Chillax Dude!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Pride Peach Tree-Bird Back 40
Chill! Chill out dude! Take a chill pill! Dude, just chill for a minute, will you? It was the "cool" word of the day -- way back in the day when I was a young man. Back when horse drawn carriages plied pretty red brick lined streets of Old Sacramento, and...

Oh, who am I kidding. I'm old, yes. But ancient? Only in the eyes of someone half my age, say 26 or 27? But, seriously, I can remember this word. I can remember it because my friends and I used it often. Usually, we called upon the magic word to stop our friends from saying or doing something rather foolish.

Or, perhaps they'd already done something foolish. Like -- trying to appeal a member of the opposite sex by complimenting her on that very pretty undergarment she was wearing at that particular moment. At that point, we had to rush him off and drag the offender away from the highly-offended member of the opposite sex, while muttering the entire time, "yo, dude, major error on your part! Just chill for a minute."

Eva's Pride Peach
I sometimes wonder how teenage boys survive to become men. But I digress.

Those precocious teenage years are but a distant and now blurry dot on that rear view mirror we call life. I'm older now. With age comes the rewards of crankiness, grouchiness, grumpiness and a somewhat disturbing loss of bowel control. Win!

But -- not everything changes. I'm still using that cool word we call "chill." Only now it has an entirely different, but still very important, meaning. Those of us who grow all sorts of delicious fruit for fun or profit also know the importance behind the magic word of "chill." But it's not "chill out dude," it's more like "check the chill hours, dude."

Honeycrisp Apple-Requires 800 Chill Hours
What are chill hours and why are they so important? Are you really that bored with life that you want to learn? Become a nerd like yours truly? Then, you're in luck. Because I am always willing to share the nerd germ with anyone who wants it.

Sleep is an important factor in our lives. Most of us don't get enough of it and yearn for more when that damn alarm starts going off, or the Maine Coon cat starts using a baseball bat against the sliding glass door. But it's not just important for people and pets. Fruit trees need a nap too -- and a long one at that.

In some ways fruit trees are a lot like that child that will not accept an 8:00 PM bedtime. They'll cry, they'll moan, they'll complain. And then -- after all that -- comes the fun of a childhood tantrum. Fruit trees follow much the same behavior. They will stubbornly stay awake until that very last possible moment and will resist the urge to lose every last leaf and fall into a deep, winter slumber.

Harrow Delight Pear-Requires 800 Chill Hours
These are the chill hours I speak of. I've come to discover, through trial and error, that they are vitally important to the health of next summer's crop. Because a fruit tree that doesn't get enough chill hours is just as cranky as that child who stayed up far too long past that 8:00 PM mandatory bedtime.

Ah -- but not all fruit trees are created equal. That Pride Peach collection pictured above and now coming into bloom has a far different chill requirement than the Black Tartarian Cherry tree planted nearby. Some fruit trees require a lot of chill hours. Some, not as much. That's why it's always best to check the chill hour requirement BEFORE you make that fruit tree or bush purchase. Chill hour requirements are just as important as the gardening zones that determine what type of and when vegetables should be planted.

The current drought that I hope and pray will come to a speedy end this winter means more than just a lack of water for fruit tree growers. When the rain stops falling and the storms move way, it tends to start warming up. And when it warms up early as it has for the past two to three years, fruit trees that require a lot of chill hours tend to suffer a great deal.

Black Tartarian Cherry-800 Chill Hours
Something simple like a lack of chill hours can result in a reduced harvest or no harvest at all. This is why prices for fresh cherries have been so high in some parts of the country. If that Black Tartarian cherry tree doesn't get the required 800 chill hours of slumber, it doesn't matter how much water or fertilizer it gets during the spring and summer months. It's just not going to produce.

I've learned the same hard lesson about other fruit trees that have long chill hour requirements -- like the best apple on God's Green Earth: The Honeycrisp Apple. If the Honeycrisp doesn't get that 800 hour chill hour nap during the winter, much like the Black Tartarian cherry, production is going to suffer.

It's not just production that can suffer. Sometimes a fruit tree that doesn't get enough chill hours will produce a lot of fruit. But that fruit will often be smaller, and in the case of last year's June Pride peach crop, lumpier. Lumpy peaches don't look appealing. They don't taste all that grand either.

Royal Rosa Apricot Preparing to Flower
Commercial growers long ago learned the secret behind and the importance of chill hours. That's why the fine folks at the UC Davis Fruit and Nut Research and Information Division long ago developed a very handy and dandy chill calculator page. By clicking on this page you can see the chill hours that are taking place in every county of California, and more importantly, the chill hours in your very own backyard.

The nearest chill hour station to the Bird Back 40 is just over the Yolo County line, near Woodland. Like the true fruit nerd that I am -- I visit this page often during the all important winter months. The chill hours ranging between a high of 45 degrees and a low of 32 are the most important statistic. The Bird Back 40 is up to nearly 700 chill hours as I write this -- and that is the cause for a very wide smile on my part. I haven't seen this type of cold weather treatment for awhile and fruit production has suffered.

5-in-1 Apricot Tree
Although most Sacramento County locations normally average about 1,000 chill hours during most years -- the last two winters have been anything but normal. It didn't rain or snow a lot -- and it didn't stay cold for nearly long enough. Our chill hours suffered. Instead of the expected and hoped for average of 1,000 chill hours -- some areas received less than 600. Fruit trees flowered weeks earlier than expected and production suffered.

Short and sweet, there is absolutely nothing a grower can do if Mother Nature doesn't deliver on some extended cold weather. A lack of chill hours impacts just about every fresh fruit variety grown around here, from apples, peaches, nectarines, plums, pears and even grapes. Think that might impact the price of your favorite variety of wine in two to three years? It might.

Redwood Barn Nursery owner Don Shor recently wrote an impressive article on the tremendous importance of chill hours in the Davis Enterprise. He predicted that the 2015 fresh fruit year might be a bad one. For the most part, he was right on the money.

June Pride Peach Tree
What will 2016 bring us? That's a good question. The jury is still out. If the weather warms up and the storms stay away like they have for the past two to three years, most fruit tree owners are, in a word, screwed.

If there is a silver lining, it's this. We are off to a very good start as far as chill hours are concerned. December started off with and ended with a cold winter's blast. January conditions were nearly as good. The $64 question is, what will February bring?

So, sit back and chill out dude. Chillax for a moment. My Black Tartarian cherry tree will thank you.