EARTH REPAIR CORPS
March 2 and 3, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry

All Images © Woody Welch 2019

Earth Repair Corps Teams Up with Goodwater Montessori Public Charter School

During the spring of 2017, I ran into Randie Piscitello at the TerraPurezza Permablitz.  She had learned online about the work Earth Repair Corps (ERC) was doing with the permablitzes and wanted to find out how ERC could help Goodwater Montessori install a terraced orchard and annual vegetable garden on the school’s campus. Goodwater Montessori Public Charter School is in Georgetown, Texas, and was still under construction at the time of the TerraPurezza Permablitz. I believe that the school opened and began its operations during the fall of 2017.

Aerial view of the orchard terraces at Goodwater Montessori.

The Goodwater Permablitz took 2 years of planning and fundraising to implement.  This story is a testament of how planning and persistence pays off. Randie and her associate, Heather Pencil, worked together to raise $15,000 for the installation of the garden at Goodwater Montessori.  Parents and community members individually donated up to $1,000, and had plaques with their family’s names on them dedicated to the trees we planted and to the picnic benches we assembled during the Goodwater Permablitz.

The end result of this team effort and permablitz might just be that we have created a model farm and garden for all Montessori schools in the United States of America. 

ERC and Goodwater Montessori are also planning to have a summer intensive permaculture design course (PDC) on the Goodwater campus oriented towards educators and how to replicate what ERC and Goodwater accomplished during this permablitz.  We are filing the paperwork that will enable educators to get Continued Education Units for taking the PDC.

The Design Process

The land that Goodwater sits on is a long and narrow property and is in Texas’ Blackland Prairie. Below the school’s driveway and parking area, a hundred yards or more from Stadium Drive where the entrance is, is a large field that is mostly undeveloped.  We were given permission from the school to install a terraced orchard in that field.

I made several site visits to the school before the permablitz in 2019 and that’s when Randie, Heather and I began identifying the “known knowns”What objectives will be achieved from this garden? What are the measurable outcomes for the school and students? Where is the water supply line? Where is the access?  What existing infrastructure would we need to avoid? What is the soil like? Are deer and other animals present that could affect the garden?

Once those questions were answered, we started with a process of elimination, asking where can’t we install an orchard? There is a large engineered detention basin just below the parking lot where the storm water from the campus drains into, so we couldn’t install a terraced orchard there.  There is the buried sewer line on the east side of the field where we could also not install an orchard. At the very bottom of the field is a low lying marshy area that was also not suitable for an orchard, so that left us with the middle and west side of the field.

The next issue to consider was how to fence in the garden and keep it safe from animals and other unpredictable elements, the “known unknowns”.  Pete VanDyck advised Randie and Heather to look into Critter Fence deer netting, which they promptly did and purchased over 900 linear feet of fencing, materials for 2 pedestrian gates and one vehicle gate.  Now that we knew how much fencing we had, we could set the dimension of the garden / orchard. The garden would be 150 feet wide by 300 feet long.

Some other known elements that would be included in the garden were a garden shed, a deck to be used as a stage, 8 picnic tables, and a large area set aside for composting school food scraps and annual vegetable gardening.  All of these elements would be at the top of the fenced in area (the north side) leaving everything downhill from there available for the terraced orchard.

I then created several renditions of the design on Google Earth Pro, and finally laid it all out on the ground during the winter of 2019.

Terrace Installation

Laying out these terraces was pretty straight forward.  The 150 foot by 300 foot garden area was relatively flat with only a 2 or 3 foot drop in elevation over 300 feet, which meant that we could lay out the terraces in a way that made the most sense for maintenance and access.  Five, 100 foot long terraces were laid out perpendicular to the east and west fence lines. Two 140 foot long terraces were laid out close to and parallel to the west fence line, which would serve as an evergreen privacy hedgerow between the school’s property and the church next door.

Once the wet weather broke and the site dried up, Pete VanDyck with VanDyck Earthworks and Design showed up for a week with a mini excavator to begin installing the terraces.  The soil was still somewhat wet, and the earth excavated from the swales came out in large clumps. He did a great job though, and the terraces ended up being quite gentle and smooth. The bottom 4 terraces had a slight grade to them, less than 1.0 percent, and had a check dam and a level sill spillway installed in each one of them to hold the water back but then to also allow the water to exit the swales during significant rain events.  As it turns out, almost half of the uphill surface water runoff from the church’s lot to the west drains directly into the highest orchard terrace and subsequently cascades into the terraces below. The swales are 7.5 feet wide, 1 foot deep and ended up spanning 500 feet in all. They will hold 2,250 cubic feet of water below grade, or 16,875 gallons. A 2 or 3 inch rain will fill them up. The berms are 9 feet wide and 1 foot tall and yield very beneficial raised beds for the trees.

The two terraces that we had planned which were parallel to the west fence did not get installed because the fence line was so overgrown with brush (mainly gum bumelia, hackberry, and juniper) that we did not have time to clear it before installation.  Instead, after the fence line was cleaned up, we ended up planting the evergreen hedgerow trees on grade.

Another task that Pete and I took care of that week was excavating 1,000 linear feet of trenches and setting a 1 inch water supply line.  The water line was connected and set, and the trenches were backfilled before the March 2019 permablitz took place.

Tree Selection

I sent Randie a list of trees that I thought would be suitable for the site.  She looked over the list and pretty much took it from there. There is a little bit of everything in this garden – citrus, loquat, mulberry, apple, plum, peach, pear, chickasaw plum, fig, pomegranate, and pineapple guava.

The trees were laid out in a fruiting calendar configuration – that is they were grouped together and planted based on when they would bear fruit, with the earliest fruiting trees planted at the top of the orchard and the later fruiting trees planted at the bottom of the orchard.

The lowest terrace was used as a native woodlot demonstration plot where we selected oak, ash, maple, elm, hickory, and more.

The evergreen hedgerow along the west fence line is where chose to plant the evergreen loquat and citrus (meyer lemon, Satsuma orange, and kaffir lime).

The Weekend of the Permablitz

There was a huge amount of planning and preparation that went into getting this permablitz ready, and even though a colossal amount of work was done prior to the permablitz, there was still even more work to be done during the permablitz.

Thirty cubic yards of chipped tree mulch had to be moved by wheelbarrow 100 to 200 linear yards down the field to the orchard.  The west fence line still needed to be cleared and cleaned up, and all of that brush had to be moved out of the fenced in orchard.  An 8 foot wide by 16 foot long stage was built on Saturday by Chris, the father of one of the students, and 8 picnic tables were assembled.  Several raised beds with wooden 2” x 10” borders around them and trellis between them were also built.  

It seemed like planting the trees was actually one of the easier tasks.

Perhaps, at least for me and a few others, the biggest chore was setting and installing the Critter Fence.  Scores of “ground sleeves” had to be pounded 2 feet deep into the ground, 15 feet apart, in which the the vertical fence posts would be inserted.  We got all of the ground sleeves set, as well we built the 2 pedestrian gates, but it wasn’t until after the permablitz that Randie and Heather got the actual deer netting up and built the vehicle gate.

Thank goodness for Mason Dillard, a licensed irrigator and recent permaculture design course graduate, who showed up before, during, and after the permablitz to help install the irrigation system.  He installed 12 zones of irrigation, providing bubblers for each tree, and drip lines for the annual garden beds.

Heather managed to have all of the meals, breakfast and lunch on both days donated.  She was also instrumental in getting many other materials donated including all of the lumber supplies from McCoy’s, and garden supplies from Lowe’s. The local retail community really came through for this event! All we had to do was ask them in a professional and nice way to help out.

This permablitz required a lot of planning, fundraising, and hard work, however, I believe that the yields will be exponential symbiosis and abundance.

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June 2019 – Crop of the Month

Pineapple Guava – Scientific Name: Feijoa sellowiana, Acca sellowiana
Family: Myrtaceae
Written by: Kirby Fry

The pineapple guava is native to the tropics of South America but has naturalized in subtropical and sub temperate regions all around the world.  It is a well shaped, evergreen bush or small tree with attractive flowers that grows 10 to 15 wide and just as tall. It can be used ornamentally and even be pruned into more formal appearing hedgerows.

A mature pineapple guava can tolerate freezes as low as 12 degrees Fahrenheit, but plants 3 years and younger can die back during freezing temperatures and should be protected with frost cloth for their first few years.  The pineapple guava does very well in Central Texas cities where there is a “heat island” effect and along the Gulf Coast.

Variety Selection

There are a few different varieties that are available such as ruby (red fleshed fruit), supreme (white fleshed fruit), Indonesian seedless, and crunchy white.  These varieties are not always available in local nurseries though, and may need to be ordered from a catalogue or online. 

The fruit varies in size and sweetness, and grows to be anywhere from an inch in length up to 3 or 4 inches in length. A young pineapple guava tree will produce half a bushel of fruit (4 gallons of dry fruit) by its third year.  A mature tree will produce 3 or more bushels per year, or 24 gallons of dry weight fruit or more.

Planting Tips

In Central Texas a pineapple guava will probably not achieve its full size and so can be planted 10 to 12 feet apart.  It should be planted out of the way of freezing north western winds, and be given western shade. It likes well drained sandy loam soils with a little bit of clay in them. 

Dig a hole twice the size of the container that it comes in and water it in well after planting.  It needs a little extra water in the hottest time of the summer, usually two slow and deep waterings per week will suffice.  Fertilize your pineapple guava with an organic form of nitrogen such as alfalfa meal during mid summer and early fall when it begins to flower.  The fruit will begin to ripen mid fall.

Pruning Tips

Gradually prune your pineapple guava, removing branches growing straight out from the trunk less than 1 foot off of the ground.  To shape it into a small tree remove the lower one third of the branches to encourage vertical growth. It can be pruned into a more formal hedgerow but more aggressive pruning will set back fruit production the following fruiting season.

Pest Management

The main pest for pineapple guava in Texas, mostly in the Rio Grande Valley, are root-knot nematodes, which can be addressed by adding organic matter fine mulch such as grass clippings) and compost over the plant’s roots.

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January 25 and 26, 2019
Written by: Kirby Fry

All Images © Woody Welch 2019

Earth Repair Corps Teams Up with the Multicultural Refugee Coalition

In January of 2019, Earth Repair Corps had the good fortune to host a permablitz (or volunteer perennial garden installation) at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition (MRC) New Leaf Farm near Elgin, Texas.  

The property where the farm lies is in the Blackland Prairie natural region of Texas and has black clayee soils.  Typically, corn, soy beans, cotton, wheat, and sorghum are grown in this region.

The property is owned by John Beal who leases it to MRC.

Our relationship with MRC began when I received a phone call from Steven Hebbard, their farm manager at the time, during the spring of 2018.  I went out to New Leaf Farm for a site visit and was shown a 3.4 acre field where Steven told me that they wanted a terraced orchard and a perennial food garden with the possibility of row cropping annual vegetables and fruits in between the terraces.  Steven had been working with Jamie Soma on an overall permaculture design for the entire farm and so I did my best to honor their existing plans and create a system that worked well within their design.

Wandaka Musongera is New Leaf Farm’s current farm manager whom we worked with extensively during the design process and permablitz.

Aerial view of the terraces at New Leaf Farm.

The Design Process

The first thing I did was find out how long and how wide the field was.  It was about 500 feet long from top to bottom and just a little over 300 feet wide.  Since New Leaf Farm wanted the possibility of row cropping between the terraces we were about to install, we laid out 4 terraces exactly 100 feet apart from top to bottom, with each terrace being about 280 feet long.  This is the part of the design process that I call identifying the “known-knowns”, which is a process of elimination. This part of the design process entails answering a few basic questions, such as: What are the objectives of the client? How big is the job site? What is the soil like? Where are the roads? Where is the water for irrigation?

It took us 5 days of surveying, however, to figure out how to lay out the terraces on this field.  Steven told me that he would like to have the terraces slope a bit in order to prevent water standing for too long, so initially I set the first terrace on contour in order to establish a baseline and went parallel and down from there.  The three successive terraces below the top terrace all have a 0.5% grade to them draining water very gently to the riparian area where the water would naturally leave the field. It was like laying out the terraces on a giant lump of kneaded bread dough though, with lots of humps and bumps, and dips and drains, and was not a simple process. With the help of Lacey Proffitt, we must have laid out those terraces at least 4 different times before getting the design up to my requirements.

Terrace Installation

Once the layout was complete, Pete VanDyck with VanDyck Earthworks and Design arrived and spent a week on a mini-excavator installing the terraces.  I have lost count now of how many times Pete and I have executed such designs and installations together. Five level sill spillways, where the berm of the terraces stops but the swale continues, were installed in order to allow excessive water out during major rain events.  The swale, or below grade part of the terraces, is about 7.5 feet wide and 1 foot deep. The four terraces combined can hold back about 5,040 cubic feet of water, or 37,800 gallons of water below grade, right at the feet of our perennial agriculture. It requires a 2 or 3 inch rain event to fill them up. The berms are about 9 feet wide and 1 foot tall and offer the fruit trees we planted a broad tithy garden bed on contour giving the trees a real “leg up” on that clayee soil.

Volunteers digging irrigation ditches.

Tree Selection

The next design parameter I was given is that New Leaf Farm was interested in perennials that could possibly be used as natural dyes, had market value, and fell within the spectrum of low to moderate maintenance and upkeep.  Shortly after the terraces were installed and before the permablitz, MRC was given nearly 30 pomegranate trees that met those parameters and which were planted on the lowest terrace about 10 feet apart. 16 mulberry trees were selected for the highest terrace which are extremely hardy and can be used as a natural dye. 16 pears were selected for the terrace second from the top, and 16 Asian persimmons were selected for the terrace second from the bottom.

Golden ball lead trees, considered a farmers tree, were planted at a ratio of 1 farmers tree per 4 fruit trees between the fruit trees.  Farmers trees are native leguminous trees that may offer some or all of the following characteristics – native, leguminous, sugary bean pod and fodder for livestock, deep rooted, dappled shade, and mine for minerals by their root system and deposited on the ground’s surface through their leaf litter.

The mulberry and pear trees were purchased from Flavor Farms out here in McDade, Texas just a couple of miles from where I live. The Asian persimmons were purchased from Bloomers Garden Center in Elgin, Texas. The golden ball lead trees were purchased from Far South Wholesale Nursery.

The Weekend of the Permablitz

Saturday the 25th was a partly sunny and cool January morning.  Very fortunately the terraces had already been installed so the main 2 jobs for the permablitz crew was getting 4 water supply lines, each about 100 feet long, to the 4 terraces, and planting about 60 trees.  Nearly 30 people showed up that day including the Wandaka Musongera’s mother and younger siblings. Wandaka’s mother provided us with lunch on both days of the permablitz.

To get the water supply line to the middle of the terraces we had to dig nearly 400 linear feet of trenches at least 6 inches deep.  This was by far the hardest task we had, and it was interesting to see how the crew got better and better at digging as the day progressed.  It also really helped when I spray painted the trench lines for everyone to see and follow more clearly.

Woody Welch, a board member of Earth Repair Corps, had his drone up in the air taking pictures of the property, and was himself also taking some really great pictures on the ground.

During lunch on Saturday Steve Moakley, a MRC board member, spoke to us about their mission, Tim Miller gave a presentation on how to plant his heirloom leaks, Wandaka spoke, John Beal spoke, and I also gave a brief presentation on permaculture design.

Tim Miller of Millberg Farms giving a presentation on his heirloom leeks.

That Saturday night and early Sunday morning however, it rained hard and limited our access to the field where we were working.  We basically had to cart in wheelbarrows all of the trees and soil amendments about a quarter mile along very wet and muddy farm tracks to get them to the terraces.  It never ceases to amaze me though how well and how carefully the permablitz crew can plant trees. All of the trees were planted before lunch on Sunday, and by the end of Sunday most of the supply lines had been set and the trenches back-filled.

The permablitz at New Leaf Farm was a great experience and hopefully the beginning of long friendship between Earth Repair Corps and the Multicultural Refugee Coalition.

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June 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode
Scutellaria ovata/Heartleaf Skullcap and its subspecies
Family:  Lamiaceae/Mint  

The delicate blue flowers of Heartleaf Skullcap provide a refreshing sight in late spring and into summer. Their bloom time compliments well in the landscape with other wildflowers that stop blooming sooner, and this overlap helps to provide food for pollinators throughout the summer.  When happy, these reliable perennial herbs spread quickly into large stands through their rhizomes, like many other species in the mint family. They are easy to propagate by digging and replanting the roots, and though they can spread into large clumps, they are not particularly aggressive when growing with other plants. Heartleaf Skullcap is one of various Scutellari species that grow in Texas, and prefers slightly more moisture, soil, and shade than the average hill country plant to truly thrive.

Yet, they are still very hardy and can survive a drought even in poor/shallow soil once established, though their growth will be reduced in those conditions. In deeper soils, Heartleaf Skullcap can more easily thrive in full sun, and it often prefers well-draining soils over heavy clays. 
This wonderful woodland edge plant follows a cool season life cycle, and in fall it will begin growing out many different stalks from its roots, which then maintain themselves as a low groundcover over the winter. This growing habit is very useful to incorporate with warm season plants that go dormant in the winter, so that both groundcover and photosynthesis/feeding of soil microbes can be maintained over the winter.

Heartleaf Skullcap starts to grow its stalks out in early spring, reaching anywhere from 1-3 feet in height before they bloom, depending on their growing conditions. Depending on latitude, light, and moisture conditions, they usually begin to bloom anywhere from April to May, continuing into summer, and will continue blooming longer with wetter conditions. Heartleaf Skullcap loves the cool weather, and typically goes dormant as the summer heat settles in, unless prolonged by cooler weather and periodic rains, or if growing in a cooler and moist microclimate.

Scutellaria ovata is becoming more common in nurseries thanks to its various beneficial qualities and growing habits. The beautiful silvery-blue-green, fuzzy foliage and soft blue blooms create a pleasant visual contrast in the landscape. Like many other Scutellaria species, Heartleaf Skullcap also possesses useful medicinal compounds, and can be used similarly to Scutellaria lateriflora, though they have their differences.

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Written by: Kirby Fry
All Images © Woody Welch 2019

A permablitz is an event where a group of volunteers works together to install a permaculture (permanent + agriculture) garden for a friend, a neighbor, a school, and/or a community garden.  The garden can be an annual garden made for annual vegetables, or it can be a perennial garden made for fruit trees and other perennial food crops such as asparagus, brambles, and grapes.

A permablitz can also include installing a rainwater collection system, a gray water harvesting system, and/or building a chicken coop, trellis, or espalier.

Aerial image of Festival Beach Food Forest in Austin, TX nearly 4 years after their 2015 Permablitz

How did we find out about permablitzes, and when did permablitzes get started here in Central Texas?

The permaculture community in Texas may have first learned about permablitzes from Dilek Wise, a graduate from a Permaculture Design Course that I helped teach with the Austin Permaculture Guild in 2011 or so.  Dilek found out about an organization called Permablitz Melbourne, in Australia, that was helping their community to install permaculture gardens.  Permablitz Melbourne had by then installed scores of gardens, and did a great job of documenting their work. They’ve also made some very helpful videos about how to run your own permablitz – a few are linked below.

                       How to run a permablitz?

                       Permablitz on Costa’s Garden Odyssey, 2009

                       Plug In TV – Permablitz

When I learned about Permablitz Melbourne’s community effort working together to conserve soils and grow food locally, it reminded me of the work I had done as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala.  In the Highlands of Guatemala, north of Huehuetenango, we built and kept up 5 tree nurseries (each in a different village), implemented soil conservation methods, and planted woodlot trees in those villages, as well as 2 others.  After getting out of the Peace Corps, it always seemed to me that we could and should be doing that kind of work here in Central Texas. Permablitz Melbourne demonstrated that indeed such a community effort was possible.

Then, during the winter of 2011, while I was helping to teach a class called Food Forests for All, at The Whole Life Learning Center, I shared with the students of that class what Permablitz Melbourne was up to.  The students were enthusiastic and we had our first permablitz at Austin Ecoschool that very next January of 2012. Many of the people in that class have since had multiple permablitzes at their homesteads, and at community gardens that they were associated with.

Photos from our January 2019 Permablitz at the Multicultural Refugee Coalition’s New Leaf Farm

Since 2012 we have had well over 50 permablitzes, averaging about 9 per year, being held from September through May. In 2015 Earth Repair Corps was incorporated, in part, to help promote and run the permablitzes. If we have learned anything over the past 7 years, it is that we are not just building gardens, but communities that garden.

Since I was leading many of these events and heavily invested in them, there were at least six design elements that I tried to include in each and every permablitz.

  1. Soil and Water Conservation.  As I’ve said during many of my talks and classes, soil and water conservation is the cornerstone of permaculture design – that which all else is built upon.  Usually, whether we are planting trees or making annual gardens, we build some sort of earthworks on contour such as conservation terraces or raised annual garden beds.  These earthworks serve to slow, spread, and sink surface water running off the garden site, make that water available to the plants in the garden, and catch any soil sediments and detritus that might also be running off of the site.
  2. Perennial Food Crops.  Perennial food plants are the key stone of permaculture design – that which holds it up over time.  A perennial food crop yields fruit, nuts, and berries year after year, unlike annual food crops that produce for 1 or 2 seasons and then have to be replanted.  In Texas we have been planting mulberry, pomegranate, Asian persimmon, fig, apple, peach, plum, pear, pecan, pineapple guava asparagus, artichoke, grape vines, and blackberry brambles.
  3. Support Species of Plants.  Another aspect of permaculture design that distinguishes it from organic farming is that we are creating agriculturally productive ecosystems, so not every plant we establish in a permaculture garden is a food crop.  We use cover crops extensively, like clover, winter pea, rye grass, buck wheat, black eye pea, and millet to improve soils, and help vegetate bare soils.  Farmers trees like black locust, acacia, golden ball lead tree, Eve’s necklace, and arroyo sweetwood are all native leguminous trees that offer dappled shade, have deep root systems that bring up minerals from subsoils, and many of which fix Nitrogen into soils.  Lastly, deep-rooted herbs like comfrey, sorrel, and dock are added to some of our gardens for their soil-enhancing properties.
  4. Soil Amendments.  Many of our soils in Texas have been eroded and do not have the available mineral content nor the organic matter in them available for agricultural crops to flourish.  Bill Mollison was an advocate of adding soft rock minerals to soils to provide crops with needed elements, including soft rock phosphate, agricultural lime for calcium, pelletized sulfur, green sand for potassium and magnesium, and trace minerals.  We also add a slow release organic fertilizer in the hole of every tree we plant which is inoculated with mycorrhizal fungi, and beneficial to the roots of most plants.
  5. Drip Irrigation.  Fruit trees in Texas need supplemental water if they are going to flourish and be productive, even when they are perched on a berm just below a swale.  The most efficient way to deliver this supplemental water is with drip irrigation.  I have become a huge fan of Ewing Irrigation here in Central Texas.  Each fruit tree needs about 4 gallons of supplemental water delivered to it every other day from May through early October, or for about 5 months.
  6. Mulch.  At the base of each tree a heavy mulch should be applied annually.  Wood chips from trees seems to be what is most readily available for us here in Texas, though if you look around to the north of Austin, from late spring through the summer, wheat straw is available.  A good mulch cover will help to keep soil temperatures cooler than the ambient air temperature, suppress weeds, and slow down the evaporation of soil moisture which can be significant under the Texas sun and winds.

Photos from our September 2018 Permablitz at Proffitt Ranch in Marble Falls, TX

The costs for a permablitz can range anywhere from $700 to $4,000 and is usually paid for by the host site.  A commitment from the host site is also needed to finish up any tasks that were not completed during the permablitz – finishing up the irrigation system seems to commonly be one of these tasks.  The host site is also expected to provide volunteers with lunch during the work days.

Participating in a permablitz is a great way to meet like-minded people, learn more about sustainable design, and (after attending 3 permablitzes) have a permablitz at your home.

The permablitz schedule is announced on our calendar.  

Explosive abundance!

 

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April 2019 – Crop of the Month
Peach – Scientific Name: Prunus persica
Family: Rosaceae
Written by: Kirby Fry

The peach is arguably the sweetest and tastiest fruit that can be grown here in Central Texas.

I have fond memories of preserving peaches with my cousins and aunts.  We would blanche the peaches in boiling water for a minute or so, peel the skin off of the fruit, cut the peaches in half, remove the seed or pit, and then store the peach halves in quart sized Ball jars.  Wonderful tasting peaches were on the menu for the rest of the year. At a birthday party, my favorite dessert is still peach cobbler.

The peach tree here in Central Texas, however, needs a little bit of extra care.

My first suggestion when cultivating peach trees is to not plant too many.  It’s better to have half a dozen well-tended peach trees than it is to have a dozen poorly-tended trees.  When we purchase and plant peach trees, we should keep in mind that this tree crop needs the attention that we give to annual vegetable gardens, not pecan groves.

My second suggestion is to be ready to replace and replant varieties that did not thrive.  Peaches are a relatively short lived tree crop. We can expect 7 to 14 years of production from them.  We can also expect quite a bit of pruning, and limb loss. Be prepared to replace some of the peach trees you originally planted with better varieties for your region that you later discover and learn about.

With a moderate amount of annual upkeep, though, peach trees can have high yields and are exceptionally rewarding.  Some of the best peaches in North America are grown right here in Central Texas just west of the Balcones Escarpment in places like Fredericksburg and Stonewall.

Variety Selection

Peach trees are available mid-winter in plant nurseries as bare root stock.  The earlier they are planted the better – aim for late December to early January, as that gives them some extra time to establish their root systems.  After purchase, they should be planted within 1 day or so upon arriving at your homestead. Avoid exposing the roots to air and sunlight by keeping them moist and wrapped in paper, or submerged in moist sand, and soak the roots in a bucket of water for at least an hour right before planting them.

Choosing the right variety of peach tree for your region is very important.  Specific varieties of peach trees require a different number of chill hours in order for them to break their winter dormancy.  Chill hours, are the number of hours per winter that the tree spends below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the Dallas / Fort Worth area, there are between 900 to 1,000 chill hours, at the latitude of Austin there are around 600 chill hours, San Antonio may have 400 chill hours, and the Gulf Coast may have as few as 200 chill hours.  So make sure that when you buy peach trees at your local nursery, the variety you are buying corresponds to the number of chill hours where you will be planting them. Texas A & M recommends Junegold, Juneprince and Southern Pearl for medium chill hour regions – 450 to 700 chill hours.

Planting Tips

Select a site for your peach trees that is on sandy or loamy soils at least 18” deep, that is well drained, and which has good air circulation in order to reduce molds and fungi.  The trees should be planted about 18 feet apart, and the rows they are planted in should be 24 feet apart from one another.

When planting a peach tree, dig your hole a few inches deeper than the root ball of the tree, and twice as wide.  Add a slow release organic fertilizer with a mycorrhizal inoculant into the hole, and mix the same fertilizer into the soil that you will be using to back fill the hole with.  Flood the hole with water before it is completely full of soil and make sure to get rid of all air pockets around the roots of the trees.

Cover a 2-foot radius area around your trees with 4 to 6 inches of mulch after planting them.  Six weeks after planting the trees fertilize them with a 10-10-10 organic fertilizer.

Drip irrigation will be necessary from April through October depending on seasonal rainfall. Expect your peach trees to start making fruit around their 4th year.

Pruning Tips

Peaches make fruit on second year woody growth, so if you never prune a peach tree eventually the fruit will bear beyond your reach.  It is recommended to initially prune the newly planted tree back to a single trunk, 2 to 3-feet above the ground.

The next winter prune the tree again, leaving only 3 to 5 of the healthiest branches that are evenly spaced out around its trunk.  

Each year after that, 40 to 60 percent of new growth should be pruned back, leaving the center of the tree open.  The tree should be sculpted it into the shape of a wine glass for good air circulation and exposure to sunlight.

Fruit buds need to also be removed in the early spring, establishing a spacing of 6 to 8-inches between fruit.  A mature peach tree might put on 5,000 flowers and buds, when we actually want 500 or less fruiting buds.

Pest Management

There are a lot of insects and vermin out there that will want to eat your peaches.  Deer-proof and rabbit-proof fencing are a good start for any orchard. Proper spacing and pruning will also go a long way towards keeping your peaches mold and fungus free.

Garden hygiene is always important as well.  Manage weeds beneath your peach trees, keep a 2 to 4-foot radius around the trees mulched, and remove any fallen peaches quickly and compost them or feed them to livestock well away from your orchard.

The simplest treatment that I’ve come across for fighting insect infestation is the spraying of dormant oil on the peaches in mid to late January.  It’s very important to completely cover the surface of each bud. Dormant oil is a horticultural oil with baking soda and dish soap in it that suppresses insect eggs from hatching by either smothering them or dissolving the waxy surface of the insect eggs.  Once insects have begun hatching and sucking on the peaches the fruit becomes much more susceptible to fungal infection which can be spread from wound to wound by the insects. It’s an uphill battle after that.

Finally, late freezes may be what kills the most of your peaches.  You can expect this at least every 6 or 7 years, and in some cases a late freeze might damage your peach crop 2 or 3 years in a row.

Be patient and observant.  Buy a farmer’s almanac and start learning more about the chill hours in your region and what to expect each winter.

All of that said, I look forward to the late spring and summer harvest of peaches which is coming up in the next couple of months.  I remember well my daughters and I stopping at the peach stands in Elgin where they were selling peaches from Fredericksburg, such sweet memories.

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March 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode

 

Tinantia anomala – False Dayflower
Family: Commelinaceae

False Dayflower is a delicate perennial herb native to central Texas that loves to grow in the forest understory, in woodland meadows, slopes and edges, and in riparian areas and their margins. It grows very well in the rich soils made by the leaf litter of trees but is hardy and adapted to the various kinds of rocky limestone soils common in central Texas. They like to have some extra shade and moisture, but are also highly drought tolerant once established in a suitable spot.

Tinantia anomala will grow out its fine, grass-like leaves from fall through winter, eventually sending out stalks that can reach a height of up 1-2 feet, and then the small purple blooms begin to brighten the forest floor, usually starting around mid-March. This herb prefers growing during the cool season and will often go dormant once summer heat sets in. Tinantia’s cool season growth habit complements that of the warm season plants that emerge later, helping to maintain photosynthesizing plants and their roots in contact with the soil for longer.

While the most common flower colors seen are the varying shades of purple, they also occur in white and blue. Their soft flowers sprinkle the awakening forest floor with a soothing display, along with the blooms of many other small herbs of similar habit that Tinantia is fond of growing with, such as: Baby Blue Eyes/Nemophila phacelioides, Golden Groundsel/Packera obovata, Heartleaf Nettle/Urtica chamaedryoides, and the related Spiderworts/Tradescantia and Dayflowers/Commelina species.

All Images © Elenore Goode 2019

Tinantia makes a wonderful groundcover, quickly spreading through its rhizomes to send out new shoots. One small transplant can easily spread over a foot or more in one year without any nurturing beyond choosing a good spot. At the same time, it is a gentle plant that does not tend to overtake gardens, and is easily pruned if overgrown. It grows easily from seeds as well. False Dayflower is an excellent choice for habitat restoration projects where hardy plants that can reliably succeed from transplant without extra care are able to be utilized.

The finer, fibrous part of their root systems interweaves gracefully with the varied root structures of other plants to create greater structural complexity in the soil. Tinantia‘s roots, though delicate, are still wonderful at holding soil together and spreading to stabilize loose soils. Tinantia anomala is another wonderful native plant we can easily incorporate into landscapes to increase biodiversity and provide early season pollinator and wildlife forage.

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March 2019 – Crop of the Month
Apple – Scientific Name: Malus pumila
Family: Rosaceae
Written by: Kirby Fry

A favorite fruit for many people is the apple.  It is a firm, crisp fruit that is delicious when eaten raw, it stores well, and it can be cooked into many of our favorite deserts.  Not only are apples tasty but they are also good for us.  I remember my grandmother repeating the common phrase “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  Apples are high in vitamin C and fiber, and low in calories and sodium.  Eating an apple before going to bed is also a good way to clean your teeth.

Apple trees should be purchased in January or February as 1-year-old bare root whips that are 2 to 3 feet tall.  They should be planted in late winter or early spring.  Buying a younger tree with a healthier root system is a much safer bet for growing a healthy tree than buying a 2 or 3-year-old tree with a poorly developed root system. 

Apple trees, like other fruit trees in the Rosaceae family (peaches and plums in particular), require a higher degree of feeding, pruning, and plague prevention.  So, if you want a healthy productive apple tree then be prepared to do more pruning, bud thinning, fertilizing, and plague prevention than you would otherwise need to perform for fig, loquat, and mulberry.

Planting Requirements

Choose an area for your apple trees that has well drained soil, has some protection from strong winds, and gets at least a half day of full sunshine as the fruit needs sunshine to ripen – afternoon shade is best if the tree is not in full sun.  Apples are cold hardy and need different amounts of chilling hours to produce their fruit.  The more chilling hours a region has the greater variety of apples we can choose from.

Choose the proper varieties for your region.  The further south we are in Texas, the fewer chilling hours we have and so the number of apple varieties that do well in these low chill areas are few – the Dorsett Gold and Anna varieties are recommended for the Gulf Coast and Rio Grande Valley areas.  Apples need at least 2 varieties to be planted close together for cross pollination, so at least one Dorsett Gold and one Anna should be planted together.

Varieties that do well in Central Texas are Jersey Mac, Adina, Gala, Mollie’s Delicious, Starkrimson Red Delicious, Braeburn, Granny Smith, Pink Lady, Anna, and Dorsett Gold.  Harvest fruit early to mid-June.

Varieties that do well north of Central Texas are Jersey Mac, Adina, Gala, Mollie’s Delicious, Ozark Gold, Starkrimson Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Braeburn, Fuji, Granny Smith, and Pink Lady.

The apples requiring fewer chilling hours will ripen first in early to mid-June, and the apples requiring the more chilling hours will ripen as late as late September to early October.

Dig a 3’ wide 3’ deep hole for your apple trees to be planted in.  Plant the tree to a depth just below lowest graft.  Soak the trees in water for at least 1 hour before planting.  Set the tree into your hole and then add alternating 2” layers of soil and compost into the hole.  Before filling the hole completely, flood it with water to eliminate all air pockets.

Fertilization and Maintenance

Spread a 2” layer of compost around the tree after it has been planted, then once a month for 3 months add 1 cup of a high nitrogen organic fertilizer such as alfalfa meal.  The next year add 2 cups of fertilizer once a month for 3 months beginning in the early spring, and during the third year add 3 cups of fertilizer once a month for 3 months.  Once the tree is established add 1 pound of fertilizer for every 1” in diameter of the tree, once in the early spring and then once again in May.

Your apple trees will need 1” of water on them every 4 to 5 days for the first month after they are planted, watering should then occur with frequencies further and further apart until the trees need just one good watering every 2 weeks through the summer.

Pruning an apple tree during its first 4 years of growth is important.  Many planting guides recommend pruning in the middle of winter while a few others recommend pruning mid-summer.  Experiment and observe, and be ready to act if and when you notice a blackening around pruned areas.  When pruning, leave the healthiest looking branches that are spaced out evenly, then trim back those branches to a quarter of their original length.  Do not over prune in any single year as it exposes too much of the vascular system to infection and a loss of sap pressure, be moderate and consistent.

As the tree begins to set buds, remove all but one bud per cluster of buds, with the remaining buds being spaced out about 6” apart.

There are quite a few apple diseases that we need to be on the lookout for including scab, cedar apple rust, fireblight, blotch, and bitter rot.  Possible insect plagues include spider mites, plum curculio, aphids, and coddling moth.

A paragraph about each one of these plagues could be written.  Good garden hygiene is important – like removing fallen apples and infected leaves from under your trees and keeping the tree’s canopy open to air and sunlight.  Maintaining the soil’s health under the tree is also helpful in resisting plagues.  A couple of products that I have heard recommended by organic growers are neem oils that can be sprayed on apple trees to resist fungal blights and kaolin clays that can be sprayed to help resist insect damage.

Harvest your apples as they become fully ripe and they will taste better and store longer.  Share them with friends, take them to market, and brush up on how to preserve and store them.  Explosive abundance!

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01.09.2019
Written by: Kirby Fry – All Images © Woody Welch 2019
Read our 2015 post on Festival Beach here

Three years after the design and installation of the Festival Beach Food Forest in Austin, Texas, Woody Welch and I had the pleasure of revisiting this amazing parkland food forest.  The trees and plants were doing exceptionally well, a wheel chair accessible decomposed granite walkway has since been added, along with several other mulched paths and park benches.  Woody got his drone in the air and was able to take some amazing shots of the site showing just how close the food forest is to the center of Austin, Texas.

  1. In late October of 2015, Earth Repair Corps partnered with Festival Beach Food Forest and Tree Folks to assist with the installation of a food forest in a public, highly-visible green space just north of Lady Bird Lake and east of Interstate Highway 35 right in the heart of growing Austin, Texas.

  1. The Festival Beach Food Forest team, Pete VanDyck, and I spent days surveying this site with laser levels and landscaping flags. First, we found the lowest spot on the site and then marked contour lines every 6” and up from there in elevation. What was revealed by that survey was that the park is shaped like a shallow bowl with a large drain passing through the middle of it that drains almost all of the water from Festival Beach Community Gardens and the apartment complex parking lot adjacent to the community gardens.

  1. Three conservation terraces were installed above and out of the way of the drainage system, 2 on the north side of the food forest and 1 on the south side. A tree boomerang / berm was built up with Geo Grower’s “berm builder” soil around one of the prominent live oaks, and 2 large berms were built up with the same material along the park’s perimeter that would eventually shield the site when planted from the automobile traffic along IH 35.

  1. Here is a good aerial shot of the Festival Beach Food Forest. Festival Beach Community Garden is right next door to the food forest.

  1. During this most recent visit, I thought that one of the most successful design elements was the hedge row planted on the perimeter berms. The Arizona cypress trees, and sable palms (both evergreens) had at least tripled in their size, and in just three years were doing a really great job of sheltering the park from the interstate highway.

  1. Another one of my favorite elements is the fruiting calendar that was planted on the longest terrace on the south east side of the park. If you’re standing in the center of the food forest and looking at the terrace, from left to right you will see – loquat, mulberry, peach, plum, apple, pear, pomegranate, and Asian persimmon. That is the same order that they will fruit throughout the calendar year.

  1. A new addition to the food forest since the original planting, olive trees.

  1. Underneath the live oak tree with the tree boomerang below it, I noticed a lot of beautiful native Texas plants had been established. Here is a shot of one of my favorites, sweet almond verbena.

  1. Also in full bloom, not too far from the sweet almond verbena were several loquat trees. I don’t think that I’ve ever really experienced the fragrance of loquat flowers before, they smelled wonderful. The loquats’ flowers had sure gotten the attention of the honey bees on this warm sunny winter day.

  1. The visual rock stars of the food forest were the arroyo sweet wood trees which were still holding on to their fall leaves.

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January 2019 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode

 

Elymus/Wildrye genus  – Prairie/Canada Wildrye and Virginia Wildrye – Elymus canadensis and Elymus virginicus, etc.
Family: Poaceae

Elymus is an agriculturally and ecologically important genus of mid-size cool season perennial bunchgrasses, and many different species are found in a variety of habitats throughout Texas. Cool season grasses grow starting in fall and winter, when the warm season grasses are beginning to go dormant. Elymus canadensis (featured in the pictures) and Elymus virginicus are two of the most common species that are fairly widespread across the state. While these two species are generally distinguished by their drooping (canadensis) vs upright (virginicus) seed culms, Elymus species may also have multiple varieties that occur within them (as with canadensis), have been found to hybridize, or have been said to be simply different forms within the same species (Guide to Texas Grasses – Robert B. Shaw).

In Central Texas, the versatile Wildryes are frequently found growing in shade or sun along lowland and upland riparian areas, woodland edges, meadows, prairies, forests, etc., with quite a bit of variability between all the species as to preferred moisture and sun conditions. Though they love to grow in the moist and deep soils and creek banks, they aren’t actually too picky when planted elsewhere. Even within one species, such as Prairie Wildrye/Elymus canadensis, some stands are happy in full sun when they have enough soil and moisture, and many others love to grow in the shaded understory of large trees, especially if they are in shallower soils or further from water.

Elymus species are very hardy grasses that are still common and somewhat abundant in the wild compared to many other native cool season forage plants. Their habit is to go dormant in dry summers unless they are in a moist area, but these grasses will otherwise have green growth for much of the year. Cool and moist conditions at the end of spring will prolong their growth into summer before going dormant.

They are important forage grasses that reliably provide food for wildlife, livestock, and soil microorganisms during winter when green forage is otherwise scarce. These grasses are generally grazed in rotational systems from fall through spring, but then avoided after their long seed culms go to seed at the start of summer, as these seed culms are said to be potentially problematic to livestock due to possible fungal growth. But while the livestock avoid it, the thatch and seeds they produce will be used by wildlife for nesting material and food.

This clump of Elymus canadensis is being grazed by wildlife in December.

Wildryes are also an excellent grass to use for pasture re-vegetation and habitat restoration projects, since their seeds are easy to find, collect, and germinate, even in poor soils. Their seeds establish exceptionally well and quickly compared to many other native grasses, and love shade or sun. Elymus stands can be very prolific in combination with deciduous forests that protect them in summer and then let the sunlight through in winter. Wildrye species are all-around great for improving degraded habitat conditions by revitalizing disturbed soils and bridging the temporal fragmentation of food sources that is exacerbated by low species diversity.

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