Late winter 20 Elven (2011) and after a unrelentingly cold December and January, February’s prolonged warmth makes my body happy, and eases my being outdoors for lengthy periods of time, allowing me some comfortable catch-up on garden and orchard “chores”.
My orchard self though, has been screaming NO-O-O-O!!!
Such prolonged warm temperatures — highs in the 60’s and 70’s, lows in the 40’s and 50’s — so early in the year, is a fruit grower’s nightmare, by tempting the plants to break dormancy earlier than usual. Many of our fruiting plants break into full flower before leafing out. What determines the timing is a confluence of factors including genetic predisposition (referred to as chill factor), temperature, and perhaps day length. Its really all part of the Great Mystery (science just describes some of the more readily observable parts of it).
Chill factor refers to the amount of dormancy needed by each fruit variety before it is ready to break into visible life again, and go through another season of flowering, fruiting, and leafing out. In southern climes, such as northern Florida, fruits need to have a low chill factor, because some dormancy is required to get the plants through a winter that includes some freezing temperatures.
In Asheville, NC (where Barefoot Permaculture is located, at an elevation of around 2100 ft.) in the southern Appalachian Mountains, we require long chill factor varieties, due to warm spells in February, usually followed by hard freezes in late winter. (Any trick or technique that influences a plant to delay flowering, even by just a few days, is often the difference between having fruit that year, or being fruitless and sad).
Just because a fruit variety can do well in climates that include well below zero temperatures, doesn’t mean that here, we can grown them for fruit. For example, apricots grow well much further north, in –40 degree temperatures, because there, it stays cold until spring finally arrives, and then its warm. So the northern grown apricots stay dormant until the right warm temperature occurs for several days running. It’s a successful strategy in the north, but falls short of success here. As a consequence, we may get a crop on an average of every 5 years, depending upon the dates of our last series of hard freezes. Hard freezes don’t necessarily kill a tree that has flowered, what they do mean is no fruit for that year!
In checking my flowering chart (kept since 1994) the timing of apricot first flower varies wildly from a previous earliest date of 9 March through last years’ 11 April, with almost all of the dates in the mid-March range. On this date (6 March) the swollen buds are pink, and perhaps a day away from bursting into bloom. Its on the too early side of early!
If it were just the apricots, I would have little concern. Unfortunately (for this absolute fruit lover and my wife and friends), the unusual lengthy February warmth has tempted other fruits too, and the Asian pears have broken dormancy, rolled over in their cozy beds, stretched, and have visibly swollen buds. Whether , once begun, the process can slow down, remains to be seen. Another glance at my chart shows earliest first blossoms for the Asian pears in mid-March, although the majority of dates are late March. (This exhibits a prime reason for keeping a flowering chart: helping relieve angst in late winter and early spring).
Yesterday evening, due to the advanced stages of bud swell for both apricots and peaches, I cleft grafted onto both fruit more desirable varieties. The 2 apricots we have are generically called Manchurian, and when we actually get fruit, are really nothing to get excited about. I cut some scionwood (last years growth) from a tree at Asheville’s Edible Park, and grafted them onto a young branch. Due to the advanced stage of bud swell on both scion and rootstock, there is a chance that the graft won’t take (be successful). And, due to the fact we are still in late winter, graft success is “iffy” due to possible heavy freezes. Time will tell!
Our favorite on-site peach is a dwarf Redhaven, and is 15 years old. I took some of her scionwood and grafted it onto peach rootstock from a chicken compost seedling. Again, both varieties are in serious bud swell, so we will just have to see if any of the grafts take! Grafting is touching into the Great Mystery, and as such, is a natural alchemy (as well as tons of fun), and the chances of success are much higher than the lottery!
Late winter / early spring is a busy time at this urban permaculture site, with our organic gardens, extensive home orchards, honeybees, chickens, vermiculture operation, compost piles, shiitake mushroom logs, small pond full of male wood frogs sounding like a flock of ducks, hoping to entice a willing female for some splashing together, and the start of the next generation of frogletts… Last night a black bear visited and tore down our handmade wood & clay bird feeder, smashing it badly, although may be repairable. The freshly filled suet feeder is “disappeared”. Good thing I remembered to turn on the solar electric fence around our bee yard…