I have not been very good about keeping the blog updated. But I recently posted a bunch of short videos, highlighting different aspects of the garden. Whether you want in-depth information about a certain subject or just a quick tour of the garden, check out my new YouTube playlist:
When I moved to South Seattle 12 years ago, I started commuting to work by bus. My daily walk to the bus stop would take me past a little triangle of no-mans land, edged by an intersection and the fence of the next house. Once, somebody had made an effort to plant Rugosa; but now it was covered in blackberries and passers-by thought nothing of tossing their trash into this unloved wasteland. I had a better idea: plant a little public garden for all to enjoy!
7 years later, the garden has gone through many transitions: the original idea of a food forest with lots of annual vegetables gave way to a design centred around fruit trees and perrenials, which has proved much more manageable and suitable to the site. It requires little maintenance and yields more harvests from year to year. This little urban orchard has now grown out of its ugly teenage years – when the tiny trees were hardly visible and it seemed like a haphazard collection of random growth – and matured into something quite beautiful that even the untrained eye can appreciate. The discarded food wrappers have been replaced by appreciative comments; and when all the plums disappear off the Shiro tree in summer, I think of it as a sign that the Brandon Triangle is no longer an eye-sore but an asset to the neighborhood.
Soon I will be leaving Seattle and would like to pass on the stewardship of the orchard to others that love trees and know how to take care of them. If you live in South Seattle and are interested, take a look at the videos that I have posted on Youtube:
If you would like a site tour you can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Orchard Inventory (partial)
- Fruit: 2 asian pears, 2 european pears, 1 apple, 1 japanese plum, 1 quince, 5 figs
- Nuts: 1 filbert
- Berries: blackcap raspberry, red raspberry, 1 male seaberry, 2 female seaberry, fruiting currants, 1 aronia, 1 elderberry
- Other: 2 seedless grapes, herbs (rosemary, sage, oregano, mint, sorrel), 2 hops, 1 horseradish, 3 rhubarb
- Ornamentals: 1 oak, 1 dogwood tree, clumping bamboo
- Annuals: lots of self-reseeding flowers and ground covers, garlic, parsnip
Our garden is in a very public space and lots of people walk by daily. Whenever I am working in the garden I get curious looks and sometimes questions about what we’re doing. A permaculture orchard does not conform to the common ideas of what a park or community garden looks like – so people have a hard time understanding the concepts and goals of the project. Many are hesitant to venture inside and look around.
Now City Fruit has helped me create a flyer that describes the ideas and goals of the garden in a very accessible and engaging way. What’s more, they are providing a leaflet holder that we can put up near the sidewalk. It’ll be interesting to see whether that changes the perception of the garden; and possibly draws in some more participants.
Here’s the draft version of the flyer – what do you think?
Hugelkultur is a variation on a theme that has been around for a very long time. The traditional Huegelbeet or Hochbeet aims at improving the soil and microclimate, incorporating not just woody material but also plenty of leaf mold and compost. Hugelkultur, popularized by permaculturists in the US, relies primarily on large diameter wood to act as a sponge for water and a substrate for beneficial soil fungi and microbes.
In Seattle – contrary to popular belief – we are challenged by an extremely dry summer period July through September. Combine this with the extravagant prices of city water and you are highly incentivized to adopt gardening techniques that reduce the need for irrigation. I am using a modified version of Hugelkultur in an attempt to create more drought-tolerant garden beds. The main features are:
- a shallow pit to capture spring rains
- large diameter pieces of wood to absorb and slowly release the water
Additional benefits, beyond reducing the need for irrigation, are
- long term increase of soil organic matter
- increased soil depth and improved drainage – very beneficial when you are dealing with 6” of top soil over solid clay
- good use of “waste” wood
- drys and warms up more quickly in spring
Here’s a photo-sequence of the bed we built this weekend to plant popcorn.
Pit and raw materials
All of the wood is arranged in the bottom of the pit
Cover with the topsoil previously excavated
Adding some compost
Finished Hugelkultur with Dakota Black popcorn plants
Growing fruits and vegetables is a challenging business – not only when pushing the boundaries of your climate zone, but even when growing the most mundane of crops. This year, the weather has been quite favorable, but I learnt more about insect, fungal, and bacterial diseases than I would have liked.
It’s always frustrating to see a plant struggle or die, that you have been lovingly tending for weeks and months. But, difficult as it may be, you simply have to chalk it up as a learning experience and move on. I’ll admit that I am still struggling to develop the proper gardening equanimity. Here are some of the things I learnt this spring.
Peach Leaf Curl
Peach Leaf Curl is a fungal disease. Spores infect the buds of new growth – by the time you see the typical red patches and deformed leaves it’s already too late. Infection and growth of the fungus is promoted by cool moist weather – almost all peach trees in the PNW suffer from this disease.
On the bright side, while it weakens the tree it will not kill it. Remove all infected material as soon as possible to prevent spore formation and re-infection; keep the tree well watered and fertilized to help it recover; prune to allow more light and air penetration.
Plum Leaf Curl
Despite the similar names, this is very different from Peach Leaf Curl. Plum Leaf Curl is caused by aphids. They attack the new growth causing it to curl and shrivel.
Unlike fungal diseases, aphids can be combated by encouraging their natural predators, e.g. Ladybugs. Of course, that means allowing the pest population to grow until the predator population ramps up to match it.
Physical measures such as soap spray or removing affected leaves will slow the aphids down, but aren’t sufficient to eliminate them.
Pear trees – and apples to a lesser extent – are afflicted by fungal black spot disease. Left unchecked, it can defoliate the tree. The best way of dealing with this is removing affected leaves as early as possible to limit the spread.
Cedar rust is another fungal disease common in the PNW. Its host plants are cedar and juniper. Since these are ubiquitous, you have to accept that susceptible varieties of apple and pear will be affected every year. Manual removal of affected material is again your best bet for limiting the spread of the disease.
Flea beetles were unusually bad this year, particularly on our potatoes. Generally we’ll just see a few holes in the leaves which don’t impact the plants significantly. This year, plants are seriously weakened and stunted.
Natural predators like the Soldier Beetle are your ally. Additionally, you can disrupt the soil-dwelling larval stage by cultivating around the affected or susceptible plants. Floating row cover can also prevent or limit Flea Beetle damage.
Cane borers drill holes in the branches of fruiting currants to deposit their eggs. The hatching larvae eat the soft tissue inside the cane, causing it to break.
Look for small holes ringed by debris. Remove those canes to prevent spreading. Floating row cover can prevent the adult cane borer fly from laying its eggs.
Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD)
SWD, a type of fruit fly, only recently arrived on the scene. It was first detected in Washington around 2010. There has been little time to study its behavior and life cycle, and to identify effective management strategies. Unfortunately, it looks like it is here to stay and will pose a major headache:
- Wild blackberries provide unlimited habitat to SWD
- SWD infests many kinds of soft-skinned fruit and berries. This includes: cherries, pie cherries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, mulberries, peaches, figs, grapes, kiwi, plums
- Unlike other types of fruit flies which only lay their eggs in damaged or overripe fruit, SWD infests unripe fruit.
- SWD is prolific: each female can lay several hundred eggs; and there are multiple generations in a single growing season
What can you do? At this time, physical control is the best option. Completely enclose the fruit or plant in fine mesh, e.g. pantyhose, paint strainer, or organza fabric. The tricky part is to wait until after pollination, but before SWD is active – that is a short window of time.
On the bright side, SWD infested fruit is not toxic. If infestation is not too severe, you may still want to use the fruit for juice, jam, etc.
Gardeners everywhere are waging war on the insidious dandelion. Its deep tap root resists pulling and it will regrow if even a small bit of root remains in the ground. Mow it and its new leaves hug the ground, evading further mowing attempts. Its seeds are ubiquitous, spreading far and wide if even one plant is allowed to go to seed. Small wonder that dandelions are the bane of many gardeners’ existence.
But there is another way. Instead of fighting a losing battle, embrace the dandelion for its many virtues, which are vastly underappreciated:
- Aerates and adds organic matter to compacted or clay soil
- Mines minerals from deeper soil layers
- Tender leaves make tasty and extremely healthy greens – both raw and cooked
- Buds and flowers are edible too
- Dandelion wine
- Dried leaves and roots make a healthy herbal tea
- Roasted dried root is used as coffee substitute
- Large leaves keep the soil cool and moist, acting as a living mulch
- Flowers are an important food source for bees and bumblebees
- Keith Richards’ daughter is called Dandelion
Last, but not least, rediscover the joy of blowing on the fluffy seed head and watching the little parachute-seeds float away on the wind.
Apple seeds do not grow true – they are always the result of a genetic shuffle that occurs during pollination. This applies to self-fertile trees as well as those requiring cross-pollination. Plant a seed from the Honeycrisp you just ate and the apples from the resulting tree will bear little to no resemblance to their parent.
The variability of apple seed is amazing, which is why there are thousands of different types of apples differing in shape, color, texture, taste, storing qualities, disease resistance and many other characteristics. Here is an excellent explanation of this trait – also known as extreme heterozygosity.
As a result, orchardists have perfected grafting techniques to clone a specific variety of apple. Without the help of humans, for example, the Roxbury Russet apple would not have survived since early colonial times. It’s pretty remarkable to realize that an apple you can buy at the farmers market today is directly linked to the very first Roxbury Russet seedling discovered near Boston in the 17th century.
The variability of apples has allowed them to thrive across many geographies and climate zones. Over time, growers have identified those varieties that perform best in their location. The results are difficult to predict and much trial and error is required; particularly since there is little information about many of the less common varieties.
This is where the backyard grower can make an important contribution. It only takes a few trees, a little dexterity with a grafting knife, and patience to produce and evaluate dozens of different apple varieties. Enthusiasts have been known to graft more than 100 different cultivars onto a single tree.
- Brownlees Russet
- Brushy Mountain Limbertwig
- Cherry Cox
- Dyer (Pomme Royale)
- Ginger Gold
- Golden Harvey
- High Cross Pippin
- Kerry Pippin
- King David
- King Luscious
- Laxton’s Epicure
- Laxton’s Fortune
- May Queen
- Pomme Gris
- Rosemary Russet
- Skinner’s Seedling
- Sweet Sixteen
- Wickson Crab
There is so much to discover – it’s a shame to restrict yourself to just the half dozen varieties typically on sale. Seek out and experience all that an apple can be. And if you have a little garden space, consider growing some heirloom varieties yourself.