Pear Varieties for the Deep South

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Pears are thought of as a cold-climate fruit, yet they are more adaptable than you might think. One of the benefits of being a garden writer is the many comments and ideas I get from readers. Today we’ll focus on pear varieties, thanks to some insight from gardeners in the south.

These originally appeared on a survival plant post on pears I created here.

Erik writes:

“Supposedly the ‘Chinese white pear’ (Bai li) cultivars Tsu Li (which is really ancient and supposedly good but quite slow to bear) and Ya Li (which need to be planted together, as they bloom earlier than even the pyrifolia Asians [‘apple pears’]) will both fruit with only 450 chill hours and are fireblight resistant.

I have had grocery Ya Li and am not impressed–crisp, watery, no flavor (that is also my opinion of most of the larger, pyrifolia types which someone must like because they are more expensive than aromatic, buttery European pears that taste like pears).

However, I found a delicious way to treat firm Boscs that also works with low flavor sand/oriental pears and Ya Li: Poach them in flavored syrup. The bland ones actually keep their shape better than good European types (turn a Seckel glut into pear butter instead). The flavor comes from the syrup rather than the pear, but hey, it works. (The French mostly use sweetened wine, but even stale coffee. In [Polish] Chicago, I can get blackcurrant juice or syrup and mostly use that. Vanilla and ginger blend nicely with most pears, even the aromatic ones that are mostly high chill and killed by fireblight.)

‘Warren’ is often recommended as a moderately low chill (NW FL and north), fireblight-resistant European sort similar to Bartlett, but I don’t have personal experience with it. Poached pears with vanilla ice cream may not be an option if the something hits the fan, but is nice in nicer times.”

And Carl responds:

“I have a lot of pear trees in Northwest Florida that are mostly grafted over pears I purchased in box stores or in flea markets. I pick varieties that were either developed in the deep south by normal people or were found after many years to do quite well.

Best fresh-eating pears and fire-blight-resistant so far for me are: Southern Bartlett (from Abbreville, LA), Golden Boy from Just Fruits and Exotics, and the Asian pear Olton Broussard from an old shipment to a nursery labeled ‘Oriental Pear.’ Kieffers and Orient pears for cooking/salads and for pollinating the Olton Broussards.

There are many new pears that I am trying out at the moment that are said to be very good. But the three I mentioned are about as sure of a thing as there can be in the South. The Olton Broussard may not fruit in zone 9 or during extremely warm winters in zone 8b.

The Hood is another good but early pear that is disease resistant and very low chill. It was university-developed unlike the other eating pears that I mentioned. See http://tandeecal.com/page10.htm —  My Southern Pear interest group.”

Pear Varieties for the South

There are some nice field reports on pear varieties for the South at the link Carl provided. I recommend checking them out.

For North Florida (which also coincides with Southern Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, portions of Texas, and other subtropical areas), the University of Florida recommends:

  • Ayer
  • Baldwin
  • Kieffer
  • Flordahome
  • Orient
  • Hood
  • Pineapple
  • Tenn

The range of those pears probably goes a good bit farther north. For south of Gainesville, the only three pears recommended are:

  • Flordahome
  • Orient
  • Pineapple

Le Conte grows in the deep south and is apparently an excellent pear; however, it’s not as disease resistant as some varieties.

When I visited the Orange County extension office in Orlando to film my video on fruit trees for Florida, I noticed that the “Pineapple” pear was the only tree that was thriving. However, the trees were planted in a hot field.

I believe they would have done much better in a mulch-rich environment with a variety of other species, food-forest style.

Here’s that video:

In my North Florida food forest, I grew Flordahome, Pineapple, Hood, Kieffer, Baldwin, and other recommended pear varieties for the South, plus grafted branches onto some of them from an old productive pear tree of unknown variety growing in Gainesville.

People often don’t realize how far south you can grow pears.

It is good to see people having success. Don’t overlook pear trees — try some on your homestead!

Imagine homemade pear pie, pear sauce, canned pears, pear salsa … eating them fresh and sun-warmed from the tree. I never knew how good pears really were until I grew my own trees. Store-bought pears are a pale imitation of ripe fruit from the tree.

 

*Pear image courtesy Dave Minogue. CC license.

 

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Sprouting Avocado Pits the Easy Way

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Today we’ll cover sprouting avocado pits the EASY way.

Though you are probably familiar with the “toothpicks and water” method of sprouting avocado pits, there is an easier way that seems to have a higher success rate.

The short of it? Plant them in potting soil or compost.

The long of it? Well, watch my video on how to sprout avocado pits, then we’ll meet on the other side for a step-by-step. A couple of important things should happen in order to guarantee your avocado pits sprout.

Avocados, like many tropical trees, have seeds that are designed to hit the ground and grow. The pits are not designed like many cold-climate seeds which have an embryo sitting in suspended animation that can be saved on a shelf for a long time and then spring to life when planted.

No.

These guys need to get into the ground fast, so it’s important to plant your avocado pits quickly or keep them damp until you can plant — preferably by keeping them inside the fruit!

But I’m getting ahead of myself — let’s do a step-by-step picture guide, breaking down the frames from the video.

Step 1: Open an Avocado and Take Out the Pit

how to Sprout Avocado Pit sprouting avocado pits

This avocado grew out back of our current homestead. They are nice and large with rich buttery interiors. An excellent tree and well worth reproducing.

When I took out this pit it already had some small roots growing on it — all ready to go! I took it along with a half-dozen other pits outside to plant, which takes me to step two.

Step 2: Plant Your Avocado Pits in Potting Soil

 Sprout Avocado Pit

HowToSproutAvocadoPits-Step5

There is a right side up on avocado pits. It’s the rounded side. Plant the flat side down since that’s where the roots will emerge. You could probably make a mistake and still have the tree come up fine, but I like to give my sprouting avocado pits every advantage.

A nice, loose potting mix is good but you can also easily germinate avocado pits directly planted in the ground — or, what seems to be even more successful, let them “accidentally” come up in your compost pile and transplant them.

Step 3: Water and Wait!

HowToSproutAvocadoPits-Step6

This is the hard part — waiting for the avocado pits to sprout.

They will, though. Keep them watered but not soggy in a nice sunny location. Then, one day…

germinating avocado

Beautiful!

When you sprout pits in water indoors, they then need to go through a “hardening off” period of adjustment to the harsher, brighter outdoor conditions or you can kill the young trees. When you instead sprout them in pots in full sun, you don’t have this issue. They’re ready to go.

Now many of you live in a northern climate where this is impossible. That’s fine — you can start avocado trees indoors and even grow them as a houseplant; however, they’re unlikely to fruit under those conditions. They need more sun.

How Long Does it Take for a Seedling Avocado To Bear Fruit?

The earliest a seedling avocado tree will fruit is at four to five years of age. My friend Eddy, however, scared his tree into fruiting at three years.

I have a beautiful seedling avocado tree growing in The Great South Florida Food Forest Project that is getting close to bearing size.

Rachel took this picture a year ago and it’s even bigger now.

avocado seedling I started by sprouting avocado pits

I wish I could pay that tree a visit again. Maybe when it fruits. The avocado I started it from had fruits as big as honeydew melons. It’s some sort of Thai avocado variety that was being passed around the local Thai community in South Florida. I’m excited to see this thing produce!

The California Avocado Commission claims it takes 5-13 years for a seedling tree to bear but you’re much more likely to see it fruit on the earlier end of that spectrum if they are well-tended, watered and grown in full sun.

Why Sprout Avocado Pits?

Common objections to growing avocado trees from seed are:

  1. Trees don’t always come true from seed
  2. It takes a long time for them to bear
  3. Purchasing grafted trees will give you exactly the type you want

All of these objections are easy to answer.

  1. Who cares? Maybe you’ll get something better!
  2. So? Are you planning on dying soon?
  3. What if you don’t want to spend money? And like experiments?

I really find the arguments against growing fruit trees from seed tiresome. The “common wisdom” on the subject is lame. Man has grown trees from seed, including avocados, for thousands of years. We have the varieties we have today because of gardeners like you and me who love to experiment and take joy in raising up good things from tiny seeds.

If you get a variety that just isn’t great, graft it!

Seedling trees make great root stocks. Heck, even if they don’t fruit for you fast enough you can graft on a piece from an already fruiting tree and speed up the process.

Start your own avocado pits the easy way and eventually you’ll be bringing in baskets of fruit. It’s great fun, especially when you can plant seeds with children, and totally worth the time.

Trees you grow from seed cost nothing and will give you a sense of accomplishment like nothing else. I still remember how excited I was when my seedling peach trees fruited for the first time. It’s a great feeling.

So go start sprouting avocado pits. I’m rooting for you… and so will they.

(This article was originally published on January 17, 2017.)

TGN Bi-Weekly Newsletter

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How to Germinate Peach Pits (and Why You Should)

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Save money by growing your own peach trees from seeds. It’s amazingly easy! My video on how to germinate peach pits has almost 40,000 views since I posted it back in July of last year. Watch it below.

Since posting that instructional video, I have received a lot of comments and emails from people thanking me for showing them how to grow their own peaches from seeds.

Recently, my friend Amanda sent these two pictures of her peach-sprouting success.

germinate peach pitgerminate peach pit

How Do You Germinate Peach Pits?

Some years ago, I discovered in some dusty corner of the internet that peach pits require cold stratification to germinate. Cold stratification is a technique used to simulate real-world conditions that a seed would get outdoors after a frozen winter, which then gives way to a warm, wet spring. There are six methods of cold stratification to choose from: cold water soaking, refrigeration, fall planting, winter/solstice sowing, outdoor treatment, and snow planting.

I put this knowledge to the test with great success, starting about 50 peach pits I found beneath an abandoned and squirrel-ravaged Tropic Beauty peach growing a few miles from my old place in North Florida.

germinate peach pit

I did this experiment despite the fact that there are hordes of small-minded gardeners, who take great pleasure in lecturing everyone about the utter worthlessness of starting fruit trees from seed.

These people are wrong.

Here’s a video I did showing some of my seed-grown peach trees in fruit:

And here are two pictures of some of the delicious fruit I got as a result of germinating peach pits in my very own refrigerator:

germinate peach pitgerminate peach pit

In their SECOND year, my two seedling peach trees produced about five gallons of fruit. They continued to massively outproduce the grafted peach trees I planted before them, plus they grew with more vigor.

Growing fruit trees from seed isn’t a dumb thing to do. It’s a great thing to do, and a YUGE, high energy, too. Check out this video on how I germinated other fruit trees from seed!

Sometimes the “experts” aren’t necessarily correct. They’re just people who say things adamantly because they’ve heard other people say them.

Heck with that.

Germinate peach pits and you get free fruit trees. Easy! The same method works for plums and cherries, too. And if that’s not enough, you can read about sprouting avocados here.

Finally, here’s how you germinate peach pits, cartoon-style:

germinate peach pit

 

Thanks for the pictures, Amanda, and may your peaches grow and produce abundantly. And let us know how your germination experiments go! We’d love to hear from you. Put your comments below.

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Sustainable Apple Trees – Self-watering and Self-fertilizing

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The Tarahumara Apple Tree Growing System

Do you hate dragging hoses around the yard? Are you tired of lugging compost around in bags, buckets, and wheelbarrows? Check out this super simple system that is used by the Tarahumara Indians to grow wonderful and delicious apples with almost no work!

The Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyon are known around the world for their exceptional health and their outstanding running abilities. The region where the Tarahumara live has been labeled as a “cold spot” because of the very low occurrence of modern chronic diseases, including diabetes. In talking with the Tarahumara, Marjory found that they largely attribute their health and athleticism to the fact that they grow almost all of their own food.

Marjory kept a journal of her entire trip to Mexico and she’s sharing the story here. You can see lots of beautiful photographs, and read all about the Tarahumara way of life, including how they grow their own food and medicine, in her story Extreme Agri-Tourism: Off the Grid with the Tarahumara Indians.

 

A Perennial Food Guild for the Arid American Southwest

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Edible Permaculture Plants You Can Grow in Arid Regions

If you live in an arid region, at some point you have probably felt envy when looking at pictures of food forests from other climates. You see countless varieties of plump fruits as far as the eye can see, with beautiful flowers, herbs, and annual vegetables growing from every nook and cranny.

It doesn’t seem fair. The idea that you could just go out and plant apples, blueberries, and strawberries in the middle of your yard is laughable. You might pull it off, but it will be a full-time job and your water bill will go through the roof. Many of us just shrug and say, “Well, you can’t do that here.” And that’s partially true – you can’t easily grow blueberries in your yard in Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona. But if you are willing to open your mind to wolfberries and other lesser-known plants, you can grow an edible guild just as useful, and beautiful, as those you see in wetter climates. There are some great perennial edibles that are well suited to the high temperatures and dry conditions of the southwest. They may not be as glamorous or as well-known as the fruits that you see in pictures from Florida or Oregon, but there are some good candidates that deserve a place in a perennial desert food guild.

In the list that follows, I have omitted many more desirable edibles – like citrus, stone fruits, and blackberries – that might fare well on your property, depending on the amount of water and shade that you have available. For the moment, we’re going to focus on native and well-adapted edibles that can survive harsh summer conditions with little supplemental water, and that also enable function stacking in tough spots.

The Maligned Mesquite Tree

Frequently regarded as a “trash tree,” the mesquite is perhaps the most important plant in this list. Infamously long thorns make it unwelcome in many yards and gardens, but it provides several valuable services to the soil and its neighbors, and it has many practical uses for the permaculturist.

spring-mesquite-blooms

Spring mesquite blooms

Mesquite is renowned for its status as a pioneer plant. In dry, poor soil, mesquite is often the first sizable plant to repopulate clear cut or overgrazed dry land. And its presence is sorely needed. As a legume, mesquite is a nitrogen fixer. There is an old saying in Texas, known to be true by ranchers and cattle alike, that during times of prolonged drought, the last green grass will be found underneath the mesquite trees. The free nitrogen around mesquites is only part of the reason why this grass is still green. Thousands of tiny deciduous leaves make the shade cast by mesquite trees much like that of a commercial shade cloth. It casts a light, evenly distributed shade that protects the ground underneath from intense sunlight, while allowing enough light through to sustain most sun-loving plants. Each autumn, the tree sheds its tiny leaves, allowing winter sun through and blanketing the surrounding ground with a speedy layer of natural compost. These factors make mesquite an ideal nursery tree for establishing edible perennials in arid environments.

With a little work to collect and process its beans, mesquite can also be a valuable source of food. By some accounts, mesquite beans were the single most important food for the Native Americans of the Sonora Desert; more important than any grain, including corn. These beans are a great source of plant-based protein. Gruel made from ground mesquite beans sustained desert tribes through the winter, in between harvests of cultivated crops. In addition to gruel, mesquite flour was used in broth, gravy, pudding, bread, and even a slightly alcoholic punch (1). Today, adventurous home brewers and distillers are rediscovering the potential of the sugar-laden mesquite bean for fermentation in wine, beer, and liquor.

Mesquite can also provide a nice supplemental income stream for those with enough land to grow it as a production crop. Mesquite wood fetches a high price for its use in cooking meats. It can also be sold as a raw material for furniture, flooring, and various crafted and carved wood products. Any wood that cannot be sold is useful at home as firewood, fence posts, tool handles, and mulch. Beans that are not used make great fodder for cattle and other livestock.

If the pesky thorns are a deal breaker for you, one good alternative to mesquite is the leucaena (lew-SEE-nuh; Leucaena leucocephala). This tropical import fixes more nitrogen than mesquite, but its seeds must be cooked before being eaten, and are poisonous to some animals. There is a wealth of information available on mesquite, leucaena and other desert legumes from The University of Arizona’s Desert Legume Program (2).

Using Wolfberry in the Perennial Food Garden

Wolfberry is a native shrub that grows naturally throughout the United States. There are many edible varieties of wolfberry, a few of which do well in the arid southwest. Our native wolfberries are close relatives of the Asian goji berry, which is famed as a “superfood” for its nutritional density and high concentration of antioxidants.

wolfberries-closeup

Wolfberries closeup (By Paul144. Own work. Public Domain, via Wikipedia Commons)

Torrey’s wolfberry (Lycium torreyi) is a native species that grows naturally among mesquite trees in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. It grows in dense thickets, regularly reaching 6 feet in height, occasionally growing up to 12 feet. It grows well in poor, dry soils, and benefits from the presence of the mesquite. In addition to providing a nutritional boost in your diet, the berries are favored by birds and the bush provides habitat for birds and small creatures.

Agarita for the Arid Food Guild

Filling in underneath the mesquite in our desert food guild is the agarita (Mahonia trifoliata). This wonderful shrub is native to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. It regularly grows to 6 feet, and can reach 8 feet in good conditions. Agarita is evergreen, and its holly-like leaves are tipped with sharp spines. Agarita is a true survivor, able to withstand punishing summer heat with minimal water. It grows wild in full sun to partial shade, and it thrives along edges, often flourishing naturally under the canopy of mesquite trees.

agarita-leaves-closeup

Agarita leaves closeup (By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia Commons)

The sweet and tart berries of the agarita are edible for humans and wildlife. These berries earned it another common name, the wild currant. The berries can be eaten raw, but they are most commonly used to make jelly and pies (3). In a crunch, the berry’s seeds can be roasted and ground to be used as a coffee substitute.

Agarita is especially effective for drawing wildlife in to the guild. Birds and mammals relish the sweet berries. Bees are drawn to its fragrant yellow flowers, and many beekeepers use agarita as an early season honey plant.

Rounding out its usefulness in this guild, the roots of harvested agarita can be used to make a yellow dye which was popular with Native Americans and early settlers. Agarita also has many medicinal qualities. The berries are useful for making a tea to treat mouth sores and sore throats. The flowers can be used to prevent infection in fresh wounds. The root is used as a laxative, a fever reducer, and an eye wash (4).

Prickly Pears as a Perennial Food Source

Prickly pears are cacti in the genus Opuntia, easily identifiable by their flat, oval-shaped pads (cladodes). The USDA classifies at least 71 species in the US, and many more exist in Central and South America. Prickly pears are known to hybridize in nature, making identification notoriously difficult. The pads and fruit of all opuntia are edible. The most common culinary variety is the Opuntia ficus-indica – the Indian fig. Like most prickly pears, the growing requirements for the Indian fig are simple. It makes due with very little water, in any well-drained soil. This plant spreads so readily in dry conditions that it is has naturalized around the world and is considered invasive in parts of the Mediterranean, Africa, and Australia. It needs plenty of sunlight, but fares just fine in along the outer edges of a mesquite canopy.

The pads and the fruit are edible, though care must be taken to ensure that none of the spines are eaten. Spineless varieties are available to make preparation easier. These varieties are “spineless” in the same sense that seedless watermelons are “seedless.” The spines are fewer and smaller, but the plant must be prepared carefully to ensure that no spines are ingested. In Mexican cuisine, the pads – or nopales – are often diced or cut into long slices, and prepared fresh as a salad called nopalitos. The dietary fiber of opuntia pads is reputed to be especially beneficial, and is widely marketed as a health supplement. After the cactus flowers, sweet fruits are left behind, called tunas. The tunas turn red as they ripen, and when ripe are a sweet treat that can be eaten fresh, used as a garnish, or used in any number of deserts, candies, and drinks. There are countless recipes and variations for the pads and the fruits – too many to list here.

ripe-prickly-pear-fruits

Ripe prickly pear fruits

Prickly pears are increasingly grown as a fodder crop for cattle and other livestock. They require much less water per kilogram of dry fodder than most other fodder plants. Luther Burbank selected nutritious, spineless opuntias for this purpose – and descendants of his selections are used widely today as drought-resistant fodder sources in South Africa and Namibia (5).

Ripe opuntia tunas can be juiced to make a red dye or fermented to make a tan color. Opuntia also boast many medicinal uses. The flowers of Indian fig are used as an astringent, a diuretic, and to treat irritable bowel syndrome. The pads are used as an anti-inflammatory and as an anti-infective agent (6).

The Edible Common Mallow

Everything you need to know about the growing conditions for this perennial food source is revealed by its botanical name, Malva neglecta. Common mallow grows naturally throughout the US without supplemental water or care, including in the arid southwest.

Common mallow doesn’t taste like much, but its leaves are rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. The young leaves, flowers, green fruits (called peas), and ripened seeds are edible. Tender leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked, and mallow is often dried and added to smoothies for its nutritional value.

malva-neglecta-edible-weed

“Malva-neglecta-20070428” by Luis Fernández García – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 es via Wikimedia Commons

The mucilage from its peas is used as a thickening agent for soups, stews, gumbo, and confections including whipped cream, meringue, and marshmallows (7). Mallow is also good fodder for your livestock. As a medicinal, mallow is useful as an antibacterial, an anti-inflammatory, an astringent, a diuretic, an expectorant, and a laxative (8).

Purslane as an Edible Groundcover in the Desert Food Forest

As a groundcover, no edible is better suited to the intense heat of southwestern summers than purslane (Portulaca oleracea). This small succulent grows throughout the US as an annual, but some species can overwinter in warmer climates.

purslane-an-edible-ground-cover

Purslane, an edible ground cover

Purslane packs high levels of vitamin C, enzymes, and omega-3 fatty acids, and it can be stored for months after harvesting by fermentation. One cup of purslane can contain 400 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, more than fish and far safer to eat. A study at the University of Texas at San Antonio found purslane to contain 10 to 20 times more of the antioxidant melatonin than any other fruit or vegetable their lab tested (8). Add to this the fact that purslane will grow on its own in dry climates in full sun to part shade, with no special care, and you have the perfect edible groundcover. In addition to providing a zesty addition in your fresh salads, purslane makes great fodder for chickens and larger livestock.

Choose Your Own Adventure

These plants are a framework for a perennial food guild in the arid southwest. Be creative, and look around your area for other useful and edible plants that can thrive in hot, dry conditions. You might consider using mullein, yuccas, and grapevines to diversify the guild and to add beauty to its appearance.

Even these tough native and well-adapted plants require a little care to get through the punishing summer season, especially during extended periods of drought. You can keep additional watering to a minimum by harvesting as much rainwater as possible, using effective earthworks like berms and swales, mulching well, and making use of household greywater. Methods like hugelkultur and sunken beds can also help you to stretch your water budget.

Just keep an eye on your plants, especially when they’re young, and give them a little extra water if they’re suffering. Depending on your conditions, you might be able to work in some thirstier plants that require more water than those listed above. And, as you build your soil, more and more plants will be likely to thrive underneath the mesquite tree that you used to anchor this desert guild. With some time, you just might build a desert food forest to rival any that you’ve seen in Florida or Oregon.


Reprinted with permission from Permaculture Design Magazine, Volume #99, Spring 2016


Resources

1. Niethammer, Carolyn. American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest. Lincoln: Bison Books, 1999. Print.
2. http://cals.arizona.edu/desertlegumeprogram/index.html
3. Harelik, Tiffany. The Big Bend Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of West Texas. Charleston: American Palate, 2014. Print.
4. Heatherley, Ana Nez. Healing Plants: A Medicinal Guide to Native North American Plants and Herbs. Guilford: The Lyons Press, 1998. Print.
5. Mondragón-Jacobo, Candelario and Pérez-González, Salvador. Cactus (Opuntia spp.) as Forage. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2001. Print.
6. Khare, C.P. Indian Medicinal Plants: An Illustrated Dictionary. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, LLC, 2007. Print.
7. Kallas, John. Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate. Layton: Gibbs Smith, 2010. Print.
8. Blair, Katrina. The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival. White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2014. Print.

 

Create an Inexpensive Orchard with Bare Root Fruit Trees

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Bare root trees are young trees that are removed from the soil during their winter dormancy, so that the trees’ roots are exposed. This is done to make packaging and shipping easier and cheaper, and it’s a popular way to market fruit trees like apples, pears, peaches, plums, cherries, figs, pomegranates, and various nuts and berries.

peach-blossoms

When you buy bare root trees, you can often get fruit trees for about 50% of the cost of the same size trees if they were shipped in a pot. Half-off fruit trees, anyone? Now’s the time!

Bare root fruit trees are typically only available for a few months in the middle of winter. The trees need to have their roots placed back in the soil before they come out of dormancy and begin to bud out for the spring.

You can often fit a dwarf or semi-dwarf fruit tree into a pretty small space, and you can keep the tree even smaller with careful pruning. So, take a stroll around your property and see if there’s room to squeeze in a new fruit tree. You might be able to add a significant food source to your yard for less than $50…

If you’re lucky, you might find bare root fruit trees at a local nursery, garden center, or farm supply store. They should only have trees available that are appropriate for your area, so the hardest part of shopping is already done for you. If you can’t find them locally, you can always buy online – although the shipping costs can take a bite out of the overall savings.

Things to Consider

Chill Hours
Chill hours are the number of hours that elapse while the temperature is between 32 F and 45 F. Some trees won’t flower until an approximate number of chill hours have elapsed. The best trees for your area are the trees whose chill hour requirements match the average chill hours for your area.

• If you have a tree that requires 400 chill hours in a winter that only provides 200 chill hours, the tree probably won’t flower that year.
• If you have a tree that requires 400 chill hours in a winter that provides 800 chill hours, the tree will likely flower prematurely, and the blooms will freeze and fall off.

chill-hours-map

Pollination Requirements
Make sure that your fruit tree’s pollination requirements are met. Many fruit trees won’t bear good fruit without another tree nearby as a pollen source. Some trees will produce bigger and better fruit when pollinated by another specific variety of tree. If you only have room for one tree, make sure the tree you select is self-fertile. Also find out if your tree requires a 3rd party pollinator, like bees, or if it’s just pollinated by the wind.

Start Small and Scale
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Fruit trees require a little more maintenance than your average landscape tree. At a minimum you’ll probably need to spray once a year, prune once a year, and fertilize twice a year. Depending on the pests and diseases that are prevalent in your area, more spraying might be necessary. Start with a tree or two and get a feel for it before you commit to more maintenance work than you really want.

[Prune Your Fruit Trees Now for a Great Harvest Later]

If you’re not sure how to plant a bare root tree – don’t worry about it – it’s super simple. Here’s a video where you can see a bare root tree planted by Theresa Knutson, a horticulturalist at Raintree Nursery in Morton, WA:


Thanks to Raintree Nursery for the nifty video.

 

Can You Imagine Florida without Oranges?

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I recently went orange picking in a local citrus U-Pick here in North Florida.

At first glance, the scene was idyllic.

florida-orange-grove

A Victorian-era home with a friendly wraparound porch and an outdoor barn sat near the entrance to the grove. Five gallon buckets of citrus sat on the ground for sale and the elderly proprietors, a man and his wife in their 80s, waved as we pulled up.

“The tangerines are mostly gone and the grapefruit aren’t in yet,” the wife said as we stepped up to the table with the cash box. “You can pick all you like of the oranges, though.”

“What types do you have?” I asked, curious.

“All different kinds. I can’t even tell you anymore,” she replied. “Both juice and eating oranges. All good.”

I thanked her and set out with my son through the grove. Above were a few stately pecans, overshadowing both thorny seedling trees and well tended oranges.

There were all sorts of oranges and every single one we picked turned out to be delicious; yet as I wandered the grove, I saw quite a few trees with yellow leaves and less-than-healthy growth. A few were half dead and some spots had recently been filled with new trees. It was a beautiful grove at a distance… yet up close, all was not well.

As I walked around, I decided to film the fruit, the trees and the beauty of the grove. I thought to myself: will my children even see a grove like this ten years from now?

We filled three buckets (the cost per bucket was only $6, so why not?) and walked back to the table in front.

As I checked out, I asked the woman “Have you been having problems with citrus greening?”

She nodded. “We planted this grove a long time ago. Now I don’t know if it’s going to be around in even a few years. Lots of the trees got it. It’s not good.”

I shook my head, offered my condolences, paid with a $20 and told her to keep the change.

It hurt to see those trees and that couple under the cloud of an incurable disease.

Few things represent my home state of Florida more than oranges. They’re a symbol like few other things can be. They’re definitely better loved than alligators.

Yet thanks to citrus greening, the orange industry is falling to pieces.

What does that mean for us, the home growers? Good question.

Should You Still Plant Citrus?

The spread of citrus greening means the tree you buy and plant today is likely to end up dead within a decade unless something changes quickly.

It kills me to say this, since I love my citrus trees and wish I could plant a dozen more — yet the psyllid that has infected the groves is known to travel for miles. That means if you’re in or near a greening infected zone, you’re likely to end up with the disease before too long.

One of the more painful things I’ve had to do over the last few years was to pronounce the last rites over my Mom’s young navel orange tree. She was so happy when that tree was given to her, but only a few years after planting it went into complete decline and was bearing twisted fruits and yellow leaves.

I’ve heard similar stories of citrus trees that were planted in greening zones and rapidly succumbed to the disease.

It’s all across the state and if it’s not in your area, it’s likely to spread there.

Now if you’re outside of Florida, as I know many of our readers are, greening may not be a big deal. The restrictions and challenges that face us here aren’t an issue in some citrus growing regions. If you live outside the shadow of greening, grow some citrus!

For us here in Florida, however, I’d just avoid it until a cure or a resistant variety is found.

To make myself feel better, I used the footage I recorded in the grove and overlaid it with a sad, sad song I wrote on citrus greening (also known as Huanglongbing).

Yes, I write songs about plant viruses. Can you watch this one without weeping?

Around Christmas, I also posted a pair of videos on one of my favorite citrus fruits, the “calamondin” or “calamondin lime.”

First I explain the fruit:

And then, a few days later on Christmas Eve, my lovely wife and I decided to make homemade whiskey sours from calamondins.

Much silliness ensued.

To say that I’m really sad over the spread of citrus greening would be an understatement.

I want this thing cured. I love citrus trees.

When I was a kid we had a huge grapefruit tree in our backyard and my Dad built a tree fort for my brother and I in its branches. There were so many grapefruit we could hardly give them all away.

That’s the Florida I want to see again. I fear it may not return, yet I still hold out some hope.

I have started testing out a permaculture solution for citrus greening by creating a plant guild designed to repel the psyllids that spread the disease. It’ll take time to know if it works, though.

For now, send up a prayer for our researchers and our oranges — they need it.

Good luck, folks.

 

The Banana-pocalypse… It’s Coming

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banana-plantation-monocultureMonoculture is defined as “the cultivation or growth of a single crop or organism, especially on agricultural or forest land.” The first time I remember hearing about monoculture was when I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire back around 2001. Monoculture is a big deal in agriculture, and it just may become a household word for Americans of all persuasions in the near future…

If you’ve ever driven through Iowa and looked out the window to see clean, identical rows of corn extending all the way to the horizon… that’s what monoculture looks like. Likewise, if you’ve driven through Kansas and seen amber waves of grain, waving uniformly as far as the eye can see… that was monoculture as well.

The Dangers of Monoculture

Monoculture is widely viewed as a bad idea because it means that we invest heavily in one variety of crop, putting all of our proverbial eggs into one basket. If a pest or disease comes along and attacks that chosen variety, we’re simply out of luck, as all of our resources were sunk into that single variety, and now it has a big problem.

History has demonstrated the danger of monocultures several times, most famously in Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

Ireland invested heavily in the potato during the 18th and 19th centuries. Ireland’s rural poor were especially dependent on the potato as their primary staple. In the mid 1840s, a fungus called Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans) made its way from South America, to North America, and on to Europe. Within only a few years, potato blight had spread worldwide. Crops were lost on many continents, but the effects were most devastating in Ireland, where potatoes had been commonly grown in monoculture. The disease wiped out a significant portion of the potato harvest for several consecutive years, and hundreds of thousands of Ireland’s poor starved to death.

And this was in the 1840s, before steam-powered railroads and ships were widely adopted – long before commercial flight. But even back then, it took an aggressive fungus about 2 years to travel from South America, north to the U.S., and across the Atlantic to Europe – with horse-drawn wagons and wind-powered clipper ships as its only helpers.

Similar scenarios have played out over time – and some of them have happened very close to home. 100 years after the Great Famine in Ireland, Victoria oat blight swept through oat monocultures in the United States. And then in the 1970s, southern corn leaf blight spread through the U.S. These are examples of monocultures being targeted by a single, well-adapted pathogen, right here in America.

In the 1950s, monocultures of Gros Michel bananas were famously obliterated by Panama disease on banana plantations around the world from South America, to Africa and Australia.

Despite history’s repeated lessons on this subject, in today’s industrial agriculture environment monoculture is perfectly commonplace. Genetic modification of crops lends itself to monoculture, as endless fields of beans and grain can be modified to resist one specific pesticide or herbicide, enabling cost-effective weeding and pest treatment from crop-dusting planes overhead. The result is exactly the scenario about which history has repeatedly warned us. While the modified crops are resistant to a controlled substance manufactured in a lab, they are abnormally susceptible to naturally occurring pathogens. Any one pathogen that adapts to prey on the monocultured crop can run rampant, free from the natural checks and balances present in a diverse ecosystem.

History Repeats Itself

And according to the journal PLOS Pathogens from the Public Library of Science, we may be on the verge of another global monoculture backfire today. On November 19th, they published a study detailing the legacy of the Panama disease disaster, one generation later. The Gros Michel banana variety, which had been reproduced around the world by tissue cloning, slowly gave in to Panama disease around the world in the middle of the 20th century. To beat the Panama disease pathogen, banana growers identified a different variety that was resistant to the disease, and they began to produce that alternate variety, the Cavendish, in place of the failing Gros Michel. No significant changes were made in the method of production – only the variety of banana was changed.

Who would have guessed it? The pathogen behind Panama disease (since identified as Fusarium oxysporum) has naturally adapted to target the new Cavendish variety of bananas. First identified in the 1990s, the new strain of Panama disease (Tropical Race 4) has wiped out banana plantations in Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, the Philippines, Jordan, Pakistan, and Lebanon. The Cavendish currently represents 99 percent of the global banana market. And, it seems that its time is limited. With no known controls, it’s only a matter of time before the banana plantations of Latin America are infected with the new strain of Panama disease.

As the study’s authors note, “Any disease management eventually fails in a highly susceptible monoculture.”

Banana producers will likely, and predictably, find another variety of banana that is resistant to Tropical Race 4, and substitute that variety where the Gros Michel and now the Cavendish have failed. And we’ll enjoy bananas again, until the disease adapts to prey on the new variety. But the larger lesson to be learned here is that monoculture itself is inherently unsustainable.

One can’t help but wonder… what if an environment existed where many different banana plants of diverse genetic origins were grown alongside other plants with different genetic and microbial profiles? Would Panama disease fade to the background? What happens when you introduce Tropical Race 4 into an environment of thriving biological diversity, instead of a massive monoculture of its pre-selected prey?

Perhaps one day we’ll find out.

In the meantime, what can we do about the impending banana-pocalypse?

Dealing with the Banana-pocalypse

One thing that we can all do is to plant our gardens full of organic heirlooms of many varieties, and then talk to anyone who will listen about the importance of biodiversity. If we can demonstrate that diversity works on a small scale, and infect that idea into the minds of everyone around us, we might one day reach a tipping point where everyone recognizes both the danger of monoculture and the benefit of biodiversity. With each heirloom variety you preserve, and with each landrace variety you select, you pave the way towards a cultural shift of understanding biodiversity.

Personally, in my household, the first thing we’ll do is try to find a good substitute for frozen banana pieces in our smoothies. Dang! Frozen bananas are awesome smoothie fodder… I wonder if anyone can recommend a good substitute? Maybe frozen sunchoke tubers? If you have any ideas to help us out, use the comments section below to let me know about them…


Sources:

• National Center for Biotechnology Information: An Andean origin of Phytophthora infestans inferred from mitochondrial and nuclear gene genealogies
• PLOS Pathogens: Worse Comes to Worst: Bananas and Panama Disease—When Plant and Pathogen Clones Meet
• The Washington Post: Bye, bye, bananas

 

Turn Your Apple Harvest into Homemade Apple Cider Vinegar

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fresh-ripe-apples-on-the-treeFall is abundant with many opportunities of harvest. One such opportunity for us in the Mitten State is the bountiful apple harvest. If you live in Michigan, it’s no secret that apples are very prolific here!

Even without your own orchard or even your own tree, there are apples to be had alongside country roads and often people will give them away for free! Apples can be found in virtually every part of Michigan, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of at this time of year. For us, we’ve had the good fortune of buying a piece of property with a well established orchard. The last couple of years, we barely scratched the surface of the bounty, even though we made apple pies, apple sauce, and ate apples to our heart’s content.

This year is a different story. I decided I wasn’t going to let those beautiful red, green and yellow orbs of goodness go to waste. Along with collecting as many as we could for pies and sauce, we also collected for cider, and apple cider vinegar! The inspiration came to me while I was fermenting grain with whey. If grain and vegetables benefit from fermentation, so can apples, and it’s an age old process that preserves the apple harvest for months or even years.

Hard apple cider is made simply by allowing raw apple cider from freshly pressed apples to ferment. Don’t let the simplicity of the thing fool you, however. Good hard apple cider is difficult to get right. The cider is traditionally fermented in oak barrels, but it has been problematic due to the inherent leakiness of wooden barrels, and our current divorce from using wood anything. We’ve used glass fermenting jars. The fermentation process will occur regardless of any added culture. Wild cultures that are naturally present in the apple will ferment the cider just as well as the purified strains from the store. The only problem with wild cultures is, you’re not sure what you’re getting! If you’re not much of a gambler, you can always add a yeast killer, wait a few days (the appropriate length of time should be described in the directions), and add a known culture. If vinegar is your end goal, the wild cultures will do just fine. A cider maker may also choose to add sugar or honey or some other sweetener to boost the end alcohol content. For vinegar, adding sugar will make a more acidic end product.

The cider will go through two stages; aerobic and anaerobic fermentation. During the first aerobic stage, the cider will froth and foam – it is casting off impurities, and the cider maker should be sure to keep the fermentation vessel clean during this time. He should also take care to keep the top covered. Even though this is is an aerobic process, the cider maker will not want wild yeasts and dust to prematurely spoil the cider. When the foaming subsides, an air lock can be placed over the opening so that the anaerobic process can begin. You will notice that during this stage, there will be lots of bubbles from the yeast fermentation process. You know that the cider is near finished when the bubbles slow or completely stop. The actual amount of time it takes completely depends on the blend of apples, their ripeness, sweetness, and if any sugar or sweetener was added.

Apple cider vinegar is easy to make. First you have to make hard apple cider, described above. If you aren’t interested in drinking the hard cider, it doesn’t really matter how well it turns out, because either way it will turn to acid vinegar. The hard cider is simply allowed to remain in open air, so that the alcohol can be converted to acetic acid. The cider maker may add a bit of previous apple cider vinegar to the mix to speed the process. Raw apple cider vinegar will grow a ‘mother’- a cloudy yeast complex that floats around in your cider. This is normal. Stir it twice daily, and test your vinegar after about a week. If it has reached a desirable acidity level, simply pour it into clean storage containers such as glass canning jars, seal it, and keep it in a cool, dark place. Vinegar will last indefinitely, but it may get stronger over time. If your vinegar turns too strong, dilute it with water to taste.

The amount of apples needed to make cider is not very large. This depends on the type of apples and also their ripeness. The taste of the cider and vinegar will also depend on the type of apples. Optimally, one would want some sweet, some tangy, and some bitter apples to round out the flavor. For our first try, we were able to obtain a few different varieties. The process is still underway, as fermentation takes time. But our liquid gold is bubbling away, and we’re eager to try it!


Thanks to Michelle Maier for participating in the [Grow] Network Writing Contest.

We have over $2,097 in prizes lined up for the Fall 2015 Writing Contest, including all of the following:

– A 21.5 quart pressure canner from All American, a $382 value
– A Survival Still emergency water purification still, a $288 value
– 1 free 1 year membership in the [Grow] Network Core Community, a $239 value
– A Worm Factory 360 vermicomposting system from Nature’s Footprint, a $128 value
– 2 large heirloom seed collections from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, valued at $103 each
– A Metro-Grower Elite sub-irrigation growing container from Nature’s Footprint, a $69 value
– 2 copies of the complete Home Grown Food Summit, valued at $67 each
– 3 free 3 month memberships in the [Grow] Network Core Community, valued at $59 each
– 4 copies of the Grow Your Own Groceries DVD video set, valued at $43 each
– A Bug Out Seed Kit from the Sustainable Seed Company, a $46 value
– 4 copies of the Alternatives To Dentists DVD video, valued at $33 each
– 4 copies of the Greenhouse of the Future DVD and eBook, valued at $31 each