i've always loved those old homesteads with ancient fig orchards planted in front that you sometimes come across while driving the back roads of the valley. there's one out on a lonely stretch of road on the way to my mother's house that i've always found a bit romantic. many of the old trees have recently been cut down and removed but there are still a few standing, kept company by a somewhat tired-looking white horse. whenever i pass by i imagine what it would be like to sit in the shade of those trees on a hot summer day, eating figs. now that staal and i have our own little homestead i thought i'd plant a fig orchard to go with it.
in november of last year we broke ground. since water is often a bit scarce in these parts i wanted to make sure that the new orchard would make efficient use of the rainfall and water that we do have. the orchard site is on a gentle slope so digging swales along the contour seemed like a good way to go. the contour swales function something like terraces, catching and collecting rainwater that might otherwise run down slope and be lost. each swale consists of a wide shallow trough with a berm on the downslope side built from the soil dug to make the trough. probably hard to visualize from my description (did the best i could). this is where photos come in handy...
in the above photo, my lovely assistant, zane, is parked on the berm which is on the downslope side of the swale.
before doing any of the digging staal helped me lay out the contours using a water level (below).
we used the level because the troughs of the swales are meant to have a flat, level bottom. they're not directing water anywhere, they're collecting water so that it can slowly saturate the berm portion of the swale. staal moved across the slope with the level and we marked out the contours with flags.
later we played connect the dots by running a rope along the ground following the flags to get the contour line where the swale would be dug.
i cut a line with the shovel, removed the rope and started digging.
the ducks were drawn by the activity and busily patrolled the disturbed soil, picking up loads of bugs and worms turned up by the shovel. they got to be so "helpful" at some point that they actually slowed me down quite a bit by trying to root around in every shovelful of soil. although they had no fear of the blade i was afraid for their little webbed feet and curious bills being so dangerously close.
digging is my specialty and with the good stretch of warm, sunny weather we had in november i got the bulk of the shoveling done over the course of about a week with a few touch-ups here and there into december once we got some rain and i could see how the water settled.
i put in an order for some fig trees and left the swales to do their thing over december and january. they've worked out to be quite a good fit for this place. i've been spreading some of the spent duck straw bedding along the high sides upslope of the troughs. as the straw and manure rot the rain washes the nutrients into the trough which then slowly leach into the berms enriching the planting area. the swales are also an ideal place to put some of the water i bucket out of the ducks' pools when they need cleaning and for the overflow from the rainwater collection system. and of course the ducks love splashing and foraging in them when it's rainy out.
|hose carrying the overflow from the rainwater collection tanks to the swales|
the trees arrived in mid-december and i kept them in the greenhouse until the end of january when the ground was dry enough to dig and the weather had started to warm a bit.
by about the end of the first week in february we had a fig orchard. there are 7 varieties (mission, kadota, brown turkey, desert king, violette de bordeaux, tiger panache, and peter's honey) and 18 trees total. the trees are planted in wire baskets to keep the gophers off the roots and they've also got wire cages around them above ground to keep the ducks and wild turkeys from defoliating them. deer tend to leave fig trees alone (maybe because of the latex in the sap) so i haven't done anything to deter them specifically.
while i was working on the drip irrigation system for the orchard garden i also ran some lines out to the fig orchard and put in a 2 gallon per hour emitter at each tree to provide water as needed to help them get established and get them through our long hot summers.
the trees were still fully dormant when i planted them but we've had enough warm weather recently to convince them to break dormancy and start opening leaf buds.
the storm we had about a week ago (march 7th) started out fairly warm but then turned quite cold. we got a little wet snow mixed in with the rain that was falling and there was snow on the mountain behind our place.
i checked the forecast and there was a good chance nighttime temperatures would drop just below freezing. i was a little concerned the new buds and leaves might be damaged by the cold so i cut up the last of my row cover into strips to make frost blankets and wrapped up the trees.
|light breeze, zane made sure the frost blankets didn't blow away|
after a couple of cold nights the weather warmed again so staal and i unwrapped the trees.
the trees came through just fine.
i'm excited to see them all leafed out and growing this summer and in a few more years maybe they'll be big enough to make a little shade and a few figs.
***if you made it all the way to the end of this post, get yourself a cookie or something, you've earned it.