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It seems the spring season is more than a month early! To prove it, many of our fruit trees are budding out.


Budding Apricot Tree

Although this is very exciting, it comes with a major concern of frost damage. It’s OK if a tree leafs out and frost comes. The tree may lose those leaves but it will regenerate more throughout the summer and survive just fine.

The concern comes if the tree has budded flowers, like this one, and those flowers freeze. Each flower becomes a piece of fruit, so if that happens, there will not be any fruit this year. I remember well the Mother’s Day frost two years ago when all my grape vines had leafed and budded out — we didn’t get any grapes that year.

Even though today’s mild ten-day forcast puts us through almost to Easter, there are still 5-6 weeks of potential frost in Minnesota.

My true evidence that Spring is here is when the garlic is out of the ground.


Garlic makes its early arrival

Another fun part of the longer days is that our chickens lay more eggs!

In the dead of winter our egg production goes way down. The increase in sunlight stimulates the hens to lay more eggs.


Grant and Millie arranging the eggs in order of shade

Our little barn doesn’t hold quite as many bales of hay for the winter as we’d like, especially since we had more animals than usual (Gordy, our beef cow!). Even though the barn was stuffed to capacity, we just ran out. Luckily our hay man, Jeff Docken of Docken Hay Works, stores large quantities of hay for his customers. This bale weighs about 800 pounds.


Restocking our hay

Another sign of Spring at the farm is fruit tree pruning! We completed our pruning just last week.


Beautiful Plum Tree recently pruned

We’re still learning, but the idea is to cut away foliage to open up the tree so sunlight and wind can penetrate the center. This reduces pest pressure and helps to ripen perfect fruit. You can cut away up to 30% of the branches and still not damage the tree.

Sometimes pruning cannot accomplish what you need done and spreaders are used to open up a young tree. In addition it is possible to hang an object from a branch and to put up a post with a rope to move a branch to where it is desired.


Apple tree with spreaders

This is time of year we order our seeds and any bare root stock we may need. We have already received our Johnny’s Seeds order, and we have placed our order for 80 hardwood seedlings from Rice County Soil and Water, which should be coming in the next month or so. I have also ordered 8 more Swenson Red grapevines to round out our table grape varieties.

In addition, I have a favorite souce for fruit plants, Nourse Farms. I have ordered 75 strawberry plants and 30 raspberry canes to spread out the season for those fruits. By selecting different varieties that ripen at certain times you can extend the timing of the fruit so it doesn’t all come at once.


Last year’s strawberries

Each year we buy one or two dump truck loads of compost. The cost of this has motivated me to pay more attention to our own compost pile. I try to have two separate piles going at once.

Last fall I started this pile.


Compost is a dirty business

In the pile I put in all of our garden and kitchen waste. I also use my tractor to scrape a large area with thick swamp grasses and add that. My neighbor runs a horse farm and her manure spreader is ancient and doesn’t work well, meaning it must be unloaded in the fields by hand. This is a huge job! She is happy for me to take a full load off her hands 3 or 4 times a year so she isn’t up there with a shovel.

All of our animals’ manure as well as their straw and woodchip bedding goes in. And then all of the scraps of dough and mistakes at the bakery go into the pile. Over the winter the pile got pretty big.

I turned over the pile with my tractor to find some hot spots in the middle.


Steam rises from the freshly turned compost pile

Part of the process to make your compost pile hot, like the one above, is to have some dead or brown material (like old hay or straw or fallen leaves), and some green material (like grass clippings, weeds from the garden) and some fresh manure. Those ingredients plus some moisture and oxygen (turning your pile over regularly) will produce large amounts of bacteria which break down the dead material and turn it into compost.

Getting a pile HOT, upwards of 150*F, is important for many reasons. First of all, the heat is generated by bacteria growing. That bacteria is what breaks down all of the organic matter (even twigs and cardboard). Second of all, the heat kills all of the weed seeds in the manure and in any hay we put in. This is important because we don’t want the weed seeds in our garden.

My hope is that by watering and turning the pile weekly, it will be ready for our gardens and fruit trees by June.


Finished compost

Last week, I scraped the winter horse paddock and came up with this pile of manure…


which will go into another pile that should be ready by the end of the summer.

Compost is one of the best things to grow food because it provides nutrition in a form that the plants and trees can use readily.  It also helps provide organic matter to loosen up our clay soil.

Next on our Spring agenda is pruning the grapes. I admit that I struggle with pruning my vines correctly because I love anything that grows and hate cutting that growth away. To prune a vine, well, you need to be ruthless — up to 80% of the vine will be cut down!

Before pruning, the vine is a tangled mess.


Grape vine before pruning

Our job is to reduce that mess to four canes that will be “one year old canes”. These one year old canes are left on the trellis and all other growth is cut off. They grow all year long and will product fruit this summer. When cutting off the excess growth, we are very careful to prune in just the right spot to encourage the canes that are left to grow in the right direction this summer to become next year’s one year old canes that will produce next year’s fruit.


Perfectly pruned grape vine


Row of grape vines after pruning

It is fun to see how much activity is happening underground. As soon as we cut the vine it begins to drip water.


Newly cut vine dripping water

When you have kids, it is hard not to include their projects as well. Millie started the idea of a Fairy Garden last weekend and now Grant is on board, too.


A joint adventure


Preparing the soil


Fairy Garden seeds


Planing the Fairy Garden seeds


Finished planting


Time to water!

Next up, we need to move our currant bushes to a new location and get our 5 acres of hay planted. Never a dull moment at Old Orchard Farm!

Until then…