Notes from Windward: #71


Seeds, Branches and Twigs

February 8, 2011


     It is once again twig collecting season. Somehow, it is already February, and the refrigerator is filling up with scion wood I have collected for this year's spring grafting. Since most of the apple grafts last year were successful, this year the focus will be on apricots, plums and pears, though there are a handful of apple rootstocks left that still need to be grafted. I am particularly interested in propagating heritage varieties from the Klickitat region that were brought to the area and favored by early settlers. (If you are reading this, are from the area, and have or know of such a heritage fruit tree, please contact us, I would love to hear from you!)

Bartlett and Bosc pear scion wood

     Since I have been out with the shears collecting scion wood from the fruit trees, I have also started pruning. Most orchards prune in the winter, however if you prune in the summer time, the tree produces less new growth and so over time there is less work to do. At this point here on the plateau, pruning in February is far more pleasant than pruning in July, even if it is a little extra work--there is exceedingly less to do, and on a mild day it is far more comfortable to be outside. Once our trees are large enough, the sheep, which are currently excluded from the this part of the hillside, will likely be let in to graze. So over the past two years, I have been more aggressive at pruning the low branches and encouraging upward growth than would otherwise be necessary if sheep were not going to be part of the picture. This will also reduce the amount of tender buds growing at deer browse level.

     This past summer I collected peach and apricot seeds from heirloom trees, tucked them away in the fridge (yes, at this point we pretty much have a full sized fridge dedicated to stratifying seeds and storing scion wood) and will be planting them soon enough. The hope is that we can grow these into rootstocks that are well adapted to the region. Last summer when biking to my favorite swimming location in the Columbia River Gorge, I noticed an apple tree growing on the talus slopes adjacent to the highway. While it probably did have access to water several feet down, it wasn't even growing in soil--that is the kind of hardiness we want up here on the plateau. I kept my eye on the tree all summer, so that when the fruit was mature, I could collect a few and propagate the seeds. But alas, there were only a few fruits and I wasn't able to get them before they fell and were eaten by some hungry creature. So, I will have to wait till next year for those hardy seeds.

     Last spring, I attempted to graft English Walnut onto Black Walnut rootstock. Walnut is a particularly tricky plant to work with, because it produces an allelopathic compound called juglone that effectively acts as a selective herbicide. So, the few grafts that I tried failed. But, I am reminded of what the person who taught me to graft mentioned "try many, many, many grafts, so that if one takes, you will feel successful." So, I am going to try more this spring and maybe I will have one or two that survive. Black walnut seedlings are too easy to propagate and English walnuts too yummy to eat to give up on this endeavor.

Black Locust and plum saplings

     Another method I have been using to increase our plant inventory is digging up young trees that are part of what used to be well tended home orchards but are now naturalized thickets. Some species sprout from seed or send up suckers more easily than others, so this method only works for a few kinds of trees. Today I gathered some plums, which I will use as rootstock and graft on different varieties. I also dug up several black locust trees which are great source of nectar for honey bees, protein rich fodder for animals, and increase soil nitrogen contents through nitrogen fixation-- a good tree to have around. Last year we had germinated several from seed, but if these saplings survive the transplant they will be several years ahead of the seedlings.

young sprouts shooting up near
a large Black Locust tree

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71