The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Posts tagged ‘fruit trees’

Don’t share your pears and why I’d gladly give up moose turd pie.

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

A little over a week ago, I was picking the last of our pears off the trees, and thinking about what a really worthwhile fruit pears are for us. Unlike apples, which we have in extreme abundance, pears seem to have no insect or disease problems, a big plus since we do not spray. Unlike plums, they are very long lived trees, and even self-pollinate pretty well.

We have two pear trees, a Nova we planted about 25 years ago, and a Luscious planted about 15 years ago. The Nova has been bearing pretty well for more than 10 years, the yield increasing nearly every year. The fruit is good enough to eat out of hand, the skin is a little thick, and it goes from delicious ripeness to mush really fast. Some grit cells, but not bad at all.

Nova, left; Luscious, right

The Luscious tree has been bedeviled by deer. It was chewed down nearly to the ground twice, fortunately not below the graft. It took nearly 10 years for it to build up enough of a root system to send up a tall strong shoot to above deer reach in one season. I pruned it lightly to encourage height for many years, and finally last year we had our first crop, about a dozen pears… and they were indeed luscious! Almost no grit cells, a nice red blush, thin skin, sweet and fairly firm textured.

This year, Luscious fruited amazingly well, considering the size of the tree. Nova had a moderate crop (I think it may tend toward biennial bearing). We like to hold the pears in cold storage, then bring them into room temperature for a day or two to come to full ripeness. Theoretically we should be able to hold some into December like this, but up to this point we’ve eaten them all well before that time. Figuring out when to pick is tricky because if you wait too long, when a lot of the fruit is showing ripeness, you’ll have to do something with all the fruit at once (or compost). But, if they are picked too green, they’ll never ripen.

So, daily I did the ripeness watch, and noticed someone else was doing the same thing. I wasn’t finding many ripe drops, only a handful, max, on a given day… and I found some very large teeth marks in some green fruits, which evidently had not passed this someone else’s ripeness test.

We have been living with a moose in our yard on a regular basis for 2 years now. A few weeks ago, she came up to the kitchen window while we were preparing dinner. She has tromped through the newly planted garlic beds, but usually keeps to the paths when she strolls through the gardens, and hasn’t been eating out of them. She has even contributed to the compost pile. However, she evidently discovered the pears this year, and got quite a few of them.

Moose damage to Luscious

Damage to Luscious

Under this pressure, I picked all the pears a tad earlier than I would have preferred to. I don’t mind sharing a little, but, hey, it’s been a lot of years of care and waiting to get to this point. These are MY PEARS. Anyhow, we got about 3/4 bushel from the two trees, and they are good. And they’re MY PEARS…

Next morning when I went out to hang up the laundry, I noticed a, well, severely broken Luscious pear tree. This was hard for me to grok immediately. I first thought “wind??”, but there had been none… and then I knew. Ms. Moose had showed up for pears, there were none, so she mauled the trees trying to find them.

Only one, albeit large, branch was broken off Nova. Luscious was badly damaged, but will survive.

My husband’s electronics fetish has come in handy. We’ve posted infrared detectors at the trees, and whenever the signal goes off in the house, we run out and blast ultrasound squeals towards the pear trees.

Moose damage to Nova

Damage to Nova

For three nights after the mauling she returned to the scene of the crime, but we screeched at her each time and she seems to be staying away from the trees now. We’re not so concerned about her totally destroying Luscious at the moment; however, this is not a long term solution. My experience with deer and bear is that once an individual discovers a particularly delectable food source, they will return for it year after year, and normal deterrents won’t work when they can smell the pears/carrots/honey ripening.

Now, I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life, but I’m ready to shoot her myself. Unfortunately we don’t have a high enough caliber firearm to do this. Instead, I’m calling in a hit on her. I spoke to the game warden, and asked him to point someone with a moose permit in our direction. She’ll be easy to track…

MY PEARS!

The doomed romance of a pair of plums

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

two plum trees

Plum trees: Alderman on the right and
La Crescent, fallen over, on the left.

Earlier this week we had some high winds, and our La Crescent plum tree came down. This event was overdue, but the tree had made it through the winter to our surprise, and we hoped to get maybe one last hurrah out of it (fruit trees under stress will sometimes give a good crop of fruit), or at least get a good bloom that might pollinate its mate, Alderman. This was not to be. It was the usual “almost but not quite” that goes with plum trees in these parts.

We planted the two trees about 25 years ago. Since then we have had two really abundant harvests from the La Crescent of small meltingly sweet peach blushed yellow fruits; several years with fewer than a dozen ripe La Crescent; and at most six ripe fruits in all that time from the Alderman. As a result, I have to say I can’t recommend planting plum trees that are not self-pollinating in northeastern Vermont if you need reliable fruit from them.

If you consult reputable nursery catalogs, you will find these two varieties listed as pollen type A (for American), and thus recommended as pollinators for one another. But, alas, as with human relationships, there is so much more to it than that.

Alderman plum blooming

Alderman blooming

Plums are insect pollinated. If it’s windy or raining or too cold, bees can’t fly and pollen doesn’t get transferred. And guess what – here in May more days than not are either windy, raining or cold or all three. We hoped that planting the plums on the leeward side of the barn would shelter them somewhat from the prevailing winds, and improve conditions for pollination flights. I don’t know whether it made a difference or not. You see, the thing is, La Crescent would come into bloom, and then just before the petals started dropping, the first blooms would open on Alderman. Some years there was a window of a day or two when both would have a decent amount of open flowers, and some years not even that. The two were simply out of sync.

So a threesome, maybe? After several years of this, we sought another type A to spice it up and increase our odds. During a visit to a local nursery, I asked which variety would be a good candidate.

“Toka is a good pollinator” said the helpful nursery person.

“Why?” said the customer who asks questions nursery people don’t want to hear. “Is it because it has a lot of flowers, or because it blooms over a long period of time, or because the pollen is particularly good at pollinating, or is it particularly attractive to insects, or…?”

“I don’t know, it’s listed as a good pollinator,” says bewildered nursery person.

OK, sorry, not in the script. We bought a Toka anyway, and made a triangle of plum trees.

Toka lasted about five or six years, was bedeviled by aphids and a woodchuck (I suspect), and simply gave up the ghost. It did bloom copiously for its size a few years and may have been responsible for the two excellent harvests we got from La Crescent. I don’t remember exactly.

Plum tree down

Plum tree down

Plum trees are very brittle, and even with wind shelter from the barn, La Crescent had split down the trunk in high winds many years ago. As a mature tree it has also been barraged by snow sliding off the barn roof. (Note to myself – twelve feet is just too close.)

Above or below the graft?The new shoot

After all this breakage, a couple of years ago I left a shoot coming up from about ground level, knowing the mature tree’s years were numbered. Now, if I had really been on the ball, several weeks ago I would have cut some shoots from the top of the tree to graft back onto this shoot, but somehow over the years plum trees have slipped low on the list of April priorities. Too late now, La Crescent is all leafed out, and it’s chainsaw time. I can’t tell whether the shoot is coming from above or below the graft line (if there was a graft line) of the old tree, so we’ll just wait about 5 more years and see if it’s still a La Crescent …and if Alderman is still hanging around when the new one, whatever it is, blooms again. Stay tuned folks…

Meanwhile, I’m glad most of our fruit trees are apples and pears – they are a lot more rewarding as food sources. Still, our Alderman is a beautiful yard tree and I adore the scent of plum blossoms in May.

This year’s pruning tool investment

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

quinte apple

One of my gardening resolutions for this year was to get more of our approximately 20 fruit trees into better trim. Our trees range from several venerable specimens with girth I can’t reach around to a few 6 year olds, and everything in between, mostly apples grafted onto wild stock over 20 years ago. I’ve not been as good about pruning as I should have been, and now am suffering the consequences. There is a lot of out-of-reach vertical growth, several inches thick in some cases. What pruning I had been doing was with a good pair of professional quality bypass loppers, a folding pruning saw, hand pruning shears, and occasionally a regular bow saw. The bow saw we had mostly wouldn’t fit to make the needed cuts.

I had envisioned getting either some kind of pole pruners or a hand held chain saw (a cutting chain with rope on either end), essentially something that would permit me to make cuts from the ground. I do my homework now when purchasing tools, because I have learned the hard way that cheap tools are usually more expensive in the long run, and I get very aggravated by tools that don’t perform well, or only last a season or two.

I contacted a professional tree pruner, Padma at Earthwise Harmonies, and queried him about his favorite tools:

For pruning fruit trees: I generally don’t favor the heavier long pole pruning tools with exterior string mechanism which I find gets caught in the trees, yet their advantage is that they, like loppers, can cut up to 3 inch wood. Mostly I’ve come to depend upon ARS long arm (lighter=aluminum-stainless steel) pruners. For yearly maintenance work, I use the 4 feet and 7 feet with heavy duty razor edges, saws can be attached. (ARS makes an 8 feet one but I’m told it can’t be mailed.) I supplement with a telescopic (unfortunately not heavy duty) 6′ extends to 12′, but although it is a good tool, it depends on mechanisms that will eventually fail (I’ve replaced several). So the telescopic should be secondary, for places hard to reach; and if you planted and upkeep your trees yourself, you probably didn’t let them get so far out of reach to need a telescopic. The long arm ARS pruners can be got from: Pruning Tools and Harvest Equipment for Professional Fruit Industry: web: www.sfequip.com or also at www.wood-avenue.com

For slightly thicker sprouts or two year twigs I use a 10 feet long pole lever pruner made in Vermont by the Allen Bros Inc: 6023 US Route 5 Westminster, VT www. allenpolepruner.com . I’ve had one for almost 20 years but it eventually broke, I replaced it and also bought a shorter one, which I hardly ever use. They cut through a hook that also is handy for helping to pull down rotten branches.

As far as hand clippers, I go to places like Big Lots because what matters to me is that they be light weight since repetitive motion takes a toll on my hands, and I end up losing many, surprisingly some of these cheaper lighter plastic clippers are not junky.

For a chainsaw, I mostly use the smallest lightest ECHO, unless I need to make bigger cuts; I love it because at times I literally swing off a branch with one hand while using the chainsaw with the other. I found the telescopic chainsaws too heavy and inconvenient for precise side cuts. So instead I use the lightest 24 feet aluminum ladder (I prune a lot of older tall trees). I have a motorized extended 8 feet ECHO articulated hedge trimmer, the head of which I can interchange into a 6 or 7 inch jig type saws with a pruning blade with which I find I can manage to cut difficult to reach branches up to 5 or 6 inches in diameter.

orchard saw

The Allen pole pruner sounded like what I wanted, and I really liked that it is Vermont made. I phoned to get more info, and got to speak with Tim Allen, who was very helpful. From our conversation and Padma’s suggestions I realized that for the bulk of the pruning I need to do this year (high vertical shoots 3″ and thicker), what I really needed was a good ladder and an agressive hand saw. Tim suggested an orchard band saw that they carry. We just got a suitable ladder last summer, so we purchased the saw (see the photo) and have been really pleased . We decided to wait on the pole pruner until next year – it’s not cheap, but once I get the bulk of the big bad stuff cut out, the pole pruners should be good for annual maintenance.

Pruning apple trees

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

I never seem to accomplish all the pruning work I should on our fruit trees. Some of the older ones are dishearteningly out of control. I’m comfortable climbing trees and using the chain saw, but not at the same time. Call me a wimp, I don’t care.

Beacon apple tree

Anyway, last week I pretty much finished up pruning for this year. Pictured is one of my victims, a Beacon apple we planted about 20 years ago. 3 or 4 years ago it was severely damaged in a wind storm and split in half, so it has needed some TLC. It’s a robust grower and is recovering well. It bears lots of large apples which has been cause for concern because the storm damage left all the branches on one side, and the weight of the fruit pulls on an already leaning tree. This year it will be quite a bit better balanced.

Over the winter I discovered an inspiring and informative web site about pruning apple trees, which is connected to a really fun talk radio show. The website belongs to Padma, who is co-host of Sniggling Eels along with a market gardener named Alan LePage. The station is WGDR, a community radio station based in Plainfield, Vermont, and streaming on the web. The conversations are lively and intelligent, and range from practical homesteading and gardening (how to train a dog not to eat the chickens) to philosophy and politics (mostly left of center). The Sniggling Eels time slot is Friday, 8-10am (US eastern time) , though I believe they will be changing to Sunday mornings soon. Check it out!