Enjoying the Apple Blossoms

Depending on when the trees bloom, the results can be modest, abysmal, frosted, or luxurious. This year, the apple trees have really outdone themselves. The blooms are absolutely amazing because the weather was perfect for the trees this year. Just looking at the trees from a distance, you can see that they’re decked out in spring color that’s certain to please.

The apple trees are truly luxuriant with blossoms this year.
Apple Trees Decked Out with Flowers

It’s a warm spring day with just a slight breeze, so getting into the orchard is quite an experience. The flowers are quite pungent and walking around is delightful. Unlike many other years, there hasn’t been any hint of frost or strong winds to damage the flowers, so the clusters are nearly perfect.

The white blossoms are incredible and the odor is quite strong.
The Blossom Clusters are Beautiful

The bees and other pollinators were quite busy on this particular day. A count showed that there were at least fifteen different kinds of insects busy at their job of pollinating the flowers. They didn’t pay any attention to me, of course, and I paid little attention to them. I was simply taken by the absolute beauty of the flowers and wanted to share them with you. Let me know about your favorite sights, sounds, and smells of spring at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Time to Check for Tent Caterpillars

A lot of the documentation I read about tent caterpillars online says that they’re relatively harmless, which is true when they appear on certain kinds of trees. However, when it comes to fruit trees, tent caterpillars can become a horrible problem. In fact, tent caterpillars nearly killed our plum trees (which are still recovering three years later).

The problem is one of tree growth. A lot of trees get a secondary growth of leaves. When the tent caterpillars do their job during the mid-spring to late-spring months, they damage the first growth of leaves. The trees can recover with the secondary growth. However, many fruit trees get just one set of leaves for the entire summer, so when the tent caterpillars damage them, the tree is stripped for the summer and can’t store enough energy for the winter months.

Tent caterpillars also tend to strip fruit trees, partly because they’re smaller than some of the other trees that are affected by them. In fact, that’s what happened to our plum trees. The foliage was stripped before we knew what was happening and the trees simply didn’t recover. After viewing other trees the tent caterpillars have attacked, it becomes obvious that they really are just a pest at times.

Part of the solution is to inspect the trees carefully during pruning. Unfortunately, even a close inspection won’t reveal all the tent caterpillar clusters and some hatch. During the spring months I take regular tours of the orchard to look for the tent caterpillar nests, especially during the early morning when the night moisture reveals the nests with greater ease. (The inspections are also good exercise and are quite pleasant, so it’s not really work in the traditional sense of the word.) I hand pick the caterpillars and ensure I crush them. Removing them from the trees simply invites them to come back later.

The trees that seem most affected by tent caterpillars are plums and apples. Cherries are also affected, but the tent caterpillars haven’t acquired a taste for the Mesabi cherries for whatever reason (the yellow-bellied sapsuckers tend to avoid them as well). Untouched are the pears, which don’t seem to attract nearly as many pests at other trees on our property do.

A proactive approach to dealing with tent caterpillars is essential if you want to maintain tree vitality. Make sure you take that walk each day to mellow out, improve your health, and keep your trees healthy. Let me know your thoughts about tent caterpillars at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Cold Spring

This has been an interesting spring for people in Wisconsin. Not only did we have a cold winter that included some late snow, but we can’t seem to warm up this spring either. Generally, people plant their potatoes on Good Friday here. I haven’t heard of anyone who has actually made the attempt yet and it’s now past Easter. If the trend continues, the gardens will be late this year and we’ll have to hope for a longer fall to make up for it.

This may be a good year for brassicas, which require cooler temperatures to do well. If the weather continues as it has, we might have problems growing green beans, tomatoes, okra, and peppers, all of which require warmer temperatures and a bit of dryness as well. Trying to discern what the summer weather will be like from the clues provided in spring can be difficult and we’ve been quite wrong about them in some years. The result is that the garden doesn’t produce as well as it could. So, even though it looks like it won’t be a good year for tomatoes, we’ll plant some anyway. The best gardens are diverse and the best gardeners hedge their bets about how the weather will change.

Having a late spring means that the flowers aren’t out yet. In fact, we don’t have a single Easter flower yet. Our trees, usually starting to bloom by now, are just barely experiencing bud swell. It’s possible for a garden to overcome a late spring to some extent simply by planting items that take less time to develop. However, fruit trees are another matter. Growing fruit requires a certain amount of time and you can’t easily change the trees you have from year-to-year based on the probable weather. The hard winter is supposed to provide us with a better fruit crop this year by killing a broader range of harmful bugs, but the helpful effects of the hard winter may be subdued by the late spring. Late flowering means that fewer fruits will mature to a full size and that trees may drop more fruit should the summer become hot.

The one thing that isn’t really affected by the late spring are the herbs. Because herbs typically have a short growing cycle, a late spring isn’t as big of a problem. The only herb that might be affected is the lovage, which may not have time to go to seed (a real loss for us since the plant doesn’t produce enough seeds to hold over for multiple years).

It’ll be interesting to see how this summer turns out and what we get in the way of crops. Every year provides surprises, but the weather this year may provide more than most. How do you overcome the oddities of weather in your garden and orchard? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Preparing for Planting

It may seem a bit odd to talk about planting in the middle of winter, but this is actually the time that many avid gardeners, especially those interested in self-sufficiency, begin to think about the planting season. Of course, the planning process starts in the larder. Even though there is a catalog in your hand at the moment, the catalog doesn’t do any good until you know what to order and your larder contains that information.

As part of the preparation process, you should go through the larder, ensure all of the oldest items are in the front of the shelves, verify that all of the jars are still sealed, and wash the jars to keep them clean. Make sure all of the jars are properly marked with both food type and year canned as well. The process of organizing your larder and keeping it clean is important because doing so will make it a lot easier to determine what to plant. Once you complete this task, you can perform an inventory to determine what items are in short supply. These are the items that you need to order from the catalog.

Sometimes you can use your larder as a jumping off point for dreams of things you’d like to try in the future. For example, until last year, our larder lacked pickled asparagus—now I wouldn’t be without it. However, before we could pickle the asparagus, we had to grow enough to make the effort worthwhile, which meant planting more asparagus and waiting several years for it to get old enough to produce a decent crop. Yes, the larder was the start of our dream and the catalog provided us with ideas on how to achieve our dream, but in the end, the realization of our dream happened in the garden and in the kitchen.

Our larder also holds our canning supplies and equipment. This is the time of the year when you should perform an inventory of these items as well and ensure they’re in good shape. For example, the seal and pressure relief value on your pressure canner requires regular replacement—we simply make it a practice to replace these items before the start of the canning season because doing so is inexpensive and reduces the risk of mishap in the kitchen later. No matter where you store your canning supplies and equipment, now is the time to maintain them.

Writing your needs down as you discover them is a great idea. Check out the various catalogs you receive starting this time of year to determine which products will best suit your needs. It’s unlikely that you’ll completely fill your garden with just the items you need from the larder. The catalog will also supply ideas for new items you can try. Sometimes we try a new variety of vegetable or fruit just to see how it grows in this climate. Over the years we’ve discovered some items that grow exceptionally well for us (and also experienced more than a few failures).

Don’t just address your main garden, however. It’s also time to check into herbs and address any deficiencies in the orchard. This is the time for planning. Trying to figure everything out later, when you’re already engaged in preparing the garden, will prove difficult and you’ll make more mistakes than usual if you wait.

It’s also important to start ordering as soon as you know what you need. The catalog companies won’t send you product until it’s time to plant. However, they do use a first come, first served policy. Other gardeners are already order products. If you wait, you may not get your first choice of items and may have to reorder later.

Planning is an essential part of a successful year in the garden and orchard. However, I also enjoy starting the planning process this time of the year because it makes winter seem a little less severe. A little spring in winter is like a breath of fresh air. What sorts of things do you do to prepare for spring? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Every Year is a Good and a Bad Year (Part 2)

Each year is different. It’s one of the things I like best about gardening and working in the orchard. You never quite know what is going to do well. It’s possible to do absolutely everything right (or wrong) and still end up with a mystery result. In the original Every Year is a Good and a Bad Year post, we had a combination of personal events conspire to derail the garden to an extent, yet we still ended up with an amazing crop of some items.

This year it’s a combination of personal and weather issues. We had a really wet spring and the warm weather was late in coming. After attempting to plant our potatoes twice (and having them rot both times), we decided that this probably wasn’t going to be a good potato year. In fact, a combination of wet weather in the spring, a really late frost, a few scorcher days, followed by unseasonable coolness have all conspired to make our garden almost worthless this year. (A pleasant exception has been our brassicas, which includes items like broccoli.) Of course, that’s the bad news.

The amazing thing is that our fruit trees and grape vines have absolutely adored the weather and a bit of a lack of quality weeding time. The pears are so loaded down that I’m actually having to cut some fruit in order to keep the branches from breaking. The grapes are similarly loaded. One vine became so heavy that it actually detached from the cable holding it and I had to have help tying it back into place. Nature is absolutely amazing because there is always a balance to things. A bad year in one way normally turns into a good year in another when you have a good plan in place.

We keep seeing the same lesson from nature—variety is essential. When you create a garden of your own, you absolutely must plan for a variety of items to ensure that at least some of the items will do well and your larder will stay full. Eating a wide variety of food also has significant health benefits. Although you might read articles about the “perfect” food, there is in reality no perfect food. In order to maintain good health, you need to eat a variety of foods and obtain the nutrients that each food has to offer. It seems as if nature keeps trying to teach that lesson by ensuring that some items will be in short supply during some years.

What sorts of items do you find are highly susceptible to the weather? Which items seem to grow reasonably well each year? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Enjoying the Spring Flowers

Spring has come incredibly early to Wisconsin this year. I’m amazed at just how fast everything has budded and flowered. We’ll actually make it to Easter this year after my spring flowers have blossomed and reached their peak. Given that we’re hustling to fit everything in, I haven’t taken a lot of spring flower pictures, but here are a few showing my tulips, daffodils, and grape hyacinth (amongst others).


The flowers that appeal the most this spring are the grape hyacinth, which are especially fragrant for some reason. The odor is downright overpowering at times. It must be the unusually high temperatures that we’ve been experiencing. Interestingly enough, our crocus came up, bloomed, and are already gone for the season.

We have a number of different varieties of daffodils. A favorite of mine this year have white petals with yellow insides:


They look incredibly happy. Of course, the plum trees are blooming as well. This year they’re just loaded with blooms.


I’m just hoping at this point that we actually get to keep some of the fruit. Wouldn’t you know it, the trees just start blooming well and the weatherman has to ruin everything with a prediction of frost. Our weather hasn’t been quite as nice the last few days as it was earlier in the month. That’s part of the problem with an early spring—the trees start blooming early, which exposes them to a greater risk of frost.

Fortunately, the pear trees are just starting to get ready to bloom. The buds have started to burst open a little, but they’re still closed enough that a light frost won’t hurt them.


The apples aren’t even as far along as the pears, so there aren’t any worries with them. I really do hope my plums survive the night. A frost would probably ruin our harvest at this point. It doesn’t pay to worry. The weather will do what the weather will do whether I worry or not, so it’s best just to let things go the way they will. Every year brings it’s own special set of challenges.

So, are you experiencing an early spring this year? If so, what sorts of challenges are you facing? How do you plan to use the early spring to your advantage? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Trimming the Trees (Part 3)

In Trimming the Trees (Part 2) I discussed some of the specifics of pruning trees. At this point, my trees are all pruned. However, there is still work to be done. For one thing, this is the time of year when I examine the trees for egg masses of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar. Despite what you may have heard, repeated infestations will definitely kill a fruit tree, especially if the infestation is severe enough. It only makes sense. If you remove all of the leaves from a tree that only gets one set of leaves per season, the tree can’t store energy for the winter months.

Our experience has been that they’re a nuisance with apple trees. Yes, the tent caterpillars will cause a problem, but if you get in there and squish all of the caterpillars in the tent (or better yet, get rid of those egg masses in the spring), the apple hardly notices. However, plum trees seem to attract tent caterpillars like magnets. All four of our plum trees were in danger from dying at one point because we simply couldn’t keep the caterpillars under control.

We did try a number of sprays—all of which proved ineffective. Spaying the trees with a dormant oil spray in the spring helps only a little. By far the best strategy is to hunt down the egg clusters and destroy them. The secondary strategy is to look for the tents absolutely every day in the spring and summer after the trees have leafed out and destroy them by individually squishing the caterpillars by hand. We actually had two of our plum trees stripped of leaves in a single day by these pests.

While we’re looking for tent caterpillar egg clusters, we also look for other problems in the trees, such as disease, insect infestations, and so on. It’s easier to find problems after you’ve pruned the trees and there are fewer branches to check. Taking time now to check the trees will save you a lot of effort later.

Of course, now we have a pile of branches to deal with. This year we pruned our pear trees heavily because they’ve become a little overgrown. If pear trees get too overgrown, they’ll tend to prune themselves in heavy winds—usually not in a way you would have chosen. The pile of branches from all of our trees is quite high this year.


We’ll put all of these branches through the chipper and then use them for mulch. A lot of people would probably burn the branches up, but using them for mulch does save at least some money. I’ve been trying to figure out the environmental balance in this case. On the one hand, burning the branches would produce a lot of particulate smoke that would pollute the air for at least a while. However, using the chipper also produces pollutants, and some of those pollutants are harsher on the environment than the smoke from burning would cause.

If we had burned the branches, I would have placed the pile in the middle of the garden. That way we could have plowed the ashes into the ground where they would have provided fertilizer on top of the winter rye you can see growing in the background of the picture. So, either way, the branches wouldn’t have gone to waste. However, we really need the mulch more than the ashes, so we’re creating the mulch.

Our orchard is ready for spring at this point. Let me know about your tree pruning and bug eradication experiences at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Trimming the Trees (Part 2)

I’m starting to get down to the last few trees in the orchard (and I may not be able to get them because the sap is starting to run). When the pruning is light, I can get through all 33 of my trees in a couple of days—assuming I can work all day at it and the weather isn’t too cold (or hot). This year it’s taking a bit longer because I’ve had a number of personal issues that have kept me from working full days outside. Even so, I normally don’t get the trees finished until the end of March or beginning of April, so I’m getting done early this year. As mentioned in Trimming the Trees (Part 1), when to prune is a matter of much debate. Some people prune their trees in the fall, some in mid-winter, and some a bit earlier in the spring than I do.

Part of pruning your trees is knowing how to prune that particular tree. For example, I visualize an umbrella shape when trimming apples. In fact, a lot of home growers use this particular shape. An umbrella shape is quite strong and tends to ensure a good harvest. In addition, the umbrella shape is easier to pick. Commercial orchards use a variety of other shapes, some of which work best when the pickers are working from the back of flatbed trucks. Some people tie down water sprouts to obtain the umbrella shape, which tends to stress the tree. I prefer to look for branches that are already heading in the right direction and trim off everything else. Water sprouts are branches that grow straight up from joints in the tree. You need to trim these off as they’ll never produce any fruit.

Our pears and cherries are dwarf trees with a strong central leader. When pruning these trees, I visualize a flame shape. The tree should be topped to keep it from growing too high. Yes, you’ll get fruit all the way up, but the problem is figuring out a way to pick it without damaging the tree. Keeping the tree down to between 14 feet and 16 feet high ensures that you can reach all of the fruit in fall. Water sprouts aren’t a problem with the central leader trimming technique. What you want to do is ensure that none of the branches are crossing and that the limbs aren’t overextended. Cherry trees require a significantly lighter hand than pears do. In fact, pear trees are quite forgiving when you over-prune them. Cherry trees are also stronger than pear trees. If you don’t trim your pear trees heavily enough, the limbs have a habit of breaking off at the crotch, especially in high winds.

Plum trees are just plain messy looking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that I would consider a beautifully shaped tree (at least, not one that produces fruit). Plum trees are normally trimmed using the open center approach. This technique relies on three or four branches attached to a main trunk. You don’t trim the tree heavily. In fact, unless there is some sort of problem with crossing branches or water sprouts, you don’t trim at all. Of all the trees, prunes are the least forgiving when it comes to over-pruning. They grow slowly, so taking off too much this year means paying for several years. Two of my prunes actually look more like a bushes than trees and I trim them quite carefully to keep them that way.

Some trees produce well every other year. My apples are this way. They’ll produce quite heavily one year and then take a vacation the next. With this in mind, I establish a pattern of trimming heavier on off years and lighter on production years. This way, I maximize the amount of fruit I get from the tree and still maintain it properly.

I haven’t personally tried my hand at growing anything more than apples, pears, plums, and cherries. However, the basic techniques I use likely apply to most fruit tree types. My next project is to try my hand at growing some nut trees. Hickory nuts and butternuts grow well in this area, so I’ll try them first. Unfortunately, we can’t grow English walnuts or you can be sure I’d be planting them. We can grow black walnuts, which work well in baked goods. The only technique I haven’t tried so far is the trellis technique of pruning for fruit trees. I’d love to hear from anyone who has tried it at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. In my last post (for now) on this topic, I plan to discuss some of the things you should look at on the tree while pruning.


Trimming the Trees (Part 1)

There are many different theories about trimming fruit trees. Talk to five orchards and you’ll likely hear five completely different tales of the precise technique that someone should use for trimming fruit trees. My own personal theory is to trim the trees later in the winter or early spring, before the sap begins to run, but after the majority of the hard winter weather is gone. The idea is to have fresh cuts to encourage growth, but also to let the cuts heal before the sap runs so that the tree won’t “bleed” from the trimming. Other people trim in the fall or at other times during the fall to winter season. One thing you never want to do is to trim your fruit trees after the sap begins to run because the tree will lose too many nutrients that way.

Rebecca normally does the majority of the lower cutting. It’s time consuming work because you have to decide just which twigs to cut. Every twig has the potential to bear fruit, so what you’re really doing is cutting off fruit before the tree even has a chance to produce flowers. We trim a little bit away from joints to help prevent disease as shown here:


Rebecca prefers a ratcheted hand pruner. It helps amplify her hand strength so that trimming the tree isn’t quite so hard. In addition, you can generally prune larger branches using a ratcheted pruner than you can other hand pruner types. There are many different types of trimmers and you should choose the type that works best for you. I generally use an anvil-style hand pruner. It requires significantly greater hand strength to use, but in exchange, I get cleaner cuts, I can trim the tree faster, and the pruner itself wears longer. I strongly recommend against using bypass hand pruners on trees because the blades tend to bend and not produce a clean cut. A bypass pruner works much like a scissor and the tree branch can become wedged between the two blades.

In addition to hand pruners, your tree trimming kit should include a lopper, which is used to cut thicker branches. I highly recommend a long handled geared lopper because it will last longer, produce smoother cuts, and require less muscle to use. A good lopper will enable you to cut branches up to 2-1/2 inches in diameter in most cases. The idea is to use the lopper whenever possible because it produces a smooth cut that won’t bleed as much.

At some point, you’ll encounter branches that you can’t cut using a pruner or a lopper. In this case, you must resort to using a pruning saw. As with pruners and loppers, pruning saws come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. When working with fruit trees, you want to get a curved razor tooth saw so that the cuts are as smooth as possible and you have the fullest possible range of motion. Remember that when you cut with a saw, you start by making a counter cut on the opposite side of your final cut. Then you make the final cut. If you don’t provide a counter cut, the branch could break or the bark could end up peeled from the tree, inviting disease.

All of the tools mentioned so far will cut up to around five feet of the tree’s height, but even a short fruit tree is six or seven feet (most are more). In order to trim the rest of the tree, you need a tree pruner of the sort shown here:


This particular tree pruner is 14 feet long. The pole telescopes so I can make it shorter or longer as needed. Believe me, the ability to adjust the length is essential. The longer the pole, the more strength required to hold it up. After a few hours of using this tool, your shoulders are guaranteed to ache. Unlike most tree pruners, this tree pruner relies on a chain for the clipper head, which means that it’s a lot less likely to become tangled in the branches or get twisted. The chain also reduces friction so you don’t use as much muscle to cut the branches.

The tree pruner also has a razor saw for cutting larger branches. You have to develop a technique for cutting the branches because when you get up this high, they tend to sway back and forth with the saw, rather than being cut by it. I find that moving my whole body in the correct rhythm (counter to the tree sway) does the trick.

If possible, get a fiberglass pole. Wooden poles tend to get heavy and can sometimes start getting weathered (making them splinter). This pole also includes a foam pad, which feels a lot more comfortable on the underarm when I’m cutting up higher than shown in the picture.

That’s the equipment needed for tree trimming: hand pruner, pruning saw, lopper, and tree pruner. To keep from spreading disease between trees, make sure you wipe your equipment down with alcohol after cutting a diseased tree (some people recommend after every tree). However, the alcohol rub will cause your equipment to rust. To keep that from happening, make sure you apply oil after the alcohol rub. Let me know if you have any questions or thoughts about equipment at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. I’ll continue this post next week with some insights into pruning techniques and things you should look for as you prune.


Contemplating the Hardiness Zone Changes

Just in case you weren’t aware of it, the USDA has recently changes the hardiness zones for the United States. The hardiness zones help you understand what will grow in your area. Certain plants require warmer temperatures in order to grow and others require cooler temperatures. For example, if you want peaches, you need to be in a warmer zone. Our area has changed from 4B to 4A, which means that some types of trees that I couldn’t grow in the past will likely grow now. You can see an animation of how the hardiness zones have changed on the Arbor Day Foundation site.

Most people would agree that changes of this sort make global warming undeniable. Of course, it’s a misconception to strictly say that the effect is global warming, which is a misnomer. Yes, the planet has warmed up some, but a more correct assessment is that the weather is going to become increasingly chaotic. The point of this post is not to drag you into a discussion of precisely how global warming will affect the planet, what generalizations we can make about it, whether our scientists can define any long term trends about it, or anything of that sort. I’ll leave the discussion of how much man has contributed toward global warming to those with the credentials to make such statements. The point is that last year I was in Zone 4B and now I’m in Zone 4A. The long term weather changes have finally appeared in the form of new charts from the USDA, which after all, are only predictive and not infallible indicators of anything.

There are some practical considerations in all this and that’s what you need to think about when reading this post. The change in weather patterns means that you need to rethink your garden a bit. Not only do you need to consider the change in heat (the main emphasis of those hardiness zone charts), but also differences in moisture and even the effect on clouds. Little things are going to change as well. For example, have you considered the effect of increased lightning on the nitrogen levels in your soil? If not, you really should think about it. The weird science bandied about by those in the know has practical implications for those of us who raise food to eat after all.

Even if you aren’t into gardening at a very deep level, the changes in the hardiness zone chart has one practical implication that no one can escape. The literature on the back of those seed packets you buy from the store is going to be incorrect for this year as a minimum. The changes from the USDA came out after the seed packets were already printed. When everything else is said and done, the main reason for my post today is to help you understand that you can’t believe the seed package—at least, you can’t believe it this year. By next year the seed companies will have recovered and the documentation on your seed packets will be useful again.

Springtime is approaching. If you live anywhere near my area of the country, it seems as if we’re going to have an early spring indeed. I don’t normally need to trim the trees in the orchard until the end of March. This year I’ll trim my trees on March 1st, a lot earlier than normal and even then, I might be trimming a bit late. A few people in our area have already seen budding trees. So, if you’re used to waiting until April or May before you get out very much, it may be a good idea to take a walk around your property now to see if there are any changes that you need to know about.

Global warming is a reality. The effects it will have on your garden and orchard are also a reality. Just what those effects are and precisely what has caused them are still being debated by those in the know, but if you’re a gardener, you need to be aware that the garden you had last year may not work this year. Let me know about the global warning-related changes in your garden at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.