Category Archives: organic fertilizers

Fruit Tree Care – Fertilization & Summer Pruning

Whether you grow one fruit tree or a home orchard full of them there is always something to learn from an expert and Orin Martin of UCSC Farm and the Alan Chadwick Garden is just the guy to help. With nearly 40 years of hands-on experience at UCSC he says he’s come up with a successful method of caring for fruit trees including pruning and fertilizing . “I’ve made every mistake in the book”, he laughs.

Orin_Martin_prunig_fruit_treesOrin Martin explaining summer pruning

The UCSC Farm and Alan Chadwick Garden on the campus are both internationally known for training, research and public education. Recently I had the opportunity to join Orin during the Summer Orchard Walk at The Farm as he discussed the care of fruit trees and summer pruning to improve tree shape and productivity. Between jokes he shared many tips including the importance of fertilization and preparing an orchard for fall and winter.

Deciduous fruit trees are genetically programmed to start root growth early as they originated in the cold winter climates of Northern Iran, Uzbekistan and other central Asian areas. Their growing season begins in January or February which is 3-5 weeks prior to any visible bud swell when soil temperatures are still in the low 40’s. With this in mind Orin recommends starting fertilization early. Organic fertilizers take longer to become available to the tree and you want to maximize the early growth spurt in spring.

sunflower pollinator attractorsSunflowers attract pollinators to garden

Orin has a recipe for fertilizing young fruit trees that is used throughout the Farm and Garden. It’s comprised of compost and an organic source of nitrogen such as blood meal, 8% Nitrogen Sustane or Dr. Earth granular. A young tree will need additional nutrients in May and possibly July if the tree is not putting out sufficient structural growth. Fast acting liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion and liquid kelp can be substituted for the early summer feeding. The second wave of growth occurs in fall. Slow acting organic fertilizer is best at this time.

Next year’s fruit buds are formed in late spring to early summer at the same time current fruit is growing so nutrient needs are extremely important at this time. If a mature tree is growing well its yearly fertility needs may be met by growing a bell bean crop as green manure over the winter.

Ginger_Gold_applesGinger Gold apples with resident cats

The two resident garden cats followed our group as Orin demonstrated summer pruning of Ginger Gold apples, Flavor King pluot and Seckel pears. Most are trained to a open center with some having a modified central leader. I asked what he would do if no central leader grew after heading back a young tree whip. “Then I’d train it with an open center. You’ve got to play the hand your dealt”, he laughed.

“Ladderless” harvesting and care is the goal to pruning in summer and winter. Summer pruning from early August to mid September stops growth and is done to limit height and length of branches to encourage more fruiting shoots. Winter pruning creates the tree’s structure. “When you don’t want a tree any taller, stop winter pruning”, Orin told us.

UCSC Farm_Garden_cropsUCSC Farm crops

Throughout the orchard walk Orin Martin shared interesting tidbits of information. Seems that pest problems such as European blister mite and pear slugs are being observed here at for the very first time.

The USCS Farm & Garden has free monthly guided tours as well as a calendar of educational talks and events. It is open daily for everyone to learn and enjoy. Kids tours are offered during the school year in the Life Lab Garden Classroom.

Challenges of Organic Gardening in the Pacific Northwest

strawberries_grape_vinesThey live in a neighborhood of traditional landscaping. Large lawns surrounded by neat mounds of boxwood and foundation plants are the norm here in the Pacific Northwest. But Bob and Bev had a different vision for their 2/3 acre corner property, They wanted fruit trees, vegetables and berries in addition to flowering shrubs, perennials and roses and they wanted to grow it organically.

Bob and Bev live next door to my sister, Evan, on Fox Island. Located in the southern part of Puget Sound, the island’s weather and climate are tempered by the water that surrounds it on all sides. This is both a blessing and a curse. Strong winds, thunder, lightning and heavy rain in both the summer and winter are interspersed with idyllic sunshine and blue skies. You’d never know these challenges exist when you look at Bob and Bev’s garden. It’s spectacular.

Both love being outside. Bob was raised in the midwest and Bev on the east coast. Bev confesses that long ago she was more into zinnias and petunias and “didn’t get it” when it came to real gardening. They started creating the garden about 6 years ago with Bob designing the hardscaping and laying out the original beds and recirculating stream. They told me they “take one step at a time” in the garden so it seems it’s never done. Don’t we all know that feeling?

There are a lot of deer on Fox Island which has been an ongoing battle. Originally, after deer ate acorn_squasheverything including the red-twig dogwood, roses, fruit trees and berries, Bob put up a short fence thinking it was enough of a deterrent. When that was less than successful, he surrounded the lower property where the edibles live with a 6 ft see-through fence topped with 2 wires slanting outward. “Works great”, Bob says although they have both see deer on their hind legs trying to pull down the fencing with their hooves. One time a young buck and doe got under the fence and it took several neighbors to help herd them out of the gate.

Wildlife is abundant on the island. They take down the 3 bird feeders nightly as the raccoons were tearing them down and demolishing them to get to the feed. On this morning a small flock of American goldfinches were enjoying a meal, the males displaying their deep, butter yellow breasts. They often hear coyotes closeby and 3 years ago a couple of bears swam over to the island from the mainland. “Are there foxes on the island, too?, I asked. Bev laughed. “No, the island was named after a British explorer”, she told me. The most aggressive animal they have ever had was a pheasant they named Phinneus. Seems he terrorized the neighborhood last year. He would land on their fence, jump in and chase Bev around the garden pecking at her legs.

It was predicted that the island would have a warm, dry summer but Bev told me it’s turned out they have been getting some rain. The strawberries are still producing as are the blueberries. The blackberries, which don’t normally ripen until August, are almost done for the season. “Climate change?”, Bev theorized.

grape_cluster_greenBob and Bev’s grapes were still green but coming along nicely. They grow a concord-type grape and have good harvests in mid-September now that they allow the leaves to cover the clusters and hide them from the birds. The main vegetable garden is fenced to protect it from Delia, the dog, who loves to eat carrots right from the ground as well as some of the other vegetables. The acorn squash are growing nicely and new rows of beans have been planted and fertilized with worm casting juice.

With so much to see in this garden my head was spinning. The stories just kept coming about the successes and methods they have worked out to provide food for the soul as well as the table.

Next week I’ll tell you more about this wonderful garden on Fox island.

Growing Cover Crops – Part II

Orin_Martin_bell_beansOrin Martin of the Alan Chadwick Garden on the UCSC campus is widely admired for his incredible knowledge and skills as a master orchardist, horticulturalist and teacher. I was lucky a couple of years ago when he visited a group of fellow designers and brought his favorite russet apples. Another time he brought a dozen different kinds of potatoes that we roasted, critiqued and thoroughly enjoyed.

The Alan Chadwick Garden was nothing but poison oak and chaparral in 1967 when Alan Chadwick first got his hands on it. Martin came to UCSC in 1969 as a literature major but was soon impressed with Chadwick’s work, preaching the gospel of treating the garden as a self-nourishing system. Together they worked the garden, building the soil and teaching others.

Now Martin runs the appreaster_Michaelmas_daisy.2048ntice program which teaches future organic gardeners and shares his knowledge in workshops like the Cover Crop class I recently attended.

Last week I wrote about how and why to plant cover crops. This is what to do next spring after they’ve done their magic in the soil fixing nitrogen.

Cover crops are plowed or skimmed off in late February to early April. Because it takes 3-5 weeks for the cover crop to break down so crops can be seeded or transplanted, it is often best to skim off the cover crop at the base of the plants and combine with straw or leaves to make compost. Previously made compost can then be applied to the surface. It is important to retain the roots and nitrogen-filled nodules in the soil. Take only the vegetative portion.

cover_crops_Orin_Martin.1280Another method is to skim the foliage with a weed wacker or mower chopping it into small pieces 1/4″ to  4″ long. You can then rototill this into the soil and allow it to decompose on its own. In about 2 weeks the material should be broken down to be unrecognizable as plant material before replanting.

If you are developing your soil to build organic matter and improve structure incorporate the cover crop at a more mature stage (half to full bloom) when it has a higher carbon content. The nutrients will be stored in the reservoir of humus and released slowly over a number of years.

On established soils where you want primarily to fertilize next spring and summers crops, incorporate the cover crop after skimming and chopping when it has just started to flower as it decomposes quickly at this stage.

The Chadwick Garden fertilizes its established fruit trees by simply cutting down the cover crop growing at their base with a machete at the 25% flowering stage. 4-6″ of wood chips are laid over the chopped up pieces and left for nature to decompose. That’s all their is to it. Martin explained that the garden used blood meal and the organic fertilizer, Sustane, during the first several years while the trees were becoming established.

Picking up a clump of grass sown just 2 weeks ago, Martin teased off the soil to show the vigorous, fibrous root mass. “This is why the riches soils of the world, the Steppes of Russia and the original Midwest prairies, are so fertile and are called bread basket soils”, he explained.

Plant a cover crop this fall and your soil will be richer for it.

Growing Cover Crops- Part I

Every drop of rain that hits bare soil is destructive. Over 3000 years ago the Chinese knew how to protect their soil from erosion and increase fertility by planting cover crops. Early Nile Valley inhabitants 3500 years ago also practiced this method of agriculture as did first century Romans. Lupines were planted in poor soil when no animal manure was to be had. I learned this and also how to protect and improve my soil from Orin Martin, manager of the Alan Chadwick Garden at a cover crop workshop recently on the campus.

aster_Michaelmas_daisy.2048“It’s all about the biology of the soil”, Martin said. “You grow the soil that helps you grow the plants”. A cover crop is really anything that covers the soil and protects it from rain, trapping nutrients and preventing them from leaching downward, he explained. Cover crops can increase the tilth of the soil. Quick germinating grasses easily loosen the top foot of soil with their root mass. Legumes have a tap root, a bio drill, that penetrates 30″ downward while alfalfa roots can grow even deeper.

Cover crops like bell beans, vetch and fava beans are especially valuable as they increase nitrogen levels in the soil in two ways. Atmospheric nitrogen can be “fixed” and left in the soil to fertilize subsequent crops. This is in addition to the nitrogen left from the foliage of the legume.

Cover crops are also called green manure when they are chopped up and turned into the soil in spring lettuces_after_cover_cropping.1024before going to seed. The planting of legumes like peas and beans can actually increase nutrients in your soil giving you a net gain which is needed to offset what you take out of the soil when you harvest fruits, vegetables and flowers.

From late September to the end of November is the best time to sow cover crops. You will need to irrigate lightly a couple times per week if it doesn’t rain. You can also wait to sow just before the rains start. Be careful about working overly wet soil however as you can ruin the structure of your soil.

The Chadwick Garden, Martin explained, originally was heavy red clay. 35 years of soil building with bell beans and vetch cover crops and compost have established a level of fertility that now supports several acres of vegetables, fruit trees, berries and beneficial flowering plants. Fall-sown, spring ploughed-down cover crops are the sole fertilizer used for the better part of the last decade.

Soil_builder_cover_crop_mix.1600Martin explained that recent research now recommends planting a tandem of grasses and legumes. Annual cereal grasses such as oats, rye and barley germinated quickly to hold and shield the soil until the legumes take hold. Bell beans, fava beans and vetch which are the best legumes for our area grow slowly the first 3 months then take off growing 70-80% in the last 3 months. The ratio of grass seed to legumes can vary from 10% to 30%.

There are other legumes that fix nitrogen but no where near as efficiently as bell beans.  Crimson clover seed is also more expensive, needs lots of water to sprout and competes poorly with weeds. Mustard causes competition with the fruit trees as bees will concentrate on the mustard flowers instead of the fruit tree flowers.

A question came up about using inoculants on legume seed. Martin explained that our soils have a native resident population of good bacteria that will break down the seed coat and encourage the plant roots to fix more nitrogen especially after cover cropping for a few years.

We all followed Martin out to the cover crop trial plots to see how the different types were growing. Bark chips will soon be applied to the paths. All of the gardens are mulched several times per year with wood chips. A 10 year study, Martin explained, demonstrated the amazing benefits of ramial chipped wood which is the type the tree service companies provide for free.

We watched him work the soil lightly with a metal bow rake then broadcast 8-10 seeds per square foot. Weeds were already cleared but Martin said this step doesn’t have to be perfect. Afterward the area was raked again lightly 1-2″ down and covered with 3-4″ of straw. Wood chips would be fine, too. Mulch heavier if you have bird competition. Cover crops are vigorous and will come up through just about anything, he said.  Water in lightly.

There are 3 ways to fertilize, Martin said. You can buy chemical fertilizer which is expensive and doesn’t do much for the soil. You can apply compost, which being carbon based, ramps up beneficial fungal organisms in the soil. Or you can cover crop or grow green manure which increases beneficial soil bacteria. Orin Martin has proof of the benefits of the last two methods.

Early Summer Tips

hydrangeas2 3Some things in the garden need to be planned out in advance while others happen by chance. For instance, this year when our spring rains stopped dead in their tracks I gave up adding any more acidifier to my hydrangeas. You need to change the pH of the soil around hydrangeas well before they set buds. I like mother nature to water for me early in the season and she didn't cooperate.  As luck would have it, the flowers this year are majestic purple, mauve and magenta where before they were sky blue. Frankly, I'm thrilled with this years color palette. Hooray for serendipity.

Early summer is the right time, however, for many other garden activities that you don't want to leave to chance.

Many plants, both vegetable and ornamental, are bothered by aphids and other sucking insects as well as foliage and flower eating bugs
.   From cucumber beetles, flea beetles, stink bugs, weevils, curculios to borers , the list of trouble makers is endless. .  To help deter them mix up some pepper spray in your kitchen.  
    1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce or 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
    6 cloves garlic, crushed
    1 quart warm tap water
Let stand I hour, strain and spray plants either in the morning or evening.

Apply the second fertilizer application for the year to your citrus and fruit trees. The last one should be immediately after harvest.  Apply the fertilizer to the soil around the drip line of the tree where feeder roots are located and scratch into the surface. Water in well. As with all fertilizers, make sure the trees are moist before you fertilize. Young trees in their first, second or third growing season should receive half the rate of established trees.

If your fruit trees are starting to produce too heavily, remove excess immature fruits.  Doing so allows remaining fruit more room to grow and prevents branches from breaking under the weight.  When apples, pears and stone fruits such as apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums reach 1/2' in diameter, pick some off, leaving the remaining fruits spaces 6-10" apart along the branch.  Later, to protect your ripening fruit, enclose the tree with bird netting,  hang strips of mylar flash tape near brach tips or substitute old CD's.

If you battle dandelions and don't want to use chemical weed killers around pets and children, get out the white vinegar from the cupboard. On a hot sunny day spray straight white vinegar directly on the weed. This method will kill whatever it touches so direct the spray carefully. If the dandelion is in the lawn, wait a week, pour some water on the dead spot to dilute any lasting effects of the vinegar. Then poke a bunch a holes and drop in some grass seed. Sprinkle a bit of fertilizer where the seed is planted and keep the area moist. In three weeks you won't remember where the dead spot was and the dandelion will be long gone.

Another garden to-do this month includes summer pruning of wisteria. To increase flowering next spring and keep these vines under control cut new growth back to within 6" of the main branch. If you want to extend the height or length of the vine, select some of the new streamer-like stems and tie them to a support in the direction you wish to train the plant.

To encourage continued bloom on annuals, perennials and shrubs, remove faded flowers before they start to form seeds.  Make sure you remove the entire flower head and the base where seeds form ( such as the bulbous part of dahlia, petunia or fuchsia flowers) and not just the petals.  Cut the stem down to where leaves start.  The season has just started and you'll be enjoying lots more flowers in the months to come if you deadhead regularly.  
    
Another maintenance tip is to shear spring blooming perennials to keep them full and compact.  Candytuft, phlox subulata, aubrieta and other low growing perennials benefit if you cut off spent bloom and an inch or two of growth.  Other perennials and shrubs that benefit from the same treatment to keep them compact are erysimum, lavender and Pink breath of heaven.

Also re-apply mulch if it's getting thin in spots. Check ties on trees to make sure they aren't cutting into the bark. Cultivate lightly around trees to discourage weeds and allow water to penetrate.

Don't be afraid to move a plant that is not working where its growing now. Make a note in your journal reminding yourself to transplant it sometime in the fall. Gardening is a dynamic and fluid process. Enjoy piecing  together pieces of the puzzle.
 

Camp Joy, Boulder Creek

Camp_Joy_sign2If you've ever eaten a Camp Joy cherry tomato you'll know why I was excited to be given a tour of the new seedlings in the greenhouse by Jim Nelson, the creator of this beautiful, organic family farm. Since 1971 this non-profit farm has been providing educational, creative programs for kids and adults. It is an example of and encourages others who wish to begin their own sustainable farm.

It was a warm, spring day when I visited and Jim was gently watering the herb, vegetable and flower seedlings by hand using water from a large can that had warmed to room temperature and given off any chlorine that was present. Camp Joy has a spring plant sale coming up April 27th and 28th and another on Mother's Day weekend and Jim was pleased with the progress of the seedlings. They grow proven varieties that do well in our area. Group paintings done by charter school children decorated the wall of the greenhouse.

Outside we were accompanied by Jim's two dogs, Ruby and Rownya, as we admired the garlic crop that will rotated90.kids_painting_in_greenhousebe braided after harvest and offered for sale in the fall along with dried flower wreaths and onion braids.

The farm offers a Camp Joy Cooperative weekly for 3-5 yr olds encouraging them to explore their surroundings through all their senses. Garden tours for school age children or a group of any age are also offered. Everyone at the farm is happy to share what they've learned about growing and preparing food, saving seed, bees and other insects, goats and garden crafts. And there is always something to be picked, harvested, weeded or just enjoyed while having lunch in the gazebo.

Walking along a path bordered by phlox, aster, oregano, iris and nigella we admired a blooming Buff Beauty rose covering an arbor. Jim planted this as well as his favorite Madame Alfred Carrier 42 years ago when he first came to the property. His friend at UCSC, Alan Chadwick introduced him to it. The soft fragrance blended with the blooming lilacs and wisteria.

To maintain fertile soil, a cover crop of fava beans was just starting to bloom in a several areas. Ladybugs were plentiful on the flowers. The beans will be cut down, Jim explained, in about a month. Members of the farm will eat some of the beans while young and sweet and let some mature so they can save the seed. The goats also enjoy fava beans at the flowering stage. There is a fund-raising art program, called Kids for Kids, offered in May, the proceeds going to help improve the goat barn and yard.

lilac_wisteria-arborNext we visited the Kid's Garden. Art, cooking and gardening projects are ongoing in this area. Wholesome, healthy food and beautiful flowers are all part of the farm. The plot of godetia was setting bud and will be offered as cut flowers during the upcoming sales.

Everything is grown with care at Camp Joy. Jim explained that compost is regularly added back to the soil and used to start seedlings in a special blend of "real soil" allowing them to transplant and continue to do well in the garden. He sometimes used kelp and fish emulsion as fertilizer but mostly it's the compost that makes the seedlings so strong.

Camp Joy offers lots of classes for kids and adults alike. Family members and interns are passionate about the farm and enjoy sharing. On this beautiful day, we were greeted with a smile by the person spreading compost.  It was clear that there is a respect for the cycles of the earth and the changing seasons at the farm.

Take advantage of the Spring Plant Sale at Camp Joy. Bring the family and walk through the garden. Visit their website for more information about their events and classes.  http://www.campjoygardens.org