Fruit Trees from Seed

2018/04/16 deej 0

The received wisdom of gardeners and horticulturalists everywhere (I’m generalising, go with it for now) is that it’s pointless to grow fruit trees from seed because they don’t come true to type. (True to type means that the fruit of the daughter plant will be the same, or very nearly the same, as the fruit of the mother plant.)

There are exceptions – mangos and mot citrus produce what are called polyembryonic seeds, which means that there are multiple embryos in each seed, and only one is the result of sexual recombination – the others are asexually produced, and will grow into clones of the mother plant. And of course there are the fruit trees that don’t produce seeds at all anymore – bananas, some citrus, some grapes, and fruit breeders are working on creating reliably seedless apples (yes, this is possible)..

But broadly speaking, we don’t grow fruit trees from seed anymore. Unless we happen to be fruit breeders, in which case – we do exactly that. Which begs the question: why don’t the rest of us (at least the more patient among us) try it?

The heritability of flavour profiles, colour, and storing qualities are actually quite well studied for most major fruit species. There are a few obvious ones; for example the pale aril colour in pomegranates is, as far as we can tell, a simple recessive – with the standard deep red or pink colour being dominant; darker reds and the red-black colour of some fruit results from a complex of other genetic factors affecting levels of anthocyanins, but the white/pale pink arils are easy to breed for. Most traits, though, are complex and have a low % heritability. Apples, for example, have a 10 – 15% heritability for characteristics like acidity, juiciness, crispness, and sweetness, and only about a 30% heritability for astringency (useful in cider apples, but a negative for dessert or cooking apples). Fruit breeders use fairly high tech methods to test for useful characteristics, including looking for molecular markers for traits known to be useful (such as disease and pest resistance traits) but a lot of the mroe useful flavour traits are too complex to effectively test for using molecular markers and genetic analysis. Even fruti breeders are often reduced to crossing two likely parent trees and growing out the seeds to see if they produce good fruit – but fruit breeders aren’t just looking for pleasant tasting fruit, they’re also looking for something different from existing varieties.

The home grower isn’t generally going to be that picky. If your seedling apple tree produces fruit which is really very much like (but not identical to) a gala or fuji apple, that’s a net positive if you don’t need ot market the tree as a brand new distinct and different variety.

And the secret that geneticists and plant breeders don’t tell anyone is that the chances of getting reasonably good fruit from a random cross between two parent trees that produce good fruit is quite high. It might not store well, or ship well, and it might not be unique and distinct from any existing variety; it might not fruit earlier or later than other common varieties, and the tree may well be susceptible to disease (or it may be resistant). But the chances of edible fruit are really quite high. And every seedling tree which is allowed to grow to adulthood and join the breeding population enhances the health of the species (clone trees don’t add much to the species, since they’re all copies of the one individual and don’t add any genetic diversity to the gene-pool – which is one of the reasons that people try to preserve some of the older varieties, to keep that genetic diversity in the gene-pool).

So why don’t we grow more trees from seed? It’s not hard to do. Apple seeds will often germinate in the fruit, and will otherwise germinate quite happily if you put them between some pieces of damp cotton wool on a saucer in a sunny spot. Stone fruit pits should be put in the fridge for 6 – 8 weeks, sealed in a plastic baggie or a container with some damp sand so they don’t dry out and then planted out once the weather warms up. I haven’t had much luck with pomegranates (only 4 germinations out of nearly 100 seeds), but in theory you just plant the seeds directly into soil or potting mix in warm weather and keep them damp but not soggy. Citrus like the damp cotton wool or damp sand in a saucer and a sunny windowsill to germinate, but you can also plant them directly in a pot of soil or compost. In my experience, mangos like to germinate in the compost heap or worm farm (warm, humid, moist conditions), so just throw the pits in there and rescue the plants once they sprout. Loquats and guavas will self-seed if you let the fruit fall (which i don’t recommend, because of fruit fly – but you can plant the seeds in some good compost for the same effect). I don’t know about grapes yet, but I bet they grow easily from seed; most Mediterranean plants do.

Go forth and plant 🙂

Planting for Pascal’s Wager

2018/03/25 deej 0

For those who don’t know, Pascal’s Wager is a philosophical thought experiment about preparing for the worst case scenario even if you don’t think it will turn out to be true. The original argument was made about religion and the existence of the Christian God (and has some fairly serious flaws), but the general idea is more widely applicable. It’s a good shorthand way of talking about risks, and about worst case scenario preparation as a rational response to a low probability but high consequence event or situation.

For example, the current global socio-political and ecological situation.

I mean, I don’t really think that civilisation is going to fall over and collapse. I don’t. But there are a lot of factors that might mean that basically, we’re in for a bad time over the next few decades. Climate change is the big one, of course, but there’s also massive, ongoing ecological damage and the Anthropocene extinction event, which are linked to the still-rising human population. We also have the potential for global conflicts over increasingly scarce essential resources; we start wars over oil and gold and iron, but what happens when we realise (as we’re starting to now) that we’re running low on available clean water, arable land, and minerals essential for agriculture (phosphorus is crucial to all agriculture, and it’s starting to run low). We’re almost certain to see disease and starvation as the climate shifts and we start getting more and more extreme weather events (commonly named “ruin storms” in science fiction which has been predicting this shit for years), and climate refugees as well as refugees from various localised (and not-so-localised) conflicts.

Not everything is doom and gloom; humans are very good at pulling last-ditch fixes out of our collective ass. We didn’t even realise we were tearing a hole in the ozone layer until it was almost too late, but we caught on and made some changes, and thirty years on it’s actually starting to heal. Because of changes we implemented (yes, to fix problems we caused, but still). The drive for resources will probably (finally!) get us into space in a useful way, to mine the moon & the asteroids. And population growth is decreasing, especially with an increase in living standards and in education for women around the world.

So I am, broadly, confident that we aren’t going to destroy the planet or crash civilisation in any irrecoverable way. But I’m also aware that if I’m wrong and we do topple civilisation (even temporarily, as in the case of a third World War), the consequences could be catastrophic. Which is why I’m using the idea of Pascal’s Wager in my planting plan for the farm – hope for the best, but prepare for the worst case scenario.

Our precursor trees are mostly edible-seeded wattles, because the seeds can be used as a staple food for humans as well as being commercially desireable as a spice or condiment, and making very good poultry forage. We also have honey locust trees, which have edible pods like carobs – and we’re planting a swathe of carobs, too. This winter I’m going to put in several Moringa oleifera trees (which provide human-edible greens that don’t need to be babied the way most green vegetables do in this climate) and start some more mulberries and hibiscus from cuttings (the young leaves of mulberries and of hibiscus are also edible to humans, by the way, although not amazingly tasty). We have lilly pilly seedlings in the gorund to provide shade and forage for the poultry, and we’ll put more in this winter – but the fruit is still useful to humans as well, and apparently high in calcium. And of course we’re going to put in a variety of nut trees (pecan, almond, pistachio, walnut, chestnut, hazel) as soon as I can get watering systems in place to keep them alive while they get established.

I’m also going to put in semi-wild type forage trees – holm oaks and cork oaks for edible acorns, stone pine for pine nuts,  and more mulberries and lilly pillies and carobs. And loads of bee forage plants like tagasaste, rosemary, cape wedding bells (Dombeya tiliacea) and so forth. I’ll plant a few jelly palms if I can get them, or get them established from seed, too.And of course there are the grand plans for the main orchard, with citrus and plums and apples and pomegranates, and the date palms (which haven’t grown much, and are going to be moved into a better, more sunny location as a result).

Anyway. I could go on at great length about the plans for the orchard. But my point is, my choices of tree and shrub are based not only on what I like to grow and what I like to eat, but also on what I think will be most useful if I ever need to rely on my garden to feed me (and my family, chosen and genetic). It’s a planning strategy that anyone can use, for any garden (large or small): think about what would be most useful to you day to day – and what would be most useful if the supermarkets closed down for the week, or the month, for whatever reason.

One year later

2018/03/11 deej 0

kittensWell, a year and a bit later actually – it would be a year if it was still January, and it’s already March. I am a bad person, a slack blogger, and – more seriously – insanely busy. On top of the day job (I moved from permanent part-time to full-time contracting again at the end of 2016, and that extra day I don’t have per week to get things like grocery shopping, cooking, writing, gardening, washing, playing with the cats, etc. really cuts into my blogging time) and the regular farm work, I’ve also been writing a novel. And trying to have and maintain a social life. And there’s the cat breeding business as well – we just had our first successful litter.

The kittens are doing really well. In fact, everything is doing well, although it still looks a bit like a desert out there.

late afternoon

Closer to the house there’s more green, because we have reticulation in for the herb garden and the roses (which are going nuts). The curry tree is slowly getting bigger, and the winter savory has self-seeded baby winter savory shrubs all over the place. The rosemary is going almost as crazy as the roses, which the bees are loving, and I have self-seeded Italian parsley everywhere as well.

Lagerfeld rose

Papa Meilland rose Pope Jean Paul II rose

 

 

 

 

Peace roseStill haven’t managed to get any real pasture established on the more broad(ish)-acre further formt he house zones, but the trees are growing and starting to provide shade, and the swales are stopping us from losing topsoil every time it rains. As it goes into autumn, we’re starting to get cool, foggy mornings again, so we’re probably going to start getting some rain soon. Although it has been a very wet summer up here anyway.

foggy morningAs we get some cooler, wetter weather, I’ll be trying to resist the temptation to plant anything more. I have some carob seedlings which might be able to go into the ground – they like some space to stretch their roots out – but any more fruit trees have to wait until we’ve run irrigation. Maybe I’ll see if we can organise a busy-bee to run irrigation to the citrus area so I can plant out some rootstocks to get established. We did a grafting workshop the other day, and I’m even keener ot try grafting my own citrus now. I can buy budwood from Aus Citrus for the varieties I can’t easily get from friends & family.

Other than the grafting workshop, it’s been a quiet few months ont he leanring new farm skills front. We’ve done a couple’ve cooking courses at Matters of Taste (which, by the way, I thoroughly reccommend), and attended an information evening about their new Great Southern Region WA food tour (which looks epic). They had some sample produce form the region, which looked fantastic, and we got to take home some sample Royal Gala apples which were absolutely amazing. I don’t normally even like Galas, and Royal Galas are just a red variant, but these were honestly some of the best apples I’ve had. Ever. Including the delicious fresh organic apples I got in London from the ‘we stock locally grown fruit’ greengrocer (which was the original impetus for me to put in an apple orchard, because you can’t buy those varieties commercially in Australia).

We’re going to try a hangi once the fire-bans are finished for the summer, so I’ll post an update on that, but otherwise.. no plans. Lots of grafting practice, since I want to learn grafting as my new skill for the year. Going ot try to get the courtyard enclosed this winter so we can think about getting a dog.

I will try to post more often. I can’t promise much, but I’ll do better than once a year. 🙂

Double Delight rose

The Ethical Omnivore

2017/01/27 deej 0

Some philosophy to start the day. 🙂 This may be controversial, you have been warned.

 

I disagree with veganism on ethical grounds. Not the veganism which is based on some (incredibly rare, but real) allergies or food intolerances to any sort of animal protein, but the sort which is based on an ethical regard for animal welfare. I have quite a lot of vegan and vegan-tending friends, and I know this’ll touch a nerve for most of them, but – I still think it’s true.

 

This is not about not wanting to eat dead animals. I get that. I understand the idea that killing an animal or having one killed for our benefit, when we don’t actually need it (vegetarian proteins are entirely adequate for human health) is a bad thing. I especially respect people who say that they couldn’t personally kill an animal, and as such they think it’s wrong for them to eat meat. I feel a lot more comfortable eating my own animals – animals which have had good lives, have been fed well and given as utopian an environment as I can manufacture for them, and which I know for a fact to have been killed painlessly and with as little stress as is humanly possible. I don’t feel good about eating an animal which has suffered for my benefit. I literally call traditional intensively raised chickens “torture chicken” to my friends & family, to make them think about the difference in the lives of higher welfare and free range birds. I’m increasingly inclined to only eat animals which I have raised, or which have been raised by people I trust to give them the kind of life I would want them to have.

 

I even understand not wanting to take advantage of animals which are raised to produce milk, or eggs, or leather, or honey. Dairy cows arguably have a worse life than beef cattle do, and dairy calves are usually killed very young (and not even as veal for human use – we’ve gotten so fussy that a lot of dairy calves aren’t a good enough grade for use as human food, so they’re mulched or made into pet food) to keep their mothers producing more milk for human use. Male chicks from chicken farms breeding laying birds are ground up alive to make high-protein meal, which is often then fed to the layer and breeder birds. Overbreeding of honeybees has led to such weak queens that the hives’ immune systems are weakened and the hives are susceptible to diseases and parasites which add to Colony Collapse Disorder (although not as much as neonicotioid pesticides do). So don’t think I don’t get it. I do. I would miss honey, but if I thought bees would be better off if I gave up honey, I would do it. (I gave up tuna because I feel bad about eating endangered species which can’t be farmed, even though it’s really delicious and I do miss it.)

 

But there are two problems.

 

First – refusing to engage with animal-based agricultural industries means that your preferences about the welfare of the animals no longer affect the decisions of the farmers keeping those animals. You are effectively arguing that everyone should be vegan, otherwise your choice makes very little difference to the animals whose health and happiness you are concerned about.

 

Second – humans and our various associate species (domesticated animals) made an agreement a long time ago, between their ancestors and ours. We agreed to provide them with a good life, an easy life of always-available food and water, safety for their babies, and what medical care we could give. In return, they agreed to provide us with the products of their bodies – meat, milk, eggs, honey, leather, wool – and with companionship, support, and labour. But while we have the option to get out of that agreement, they no longer do. They rely on us entirely, and so we are responsible for the wellbeing of their entire species as well as their individual wellbeing.

 

When we refuse to use animal products, we make it economically unviable for farmers to maintain the species who produce them. And we owe those species. We owe them care and food and an easy, good life for their descendants, forever. Because we have changed them through domestication to the point where most of them can no longer survive without us, we cannot in good faith simply abandon them. If we no longer need them, then we will no longer keep them, and they will become extinct. How many people would really keep pet cows, goats, or sheep if milk and meat and wool weren’t a factor, or chickens if we couldn’t eat their eggs? Enough to maintain genetic diversity in the species, and keep it alive? How many people even have enough space to consider keeping that sort of pet? How many people keep pet horses (not including horses kept for riding, or for pulling carts of various sorts for human recreation)? Horses, which are intelligent, loyal, genuinely affectionate companions equivalent in many ways to a dog. There are very few pet horses which don’t also serve a purpose through their labour.

 

I think it would be a tragedy to allow these species, in all their diversity, to go extinct. We would lose something intensely human by losing those old relationships with our associate species. I think we are responsible for them, and as such we should work to breed healthier animals which live well and don’t produce obscene amounts for our benefit at their expense – but that are still useful to keep. Heritage breed chickens which lay every couple’ve days are healthier and happier than battery-bred birds which lay every single day and live half as long because they use up the calcium in their bones to make egg-shells. Heritage breed sheep and cows are often smaller and friendlier than the modern types which are bred for pure production potential, and we should be keeping those breeds if we can, and maintaining them. We should care if our pork comes from heritage breed free range pigs, or factory farmed animals which can’t be free ranged at all because they get such bad sunburn if they go outdoors. We should care if our chicken comes from heritage birds which mature healthily, or from cross-bred “broilers” which are killed at six weeks old because if they live any longer they are literally crippled (broken legs, crumbling bones) by their muscle growth outstripping their bones ability to hold them upright.

 

So I think we should, generally, eat less meat. Maybe even less dairy (or at least we should be willing to pay the actual costs of production for dairy products – and other foods). But I think opting out of consuming or using animal products at all is not actually the most ethical decision. I think it’s a much better option, ethically speaking, to be very aware of where your food and clothing comes from and to actively support farmers who are offering their animals (and plants!) a good life and high welfare.

 

I hope this sort of idea encourages people to think about their food choices more carefully. If you don’t want to consume animal products, that’s your choice, absolutely. And if eating animals or animal products squicks you, totally don’t do it. But if it’s an ethical choice, maybe you could think about how ethical it actually is, and how you could do the most good for animal welfare through your purchasing and consumption choices.

slow starter

2017/01/16 deej 0

New Years has come and gone, and I’m still just starting to settle in to 2017. It feels like a really slow start to the year somehow.

 

The hot weather has arrived, and we just went through a 24 hour power outage because the lines gather dust during dry weather and then a cool spell or a drizzle of rain (water falling from the sky! Weirdly, that does happen sometimes, even in midsummer) can cause fires on the lines or in the transformers. Which seems bizarre to me, but that’s how it is. It’s prioritised our desire to get a nice, big solar install set up, so we’ve got quotes coming in for that. Also my desire to build a solar cooker – so watch this space, and I’ll post the project when we make it. If nothing else, we’ll take it with us to Blazing Swan, and do some festival baking.

 

It might seem late in the year to talk about New Years Resolutions, but like I said –  it’s been a slow starter.

 

I’m not much for making annual promises to myself to change my life, although I know it’s a positive experience for lots of people; I’ve always figured that if I want to make some sort of change in my life, I shouldn’t really need to wait for the end fo the year. Mostly it works pretty well for me (although I do have to keep a goals list, so I don’t forget about any of the good ideas I’ve had and haven’t quite gotten to actioning yet). I do see the appeal, though – the changeover to a whole new year is a kinda magical time for me, a holiday and a time for thinking and for personal renewal and self-care.

 

So instead of a resolution as such, or even a word to characterise my aims and ambitions for the year, I have a new tradition: learn a skill each year. It’s something K used to do, and has decided to take up again, thus inspiring me to do the same. We each choose our new skill in the Dec – Jan period, and then learn and practice over the year. K is learning card magic, and the associated sleights of hand. I was tempted by a new language, but instead I’m thinking that this year I’ll learn to use my potters wheel properly, to throw a pot.

 

I did pottery classes as a kid, and I have used a potters wheel before – but not for a very long time, and I don’t think I was very good at it when I did it then. I have a beautiful potters wheel, bought for me as a present a couple’ve years ago, and now I have space to use it now. So I’m going to get some clay, and watch some YouTube tutorials, and learn me a skill. Expect a great deal of frustrated whining when it doesn’t just work straight away 🙂

 

What about the rest of you? Does learning a new skill for the year appeal? What skill would you pick?

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