Orchard Hurricane


When the land feels too large I head to the orchard.  Yes, the orchard is four times the size of my vegetable plot.  But the trees are countable.  The nectarines end and apricots begin.  The apricots end where the figs start.  The small section of figs presses against the peaches.  In the orchard I can’t see the horizon line, and feel cozy within its confines.

But the orchard always requires a fight. Four acres is equivalent to 600 trees.  Ten rows that run in columns of sixty trees–a skinny swath of land compared to the tomato and asparagus fields that surround it.  We weed by hand.  We pruned each peach tree, each nectarine tree.  Each time we irrigate the orchard, we walk through to check the sprinklers for leaks.  We have spent many days in head-to-toe protective gear, spraying organic sulfur on the trees and wishing that the world would stop smelling like rotten eggs.  Even if for just long enough to eat lunch.

This weekend, the north wind swept vigorously through the farm.  I kept a hand on my hat all day, and leaned heavily to cut through the gusts.  I expected the orchard to be calmer than the veggies.  But the apricots trees are tall.  We didn’t prune them, and their branches stretch twenty feet high.  The limbs are full of fruit.  Some branches look more like grape clusters than apricots—something I used to think was a good thing.  But the wind bullies these trees.  Pushes them around and pulls at their weak spots.  We found trees nearly snapped in half, limbs broken and akimbo.  Some of these apricots have brown rot, a disease that seeps into branches and produces honey colored, gummy cankers and weaken the trees.  Those trees worst infected broke apart in the wind.  Others were just so heavy with fruit that they leaned and bent, trying to put some of the weight down.

Mending the trees felt like scooping buckets of water out of a flooding basement.  Frantic.  We propped trees up with wooden splints.  Pulled fruit from heavy branches, hoping they would spring back into place once the weight was gone.  But sometimes that wasn’t enough and we had to prune out heavy branches.  The orchard was loud and we had to yell to be heard.  I was disoriented from the wind.  Amazing how quickly we could move through the orchard when a sunny-skied hurricane blew through.

To calm myself amongst the chaos, I thought about the orchard’s longevity. If this year goes poorly, the orchard will rest for the winter and give it another shot in the spring.  Like a bad school year, saved by a summer of laying poolside. Seasonality, even in the sometimes season-less Central Valley is part of my attraction to this work.  I can divide life up into recognizable segments, and can associate memories with which fruits were ripening at the time.  I might not remember whether I met you in March or April, but I remember that the strawberries were starting to flower (early) and I fought to keep them from being choked by bindweed.

The apricot trees are propped in place with wooden boards and will have to be pruned back before too long to salvage the healthy branches.  But in a year’s time, most of them will be strong again, maybe even stronger now that we know more about what it takes to keep 600 trees alive.  I am curious to see them then, and hope that when I think of the orchard hurricane, I will remember that when the winds died, we walked through the orchard and ate apricots that tasted like bergamot, and the year’s first round of juicy peaches.  Maybe that wind just has to stir things up a bit before summer can officially begin.

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Catalog, compound, medicate, repeat

Though my vegetable field is only an acre, the land can feel vast and uncomfortably large.  The mountain range in the west (whose name nobody seems to know) sits far in the distance from my small plot and on summer days the dust and pesticides and smog smudge my clear view of the hills.  The hills themselves are small, a bump in the skyline with a small V that runs through the center. The only road through heads for Lake Berryessa (murky and treeless) and then on to Napa Valley.

When the cover crops were tall, the farm nested against them.  I could safely tuck beneath the height of rye grass and flowering vetch and feel contained within the farm beds.  Our rows are long, some nearly 250 feet.  When the cover crop circled the farm, I could sense the ends of the rows and knew how much longer my shoulder would hurt from digging until I could rest.  But that end is less clear now.  I am a poor judge of the bed lengths.  On hot days, the heat blurs the distance and I am overwhelmed by how long it takes to walk, one foot directly in front of the next, across each skinny furrow.

As the season progresses, these plants are supposed to give some dimension to this flat-land, to help make a barrier from these flatlands. But sometimes I hesitate to even call this soil anything more than dirt—an infertile word to any farmer.  New leaves come so slowly. They turn to yellow and then brown before they can take root.  I am a nurturer, a nourisher.  But that is not good enough.  It seems I need a bit of science.

In early May we realized our plants were hesitant to grow.  Our corn didn’t germinate.  Our zucchini peaked through the cracks in the clay soil then dried up.  We have theories why.  Pests started feasting early.  The heavy winds whip through the farm and torture plants trying to calmly take root.  Our nutrient levels are too low to promote growth. Our compost somehow poisoned our soil.


 I struggle with being methodical. My instincts are not those of order and calculation. But the form of the farm helps hone the order of these problems.  The rows are straight and walkable.  Problems repeat from plant to plant and I can bend down to look at each of them, through each stage of development.  Observation is a simple principle and one every farmer knows.  But it is still a skill that requires practice.  Catalog the symptoms seen on the farm; compound them into diagnoses.  Observe, catalog, compound, medicate, repeat.  To keep a close eye on the farm means I walk through nearly every row each time I’m at work.  Walking back and forth in each furrow brings the farm to a manageable size.  Finding order in it makes me feel a bit less exposed in these vast flatlands.  Its likely that the cars rushing past on I-80 don’t even see me here, stooped over and examining the weak roots of a watermelon plant.

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The Twelve Soil Orders

At its most basic level, the world’s soil falls into just twelve groups. Gelisols, Histosols, Spotosols, Andisols, Oxisols, Vertisols, Ardisols, Ultisols, Mollisols, Alfisols, Inceptisols, Entisols—the Twelve Soil Orders sound to me like an alliance, sitting about a round table and dividing up the territory of the earth. Of course, as political battles tend to go, the soil order could not be kept simple. The dividing lines between soils are meandering; soils mix and change, becoming more complex and requiring finer levels of description.

Our vegetable plot is of the Vertisols variety; our orchard amongst the Entisols. And in just the five mile radius around the farm, four of the twelve soil orders are represented. Their boundaries look topographic. And despite the simple breakdown of twelve soil categories, a few hundred feet can mean the difference between farmable and un-farmable land.

Our vegetables grow in a Vertisol called Capay Clay, a name specific to this region. The farm sits just outside of the Capay Valley, the soil’s namesake. Typical of the vertisols, our soil shrinks and expands. In the rain, the soil opens up, holds in water and stretches out to make room. As the water slowly drains, the top of the soil dries first, leaving a crust full of cracks and crevices. After heavy rains we must wait over a week to drive a tractor through the fields. We worry that our tiny seeds will not break through the crust. But new plants are stalwart. If they can break through the cement sidewalks of Los Angeles, they can withstand our Capay Clay.

Learning about my land has been a crash course in soil science over these past few months. Impromptu lessons in reading a soil test, closely watching the soil to see how long it takes to drain from heavy rains, and calculating the nutrients that need added to our soil to grow its general health.

A new application can help farmers, and those making land use decisions in general. I recently learned that the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the organization charged with mapping soil in the U.S., made a commitment to map all of the soil in the country by this year. They are close, with only a few holes remaining mostly on public lands. And we can look at all of it! In collaboration with the NRCS, Toby O’Geen, a professor at UC Davis and a group of his students developed Soil Web, an application for Google Earth, Google Maps, iPhones, and Androids (and soon all smart phones). In the field, the app shows your soil profile based on your gps coordinates, so you can wander about your land and watch the soil change. Whether at your computer or in the field, Soil Web lets you explore the makeup of your soil at the field level.

To a soil scientist, the family my soil belongs to is Fine, montmorillonitic, thermic Typic Chromoxererts. It is astounding how little this means to me. But with the help of Soil Web, I can learn the secrets of the Soil Orders a bit more, and reveal the possibilities and limitations under my feet.

Admittedly, some of the information on Soil Web is still above my head, but with a little help from one of the app developers, Toby O’Geen, I gained some quality insight into my soil. I’ll share my new knowledge on the next post. But for now, go explore some soil.

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lighten the load

Much of my farming experience thus far has been about the path of least resistance.  At times, the least resistance means something as simple as taking fewer trips back and forth between the beds.  Or carrying a lighter load.  Or creating a tomato tumbleweed, like this:

But then there are the computer days, where simplifying your work requires understanding the whole farm as it exists on paper.  Well, on screen.  We started out with an excel file, 11 worksheets deep that breaks down everything from how much yield to expect, how many seeds to buy, the space required for planting, and loose harvesting dates.  This will make your head spin:

Trying to figure out just how much space we'll need.


And just what produce will we have when?


The process was a little rough.  Ah, but there are other tools.  We started using AgSquared- a new online software that helps small-scale farmers schedule their plantings, plan for how much seed to order, and generally keep the vegetable part of the farm (an amazingly small part) in order.

It’s so much more handsome than my 11-tab spreadsheet.

So charming and well organized.


I’ll dive in a bit more to AgSquared in upcoming posts. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs with this software.  A software in beta means software with some bugs.  But we’re working our way through it.

In the mean time, there are a lot of new applications coming out that can help you figure out when, where, and what to plant on a smaller scale garden.  Here are a few I’ve found:

Smart Gardener (great minds think alike)

Grow Planner iPad app (from Mother Earth News)

Garden Tracker (iPhone app)

I haven’t used any of these yet, but if you have, I’d love to hear about it.



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Farming in the Future

Welcome to Smart Farm.  Follow along as I work to become a smarter farmer.





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