As The World Turns

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Apple blossoms against a spring sky.

Apple blossoms against a spring sky.

It’s easy to forget that signs of spring actually appear in what we consider to be the middle of winter. Technically, December, January and February are the “winter months.” In reality, subtle changes begin to occur in January, so by the time spring officially appears in March, the spring rush is well on its way.

Volunteer lettuce among the strawberries.

Volunteer lettuce among the strawberries.

In late December or early January, the snow geese begin to migrate north. This year, I actually heard the first flock on Christmas Day. The spring peepers (small tree frogs) start singing in January, with the first batch tuning up on January 20th this year. Killdeer showed up in the pastures on January 27th. Alder catkins were dangling from the trees by the Clear Pond on January 23rd, while the pussy-willows started blooming February 1. Daffodil leaves are now above ground and the chard I overwintered is starting to put out new growth.

Rain lilies. These leaves will grow until late spring, then disappear. Blossoms show up in August, rising out of bare earth.

Rain lilies. These leaves will grow until late spring, then disappear. Blossoms show up in August, rising out of bare earth.

The forsythia should be blooming any day now. Garlic and onion sets are green and growing well. Time to get the first spring crops like peas and lettuce in the kitchen garden, to start the whole cycle over again. Never mind the calendar, spring’s here.

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Winter Pruning

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This tree has a fairly good branch pattern that allows plenty of light into the center of the tree.

This tree has a fairly good branch pattern that allows plenty of light into the center of the tree.

It’s a good thing fruit trees can be pruned in the dormant winter season – if I had to add pruning to the usual spring or summer chores, something would have to give. The orchards on this place (we have two) are probably 75 to 100 years old, and possibly older. The trees have been neglected for at least 50 of the last 60 years. Restoring an old orchard is something that happens over several years; like any living thing, if you try to push them too fast, they’ll burn out and die. Lots of people think of pruning as a scary, complicated process, but it’s really no harder than learning how to give your kids a haircut – and the tree will hold still. You could even choose not to prune, according to Masanobu Fukuoka, who wrote One Straw Revolution. I’m somewhere in the middle between orchardists who prune, prune, prune, and those who just let the trees go.

For you novice pruners, I have three words: clean, thin, head. Clean up wood that is damaged, dead or diseased. Thin branches that are too crowded, weak or crossing over other branches. Head the tree back (think of it as a buzz cut for a tree) so you’re not trying to pick fruit that’s up in the stratosphere. These rules apply to the fruit trees you’ll be growing in a temperate climate. Make sure your pruning shears are sharp – it’s easier on you and better for the tree. Always try to make a near vertical cut, flush with the trunk or branch, so rain water and snow don’t pool on the end of the branch and cause rot.

Suckers around the base of the tree.

Suckers around the base of the tree.

The first step is to stand back and look at the tree. Pick out the three Ds – branches that are damaged by wind or snow, branches that are obviously dead (they’re dark brown or black and when you cut them the inside is dried out) or branches that are diseased (black, slimy, rotting). Remove all of the 3D branches. Now stand back again – identify water sprouts or suckers. The first are the branches that grow straight up from the tree trunk, while the second are sprouts that have grown from below the graft or have sprouted in the area around the tree. Neither is good for fruit and they use up nutrients that could otherwise be used by the fruiting branches. Since suckers grow below the graft, they might bear fruit, but it won’t be the variety you want.

The object of thinning is to open up the tree to maximize sunlight exposure. Branches that cross can cause damage, so shorten them or take them out. If a branch has a weak crotch angle that may cause it to break when heavy with fruit, take it out. Thin to the healthiest branches, and shoot for six to 12 inches or space around each branch.

Once you’re finished thinning, it’s time for the haircut. Prune back long branches – cut off about 20 to 30 percent of last year’s growth. For peaches, which tend to grow long, go for 30 percent. Pears should be on the low end of the scale, as over-pruning can cause a flush of growth and make them more susceptible to fire blight. Prune back to one-quarter inch above a bud that is facing in the direction you want the branch to grow.

Here's an example of the snarl of blackberry and grape vines.

Here’s an example of the snarl of blackberry and grape vines.

See that big thick "stick" under the berry vines? That's a grape.

See that big thick “stick” under the berry vines? That’s a grape.

On our place, there’s another step in the process: cutting back the blackberries and the grapevines that have grown into an almighty tangle in the house orchard (it’s less of a problem in the north orchard, as there are no grapes). Because of the many years of neglect, we have grapevines in the house orchard as big around as my wrist. There is no way short of dynamite and a bulldozer that we’re going to get those grapevines completely cleared out. Nor do I want to clean them out, as they bear abundantly and make terrific grape juice. There are trash trees along the far side of the orchard they can climb, and they do so with abandon, but they also try to sneak into the fruit trees, which are the ones in the sun. If I let them go, they’ll strangle the fruit trees. So every year, I hack and chop as I prune the fruit trees.

Cleared space around the tree; Don't have a before picture, but it was pretty much solid vines.

Cleared space around the tree; Don’t have a before picture, but it was pretty much solid vines.

When you’ve finished pruning one tree, dip your cutter blades in some alcohol to prevent transmitting diseases before you go on to the next tree. When you’re completely finished, sharpen your blades again and coat them lightly with oil to prevent rust. Clean up all the prunings; healthy branches can make mulch or compost, while diseased branches should be burned.

Fireblight in a pear tree. All these branches must be pruned and burned.

Fireblight in a pear tree. All these branches must be pruned and burned.

 

 

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Open Source Seeds

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Wish books! Many of these carry seeds from small, independent producers.

Wish books! Many of these carry seeds from small, independent producers.

I admit I do tend to like going against the grain and rooting for the underdog. In this case, it’s a seed underdog. The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), a project from the University of Wisconsin, to be more specific.

Over the last 30 years or so, the idea of patenting plants and seeds has become a hot thing in the agribusiness world. If you want to corner the seed market, what better way than to patent the seeds or plants so no one else can sell them? Of course, the seeds tend to be hybrid and/or GMO varieties, they’re heavily hyped and marketed, and the agribusiness giants use a variety of pressures and tricks to displace open-pollinated and heirloom seeds with their more expensive, exclusive patented varieties.

More and more universities are getting on the patent treadmill, as it’s a way to increase their revenues (they’re doing the same thing for chemicals, drugs and medical treatments or supplies, by the way, and for the same reasons). Many ag and horticultural programs are dependent on big agribusiness and bio-tech companies for the donations that let them continue to enjoy academic luxury while they conduct the sort of research favored by their donors. This means they have a vested interest in keeping new seeds under proprietary status rather than releasing them to the general public. And by the way, those universities are often funded at least partially with taxpayer dollars, so your taxes are being used to allow universities to make money for themselves and promote the agribusiness agendas.

If this volunteer lettuce seedling in the strawberries were patented, it would be breaking the law.

If this volunteer lettuce seedling in the strawberries were patented, it would be breaking the law.

OSSI aims to change that. Rather than taking out patents, the breeders of OSSI seeds let anyone use them for any purpose they desire, as long as any subsequent seeds are also used in the same way. For you computer-geek types out there, it’s pretty much the same thing as software’s General Public License, which has kept systems like Linus in the public domain. Unlike the lengthy, complex legal licensing used for patented seeds, the OSSI pledge appears on each seed packet; you open the packet, you commit to keeping the seeds in the public domain. The pledge also applies to derivatives, so if you use an OSSI seed to create a new open-pollinated or hybrid variety, those also remain in the public domain.

Of course, if you’re growing your own open-pollinated plants already, it’s not a huge issue, but if you want something new, this is a great resource. And even if you’re growing OP plants, some are Plant Variety Protected (PVP) which is essentially the same thing; you’re not supposed to save or sell the seeds. Patents and PVPs are usually good for 20 years. Although there are a few other folks using patents and PVPs, universities, Monsanto and Seminis are the names seen most often on the USDA lists.

Seedheads for next year's calendulas.

Seedheads for next year’s calendulas.

OSSI breeders have created a pretty good cross-section of seeds, including asparagus, beans, broccoli, carrots, celery, corn, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, muskmelons, peppers, spinach, squash, tomatoes and zucchini, as well as a few flowers and some grains.

Now, nobody’s tested this in court, so OSSI’s pledge may be more of a symbol than a binding legal document. What it does do, however, is offer an opportunity to educate the public, and promote biodiversity and innovation. If you buy such seeds, you can also breathe a sigh of relief that Monsanto isn’t coming after you for taking your home-grown seeds to a seed swap or selling them at the local farmer’s market.

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