Amid the ice and heat, high hopes for garden
Last week I walked to the west edge of Colby Farm where the old golden apple trees spread their sturdy boughs.
Icicles angled down from apple blossoms visible through thick ice clear as glass. Sunshine refracted and sparkled through ice that sealed the tree trunks and dripped from the lower parts of the orchard. A disk of ice-sheathed grass swords shimmered under a rain-bird sprinkler that still twirled.
A big limb lay under the apricot tree encased in heavy ice that had dragged it to the ground. Smaller branches slumped under the apple trees.
I turned off the pump that ran the sprinklers, and listened to the snap and clink as ice fractured and fell away from tree limbs and wire fencing under the warming sunshine.
This wasn’t exactly an accident.
As he does every spring, Ed trucked honeybees to four orchards near Grand Junction. The bees provide pollination to the orchards and income to Ed. I like to go along to help with the work, but also to welcome the advance of spring, which is always a few weeks further along there. Most of all I enjoy gazing out on the endless rows of perfectly pruned peaches, apricots and cherries coming into bloom as the sun comes up on East Orchard Mesa and the other fruit-growing areas.
There’s money to be made. Growers invest tens of thousands of dollars in wind machines and orchard heaters that raise the temperature a few degrees, just enough to save their crops.
One of Ed’s pollination customers spaces heaters throughout the orchard while fans suck cold air from the ground and shoot it 300 feet into the air. He told Ed how some farmers spray mist under their trees in a freeze, because the formation of ice releases heat that can save the blossoming fruit.
Ed was so impressed, he determined to experiment with the method at home.
“Maybe it was a complete disaster,” he says now, “but I had to try it.”
A high school friend recently coined the word “Apruary” to describe the weather she encountered during her visit to Colorado last week from the East Coast. So far we’ve seen Apruary twice in 2015: the first month and the fourth month of the year.
January felt like April, with temperatures soaring into the 50s. By February our fruit trees showed signs of stirring out of their winter torpor. This is never a good thing, as seductive as it may feel.
Sure enough, by March the succession of lovely blossoms adorning our fruit trees had begun, followed by wave after wave of freezing temperatures that nipped those brave and tender buds.
The tart yellow plums are one of the first to bloom. One of the first visits I paid to Colby Farm was to harvest those plums. They made a delicious jam that made you pucker just right. Since then I’ve learned the yellow plums and the sweet cherries, another early bloomer, almost never make it.
Next the little pear tree I planted two years ago put on her show of white flowers. I’m pruning this tree into respectability. Apricots, the little peach tree with pink flowers, even reliable pie cherries and late-blooming Italian plums — each of them put on their display, then succumbed to the withering cold.
Word came from over the hill in Paonia that the cherries didn’t make it through the last frost, and the apricots are long gone.
If it seemed warm to you this winter, science backs you up. Three new analyses — from NOAA, NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency — confirm the first quarter of 2015 was even warmer than record-breaking 2014, the hottest year to date. We’ll rack up the 15th year of global record heat in this young century if the trend continues through the year. The average is tracking about 1.5 degrees F above historic norms.
I have neighbors who have surely seen it all in this strip of fertile, irrigated land with a century of farming history. Garfield County is not an ideal fruit-growing paradise like our neighbor to the west. But fruit trees, orchards and old perennials like rhubarb and asparagus abound here, reminders of the early settlers who carved out a living from the land without the benefit of modern transportation and trade.
Climbing temperatures and shifting weather patterns disrupt carefully calibrated relationships in nature. The evidence mounts of nature getting out of sync.
Will early springs and late freezes make Peach Valley an impossible place to grow fruit, as we have for a century? Will each successive year prove more daunting than the last? What else does this imply for our ability to produce our own food locally?
Right now it’s all spring fever, hay fever and making hay at Colby Farm.
As an inexperienced gardener, I’m never sure when to get things started. I’m either early or late. Last year I planted my heirloom tomatoes first, then planted seeds. This year I’ll do it the other way around and give my root crops such as carrots, beets and turnips an early start, waiting to plant seedlings and tomatoes until after Mother’s Day. That’s what the wise ones do.
In March, under siege by the summery ambiance, I arranged for my neighbor, Jennifer, to bring her roto-tiller and children to the farm for a morning of garden preparation. Their dad traded a gun for the tiller. Jennifer always does her garden work on schedule and cultivates a spectacular harvest to feed her family. The three kids each grow their own plots, too, and win prizes at the county fair. They know every pest and bug and love eating their vegetables.
We shoveled out the little log house where our geese and chickens live for fertilizer to till into the garden soil. It’s overrun with mice that live off the bird feed, and we exposed a nest of newborns. The kids excitedly taught my chickens to eat the helpless mice.
After the work was done, we sat down to a lunch of fresh salad greens topped with vegetables, fresh hard-boiled eggs, and Aspen Cornucopia basil salad dressing. I sent Jennifer home with honey and a couple of buckets of rich poultry manure for her garden.
Barter and sweat gave me the earliest start ever, and high hopes for my garden. A deep sense of well-being settled over the farm that afternoon.
Marilyn Gleason keeps it local on her Peach Valley farm. Send your responses and ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “food.”
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