For my friends back East, I’m embarrassed to report that spring has been lovely and mild out here, and we have had beautiful days interspersed with just the right amount of rain since January.
Despite the glorious weather that has come our way I have been in a melancholy mood this week. That is what planting fruit trees does to me. In religious terms I am by nature a Brookist – that is, I follow the essential tenant and teaching of Mel Brooks: “Hope for the best, expect the worst”. But hope, as Thucydides tells is, is an admission of powerlessness, despair, and submission. So it was with some sadness that I put in what I suspect will be the last of our fruit orchards on the property the other night. Why last?
Our ornamental crab-apple was beautiful this year, putting on a cotton candy clock that lasted for a couple of weeks.
As one verges on 52, the dark care that rides behind us through life as only a vague presence starts to come into sharper focus. How long will it take the trees to produce? How vigorous will they be? How vigorous will I be in order to tend, irrigate, and water them in their first years, or to harvest them as the fruit comes on? What will subsequent years bring? Will I be here for them, or will it be the task of another to tend them?
Many of our ornamentals flowered all at once this year, making for an explosive array of purples, pinks, and whites.
The view from our front deck in time for a morning coffee break!
Since arriving on our property I have put in two fruit orchards, in addition to a number of other fruit trees scattered round and about. There is the orchard in the garden where we run the ducks, and now there is the orchard in the chicken yard. On top of that, there are a number of fruit and nut trees we have put in at various places around our house. We have planted a variety of fruit, including an array of heirloom apples, cider apples, heirloom pears, Perry pears for cider, several apricots, two paw-paws, eating cherries including a few Danubians, a nectarine, a variety of peaches, a profusion of plums, two almond trees (from the Ukraine that should do well here), four fig trees (from which I’m already propagating more), and two walnuts. The trees I put in the first year have started to produce: last year we had plums, cherries, peaches, and figs (plus the usual apples from the older trees).
A spring evening at our house and gardens.
Unfortunately this picture simply doesn’t capture the vivid blues of the lithodora and the stark contrast with the red of our Japanese maple. The roses are finally settling in now that they are starting their third year in our garden, and look quite vigorous and healthy, with lots of blooms.
One of our favorite roses is the Rio Samba, that takes first prize this year in our Early Bird category as our first rose to bloom.
I like to imagine what the orchard in the duck and chicken yard will look like five, ten, twenty, thirty years from now. Will I be here to see it? Will any of us? The day we planted last week was beautiful. We went outside at six AM and weren’t back inside with our feet up until 9 PM (well, for Lori it was 8:30, but I headed to town and grabbed a hard cider to unwind). The day started with a call from the post-office at 6:05 AM: we had 175 broilers on order and I had to scurry out of the house to pick them up and get the day-old chicks set up under heat lamps with plenty of food and water. After morning chores Lori spent the day weeding and renovating our back gardens, while I weed-wacked the cover crop in the garden and tended animals. Then, late in the day, our trees came. There were ten of them, and we wanted to get them in the ground, so after dinner we dug ten holes, planted, watered, and said a prayer over them. The chickens benefited handsomely since every hole I dug exposed dozens of worms and they feasted on everything from red-wigglers to night crawlers.
Our Wisteria bloomed pretty early this year, so unfortunately we will not get to see it blooming at the same time as our Gold Chain trees, but we will take it.
It was a long day, and the only way I was able to get moving to class the next day was by whipping up an ibuprofen omelet (whose ingredients consist of two green gel caps washed down with a swig of OJ – it is essential that the OJ be drunk directly from the container), washed down with plenty of black coffee. But the long days go by fast: it was just a couple of months ago, it seems, that we could not even think of morning chores until 8:00 am, and now I am out at 6:00, with our dry stretch necessitating watering of so many of our veggies now in ground and growing. The body, as it verges past half a hundred years, can still do much, if you are lucky, but not as much and not without costs and consequences. Even “just” sitting on a tractor for a couple of hours can kick your ass – imagine riding a land rover over rough terrain, but there is no power steering. The constant twisting and turning of the wheel combined with the contorted bracing and bending of the body makes for a work out in and of itself, as I experienced the other day when I tilled our garden for the year.
Our garden in a “before mowing” shot, with its rich, luxuriant cover crop of crimson clover.
And the after shot, as it is reduced to green manure that will help build organic matter and tilth in our soil.
Then there is the digging. Despite all the mechanization there is still a great deal of tough work in the spring to prep the garden. This year I fear I mowed and tilled too soon, in part because of a wildly successful cover crop of crimson clover that over-wintered in our garden to build up soil tilth. The clover held in the soil’s moisture so effectively that, a dry spell notwithstanding, the soil was heavy and moist and made for a very clumpy seed bed, even though I went over it with our tiller three times at full throttle. I dug no less than a dozen trenches as I always do to create discrete rows, each about 40-50 feet in length, to make the raised beds and to mark off various sections of the garden this year, all the while despairing at the large clods rather than fine loam I should have been seeing. It’s nothing a layer of compost can’t correct, but cover crop is intended to avoid use of compost and to spare one’s back and pocket book from all the physical work it will entail to cover all 18 rows and sections of the garden this year, and creating fine seed beds for crops such as beans and zucchini will be impossible without it.
A bucolic spring afternoon, with two of our newest arrivals, a couple of Jacobs Sheep named Smokey and Bandit, enjoying their first day out on pasture. Note the new water catchment system we have put on our goat barn this spring; we are expecting a long dry summer and will need every drop of water we can get.
Still, I am happy to be able to say that even with more than half a hundred years behind me these days, I can still put in a good nine hours of taxing physical labor and not be too much the worse for wear the next day – but it is not like 20 years ago, when I could do hard physical work virtually every day, go out at night, and still be ready to work in the morning. The body requires more time for restoration; the saving grace is that Spring time is the worst time in some respects: all the birthing, the baby animals, the rush to prep for market, to put in the garden, to manage the fruit trees, to set up or repair watering systems, makes for a certain hum of constant exhaustion. Then there are the social activities: we had a large crowd here on Sunday and I spent the day cooking, in addition to spreading home grown compost in the upper garden (the worm population in our compost is so vigorous that I had a crowd of hens watching my every move, and occasionally rewarded their patience with the tossing of chunks of compost swarming with worms); the day before that we went to a friend’s farm for their annual Lambfest, only to return to their farm a night or two later to pick up a baby ewe that had been rejected by its mother, bringing our burgeoning herd of Jacob Sheep to four – three lambs and a wethered ram. We will keep some for their wool, and slaughter one or two for their meat. I like to think that our herd will grow, and one day they will graze our lawn and our new fruit orchard.
Our new chicken tractors for our layers out on pasture – so far these are much easier than the old ones we had built. Our first new flock has started to lay with a vengeance; regular sized eggs and up to three dozen a day from those fifty birds.
This year our red rangers come from a hatchery in Tangent and are a special French variety that will reach peak flavor at around 12 weeks. They forage nicely and right now there is plenty of grass for them to eat.
The grand vista of our six chicken tractors – two broilers and four layers! – out on pasture.
Our rooster Cicero (okay, sometimes I call him Tully!) is good at policing and protecting his girls at the moment, and best of all, for a rooster he is relatively polite. I am proud to say he is one of ours that we hatched, a cross between, I suspect, a Gold Sex Link and our Brown Comb Leghorn, Lucius Vorenus.
But I digress. It was during our first spring, summer, and fall here, three years ago now, when I put in the first of our fruit trees. I had intended our first tiny orchard of a half dozen trees as something of a quaint ornament in our duck yard; I put in an Italian plum, a Red Haven Peach, an apple, an apricot, a fig, and a cherry. The apricot died and had to be replaced with a peach, and I had to cut down the apple to size a bit because of some problems in growth. It was last year that we finally started to get fruit on the trees, and had a relatively impressive haul of peaches from our Red Haven. This year the little tree is sporting no less than a hundred small pea-sized peaches, and will need to be thinned. In fact, despite heavy pruning, our mature fruit trees appear to have set pretty impressive crops of fruit this year, and our young cider apples are covered with blossoms.
My friend John Alt down in Sunny Valley (hi John!) gave me the idea for a new system of composting. Take a worm bin – aka a plastic garbage barrel drilled with holes – and implant it in a compost pile to attract worms. I set this system up in December with a big pile of goat and chicken muck piled up around the bins, and it worked great; the pile composted down and down and down and in the end I ended up with nicely composted material.
This was the end result of the system – a compost rich in worms and worm castings that will add rich, beautiful, organic material to the soil, or give the hens lots of snacks and protein. Lori and I knew we were hooked on farming when several years ago we were visiting a friend’s farm in Yachats, and he asked if we would like to see his compost system, and we both looked at each other and shouted “COMPOST!”
The unexpected benefit of growing fruit is how beautiful the trees are. I recently watched Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams, a series of short episodic pieces, one of which includes a story about a little boy who, during the Japanese festival of dolls, is haunted by the spirit of the peach trees from an orchard his family had cut down. The spirits of the trees accuse him of complicity in their destruction, but he protests his innocence, and insists he loved the trees: “Anyone can buy a peach”, he says, “but not everyone can enjoy the beauty of a peach orchard in bloom”. It is a special privilege that must be honored and respected. To honor the love the boy felt for the trees, the spirits perform an elaborate dance, morphing into the trees in full blossom. It is a wonderful little short story, about respect, beauty, and the pure value of aesthetics.
If I leave anything behind me here on the farm after I am long gone, I would hope my legacy would be a mix of red and white and pink on these wonderful trees. I leave it as an inheritance for all who understand the price of nothing but the value of everything – for the bees, and the lady beetles, and all the derelicts blessed enough to know how to be derelicts when March and April come, to stop digging in their gardens, stand on their hoes, and have their hearts lifted by the spirit of the trees.