Walnut blight

Walnut catkins are appearing, lengthening, opening and releasing pollen. Research indicates that this is the time when bacteria which cause walnut blight; and have overwintered embedded in the plant tissue, may emerge and disseminate. Copper is the remedy. Copper is delivered in a powerful jet of air and moisture by a sprayer, towed behind the tractor and driven via the PTO shaft. I spent over six hours today protecting the orchard, vulnerable at this time, driving the tractor listening to Tracey Chapman and Willie Nelson.

Studies indicate that copper is most effective if leaf burst has progressed to 30% of branches being in ‘prayer phase’ ie where the new growth has the appearance of hands praying. Travelling down the aisles at 4.6 km/hour I can attest that at least 30% were praying.

Three hours after I finished spraying, it rained, quite hard. Rain has always posed a dilemma. Copper is sprayed to reduce bacterial colonies that thrive with moisture. Rain may wash off the copper before it can achieve its outcome. Should copper be sprayed after rain? I don’t have the opportunity as I work in town for the next three days. And… copper is very sticky. Rain will not easily wash it off.

After filling the 3,000 L tank of the sprayer I turned on the PTO to mix the solution. I had left the switch to the fans on. I sprayed my ute with copper, briefly. Later, the copper would not hose off the windscreen easily.

I will check the trees during the week for any blight. We now have daylight saving. I have an extra hour of sunlight after work. I will spray again weekly for the next two weeks. That’s what the research says. It has worked for the last two years – fingers crossed.

Walnut catkins

It is a minor miracle that walnuts exist. Their reproduction is slap-dash and haphazard. In spring, first, catkins appear. Catkins contain the pollen.

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Small and closed at first; they lengthen and open, dispersing pollen.

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Walnut trees do not need bees. The catkins release pollen which is taken to the flower by the wind. Flowers appear after catkins. This mismatch has not led to the extinction, but in the orchard, we plant pollenators: trees of species that produce catkins at the same time as our chandler trees are in flower.

Barley grass

Ten years ago, the real estate agent brought us to a derelict dairy farm. He set us down at the top of a modest incline, under a river red gum, where the house came to be built. ‘Just look at that feed. You could run a thousand head of cattle on this property.’

Today I slashed that barley grass. Through winter and early spring, barley grass provides some sort of feed. The sheep have certainly fattened on it. But now it is a nuisance.

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In late spring, the heads harden off. When young they are juicy and supple. The stiff older heads catch in the throat, irritate the eyes, snare in the wool and scar the hide.

I slashed the abundant crop.

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It obstructed the slasher and in lifting the mower, I left mounds of cut grass dotted about the front paddock. Such a waste.

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Runts & hairy mammoths

Today, trees which remained unbudded, met the chain-saw.

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Several weeks after leaf burst, unbudded rootstock assumes one of two forms; each equally as irritating as you drive about the orchard cursing that you had not acted earlier to be rid of these eye-sores.

Runts fail to thrive. Their contorted structures from several failed budding attempts mock.

Hairy mammoths are rootstock that have been chopped back to ground level to allow one shoot to be primed for budding. The base throws up many other shoots and in leaf the original budded branch is hidden or fails.

Chain-sawing removes most traces of these budding failures.

Shed gridlock

Walnut trees are waking. There are catkins. Soon leaves will appear. Once the leaves form into a ‘praying ‘ form, its time to spray copper to curb blight. I went looking for the sprayer yesterday to check it was functioning. It has sat at the back of the shed since last December. I found it wedged behind the harvester, the shaker, the lawn mower, a bin trailer and the fan for the new drying bins.

I think it is important to risk boring you with the tedious tale of how I overcame these obstacles.

All of these barriers to the simple extraction of the sprayers should not have posed a problem. That is not my experience of commencing any new task – one step forward and five steps back.

The shaker and the forklift to shift the fan had flat batteries. The shaker had lain dormant for months and the voltage has seeped away. The forklift reflects a more insidious concern which it shares with our tractor. If I leave the key in the ignition overnight in the off position, as is normal practice in the country, though we do lock doors and windows at night, but not in the day, the battery flattens. A flat battery is a minor irritant now that we have the superconductor jumper leads from our local legitimate auto-electrician ‘Hotwire’.

With the forklift jump started I moved the fan. The bin trailer, I attached the rusty chain, bought at the local farmers’ market recently, to the forklift and dragged it away for later attention.

I used the jumper leads on the shaker. Its cummins engine growled to life. A joy stick lifts the grappling arm into the air. Forward and reverse is a see-saw accelerator. Left down is forward: right down back. Or is it? In a tight shed, the difference matters. I reversed it out and out of the way.

That left the harvester obstructing the sprayer by millimetres. Rather than attempting to squeeze by, I took the safe option. Moving the harvester requires attaching a very heavy metal collar to the lifting forks at the back of the tractors. That done, the collar must be lined up with the linkage of the harvester, by gently reversing the tractor and a bolt dropped into place at the appropriate time. Its a two person job. But pulling the harvester out of the shed I noted that the front wheels did not always clear the undulating ground. Correcting that could wait till I finished with the sprayer.

The sprayer was now accessible, but the tractor still had the collar in place behind. Rather than disconnecting it from the harvester, I tried delinking it from the tractor. I would need to come back for the harvester and put it back in the shed, so leaving the collar with it made sense. The process proved simple. Now, to move the sprayer requires the connection of a tow-bar to the tractor. The mechanical link was established, the jockey wheel raised and the electronic wiring connected. The sprayer was pulled clear of the shed and the PTO engaged. When the switches on the control box were flicked on, fine spray shot from each of the nozzles at the rear of the sprayer. Success. I returned the sprayer to an empty shed and reversed into its own bay, not to be blocked during its months of use till December.

Running the shaker’s engine for thirty minutes had recharged the battery. It took its place at the back of the shed, not needed till April next year.

The harvester posed two problems. I could ignore one but chose to not. I needed to adjust the tractor’s lifting forks so that the front wheels of the harvester would clear the ground easily. The mechanisms on the threaded supporting arms of the forks exhibited revered Japanese asymmetry. One could be adjusted easily. The other required the removal of a bolt distally. I tried to calculate if shortening or lengthening the arm would produce the desired result, knowing that once the collar was connected to the harvester, adjustment would prove difficult, especially the distal adjustment on the left arm. I chose lengthening and reconnected the collar to the tractor with difficulty. Needless to say, I had made the wrong decision. The arm needed shortening. The right arm was easy. I could not now access the distal bolt on the left arm as it occluded by the collar. There was a proximal bolt, untouched in years, moderately rusted, that eventually agreed. Shortening did the job by centimetres.

Next, I removed the flat tyre on bin trailer, took it to the repairer; and now, today, I am off to collect it before the AFL Grand-Final between Sydney and Hawthorn.

 

Garden slave

When jobs in the orchard diminish briefly I sleep-in. When I rise I need swift responses to pointed demands from my wife obsessed with her plants and trees, like, ‘Are you my garden slave?’

‘Slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century.’

‘Not in this postcode.’

I accepted the challenge of rationalising the irrigation system in the home orchard. For a person gifted with such design abilities I am repeatedly staggered by my wife’s spatial orientation abyss. Several years ago, travelling on the autostrada outside Milan at 140 km/hr with a fuel tanker in the rear vision mirror, a Fellini extra in the left lane and Michael Schumacher in the right, I realised that Ruth did not understand maps. How far to our turn-off was a total mystery. The plan for the irrigation system poses similar challenges.

We agreed on a new design for the home orchard watering. It involved running poly to hoses that were attached to taps. Controlling watering manually proved tangible and acceptable.

Next, was a final orchard task before leaf burst. This entailed the deeply black yet satisfying job of removing rootstock that had not yet been successfully budded, after several attempts. I performed the termination with a chain-saw. Ruth applied a herbicide to ensure finality. It was with regret that I cut into the moist flesh of those black walnut trunks but the logic was irresistible. Buds had failed to take repeatedly. The neighbouring trees were budded and could use the space and sunlight. Rootstock could harbour blight and nuts from black walnuts were larger and harder. If collected, they damage the huller at harvest time. We stopped after thirty five rows of trees. The chain-saw refused to start and our neighbour was spraying with a breeze that could bring the cloud in our direction.

We decided to light our last pile of prunings. It has been lit two weeks before but failed to ignite. In this bushfire prone land it is reassuring that live walnut trees are poorly combustible. However, dried walnuts burn famously. We added newspaper, cardboard, fallen gum tree branches, marine ply off-cuts and diesel. The fire started well then hesitated. We found more dry eucalyt branches: such perfect accelerants. The fire zoomed.

Leaf burst is imminent. It brings orchard tasks to break these chains.

Kangaroo

You’d think that an Australian walnut farm would be knee deep in kangaroos, but no, they’re as rare as yetis here. Yesterday we did have a visitor, captured in the grainy soup of this snap.

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Here yesterday and gone today, these shy creatures live in the forest by the river and don’t venture onto farmlands. Our colleagues, 30 kms from here have many kangaroos. When the orchard is in leaf the kangaroos materialise , leaping from behind the dense cover to shock. Kangaroos are harmless, eating grass, but may become obstropoulous if cornered.

Today was one for fertigating with potassium and clearing the channel of umbrella sedge weeds. The ewes had to be moved from the orchard, in with the lambs in the front paddock. They are almost tame, heading easily through the gates. The reunion of mothers and offsprings was a somber understated affair, with no baaing or bleating. The flock came together and had an afternoon nap.

Never before have I at this time of year had time to be able to whipper snip the channel to the dam for umbrella sedge. I worked my way up one side, watchful for snakes, slipping on the mudflats and splattered with mud, pebbles and organic matter. I put the large holes in the floor of the channel down to yabbies.

I looked up to spot my neighbour Greg. He wanted to look at the filtration system on our pump.

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Since the main channel to our farms has been interrupted on the adjacent property of a member of a orchard dynasty, the quality of water has diminished. Greg’s filters now clog repeatedly. We discussed the issues. It seemed that as we do not pump directly from the main channel we do not experience this issue. The green matter in our channel to the dam may filter this sediment. It also disperses its seeds throughout the orchard. I need a sedge to compete with the umbrella sedge in our channel, that filters the sediment and is not invasive.

I went back to the pump shed.

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I set up the fertigation with potassium nitrate. The equipment is past its time but remains effective. Fresh water comes in the top pipe and water rich in dissolved potassium is suctioned from the bottom of the tank.

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Between cycles of fertigation I went to buy some more bags of potassium nitrate. I spoke to our chemical supplier about the solution to our problem of sediment in channel water. He laughed at the concept but liked the idea.

‘How many bags do you want?’

‘Thirteen”

‘Thirteen?’

‘ I’m not superstitious.’