Sunday, May 7, 2017

State of the Farm, Spring 2017

Well, it's spring up here finally. Real spring. When the fruit trees blossoms and the bees come out.

None of this sort of spring where the temperature hovers a few precious degrees above freezing and the sky is gray and cold and sheds a dismal rain worthy of November.

No: this is real spring when there are warm days mixed with cool ones, sunshine mixed with rain.

We sweat spring every year.

Not that we don't love the change of seasons. But in spring, the trees and shrubs wake up and tell us what terrible farmers we actually are. Hey there! You know those blueberries you planted last fall? Flattened. Those wile strawberries you tried to preserve? Guess again chucko. Oh. And just in case you think everything is all right? Here's a five hundred year drought.

*sigh* Welcome to New England.

Last year we had a continuing drought down to the point the trees-- even the deep trees-- were beginning to feel it. Beginning in the fall and all winter long the rain and snow have gradually been filling the reservoirs and our area (See here.) is no longer in drought.

But, of course, a lot of time this year's crops reflects last years conditions.

Going over the fruit trees: all of them showed the effects in one way or another. While we got blossoms on most of the stone fruit (apricots, almonds, nectarines, peaches), we got zip on the apricots. Not one.

Now, last year we not only had a drought we had a severe -12F freeze on Valentine's Day and another hard freeze late in the spring. None of the stone fruits even made the attempt. This year, we didn't get that. In fact, we got no freeze after the last snow in March. This meant that none of the blossoms were injured-- those that actually existed.

So what happened to the apricots?

I looked at the branches and found little blossom like nubbins. These were dry and dead. My hypothesis is that the trees put these out last year in a vain attempt to prepare for this year but then it was just too dry and they gave up.

There's always next year.

Many of the trees had dead limbs or thin trunks. Several of the apples have dead branches and the nectarine lost one whole limb set. The almond seems unaffected-- but that tree set are next to the septic system and I suspect it never got truly dry there.

All of the grapes came through all right. Grapes are incredibly tough. I'm not sure what I'll do about the bird problem we had last year. The poor things were so desperate that as soon as the grapes showed color at all, they swooped in and stripped the tree bare. Is that a one time thing from the drought or have they learned that grapes is good eatin'. Not sure. The grapes are fairly extensive and covering them with netting is difficult.

The caterpillars are out, too. I've been spraying with Surround for some years. It's a diatomaceous earth product-- earth made out of the skeletons of diatoms. These are small single celled organisms that encase themselves in a silica shell. So when it's ground up fine enough the caterpillar eats it along with a bit of leaf and gets the equivalent of ground glass in its stomach.

Surround is pretty effective but you have to spray regularly and it can be overwhelmed. This is one of the things that happened last year. I sprayed and sprayed but the caterpillars still ate the flowers to nubbins. In desperation, I tried Captain Jack's Deadbug Brew. This is a contact killer. I sprayed it where I was in danger of losing a whole plant.

So all fall, winter and spring, whenever I found a caterpillar egg set I destroyed it. I sprayed surround as soon as the leaves came out and had Captain Deadbug in reserve. Now that the blossoms are waning, we'll see if I need the nuclear option or if I can control the problem with Surround.

Let's see. The picture above is a pie cherry that looks promising. The other cherries blossomed well. One large cherry tree has rot in the trunk so we may lose it. The other trees have all survived well. We have planted new shrubs and trees: seaberries, blue berries and a couple of new paw paws. That wild strawberry patch survived and is making flowers. We'll see what sort of berries we get.

We have ripe papayas in the greenhouse this year. We planted a tree about 18 months ago and it shot up ten feet and put out long sort of turnip shaped fruit. A couple look ripe. I'll report back what they taste like when we eat them.

We're getting the garden ready now. We did a burn and spread the charcoal and ash across the surface so I can till it in. Last year I got a Sun Joe electric tiller. Our old tiller, a gasoline engine, finally died after twenty years of service. Now that we have solar panels, electric approaches actually net lower carbon. So I took a chance and bought the Sun Joe. I didn't have a chance to unpack it last year so it's still an unknown.

We had fairly good luck with the garden when we factor in the drought. Definitely going to put in irrigation pipe this year. If we don't need it, no problem. But if we have a drought again we'll be prepared. Of course, we're always chasing last year's problem while this year's problem is still unknown.

But standing here looking at the trees in blossom and waiting to see if they're going to set fruit, I'm cautiously optimistic.