The why of fruit thinning

I noticed one of the apples in the food forest had finished blooming and now had tons of tiny apples clustered on its branches. I took the situation in hand and started to pick them off.

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photo by Jenella

Five flowers form on each spur, leaving five small fruits after pollination. They naturally fall off, one by one, until a single fruit is left to make seed. Contrary to what we might think, an apple has grown to its maximum potential within thirty days after the flower drops its petals. From this point, any ‘growth’ is just cells filling up with sap like balloons. The number of balloons to be filled with juice resulting from cell division is already decided.

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I was pulling off all but one fruit on each spur. From this, I expected each apple left on the tree would have more nourishment from the tree, be larger, and better shaped. If I had waited for the tree to pair down the fruits itself, it would have divided that nourishment between all those extra apples that would never stay on the tree anyway.

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Is there a drawback to this unnatural thinning? Perhaps.

When plucking off the fruits I noticed a few had codling moth damage. I have gotten fine harvests of apples from my trees, with very little, if any, codling moth damaged in years past. Whether this is an especially good year for codling moth population or not might explain this damage. Or perhaps the tree had dropped much of the fruit with codling moth damage so I never noticed? It quickly occurred to me the tree grows the extra fruit in part to increase the chances at least one will make seed -as codling moths eat the seeds of the apples they infest.

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Codling moths have several generations through a season, so we will see if the moths come back for more later.

Another effect of thinning apples is more regular fruiting. The seeds in each fruit create a hormone that blocks fruiting the next year. Some varieties of apple are notorious for their violent fruiting cycles -one year not a fruit on the tree, the next (or year after that) the branches break for the myriad fruit clogging the works. By thinning, a moderate amount of hormone is produced every year, allowing a moderate amount of fruit every year.

Perhaps such staggered fruit production in un-thinned apples is a tactic for cutting down on codling moth population?

As is, thinning delivers better results for me. But my trees are also quite small -just barely above my head. Thinning falls into what I call pleasurable interaction with the food forest, or work I enjoy, and usually only takes five minutes or so to complete.

I may quit it in years to come, and just trade thinning time and larger fruit for hacking out the good hunks from myriad smaller fruits. Masanobu Fukuoka, when his students asked how they could grow good apples without equipment and sprays, said to simply feed the poor quality fruit the students thought eminent to pigs. I’m not so skeptical as Fukuoka’s students; I have seen my trees produce quite healthy fruit already, so we’ll see what they give as the system builds. Below are some of my Fuji apples last year.

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You may wonder how the heck massive orchards ever thin their fruit one by one. By machine? No, by chemicals. Hormones in trees largely dictate the quality and growth of the fruit. We have developed an array of synthetic hormones, of which there are no counterparts in nature, that cause apple trees to drop their fruit. Run some experiments to properly calibrate the dosage, and you have thinned trees by simply spraying. Some of the hormones they have developed even increase the cell proliferation process beyond what the fruit tree offers, resulting in abnormally large fruit. I’ll let you research the health effects of these synthetic hormones.

When I first came across this information years ago, I went on a long search for an equivalent that could be derived from plants. I didn’t come across one, or any information on a hormone pathway that could cause the fruit to drop, accept for stressing a tree, or simply reducing pollination. I am suspicious there is an even more elegant answer:

I find that increasing the health of trees and their ecology in general can can at times truly transform their character. Mortal Tree is still a long ways from being notably fertile. But Fruiting factors are building on their own in some places. So perhaps the good effects will get out of hand, and produce some good results I never would have expected. 

 

PASSIVE salad 

How do you make a salad from perennial vegetables? How do they pair? Is there a best way to slice them? My friend and client Elora lately posted a short video showing how she makes salad from her PASSIVE garden.

Harvesting from a Perennial Garden (~2 minute watch)

What are your favorite perennial salad pairings?

If you’re new to this blog, you might like to read the post about Elora’s garden establishment here For example:

She has posted about the garden before on her blog, The Blonde Butter Maker, and tells me she plans on making a lot more content on how passive agriculture fits into her and her family’s day to day life. I started design in their yard about three years ago, and am so pleased they are seeing such excellent results.

Here is the recipe Elora uses in the video:

Salad burnett -a loose handful

French sorrel – 3 to 5 leaves

Scorzonera -10 leaves

Welsh onion -5 of the green tops picked off, or 1 onion removed from the base up.

Chocolate mint -2 sprigs

Stritello -loose handful

Some mache stems and leaves -as much as a handful.

Violet flowers for garnish -as many as 30 flowers per salad

The scorzonera, sorrel, and onion greens should be chopped -preferably into thin strips cut lengthwise. Mix this with the stritello and salad burnett and mache. The chocolate mint can then be chopped fine and evenly dispersed over the top with violet flowers for garnish. A light vinaigrette would compliment this best.

Food from shade: solomon’s seal and hosta shoots.

Hosta are ubiquitous to the flowerbeds of the world as any plant you can imagine. While some take sun with less complaint than others, many are misplaced in sunny positions, and run ragged because of it. They are really shade plants, preferring a fertile understory of trees.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) is harder to find, but can live on even less sun than hosta and still be happy.

Both are edible. “Urui” is the vegetable name for hosta where it’s eaten in Asia. The young “hostons,” as some forest gardeners call the plants just coming up in spring, are best for eating. As the leaves unfurl they’re still edible, but become more tough and stringy as the season unfolds.

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Solomon’s seal too, is best when sprouting in spring. The leaves have a slightly bitter element; which personally I don’t mind, but others may prefer omitting by stripping the leaves from the stalk. It’s the stalk itself that has the really good flavor, which is hardly different from asparagus -with the umami richness kicked up a notch.

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This makes a lot of sense if you consider how closely solomon’s seal is related to asparagus. They are both in Liliaceae -the Lily family.

I’m harvesting both hosta and SS from parts of the food forest that are in dappled sun now, but will have little to no light once the trees leaf out. Asparagus, which as a rule prefers sun, is just showing up to the party as these two are just passing their prime. Few annual garden crops are even planted now, let alone ready for harvest to fill the “hunger gap,” but these two are shooting to the sky, ready to be crisply snapped off their stems, and sauted in the skillet.

They’re simple to prepare: “hostons” may be sliced in half lengthwise. 

Solomon’s seal I leave whole. You could peel off the leaves to remove any possibility of bitterness. Just snapping their stems at ground level I have not found any hard bases like asparagus, so no chopping necessary.

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Once prepared, heat oil of choice in a pan, and add the shoots. I flavored these pictured with some pepper, fish sauce, and vinegar to compliment the bitter element. You may prefer to omit the vinegar if the leaves are removed from the Solomon’s seal. Once tender, they’re ready for the plate.

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I got my Solomon’s seal in a trade online with the understanding they were giant Solomon’s seal (var. comutatum), and certainly appreciated getting twenty or so rhizomes freshly dug. They have not achieved the height my neighbor’s specimen achieve every year though; mine stay around three feet, hers shoot to six easily. So I think there was a misunderstanding. I may get some of the larger kind in the near future.

As for variance in hosta, I can’t vouch for the quality -especially when it comes to the hybrids. My neighbor is a formidable collector of hosta, and has even brought me with her to purchase direct from hosta breeders; so the fact that there are myriads of hosta, with crazy exotic chemical attributes and textures out there is real in my mind. Usually the blue, and dark green varieties are best for eating.  In this dish, I prepared H. nigrescens, and ‘Sum and Substance’ (a hybrid of unknown parentage), both of which aren’t too rare. These are mostly the throwaway hostas from my neighbor’s massive collection -seedlings that have no name, and extras.

Thriving in the dark corners of the food forest, these two are making food, and beauty, in places little else would grow.

Plum Blossoms

One of the Japanese plums in Mortal Tree blossoming. This one was the first to be mulched and guilded, which resulted in a huge difference of size and maturity between it and its pollinating partner. Although just down the hill, and planted at the same time, this other plum just sat until I mulched it the following year -relieving it of the grass growing right up against it. As a result of this delay in mulching, the partner has not even begun blooming yet. It really is amazing how much grass can suppress the growth of young trees.

On another note, any pictures on this blog that are mine (i.e. no picture credit to anyone else) is available for use on your own blogs or the like. A couple people have taken this liberty themselves in the past -which I was quite flattered by.

If you could credit me, I’d appreciate it. At the same time I totally understand aesthetics can frown on clunky captions under your photos; so adapt as needed to make things beautiful. If for any reason you have a hard time copying an image yourself, but would like to use it, contact me and I’ll try to get you a copy.

I also contribute to Shutterstock as of the last couple months. Most of these are especially floral pics that won’t show up on this blog. You’ll have to deal with their payment plan to use these; but my public portfolio with them can be viewed here if you’re curious. If you do check them out, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Approaching Hablitzia

Scanning page after page on late night searches for interesting plants, there is one that has always topped my list of most lusted after leaf.

Hablitzia tamnoides, or Caucasion mountain spinach, is the sole member of the genus Hablitzia, closely related to Amaranth. It is a perennial vine, growing 6-10 ft (or so), hardy to zone 4 by most accounts, boasting the title of ‘the’ perennial spinach, with harvest beginning in very early spring. Tantalizing, isn’t it?

The plant is also said to be triploid, which is supposed to result in poor germination. Diploid strains seem to have surfaced in the gene pool after increasing interest in the plant. Years ago the seed was only available per the kindness of a handful of growers -sometimes at a dollar a seed as I recall -aside from any shipping.

I have traded, bought, begged hablitzia seed from several sources, for several years, gotten several strains. Every year I have carried out the most carefully composed care I can contrive to obtain a healthy plant. They have invariably died.

Every year I have inched closer, with barely a sprout the first year. In following years, I began getting what I think must be diploid seed strains, because the germination greatly improved to about 90 percent.  I also began stratifying them for shorter durations; because one gardener told me he gets sprouts by simply putting the planted flat in his root cellar for two weeks in fall. Which one allowed the improvement in germination is hard to tell.

Once germination was no longer a problem, I achieved whole trays of the plants. This was only for one by one, day by day, each plant to wilt. The next day I’d find it flat on the ground, dead.

I figured it must be a bacterial infection. What kind I am not sure. The only disease I have ever heard hablitzia succumbs to is botrytis, but I had never seen a sign of the ‘ash.’

It may have just been post hoc, but I found the greatest onslaught usually followed even slight long term excess of water -such as watering two days in a row. Now I keep a tight leash on any watering, waiting until the soil completely dries out, then drenching. The plants seem to like this. Other variables may be at work.

This year, I finally made a breakthrough: I have continued using more and more rock powder, with better and better results for the plants. Most describe hablitzia as a ‘woodland’ plant; but the situations that seem to give the best results simulate dry river beds, or rock crevices. They seem to like tons of available minerals, little nitrogen, and alternating dry and wet, with lots of sun. Providing enough rock seems to be especially important.

I started the seeds last year in a simple organic blend of potting soil. This includes small amounts of peat moss, and chopped wood chips, and has proven the best choice. Once sprouts appeared, I dusted the plants heavily with a very silica-rich rock powder called wollastonite.*

Also, I only filled the pot about half way with soil. This way the walls block most movement of air, and reflect heat and light on the seedlings. Because the soil is thinner, it dries out faster too.

Once the seedlings achieved true leaves, I transplanted into simple, unamended clay I dug up from under a healthy clover plant, mixed with wollastonite until it was white. I put the transplanted seedlings in the shade, and didn’t water for the first day. When I did finally water, I put them in full sun for a couple hours, to dry off the leaves, then put back in the shade.

The plants that followed were some of the most sturdy specimen I have ever grown. I dusted again with wollastonite, and moistened with water I  added a little honey to (antibacterial properties). Bacterial wilt stayed away for a long time.

I gave away a couple of these plants, hoping they would live somewhere. Haven’t heard back any successful reports. I gave two to one of my clients. These I dusted and sprayed during a later visit in hopes of holding off any possible infection. One died. One took.

Yes, one continued to grow beyond the size of any hablitzia I have grown. Then it vined. It even bloomed! This spring, it’s sprouting!

Obviously I’m just short of delirious. What’s more, I am reverse engineering the heck out of this situation in the hopes I can actually get one to grow in Mortal Tree. I transplanted several of the other plants to the food forest last year. They all died -some due to animals though. Perhaps they would have overcome the wilt otherwise.

The situation at my client’s is a southeast corner of their white brick house, next to a concrete patio. This protects from all the most undesirable winds, but is wide open to early morning, and some mid-day sun. It is also under the rain gutter, which overflows in downpours, but dries out quickly after because of all the reflected sun. The soil isn’t notably good -actually quite gravelly there. Spent flower bouquets, and a few kitchen scraps under thin grass in a sort of thin Lasagna Garden fashion provides a small flow of nutrients. If you would like to learn more about the site, see this For example:

Eventually I will get one of these plants to flourish in Mortal Tree. Until then, I am ecstatic my clients have achieved one of these precious plants, and look forward to hearing what they think of the flavor when they begin harvesting. That will probably be next year of course. We want to be sure this plant is here to stay!

 

*I got it from the mine owner when I met him at a conference, but he sells as small as 50 lb bags on request through his website. My parents are considering getting a couple tons of the stuff for our gardens and fields. I am actually planning on taking the distribution a step smaller with one, or even half pound units available for sale for small scale gardeners. I’m still working out packaging and sales channels; but contact me if you would like to be informed of Stardust Chelation Substrate’s launch in a couple months.

Building beds with bricks

The mulch-generating polyculture for Mortal Tree’s PASSIVE garden system is going well. It’s the bed in Foundation for a future I am establishing with bricks.*

The intent for this bed, per A bit blunt method, was to shift the rocks every couple of months to kill off the grass underneath. This worked pretty well for most of the bed. I shifted the bricks in July and made a final small shift about a week ago. Above is the freshly shifted “mulch” around an amorpha.

I also tried covering a small part with grass mulch in May last year, and this took care of any weeds growing through the cracks. Below is the planting now. Like most fun times, there is a mess to clean up afterwards. This bed had a lot of fun last year. What you see is actually mulch I applied, the healthy comfrey, and some amorpha interplanted. I plucked out the little bits of green quackgrass, and look forward to some very lush, beautiful growth here come summer.

I plucked out the quackgrass when I shifted the rocks. Because they block sun and moisture loss, the rocks encourage the quackgrass to grow shallow, allowing me to just pick them up rather than pulling them. What roots did grow deeply are easily pulled because the soil is so soft under the bricks.

 


This soil conditioning is one if the main perks of using rocks. The soil life is everywhere, with centipedes, worms, spiders -even at this cold season. Soil between the bricks which heaved from the freezing over winter is unbelievably friable. It looks like it has been tilled.

Considering how low this soil is in organic matter, with a clay-coal base, with no amendments like sand or ever even being tilled before, I am very excited to already have such results. The moisture and soil life have brought it so far because I have created the right habitat, covering the soil. The organic matter is starting to accumulate.

Above are some amorpha leaves dropped last fall, which likely have brought in nitrogen the system formerly did not have. The plants were already beginning to nodulate in their pots when I planted them last year. If you would like to learn more about how I ensure they make nitrogen and get off to a good start, I have some notes here on Growing amorpha.

I also harvested some of the comfrey leaves last year, which I left around the plants I harvested from. This is breaking down into gorgeous soil, bringing in carbon the system did not formerly have.

Pictured is some broken down comfrey from a larger patch in the food forest. This new patch should be producing similar soil in the near future. It’s already well on its way.

 

*This could have been done with some large piece of canvas or the like, or a large piece of plywood. One of my clients decided to try clear plastic just to block water, which was still effective at removing the plants underneath.

Up the chain: trophic system moderators

“What limits size and growth?……..

We ourselves are part of a guild of species that lie within and without our bodies….. Most of nature is composed of groups of species working interdependantly, and this complexity too must have its synchronistic regulators.”

-Bill Mollison Permaculture: A Designers Manual

Rummaged potting soil and dried, dead little seedling roots dangling in the air was a recurring sight in our greenhouse a couple years ago. Whole flats of peppers would have their tops nipped off and the like because of mice.

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Our heated greenhouse.

Poisons, traps, and even some nasty sticky pads lined the floors waiting to dole out death to the offenders, but they were ineffective. The traps caught few mice. The destruction continued. The sticky pads outside our sprouting room caught sparrows which I had a hard time cleaning the nasty goo off trying to save. Nothing worked until we got a cat.

Esmerelda is a small, long haired drop-off cat, but is the best mouser I have ever seen. For a while after she showed up, I would regularly pass her walking up the driveway with a fat vole in her mouth. As I raked out last season’s growth in the greenhouse, her face would be stuffed right in the middle off my work, waiting for a vole to dash from its dinner table.

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Esmerelda and Niki

Now when we plant, the only thing mice bother is fresh squash seeds, but even those are seldom touched. Having made some hanging shelves to keep the squash seeds out of reach, it’s difficult to tell if we have mice or voles at all.

Making friends with rodents is recognizing what voles, mice, and many of the technically-not-rodents like rabbits and ground hogs do for our plants I explained in the earlier post. It also means keeping their numbers in proportion to the rest of the ecology. Artificial trophic system moderators, such as traps and poison, aren’t that effective. What is effective, is encouraging these rodents’ predators.

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Perched Niki

As a USDA Certified Organic farm, we actually have to submit a written explanation of how we manage trophic levels such as rodent population, and Esmerelda is officially accepted as part of that system.

Owls are major predators of mice and other smaller rodents. Barn owls, which have species across the globe, eat at least one rodent a night. A pair with young captures as much as 3000 per year according to some sources, which would certainly keep about any rodent population in check.

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One of the many subtly varied species of barn owls. Photo by Jim Vallee

Barn owls are fairly ubiquitous, so the chances of hosting a pair is pretty likely if you have old buildings, hollow trees, or nest boxes where they can raise their young.

In addition to preying on mice, larger species of owls can prey on rabbits. We have a pair of great horned owl on our farm, which we likely wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for the faint sunlight betraying one of their silhouettes as it ghosted off one evening. We had some young pullets at the time the owl’s were picking off once a day at dusk. The remedy was caging up the pullets earlier in the evening and letting the owls go eat the mice and rabbits.

With this kind of appetite and stealth, great horned owls can obviously carry away some rabbits. Studies have shown even these big owls though also like mice, and that a pair will catch up to a dozen a night when feeding young.

Dogs have a pretty broad array of prey. Foxes prey on mice and rabbits. Larger animals like coyotes can prey on groundhogs, but few of us want those close to our gardens and homes. This is why we domesticated them.

We have a rat terrier, named Daisy -named after the bee bee gun brand. We got her specifically for managing the rodent population, which she does very well. Despite her small size, she also gets possum and groundhogs. This is because we’ve carefully trained her.

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Daisy hoping to get a bite of that pea. She loves veggies.

We have adhered to the idea that dogs seldom hunt alone, almost always in packs, with one taking the attention, others lunging in for the kill. Daisy has always been taught that if she finds something, we will always come to her aid. If she finds a mouse under something, she barks, we come, and do what we can to move things around and let her get at it.

This is especially important when she beats a very large groundhog to its hole and lays into it. She kills her prey by lifting it off the ground, giving it a whip, snapping its neck. As a result, groundhogs larger than her are pretty much impossible for her to kill alone. She has always been taught that someone will show up shortly to make the final blow while she keeps its attention. Although she can handle young groundhogs herself.

Our neighbor had a much larger dog they would keep in their fenced garden area at night when the sweet corn was about ripe. This kept raccoons from pillaging the place.

Some might object that allowing an animal to kill anything makes them a threat to their human caretakers. I think this is more a matter of teaching the dog who is a friend, who is a foe, who is above them, and who is below them. This sounds petty among us humans, who obviously function differently, but this is how dogs work in their packs. Even with animals that could, and should, be prey for Daisy, we have trained her to not kill.

If our rabbits get out for instance, we sic her on them. She catches them by simply holding them until we come pick them up. She doesn’t pick them up and snap their neck as is her method to kill anything else. The rabbit is a bit slobbered-on after this, but in my experience, catching rabbits otherwise is seldom less stressful for the rabbit, usually unsuccessful, and so leaves the rabbit prone to being eaten by a raccoon -which certainly doesn’t care about a rabbit’s quality of life.

In general, I think cats and dogs enjoy a much better quality of life when they are allowed to express their instincts. If we can figure out a way they can do this without endangering us, this is a mutually beneficial relationship.

Across the board, effective ecology creation means making friends with your pests. Sometimes, keeping a balance means making friends with their predators.