Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Thrill of an early spring

We haven't had much of a winter this year. That's both good and bad. Good, because I absolutely hate the cold. The reason I tolerate the brutality of August in Texas is so that I might wear shorts outdoors in January and February. On the other hand, it's not that great for my fruit trees, which need a certain amount of chill hours annually to produce good crops. That's not a big deal yet, because we've only lived at the new house about 18 months and the trees I planted last year are still too young (for the most part) to bear fruit. Last year we recorded almost 1,000 chill hours, which is a significant amount for this part of Texas, which is more than enough for any of the fruit trees I have growing. This year, even with the mild winter, I'm at 600 chill hours--a decent amount for most of my plants. Compare that to the 470 chill hours received this year at our old house, just 10 miles to the south. I chalk the difference up to our new place being on the edge of the Hill Country. Our elevation is approximately 800 feet above sea level--almost 80 feet higher than old house, although it doesn't seem that much. Amazing how dramatic such a small shift affects one's climate!

In any event, winter never took hold here, and the extended autumn was fairly feeble as well. We never had a serious freeze in the entire month of February, traditionally (in my experience) the coldest month of the year. Temperatures have been in the 70s-80s for more than two weeks, and everything in my yard is waking up from the annual slumber. The two photos above are of my young peach trees--a Red Baron and a Galaxy--swelling up their buds for a looming garish display of flowers. Perhaps this year I might get fruit. Peaches are precocious, after all. More remarkable is the leaf bud in the image below. That's a shipova, a rare hybrid of a European pear and something called a whitebeam. They originate in Eastern Europe and are pretty exotic. I'm trying my hand at keeping this one alive despite the plant's questionable resistance to fire blight. Interestingly enough, this plant came to me from northern California and has only been in the ground a week. My warm weather has shocked it (and a Black Sea jujube I planted last week) into leafing out.

This next one is even more impressive. It's a medlar, a fruit tree popular in medieval times that's mostly an ornamental curiosity these days. I planted it two weeks ago, and the little thing broke bud almost immediately and has grown two inches. That may not sound like much, but the bareroot twig I planted was barely a foot long, not including the roots. If it maintains this rate of growth, it'll replace those two hackberry volunteers I cut down to make room for it in no time. I hope to add a few more medlar varieties in the next year or so.

The thing about our new house is that the previous owners had it on the market, off and on, for almost three years. During that time they had moved out, and invested zero effort into landscaping beyond mowing the grass on occasion. In most instances this wouldn't be a big deal, except that they'd planted lots of Carolina jasmine and Lady Banks roses around the perimeter. That stuff grows like kudzu normally, so over the course of three years it utterly took over. I've grown to loathe it, and shall one day chop it all out. But as I was trimming some of the worst of it back last spring, I discovered two dwarf apple trees completely buried by those bushes. They fruited in the spring, and I'm pretty sure they're Ein Shemer apples, a low-chill, low-quality apple that originated in Israel. I didn't want mealy, bland apples, but the mature trees have well-established root systems and have proven able to survive drought without any care at all, so last I hatched a plan to repurpose them: I'd graft better varieties onto them, and get good apples.

Grafting is something I taught myself at the old house with a couple of pear trees I planted. I was shocked at how easy it is--at least with pears, and I've yet to find anything that says apples are more difficult. Grafting involves attaching scion wood from a different cultivar or closely-related species so that it grows from that point on as part of the tree. Simple as that. Some trees are harder to get a successful graft to take than others, but for the majority of fruit and nut trees, it's the way popular varieties are propagated. A month ago, I ordered 10 different pieces of scion wood representing different heirloom apple types from Big Horse Creek Farm. Those scions arrived a few days ago, and I've been busy.

There are a number of different grafting techniques, but thus far I've stuck with the most simple, the cleft graft. Why? Because it's easy and I've had great success with it. Out of several dozen pear grafts, I've had two fail, and I suspect that was because I waited too late in the spring to attempt the graft. I've also had one peach graft fail. Not a bad track record. The scion wood I received was little more than a foot long, so I was able to cut each piece in two and make 10 grafts per tree. The cleft graft is pretty self-explanatory. Find a branch on the tree that's the same size or bigger than the scion. Cut the branch off, then using a sharp blade, slice an inch-long cleft right down the center. A sharp blade is important. I used to use pocket knives, but the wood dulled the blade quickly. I've since switched to utility knives with sharp blades easily replaced when they start dulling. A word of warning--the blade normally doesn't want to go into the branch to make the cleft, but once it gets a bite, it can slice through quickly. If you're not careful, you can either slice through the branch, or worse, your hand. I speak from experience.

With the scion wood, trim the base end (not the growing tip end) into a V shape. This isn't rocket science, but it's best to get the cuts straight and smooth. That can be a challenge if there's a bud in the way, but in my experience it's easier to get a good V cut than an even cleft cut.

Next (tell me you didn't see this coming) wedge the V into the cleft. This is your graft. The absolute most important thing is to make sure the cambium layer of the branch lines up with the cambium of the scion. The cambium is the green, growing layer beneath the bark layer. This is the living, growing layer of the tree. Properly aligning the two ensures that nutrients from the tree flow into the scion wood and keep it alive and growing. Cool, huh? If you have a larger branch than scion wood, never fear, just align the cambium on one side of the graft. Trees aren't picky--usually just that limited amount of contact is enough to make a successful graft.

After the cleft graft is properly aligned, it must be wrapped. There are special grafting tapes and grafting compounds available to seal the wound and prevent drying out and other such hazards that could cause the graft to fail. I don't use any of those. Nothing against them, but I've not ever attempted grafts on trees that are difficult to graft. I use simple electrical tape and have had an outstanding rate of success. I wrap the tape loosely at the ends, and then tightly over the graft itself to apply pressure and ensure better contact between the two cambium layers. Then I apply a second layer of tape in the opposite direction to prevent unraveling. Electrical tape stretches, but only so much. If it doesn't deteriorate quickly enough, it could potentially girdle the branch and destroy that graft that you worked so hard to establish. I try to remove the tape after a year, but there's a lot of leeway here. With grafting tape, you don't have to worry about girdling.

What does a successful cleft graft look like? It looks like the image above. I made this graft in the fall of 2014, using scion wood from a Warren pear I had growing at the old house and an Ayers pear tree I'd planted at the new house. The join is solid, but you can still see the distinct V and cleft of the separate pieces of wood. Hopefully, my apple grafts will look as good a year from now.

But what are those grafts? Ah, I thought you'd never ask. For the record, each tree has two Hall apple grafts, one Carter's Blue, one Husk Sweet, one Keener Seedling, one King David, one Pink Pearl, one White Winter Pearmain, one Winesap and one Yates. These will supplement the Royal Limbertwig, Arkansas Black, Reverend Morgan, two Blanco crabs, two Hewe's Virginia crabs and two Wickson crabs I have growing. That gives me a wide variety of apples suitable for fresh eating, baking, storing and cider-making. In years to come, I hope to do even more grafting, but as of now I think I've got the makings of a pretty good orchard.

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Chicken Ranch Central

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