Hello everyone, I thought you may be interested in what’s happening at the farm here in mid-March. I’ve taken a few good walks around the property and of course have caught myself gazing out the parsonage window on the colder, more unforgiving days. I find observation to not only be incredibly important, but also one of the more enjoyable aspects of growing on a piece of land. To me it’s similar to “measure twice, cut once”. Only after careful observation and thoughtful planning should we fire up our toothed metal. The vegetable plot gets most of my attention, but it’s only one small part of this ecosystem, and late winter offers a great time to notice the not-so-obvious goings-on here in Spanish Lake. I’m trying to get better about learning botanical (Latin) names of the different plant species here so I’m including them where I can for practice. Also, I’m realizing I have an outdated camera on my phone, so the pictures aren’t quite what I’d like, but like many things, they’ll have to do.
One of my favorite things to do in winter is to look at trees. Without their leaves you can really get a feel for the form of different trees and shrubs, and some of the less obvious characteristics begin to stand out, like the striking differences among bark. We have two red mulberry (Morus rubra) trees on site (and one reaching over from a neighbor’s yard). Consider the bark of this adolescent red mulberry tree. It’s bronze – or even a bright sepia – and almost smooth (hard to tell in the picture), quite different than the dark gray and brown ridged bark we typically think of on our native trees. The flowers are several weeks off but the buds are noticeably swollen. These trees are all over the area and are great to forage during the summer. They’re often harvested by placing a sheet or tarp under the tree and shaking the low hanging branches.
I encourage you to take a walk and look at the buds on trees. Each species is unique, like a fingerprint. Which ones are opening? Are they leaf buds or flower buds? Most of the leaf buds I’ve seen open are bush honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica), unfortunately, but the elderberry at the farm has started to leaf out. Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is an easy plant to propagate from cuttings if you’re looking for a project. We didn’t this year, but they can be cut back completely to the ground each year to keep the plant a manageable size. You can even root the cut wood the following spring.
The white flowers of the serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), also known as Juneberry, shadbush, saskatoon, sugarplum, Amelenchier, and about 30 other names, are just peeking open. They’re a common Missouri native with delicious little berries that ripen in June. The name isn’t quite so sweet. It’s called such because early settlers knew that when the plant began to flower, that meant the ground was no longer frozen and thus they could hold service, and bury those who didn’t survive winter.
I planted two wild plums (Prunus americana) three or four years ago. I got them in the ground in early summer, a little late, and one of them missed getting watered for about a week before transplanting and the root dried out. I didn’t think it would survive, but it hung on, and you can see the difference in size between the two shrubs. Missing that watering set the shrub back a year at least, and even the big tree had some serious browse damage from what looks like a deer, though it’s healed up OK. The big one is getting messy so I’ll be sure to prune it after this season though I’m still not quite sure what form I want the trees to take. Wild plums, like other plants, can take either shrub or tree form depending on environmental factors and how they’re pruned. There appear to be some flower buds swelling in addition to the leaf buds so hopefully we’ll get some nice white flowers very soon, and of course some nice tart fruit.
The apple trees (Malus domestica) which were so rudely dug up – really, hatcheted out of the ground – and moved to Seeds of Hope a few years ago are looking better each year. We’ve pruned off the diseased wood and cleaned up the trees a good bit. Their flower buds are starting to swell. I’m hoping they’ll hold off another week or two as we’re still likely to get another frost. That early warm spell sure was nice, but it can encourage fruit trees to blossom a little early. Fruit trees have a built in system which prevents them from budding too soon. They produce a hormone which inhibits their growth (dormancy) until a certain number of “chilling hours” (temps below 45 degrees, for example) has occurred. Once the number of hours has been reached, a warm spell signals the end of winter to the resting trees, and they burst out of their slumber.
Sadly, it doesn’t look like the peach tree survived winter. I’m basing this on the buds. On the other trees they’re swollen, fleshy and green – you can feel the life pulsing in them. But the peach buds are black and corky; silent. Hopefully I’m wrong. Peach trees aren’t native to North America, and often run into disease problems here in Missouri. If it doesn’t come back we’ll cut it down promptly and plant something more appropriate, but equally as delicious.
Early summer last year I dug up a few comfrey plants, divided the roots into large pots, watered them for a few weeks and then forgot about them for the rest of the year. My intent was to see if they controlled bindweed, as I noticed comfrey was about the only plant it wasn’t vining on in the herb garden. I was throwing old pots away a week ago when I noticed some green pushing through a rosette of dead leaves. Comfrey is known for being nearly immortal so I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. I’m not sure what the future holds for these tough little plants. We divided and planted other comfrey in early winter to do that little experiment, so we’ll see how that goes.
We didn’t get to pruning the pear tree this winter. It doesn’t look like its been pruned in a long time, so we’ll have to make sure to get it next winter. That’s one thing about working with plants. You have windows of time to get certain things done like pruning, watering, harvesting, etc.. and if you miss the window you may miss the crop – or not – but that window may not come around again for another year, and so you’re stuck with the results of what you actually did, not what you intended to do – you reap what you sow, I guess. The pear could still be pruned, of course, but I’d rather wait since we’re entering the rainy season. Open wounds and consistent moisture are a recipe for fungal infections.
Technically not our plant – we just appreciate it from a distance – the neighbor’s forsythia is starting to glow. When its fully lit up on these muted, gray days it warms me up like hot cider.
Everywhere squirrels are digging up their acorn stashes. Fortunately for the oaks, the hapless little balanophages can’t remember where many are buried, so they’re both seed eater and planter. I guess the oaks have the last laugh. Common Grackles, the black birds with iridescent blue heads are out in force. They swarm to the ground by the hundreds, peck around for a short bit of time, then coast back up to the bare branches of the oaks in what seems a well choreographed fashion, similar to a school of fish (apparently a group of grackles is called a plague). I seem to only see them after the late morning hawk sorties which cruise just above the treetops to the south of our clearing.
Over in the vegetable garden the alliums are thriving. There is a noticeable size difference among the four varieties of garlic (Allium sativum) we planted last October, but I’m pleased with how the whole crop looks. We also overwintered scallions (Allium fistulosum) and they’ve recovered nicely after that tough two weeks of winter we’ve had. The tops have grown a few inches since then; they could be dug in a few weeks for a healthy crop. Normally they stick around until our first week of CSA, but I’ll keep a close eye on them. Just beyond the scallions are the leeks (Allium porrum) which were direct sown at the end of last summer. We’ll thin them a little in a few weeks and wait til they’re pencil thick before digging them up, dibbling a hole about six inches deep, and burying them almost completely in the dibbled hole. This ensures they have the nice blanching, or white stem that makes for the best eating. Last are the garlic chives (Allium tuberosum). I had a group of elementary schoolers plant clumps two falls ago and of course I neglected them all last year. Like the other alliums, they’re thriving right now so I’ve promised myself to take care of them this year. We’ll divide and propagate them thicker in their little section so we should have a nice thick stand come next year.
And of course the tulip and daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) leaves have pierced through the wet soil. I’ve seen a few Easter flowers blooming here and there, but ours are still a little ways away. I suspect by Easter Sunday church bells will resound inside little yellow flowers at St. Peter’s Lutheran – to the startled grackles’ ire. See you soon.