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Farming in a Construction Zone: Trees!

Being eager newbies at this whole farmstead thing, we tend to flip back and forth between jumping in prematurely on the one hand, and researching to death before taking the first baby step on the other. Plus we are getting older (and lately life is reminding us that nothing is a given), so we are sometimes less patient with time than we maybe oughta be.

So we've had seedlings and microgreens fried in the heat, killed by the cold, eaten by vermin, and encroached upon by construction tools and materials.

We have been especially eager for TREES. But unlike seedlings, trees are a high-stakes, one-time (hopefully) planting! We thought the greenhouse would be done in January and we'd plant as soon as the trees could be shipped, in March. That would give us a good couple of months to get used to our systems, understand how the greenhouse operates, and build our soil.

Well everything takes longer than you think, and the greenhouse isn't even quite done yet in mid-April, but our bit-chomping won out over prudence, and we took only the smallest of compromises by delaying shipment for a couple of weeks. We timed it so the greenhouse could be closed and fans working just before the trees arrived.

We ordered most of our trees from Four Winds Growers out of California, which was recommended by Russ Finch of Greenhouse in the Snow. We also wanted dragonfruit, which they don't carry, so we ordered that from Fast Growing Trees in South Carolina. Four Winds was out of avocados when we ordered, and a couple of our desired citrus as well, so we decided to fill in with avocados and bananas, also from Fast Growing Trees.

We placed the orders months ago, but by the time we were scheduling the deliveries, the pandemic had broken out. We scheduled both companies to deliver at the same time so we would only have to make one trip to Gallup to pick up our trees, and we started ordering other things to arrive at our UPS box at the same time.

Well, that was a good plan in theory, but then I got an email that Fast Growing Trees had sent the plantain to arrive a couple weeks earlier than we intended, and there was nothing we could do to change it. We picked it up -- our first experience with the face masks, gloves, disinfecting Everclear, etc. It stayed in our camper with us for the first night (45-60 degrees).

The next day Chip worked hard to finish up the doors so we could close the greenhouse, and I worked hard to prep the soil to plant the tree. We'd been adding soil amendments all along, but the manure was in huge dry chunks and the dirt was in rocky clods. Our shovels, pitchfork, and rake weren't the best tools for breaking up dirt. I smashed it with a dirt tamper on a board, then sieved it through the grate of our garden wagon. Then I placed an order for a couple of hand tillers!

Our greenhouse was still open along the long walls and uninsulated. Chip had installed the geothermal blower, but we didn't have power by the greenhouse except the portable generator, so we had to go to the greenhouse to turn it on manually -- temperatures fluctuated between the mid-30s at night and over 120 in the day (OK, it actually topped out at 131 one day). It wasn't the greatest, and it wasn't how we wanted to do it, but hey, we planted our first greenhouse tree!

We took stock -- we had to move our solar power to the greenhouse site, which also meant moving our camp. We had to button up the greenhouse and get the ventilation system working so we could get temperatures under control. We had to dig holes and prep dirt for fourteen more trees. We had to set a post to support the Dragonfruit, which is a climbing cactus that could eventually weigh 300 pounds.

We decided to hold off on the rest of the trees for an extra week. We arranged with both nurseries for the trees to be sent April 6, to arrive April 8, so we would only need to make one more trip to Gallup.

That was a good plan in theory, but then we got an email that the rest of the Fast Growing Trees order had been sent and would be arriving April 6, and there was nothing we could do about it.

We scrambled. One question was the Dragonfruit post -- what were we going to do? I had thought we'd just use one of the 4x4 posts in the retaining wall. But we were already worried about the integrity of the retaining wall without adding an additional 300-pound weight to the pole, and we didn't really want it absorbing chemicals from the treated wood through its air roots. We didn't want a metal post because of Chip's nickel allergy. Some people make concrete posts, but we didn't have time for that, and only had one leftover sack of concrete. We finally hit on the possibly obvious solution... a dead juniper became the second tree planted in our greenhouse!

On April 6 we drove into Gallup to pick up our four trees from Fast-Growing Trees... which all came packed in one box! We had gathered dirt from an impoundment on the west side of our land which had silted in with richer dirt than at our site. We mixed that with fermented Bokashi sawdust, coffee grounds, charcoal, sheep manure, and wood chips, and planted the four trees: Cold-Hardy avocado, Hass avocado, Dragonfruit, and Ice Cream banana.

By now we had moved the solar to the greenhouse, and we added a couple panels and batteries to handle the added ventilation load. We also moved our pop-up, starting the process of moving our camp in bits and pieces, while putting most of our energy into farming and continuing to wrap up the greenhouse build.

Four Winds Nursery emailed to say that their spring holds were now being shipped by their reduced staff, and that they were working hard to get all of the orders out. We would have a bit of a reprieve, as our trees would be about a week later than expected. We continued moving camp and taking care of the greenhouse.

While talkin' trees, I'm not sure if we ever told you about our "orchard." It's between our original camp and the greenhouse... on the camp side of the arroyo that divides the two sites. We planted a dwarf peach last fall (my birthday present). She ("Li'l Peach") put out a show of buds and blossoms, and we'll be watching for peaches! We put a little fence around her to protect from the wandering horse herds, mule deer, and jackrabbits.

Our new trees seemed to be struggling. The plantain, which we were most worried about since it came so early, seemed to have rallied a bit after losing a couple of leaves. The new banana was much smaller than the plantain and was having a hard time -- droopy, browning leaves. The avocados looked terrible -- spindly, withered, and one dropped all but two leaves. The dragonfruit wasn't doing anything, but otherwise seemed fine. We were mainly concerned about the heat and intense sun. We ordered shade cloth, and in the meantime hung some cloth from the ceiling to throw some shadows, propped up boards in the heat of the day to shade the most troubled plants, etc.

We were a bit concerned that maybe the soil was too dense. The information from Four Winds said that the soil needed to be quick draining, meaning that when you fill a pre-saturated hole with water, it should go down 2" in two hours. Our soil is hard-packed and dense, but it certainly drains at least as well as that. We had hoped the various amendments would lighten it up a bit. In any case, we did break down and decide to buy additional amendments (peat moss, perlite, mushroom compost) before planting the rest of the trees.

Our Four Winds Trees shipped, and we now expected them Friday, April 17. When we tracked them, one fig only showed up as labeled, not shipped. That one was sent

out four days later. Then when eight of the trees were listed as delivered, a ninth was left behind in Albuquerque for the weekend. So we ended up needing three separate trips to pick up those trees. Chip picked up the first eight in the trailer. These trees each rated their own box!

This is what we saw when we opened the first box... I wish I could share the fragrance! A lush, hearty little Valencia orange tree covered in blossoms, many which were fruiting. We were giddy!

Here are some other pics of the seven citrus and a fig in that load, and planting the next day:

On Monday I drove into Gallup and picked up the Australian Finger Lime, and we planted it. I could have waited until the next day when the second fig arrived, but I felt bad for the little tree sitting in a box in Albuquerque all weekend while its compatriots were in the ground and watered. On Tuesday I drove into Gallup and picked up the second fig that had been shipped late, and we planted it.

So we have all our trees in and planted, at long last, and it only took FIVE trips to Gallup during our stay-at-home order! The bananas are over the hump after a rough start. The avocados and figs are still touch and go. The citrus seems hearty and hale (knock wood)! Here is our lineup, east to west:

So here is a question for y'all. If you nip all of the flowers and fruit, the tree will put that energy into roots and branches and will grow faster. Some recommend that for new trees. We sprang for the more mature "premium" trees because we are old and impatient. We were really surprised to see all of the flowers and fruit already setting on these little guys! We called Four Seasons to ask whether they recommend nipping or leaving the fruit and flowers. They concurred that nipping would let the tree put more energy into growing, but said "It's really up to you which way to go. That's just part of the fun!"

Would YOU take what you can get,

or nip it in the bud??

Here's wishing you all stay healthy, stay at home, and savor each day!

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