Sunday, March 21, 2010

A virtual experience pruning espaliers and fruit trees: YouTube

I don't know why I'm always still surprised to see so many people sharing their information and talents (sometimes NOT!) on the Internet. The only problem is that they are of variable quality. Most of the editing, public speaking and camera work problems are just endearing -- and you still get the information. However, when the information trying to be conveyed is obscured by poor lighting or failure to shield the microphone from wind -- it is just too bad (and very hard to stay with the video). My partner sells portable recorders from an online start-up business, so I have been educated somewhat about the quality of digital audio recording available for a couple of hundred dollars and about the very hilarious-looking but effective wind-shield for the microphones -- it looks like a troll-hair wig (if anyone even knows what those toys are anymore.) Plug for Stephanie: (Proud of you dear!)

The YouTube videos were informative and confirmed what the in-person training from The Ecological Landscaping Association had conveyed about fruiting spur buds and branch buds. It was interesting to see the different espalier forms -- and one video even revealed some useful technical information about how to string the wires and connect them (using eye bolts) that I hadn't been able to find out elsewhere. I might need to use some hardware for the porch cordons but the chainlink fence continues to look like it will be a budget-neutral option - I'll just need something to tie down the branches that won't cut them -- one suggestion was cotton laundry rope - very soft, he said.

BTW - the best videos appear to be British or bootleg professional TV episodes of gardening or landscaping shows.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

An experience pruning apple trees

A week ago, I went to a training on how to prune apple trees sponsored by The Ecological Landscaping Association. The training was held at a small orchard on private land in Concord, Massachusetts. Attendees included some landscape designers who wanted to add edible fruit to their repertoires, a few other folks who had either inherited fruit trees and didn't know how to care for them or who wanted to plant some fruit trees, a head gardener or two, and some landscape contractors.

The most important thing I learned was how to recognize the "fruiting spur" buds and to distinguish them from the "branch buds" that would not bear fruit. Unexpectedly, this property also contained several espaliers in the small gardens near the house(s) (did I mention that the place was a spread?) Having just become experts on apple tree pruning, we all freely criticized the pruning job on the espaliers -- the landscape contractor running the training was not hired to maintain the espaliers, just the orchard. Actually, we didn't see any fruiting spur buds on the espalier we examined -- perhaps it was a different variety whose fruiting spurs looked different or had a later bud development than the other varieties, or maybe we were right about the butchery.

The most disturbing thing I learned was that although it is easy to produce a healthy vibrant apple TREE using organic methods, it is very difficult to produce much fruit that way (will have to verify this with some other sources). So, we were recommended a series of "natural" sprays (from plants), non-toxic coatings (clay dust), and some other applications that sounded like I probably wouldn't want to use them. I wondered if I would soon learn what each of the pests mentioned (moths, insects, fungus?) actually looked like myself when they swarmed my cherished and lovingly pruned fruit trees and made sure that every blossom bud was cored and therefore sterile. I would have to hope that the "rumor of my fruits' death had been greatly exaggerated" and find more information. I had also managed to attract a large number of different types of birds to my yard through planting several types of native shrubs I had bought from The New England Wildflower Society nursery -- maybe one or more of them would love to eat some apple moths. Cross your fingers. (BTW: crossed branches will rub on each other and distort each other's growth and therefore should be pruned so that one healthy branch remains.)

The question of roots

Apparently, contemporary apple trees are rarely planted on their own roots. Who knew? Instead, they are grafted onto one of several common rootstocks. Yes, it DOES sound violent (and there is a very sad picture in my organic gardening book of a crowd of the baby trees all taped up with what looks like a bandage around their joining point to their new roots). I had discovered the same thing about roses several years ago, but decided to buy roses that were grown on their OWN roots. There were very few places I could find that had a good selection, but I happened upon "The Uncommon Rose" website, whose market niche is that ALL their roses are grown on their own roots. The roses have really taken off and what REALLY mattered was that I felt much better about them. I'm not quite sure why it bothers me so much -- just another version of our modern Frankenstein sensibility that gives me the creeps, I suppose.

Well, back to those apples. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (yes, I had forgotten their name was so grand in previous posts and inadvertently shortened it) reports that there are five common apple root stocks: M27, M9, M26, MM106, MM111. Apparently, the effect of each grafted rootstock is to dwarf the tree, from "very dwarfing" (M27) through "semi-dwarfing" (MM106), or to allow a tree to be "semi-vigorous in poor soil" (MM111), although this same rootstock is apparently "vigorous" in good soil. "Own-root trees" are vigorous --yes, that is the awkward hyphenation - and how strange to make the natural tree the one that must be marked out with a special adjective.

Another benefit of the dwarfing rootstocks is that they fruit earlier. Own-root trees reportedly produce fruit in 3 or 4 years, while the dwarfing rootstocks produce fruit from "very early in life" to 2-3 years after planting.

What kind of heights are we talking about? M27, the "very dwarfing" rootstock, limits the trees to 5-6 feet, while the dwarfing M9 and M26 top out at 6-10 and 8-12 feet respectively. The semi-dwarfing MM106 may reach 12-18 feet, while the semi/vigorous MM111 rises to 20-28 feet. Own-root trees are over 28 feet tall, unless grown close together.

Luckily for my squeamishness about grafted roots, the book recommends own-root trees for cordons 30 inches apart, or M26 or MM106, so I will use own-root plants for the porch. For the chain-link espalier, the book states that "all rootstocks except M9 are suitable" -- likely meaning just the grafted plants. However, the implication of the text and table is that they are recommending the dwarfing rootstocks to cut down on pruning for espaliers. This is, that I may need to prune more with an own-root tree planted as an espalier. Despite the warning (after all, I need experience pruning, right?) I am leaning toward the own-root for the chain-link espalier as well as for the porch cordons, but the scientist in me is curious to see if there is a real difference. Unfortunately, the conditions of each site (soil, proximity to pavement, hours and postion of sunlight) are so different that an attempt to compare them really wouldn't work very well.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Some urban farms in or near Boston

My friend Susan recently sent me the websites of some urban farms and organizations in or near Boston that were mentioned at an Urban Gardening Panel she attended. Check them out. Very cool (and so is Susan).

Revision Urban Farms – Dorchester -

E3C -

Groundwork Somerville -

The Food Project -

Top Sprouts -

My espalier plans

In addition to putting 2 apple trees against an eight-foot section of my chain-link fence, I will also plant 2-4 apple trees against my front entrance-way. This entrance has a half flight of poured concrete stairs from the street (no, it is not lovely) to a very small square covered entrance-porch. A special kind of single-trunk (no branches) espalier is called a "cordon." Although it is often placed in a series 30 inches apart and at a 30 or 60 degree angle (according to my trusty Organic Encyclopedia) -- another source I saw somewhere said that they could be placed vertically. Apparently, the angle controls the growth of more vigorous cultivars. So, I will likely plant two double-fork cordons to take advantage of the double vertical supports on each side of the entry stairs. I am considering placing a single cordon or vertical espalier with horizontal branches on each side of the square porch, but need to measure again and make sure I am not being too ambitious. (When my partner heard I had upped the plan for the porch from 2 to 4, she exclaimed, "You're always crowding up everything! Give it some room!)

Although I don't always listen to her most excellent advice (love you dear (- :), she may be right about this tendency -- although I prefer to call it my "ambitious streak" rather than my "clutter-bug" -- I am a trained feng shui practitioner, after all. It could be like the rumor about shrinks tho' -- they need help, so they study psychiatry; I need help, so I study feng shui. LOL

More later -- and pictures too, if I can figure out how to upload from our digital camera (yes I am over 25).

Monday, March 1, 2010

Espaliers 101

Any plant grown in a flat plane is called an "espalier." To maintain this shape requires a lot of pruning, and a fence, trellis, or wall to grow against, but it is useful in the urban food-growing context because fruit trees can be grown in an extremely small space.

Although I have never seen this done (nor yet found anything on the internet about it) it occurred to me that chain-link fence is an ideal support medium for espaliers. I live in Roslindale, a neighborhood of Boston, which I had dubbed "the land of the chain-link fence." When I discovered the espalier technique in my handy Rodale's Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, a light bulb went off! The main expense and trouble with the espalier technique (to my mind) is stringing the wires for support across a suitable surface. A chain-link fence is already in place and very sturdy. A bit of research shows that it is the ideal height for a single or double horizontal (see Figure 1. in the University of Florida Extension Circular CIR627 -

I measured my fence, which seems standard, and the top rail is about 3.5 feet - ideal for the second tier - the first tier would fit easily at 2 feet and could be tied to the lattice-work wires.

More later on which plants to buy....

M-m-m-mh, apples, I think.

Hello and welcome to adventures in urban permaculture!


Welcome to adventures in urban permaculture.

This blog will detail my experiments in creating an edible urban yard that is beautiful and productive.

My first experiment will be describing how to grow fruit trees in a tiny space using an ancient method called "espalier."

Stay tuned for more information.