Conservation Neighbor: Jeff Mitchell, Pax Produce

Every garden is a learning opportunity. I was fortunate to be able to teach hands-on Botany to many, fantastic high school kids in Lincoln County and Philomath High School for over 28 years. Through careful research we identified key components of successful gardens, vineyards and orchards. I learned many things from my students. One of the most important outcomes prioritized “local adaptation”. Understanding the genetic differences in local varieties before choosing which crop to plant can determine success rate.

Garden 2014 lettuceFor 15 years, Philomath High School Botany students grew and evaluated 20 lettuce varieties each year developed by Frank and Karen Morton at Shoulder to Shoulder and Gathering Together Farms. Each variety was grown under carefully controlled conditions and evaluated for various important genetic phenotypes. It was remarkable to witness the diversity in color, pest and cold resistance, flavor and growth-rates at maturity. Over the years it became obvious that some varieties grew faster, tasted better, and withstood the winter temperatures much better than others which were often more susceptible to fungal or bacterial diseases, eaten by slugs and cucumber beetles, or killed by the slightest frost.The trick was to find a combination of genetic traits that combine all or most of the beneficial characteristics in one or two varieties. We did not do the actual breeding; rather we conducted what are known as “variety trials”.  In the trials we discovered how important it is to identify which varieties can most succeed and adapt to the local microclimate.

figsMy friend, Kevin, is a great example of this idea. He loves figs. He told me he planted a fig tree at his Willamette Valley home over twenty years ago.  He has never gotten one, ripe fig from that tree. His problem, and the source of his frustration, is that a nursery sold him an inappropriate variety for the Willamette Valley climate.  His fig tree would probably thrive in California, but there is not enough summer heat or frost-free days here in the Valley.Figs can and do ripen here.  The old established farms are a good place to look for successful varieties, some with excellent flavor and good cold-resistance. Four years ago I collected cuttings from four different neighbors’ trees, all different varieties and all good figs, according to the farmers. Two have begun to bear in my orchard and have survived super cold winters. The fruit is excellent. I gave a young tree to Kevin and he has renewed hope for future figs.

When I retired in 2010 I continued to pursue my passion for agriculture on two  acres of sandy loam soil near the Willamette River. I grow a large, organic garden that feeds my salad-loving wife and 8-10 local families during the spring, summer and fall.During the winter, my immediate family depends on hardy winter greens and root crops stored in the soil. I also conduct variety trials of species that are important nutritionally or serve as gourmet food for home gardeners. At Pax Produce, we grow organic, locally-adapted, pest/disease-resistant, great-tasting crops, including varieties of the following plants that challenge the average Willamette Valley gardener: peaches, apples, table grapes, globe artichokes, watermelons, and chestnuts.

garden, summer 2015 033 peachesPeaches

One of the sure signs of summer in the Willamette Valley and Coast Range is when peaches start ripening. Friends tell me that peaches grow well in the dry air of Montana and Colorado, but they are a challenge to grow without the help of repeated applications of fungicides here in humid western Oregon. However, at Philomath High School, we experimented with a few varieties alleged to be “Peach Leaf-curl” resistant, the most common disease for most peaches. I planted two of the most successful varieties and added six more to our variety trials here in the valley.  I also planted the same varieties in Alsea, where I established a three-acre experimental orchard in 2009. The results have been mixed, which is what one would expect.No fungicides have been applied to any of the trees, and all but two, which have been removed due to poor resistance, have shown at least some resistance to leaf-curl disease. Of those that remain, all have shown at least minor symptoms of the disease: curled, reddish leaves in spring that soon drop off the tree leaving bare-spots on the twigs. The leaf drop in turn reduces photosynthesis. Some varieties do recover in time to set a crop of fruit.  Members of our CSA continue to evaluate those that recover for the quality of the fruit. The goal is to identify a variety or two that can resist the fungus and also produce high quality fruit. Six varieties show promise. One surprising observation is that the Alsea peaches show less disease than the Valley peaches, and have produced excellent crops. This may be due to recent warmer, dryer summers in an area where few gardeners have attempted to grow peaches, so fungal spores are limited and isolated.

Riggens and apples 004Apples

Probably the commonest and easiest tree fruit to grow in western Oregon are apples.  There are lots of genes to play with. Plant breeders have worked for years attempting to eliminate the damage of another fungus, “Apple Scab”, which reduces photosynthesis in the leaves and causes blemishes that affect the fruit. Choosing from the many varieties that have been developed that are Scab-free is now simple, but finding the best tasting and/or best storing varieties can be a challenge. We are comparing a dozen of those, and have located a few old pioneer varieties that also compete well. When I prune in winter, I save scion-wood and graft the best local varieties onto M7 rootstocks to be cultured in my nursery for 3 years before being offered for sale on Craigslist and at Shonnard’s Nursery.The biggest insect pest of apples is Coddling Moth.  There is an established IPM management program based on trapping, temperature and pheromones, but it is complicated and can be challenging to implement for a homeowner with only a tree or two, who often opt for tolerating some percentage of wormy fruit.

Garden 2014 grapes

Table Grapes

I remember the Botany kids at Philomath High during the warm first days of school in September. They were learning what it means to physically work as they removed weeds and the last year’s crops and manually turned the soil in their garden beds. I always had cold lemonade on hand so they could cool off and continue working, but the real attraction was the table grape arbor, where you could always see kids taking what they called a “grape break” where they clustered near their favorite varieties. I find myself doing the same thing during those long workdays in late summer. There is no need to stop for lunch, if one can just wander over to the grape section and sample sweet treats with lots of sugar-energy. My friend, Ron McNeely, is a master gardener; not one trained by books from the local extension agency, but one with 40 years of real world gardening. He grows many varieties of table grapes for snacking and juicing. He always supplied the Botany students with 10 varieties he grew at home for a lab, which evaluated the phenotype of each variety. Kids made visual observations of the cluster size, berry size, cluster tightness, berry color, presence of seeds, texture and flavor of skin and flesh, and presence or absence of fungal disease. From these lab results, over the years we created the school vineyard with the very best local varieties. Of the 18 varieties I grow in my garden, 8 came from the school collection. Others were recommended by friends or catalogs. When I prune the vines in late winter, I propagate new plants from the cuttings of the best locally-adapted varieties and sell them through Shonnard’s Nursery and Craigslist. Grapes are so easy to grow, have few pests, and the right varieties develop into such low-maintenance, tasty treats.

Globe Artichokes

I grew up near the Coast Range in California where artichokes thrive in the cool, foggy conditions near the ocean. They are such beautiful plants, with huge purple flowers that are like candy to bumble-bees.  They have unique-flavored flower buds. They are easy to clone with root divisions, so an open-pollinated variety, like Green Globe, offers genetic variations in number, color, size, and flavor of buds. There are also variations in the shape of the buds and the tendency for thorns on the leaves. I’ve hosted several choke-tasting parties where neighbors blind-tested varieties and found that the flavor and texture differences are minor. With that in mind we are selecting plants that produce large numbers of big chokes in both spring and fall, and that can survive Willamette Valley winters. We have lost about 30% over the past 2 year’s winter cold-snaps, but have replaced those plants with clones of the best survivors. Our best plants are producing their second crop of the year this October, which would be common in California but, to my knowledge, is not common in the Valley. Slugs love the lower leaves, but can easily be controlled with artificial habitat, such as a flat board under each plant, that acts as an attractant. Earwigs can climb up the stems and hide inside the leaves of the buds, but they do little damage and crawl right out, if the buds are floated in a big bowl of water prior to cooking.

Garden 2014 watermelonsWatermelons

I have been fortunate to have been mentored by Melon Mike Hessel of Red Hat Melons and the Melon Shack fame. Mike learned melon culture in Hermiston, Oregon, so he knows all the tricks. Helping him transplant or harvest on his 10 acre plot is better than a semester course at a university. He is a meticulous master of melons. Mike uses conventional methods, but since we are organic, I’ve had to make some minor adjustments. Nevertheless, I have found that very sweet watermelons can regularly ripen in the valley if you have very warm and fertile soil and keep the leaves dry by sub-irrigation. Of all of our crops, watermelons receive the most consistent and positive raves.

Chestnuts

Chestnuts, 2015

My elderly neighbors, the Woods, grew blueberries commercially in their younger years. When they reached their mid-seventies they reduced their maintenance by replacing the berries with Chestnut trees, which are known to have a fatal fungal disease in the wilds of the Midwest called “Chestnut Blight”. To reduce the chance for disease they chose to grow a Japanese/European hybrid which has been alleged to be blight-resistant. Their 2-acre orchard is now 15 years old with a closed canopy of trees over 30 feet tall. A few trees have shown signs of the disease and have been removed, indicating the fungus is present locally. Of the remaining trees, a few are totally healthy and vigorous, producing large numbers of huge, tasty nuts. From the best of those, I have collected the largest nuts and will begin planting them this fall in what will be phase 2 of natural selection against the fungus. I met a Bosnian man in the orchard last year who was collecting the nuts, which are a staple in his homeland. He explained his method of roasting the nuts, which is simple but must be done in sequence.  The results are a real treat during the cool days of fall, and especially on Thanksgiving.