Saturday, December 24, 2016

Year End Update

  This has been quite a year! Warm May and August helped the blackberries give us 7 1/2 pounds (from mainly two plants) of very tasty fruit. Plenty of rain (again) with over 8 inches falling in July alone. The rain kept wasps at bay until late August, when they started feasting on blackberries and raspberries. The feasting was short-lived as cool weather soon set in and sent them packing. A fairly warm and dry fall allowed us to continue planting trees, bushes and berry vines into October. Snow has been a bit scarce so far. A low of -12F (-24C) came while there was only 2 inches of snow on the ground. Not sure how the blackberries coped with that. More recently, a low of -22F (-30C) was observed on November 30th, with a deeper snowpack in place.
  Last winter was quite mild. We only dropped to -17F (-27C) and that was in mid-November after a snowpack had been established. This and our additional cold protection yielded the best overwinter success with our blackberries. Wild Treasure (pictured above), Black Diamond and Marion all had numerous canes survive and fruit. By keeping row cover on these plants until they flowered, we were able to move harvest up by two weeks.  This allowed us to pick virtually a full crop off of Wild Treasure by Labor Day weekend. We got about 1/2 a crop off of Marion and, well, a handful of berries off of Black Diamond. While a few of the latter were hit by fall frost, the plant simply didn't produce many berries to begin with. That is okay, as I don't care for the taste of them anyway.  The first Wild Treasure berries ripened the end of July and we were able to enter some in the local Tanana Valley State Fair. They won 1st place and Class Champion. We are very proud of our Wild Treasure blackberries! In October, we ventured to Anchorage and left some of these award winning berries with the Double Shovel Cider Company to make some Alaskan blackberry-apple cider. We should know how it turned out soon. The Marionberries ended up in a cobbler and some jam.
  We expanded our blackberry plantings this summer and fall by planting some Metolius, more Wild Treasures (about 50) and some thornless Marions. The Metolius were growing vigorously by early fall, which is remarkable since they had been overwintering in rather small pots previously. We have high hopes for Metolius as it is a very early ripening variety. We hope to extend our blackberry picking season from mid-July through mid-September with this newcomer. Speaking of new varieties, we attempted to root some cuttings we obtained from the germ plasm repository in Corvallis, OR, last fall, but they failed. We've been practicing on cuttings from Wild Treasure this fall and will be rerequesting more cuttings next month. We are curious about Wild Treasure's sibling, ORUS 1843-1, and hope the two will complement each other during the summer season. For the most part, they are very similar - and thornless (a real plus when it comes to picking time!).
  Stenulson blackberry surprised us this year - and disappointed us, too. Several canes survived the winter and flowered in mid-June. Unfortunately something (we think it was caterpillars) attacked the leaves of the floricanes and the resulting (few) berries ended up shriveling up before they were completely ripe. They "ripened" around the end of August - and all at once. This is great timing, and you can't complain about a truly hardy erect blackberry. We wonder if there is a way to get some of that hardiness into Wild Treasure. We'll keep experimenting.
  There were many other developments on the farm this year, of course. This fall, we expanded our orchard/food forest with numerous varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries, serviceberries, aronia and apricots. Our blueberry plot got two new Duke plants. In return, we harvested quite a few blueberries off of Chippewa and Northcountry.  They were delicious. About the only thing we didn't get this year were pears. Those are probably a few years away still.
  Okay, so we didn't get any grapes either. Well, we did start planting the vineyard this fall. Three rows are now in, but they are still experimental varieties. One of these, Ivan (from Oregon), was growing like a weed when we planted it out. No other variety we have grown from cuttings has ever produced so many roots in our short, cool summer as Ivan. Price was a close second, though. It appears that if nothing else, these two varieties can deal with the cool summers here.  Both are hardy to about -25F (-32C), which is not all that cold for the farm. The most likely variety to succeed is Baltica and we have yet to plant those. Last spring some cuttings of C-16 (a selection from Canada) arrived in the mail and we went to work rooting and growing them out. This is an extremely hardy and rather early variety that is primarily useful in breeding. It still probably requires more heat than we have here (761 growing degree days, base 50F, this year). There are new cultivars on the horizon for us, however, that will make success more likely. We like to think that it is just a matter of time.
  Our raspberries were quite productive, right up until the porcupine found them. Seems he likes blackberry and raspberry leaves and sampled many raspberries. While it didn't come to mind at the time, we realized recently that there were probably enough raspberries to make wine from both types (Cascade Gold and Cascade Delight). This task is in our plans for next summer, as is blackberry wine. We will be increasing the size of our raspberry plot next summer and hopefully setting out some Fall Gold plants, as well. They are the best yellows, IMO. Jury is still out on the best reds that will grow on the farm. The "normal" hardy varieties (Boyne, Kiska, Latham) grown in the Fairbanks, AK, area are too tart or too sensitive to the fluctuating temperatures we see here on the farm over a typical winter. Malahat was quite impressive this summer, taste-wise, and ripened earlier than Cascade Delight. Its hardiness remains to be tested, however. Add Prelude to Malahat and Cascade Delight and we could be picking raspberries for 10 weeks!
  Still not sure what to think of our honeyberries (Haskaps). They don't want to sweeten up even if left on until the birds find them. Others in the area say they are sweet, but ours aren't - and we've got a number of varieties from Canada, Russia and Japan. Maybe as the plants get older things will change.
  That is not a problem for our serviceberries! Wonderful again this year. Now that we are getting them in the ground, our harvest should skyrocket. Bird netting will be a necessity, however, if we want to harvest enough to sell and make wine from.
  Last, but not least, the peonies are still mostly in the raised beds were they've been for a few years. No new terraces were put in this year and we're not sure if we want to put any more in as they are very hard to maintain and mow. So, we've kind of put the peonies on hold until a decision is made to terrace or not to terrace.
  Next summer we hope to finish planting all of our remaining potted plants and expand the vineyard and blackberry patch. Putting up a tall fence will also be a focus. With luck we will be busy harvesting blackberries for wine, so we will have some to take with us to VitiNord 2018 in Denmark and Sweden.
  Stay tuned for updates on the plant sale next May. If you get a chance, check us out on Facebook at Solitude Springs Farm & Vineyard.
  Happy Holidays!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Plant sale and blackberries

We are wrapping up our second day of plant sales. We will be out again next Saturday from 10 am to 7 pm. Not sure if we will have anything left after that. There are boxes of peonies and fruiting bushes under the house to put in the ground ASAP and we'll be doing that next weekend, as well.
  On a different note, our blackberries survived the mild winter quite well and, other than some damage from moose, have over 50% survival of the canes. For example, several Wild Treasure canes are successfully leafing out more than 6 feet from the base. The first flower buds appeared this week. Hopefully they will start opening around June 1st. With nodes every 3 inches and 8 to 15 berries from each node that is . . . a lot of berries! Black Diamond, Marionberry, and Silvan all look good so far, as well. Stenulson also did very well and was not bothered by moose or voles. It has had flower buds showing for two weeks, but they have yet to open. While we probably won't have enough to sell, we will be making wine (to share at the next VitiNord conference) and will likely have some to sample at the dedication ceremony in August. Stay tuned for more info on that event.
  Time to pack up and go home.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Winter roundup

Well, as was predicted, our weather has been quite warm (averaging 15-20 degrees fahrenheit above normal) for most of the winter.  We had a big snowfall in late September and again around Thanksgiving, but otherwise, snowfall has been a rare occurrence. We've received only a few inches since the first of January.  And, with temperatures climbing above freezing during the day, what there is is slowly disappearing.  A bit early to say the least!
  VitiNord 2015 was all that we hoped it would be and more! Our arrival in Omaha, NE coincided with the passage of a strong weather system that brought heavy rain, strong winds and tornadoes.  In fact, as we were walking into the beautiful Lied Lodge on the first day, a text message came over the phone saying that the area was under a tornado warning.  Welcome to Nebraska! The first day, we addressed the issue of the northern-most vineyard.  It was decided that grapes grown in a greenhouse did not qualify.  The primary requirement will be that the grapevines spend the bulk of the growing season unprotected, although season extenders (like row cover) could be used in the spring and fall.  It was also decided that the grapes from these vines would have to be fully ripe for three consecutive seasons before the "vineyard" could be designated as the northern-most.  It was generally agreed that of the vineyards represented at the conference, our vines here at the farm would be the northern-most.  An exciting prospect if we can find the right variety! We believe that our work with blackberries here on the farm will aid us in our quest for ripe grapes.
  During the conference, we met up with a number of people we originally met in Neubrandenburg in 2012, including Mark Hart, Tom Plocher and several from Norway, Sweden and Finland.  It was exciting to exchange stories and notes on what had transpired over the last three years.  Once again, we were in the company of true pioneers in far north agriculture.  We finally figured out why Ben Sarek has not been productive here.  Turns out, it buds out too early and frosts kill the flowers.  This year, we are going to shade the area so the snow doesn't melt early and see if we get flowers.  Last summer two flowers appeared on our Ben Sarek and we got two currants off of it.  These were the first flowers ever seen and the plant has been in the ground for over 5 years.  The woman I spoke to from Finland about Ben Sarek knew exactly what was happening - I just needed to find the right person.  We also identified a few new sources of grapevine cuttings for cold hardy grapes and should see some of these arrive later this spring.
  There were a wide range of topics presented at the conference including frost protection, vine anatomy and physiology and winemaking.  It was the most complete treatment of grape growing and use that we have come across. We were very grateful for the wealth of information presented.  We learned that not only do the canes isolate themselves from the trunk and roots, but also the buds isolate themselves from the canes during winter.  Everything reattaches come spring. Amazing!
  While we stuck to presentations on viticulture, there were parallel sessions on enology (the art of winemaking).  Once our berries begin ripening, we will have lots of catching up to do on the latter.  There were many opportunities to sample wine during the short (4 days) conference.  There was a USA wine tasting event on Wednesday evening, wine workshops on Thursday and Friday, a global and Nebraska (the state partially sponsored the event) wine tasting on Thursday evening, a gala event with wine and Nebraska beef on Friday night, and a tour of three area wineries on Saturday, followed by a dinner with . . . you guessed it . . . more wine that evening (including non-grape fruit wines).  Saturday evening, we tasted our first Haskap wine.  It was phenomenal.  We can't wait to try making some ourselves from locally grown Haskaps!
  We also met a number of grape growers from North Dakota and Montana.  We hope to take a road trip and visit all of them soon to see how they do things.
  The next VitiNord has not been organized yet, but we hope it will take place somewhere in Scandinavia.
  Speaking of wine, the high-bush cranberry wine we made last spring is just about ready to drink.  We will be sampling it soon to see how it turned out.  Hopefully it is at least decent.  We need to practice our winemaking skills as it is likely we will soon have enough blackberries to make a small batch of wine.  While we won't be able to bring grape wine to the next VitiNord, everyone is expecting some nice Alaska-grown blackberry wine at the conference.
  On another note, we have started our seedlings for the May plant sale.  Unfortunately, our computer died about two weeks ago and we didn't print out the seeding schedule before it did. So, planting is on hold until we get a replacement.
  We have decided not to hold a gardening workshop this spring.  Just not enough time to schedule it all.
  We will be posting another farm video in the next month or so.  Once we have a replacement computer, the video will be edited and posted to YouTube (Solitude Springs Farm & Vineyard).
  Last summer we were asked to join the Board of Directors for the Arctic Alaska Peonies Cooperative (  This has been a challenging position and has required a substantial input of hours.  We will be helping out at the local pack houses and talking to regional peony farmers this summer in order to grow the cooperative.  If you or someone you know wants peonies for their wedding or special occasion during the months of July, August and September, check out the Co-op!  Most florists will tell you that peonies are not available during those months, but they are.  Help us educate them on the topic!!!

Gotta go outside and do the weekly walk around on the farm.