Eden’s Start with Good Soil

    G, as I’ll refer to him, has a blank canvas, about 10 acres of mostly open field. His vision is, essentially, for a Garden of Eden, with fruit trees, bushes, and vines, vegetables, nut trees, and flowers. Before he even thought about digging his first planting hole, I suggested he learn something about the soil beneath his blank canvas.
    Your and my tax dollars have contributed to a most useful soil resource for G (and you and me), the Soil Web Survey, put out by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) of the USDA. This survey provides soils maps of more than 95% of the counties in the U.S., each map delineating what lurks beneath the surface.

Web Soil Survey, opening page

Web Soil Survey, opening page

    Soils are distinctive, as different from one another as robins are from blue jays. These differences are harder to appreciate, of course, because soil is mostly underground, hidden from view. But if you were to dig some holes a few feet deep and then look carefully at their inside surfaces, you would find that soils are made up of layers of varying thicknesses — called horizons. And one soil might differ from the next not only in the thicknesses of its various horizons, but also in just how the various horizons look and feel. There might be horizons as white as chalk, as red as rust, or as dark brown as chocolate. A horizon might be cement hard, gritty with sand, or stuff for sculpture. And if you were to tease the dirt along one edge of the hole so it falls away naturally — wow! — each horizon would reveal its particles clumped together in such arrangements as plates, blocks, or prisms. Such information, and more, has allowed soils to be classified, much as birds, flowers, and living things are.
    Armed with this information, G can know what will thrive in his future paradise and what might need to be done to better accommodate what he wants to grow.

Tax Dollars at Work

    The Web Soil Survey is an easy-to-use online resource. Either google it or go directly to The big green button labelled “START WSS” gets you started.
    The first step is to define your “Area of Interest (AOI)”, that is, your own back forty. Reading down from the AOI tab, you come to the “Address” line, in which, after clicking, you can fill in your own street address. Hit “Return” and, to the right, you’re zoomed into an aerial photo centered on the specified address. Click on one of the two boxes labelled “AOI” (which one depends on whether your AOI is going to be a rectangle or a random polygon) just above the map to delineate, in red, your AOI. Double click the last point and the map enlarges around the defined area.

Area of Interest defined

Area of Interest defined

    Back to the tabs at the top of the screen, and click on “Soil Map.” Now you know what to call your soil. Yes, its name. If more that one soil exists within the AOI, squiggly lines will delineate their names and extent.
    From there, all sorts of useful and not so useful (for you) information are at your fingertips. Click on the soil name and you get a slew of information on that soil, including the all-important drainage class, depth to a restrictive layer, depth to water table, and its ability to hold onto water. Other clicks get you to the soil’s potential use for recreation, construction materials, building site, even military operations.
    Most important is soil depth and drainage. G’s is fine, facilitating his first step towards Eden.

A Tree of Eden

    Speaking of Gardens of Eden reminds me of fruit and western Asia. Which brings us to a mulberry now ripening in a pot sitting on my front terrace. This mulberry is quite different from those trees now ripening their fruit practically every few hundred feet around here.

Pakistan mulberry fruit

Pakistan mulberry fruit

    For one thing, this mulberry comes from western Asia, Islamabad, Pakistan, so is not cold-hardy here in New York’s Hudson Valley. Hence the pot, in which the plant resides during winter in my basement, along with figs, pomegranates, and other subtropicals.
    The hardy mulberry trees that pop up here and there throughout most cold regions of the U.S. include Asian white mulberries (Morus alba) and out native red mulberries (M. rubra), and their natural hybrids. Note that fruit color has nothing to do with the species. White mulberry is a very variable species, in hardiness, fruit color and flavor, even leaf shape.
    Pakistan mulberry is also unique for the size of the berries. Each is a couple of inches long. In warmer climates, the berry can elongate to over 3 inches.

Pakistan mulberry tree in pot

Pakistan mulberry tree in pot

   I wouldn’t trouble myself with a potted fruit tree just because it’s exotic and large-fruited; the flavor makes the effort worthwhile. They have a heavenly flavor, among the most delicious of all mulberries, on a par with the world’s best fruits: a rich berry flavor fronting a congenial background of sweetness offset with just the right amount of tartness.
    Pakistan is sometimes listed as a variety of white mulberry, other times as a variety of yet another mulberry species, M. macroura. Outdoors, it can grow to 60 feet. In my Garden of Eden, the potted tree will be restrained to 5 or 6 feet.


Microclimates, Here, There, and Everywhere

    Mark Twain wrote that “Everyone complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” I’m going to step up to the plate and do something about it — not the climate but the microclimate. “Microclimate” is the very local weather. And I do mean “very local,” as, for example, right around a particular plant.
    Different microclimates exist all around my property — and yours. Near the south wall of my brick house for example, winter low temperatures don’t plummet nearly as low as they do, say, 30 feet away from the wall. The bricks are very good at absorbing the sun’s heat, then let it slowly ooze out after nightfall. Near that wall is where I’m planning to plant out a Kadota fig tree now dormant in my basement. (Come late fall, after harvest, I’ll dig up the tree with a good root ball and return it to winter quarters in the basement.) 

'Surround', a white clay, sprayed on apples

‘Surround’, a white clay, sprayed on apples

    On the other side of my house, where sunlight can’t fall in winter, days and nights are colder than the general temperatures, and remain colder from spring through fall. Near that north wall, then, would be a good place to plant an apricot or peach tree to delay unfolding of their blossoms, which otherwise open so early that they often succumb to subsequent spring frosts. Dead blossoms mean no crop for that season.
    Apricots and peaches, like most fruits need sunlight to fuel the most flavorful fruits. Although areas near the north wall are shaded — and hence cooler — in winter, from spring through early fall the sun wraps enough around the sky from the northeast to northwest corners to cast its light there.
    Other influences on microclimate include fences, land sloping in various directions, paved areas, plant or built windbreaks, and changes in elevation.

(Micro)Climate Modification

    Much of what I have planted, including many fruit plants, are nowhere near fences or paving, and my land is mostly flat. It is lowland, in a valley, and cold air, which is heavier than warm air, collects in this low spots, to threaten the blossoms on my fruit plants with late, killing frosts.
    Mark Twain notwithstanding, I’m going to try doing something about the weather — the microclimate, in this case — on plants nowhere near walls, fences, or paving.
    Enter ‘Surround’, the trademark name for a special formulation of kaolin clay. This product was developed about 30 years ago mostly as a nontoxic way to thwart insect pests. It’s especially useful for controlling plum curculio, a pest of plums, peaches, apples, and some other fruits; curculio isn’t easily controlled by other organic methods.

'Surround'  spray on blueberries

‘Surround’ spray on blueberries

   Kaolin is white, so when a sufficiently thick coating of ‘Surround’ is built up on branches, they appear white. Old Sol’s rays just bounce off white surfaces, the surfaces, in this case being the buds of fruit plants. So the buds stay cooler, delaying bloom, hopefully until after threat of frost has past.
    I’ve already given the plant a couple of coats of ‘Surround’, and they already have a sun-drenched, gray-cast, Mediterranean look to them. A couple more coats will make the visual effect more dramatic, both to me and Ol’ Sol, and will get a jump on curculio control.

Awake too Soon

    Downstairs, in the basement, things are not as quiescent as hoped. That’s where the figs, pomegranates, and mulberries are spending winter, the cool (45°F) temperature holding back growth. Or so I thought.
    One plant, Pakistan mulberry, has decided to awaken. This mulberry is a species of white mulberry (Morus alba) that differs markedly from the white mulberries you see here. Pakistan is only about as cold-hardy as fig (which is why they share winter quarters in my basement) and bears a very delicious, dark purple fruit up to three inches long!

'Pakistan' mulberry

‘Pakistan’ mulberry

    Pakistan evidently has a low chill requirement, that is, it does not take much cold for it to feel like winter has ended so it can begin growing. Different plants have different requirements for the number of hours of chilling, which is temperatures between about 30 and 45°F., they need to be exposed to before they can begin growth for the season.
    I may have to move the budding plant into the greenhouse where it really is spring, with temperatures at least into the 70s on this sunny day.