Gardening Hits and Misses

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

If you've followed this rant for any length of time, you probably know that the Bird Back 40 is a creation that Baron Victor Von Frankenstein would be proud of. It's one massive experiment in all things gardening and fruit production. I don't follow rules. I break them. If someone tells me "it can't work," I try it anyway.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. I've posted more than once about my little gardening experiments here and there about the yard, but it came to me the other day that I had failed to post updates. Lest someone repeat my many mistakes, here's an update on gardening hits and gardening misses (ie: massive failures) in the Backyard of Bird.

Successful Pluot Graft-Bird Back 40
HIT: Grafting of fruit trees. I'm a relative newb when it comes to the world of grafting. This spring was my first experiment into the world of creating several different kinds of fruit on just one tree. The name of this blog posting: A Dead Man's Party.

This little experiment in all things grafting is still a work on progress. Some grafts still haven't sprouted yet, but others have, as evidenced by the photo to your left. This is the Flavor Finale Pluot tree that the wife that is Venus and I planted just three years ago.

Flavor King Pluot Graft
There are six different grafted branches on this tree. As of this date, four have popped. We're still not quite out of the woods yet. A strong wind could blow some of these grafted branches right off the tree if the taping doesn't hold. But if these grafted branches do form a a strong union with the Flavor Finale tree -- I've gone from a single variety of pluot to a four-in-one. The advantage to this is four different kinds of pluots all ripening at different times of the spring and summer.

This means a prolonged harvest of fresh, tree-ripened fruit from the backyard, provided the pesky mockingbirds don't beat me to the punch. I have reason to worry, because these two have shown that they can and will beat me to the punch. They stripped this tree last year. Not a single pluot survived.

Strawberry plants don't like bags!
MISS: Strawberries and flowers planted in bags that hung from the fence line. Originally profiled in the blog posting of The Bag Man, the use of Original Al's Flower Pouch for strawberry and annual flower plantings was a miserable disappointment.

The goal of this little experiment was to put my fence line to work in all things strawberry and fruit production. I already use portions of this fence line for trellising crops like cucumbers and boysenberries, so why not strawberries and flowers? It seemed like a natural fit.

Thank goodness I only invested in ten bags.

As Good As It Gets
I'll be honest with you. It just did not work. The ten strawberry plants that I ordered from Sakuma Brothers Nursery never really did take off. In fact, they looked mighty unhappy over the course of an entire summer. Despite plenty of water, fertilizer and good drainage, the UC Davis cultivar "Chandler" never really did take to the bag idea. About half of them died during the course of the summer. The others gave up the ghost during the fall and winter months.

I suffered the same disappointment with annual petunias that were planted in early June. Nephew Marquitos and niece Celina showed off their fine work soon after they finished planting. This is about as good as it got. Despite extensive watering and fertilization, the petunias never really did take off. And -- in the world of gardening -- if you can't make a petunia grow -- that's a really bad sign.

Gaviota Strawberries in Raised Bed-2nd Year
HIT: Strawberries planted beneath fruit trees. Originally profiled in the blog posting "A Very Berry Bird Backyard," this one is a hit kids. Venus and I will enjoy a nice little harvest of Gaviota strawberries this year (another UC Davis cultivar I might add) to prove it.

The idea for this little experiment came from Folsom City Arborist Ken Menzer, who hosted a course that we attended two years ago on all the production of all kinds of fruit in the backyard. The course included a hands on demonstration of the Backyard Orchard Culture (BOC) method of fruit tree production, which we use to this day in the Bird Back 40. He also had some rather interesting tips that panned out quite well and other that failed miserably.

Backyard Orchard Culture: Apple Trees
One tip that did fare rather well? Strawberries planted underneath groves of apple trees. Menzer's contention was the strawberry plants, which will grow just about anywhere (except in bags against my fence), will open up cracks in the soil line. This in turn makes it easier for water and nutrients to reach the roots of fruit trees that are just inches below. That wasn't the only benefit in Menzer's opinion. The root system of the fruit trees in question would spread much easier thanks to the loose soil created by strawberry plants.

So far? So good! This is one tip that worked. The ten Gaviota strawberry plants that Venus and I ordered from Sakuma Brothers Nursery last spring have expanded into a collection of close to 50-75 plants. They are all flowering nicely this spring after a late winter addition of nitrogen fertilizer. As for the apple trees above in this 5X3 foot raised bed? This is another experiment in BOC group planting. Now entering Year 2, all are flowering nicely this spring.

Consider this a "hit" of major proportions. This isn't the last BOC planting for the Bird Back 40. Other beds will be added. And those beds will contain different varieties of UC Cultivar strawberries (which happen to be my personal favorite for size and overall production).

No Blueberries here-Just Weeds
MISS: Blueberry plants beneath peach and cherry trees. Originally profiled in the blog posting "A Very Berry Bird Backyard" and again in the followup posting "A Very Berry Experiment -- AKA: They Stay," this was another planting idea that we received from Ken Menzer. We were presented with slides of this very successful fruit tree and blueberry bush arrangement from his own backyard.

The thinking behind this idea was very similar to the practice of planting strawberry plants beneath apple trees. Blueberry plants, which have shallow root systems, help crack open the soil line and allow water and nutrients pass easily to the fruit tree roots not far below. An added benefit was that fruit trees helped shield blueberry bushes from blazing sunlight during those hot Sacramento summer afternoons.

Photo Courtesy of Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
This sounded like another brilliant idea, so Venus and I both invested in four different Southern Highbush varieties called "Misty" and "Sharp Blue." Unfortunately, I don't have any photo evidence to show what really happened. The blueberry bushes are long gone. All bought the farm during the first or second year of growth.

This was not a good idea.

The first to ring the alarm warning was none other than gardening mentor and Lifetime Master Gardener Fred Hoffman, aka "Farmer Fred." The long-time host of the KFBK Gardening Show on NewsTalk 1530 KFBK and Get Growing on Talk 650 KSTE immediately objected to the pairing.

“What is the pH of the soil where you planted the blueberries," Hoffman questioned. "If it is above 6, you may have poor production. This is why blueberry planting around here is recommended for containers, where you can control the pH.”

Flowering Granny Smith Apple Tree
As I would come to discover, I jumped without looking at the bottom first. Fred was right on the money. The soil pH requirements for fruit trees and blueberries are dramatically different. Although this arrangement might work in some different locations that offer different soils, it didn't work in the hard clay slop that dominates the Sacramento Riverbottom.

Bottom line? Blueberry plants need to be planted in containers or raised beds where pH levels can be closely monitored. The four bare root varieties that we invested in are but a distant memory now.

And, so, there you have it. These aren't the only four experiments that resulted in success or massive failure, but they do represent the top four that I have written about. Remember that gardening is an adventure in the unknown. There are no "tried and true" methods as some would have you believe. If you're going to garden, you're going to experience failure. That's just part of the game.

But sometimes, every once in a great while, you hit upon an idea that not only works but works better than you ever could have imagined.

And that is the payoff.