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.


New Rabbit Fawns

Moonstone, my angora doe, had babies one week ago on 4/28/18. Six healthy, bouncing little ones make a nest-full.  The dad, Marble, is now 7 years old and still doing his job well.  Three appear to be albino, or pure white and their eyes will be red.  The other three are colored!  The darkest will likely be sable, the brownish one chocolate, but the grayish one is a new color for me.  It will be very interesting to see how the coat matures.

Mom is taking excellent care of her little ones.  They are plump and robust.  The eyes are still sealed shut, although I think their ears are opening.  They seem to be able to hear me when I get close.  They certainly can smell me.

Mama rabbit is doing well.  She is eating and drinking copiously to make the milk her fawns require.  The dandelions and grass have greened just in time to give her plenty of nutrients for rich milk.  I have to keep her well supplied with greens, food and water.

In the next two to four days the baby rabbits will open their eyes.  Then mama will be in trouble!  The fawns will follow her off the nest and try to sneak a milk snack whenever she sits still.  Until they learn to behave, she will be hopping around a lot to get away from them.  Rabbits only allow the babies to nurse once per day.  The milk is so nutritious that once a day is enough to grow a rabbit.  When the eyes open and the fawns begin to move around the cage, they start to nibble on hay, greens and pelleted food to supplement the milk.  Little rabbits grow very fast.Moonstone

Chick Hatch 4/29/18

The first hatch of 2018 completed yesterday, 25 out of 28 Silver and Silver x Black Ameraucana chicks hatched from my Brinsea Ovation Eco 28 incubator.  These little guys are one day old and seem very healthy.  This is a rare moment where everyone is resting in a big, fluffy chick mass.  They are very busy and bright-eyed, already eating and drinking.

The incubator is cleaned and warming up for the second set. I hope to have 28 more eggs started this evening. All the eggs from the first set were fertile and grew to term. Not sure why three didn’t hatch. The babies may have had some trouble getting to the air sac. The eggs didn’t even pip so the babies died during the transition time when they put their beak into the air sac and start breathing. Sad, but part of nature. Still, an 89% hatch and 100% fertility rate are excellent for me.

The hatch rate is such an improvement over the styrofoam Hovabator incubators of the past. I would consider myself lucky to get a 50% hatch rate then.  The Brinsea was certainly worth the price!

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

This is being written for the consideration of anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation and is contemplating carpal tunnel surgery.  I wish I had been provided this information when I was deciding to get the work done.  Please do not think I’m complaining or looking for sympathy.  I’m not.  Merely trying to inform people about my experiences.

I first noticed the problem about seven years ago when my hands fell asleep every time I sat and tried to use them for things like crafts or writing.  It got so bad that they felt numb and tingly nearly all the time.  The doctor diagnosed me with carpal tunnel syndrome and recommended surgery.  She said if I didn’t get the issue corrected my hands would become damaged over time since the nerves were being impinged.  To relieve the pressure, the tendon that supports the wrist bones must be cut.  That is the surgical procedure.  It is done under general anesthesia.

What the doctor explained about the narrowing of the carpal tunnel in the wrist and the squeezing of the nerve that must pass through the tunnel to reach the hand made sense.  I believed her and didn’t put any effort into second opinions.  The surgery was scheduled with a specialist.  I had both wrists done at the same time, bi-lateral surgery.  The procedure was conducted as a day surgery and I went home that evening with both wrists bandaged.

The pain was fairly intense for a few days.  For anyone getting bi-lateral surgery for the sake of convenience, consider that you will find it nearly impossible to use your hands with any force for several days following surgery.  The problem becomes apparent when you enter the restroom.  I struggled until I adopted through trial and error a technique for hygiene that placed little strain on the hands.  The healing was rapid and I only needed to use a couple Tylenol 3 during recovery.  The tiny incision scars quickly disappeared.

When it no longer hurt to use the hands, I began physical therapy to return the strength of my grip.  The therapist tested my grip and prescribed various exercises which I followed religiously.  I was motivated to regain the use of my hands.  By the end of the sessions the therapist was impressed that I had a grip strength that surpassed most women.  She was pleased with my progress and ended the sessions.  What I didn’t tell her was my grip was actually reduced from the power I had before surgery.  I continued the exercises and hoped for the best.

Things went along fairly smoothly.  My sense of how hard I gripped things had changed.  I thought my hands were holding tightly enough, but actually, at times, they were not.  I dropped stuff…a lot.  It was frustrating.  Hoping for the best, I figured over time I’d improve.  Then one day I was just lifting an empty five gallon bucket by the handle and something popped in my wrist.  It was quite painful.  A swelling developed in the area below the base of my thumb.  The place of the swelling can be seen in my two photos, although the swelling from an active injury is much more pronounced.  These photos are of the usual condition of my wrists now.  The little lump below the thumb should not be there.

The doctor said I had sprained my wrist.  I wore a splint to protect the area and tried not to overuse the other hand while the sprain healed.  Unfortunately, sprains in both wrists have become a part of my life.  When I do heavy manual labor I must wear restrictive splints with metal supports or I risk sprains.  Just everyday living can result in injury.  A movement as simple as wiping a dish, opening a drawer or lifting a cup can result in a strain or a sprain.  The reduced sense of grip has remained and I continue to drop items if I don’t remember to pay attention to how tightly I am holding them.  I described these difficulties to my doctor and she had nothing to say, she just glossed over my concerns.  I changed doctors.

The problem is the cutting of the tendon that supports the wrist.  Without that band of tissue to keep the bones in place under strain, ligaments are stressed until micro tears occur, pulling the ligament away from the bone (a sprain.)  This is the dirty little secret the doctors and surgeons don’t mention when they push for carpal tunnel surgery.  You are left to discover on your own that your hands will never be the same.  Sure, the pins and needles and numbness are gone, but the pain of wrist sprains is there to stay.  Because I live on a farm and use my hands for everything I do, the chronic pain has settled into the area of the base of my thumbs on both hands.

The only relief for this pain is massage, which I perform on my hands frequently.  Since the time of my surgery, I have been a patient of two different massage therapists who both informed me that prior to surgery I should have tried massage therapy.  They both explained that the pressure in my wrists leading to my hands falling asleep could very likely have been relived with trigger point therapy.  The tightening of muscles in the neck, shoulder and arms can lead to the symptoms of carpal tunnel impingement.  They told me many people have found a cure for the problem from massage therapy alone.  If only one of the medical doctors had informed me of this!  Or if only I had not been so trusting of their authority and opinions.

Now, whenever anyone mentions to me they are considering the surgery, I describe my experiences for them in the hope they can make a better informed decision than I.

Rodent Damage

All indications are that the field vole and mouse population here at the farm was very high last fall.  The past few years must have provided very good breeding conditions for the vermin.  I have never seen such extensive rodent damage.  The little critters were just trying to live through the harsh winter, but their survival attempts resulted in significant losses for us.

During the deep snows, voles and field mice survive by burrowing out small holes for dens and lining them with grass.  Then, when they are hungry the creatures come up to the surface of the ground under the snow and tunnel.  Some tunnels are still evident in the melting snow above.  The rodents eat grass and chew the bark off any edible tree or bush encountered.  This spring’s receding snow reveals an extensive network of tunnels and bark chewed off at least three dozen apple trees in the orchards.  The vermin also entirely devoured my baby pink magnolia and one tiny apricot.

Since I know rodents do this sort of damage, every fall I place plastic tree guards around the trunks of susceptible young trees.  All the trees I guarded are undamaged.  The damage is unexpectedly heavy.  Usually mature trees are barely touched, if at all.  I’ve had a magnolia for years and it was never chewed.  The little apricot was in its second winter.  The year before last no rodents bothered it.  During this winter, two of my young hazelnut trees were also chewed, a first for me.  And, a fifteen year old maple on the lawn was girdled!

Girdling is the big problem.  If the bark is removed completely around the trunk of the tree, the nutrients produced by the leaves can not go back into the roots.  The tree will die after a couple years.  Twelve apples and the maple were girdled.  I don’t want to lose the trees, if possible, so this year I’m learning a new skill called bridge grafting.  This method has the potential to save the trees by grafting a small limb over the wound to carry nutrients to the roots, bridging the gap.

The small branches, called scions, are gathered early in the spring before budding begins.  I have collected a good supply of scions about the thickness of a pencil.  The best scions are one-year shoots and should be the same species as the tree being grafted.  It’s great to collect scions from the actual tree.  The scions are wrapped in plastic to preserve moisture and stored in the refrigerator until the time is right for grafting.

Now I’m just waiting for the proper time to bridge graft.  To protect the trees from dehydrating while we wait, I’ve covered all the gnawed damage with tree wound sealer. Bridge grafting is best done in the spring when the trees are budding.  During budding the trunk is full of moisture and the bark becomes loose.  It can be slipped away from the trunk.  Scions are cut in a specific manner and inserted under the bark.  The wound is covered with pruning sealer.

If everything goes well, by fall the tree will have accepted the graft and grow together with it sufficiently to allow the flow of nutrients essential for survival.  After a few years, the tree will produce new bark to cover the wound and the grafts grow into the tree.  I will blog again with photos of the grafting process once I begin the work.


Hatching Time and Odd Egg

Here is the first set of Ameraucana eggs for 2018.  They went in the Brinsea Ovation Eco 28 on the 8th and are due to hatch on the 29th.  There are some very nice colored eggs this year.  We’re still waiting for a few of the pullets hatched in September 2017 to start laying, but most of our 15 hens produce regularly.  The main rooster is named RB (Short for Rooster Boy) and he is a very handsome silver Ameraucana.

We have two back-up silver x black roosters and the hens are mostly silver x black.  The hens all have strong silver features.  Fingers are crossed that this next generation will be more of the silver type I’m looking to breed.

Silver Ameraucana hens tend to mature a little slower than other pullets.  They often don’t begin laying until they are seven to nine months old.  Most of mine start around seven months.  The pullets of some breeds commence laying as early as four-and-a-half to six months of age.  What I’ve noticed with early ovulation is the eggs are in the extra small to small range, due to the size of the hens’ bodies.  It takes several weeks for them to have large size eggs.  The silvers may take a little longer to mature, but they start in with a bigger, more usable (salable) egg.  This is a first egg from a seven-month bird that was laid last week.  It is a size large egg.  The deep color is typical for first eggs, although the band of color is somewhat extreme.  It is an odd but beautiful egg.

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.