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Bridge Grafting Rodent Damage Part II

A couple weeks ago I blogged about the extensive damage done to our trees this past winter by an overpopulation of rodents.  A couple dozen apple trees and several ornamentals were chewed extensively.  Some were girdled.  To save the girdled trees, an emergency repair of grafting is attempted.  If the graft takes, the tree will be able to send nutrients back into the roots so the plant can survive.  Without help, trees that have had all the bark removed around the trunk almost always die.

In a normal winter, there is some rodent damage, especially to young trees.  That’s why I protect young trunks with tree guards.  By the time fruit trees reach forty-plus years old, rodents do not usually cause severe destruction as they gnaw on the inner bark to survive.  A little gnawing can be healed.  This last winter there were so many rodents, especially voles, present in the fields and orchards that they were forced to forage in unusual places to find enough food to survive.  Here is a somewhat grisly photo of a vole the cats killed.  The silly thing wandered into the cats’ outdoor cage.  These vermin are the main culprits in tree destruction.  They have rectangular shaped bodies with short legs, lots of teeth and stubby tails.  Voles can grow up to six inches long or more, not including the tail.

To perform the life-savings grafts, it is important to harvest a bunch of one-year-old scion growth from the same species and preferably the same tree as the one being grafted.  The scions are collected in early spring while they are still dormant.  They are closely wrapped in plastic and stored in the fridge until grafting time.  When the trees begin to bud and sap is flowing, the bark loosens and can easily be slipped free of the trunk.  Budding time is when grafting is done.

When I collected the scions I also applied wound spray to the poor girdled trees to help preserve moisture, which is why the gnawed area is black.  Using a stout blade, I cut two parallel incisions into the bark above and below the injury.  The blade is used to gently work the bark away from the trunk, exposing fresh wood.  A flap of bark is left to protect the grafting sites.  A scion is selected and trimmed to the proper length.  Both ends are shaped to slightly sharpen and form a smooth surface of fresh wood.

The graft is inserted into the bark flaps of the tree, assuring the freshly cut surfaces press against one another and the tip points upward. Then I use a staple gun with 1/2″ staples to secure the graft to the tree and hold the bark flaps in place.  Over time the staples will rust and dissolve, leaving the graft to grow unimpeded.

I give the grafted scion a test tug to be sure it is held tightly.  The scion is placed with a slight outward bend so it can move with the swaying of the tree trunk as the wind blows.  This will help the graft to stay in place.  Then I thoroughly coat the entire repair including the scion with wound spray to seal out insects and disease and seal in moisture.  Any good tree wound spray will work for this procedure, I am not endorsing a particular brand.  I used up five cans of spray this spring.

These major injuries that remove the tree’s link between the roots and leaves require many grafts placed around the trunk to repair.  They can be placed every 2″-3″.  With so much work to do, the most grafts I managed to place on a tree were six.  If they take and the trees hold in there, I can add more this fall or next year.

As the grafted scion grows into the tree, it will gradually enlarge.  I’m hoping the tree will also grow bark to help cover the wounds.  Some of the damaged trees may not survive.  The rodents actually dug down to the roots and chewed the bark off the roots.  There is not much I can do to prevent or repair that damage.

A little research reveals that orchardists have success repelling rodents and rabbits by painting the entire part of the trunk and even the lower limbs that are buried in the snow or within easy reach of rabbits in winter.  So far I have not encountered any rabbit problems.  I plan to coat the tree trunks with white latex paint prior to this fall.  Maybe that will slow down the gnawing critters.


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The Art of Tapping Maple Trees

Maple syrup season is in full swing here at the farm.  I tapped three days ago and have filled the 50 gallon boiler tank.  Today is the first day I’ve fired the boiler.  By tomorrow evening we should have over a gallon of fresh syrup if all goes well.  Here at Phoenix Farm we make maple syrup much as the ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

Improvements were implemented over the years with the development of galvanized buckets to replace the old wood ones, better spiels and a more enclosed method of boiling the sap to keep the smoke out.  Syrup was once made in open containers over open fires.  Generally, we collect and process sap much as was done in the 1700s here in New England.  I prefer the old fashioned way.  Besides the nostalgia factor, using metal rather than plastic for long term sap contact alleviates concerns of plastic contaminant leaching.

There is an art to drilling and caring for tap holes using the old methods.  It is helpful to tap on a day when the sap is running so you know the hole is patent.  Dry holes are no good to anyone.  Sap season occurs when air temperatures are in the 40sF during the day and 20sF at night.

I use an antique manual bit and brace drill.  Choosing the correct drill bit size is essential.  Too large or small a hole can lead to tree damage.  The correct size to fit standard spiels is 7/16″.  The spiel must be straight and perfectly round to fit snugly in the drill hole.  The materials required for tapping are the drill, a hammer, a study twig about 6″ long, spiels and buckets with lids.  Some lucky people also have a spiel driver which is a solid piece of metal that fits inside the spiel and allows you to hammer it into the tree without a chance of damaging the spiel.  Someday I will afford a spiel driver!

If the trees are being tapped in mid to late March, try to drill on the more shady northern, northeast or northwest sides of the trunk.  This helps protect the sap gathering in the bucket from getting too hot in the warm afternoon sun.  Sap must be kept chilled or it can spoil.

The hole is drilled with a slight downward slant to encourage the sap to run out.  Too steep a drill angle will allow the spiel to pull out when it holds the weight of a full bucket.  The holes are drilled between two to five feet from the ground.  Trees can be tapped when they reach ten to twelve feet in diameter at chest height.  I put one bucket on smaller trees, two buckets on trees larger than fifteen to twenty inches in diameter.  We have so many trees in the maple orchard that we don’t need to triple tap any of them.  It is safe to place up to four taps on a very large tree.


Drill the hole smoothly and evenly with no wobbling of the bit.  You want the hole to be straight so the spiel will fit flush, containing the sap and sending it out through the spout into the bucket.  Sloppy, loose holes leak and leaky holes are a waste of sap and time.  Drill in about 2.5″ to reach the xylem, where the sap travels inside the trunk.  Use the sturdy 6″ twig to clean any drill dust out of the hole.  Then, use the hammer to gently tap the spiel on the wide area above the spout to drive it into the hole until it is just snug.

A spiel driven in too deep can split the trunk, greatly damaging the tree.  A spiel that is too loose is in danger of falling out when the bucket gets full.  When the sap starts to run out the spout, I clean the first of it away since it will be full of bits of drilling dust.  Finally, hang the bucket on the spiel and pop on a cover.  It takes me four to five minutes to complete each tap.



On a nice, warm afternoon in March when the sun is shining and the temperature is around 45F, the sap will practically pour from the drilled hole. Each tap hole produces between one to two gallons on a day when the sap is running well.  Temperatures below the 40sF, cloudy, cool days and chilly, windy days reduce sap production.  
After the trees are tapped, (we have twenty-five taps this year,) it takes two to four days to collect enough sap to fill the boiler pan, depending on the weather. The average ratio is forty gallons of sap produces one gallon of syrup. I suspect the soil in our maple orchard encourages very robust trees because they gives us a little more syrup per gallon of sap. More like 35:1.

Once temperatures are sustained above freezing at night, the maple trees begin to bud:  their leaf and flower buds are swelling in preparation for opening.  Budding signals the end of syrup season.  The sap becomes dark and bitter.  To me, care of the tap holes at the end of the season is as important as at the beginning.  Certainly, there are plenty of people who will swear that all you need to do is pull out the spiel and let the tree alone.  The sap that bleeds out in profusion from the holes is not a problem for the plant, some claim.  I ignore this advice.

It makes sense to me that a bleeding tree is losing energy.  It also is obvious that an opening that leads 2.5″ into the trunk of a tree is an invitation for insects and microbes to invade.  At the end of the season, I use the hammer to gently tap each spiel out of the tree.  I cut ash saplings selected to fit snugly in the opening.  Using ash rather than maple saplings reduces the chance of introducing disease into the tree.

I peel and whittle the sapling, as necessary, until it perfectly fits the hole.  Then I cut off a piece about 1″ long and tap it into the hole.  The chunk of sapling acts as a plug.  It greatly slows the loss of sap.  As the tree heals, new wood forms inside the hole and pushes outward against the plug, popping it out of the trunk.  Filling the hole completely with foreign wood so that the plug remains in the tree will damage the plant since it creates a dead space in the trunk.  In the photo above, the plug placed last year is on its way out of the hole.  Below is a well healed old tap hole.

Improper drilling can create catastrophic results for the tree.  When a tap is driven in too hard and the trunk splits, the wood below the hole dies.  A wide section of the truck is lost, resulting in a hole in the tree near the roots and much dead wood.  When I first started tapping maples, I made the mistake of splitting the trunk a few times and damaged several trees including this fairly young one below.  There is a big hole on the left lower side.  This tree still produces plenty of sap and is healthy, but some do not recover from the damage.  They are weakened to the point where they have to be cut down.

One of the joys of maple season for me is listening to the sap drip into the metal buckets.  Quite a cadence can be heard of a warm afternoon.  So that others might enjoy this rare tree music, I’ve made a couple short videos of the dripping sap.  Notice in the close-up shots how the hydraulic force appears to create a heartbeat-like rhythm.

Joyful Yule!

Joyful Yule to all!  This shortest day of the year finds the farm tucked into an 8″ blanket of snow.  The temperatures struggle to the 20sF during the day and dip toward zero at night.  This morning the sun favors us with a watery, weak glow, halfway to its zenith at 8:30 am.  The light has a yellowish cast due to the angle.

We modern humans understand how the tilt of the Earth determines the seasons, unlike our poor ancestors who huddled in fear through the dark and cold.  What if the sun just kept fading and didn’t return?  No wonder sacrificial rites were performed during the depths of night and celebration ensued when the daylight lengthened.  Today we know spring will return and our fear is more of how warm the world is becoming.

The last couple weeks haven’t felt too warm!  Chickens snuggle on the roosts, sharing body heat, and don’t lay eggs when it is so chilly.  The horses are wrapped in thick winter coats.  They stand in patient reverie awaiting the next feeding as icicles form on their long whiskers.  Angora rabbits are made for cold weather.  Six inches of angora fiber is just the thing to keep a bunny toasty.  The dogs delight in snow.  They would spend hours romping in it if we let them.  The cats pine for their outdoor cage, which must come down in the winter or be destroyed by snow.  They content themselves sitting in the windows and chattering at the multitude of wild birds flocking to the feeders.

The feral pheasant may still be around.  Last week he came into the barn twice to eat scratch grain I left out for him.  Then we got a brutal storm with snow, wind and cruel freezing rain overnight.  The pheasant has not been seen since.  The scratch grain was still disappearing so I figured the bird was coming in to eat.  Then I surprised four bold mourning doves who flew right into the barn to take the offerings.  I moved the scratch into the lower barn where I know the pheasant will look, but the doves won’t dare to venture.  Yesterday the pile of grain was depleted and I thought there were some larger bird footprints in the dust.  So, perhaps the pheasant still holds his own.  I’m rooting for him.

Now there is little for us to do but turn our heads from the wind as we trudge through winter chores, sit by the woodstove and let the heat work into the bones, finally read that book we’ve wanted to get to, catch up on inside work, nap.  And wait for spring.

Winter Has Arrived

Overnight we received the first measurable snow of the winter.  I’d guess it’s about 7″.  The stuff really came down for a few hours.  I especially like the way the heavy snowfall dampens the sound of traffic on the road running past the farm.  After a while, the highway empties and the road noise of any stray slow moving vehicle is muffled.  I can almost imagine we live in the country and not beside what has become, in my lifetime, a major thoroughfare.

This may look chilly, and the ground beneath is frozen, but the air temperature is nearing 32F.  With a ten-day high of 38F forecast for today, it looks like the snow may be here to stay.  Next week the weather prognosticators call for more snow.  Several days of snow.  Yesterday my husband and I worked from mid-morning till near dark to finish all the little chores that must be done before snow arrives.  We sat, smugly content, and watched the white pile up.  Now I look forward to a long winter’s rest disturbed only by a few barn chores, some snow plowing and the occasional jaunt outside for cold weather exercise.

Velvetleaf

Here is a new plant to me, one I’ve never seen on our farm or anywhere else.  I discovered this foot-tall specimen growing in the turf near the gate to the horse paddock.

A search with Google images led to identification as Velvetleaf, Chinese jute or Indian mallow, a member of the mallow family native to China and possibly India.  It was brought to America in the early 1700s for use as a fiber source in rope manufacture.

Since then the plant has escaped into the wild and become a pest of various crops, particularly corn and soybeans.  It seems to have several scientific names, the most common being Abutilon theophrasti.  Velvetleaf is edible and in Asia the plant and seeds are part of native cuisine.  

The velvet name is due to the very soft texture of the heart-shaped leaves.  Feels almost like moleskin it is so fine.  The large, strange seed pods or fruit attracted my attention.  The plant also has yellow-orange flowers up to 1″ across.  All the flowers were closed on the specimen I found.

I suspect the seed for this plant either dropped off the tractor of the local farmer who helps me spread manure or possibly came in grain for the chickens or horses.  Velvetleaf is found in midwestern cornfields and a tough-coated seed could have sneaked into the processed grain then passed through an animal’s digestive system intact.

Following my policy of identifying any new plants found on the farm, I realized Velvetleaf would be an unwelcome addition.  It is a prolific seeder, highly competitive with other plants.  The last thing I need is another invasive weed.  I pulled little Velvetleaf and popped it in the garbage before the seeds could mature.

Emerging Rocks

Periodically, rocks buried in the soil at our farm will come to the surface.  This is usually a very slow process aided by weather conditions.  It can take years, decades, or in the case of huge boulders, centuries for the rocks to be pushed out of the dirt.  After many years of mowing the fields and orchards, I have memorized the locations of all the rocks that jut from the surface enough to catch the mower blades.  Or, at least I thought I had.

In recent years new rocks have lifted their heads within just a few winters.  The piece of granite above is an example.  It measures about 3.5 ft x 2 ft and for most of my lifetime at the farm has been nearly submerged.  The stone is a piece from the cellar of a barn that stood on our property back in the 1800s.  Until recently I have been able to mow right over this chunk of granite.  Starting around four years ago, things changed.  I hit the thing with my mower blade.

Trying to mow a rock with a rotary mowing machine is not recommended.  I cringe whenever I hear that telltale ringing crunch of metal on stone.  Luckily, it is a rare occurrence since removing the mower blades for sharpening is a tedious, time-consuming task.  Yet, in the past few years I have caught several previously unknown rocks that have suddenly surfaced.  What is so quickly moving these buried chunks of mountaintop or ledge?  Most likely the power of ice.

Our weather here in central Maine has changed since I was young.  Even in the last ten years there have been noticeable shifts in patterns, something I’ve discussed in prior posts.  The current pattern involves much more rain in winter.  Storms that once would have been pounding Nor-easter blizzards now deluge us in rain.  The ground does not freeze as deeply as it once did so the water soaks in.  Since it is still Maine in winter, a heavy rainstorm in December is often followed by several days of below-zero F temperatures.  All that moisture runs down around and under the rocks in the ground and then freezes.

Freezing water expands with an irresistible power.  The ice crystals push the rocks higher and higher until they break the surface.  I believe the new warmth and excess rain are why rocks are appearing with such annoying regularity when I’m mowing.  And also why older rocks are rapidly working their way more completely from the earth.  As they pop to the surface, most of these stones can be loosened with the tractor bucket and moved out of the way.  The great chunk of granite above will require some effort with chains, pry bars and the tractor to get it out of the middle of a hayfield.  I’ll put that job on my To Do list.

Hazelnuts In Bloom

The three young hazelnut trees I’ve planted in the orchard all survived the winter and are in bloom.  Each plant has male and female flowers.  The males are long catkins filled with pollen.  The females are tiny, round, bud-like forms with projecting bright red styles.  Hazelnuts are wind pollinators, which explains why such copious amounts of pollen are produced.  The plants must cross-pollinate to produce nuts, they are not self-pollinating.  The woods are full of wild hazelnuts in bloom; some of their pollen could also easily reach my little trees.

The largest hazelnut bush grows in leaps and bounds every year.  This spring I trimmed out some of the oldest, least productive limbs.  I gave the trimming to my rabbits.  Bunnies love hazelnut wood!  This largest plant has produced a crop of nuts for the past 3 years or so.  This year it is covered in blooms, so if all goes well I will have hazelnuts to eat in September.

The other two trees are smaller.  One, the same age as the the largest bush, is only starting to thrive after its transplant a few years ago.  The other hazelnut survived the second winter.  The white bags on this tree are an experiment I conducted over the winter.  Last year, the poor sapling was nibbled by deer.  The original leader was nipped off and a side branch has become the new leader.  I had heard of placing human hair in cloth bags and tying them to the branches to deter deer.  When my husband got a haircut last fall, I collected the hair and tucked it in some small muslin bags I had on hand.  To my surprise, the tree was not touched by the deer last winter, although they had plenty of opportunity.  So perhaps this strategy actually works!  I’m glad, since this was an expensive little hazelnut, purchased from Stark Bros. nursery.  The other two were quite inexpensive and came from The Arbor Day Foundation.  I bought the Stark tree because it is supposed to produce large nuts.  Hazelnuts are my favorite for eating, so I’m rooting for these trees to do well.