EARTH REPAIR CORPS
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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January 2019 – Crop of the Month
Mulberry – Scientific Name: Morus rubra
Family: Moraceae
Written by: Kirby Fry

Winter is upon us here in Central Texas and most of our favorite nurseries are now getting in their bare root, fruit tree stock.  These trees are cultivated and grown in loose sandy soils on larger farms and then removed from that soil and shipped out to our local plant nurseries with no soil around their roots and no containers.  At the local nurseries they are “banked” in a pile of sand until they are purchased and taken home by customers.  They are usually then wrapped in wet paper and kept out of direct sunlight until they are planted in the ground.

Not having to grow out these fruit trees at the nurseries themselves lowers their cost, usually by half, but the time window of their availability is narrow (from early January to late February) and often you need to order these trees in October to secure them because when they arrive at the nurseries they sell out quickly or in many cases have already been pre-sold.  Many tree farms will direct ship to your home as well.  So get your orders in early, or be ready to act quickly and buy them up as soon as they arrive at a local nursery.

This winter we will be featuring three fruit trees that are available as bare root stock – mulberry, apple, and peach.  Grape, blackberry, and asparagus are also available as root stock this time of year.  So get your gardening game on!

– Planting Tips – 

Let’s begin with the mulberry tree.  It produces a small reddish purple ¾” to 1 ¼” long fruit.  If you enjoy watching birds, mulberries are a real treat.  When the trees are fruiting in the spring there is no need to go out bird watching because all of the local birds will be coming to your mulberry trees.  Every spring I get to observe the latest families of wood pecker and tufted titmouse pass through my small mulberry orchard almost on an hourly basis for several weeks.

There is a variety of mulberry tree, Morus rubra, which is native to the Eastern United States.  Many mulberry varieties can become invasive because birds love them so much and spread their seeds, so in this blog we will stick with a variety that is native.  Mulberries are very fast growing for the first 10 or 15 years of their life and then slow down as they mature.  They may serve as an effective means of erosion control, and wind break.  Most mulberries grow to a height of about 30 feet, but the native red mulberry in the right conditions can get up to 70 feet tall, though I’ve never seen one this tall.

They prefer rich well drained soil and full sun, but will thrive in partly shaded areas as well.  Mulberry trees should be planted no closer than 15 feet apart.  Choose a location for your mulberries that is well away from sidewalks and driveways, as this fruit tree makes a lot of fruit and attracts many birds and can be quite messy below its canopy.  Like most fruit trees, when we plant them, the hole we dig should be at least twice the size of the root ball.  Since we are talking about bare root stock, there is no container nor any other soil that we need to address.

A slow release organic fertilizer and minerals should be put into the hole before the tree is set down into it.  I like Bio-tone’s plant starter mix that has a mycorrhiza fungal inoculate in it as well as organic fertilizers.  I also like to add ag lime (Ca), pelletized Sulfur (S), green sand (K, Mg), soft rock phosphate (P), and trace minerals.  This mix of fertilizer and minerals should also be added to and stirred into the soil that is going back into the hole, as well as put into the bottom of the hole before planting.

Mulberries require minimal pruning, but pruning should start when the tree is small and the branches are less than 2 inches in diameter.  Pruning is used to establish a set of main lateral branches and prevent the crossing and rubbing of branches, to manage the tree’s height and make harvesting easier.

The mulberry tree is extremely tough and does exceptionally well in our climate requiring very little watering and pest management.  An annual mulching of the ground beneath the tree’s canopy might be all you ever need to do to keep this tree thriving.

Visit your local nursery this week and check out their incoming supply of bare root fruit trees!

 

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December 2018 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode

 

Juniper species, Juniperus ashei etc
Family: Cupressaceae
The many different sturdy and robust trees of the Juniper genus lend a resilient character to the landscapes they inhabit, gifting them with an abundance of berries, protective evergreen cover, and rich organic matter. The presence of this herbivore and drought resistant tree provides an important source of food for many organisms – from birds, mammals, and insects, to the soil microorganisms and plants – that live in symbiotic relationships with the juniper trees through mycchorrizal connections. The stringy bark of mature trees is a staple nesting material used by the endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler and other birds. Most wildlife consume Juniper in some way, and though it is overall resistant to deer browse, they will eat more and more of it when there is less other food. Goats will readily eat Juniper, and where they are penned with them, they may even kill trees from overbrowse.
Some plants that love to grow in the rich duff made by the fallen needles of Juniperus ashei and the sub/separate species ovata include:
– White Honeysuckle
– Madrone trees
– Texas Persimmons
– Texas Red Oaks
– Yaupon and Possumhaw Hollies
– Asters
– Spiderwort
– Beautyberry
– Frostweed
– Cedar Sedge
– Other hardy Salvia species, Pellitory, etc.
To understand the current distribution and overabundance of Juniper trees relative to other species, we look back to the ecological and land use history of the area, and at current land management methods. Junipers in many habitats are frequently the innocent targets of misguided scapegoating campaigns to blame them for the ecological disasters that they are simply cleaning up after.They are the bandages on the open wounds caused from centuries of overgrazing, burning, and denuding hills of all their vegetation.
In Texas, the past few centuries have seen great habitat losses in terms of species diversity and abundance, soil depth, soil moisture and aquifer levels, and various other further compounding interconnected factors that lend to the overall destabilization of habitat regeneration processes in the ecosystem. The loss of other fruiting species of herb, shrub, and tree from a habitat further propels the expansion of the Juniper, since its berries are one of the most available and reliable food sources that provide food for wildlife throughout winter. Subsequently, these animals distribute the berries across the landscape, especially under the live oaks they like to sit in – if you want fewer new Junipers, start by giving wildlife something else to spread! 
In the same way that many of our garden weeds are trying to restore minerals and organic matter to the soil and tell us that something is needed there, many of the places where multitudes of Junipers sprout up are simply in need of some kind of vegetative cover and soil organic matter, due to livestock or deer pressure preventing anything else but Juniper from growing. Restoring the abundance and diversity of the thick and diverse vegetation native to Texas will help prevent so many young Juniper seedlings from appearing.
Juniperus species are highly drought-adapted trees that need and use very little water, which is how they are able to survive in such rugged climate conditions. Juniperus ashei is able to grow in poor, dry and alkaline conditions of the Hill Country where few other plants can, and has proven itself as an incredible early-successional species to set ecological and hydrological functioning back into motion where it has been brought to a near halt in the “moonscapes” created by anthropogenic habitat degradation. Forests are rainmakers, holding onto rainfall in their locality through their body mass, so that the water remains available in that area rather than flowing off to sea, and allows the landscape to maintain local/small hydrological cycles and healthy springs through the respiration of plants.  The dominant Juniper forests of many brittle and dryland habitats are essential for holding moisture in the local landscape in the form of biomass and soil moisture levels, and if they were to suddenly be removed, remember that what is also being removed from that place are the effects and potential of a large volume of water that is part of the local water cycle; all the water that is contained within the trees, and the soils they make and keep moist with their shade. Another way forests increase soil moisture is by drawing dewdrops out of the air in certain conditions, and they can then fall to the ground.
Juniperus species act as nurse trees across many different habitats by protecting more palatable plants under their branches and creating rich organic matter from poor substrates for other plants to grow in. They are an integral species in ecosystems that have lost their historic plant diversity, and that are still under unnaturally high deer and livestock browsing conditions due to the feed supplementation of these populations beyond what the local carrying capacity of the land can handle.
The abundance of Juniper trees in the degraded hills and rangelands of Texas speaks to its hardiness amidst the severe erosion, deforestation, and overbrowsing/grazing that have eradicated the more palatable vegetation. On steep slopes, Junipers provide essential coverage for the soil, and their dense layers of branches help break the impact of the heavy and intense downpours common in Texas, helping the rain to percolate into the soil instead of washing it off the hill and contributing to flooding. Rather than focus efforts on opening up more of the historically-abundant forest canopy in a state where we can’t stop complaining about the heat, we should remember that the original forests of Texas were rich with understory grasses and shrubs that thrive in dappled and even deep shade. The lack of species richness in many dense, young, re-growth stands of Juniper is due more than anything to the fact that the seed bank for other species has already been lost from the spot in question by previous poor land management. Most Hill Country plants will happily grow in a Juniper-derived soil when re-introduced properly.
The Juniper species across their habitats must be re-envisioned as what they are: truly vital backbones holding the ecological functioning and integrity of their habitat together, and repairing it from centuries of land mismanagement.
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December 2018 – Crop of the Month
Loquat – Scientific Name: Eriobotrya japonica
Family: Rosaceae
Written by: Kirby Fry

 

Every homestead in Central Texas can and should have something fruiting or ready to harvest year-round.  A fruiting calendar marks a month or time of the year when fruits are ripe in your landscape.  In the fall and winter, a fruiting calendar would mark pomegranate, Asian persimmon, citrus and loquat, pretty much in that order from September through March.  This is handy to know because so many of the fruits we enjoy the most like peaches, plums, and apples fruit in the spring and early summer.

The loquat tree (Japanese plum or Japanese medlar), which we will be discussing here, flowers in the late fall and early winter and bears fruit late in the winter or early spring.  It has fragrant flowers, is evergreen, and is often used as an ornamental tree in landscapes.  It is a frost hardy tree, tolerating freezes as low as 10 degrees, and does well in all of Texas’ soils.

Loquat trees are available in nurseries year-round and should be planted as soon as the fall rains begin.  This is the last of my fall series of 3 trees that can be purchased and planted in containers during the fall – pomegranate, fig, and loquat.  In January we will begin discussing what bare root tree stocks are available to purchase and plant.

 – Planting Tips – 

  • Loquats are easy to germinate from seed for ornamental purposes, but like many other fruit trees started from seed, the seedlings and future trees will not always make fruit or the desired quality of fruit, so it is recommended that for fruit production you vegetatively propagate loquat (with cuttings) from varieties known to bear exceptional fruit.
  • Loquats desired for their fruit production should be planted on the south side of buildings for shelter from winter winds, as a hard freeze will not kill the tree itself, but temperatures below 27 degrees will damage or kill the flowers and fruit.
  • If the tree is purchased in a container with a soilless media, then that media should be gently washed off with a garden hose to expose the roots to the soil around it in its new planting place.
  • Dig a hole twice the size of the container your tree came in, water the soil in as you backfill the hole getting rid of air pockets and making sure the roots have good contact with the soil around them.  Water every 3 or 4 days for the next couple of weeks, eventually reducing the frequency of watering.
  • Fertilize the tree with a slow release, high nitrogen fertilizer once the tree begins to put on new growth.  I like feather meal, bone meal and alfalfa meal.  Mulch heavily around the tree to guard soil moisture and prevent broad leaf plants and grasses from competing with your young tree.
  • The fruit matures in late winter to early spring.  It is about 1.5 inches long and 1 inch wide and has 2 or 3 brown seeds in it.  It is gold or orange in color and has a sweet or tangy flavor to it depending on the variety.
  • Loquat has very few plagues, but as it is in the Rosaceae family, it is sometimes susceptible to fire blight, the same destructive bacterial disease that affects pears and apples.  The treatment is to prune and remove any branches or leaves affected by fire blight and safely dispose of them.

Since the loquat tree is evergreen and quite ornamental, similar to a magnolia tree with its large leaves, it can also be used as a hedge row for privacy, a wind break, or as a back drop for your garden.  Enjoy this beautiful tree by using it to expand your fruit calendar and as an ornamental hedge row!

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November 2018 – Native Plant of the Month
Written by Guest Contributor: Elenore Goode

 

Rusty Blackhaw, Cramp Bark – Viburnum rufidulum
Family: Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle)

Fall weather draws beautiful colors from the leaves and berries of the Rusty Blackhaw tree, one of the most common and widespread species of the Viburnum genus in Texas. Rarely growing over 20 feet in height, the berries of this graceful understory tree are an important source of food for wildlife heading into winter. Viburnum rufidulum can tolerate full sun and rockier soils than other Viburnums, but truly loves to grow in the deep, rich soils and shade in the understory of tall forests, the forest edge, and along streams and rivers. They send out bright puffs of white blooms in spring, which are similar to the blooms of other small trees like Roughleaf Dogwood and Elderberry, which are often found in the same areas. This genus is also frequently referred to as Cramp Bark, and the different species have long been used for their medicinal qualities that soothe muscle spasms, such as women’s menstrual cramps, among other uses.

All Images © Elenore Goode 2018
Rusty Blackhaw’s distinct features include its dime-sized oval-shaped berries that change in color from green, to pink, to purple, blue and then dark bluish-black when ripe, its small, toothed, oval leaves that turn a deep red hue in fall, the drooping form of its limbs, the rusty color of the new leaf buds, and the large, rough “dinosaur scales” of its bark. The edible berries are sweet and mild when ripe, and somewhat prune-like once they dry; a nice nibble on the trail. In landscapes where there are not enough fruiting trees present to support wildlife, the berries may disappear as soon as they ripen, or before…but where there are enough berries relative to wildlife and they aren’t immediately eaten, the berries can remain edible on the tree into winter, providing a long-lasting food source.

 

Viburnum rufidulum is one of the many beneficial fruiting trees of the natural hill country forests and prairies that were once present here in great numbers before large-scale habitat destruction occurred. The loss of the vast amount of vegetation that sustained and was managed by the millions of deer, elk, bison, black bears, etc that lived here is still felt by wildlife and plant populations today, as this habitat has never been allowed to fully recover to its historic species diversity and abundance. Like many of the more palatable natives trees (more palatable than Juniper, that is), most Rusty Blackhaw seedlings are currently unable to grow and mature across much of their natural range.
The continued presence of high browsing pressure on a habitat that is already denuded of much of its plants has created a situation where most species of native plants in many parts of the hill country and much of Texas have not been successfully reproducing for anywhere from decades to even 100 years or more. These are any areas where we see old trees, but no new young stands of trees growing up to someday replace the old.

Despite the very small number of livestock and wildlife currently in TX compared to 200 years ago, the vegetation is still unable to recover because livestock have unrestricted constant access to the plants, and there are too few predators left to influence the movement of wild herbivores, many of which are also fed and managed like livestock. The distribution of plants has subsequently shifted towards the spiny, thorny, less palatable species that can withstand this land mismanagement. Many places have a large amount of young junipers constantly coming up because there are few other fruiting trees left for birds and mammals to eat, and so they eat the prolific juniper berries and drop those seeds under every large tree they sit in. And in many places, the only seedlings able to survive browsing once they germinate are also the junipers. Thickets of spiny brush in forests often contain many rare and endangered native plants that manage to remain in the landscape only in such safe and impenetrable areas.

All Images © Elenore Goode 2018
Understory trees and shrubs like Rusty Blackhaw are still locally present and sustaining viable population sizes in some areas, but are also locally extinct from large areas, as has happened to the population distribution of many trees in heavily-browsed and eroded landscapes. Some species, like the Hawthornes/Mayhaws, have become extinct from most of their range in the hill country due to the loss of suitable habitat and soil moisture that comes with erosion and deforestation. The micro-climate conditions these trees thrive in that were once present here – in terms of soil depth, moisture, and canopy cover – can be re-created across their historic range by stopping erosion, slowing and soaking in rainfall runoff, letting forests grow old and create deep shade, and allowing forest organic matter from limbs and leaves to accumulate and build the rich soil these understory trees love.
Re-introducing the great historic diversity of native fruiting trees is also essential to creating the habitat stability necessary for restoring so many other macro and micro wildlife populations above and below ground. When there are more different species growing, then there is a greater amount of time when food is available from their leaves and fruits, reducing the temporal fragmentation of resources in the landscape.
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