The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Tree Tips Worth Remembering

Apples Ripe for Picking

It’s January and the seed catalogs have started arriving. I haven’t decided if their timing is a welcome respite or a cruel joke.

My new favorite catalog is from Fedco, and it’s actually not a seed catalog, it’s a tree catalog. Fedco is a reputable source for a lot of things, especially fruit trees. I was turned on to them by Paul Gautschi of Back to Eden renown.

We’ve had a ton of success with growing fruit here. Our 14 apple trees, raspberry, blueberry and strawberry patches have yielded the most bounty with minimal effort, and they keep getting better each year. So we’ve decided to keep going with the fruit-bearing gardens. Which brings me back to Fedco. At the end of the season we planted a cherry tree, and just this week we put in an order for 7 new fruit trees from Fedco to plant this spring. They are 3 plum trees, 3 pear trees, and one apricot.

Kids reaching for the apple harvest

Fedco’s catalog arrived a few days later and I’ve been enjoying reading their tree-care advice.

It’s chock-full of personal experience and hand-drawn illustrations. Really a joy to read. Several tips that I felt were worth sharing, if only to help me better remember:


2-4″ of mulch out to the drip line to keep weeds and grass away (we use wood chips). Lay down cardboard or newspaper and put the mulch on top (of course, this is basically the back-to-eden method).

Pest Prevention

The Roundheaded Apple Borer is dreaded pest more commonly found on the East coast. “Borer beetles lay eggs under the bark near the base of the tree. The developing larvae tunnel through the wood, eventually weakening the tree until it falls over.” Look for small deposits of orange sawdust at the base of the tree in midsummer.  Fedco suggests a unique approach to dealing with them: “When you discover a soft spot or hole in the tree, get yourself a can of compressed air (for cleaning computers). Put the long skinny tube nozzle up the hole and give it a blast. Should do the trick.”

Painting is the best deterrent.

Recipe: White interior latex mixed with joint compound (the sheetrock stuff). Mix a thick consistency but still easy to paint. This mix will deter borers and make their detection easier.

Mice and Voles

We have our share of these digging holes and tunnels through our yard, mainly. Apparently, we overfeed our cats because they’re not dispatching enough of them. Didn’t know voles could cause a lot of damage to fruit trees, however, so this was good advice: “Keep the grass mowed and remove large mulch piles away from the trunk in Fall [to prevent rodents from nesting there overwinter]. A wrap of window screening or plastic tree guard will protect your tree. Remove them from April to October as they attract borers if left on the tree in the summer.”

Voles don’t like Narcissus (Daffodils)

“For years we’ve been planting daffodils around the base of some of our apple trees … The tunneling voles don’t like the bulbs and will veer away.”

Dear oh Deer!

“The best deer protection is a collie in the yard.” Another option is to wrap each tree in circular fencing, this is what we did. But Fedco makes a brilliant suggestion: Raise the bottom of the fence a foot or so off the ground. This leaves open space  to access the tree–for pruning root suckers, picking up dropped apples and adding mulch. The deer are only interested in the apples and new growth on branches, it won’t hurt anything to open up the bottom of the fence.

Aphids and Ants

“Aphids can do a lot of damage to apple trees… Whenever you see aphids, you will see ants climbing up the tree to feed them. Here’s an easy solution: Wrap a piece of stiff paper about 6″ wide around the trunk about a foot or two off the ground … Smear Tanglefoot (sticky stuff) on the paper. Ants will not cross the barrier and without the ants the aphids will die.”


Back to Eden No-Till Garden, Revisited

2015 Garden

Last year I experimented with a no-till garden plot based on Paul Gautschi’s “Back to Eden” gardening method. This year I decided to go back to the conventional method of tilling, largely because I didn’t have enough wood mulch to cover my entire garden space, nor did I have the energy to put in the work up front. I promised myself I would stay on top of the weeds this year as opposed to letting them get out of control like I did last year.

And I did keep on top of them for awhile. Hoeing pretty much every day in May and June. But a 4-day hiatus in mid-July is all it took for the weeds to become unmanageable. July is probably the worst month for weeds because you’re at your least motivated place to do anything about it. It’s hot. You’ve been carrying on for months. Nothing is ripe yet. I’ll get to it tomorrow! Tomorrow eventually comes and the weeds are taller than you, so you throw in the towel. Weeds: 2, Me: 0.

It was about this time that I started thinking about no-till approach again. Avoiding weeds isn’t the main point of a Back to Eden/No-Till garden—building healthy soils is. Still, it was hard to ignore that the old plot had fewer weeds than any of my fresh garden beds, even a year later after no tending.

I felt like God was trying to teach me something. I had tried the traditional gardening for another year and really gave it my best effort, as much as one could without quitting their day job. But the results were no better. The soil was getting depleted and crop yields were way down. On the other hand, the no-till plot, while it requires more up-front work, requires less work throughout the season and builds my soil over time.

Watch the full documentary here: Back to Eden Film.

So I’m back at it, getting my garden set up for next Spring’s planting already. I’ve done a lot more research to correct things I missed the first time around. Becca has joined my enthusiasm and we’ve spent several days watching Paul Gautschi videos on YouTube and making our plans for next year. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Back to Eden gardening is about building healthy soils. Many people (me included) give it a shot for one season and list off the pros and cons. But it takes years, decades even, for the garden to really shine. Paul has been doing this method for 35 years.
  2. Weeds are reduced, but not eliminated. As long as the mulch is deep enough (at least 4 inches), they should be easy to pull. One great tip to deal with patches of weeds is to throw newspaper on top and shovel another scoop of mulch. Anything that doesn’t get oxygen and light will eventually die off.
  3. Layer compost and new mulch in the Fall. Paul follows the cycles of nature. The Creator fertilizes the earth in the Fall, when trees lose their leaves, so the nutrients have all winter to decompose into the soil. That’s when he adds compost from the chicken pen to the top of his beds. Rains and snow wash the compost below the mulch. No mixing, just layering like in nature.
  4. Nutrient dense soil doesn’t need crop rotation. Paul has been planting his potatoes in the same spot for 26 years. There are no diseases because his soils are healthy and have an abundance of minerals and nutrients.
  5. Wood chips do not need to be brought in every year. After the first year or two, the chips will settle and provide a covering for the next decade or so. Paul has mulched his garden twice in 35 years.

Paul encourages everyone to use what they have. In my case, I didn’t have enough mulch to cover the whole garden. But I felt that I could grow more in a smaller space than I could in a larger, conventional garden. So I built a box, mainly as a border for lawn mowing, and filled it with compost and wood chips.

Small Back to Eden garden plot

Next year I’ll plant and if I come into any more mulch I’ll expand the box. Someday I might cover the whole garden with wood chips, but then again, I may not need to.


Saving heirloom tomato seeds, step-by-step

Saving heirloom tomato seeds

One of the joys of hobby farming is discovering trends that develop over many seasons. A homegrown tomato plant originally inspired me to start my own garden. Five years later I’m still growing them–and just about everything else that will sprout in Minnesota soil. I still feel like a beginner and often chide myself for not putting more effort into the essentials like weeding, pruning, mulching. But looking back over the long haul, it’s fun to see how far we’ve come.

This was the first year I grew some of our garden veggies from saved heirloom seed. Heirloom seeds are from plants that breed true, meaning the children grow up to produce the same edible fruit as the parent. Heirloom seeds are what our great great grandparents relied on when settling the Midwest because you could reliably reproduce the same crop year after year. Hybrid seeds, by contrast, have many advantages such as disease resistance, better flavor, or yield but are usually good only for one season. For that reason, I’ve decided to become proficient at growing–and saving–heirloom seeds. Personally, I’d rather have a locally-adapted, organically grown seed bank of my favorite garden veggies than rely on mass-produced seeds from the garden section of the hardware store.

First heirloom generation

Last year I saved my first batch of several breeds of tomatoes, including cherry (small), rutgers (medium), and the same cherry variety that happened to produce tiny yellow tomatoes. The saved seed all grew exceptionally well, and in fact germinated better than my store-bought seed.

Heirloom tomatoes growing in our garden

Now I’m saving the second generation of seed. Here’s how:

1. Pick good tomatoes.

Cutting the tomatoes to save seed

If you can distinguish one plant as being a better grower (more disease resistant, better flavor, etc) pick tomatoes from that plant.

2. Scoop out the goop.

Scooping out the seeds

Cut down the middle of each tomato and scoop out the gelatinous goop into a plastic or glass bowl. The seeds are embedded inside the goo, so don’t bother trying to separate.

3. Cover and let ferment.

Cover cup and let ferment

Add a little bit of water to the bowl, enough to cover the seeds. Cover the bowl with an air permeable lid like cloth or plastic wrap with a hole poked in the top. Set on a windowsill or someplace warm for a few days to ferment. Stir once a day and recover. If you see foamy suds atop the mixture, its working. The fermentation process separates the goo from the seed and kills off any pathogens which might carry disease into your next crop.

4. Strain and dry.

Use a kitchen sieve to strain seeds

After a few days have passed, use a fine kitchen sieve to strain the mixture and wash off the goop. Spread the seeds out into a coffee filter to let dry for about a week.

That’s all there is to it! Put the seeds in an envelope and store in a cool, dry place until next Spring.


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