Thursday, 21 February 2013

Why Tree Crops?

Its February 2013, and here in Atlantic Canada, thoughts are turning towards the new growing season. Where we are, the growing season starts quite late for annuals but usually the tree season is a lot better. So in this post, I will go through some pros and cons of planning tree crops in to your growing plans for this growing season and many more to come.

First of all, lets get the bad news out of the way with the Cons of Trees;
You wouldn't believe how many people don't think about this, so that's why I'm putting it first. Find out to what size your favourite tree grows to before you decide you can't do without it, and if space is an issue always go by the maximum range. This makes checking the specific strain of the tree very important, as sometimes different strains of the same species are encouraged to be low-growing and others high-growing. Yes, certain kinds of trees can be pruned back quite severely, but fruit-type pruning messes up the growing patterns of trees and makes them quite reliant on human intervention. It's your choice either way, just be aware that once you start pruning you will have to continue that practice.
Knowing the size and the species/strain of the tree you're thinking of planting is very important for many reasons, roots can drill into house foundations for one example (Wheeping Willows have extremely extensive root systems that can be many times more the size of the actual tree), mistakenly blocking the winter sun from the house for another. You also need to plan in where your roads and paths between the planted trees are going to be and if you're going to be using equipment of any size in the area after planting. Even wheelbarrows can damage a tree if banged hard enough and if you don't plan in enough room between mature trees, there will be lots of bumping.
Which will inevitably lead to the next point;

Now, here is where people get things either a little bit backwards, or a lot backwards. People think that cankers and parasites and fungal disease attack healthy trees in healthy environments. Let me make something clear: Trees that succumb to rot and disease are not healthy trees in a healthy environment. Trees are, when left to their own devices, well able to look after themselves. But there's not a single tree anywhere within the reach of Man that is now left to its own devices. Whether it's through the poisons in the the air and the water, the concrete, the ashphalt, the knocks and scrapes and car fenders and drunken idiots tearing branches and strips of bark off for some moronic proto-amusement, trees around humans are badly affected every day, many are teetering every day. And when that last extra bit of weight lands on the wrong side of the scale, the tree succumbs and dies or has to be chopped down in an attempt to save other trees. This is what actually happens when an Elm is cut down for Dutch Elm Disease, it was a sick tree before the beetle arrived with the fungus in its mandibles, the fungus just finished it off.
Does this mean that the pests and diseases don't appear in natural populations? No, but in a natural system, only the weak and sickly trees are killed off, and there's no such thing as a monoculture in nature so pests and diseases don't get a chance to wipe out acres and acres of forest in one clean sweep e.g. the Spruce Budworm. A terrifying threat in monoculture plantations, a tasty treat for a bird in natural forests.

You don't want a monoculture plantation in your backyard, good for you. But
the lesson is still the same, healthy soil + healthy environment = healthy trees. The very best way to deal with pests and diseases  in trees is to make healthy trees. I will be going into the hows of doing this in a later post, but there's plenty of info on the Internet if you can't wait.

Now for the biggest con of trees of all:

Trees take time. Regardless of the purpose that you'll be putting the tree to, fruits or timbers, shade or mulch, it will take time to grow. Depending on the tree, purpose and climate, the time could be between 3 and 300 years. For the sake of your budget and peace of mind, make sure you know how long it will take to get what you want. Five years is not long to wait to get a bushel off a good fruit tree, but if you have it in your head that it you should get it after 1, well you're just giving yourself stress and headaches because it's not going to happen.

For this reason, tree crops (in other than a commercial setting due to sheer mass) will always be a medium and/or long-term component of your plan depending on the type and purpose, but not a short-term one. Plan for different food or income sources to get you through the lag time or you may not be able to enjoy the trees yourself when they're finally ready to repay your efforts.

Okay, that's the bad news in as much as I can see it. In later posts, we will detail how to get around much of those, opportunities, but for now, lets talk about the Pro's of Trees;

Saves you money and effort:

Picking the right tree and placing  it in the right spot can save you a lot of money. Trees break the impact of energies coming onto a site. (Remember the zones and sectors we talked about before in a previous post?) Trees are a valuable tool in deflecting or diminishing the impact of your unwanted sectors like wind, sun, sight, smell, noise and more. Using them to block cold winter winds and the hot summer sun from the house will save a lot of money in home heating and cooling costs, just to start with.   
Trees also directly benefit the hydrology of a site, how much water the soil can hold and in what form. Established trees with their massive network of root systems and vast amounts of leaf surface area, kick-start the hydrological cycle in any site that they are introduced to, simply by doing what plants do, photosynthesising and transpiring. By ensuring that your growing spaces are heavily mulched, you are working with your trees to keep as much moisture and organic matter in the soil as possible instead of loosing it to the wind and the rain and, if you put the right trees in, after a while you can even get your mulch from your trees too, zero cost or transportation needs. Just chop and drop.

Food Supply
Once fruiting trees become established, they provide a lot of food. Between drying, fermenting, canning, processing into jams and chutneys and pie fillings and even eaten straight off the tree, there are many ways to enjoy the harvest both at the time and clear through to the next spring. If you have enough, there's even an additional income stream.

It kind of goes without saying that trees bring wildlife of all kinds, though in the beginning it tends to "just" be birds and bugs. The best thing to do is to be aware and plan for that, because while songbirds are great, a caterpillar infestation isn't. Incorporating more predator habitats like birdbaths and amphibian-friendly niches will help ensure that along with the vegetarian bugs, you get their predators too, lessening the chances of a sudden plague. If you have chickens, feeding them around your trees once in a while will not only improve the soil but will also break the pest cycles as the chickens will eat all the larvae they can find.

Forestry products
Firewood is a well known use to put trees to, but there is a much less destructive method of harvesting than that used by the industrial model. It's called "coppicing" (low cut) or "pollarding" (high cut) and it involves chopping the top off certain types of tree (willow is most commonly used), letting it regrow until it's time to harvest again and the cycle continues. The really interesting part is that doing this actually extends the life of the tree. The oldest trees in Europe are coppiced trees. There are as many applications for this as there are for "normal" wood products too, from crafts to construction.

How to do this? At the right time of year, (check for your local area) you decide the height of the cut, take the whole top off (what to do with it is up to you, mulching or firewood etc) and wait. The tree will send out shoots and start re-growing dozens of twigs. If you want a straight piece of timber, cut out off all but the most central twig and let it go. If you want switches (for building or crafts), just let the lot go. Depending on the climate, you can do this every 5 to 150 years depending on your purpose. While the time of year is critical, do it right and you have a planned, sustainable source of whatever timber product you want to incorporate. Plant enough and you have an income source.

Well, there you have it, the pros and cons of incorporating productive trees into your plans for the coming growing season as I see it. If you think I left something out, or want some more information, please say so in the comment box below.

 In the next post, we will talk about how to go about planning a Food Forest.
Until then, ciao!

Monday, 11 February 2013

A small picture to lighten your day

Hello again, 

I wanted to share a photo with you that I took last summer. You can clearly see why it is important to foster beneficial insects in your garden. The plant depicted in the photo is a wild growing vetch, so not a productive plant (apart from making lots of nitrogen for other plants), but lady bugs are not discriminatory and any source of food is appreciated. The aphids are definitely in trouble.  Go, Ladybugs, go!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Bug Quest

It is the middle of winter and in New Brunswick that means that the gardening season is still far away.
I went through some pictures we took last summer and came across s picture of a little bug that appeared to be holding a caterpillar dangling from a branch on our apple tree. I noticed that the two were absolutely stationary hanging there for hours.

I have no idea what either of the little critters is and thought it would be a nice idea to ask around to see whether someone might know. Call it a winter quiz to pass the time. Here is the photo:

So please write a comment if you know or think you know what this bug and caterpillar is. If it helps, I think this picture was taken around June.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Ponds Part 4 - Fauna

As a final part of the pond series, we would like to tell you a little bit about the diverse fauna that we observed in and around our pond this past year.

Although we did nothing apart from digging the pond and planting a few plants, the explosion of wildlife around the pond and, actually around our whole property as a result has been breathtaking. The speed at which the individual animals conquered their new territory was especially astounding.

After digging the pond, the trench that was to take the overflow of water had quite a bit of water left standing in it due to some residual ice melt and general pooled water. Only 24 hrs after the excavator had left the site, I observed some Water Boatman doing their jerky little motions in the water. I really have no idea how these critters got there so quickly and can only assume that they were there the whole time. I guess just never saw them due to the high grass and rushes filling the trench.

Within a couple of days, we started to hear the ribbiting of frogs and have since observed three different type of frogs inhabiting the pond. One is the leopard frog, which is in my opinion the most stunning of them all. The camouflage pattern is so striking it can only be described as beautiful.

Pic 1: Leopard Frog

The second type of frog are the peepers. These frogs are very small, maybe half the size of my thumb and quite skittish. Their sound is unmistakable though. It is moire of a vibrato whistle than the traditional "ribbit" you might be used to. These frogs are very prominent in New Brunswick. A friend of mine and I were fishing one day and decided to try a little deadwater adjacent to the lake we were on. After we navigated our boat into the deadwater I was unable to hear what my friend was saying due to the enormous amount of breeding peepers. These things get LOUD!!

The third type of frog we discovered is the Bullfrog. Their sound is also quite unmistakable. I really don't know how to describe it. Maybe like a heavy piece of furniture moved over a wooden floor. But listen for yourselves here (

Some of the frogs made it as far as our doorstep and we found them frequently sitting among our tomatoes and other veggies which grow around the higher parts of the slope above the pond. Which is great, because frogs also eat slugs. We definetly had very, very few slugs this year.

The good thing about the frogs is that they will eat mosquitoes, and, although I wasn't sure what to expect after we built the pond with respect to those little blood suckers, I must say we have had less of them than in previous years. I have since learned that mosquitoes prefer breeding in small puddles rather than deep ponds, which would explain the drop in population since we removed most of their beautiful, shallow breeding grounds by excavating the swamp.

On the other hand, we increased the population of dragonflies. While we always had a couple of the large green dragonflies hovering over our ground, this summer there was a lot more of them. There were also different types of damselflies. My entomology skills go as far as distinguishing between a dragon- and a damselfly, but I have no idea what species they were. Some of them had beautiful black spots at their wing tips with striking blue bodies. Others were pitch black with silvery gossamer wings.  I think we have seen as many as 5-7 different types, all still to be properly identified. And all of them are predators and also eat these pesky mozzies. You might be seeing a pattern here....

I was hoping that maybe a couple of ducks would start breeding in the pond, but this year only one female mallard used the pond as a quick resting place and took off again some time later that same day. Maybe this year the pond will be more established and more suited to host some water birds.

Although we did not stock any fish in the pond yet, a blue heron tried to find some food by patiently sitting on the side of the pond and staring into the water. I am not sure whether he made off with some of the enormous tadpoles or whether he decided to try his/her luck elsewhere.

Another addition to our site this year was an eastern kingbird (with the wonderful charming latin name of Tyrannus tyrannus). Despit its latin name, the kingbird is rather small, not even the size of a woodpecker with a white belly and a grey back. Its head looks like it is wearing a black vigilante mask.

Pic 2: Eastern kingbrid (Tyrannus tyrannus)

I first noticed the bird perching quietly on top of a young fir tree. The second time he made a bit more of a splash...literally. I noticed large rings on top of the pond, and, as a passionate flyfisher, that seemingly benign event triggers a biological response known only from other predatory animals like cats when they see the tail end of a mouse disappear around a corner. I was perplexed. There are no fish in our pond. So how can I see fish jump? I sat down and watched. After about a minute or so, I saw the little kingbird approaching low over the rushes and splash right into the water just to get back out and sit on the fence behind. This behaviour was repeated several times until the bird decided it was time to chill for a while.

Kingbirds are flycatchers, which means that they catch their prey in mid flight like a bat. I have observed this bird to do exactly that later. He would sit on a fencepost and every now and then shoot into the air and do a double somersault producing a faint *click* sound with his beak. I am not sure whether the diving into the water was also to catch prey (tadpoles) or whether it was a way of bathing. Maybe somebody can clear this mystery up for me.

Birds in general seem to love the water and we are frequently visited by whole flocks of starlings and sparrows which come to either bath or drink before continuing on to wherever they fly to.

Pic 3: Grackles taking a break (a bit hard to see, but every dark spot is a bird)

I mentioned that there are no fish in our pond yet. I will try to introduce some minnows this year to establish a food source for some bigger fish, which I might introduce into the system at a later stage. I want to be certain however, that my oxygen levels and the depth is sufficient to support larger fish before I go dumping them in there.