Wednesday, February 18, 2009
As usual, the chickens began laying precisely on Valentines Day. It is rarely later at latitude, 37 degrees north. They are tied to the hours of darkness they receive and it has to be pretty cold and rainy for an extended period of time to delay that. Biorhythms make them do it. That's why commercial growers keep the lights on 12/12 imitating midsummer. That keeps them laying year 'round until they wear out in two years then off to the compost heap or processing into chicken food although beef is the usual ingredient in commercial hen feed. Cross feeding includes less problematic micro-organisms so hens go to cows and cows go to hens feed, usually.
The history of the chicken industry in California is quite an interesting read. It was the get-rich-quick scheme for the common man of its day (early 1900's if memory serves me but it often does not) like houses were recently. That economy collapsed, too, of course, as everyone piled into it, leaving personal anguish, debris, and indebtedness behind. Humans and their foibles... Anyway, Santa Cruz, CA, was a center of that movement and, up until quite recently, properties with chicken coops were very common. They have since been turned into condos because the properties necessary for raising chickens were relatively large. I lived in one that was barely converted to human habitation when I first came to the area in 1981. It was pretty cold during the winter but the price was right for a U. C. Cooperative Extension employee doing research on brussels sprouts and strawberry IPM.
Our hens are old and need replacing. However, they are on social security (assuming SS is what the gov't has told us it is and it is not bankrupt like the largest banks in the world) because they don't produce like younger hens. They will continue into old age scattering their 17 pounds per year of feces per bird about the yard. We will be getting a new crop of "peepers" soon which we will raise inside until they can integrate with the older hens without being eaten by them or the neighborhood cats. That process is really cute as long as you keep their cage clean otherwise it gets old very quickly. The old ones will be relegated to composting and providing the occasional egg while giving lessons for the new arrivals about hawks and cats. By the way, if one of the little ones does get hit by a cat, we have found that a liberal application of sugar on the wound, assuming you can recover the victim, is very good at stopping any infection that may occur. It certainly saved one of our chicks that was taken by a cat but saved by the wife in an extraordinary feat of fence leaping and running down of the cat. I am still astounded by the memory as, I can only assume, was the cat. I imagine the cat was very surprised at the vigor of the approach since it dropped the chick rather quickly. I was so amazed at the wife's effort and I still am amazed at it. (Years later she attempted the same rescue for a large orb weaving spider we had adopted as a pet and named Agatha that was taken by a Townsends Warbler outside our picture window in full view of both of us. The spider had dared come out during daylight and that was its undoing. That attempted saving was not so successful as flight is a cutoff for us as rescuers.) In addition, it gave me the wonderful opportunity to try the sugar-on-wound trial about which I had just read as the chick had at least an inch long cut on its body from being dragged through a hole in the fence. You don't come across that sort of opportunity readily so I seized it and it worked admirably.
I watched one of our hens kick the bucket a few years ago. I was looking at it as it stood in the yard. It was a Barred Rock. Of a sudden, it said, "Bawk" and leaped into the air doing a back flip. When it hit the ground it was dead as a rock, appropriately enough. I stood amazed, guessing it was a heart attack at age 12 years. I think that one was turned into apples, judging by its burial site, and good apples they are, too.
Pruning is an art form. It is vaguely akin to Bonsai, in some ways, but on a grand scale.
Absolutely everyone does it differently even if any two people have identical goals as their outcome. So don't feel like you have to attain some sort of perfection when you do this. That said, you can easily ruin a tree forever if you do it wrong. Comfortable? OK, let's dive right in.
Depending upon what kind of tree or bush you have, your plant will need different care in every way including pruning. Blueberry bushes can get by with no pruning or just taking out any dead wood. Alder trees need be pruned only to your taste as to what you want them to look like or the more practical aspect of whether you can get under them easily enough to harvest the raspberries you put there. Apple trees...well, there are different approaches. There is some new research out of Cornell University that shows an unpruned apple tree may produce a bigger crop than a pruned apple tree. Masanobu Fukuoka of Japan came up with this idea during the middle of the last century so it is nothing new. But the "quality" of the apple can be changed by judicious pruning. So many choices, so few trees to test them on.
Pruning of apples can be done to strengthen the tree structure, make it easier to get inside to pick, keep it short enough to pick without using a ladder, be able to walk/work under it easily, make it look like a weeping willow to fit your yard motif, etc. Everyone needs or wants something different from their trees.
Here is one of the multitude of sites about pruning (half way down the page link below "irrigation") that shows some of the techniques: http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/garden/mg/fruit/irrigation.html
Making the pruning cut angled or flat. Used to be an angled cut was all the rage now it has been shown that a flat cut is better for the tree. It makes sense as less inner tree branch open to the air and microbes is best. If you are removing anything larger than what a one hand pruner can manage, you must first make a cut on the underside of the branch opposite where you anticipate the main cut to end. Without doing this, you can strip the bark for a long way and expose the tree to infection. Losing a tree this way is sooo wrong.
There is weak branching and strong branching. The weak ones can split a tree down the middle, if left as one of the main "scaffold" branches when the tree is young. This is a critical item to become familiar with and easily avoided. Weak scaffold branches are sharply "V" shaped and must either be changed, if caught early, or strengthened, if caught late. Early catching means you just cut one of the branches off and work from there with the other as the main support branch. Late catching means you have to provide lateral supports via grafting which is far more difficult. Go with the first option although the second is fun to do and rarely seen today. The only place I have ever seen it, beside in my yard, and where I got the idea is in a hundred and thirty year old abandoned apple orchard in the hills above Corralitos, CA. They had made three main scaffold branches in a "vase" pruning style coming off the trunk and each of the branches was grafted to the other about a foot and a half above the confluence with the trunk to form a triangle horizontal to the ground connecting the branches. It was beautiful. All the trees had it.
The trick to successful pruning is to be able to visualize how the tree will look in five years due to your pruning. You need to know how the tree will grow as it matures so you must be able to look at pictures of the growth pattern of your variety of tree and how others have manipulated it. Get online or to the library and look it up or visit an orchard and study the pruning marks and growth pattern. All fruit tree varieties are slightly to completely different in growth patterns. The devil is in the details and you will live with the outcome of your understanding of the details for years to come so spend some time with this aspect of growing fruit. Everyone that passes will see what you have done and how well you understood what you did. Spend some time on planning your pruning. Sit with the tree and visualize where you want it to be in five years and where you may need to make the cuts to get it there. There's no rush. You can always do it next year or later in the summer. It is easiest to do when all the leaves are on the ground. Keep in mind, it is a bit difficult to watch the knowing look of a thoughtful pruner obviously trying not to say anything about your tree other than, "Oh my, um...what a...nice tree".
Hiring a pruner can be problematic unless that pruner comes highly recommended and even then I would want to see examples of their work. I have seen ruined trees that the customers thought were done quite well and would happily recommend the pruner to others.