Natural events: orchard edition, January 2017

To have a chance at being successful fruit growers in Missouri, we need to be keen observers of the ecosystem, able to identify and understand what is going right and what is not from the perspective of our fruit plantings. This means delving deeper into entomological ID, paying attention to details of plant growth, noticing what herbaceous plants are around, poking around in the wood-chip mulch at the base of the plants to monitor life in the soil, and more. In other words, it means perfect fodder for a continuation of this natural events series.

This is our motivation for a planned shift in this series’ focus from the whole farm to the parts where we’re growing (or attempting to grow) perennial crops, especially fruits. As shown in the orchard photo below, these areas are managed but far from manicured, and there’s more than enough wildness and nature here to keep the amateur naturalists in us busy for a long while.

Featured this month:

  • Basic bud identification
  • Twig damage
  • Signs of mammals
  • Understory plants
  • Swans overhead

Weather recap: Another change to the natural events post this month is the addition of some weather plots, because we’re tired of giving wishy-washy descriptions of the general warmness and/or wetness of each month without data to back them up. The St. Louis National Weather Service (NWS) office used to provide monthly summary graphs (and other NWS offices still do), but seems to have stopped doing so (or made them much harder to find). We’ve finally gotten around to generating our own using raw NWS data and the R programming language; we love this style of graph because it really captures the variability of short-term weather within the broader climate pattern of our region.
January had one brief cold spell, but after going from 0° to 71° in a matter of days, it stayed warm thereafter. We broke a record high on January 11th, and we matched a record warm low temperature on the 19th. Are we concerned about the implications of especially warm weather for the orchard? Absolutely, especially after last year’s warm winter and spring led to a near-total loss of fruit when a late cold spell hit early-blooming trees.Chert Hollow precipitation was just a bit higher than at the airport, totaling 1.39″ here, but overall January precipitation continued a several-month trend of below normal. January could have been very memorable for the ice storm of the decade, had gradients of temperature and precipitation been ever so slightly different. But fortunately, the mid-month storm system that came with strongly worded warnings turned out to be rather uneventful.

Basic bud identification: January is a good time to inspect fruit trees buds, especially with an eye for flower buds that represent hope for a tasty crop. These photos show buds and features of our Hosui Asian Pear tree. We’re still learning about bud identification, as it differs between species, but we can pick out some patterns. On apples and pears, clusters of buds on a short spur are a sure sign of flower buds (upper right photo). Leaf buds tend to be smaller and are tight against the branch (upper left). Terminal buds form at the end of branches and represent locations where the shoot will grow into a longer branch (lower left). Learning to identify the age of the wood is also helpful. The lower right photo shows darker 2-year old wood from which emerged two branches of paler one-year old wood; at the junction is a bud scar. Flower buds don’t form on first-year wood of apples and pears in general, but it appears that for this tree, second-year wood is old enough for flowers. No wonder it was one of our first trees to bear fruit.

Twig damage: Another reason to inspect branches in the winter is to be on the lookout for problems. One of our peach trees has a couple of twigs of first-year growth with some sort of damage, probably from a larval insect mining its way under the bark. A winding path that resembles the structure of a leaf mine leads to a larger area of abnormally pale bark (left & center photos). We haven’t had success at identification yet, but at pruning time we’ll be sure to remove and destroy these problematic branches. We also found some mysterious twig damage on our Illinois Everbearing Mulberry (right): patches of missing bark on several small twigs. This one has us stumped, but once again it is something that can be dealt with by pruning, given the impact only to very small branches.Signs of mammals: Although we feel like the rabbit population on the farm as a whole has been low for much of the past year, it seems that the orchard has been a refuge. A few years ago, rabbits munched young shoots of some of our blueberry plants, so we’ve started setting up chicken wire around the smaller blueberries for the winter. As indicated by the tracks in a rare snowfall (left photo), the chicken wire seems to be doing its job. The right photo shows another sign of mammalian activity, and in this case we’re pretty sure a mole was excavating here. We’re not thrilled about the location of this mound immediately next to a young peach tree, but better a mole than a vole: the former are insectivores, the latter herbivores. We can hope that the critter is feasting upon Japanese beetle larvae while it aerates the soil under our plants, hopefully without damaging any major roots. Meanwhile, the tree guard wrapped around the trunk of the peach tree is a precaution against voles and other nibblers that might damage the trunk over the winter.

Understory plants: The mild weather has almost certainly contributed to the vigor of a variety of plants on on the orchard floor. Many of these seem very happy in the wood chips that we’ve put down as mulch. Here’s our best shot at ID (left to right, top to bottom): yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis sp.), Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum), Carolina Geranium? (Geranium carolinianum), clover (Trifolium sp.), Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), sedge? (Carex sp.), Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), unknown.

Swans overhead: For the fourth consecutive winter, we’ve had the pleasure of watching Trumpeter Swans fly overhead on a routine basis. We saw somewhat less of them in January 2017 than in December 2016, but for once I had the camera in hand when this flock of 6 flew over the orchard. We’ve never seen them on the ground at the farm ,so their interaction with the orchard is admittedly minimal…except perhaps through extremely minor additions of fertility.

2 thoughts on “Natural events: orchard edition, January 2017

  1. I look forward to this series since I too plan to grow some fruit trees.
    Is Missouri a more challenging environment for fruit trees?
    Have you considered pawpaw and persimmons?


    • Yes, Missouri is a very challenging place for fruit! The weather swings often result in fruit trees/plants that are stressed, and stressed plants are vulnerable to pests and diseases that thrive here (especially compared to drier parts of the country). The record warmth of February weather may well mean no tree fruit for us again this year; more about that in a few days when we get around to writing the latest post.

      And we have indeed considered pawpaws and persimmons; in fact, we’ll be planting some this spring in a hugelkultur bed. I think late-blooming natives such as these are a good choice for adding diversity to a homestead-scale planting, and diversity is our best insurance for getting something to produce each year, particularly in times of uncertain climate.