First season as a farmer: what got done

Crab apples on the kitchen counter

This is the third post in a series on how we started growing apples. The first post explained why I felt compelled to raise food and the second traced the thinking on why we chose to raise cider apples.

R looked at me on Christmas Eve and asked “When did we start all this? Was it really just April?” That’s when we moved the cats to Stray Arrow, augered some holes and started filling them with trees. The homestead looks so different now, it’s hard to believe it’s only been eight or nine months since we drove that first stake.

Lesson 1: start where you are. It cracks me up that if you read any book on gardening for beginners, you are advised to prepare your soil with generous amounts of compost. None of these books explain how a first year gardener magically acquires this initial supply of “black gold” made in large part from, you guessed it, garden refuse. Like the proverbial chicken and egg, it’s got to start somewhere.

The biggest accomplishment was planting and nurturing the first batch of trees through a drought year. Over 140 trees, about half brand-new grafts a few inches high, were planted. We were able to get some interesting specimens through Rick at Wagon Wheel Orchard, some from scion wood from Nick Botner’s legendary library of trees. Mostly, however, we planted hard cider apples and a few perry pears.

Deciding what trees to plant was preceded by much study and consideration, tempered by the facts that a) no one has planted a full orchard in Torrey since the development of the modern rootstock options and b) no one in Utah to our knowledge has planted cider varieties at our scale. Some of the choices are bound to fail, but not all of them, and then we’ll know something. Eventually you have to get the trees in the ground, to paraphrase the ciderist Steve Wood, who we met at Glynwood in August.

Once in the ground, trees need to be kept alive. Our desert climate is an advantage in that our pest load will be much reduced compared to orchards in the eastern U.S. but it also mandates irrigation. Our share of the water is available for 12 hours every eleven days, which we deliver by temporarily damming a ditch until it floods onto the land. Because of drought conditions, the canal level was lower than anyone around here remembered. Low water means low flow, and we had to hand dig trenches to each and every tree. I believe we calculated it at 1600′ of trenches.

In between flood cycles, the trees needed more water. I wasn’t happy about using the culinary (expensive) supply, but without any rain whatsoever in June, there wasn’t much choice. Tugging hoses across the field strengthened my back muscles.

In the end, we lost two trees in the stone fruit/permaculture* plot to a combination of deer followed by flea beetles attacking the regrowth. A small fraction of the grafts didn’t take, a couple due to our own misadventures, others due to a probable overheating in shipping, but overall, despite our number one problem, deer, our trees spent their first summer putting down strong roots.

Lesson 2: fence before trees. Torrey is a deer congregation zone all year round. We didn’t see them much in the two summers we camped on the land, and hoped to delay the fencing until fall, but the deer gave us no choice. The excitement of the planting in no way competes with the tedium and expense of the fence, but the despair over saplings nibbled to near death could have been entirely avoided had we fenced first. In our defense, we hadn’t really worked out the boundaries of the full orchard or how to set up a fence that would allow access to all the irrigation easements that cross our land.

When the deer ravaged the orchard in June, a decision was forced. R fenced the main orchard with a 7.5′ fencing product from Deerbusters. The super-sketchy caution tape barrier around the permaculture plot actually worked, but was finally replaced by 14 cattle panels, 5′ high, topped with super cheap Tibetan prayer flags that lost all their pigments within a week. So far, the deer are respecting the fences.

Back in the day when the Mormon pioneers hand-dug the Torrey town canal, they probably used brush and rocks to create their diversion dams. The technology on our segment has progressed only to the point of plastic tarps. Getting into a ditch before the sun melts the frost to wrangle a stiff tarp isn’t what I want to be doing every eleven days for the rest of my life. Future investment in headgates and other innovations is in the budget. A neighbor gave me some dam-making tips, and we eventually cobbled together a routine of dam placements that got water where it needed to go and kept it away from where it shouldn’t go, like our house foundation.

When the monsoons finally came in late July, it rained so much we actually committed the unthinkable: we didn’t use all of our water shares because the trees were showing signs of chlorosis from too much moisture in our alkaline soil. And it may seem obvoius, but if it rains on a pasture, it will grow. We chose to not to strip the pasture before planting the trees, using the nitrogen-fixing alfalfa as a ready supply of nutrients. But too much of a good thing is sometimes just too much. So we bought a Grillo walking tractor and a sickle bar mower. The cuttings were raked away from the trees but left to compost in place, a modest beginning to rebuilding organic matter in the soil and habitat for insects, bees and worms.

Our builder set aside the topsoil stripped from the construction site into a large pile. Since we don’t yet have any soil-working attachments for the Grillo and hadn’t found anyone to plow for us, we built a few garden beds by piling layers of hay and soil onto cardboard leftover from the move. Who knew how much cardboard a new house generates? Or how quickly it disappears when nature can feed on it?

The garden plot was really just a test run for two people desperate for home grown tomatoes and potatoes. We harvested about 50 lbs of potatoes, a similar quantity of tomatoes, too many hot peppers and plenty of herbs. Over time, those beds will be reworked into the basis of the permaculture plantings, as the chickens are penned up in the area I intend to plant for annual crops.

The winter garden that I put in too late is producing much better than expected. Even though it’s been near 0°F several nights, we are harvesting greens from it regularly. It’s similar to the one I made in Salt Lake, with kale, chard, tatsoi, lettuce and broccoli under plastic. So far nothing has succumbed to the elements, and should carry on a while longer so long as I remember to water it when it’s above freezing.

The only real permaculture plantings I made beyond the trees were comfrey and Jerusalem artichoke. Both are considered good chicken feed, permanent and sometimes invasive (although if you don’t water it, it can’t travel far in our soil). The should be good for building up the soil with chop-and-drop mulch (comfrey) or just vast supplies for the compost heap (Jerusalem artichoke).

Lesson 3: Chickens are like training wheels for keeping livestock. We started out with four birds our electrician gave us, didn’t kill them accidentally, and got three more to bulk up the flock for winter. All six hens are laying eggs (one makes olive green colored eggs!) and Arnold the rooster does a great job of protecting his girls from horrors like blue tarps and flying tomatoes. I wanted them to scratch up and fertilize next year’s garden area, but I didn’t fully appreciate their utility as avian composters, especially of things I’d never put out in the heap.

Basically we have no more food waste. They eat leftovers, overripe garden tomatoes, ancient oatmeal soaked in whey from our cheese-making escapades, cat food if they can get it. They caught a sparrow and ate it, even the feathers. They reduce entire broccoli plants to the outlines of stalks. We gave them the Thanksgiving turkey carcass; it disappeared, bones and all. They’d eat me if I would sit still long enough. Instead I bring them the garbage tribute and take away their eggs.

So in the end, we haven’t got much to feed a fast-burning compost pile. I raked up some leaves and gathered up some pasture clippings and the frosted tomato vines into a pile but I don’t fuss with it much, certainly not now in the winter. Eventually I will have a supply of sifted, well-decomposed organic matter to incorporate into my seedling mix, but the chickens are doing a fine job for now. They are easier to take care of than fish. Someday we might get goats or even install an IBC/aquaponics set-up, but the chickens are a good place to start for people who’ve never had animals that aren’t pets.

Lesson 4: Start imperfectly. I moved the compost pile twice because I changed my mind about where it belonged. We made a second gate to the permaculture plot when we realized we’d use a different path for winter access. The hugelkultur bed could have been bigger. The asparagus didn’t take alongside the canal. We didn’t get the gravel around the apple tree trunks soon enough. Still, much got done and we know stuff about our land and trees that we couldn’t have learned from books. Mistakes were made, hopefully not to be repeated, but we have potatoes in a Rubbermade tub buried in the garden and canned pizza sauce from our own tomatoes. Another 100 trees are on order. All I have to do right now is gorge myself on the slew of seed catalogs and plan next year’s vegetable garden.

Lesson 5: Repeat annually, as long as ever you can. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Now that things have slowed down with the snows, I’m going to the gym just to be in shape for spring. The list of projects for 2013 is scary ambitious. Anyone surprised at that?

*We have two fenced sections, the main orchard and a smaller area for cherries, peaches and other stone fruit. It needs a name, but it’s where we are experimenting with some permaculture ideas.


  1. trent

    wow. i’ve got to get down there to see all this. it’s a perfect read here at the beginning of a new year when all things seem possible. my hat is off to you both!

  2. Elizabeth Foote

    I really want to come visit and get the grand tour!

  3. Ann

    We might just put you to work!

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  • By Why apples? Why cider apples? on December 28, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    […] at this late stage in our lives. Here’s how we zeroed in on apples as our main crop. My next post details the tasks we accomplished in […]