Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Orchard fence

After the last posting on my blog I received several requests for more information on our orchard fencing. Seems we weren't the only ones sharing more fruit than we want to with our wild neighbors . 

Initially we thought the main problem for our young fruit trees would be browsing deer and in the fall, rutting bucks. Both can create havoc on immature trees by stripping  the leaves and gouging the bark. To combat the deer we installed a seven foot high fence using flexible plastic deer fencing attached to 2” plastic conduit that we slid over metal t-posts pounded in the ground. (I’ll add some resources for materials at the end of this post.) This fence worked well during the years that the trees were growing but not producing fruit. As soon as we started getting fruit we had a new bandit to contend with.

Our cherry trees were the first to start producing fruit and it didn’t take the raccoons long to notice the ripening cherries. They would either climb up the fence or tear a hole in it to gain access. Once inside the fence, the raccoons would climb up the branches eating the cherries and breaking the branches as they went. It has taken us several years of pruning to return our first cherry tree, Bali, to a pleasing and productive condition. 

Last year our apple trees finally started producing fruit and the raccoons quickly took notice of that with the same results – broken branches and missing fruit. After several repairs to holes in the fence Don put up an electric fence wire at raccoon nose height. We were awakened that night by a loud squeak when wet raccoon nose contacted electric fence. As far as we know, we have not had a bear try to get to the fruit but just to be on the safe side, Don added another electric fence at bear nose height.

Confident that we now had the critters at bay we looked forward to enjoying some cherries and apples. But it was not to be. The robins quickly discovered the bright red cherries and polished off nearly all of them. Then in late September when the apples were just about ready to harvest a Stellar Jay discovered the bounty and pecked a hole in nearly every single apple. 

Over last winter Don cruised the internet looking for solutions to the bird thieves. He found some excellent commercial bird netting and ordered enough for three trees. Two weeks ago, just as the cherries were starting to “blush” we draped and secured the nets. When the cherry  crop has been harvested we’ll move the nets to the apple trees.

So far, so good. This morning we harvested our first batch of cherries and will enjoy them for dessert tonight. 

Plastic deer fence – when we first built our seven foot tall fence there weren’t many products available and we found the fencing on a cat fence website: http://purrfectfence.com/ . It is more common these days and you can probably find something similar at your local hardware store or at the next link.

Electric fencing – the absolute best source for all electric fencing needs is Premier Fencing: http://www.premier1supplies.com/ . They have everything to protect gardens, orchards or even keep cattle and horses where you want them.

Bird netting – check out American Netting: 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Keeping up with summer’s tasks

It’s nearly overwhelming keeping up with all the homestead tasks that arrive with the summer weather. It seems as though everything requires our attention during this warm but short season. More than likely, before the calendar says its fall, it will snow. But before then, we have a lot to do.

For the third year in a row, this year’s snowpack was so low that we have not received any irrigation from our water rights. Rather than try to make sense of the Colorado surface water laws, just understand that Colorado’s law states that those who use the water first have the first right to that use. Every water right is assigned a priority based on this concept. The oldest and most senior water right in the state is 1852 in the San Luis Valley. Our Valley’s rights started in the late 1860s and are generally junior to those on the eastern plains which only make sense because those eastern areas were settled and irrigated before ours. Our own water rights are from 1880 and 1882 which in normal snowpack years gives us irrigation water throughout the summer. 

But this year South Brush Creek, the source of our water, is eighteen inches below its normal June level. In a good year it will lap our foot bridge. Coupled with the ongoing drought and drying winds we are forced to water from our well to keep veggie crops, fruit trees, and other gardens alive. Portions of the pasture that are not sub-irrigated have dried up. 

Irrigating takes a lot of time because the water flow must be changed constantly as areas are saturated. We don’t have that task this year but instead must balance the use of the water from our well to keep important crops surviving as we wait for the start of the monsoon season in July. This year we may be getting lucky as some rains have begun. We can only hope that a long, wet season is arriving. 

This looks to be another good year in the orchard though we did have to dodge several freezing nights in early June.  The fruit trees are fed throughout the growth season with both foliar sprays and soil amendments. The early sprays include liquid fish, kelp, neem oil and various herbs. At blossom time Don only uses Bee Scent to attract the pollinators. Following petal fall he goes back to foliar sprays and includes soil additives such as Gardener’s Special, wood ash and compost to help the trees not only grow fruit but also start the buds for next year’s crop. Don also starts thinning the immature fruits so that only one or two are left per blossom cluster. If he didn’t thin, we would have lots of small fruits rather than nice large ones.

We also beefed up our fencing around the orchard this year. Last year the raccoons kept finding or creating ways in and enjoyed more fruit than we did. So this year we added two strands of electric fence wire powered by a solar charger, one at nose height to a raccoon and one at nose height to a bear. When we get closer to fruit ripening we’ll add some strips of aluminum foil coated in peanut butter to the electric wires. This actually attracts the animal robbers for a quick lick followed by a quick zap and a permanent lesson in avoiding the area. While I have never stuck my tongue on the hotwire, I have contacted the wire and been zapped more times that I would like to recall. It’s definitely unpleasant but not lethal. 

The grazing season arrived on May 17th when our neighbor and friend brought in 4 heifers, 2 steers and one old cow (who was here last year). We have to keep a closer eye on the fences and water tanks now. We get a lot of elk traffic through the pasture with elk cows and their new calves moving back and forth from the forest during the day to the pasture at night. Elk aren’t the greatest fence jumpers and often cause some damage that allows the cattle into areas where we don’t want them right now. It’s a daily task to fill the water tanks and check and repair the fencelines. 

The battle to control exotic and noxious plants in the wetland and pond areas is one that I will fight as long as we live here. Brought in with the winds and free-roaming animals, the unwanted plants flourish and out-compete the native plants because there are few natural deterrents. In their native lands, these plants were controlled by disease and insects but here these natural forces are absent so I must take up the fight. Our main problems are houndstongue, a biennial that is controlled by cutting the flowers and stopping the cycle, and several types of thistles. The most difficult thistle is Canada thistle which is a perennial and spreads by root growth. Over the years I have tried many different natural controls from dead-heading to experimental insects with little success. If anything, I have lost ground with this thistle so two years ago I started using a chemical. I swore I would never use chemicals here but have since  realized that nothing is that cut and dry. By careful spot-spraying I am slowly taking back areas that were badly infested. Three or four mornings a week, we head out with shovel and sprayer to continue the battle.

The veggie garden is coming along nicely this year with garlic, onions, potatoes, summer squash, tomatoes and greens. We had a little hail several days ago but most of the veggies survived without too much damage. Only the greens are producing anything edible at the moment but everything else is full of promise.

Of course there are countless other tasks to keep up and soon we will start in on firewood for the winter. But for now we enjoy the time spent with the plants, the cattle, the wildlife and all the other parts of this little homestead. And we pray for more rain.