I refer to as the Tomato Forest. So far, so good, though I'm still concerned about the leaf curl. It's been too windy to try my spray-on potions.

I have three other tomato varieties in slightly smaller numbers, plus a new one my brother gave me (wonder berries);

and a couple of relatives (tomatilloes and ground cherries/physalis), all in pots for the moment.

Some celery that's been growing in the wading pool. It was a strong and happy seed that I got from Kate and I've planted it all over the place as I heard it was good for deterring pests. Luckily I had it growing already by the time I heard it was hard to grow or I might not have tried.

Not sure if the eggplant will fruit, but I live in hope. Some is in pots and some in a barrel, with a bush bean for company. It's come along a lot over the past couple of weeks of hot weather.

The potatoes-in-car-tires have grown very tall. I'm curious to see what I might find in the layers. I'm a bit skeptical, as it does seem to me rather damp in the straw layers, but who knows.

I planted some more potatoes in the borders and when they started to sprawl I shored them up in cages, thinking the same concept as the car tires might work for them. They've grown very tall and gangly and unmanageable, dwarfing all around them.

Another occupant of the wading pools: radishes.

Everything in my garden is an experiment as I try to learn what grows where and how big and how well or badly and what eats what. Here are some purple sprouting broccolis outgrowing their pot. Honestly they looked so lame and weak when I planted them I put two in thinking maybe one would last. They have lasted well and are now much chewed by cabbage worm with lots of cabbage moths fluttering around them during the day looking for new parking places for their brood.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

More crawlies: aphids? spider mites? and some recipes

I feel like I've experienced just about every pest going in my garden: wireworm, crane fly larvae, cutworms, tent caterpillars, slugs and snails, cabbageworm, spinach leaf miner, and sugar ants.

I took a picture of the specks of dirt on the backs of some troubled tomato leaves, which I thought were just water-stressed. When I blew the images up, the specks turn out to have legs,

and I'm guessing spider mites or else aphids. Apparently the spider mite larvae are six legged, while the spiders have eight. They can be carried by wind, and my tomato pots sit at the top of a windy driveway just waiting for pestilence to reach them. Aphids can apparently cause leaf curl. Whichever one it is, the remedies seem to be the same.

Spray the leaves top and bottom with:
  • water: water critters off the leaves and then mist to keep the leaves moist (spider mites prefer dry, arid conditions whereas their natural predators prefer damp, moist conditions)
  • a liquid seaweed solution
  • a solution of food-grade diatomaceous earth (kills larvae and spiders but not the eggs)
  • a spray made with rhubarb leaves (the oxalic acid kills aphids and mites)
  • a spray made with soap solution (a classic solution for aphids too, though in the hottest part of the season this can burn the leaves)
  • a spray made with olive oil or neem oil (the oil smothers the aphids, mites and eggs; neem has fungicidal properties as well); can combine the oil and soap
  • dormant oil (the sulfur combats both aphids/mites and mildew)
  • compost tea (or combinations of water, compost tea, molasses, liquid seaweed and apple cider
Or introduce predators such as ladybugs, pirate bugs, predatory thrips, and predatory mites; but if you're also spraying even with organic solutions (except plain water) you risk doing these guys in too.

I don't know how spider mites feel about baking soda but if the plant is also afflicted with a fungal disease such as early blight, black spot or powdery mildew, here's a recipe for a spray to treat all of that:

Baking soda spray
Mix four teaspoons baking soda with one teaspoon of vegetable oil or horticultural oil into one gallon of water.

And a whole list of organic remedies from the Dirt Doctor.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Companion plantings

I've researched companion plantings for a while now; the subject is fraught with contradiction and variation, so I guess you just have to see what works in your garden. There's a lot of advice, for example, about planting marigolds. But the slugs love mine so much they've devastated most of the flat I planted this year, on their way to the seedlings.

The book to have seems to be Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening, which is useful and interesting and arranged encyclopedia-style. A few others appear in the bibliography of this 3 page fact sheet from the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Here are some websites and tables to consult as well (I have also tried to work out where these sites are located as this is of course critical to growing anything-- the librarian in me is having hissy-fits over how many gardening sites don't seem to think it matters if people know what climactic region they're based in): - Companion Planting - article geared towards organic landscaping, but with a lot of useful links at the end.
Basic Info 4 Organic Fertilizers - Companion plants to ward off pests - alphabetical listing (Texas)
Cass County Extension (from North Dakota State University) - Companion planting - table listing most common vegetables, their friends and enemies. (North Dakota)
Gardens Ablaze - Companion planting for better yields - detailed table listing plants with compatible and incompatible companions [California][?]
Georgia Strait Alliance - Alternatives to Pesticides - pdf file with lists of plants that will attract beneficial insects and repel or deter pests, and suggestions for a number of alternative treatments to problems like fleas and powdery mildew, and notes about insecticides Pyrethrum, Pyrethrins and Rotenone. (Nanaimo BC)
HowToGardenAdvice - Companion Planting for your Vegetable Garden - some useful background and a table with links to growing tips for different vegetables. [Arizona][?]
Tinkers Gardens - Vegetable companion planting chart - two tables, for vegetables and herbs, with good and bad companions. [Texas][?]

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Oil and food

I'm currently researching the links between fossil fuels and farming, spurred on to a large extent by the excellent BBC documentary A Farm for the Future (available in 5 bits on Youtube). A couple of things to read on this subject:

What will we eat as the oil runs out was the November 2007 lecture given by Richard Heinberg. A cogent analysis of what oil has to do with food production, and what factors are driving food prices and shortages. Grim but necessary reading.

Heinberg is no stranger to the Post Carbon Institute, whose epic read The Food and Farming Transition: Toward a Post Carbon Food System says it all in a forward-looking way.

And Jonathan Wright, of Thompson Small Farm, near Calgary, is waving the flag for farming sustainability in a series of postings for New Resilient.

The IAASTD's awesome 660 page report on world farming, Agriculture at a Crossroads (don't worry, the key findings are summed up at the beginning).

New growth

I thought I'd split myself, much as one does, say, with a bulb of garlic, and plant a new blog to hold all my growing thoughts, findings and photos on matters vegetative.

After last year's practice work with growing tomatoes in big pots, and a few random potatoes, this year marked my first of serious vegetable growing. And I'm not all that sure how serious it is even now. Random, certainly, as the blog name suggests, but I wouldn't confuse what I'm doing with a fully functional vegetable patch.

I'm working with poor light, in a small north-facing garden overshadowed by tall (protected species) trees, and one mature yellow transparent apple tree; had I not chopped down the energetic and youthful plane tree someone once saw fit to plant here (and whose roots still intrude on the wee veg plot I made where it stood) I'd have no light at all. Most of the best of it falls on a paved area that once housed a carport.

The front garden is in dappled shade all summer, its flowerbeds protected from both sun and rain by two towering trees. I get a cool breeze every afternoon which can be a bit too brisk for some plants, as it whistles up my driveway and into the back.

My garden boasts some of Victoria's hardest and poorest clay soil, on which grows a scrappy pair of lawns and a number of elderly and aphid-plagued, blackspotted rose bushes. I'm on the lower part of a downward slope, so my lawn, like most around here, resembles a very wet sponge in the winter.

My garden beds, which I've been coaxing back to health with leaf mulch and expensive helpings of Sea Soil, are tiny. They are homes to slugs, snails, wireworm, leaf miners, earwigs and something that may be cutworm or crane fly larvae or both; ants and aphids are everywhere; this year's entertainment has included the encroachment of tent caterpillars and a bumper crop of yellowjackets. Plants that love it here include bluebells, day lilies, morning glory, English ivy, holly, hawthorn, Himalayan blackberry, daisies and dandelions.

And of this I am making what I can, largely through the use of containers. I thought I'd experiment with them and then see if I wanted to start biting into my lawn, using some lasagne (sheet mulching) techniques to improve drainage and start with better soil. Another thought I have is to cover some or all of my patio area with a hoop house, or add a greenhouse-type extension to my garden shed.

In addition to the garden beds, I'm using wading pools (with holes punch in them), wine barrel halves (ditto), pots of many sizes, one topsy-turvy tomato bag, and car tires, in which I am growing:
apples (yellow transparent)
beans (bush and scarlet runner)
beets (red and golden)
day lilies
mustard greens
physalis (cape gooseberry/ground cherry)
potatoes (red norland, yukon gold, banana fingerlings)
purple sprouting broccoli
squash (hubbard and acorn)
swiss chard
tomatoes (beefsteak, roma-style and mystery volunteers)

In my herb garden I have
sage (purple)

Flowers I'm growing for the bees and bugs include
california lilac