The Farm Between hosted its first student group of 2021 as part of Sterling College’s work program. Five students from the ice climbing class joined us on the afternoons of February 17th and February 24th. At first glance it does not appear that there is much happening on the farm right now. Snowbanks are piled high along the driveway and beside the buildings, and many berry bushes are barely visible above the snow. This, however, is the season for collecting scion wood and cuttings for propagation, and for pruning. The students were up for some outdoor work, despite temperatures in the twenties and a light but bitter wind. We spent most of the first afternoon in the high tunnels, and luckily for us the sun was shining. The difference between the temperature inside and the temperature outside the high tunnels was that of a layer or two, which made the work quite pleasant on a cold day in the middle of winter.
We started out pruning rows of raspberries. We grow fall-bearing raspberries at The Farm Between, so pruning involves removing all of the old canes in order to make room for the new ones which will bear this season’s crop. It was hard not to dream of the sweet, red berries to come, despite all the snow that lay just outside the tunnel walls. As we pruned we looked for hollow canes that could serve as nesting sites for mason bees. Mason bees are a native pollinator. After emerging from hibernation in the spring and mating, the solitary females lay their eggs in hollow twigs, the abandoned nests of wood-boring beetles, or human-made tunnels. During their approximately four week lifespan, the females collect pollen, which will become food for their offspring. They lay a single egg within the nest, which they cap with mud, and repeat the process until the tunnel is full, before moving on to the next. Mason bees are important partners to us, as 250-300 females can pollinate an entire acre of fruit trees, thereby increasing yields. We keep nesting sites throughout the farm, and inside the high tunnels where they will emerge to spring blossoms on our plum and cherry trees.
Next we collected plum and cherry scions, which will be grafted onto rootstock in the spring. Scions are one-year-old growth that is collected during the dormant season, and joined to a rootstock of the same, or related, species. The scion is the variety of fruit we are trying to grow—often selected for characteristics such as flavor and yield—and the rootstock informs the vigor and hardiness of the tree. In two or three years these trees will be ready for sale in the nursery. The students carefully selected for diameter and uprightness, and also did some light pruning in the process. It took some imagination to realize that such small sticks would eventually become as large as the trees from which we were gathering them, but growing fruit is like that. It requires a certain amount of imagination, an eye toward the future.
By then the sunlight was beginning to pale, and with a bit of shoveling thrown in for good measure the afternoon was just about over. We ended with some hot cider and All College Meeting on Zoom.
A week later the students joined us again following a morning of skiing at nearby Smuggler’s Notch Resort. It’s amazing the difference a week can make at this time of year in terms of weather. Though clouds rolled in by the time they arrived, the morning had been quite warm and sunny–practically t-shirt weather, despite still being shin-deep in snow. The incoming clouds necessitated an extra layer, and the softening snow necessitated snowshoes. It was the kind of snow that makes you think of tapping maple trees. Or collecting scionwood.
We started in the Knoll Orchard, collecting plum and apple scions. The Knoll Orchard is a polyculture orchard containing two rows of plum trees and twelve rows of apple trees, with various Ribes, nitrogen fixers, and pollinator plants in between the trees. This diversity encourages beneficial insects, builds fertility, and provides a harvest while waiting for the fruit trees to mature. After collecting plant material there, we continued along the perimeter of the farm to Pear Corner–another polyculture orchard with pears as the anchor trees. There we collected more scionwood. In all, during the course of the two afternoons this group spent with us, we collected enough material to yield hundreds of new plants for the nursery.
As we walked, we noticed a few areas where bare ground was exposed, indicating low or wet spots–one example of the many microclimates that exist around the farm. Though the very next day was blustery and snowy, and nearly obscured those spots, as well as the path we had traveled around the farm. Such is the weather in Vermont in late winter.
To end the day, we pruned apple trees in the Front Lawn Orchard. This is the most established orchard on the farm, and since the trees are already nicely shaped we focused on thinning out excess growth in order to allow more air and sunlight through during the growing season. This promotes fruit-ripening and wards off disease.
Another good day’s work with the ice climbing students. We look forward to hosting this group again in late March!