Chestnut Orchard Update

Last spring our chestnut orchard was inoculated with both a strong and a weak strain of chestnut blight to test for blight resistance. In the fall, the trees were evaluated and the trees with the least resistance were cut down and burned. Two weeks ago, members of the American Chestnut Foundation again came and evaluated the trees. They were very impressed with the blight resistance that the trees in our orchard exhibited. Over all, the trees exhibited much more blight resistance than what the trees in other orchards have exhibited. At this point, only about half of the 500 chestnut trees in our orchard have been inoculated with the blight. The rest will be inoculated next spring. Because this is a breeding orchard, only the best trees will be kept. In the end, only about 30 trees will remain of the 500 trees that were planted.

Personnel from the American Chestnut Foundation evaluating the chestnut trees for blight resistance.

Chestnut Blight Inoculation Evaluation in the Chestnut Orchard

Earlier this year, several hundred of the chestnut trees in our chestnut orchard were inoculated with two different strains of chestnut blight. Last week a group from the American Chestnut Foundation came and evaluated the inoculations. We were pleased that many of the trees showed good resistance to the blight. The trees with the weakest resistance will be cut down and the trees with the strongest resistance will be kept for further breeding purposes.

This tree is an example of good resistance to the blight inoculation. The cracks in the bark are an indication that the tree is fighting the blight and is “walling off” the blight to keep it from spreading.

This tree has blight around the crotch of the tree from a naturally occurring source. It looks like the blight is really bad, but the tree actually has good resistance in the way it is fighting the blight. The chestnut orchard is an interesting project, and our family is learning a lot from caring for it. We are looking forward to what happens in the future.

Tour Group from the International Chestnut Symposium

Recently we hosted a tour group of people from around the world who attended the International Chestnut Symposium at Shepherdstown, WV. The tour group leader later commented in an email that the chestnut orchard on our farm was really spectacular given its age. The trees are much bigger than what most are at their age. Earlier this summer, we helped inoculate about 2/3 of the trees with two different strains of chestnut blight. Next year the trees will be evaluated according to how they respond to the blight. The best ones will be used for further breeding purposes.

Two big buses drove up in the pasture to the chestnut orchard.

Part of the tour group.

The Most Important Plant Food – In Your Face and You Can’t See It!

The most important and needed plant food is everywhere. You can’t see it, but you can feel it. You can’t control it or buy it, but it is available for free everywhere. It is as light as the wind, but it makes trees weigh many tons. After I found out what the most needed plant food was, it has totally changed the way I look at plants and think about feeding them.

Over and over I ask God to teach me how to farm, and He has been teaching me some things that I find very exciting. I do not want to take the credit for what I am learning and sharing with you. I did not grow up on a farm, nor am I smart enough to discover the things I am learning on my own. God is the one who is showing me how to put together the different "pieces of the puzzle" that others have found so that I can see the bigger picture. The more I learn, the more I realize that farming is one of the most unexplored frontiers when it comes to understanding how to raise plants and animals so that they have the highest nutrient value that produces the greatest health and longevity for us as people.

At least 80% of the nutrients that a plant needs to grow comes from the air. Air is the most important and needed plant food. I first learned about this concept from Carey Reams who discovered it a number of years ago from his research. Recently I was reading in the 2005 edition of Biological Science by Scott Freeman. In the early 1600’s Jean-Baptiste van Helmont planted a five pound willow sapling in 200 pounds of soil in a container. He predicted that the soil mass would decrease by the same amount that the plant mass increased. After 5 years, the tree weighed 169 lbs, 3oz. The soil weighed 199lbs, 14oz. He concluded that since the soil had not significantly decreased, the additional 164lbs 3oz of tree had come from the water. Later research has found that conclusion to be incorrect and that most of the mass of the tree came from the air, most of it being carbon dioxide.

This past week Cathy and I celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. We went over to beautiful West Virginia and drove through parts of the Monongahela National Forest and surrounding areas. One of the places that I wanted to show Cathy was the Dolly Sods Wilderness area. I had visited it 30 years ago as a teenager when our family vacationed in the area. Dolly Sods is a unique area. It is a high plateau with a cool climate. The tundra-like landscape is described as similar to parts of Alaska and Canada. It receives as much as 290 inches of snow each winter. 30 years ago, most of the trees were short and scrawny and appeared to be struggling for survival in the harsh climate. Many of the trees had branches only on the east side because of the strong winds from the west. Large rocks were visible everywhere.

Last week, I was surprised at the change that had occurred in 30 years’ time. Only a few of the trees had branches only on the east side. In most of Dolly Sods, the vegetation was lush and dense. The land is healing itself. As we thought about it, we realized that the healing to the soil was coming from the air. A bit of history of Dolly Sods will shed more light on the nutrients coming from the air.

The history is drawn from the article on Dolly Sods.

In 1852, Dolly Sods was described as a tract of land entirely uninhabited, and so savage and inaccessible that it had rarely been penetrated even by the most adventurous. Settlers on its borders spoke of it with a sort of fear as they described it filled with bears, panthers, and impassable mountain laurel thickets that had caused hunters who had ventured too far to perish. The area was covered mostly by a dense Red Spruce and Hemlock forest. Some of the trees measured 12 feet in diameter. Years of accumulated needles from these trees created a thick soil humus seven to nine feet deep!! (Note where the deep top soil had come from, not the ground or fertilizer applied to the soil, but from the air! The nutrients that the trees took in from the air grew the spruce needles and when the needles dropped to the ground they increased the depth of the topsoil.)

In the late 1800’s, logging moved into Dolly Sods, and the huge trees were cut down. The thick soil humus dried out and sparks from railroad locomotives, logger’s fires, etc. started fires which burned the humus in the soil. Fires repeatedly swept through the area in the 1910’s until the deep seven to nine foot deep humus topsoil had burned down to rock leaving a thin layer of soil.

As I viewed Dolly Sods this past week it was another object lesson to me that plants do take in nutrients from the air and in the process can enrich the soil so that the plants can have the deep topsoil that they need for the nutrients that they get from the soil. It was also an object lesson to me that when we don’t understand how plants work, we can be very destructive like the loggers were and like chemical agriculture is today. If the loggers had understood how plants work, trees could have been harvested from Dolly Sods and the area managed in such a way that would have produced incredible amounts of lumber indefinitely. Unfortunately, ignorance is not bliss. It is very destructive.

This is a view of the north end of Dolly Sods, which is still a lot the same as it was 30 years ago. Note how short the trees are and how they have branches mostly on one side.

This is what most of Dolly Sods looks like today. The trees are getting tall and creating enough wind break that branches grow on all sides of the tree.

The mountain laurel is coming back. It was just starting to bloom last week. It is reported that there are spectacular displays of mountain laurel in bloom in late June. Note how lush it is, and the dense growth of ferns in the foreground.

How we are applying this knowledge here on the farm
In the American chestnut orchard, we have been letting the grass grow a foot or more tall and then mowing it short. The result has been a significant increase in the growth of the grass compared to the pasture outside the chestnut orchard fence. In addition, the chestnut trees have been having significant growth last year and this year. The chestnut orchard has been my classroom where I have been learning some important lessons on how to capture the energy in the air with the grass and put it into the soil to improve the health of the plants so that they can pull more nourishment out of the air.

The American/Chinese cross chestnut trees this spring have showed significant new growth. The light green is the new growth. These three year old trees, planted as nuts in the spring of 2007, added at least two to three feet of growth on each side and in height in the last two months.

We purchased a tractor and a sickle bar mower this spring to mow the pastures so we can build/deepen the topsoil with the mowed grass. Carey Reams found that grass should mowed with a sickle bar mower and not be mowed with a rotary mower if you want to keep the most nutrients from the grass. A rotary mower or bush hog chops up the grass too much, and many of the nutrients in the grass evaporate into the air again and are lost. We mowed a section of pasture last year with a sickle bar mower and left it laying on the ground. The grass grew back with much more growth than where we mowed with a rotary mower.

We have found, too, that mowing the chicken pastures on a regular basis has significantly increased the brix reading of the grass. The higher brix grass has more nutrients, protein, and omega-3’s increasing the nutrient density of our eggs, and chicken and lamb meat.

There is much more about plants getting their nutrients from the air that remains to be discovered and applied. If any of you have a piece of the puzzle, please share it with us. We would be glad to hear about it.

The American Chestnut Orchard

As many of you know, the American Chestnut Foundation has an American chestnut breeding orchard located here on our farm. Recently a new sign was put up so that you can see where the orchard is located. The orchard is located on the right side of the lane, up the hill behind where the sign is located. The American Chestnut Foundation is working to develop a blight resistant American chestnut tree by cross breeding the American chestnut with the blight resistant Chinese chestnut. The cross bred chestnut trees are then back crossed with an American chestnut a number of times until a blight resistant chestnut tree is obtained that is 15/16 American chestnut. Currently, there are about 500 trees in our orchard. The oldest trees are four years old and the youngest ones were planted this spring.

The American chestnut was at one point the most important tree in the forests from Maine to Georgia. The chestnuts provided abundant food for many species of wildlife. The wood is beautiful and is great for cabinet making and furniture. In addition, the wood is excellent for outdoor projects as well. It has the rot resistance of redwood, but it is much harder and more wear resistant. In 1904 an imported fungus caused a blight which started killing the American chestnut trees. By 1950, approximately four billion trees on some nine million acres of eastern forests had been destroyed by the blight. Only a very few American chestnut trees remain today. When the American chestnut trees died out, a lot of wildlife went with them because a lack of food. The oak tree replaced the chestnut in many areas. However, the acorn does not compare in food value to the chestnut.

Chestnut orchard sign
Chestnut orchard
This is the entrance to the chestnut orchard. Note the deer fence to keep out the deer.

When I do volunteer work, I often feel like I receive a greater blessing than the ones that I help. This has been true in our work in caring for the chestnut orchard the last three years. When we moved here, the chestnut orchard was the worst piece of ground on our farm. The Department of Natural Resources had sprayed RoundUp and killed all the vegetation before they planted the chestnut trees. As a result, instead of grass, it was the most awful plot of thistles and other weeds! The trees grew poorly. For the next two years, I would let the thistles grow until they started making a flower bud, and then I would mow the orchard. I know that some of the people from the American Chestnut Foundation thought that I didn’t mow often enough and that my plan for getting rid of the thistles wouldn’t work.

This year I received the blessing from my labor. I discovered that in taking care of the chestnut orchard I had learned an important lesson on how to take a poor plot of ground and turn it into a highly productive soil. In addition the thistles are gone! The thistle plant is at its weakest point when it is starting to produce a flower. Its energy is being put into making seed rather than into growth. By repeatedly cutting it at that stage it is weakened and eventually killed. The chestnut orchard is now the best plot of ground on our farm. It was in the chestnut orchard that we discovered how to increase the brix (sugar and mineral content) of the pasture. This summer the brix of the clover in the orchard was as high as 17%, up from only 7% last year. We are using what we learned in the chestnut orchard to improve the soil on the rest of the farm.

So how did we improve the soil in the chestnut orchard? We did it by letting the grass grow tall and then mowing it short. The roots on grass go as far down in the soil as the grass is in height above the soil. If the grass is four inches tall, then the roots are about four inches deep. If the grass is a foot tall, then the roots go about a foot deep into the soil. When the grass is cut, the roots die back to the same amount that is left above ground. By waiting until the grass was a foot or more tall before we mowed it, it meant that we were adding a lot of organic matter a foot or more deep into the soil in addition to the grass clippings that were added on top of the soil. In other words, we are creating topsoil a foot or more deep. Not only is organic matter added to the soil, but also carbon is being sequestered in the soil as the roots die back. The grass takes the carbon out of the air in the form of carbon dioxide and puts some of it in the roots.

The results in the chestnut orchard this summer were amazing to me. I noticed significant growth in the trees throughout the summer. Last year the tallest trees that were at the end of their second growing season were about 42 inches tall. Last year the American chestnut foundation said that our orchard was one of the best growing orchards in Maryland. This year, with a similar amount of rainfall, the tallest trees at the end of their second growing season were seven to seven and a half feet tall! This was accomplished without any fertilizer.

So why doesn’t this principle of soil building work on your lawn? It is because a lawn is not left to grow a foot or more tall over and over through out the summer. If a lawn is cut when it is six inches tall, it is only adding organic matter into the top six inches of soil. The deeper the top soil, the better the growth of the plants. That is one reason why raised beds tend to be more productive. They add topsoil on top of the topsoil in the soil which increases the total number of inches of topsoil for the plant to grow in.

Two year old tree
This two year old chestnut tree is 7 1/2 feet tall. The 2×4 is 8 feet long.

Tree planted this spring
This is one of the chestnut trees that was planted as a seed this spring.
You can see Sugarloaf Mountain in the background.