Natural events: orchard edition, October 2017

The orchard was done with its fruit for the year in September, so our attention was largely focused away from the orchard as well. This month’s post includes an assortment of topics, some orchard-related, some touching on other perennial edibles or random ecological topics from around the farm.

Featured this month:

  • Fall color
  • Orchard-floor fungi
  • October weather
  • Saffron crocus
  • Japanese Beetle larvae
  • Black walnuts
  • Honey locust pods
  • Little snake, big toad

Orchard fall colors: In spite of the drab early fall, we had a few bright highlights of fall color in the orchard, including an Olympic Asian Pear (upper left) and blueberry (upper right). The Olympic dropped its leaves not long after the Oct. 23 photo, but most of the other Asian pears, European pears, and apples were slower to respond to the onset of fall, and as a result their still-green leaves got “burned” by cold a few days later. In the background of the upper-left Olympic photo, there’s a Hosui Asian Pear with leaves that were still intensely green at the time; after the late-October cold snap, they turned brown (lower left). The wild Red Mulberry (lower right) ended up with withered leaves as a result of the cold snap (as did the Illiniois Everbearing Mulberry in the orchard). We’re not sure how much this matters for the long-term health of the tree.

October temperature: Most of the month gave us average to above-average temperatures. October 14th broke a record warm low with a temperature of 67ºF, exceeding the previous record by 1 degree. Late October brought a below-normal cold snap with lows in the mid-20s as recorded at the airport. In our valley, the temperature was probably quite a bit colder; the goat water bucket had a solid layer of ice on the coldest morning.

October precipitation: Finally, we had a month with a decent amount of rainfall. Not only did we get above-average precipitation for the month, but it was also spread out quite nicely. There were no gully-washing downpours, just nice soaking rain that helped to begin recharging a parched landscape. The stream had a little flow, but most of our water-capturing swales stayed mostly dry most of the month. The Drought Monitor continued to classify us as Abnormally Dry for the entire month.

Orchard-floor fungi: The moisture was enough to trigger some fungi in the orchard to put on fruiting bodies. On the left are two photos of bird’s nest fungi. The right shows a stinkhorn that is past its prime.

Japanese Beetle larvae: We continued to find grubs in the soil, particularly after rain when the weather remained warm, and particularly in places where we were growing annual crops. The hair patterns on a beetle grub’s hind end is the key to identification (for example, see this white grub id site), and a 10x hand lens is sufficient to get a good look at this. The Japanese Beetle has a pattern that looks a bit like a “V”, and looking at a number of grubs from the ground confirms our previous assumption that the bulk of those we’re finding are from Japanese Beetles.

Surface hoeing in preparation for cover crop planting was a particularly good way to find these critters, but it raises the question of whether there are just as many elsewhere in the landscape, particularly in places that we don’t hoe (such as the orchard). I did a little poking around in the near-surface of the orchard in a bunch of places on a day that they were easy to find in the vegetable field. My sampling method didn’t suggest a high population in the orchard, and I hope that’s an accurate reflection of what’s actually there.

Saffron crocus: This crocus caught me by surprise: what the heck, a sign of spring? But after a moment of disorientation, I realized that this is a saffron crocus, and they are supposed to bloom in fall. I planted some of these in a variety of locations a few years back (the result of a gift; thanks Mom!). This is the first year we’ve seen flowers; we saw the first bloom on October 23. The long orange stigmas are the parts that get harvested and dried for use as a spice.

Black walnuts: The wild black walnuts put on the largest crop we’ve seen in over a decade here. There were enough that we couldn’t resist collecting some for eating. Now that we’ve gone through the trouble of hulling them, we need to work on getting the nuts out of the shells.

Honey Locust pods: Yet another wild tree that put on a bumper crop this year was the Honey Locust. These trees produce pods that have a lovely sweet smell when torn open. We’ve read that some people use them in the fermentation of beer, but we prefer to turn the locust pods into milk, and for that we use a complicated, high-maintenance, four-chambered fermentation tank (more commonly known as a goat). The goats do really enjoy eating locust pods, and so their milking-stand breakfast has lately included Honey-Bunches-of-Pods or, on cold mornings, Frosted Pods. Picking up pods for the goats has given us an opportunity to study pod morphology, which is quite diverse. There are wide pods and narrow pods (and the goats generally seem to prefer wide). A vast majority of the pods this year don’t contain mature seeds (the goats generally prefer these seed-free pods, which still smell of honey). This raises a number of questions: Why would a tree bother to put sugar in pods without successful seeds? What pollinates Honey Locust flowers? Was the drought a factor in poor seed development?

Little snake, big toad: This year seems to have been a good one for the hatching of baby snakes, or at least we had chance encounters with more little ones than usual. The snake in the photo is a Prairie Ring-necked Snake. According to The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri, baby ringnecks are just under 4.5 inches; this one isn’t much more than that. During late summer and fall, we’ve also encountered young Midland Brown Snakes and one young Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, all assumed to be hatched this year based on length criteria. Interestingly, during the same time period, we feel like we’ve encountered fewer full-grown snakes than usual. This year, for example, Black Rat Snakes never raided the chicken coop for eggs; meanwhile, our sweet potatoes experienced especially intense rodent damage that the Black Rat Snakes and/or Prairie Kingsnakes usually help to keep in check. Why is this? Weather? The Red-Shouldered Hawk that has been hunting routinely around the farm? Some other reason? Anyone else see a similar pattern?

Our unscientific monitoring of toad populations suggests a bit of a rebound from 2016’s population low, but we still feel like we’re seeing fewer than we used to. Several years back, we routinely encountered large toads that appeared well fed and fat. The one in the photo isn’t the biggest we’ve seen, but it is round, and when I found it under some straw while preparing for garlic planting, it wasn’t too eager to hop away. We wonder if the parents of that young Eastern Hog-nosed Snake are to blame for our recent low amphibian populations.

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