What is Sharpness, Basic Sharpening Theory, the Starting Point for Learning to Sharpen Tools

Today's video is about basic sharpening theory, looked at through the question, what is sharpness?  This information is where learning to sharpen should ideally start.  Information like which type of sharpening stones to use, techniques for using them, which tools are sharpened at what angle and so on, are not much use without understanding what sharpness is and the factors that create it.  This information illuminates the goal and by extension possible ways to go wrong in pursuing it.


A Farewell to Spring

This Spring I would go out now and again in the morning or evening and shoot a little bit of footage of whatever interesting things I'd run across.  This is a 4 minute video of that stuff.  No talking, not much text, just a bunch of flowers, noisy birds in the background and the occasional ubiquitous chicken.  Summer is entirely different there than spring.  Most of the birds have left for greener pastures leaving the obnoxious Stellar's Jays behind.  A few tough native grasses will stay partly green through the summer, and the rest is seared brown by the several heat waves we've already been through.  When I go walking my shoelaces and pants pick up burrs and grass seeds and my heart jumps whenever I smell smoke.  I think I appreciate spring more and more everyday, but contrast is good and the other seasons have their perks, like no ticks, or juicy tomatoes, tor ime to rest and reflect.  Anyway, farewell to spring and hopefully we'll all see many more.

Posted on July 2, 2017 .

Finishing the Oak Bark Tanned Deer Leather

Cute and practical, just how I like 'em!

Cute and practical, just how I like 'em!

Last winter I started a project oak bark tanning a deer skin to make leather for the axe strop project.  The project follows the collecting and processing of materials to build pocket sized sharpening strops as prizes for people who completed the Axe Cordwood Challenge.  I'm making everything I need for the strops and decided to show the whole tanning process and everything else in a series of videos.  Almost 6 months ago, I laid the prepared skin away to tan in oak bark.  It sat in there about 4 months longer than it needed to, but I took it out and finished it this week, and it looks like it turned out pretty decent.

The leather is perhaps a little light and spongy, "Empty", as they say in the tanning trade.  Emptiness results from the loss of structural proteins in the skin by chemical or bacterial action.  It isn't much of a surprise considering that I over-limed it to start with, and that it sat in a weak vegetable tanning (plant based) solution for 4 months longer than it needed to.  Those are actually the type of things that a tanner might do on purpose to a hide in order to make the finished leather soft and pliable.  That's not what I was planning though.  I would prefer a rather firm and weighty leather for this project, but that is not even the nature of deer to start with.  Deer skin, at least our deer skin here in the Western U.S. has an open, coarse-fibered, low density character that lends itself well to softened leathers.  It would have been better to move it through the process faster with shorter liming time.  But, a process that uses somewhat preservative solutions like lime and tannin, begs for procrastination.  Add that I have to make videos of it all and it's a perfect storm for not getting things done in a timely manner.  It will probably work fine for the project, but I haven't assessed it closely yet.  If it doesn't work out, I have plenty of other skins I've tanned over the years that are suitable and I got to show the process start to finish, with some of the warts and mistakes that any home tanner is likely to experience.

The next steps will be making the wooden paddles, making glue and putting it all together into the finished product.  I only need a small amount of leather for the project.  Seven brave and industrious individuals chopped one cord or more of firewood for the cordwood challenge using axes only and will receive a finished strop and a leather patch when they are made.  The balance of the leather will be stowed away with the rest of my leather cache, to wait for a suitable project.

My Hand Watering Tool of Choice, the Fan Sprayer, and Cheap Hoses Just Got Cheaper

My watering nozzle of choice is the fan sprayer.  Unfortunately it's hard to find a good one these days.  Read more below, or watch the video. 

Also, the hoses I just recommended in another video and blog post, Craftsman 50 foot, 5/8 inch rubber hose, just went down in price further for the next day.  They go off sale TODAY.  Someone commented that Sears is in financial crisis and may go under, so it might be a good time to buy some.  They're like "WE'RE GOING DOWN, QUICK, SELL ALL THE HOSES!"  They are 17.99 with free shipping on orders above 50.00,  or free in store pick up even if they aren't actually on sale in the store.  The 100 foot are about twice that much, so same per foot price.  http://www.sears.com/lawn-garden-watering-hoses-sprinklers-garden-hoses/b-1024024

The package says the hose contains lead and chemicals known to cause cancer as everything must in California.  I did a brief search and found this hose to actually score very well against most tested for toxic compounds including lead, of which none was found.  http://www.ecocenter.org/healthy-stuff/samples/50-ft-craftsman-premium-heavy-duty-rubber-garden-hose

Quite a few people commented on the video with positive reviews of this hose, including people that have used them for over 10 years.

I like fan sprayer nozzles because they deliver a lot of water and deliver it gently if designed well.  The other major reason I like them is that the spray pattern and water delivery can be adjusted by tilting the head side to side.  I can cover a 3 to 4 foot wide swath 8 feet away by holding it horizontally, or concentrate most of that water in a one foot circle at the same distance by simply tilting the head vertically.  In between those extremes, you can adjust the width by adjusting the tilt.  This versatility and the wide horizontal coverage make them especially good for watering wide beds as well as for variable conditions.  nothing else I know of delivers this amount of water in that sort of versatile pattern.  Unfortunately good ones are hard to find and I can't recommend a new one, though I can recommend some old ones.

Hole size is a major design issue with these.  If sprayers with small holes are available new at all, they will be the exception.  Small holes mean finer streams of water, which equals less trauma to seedlings and seedbeds as well as the fragile soil surface.  High volume and gentle delivery are hard to find in one package.  The older fan sprayers seem to have small holes for the most part.  THE ROSS is the brand I've used most and they are not that uncommon to run into.  THE ROSS #10 shown in this video was patented in 1924.  There are at least two models I can recommend, the #10 and #11. Both have similar holes, but different construction.  Examine old ones for leaks at any soldered or folded seams.  The cast metal body of the #11 can corrode through in some cases, so examine them closely as well.

Three good fan sprayers.  THE ROSSes #'s 10 and 11 and a no name short brass one that is every bit as functional, if a little less durable.

Three good fan sprayers.  THE ROSSes #'s 10 and 11 and a no name short brass one that is every bit as functional, if a little less durable.

 

A common design feature in new models is a valve in the handle of the sprayer.  I think that is a mistake.  The valve will fail eventually and can't be replaced.  From my experience with hose shut off valves, it will probably fail rather sooner than later.  Most people will want a hose shut off valve on the end of a hose anyway for switching appliances and such without going back to shut off the valve at the spigot.  I have one on the end of every hose, which makes a valve in the sprayer body not only an unnecessary failure waiting to happen, but it's also an unneeded restriction in the line.

Most hoses should have a shut off valve already.  Putting a valve on the sprayer is usually going to be a disadvantage, let a lone redundant.

Most hoses should have a shut off valve already.  Putting a valve on the sprayer is usually going to be a disadvantage, let a lone redundant.

The vintage ones can be found on ebay or etsy.  Etsy seems to have quite a few, but I had to search "garden sprinkler" and sort through a bunch of results to find them.  They are not super cheap, but given what is usually available on the market now, it might be worth spending 10.00 to 15.00 on a vintage one.  I've found quite a few of them over the years at flea markets and such, but most of mine came from one single estate sale where I found a pile of them.  Lucky me :)  I have excellent thrift store/yardsale/flea market juju though.  Just ask my mom, or my pile of all clad cookware.

My second hand juju is strong.  Pray to the flea market gods all you want, some of us are just born with it.

My second hand juju is strong.  Pray to the flea market gods all you want, some of us are just born with it.


A Tale of Three Watering Cans and a Hose Recommendation

I got two videos on watering for ya today.  One is about three quality built watering cans and watering can design.  The other one is recommending the Sears Craftsman rubber hoses on sale now and seemingly every spring at 20.00 for 50 feet.  My friend Mark Albert recommended them saying they are good for 30 years (also confirmed by a youtube viewer).  I've been using them for a few years and plan to keep buying them.   I haven't met a plastic hose that will last yet and If there is one I'll bet it's not this cheap.  If they aren't on sale in the actual store, you can ask for the online price with free delivery and they'll let you walk out with them for 19.99 each.  That's all you really need to know, so you don't even have to watch the video!

Splitting Axe Cut Wood With a Sharp Felling Axe, Safety and Effectiveness

The first video is a short trailer or propaganda piece to promote the second video.  Below are a few non-technical points I wanted to elaborate on.

I just have a few points I want to emphasize or elaborate on.  I made this video in response to a lot of questions from people about how to deal with wood that is bucked with an axe, since it can't be set on end, or on a block.  Also, because of how I'm operating with one axe, I assumed that it would be a small short axe and that it was intended to retain the edge in chopping condition.  That wasn't so much a plan as it was just how it turned out since that's my world right now.  It is not the only way to approach it.  You could, and most probably do, have a dedicated splitting axe, or maybe a splitting edge on one side of a double bitted axe that can taste a little dirt here and there without much worry, especially if it's ground with a fat bevel that is less likely to suffer severe damage than a thinly ground edge.  A longer heavier axe with a fatter grind is great, as is not having to baby it.  However, using a small, short axe and keeping it sharp requires one to refine technique and strategy, and I think that is a good thing.  I'm also very interested in making whatever tool I have work, and in processing wood with one axe.  You'll hardly find anyone out there recommending an axe ground for felling, limbing and bucking as a splitting axe.  Probably the opposite in fact.

One of the important points in this video is that it requires some investment to figure out what is possible.  Many will discount the possibility of using axes, but not always out of experience, but rather assumption.  I've been guilty of this to an extent myself and it's a mistake.  I personally think that it's worth some investment to figure out what is possible and where an axe is more advantageous than a maul.  I really like splitting with a maul and with some of the stuff I have to split, like dry hardwoods with knots and forks, I'm not likely to ditch my maul altogether.  But, I will keep pushing my limits with axes of various kinds to find out what those limits really are. 

It is not enough to just just smack a few rounds with an axe to see if anything falls off.  It takes some investment in yourself to develop good technique and at least a basic understanding of strategy as presented in these videos.  The flick technique, as Buckin' Billy Ray Smith calls it, or the twist as the Vido's call it, is essential to develop for splitting anything difficult with an axe.  It is just a way to use the power generated in the swing to good mechanical advantage by prying the wood apart on impact instead of just wedging it apart with the shape of the axe.  It can make up for the lower mass of an axe head v.s. a maul in some cases.  I believe that Tom Clark, inventor of the buster axe, an axe optimized for this technique, actually hit the wood with the head tilted at a slight angle.  I think I twist it on impact, but it's hard to know for sure without a slow mo study.  Either way, you'll develop a feel for what works.  It is a skill that has to be learned by some time spent as it's rather clumsy at first to get the timing right. If you have a very sharp short handled axe that you are trying to stay out of the way of, which often requires somewhat awkward positioning, and on top of all that are trying to hit the center of a knotty piece of wood within a quarter inch, you can imagine that some time will have to be put in to gain a reasonable level of skill.  The catch 22 is that it's only by gaining a certain level of proficiency that we can find out what is really possible and not.

The flick technique can be used as an alternative to generating velocity in splitting at times, but should not be thought of as a permanent stand in for it.  The ability to generate a high velocity is a critical tool to have and will only complement that sideways torque when both are needed.  I didn't go much into it, but will in the future.  From my observation and experience so far, high velocity is primarily created by the axe head scribing an arc around a relatively fixed, or at least more fixed, point, like the wrists, elbows, shoulders, waist, or a complex combination of all of those.  it is a complex topic.  With the target at a certain height, it becomes less possible to generate velocity, and the higher you go from there, the harder it gets.  That is one reason I don't use splitting blocks much.  Working close to the ground has the advantage that it is easier to generate velocity, because you have more distance in the swing and can use body mechanics to better advantage.

For me, doing the axe cordwood challenge, in the way I approach it, has been perfect for developing these skills.  I stick pretty much with the axe I'm chopping with, which for now is always small and sharp, and I split in the field with no blocks or contrivances of any kind.  I can only remember abandoning two, maybe three, pieces of wood that were just really knotty or more likely forked.  Even those could likely be split with enough energy, but I know when not to beat my head against a wall for a peanut.  I'm glad that I've invested in this skill, because it will ultimately increase my splitting efficiency in all arenas.  I now have a pretty good idea of what I can get away with and am further refining and defining when an axe will be more advantageous than a maul in splitting sawn rounds as well.  For what it's worth, these videos at least show some possibility that can be put to use or invested in later.  It's not for everyone, and not for every situation, and possibly not for every species, but in the right circumstances it is remarkably efficient and satisfying.  I can say, that just splitting what I incidentally have to cut here, which is Madrone, Bay, Fir, Tan oak and Black oak, that none of those species are consistently difficult to split when young trees are cut and split green.  Older Madrone and Bay can develop some wicked cross grain, but a person is not likely to be cutting those for firewood with an axe, and if they were, large trunks would have to be split, probably with wedges, before bucking, not after. 

The axe and the technique of using it with good strategy are just another set of tools in the bag to be applied where they are best suited, or when necessary.  But, again, it is a tool that has to be developed and refined to be appreciated and applied to anything but the most easily split woods.  I'm glad I've put in some time and forced my progress by using axes that are not ideal for the job and I get to reap the rewards of that from here out.

Did I mention that it's fun?  It's really fun :D

What to Do With Those Axe Cut Woodchips? The Burning Question

One of the most common questions, if not the most common question on my axe related content is some combination of what do you do with the chips, aren't they wasteful compared to a saw and wouldn't it be better to just use a saw.  The video below is about that and what we can do with the chips which are quite useful for anyone with a garden or who burns wood.  Below that are some further thoughts not really covered in this video.

What I covered in that video was, in short, yes there are a lot of wood chips produced when processing wood with an axe.  This tree was probably 9 inches in diameter and I estimated about two good firewood logs worth of chips were produced.  It takes under 5 minutes to pick up 80% or more, in this case 3.5 minutes.  I talked about what you can use them for, like biochar, mushroom growing and fuel, and how whether it is viewed as wasteful or not is a matter of context.  What I didn't really talk about is why some of us use axes and not saws for hand processing firewood. 

I didn't talk about that, because I more or less just forgot to!  I think that in my head it would be self evident that not I, nor anyone else, is using an axe because it is the quickest and most efficient method of firewood production.  I like saws.  I like my chainsaw.  I'll be using my chainsaw a lot for processing wood this year, not because I need the wood, but because I need to deal with a lot of sick trees that will soon be a fire hazard and which represent a short term opportunity to gather some resources that will soon be unavailable.

But, when I set out to do the cordwood challenge myself the previous season, challenging myself to cut a cord of wood in 3 months, I was slightly wary.  Before committing I think I went and cut up a small tree or two just to be sure I should be announcing to the entire internet that I was going to go for it.  Aside from potential personal limitations though, I knew I could do it, because people used to do it.  Dudley cook said in The Axe Book, that a good axeman could put up 2 cords a day!  I knew the cord he was talking about had to be in at least 24 inch lengths, and not the 16 inch stove lengths I was cutting.  More probably it was cut into between 32 and 48 inch lengths for industrial use, transportation in bulk and most probably very wide fireplaces.  Charcoal makers would cut wood even longer to make large stacks of wood.  Still, do the math.  I'm cutting about 3 times as much to get my 16 inch logs as a guy cutting 32 inchers, but even the slowish guy could probably put that up in just 3 days of average work!

Well, that is interesting to think about, but it doesn't prove anything to me for real or gain me a lot of real insight.  To gain knowledge it is required of us to take information and do more than absorb it, more than mull over it and make assumptions and inferences.  For me that process looks more like taking in information, contemplating it, putting it into practice, maybe getting more information, more experience, more contemplation etc.  At some point, something resembling truths begin to gel out of that process.  In short, I knew that to gain real insight into the problem of axe work and what it's potentials and limitations really were, I had to put it into practice for reals.  Not only that, but I actually had to improve my own skills to a certain level before I could really understand what that potential was and where an axe may be more or less useful than a saw.  Give an unskilled person an axe and a hand saw and tell them to limb this same tree and they are likely to conclude that the saw is easier and faster.  But no matter how good they get with that saw, I'll have the same tree limbed up more quickly, with much less physical effort and many of by knots will be trimmed more closely than theirs.

I'll also have way more fun doing it!  Axe work is engaging, exciting, focusing, cultivates coordination and provides a diverse form of exercise.  Sawing by comparison is dull and tedious work and the best you can do is trade off one side for the other.  I like sawing up to a point.  It is good honest contemplative work.  It is also skilled work and a good hand with a saw will out saw a newb every time.  But it is only so skilled and lacks the special combination of things that makes axe work really engaging and fun.  Saws have their place as do axes.  But the place an axe has in any one particular persons hands is informed by that persons skill level and understanding of it's efficient use, and that requisite skill is only gained by extended use, and not by dabbling at the thing.

All of which is to point out that, while my use of an axe on that fir tree in these last couple of videos did result in two fewer logs worth of large firewood, rather than smaller chips, such is simply part of the cost of admission into that understanding of what is and is not possible with an axe and what place it does or doesn't have in our tree work.  It's a rather small price it is to pay when they are easy to pick up and decidedly very useful as fuel or for other purposes.

And repeat thousands of times :)

And repeat thousands of times :)

Axe Only Firewood Processing, Felling, Limbing, Lopping, Bucking for a Splitting Video

I released a video a couple days ago on processing my last tree for the cordwood challenge.  This was a tree I chose as not particular easy to split for a splitting video I'm still waiting to record.  The question of how you split wood with an axe if it's cut with an axe instead of a saw vies with "what do you do with the chips" as the most common question regarding processing wood with an axe.  The footage I shot for the front of that video seemed like a good stand alone video, so I edited it and posted it with some commentary.

Be aware that there is a lot going on when I'm processing this tree that is invisible to the uninitiated.  If I were watching someone else do it, I could spot some of that "invisible" technique and safety stuff, but not all of it as it is very subtle and personal.  The lopping operation is especially dangerous, but I'm using several things to stay as safe as possible.  The most important might be the direction of cut, which means in what direction the force is pointed, the obvious reference point being the cutting edge.  A close second is probably body positioning to decrease the likelihood of a stray edge contacting my body.  Moderation of the force used is also extremely important.  Axe work requires constant adaptation and a certain level of humility where you have to say to yourself "I can hit this really hard, but I'm not going to!"  Finally, you really have to be able to hit what you're aiming at.  Anyway, it's mostly a lot of chopping, but some people really seem to like that.  There are some really good pointers though too.  You can count on some very detailed tutorials in the future.

How to Graft onto Existing Fruit Trees, Frameworking and Topworking Explained

I've reached #10 in the grafting video series.  I'm looking forward to finishing the last 2 or 3 segments and moving on to something else.  It's quite an investment to watch it all, and I know it is not needed just now by a lot of people, but it will be there when it is needed.  It will be really great to finally have a grafting resource to refer people to in my writings and videos and it is long overdue.  So here is #10.  I've talked about a lot of the material covered in this video in a blog post about frankentreeing some time back, which can be read here  And here is the video playlist for this series.  The summary below is an outline of what's in this video, mostly for search engines.  The information is covered better in this video and in the blog post linked above.

A distillation of this video:

Grafting onto exsisting trees is approached in one of two basic ways, either by topworking or by frameworking.  Topworking cuts most of the tree off and regrows it, while frameworking retains the main tree structural wood and replaces the fruiting wood with the new variety.  Framework grafting has the advantage of producing fruit more quickly and is less damaging to the tree.  A well frameworked tree may suffer no permanent injury, while a top worked tree is much more likely to have ensuing problems with decay due to the large open wounds created in cutting off large branches or trunks.  Also, it is possible in one year to add many varieties to a frameworked tree.  On a good sized tree you might add 50 to 90 varieties in one season, whereas you would have to wait for the top of a top worked tree to regrow in order to graft on more than a few varieties in the first year.  I favor frameworking in almost all cases except where damage done has to be remedied by growing a new top, or by some other special circumstance.  It does require more scions and more time, but unless the scale of operation is large it is a no brainer to choose frameworking in most cases.

A frameworked tree can be grafted in one year with very little or none of the old fruiting wood left on.  Some sources will recommend leaving some of the old wood and that is okay if you are concerned, or if you are not sure your grafts will take well.  I would not hesitate to work over an apple tree completely in one year if it is healthy.

A common mistake in frameworking is to graft onto smaller wood near the outside of the tree's canopy.  It is better to go back in to wood nearer a limb or large branch, thereby replacing and regrowing all of the fruiting wood.   Don't worry about grafting into stubs the same size as your scion, just set the scion to one side, and if the stub is large, set to scions, one on each side.

Another common mistake is to add a scion, but leave old fruiting and leafing out wood crowded around it.  There is a good chance that the new graft will not grow well if it is not given some room by removing proximal fruit/leaf wood. 

A spacing of about 18 to 24 inches is pretty good between main offshoots on one side of a tree.  If they are 24 inches apart, each only has to grow 12 inches to the side until they are touching.  Branches on the other side of the tree can be the same spacing, but staggered between the branches on the opposite side when possible.

There are many grafts that can be used, but cleft and whip and tongue are good mainstays to use on smaller stubs and on stubs over an inch you can start to think about using rind (bark) grafts, covered in an earlier video.  It is possible also to add a graft into the side of a bare limb or large branch by either cutting into the side of it and setting in a wedge shaped scion, or by using a rind graft of some kind.  Those operations are less likely to succeed than the familiar grafts already mentioned, but if it doesn't take, it can just be grafted again the following year.

Aftercare is similar to other grafting.  Wrap grafts very tightly and very well to prevent movement of the grafts during a couple months of critical healing time.  Seal the scions to prevent drying out, and check them in mid summer to make sure that rapid growth is not strangling the grafts where they are wrapped.  If the grafts are strangling, either remove the tape, or unwrap it and re-wrap around July sometime.

Scions for framework grafting can be much longer than those used for most other grafting.  I like to use scions with 8 or more buds personally.  Very long scions can be used if they are splinted firmly to immobilize the grafted section, but I'm not sure there is any real advantage to doing so.

Tools required are just a sharp knife, pruning saw, pruning shears, some kind of grafting wax or paint or seal and something to wrap with.   See the Tools Video for more on that stuff.  Don't forget to tag them too!

Axe Cordwood Challenge Almost Over and a 1 Week Extension

The axe cordwood challenge is nearly over.  I'm closing in on my own cord and 3 people have already cut a cord or more.  I'm adding a 1 week extension, just because this is the first year and we got started kind of late.  Actually it's mostly because I want people to have time and not rush too much since that is inherently more dangerous.  I still hope to finish mine by June 1st, because it just takes time to dry wood even in our hot summers and June 1st is a good last date to have green firewood cut.  I'm thinking about how to make it more accessible to people in the Southern Hemisphere in the future.  If you finish the challenge, send me info and pics or links to videos by June 7th through the contact on this website.  Also, leaving comments on the official Axe Cordwood Challenge page is a good idea as well.  I think a lot of people would like to know what axes participants used and what you learned whether you finished or not, and the comments section on that page is a good place to leave those.  I'll probably create a page for the 2017 challenge and post all the various links and experiences there.  I've heard from a lot of people who were maybe going to do it and more that have just been using their axes more and practicing and having fun with that.  No one said this completely sucks and I hate it and didn't learn anything, lol.  It's been pretty much good feedback all around and it's been fun having this thing in common with a group of people.

10,000 YouTube Subscribers!

I just hit 10,000 YouTube subscribers.  Lets hope the next 10,000 come a lot faster than the first 10,000.  I needed to thank and say hi to a few people, so I took the opportunity to do that.  First my supporters on Patreon who've helped me get by these last months when YouTube ad revenue took a nose dive.  I'm starting to get more from people using my amazon links but it, like ad revenue off my videos, is highly variable, while Patreon is steady.  I also said hi to a few YouTubers.  Some links to them down below.  Thank you to all the people that watch, read and share my content.  Onward to 100,000!

The Essential Craftsman on YouTube sold my channel pretty hard to his audience in this video, and I picked up a lot of subs in just a few days.  He's a great guy with a lot of very useful skills.

David the Good has plugged me so many times I can't even remember.  He lives over at SurvivalGardener.com and on youtube as David the GoodThis video he made with his sister totally cracks me up.

And Buckin' Billy Ray Smith who mentioned me recently and I just wanted to say hi and give him some props for being authentic.

Considering Biochar Burning Methods Conversion v.s. Context

A common mistake in design and assessment is to focus on one or two narrow parameters at the expense of everything else.  For instance, elevating one factor so high in priority that outlandish expense is gone to in order to achieve it without considering cost/benefit ratio.  No doubt in some cases prioritizing something that highly is the correct thing to do, but a common trap is to fail to consider design or assessment of a system in context.  As I was finishing up writing this blog post, I received this comment on my video about burning brush in open piles to make biochar.

“Looks more like a video on how not to do it. Cone pits or trenches are much more efficient and produce far less ash. Even a proper 55 gallon oil drum burn does better in my experience, although thats more for scrap pallet wood. ”

This comment seems to highlight the mistake of putting a single parameter, in this case conversion efficiency, above all other considerations, and in their context presumably and not mine, which they clearly don't understand.  You can read my reply to that comment on youtube, or watch this follow up video about considering context in comparing charring methods, which that commenter obviously missed (I hope lol) but everything important I have to say about it is also in this rather lengthy article; the purpose of which is to elaborate on why I use open burn methods and possibly more importantly, to simply discuss the importance of context, resources and cost/benefit when defining priorities and making decisions.

 

CONTEXT IS KING

Using simple methods of production, I have been able to accumulate hundreds of gallons of char and should have hundreds more by the end of the burn season.  The intimidation or time and materials required in the building of a retort or TLUD burner, or even a stand alone cone kiln, hold many people back from getting started with biochar.  Building those can be intimidating or otherwise hard to pull off.  There are also claims about charcoal quality from the various systems, which may have people holding out to produce "real" biochar and not just charcoal.  But, there doesn't seem to be any consensus on that, and there is plenty of evidence that just about any charcoal is effective to a degree, whether it is hard or soft, burned hot, or burned cool.  That is not to say that some types are not more effective, or that such has not already been proven.  I'm not really up on the latest, or up on that discussion at all really.  While some systems are undoubtedly more conversion efficient than others, there are other considerations and many of the possible draw backs of open burns are basically eclipsed by the great ease, minimal processing and speed of open burn systems.

A TLUD system, for instance, requires chips or other small, somewhat homogenous fuel sizes, which is only great if you have easy access to that kind of fuelstock.  If you have easy access to an industrial strength chipper, maybe that makes it a viable option as well, but to purchase and own such a thing is a great expense and would not make sense for most people.  I'm pretty sure it would have a higher conversion efficiency than the trench or pile approaches I use, that is higher charcoal produced for the amount of wood put in, but that has to be weighed against having to chip the stuff.  This is what I'm talking about with the focus on one aspect.  Conversion efficiency, i.e. WOOD/CHARCOAL ratio, has to be weighed against many other factors in order to make a rational decision.

One of those factors is labor and the input of other resources.  Even with the large amount of wood my land produces (and the neighbors' land if I were to expand operations), I couldn't justify buying, or even renting a chipper until I hit an economy-of-scale tipping point.  So, lets say I hit that point and rent a chipper for 700.00 for a week or whatever it costs.  Then I have to have metal TLUD kilns to burn it in.  On that scale I'd be burning through 55 gallon drums pretty fast and probably burning 4 to 6 of them at a time to produce 100 gallons of charcoal in a run.  Contrast that against open piles which require a shovel and a hose, no fuel, no cost and less handling and transportation in many cases, and the TLUD starts to lose points, even if there is a significant conversion loss to ash in the open burns.  Lets say that loss is as high as 20%, which i really have no idea.  But say it is.  I still have to think hard about adopting that expensive system, especially if I start thinking about building larger, more robust burners that will produce 100 gallons in a single run and not burn out quickly.  I could go on, but it's energy, financial expense and time v.s. conversion efficiency.  And the truth is that I still don't know how efficient or inefficient the open burns are.  My impression from the beginning is that they are actually surprisingly efficient, but there is an obvious loss to ash, and probably considerably more in the open piles than the open trenches.

Retort systems use some quantity of wood to heat an inner chamber of charcoal.  A simple retort would be a drum full of wood that is sealed off except for a pipe coming out the top, which terminates under the barrel.  If you build a fire under that barrel, it heats the wood inside, releasing gasses in the sealed drum that travel through the pipe and back into the fire underneath.  The gasses are flammable (wood-gas), so the wood in the drum helps burn itself as the gasses are flared off underneath.  That's one of the first ways I learned to make charcoal for smithing many years ago.  One obvious consideration for a retort is that the system requires fuel to be consumed to make the charcoal, which is an inherent inefficiency.  That inefficiency can be reduced to an extent by design and should probably always be more refined than a simple drum with a fire underneath it, but the consumption of fuel is inherent to the method and has to be considered in a fair assessment.

In comparing retorts to open burns, there are a couple of possible advantages to retorts.  One would be that it produces a harder charcoal, which some people claim is better.  I just don't know if that is true or not and I've seen the opposite claim as well.  Certainly, if you are producing charcoal for industrial use, heating or cooking, you want a hard, dense, long burning charcoal produced in a low oxygen environment.  Another possible advantage to retorts would be that since the wood that is being charred is mostly sealed up, with just small holes in the container for the gasses to escape as it's heated, it can't really over burn.  So, if you had the system dialed, hopefully you could load it, fire it off, walk away and come back to finished extinguished charcoal.
If the charcoal from a retort really is more effective as a soil amendment, then a careful comparison would have to take that into account as a possible counterbalance to the fuel consumed in it’s own production, especially when comparing to an open burn which also has some inherent loss to ash, no matter how well it is run.

A clear disadvantage to a retort is that dry fuel is going to be much better performing.  It rained yesterday, but I could still go out and mix my dead and green material together and fire it off, or burn a trench and not only get away with burning my now damp wood, but burning some green stuff with it as well.  I do not have storage or drying facilities for the large quantities of wood I’m dealing with to burn dry wood in a retort or TLUD.  To burn dry wood I would either have to build a large dedicated shed area also requiring that I handle the wood more, or a large vegetation free area, probably even a screened room, to be able to burn in the summer when it’s very dry.

There is a lot of information I don’t have and a lot of information out there that I have not availed myself of.  But in a big picture context, I’m not focused on any single factor and my personal context drives my choices.  What I know is that I can produce very large quantities of charcoal with NO MONEY INPUT AT ALL, or building or rebuilding anything, just a shovel and a hose, and in the case of open piles I don’t even need the shovel.  I can do that with minimal processing of the fuel and no careful storage.  It is fast and requires almost no size reduction of the stock, though I prefer to burn trimmed poles and limbs for ease of handling, storage and they function much better in the pit that twiggy stuff does.  I trim out the larger, easier limbs for the pit and burn the really brushy stuff in piles, though there is overlap in this spectrum for sure, I find the two methods VERY complementary to each other.  They are simple and low input, and with the quantities of wood I have to deal with, I would probably get less wood actually burned in a small retort or TLUD system, while scaling up to a large TLUD or retort would probably get expensive.
Again, there is information I don’t have here and I’m not suggesting my way is better, just that it seems better in my context, especially since I can get it done.  Even if someone was able to prove to me that retort produced char is twice as effective, I would still have to consider whether I could pull off charring the quantities of wood I have available, or consider just letting half of it rot and charring less, while also weighing in the added financial outlay and work of setting the system up, as well as the drying and storage of wood.  And lets examine that effectiveness of different char types thing next, because that gets interesting. 

My positive results using biochar have not been uniformly phenomenal, but they have been almost uniformly obvious.  The most phenomenal was my leek bed this year with what I estimated to be 400% to 600% higher productivity at 10% char, all of it open burned or scrounged up from firepits and woodstoves.  That is 4 to 6 times the production all other things being equal, so the char is effective.  The question at this point is just about quantities and level of effectiveness of different chars, rather than if they are effective at all.  If retort char were more effective, it would have to be quite a bit more effective to start tilting me in it’s direction when looking at the other considerations I’ve already brought up.  BUT, check this out. 

I used 33% in one test bed, and 25% in another., both two feet deep.  Both of those sections also have 50% char in the top 4 to 6 inches of the bed!  Is that crazy?  Well, I can tell you it takes a crazy amount of charcoal!  But damn are those beds nice.  Only long term observation will convince me if they work better or worse than beds with less, or even more char, but there is an obvious advantage in weeding, soil crusting and therefore maintenance. 

I’ve been gardening here and elsewhere for a long time, and one of the great problems of gardening is soil crusting.  Why it isn’t discussed more I have no worldly clue.  No soil I've ever worked with is completely immune to it and most are very susceptible.  If you disturb soil and water it, the problem of soil crusting manifests it’s flat and ugly visage.  It impedes water penetration, but causes more rapid evaporation.  Water a crusty bed and a lot of the water can run off instead of soaking in, and then you’ll lose the water that does make it into the soil more quickly unless you cultivate to create a “dust mulch” as soon as you can, or cover the whole soil surface with something.  In those two test beds with 50% char in the top 6 inches, soil crusting is no longer an issue, period.  The soil is very loose, which makes weeding easy.  Water penetrates, period.  No matter what the history of the bed, weather, vegetation cover etc and so on, water penetrates every time.  EVERY TIME I WATER! Chunks of charcoal migrate to the top of the bed and cover at least 50% of the surface as a mulch.   Don’t forget, that is a MULCH THAT DOESN’T EVER ROT!  I can add surface amendments for nutrition, like compost or coffee grounds, but gone is the need to either cultivate or cover the soil surface with mulch after watering.  GOOOONE!!!  Wow, I freaking love those beds.  Though they are just two small sections of two small beds, I have a sinking, unhappy, I’m-wasting-my-time feeling when I have to plant in any other beds.  Just today I was out planting tomatoes in my 10% and 5% char beds and it was fairly lumpy, crusted over and generally unpleasant to work with.   I’m going on a tangent, but I have a point in the context of this article, which is that at application levels of 25% to 50%, the quality of the char may become somewhat irrelevant if the goal is as much about high charcoal content for physical effects as it is about the reasons that biochar is probably more usually applied for, like nutrient holding.

To tie this up, my guess is that a majority of people reading this will be best off at least just starting with open burn methods, unless you have access to chips, in which case you might consider building a TLUD.  At the very least it gets you off the ground and running immediately.  There will be more wood to char later.  It is fast and you can do it all over your property or even on other people’s properties, rather than always transporting all of your wood to a single location or transporting burners.  I’ve already heard from a number of people that they busted a move with the trenches or open burn piles and are now producing char instead of ashes, or instead of accumulating wood waiting for the day when they get some device together that they thought they needed.   David the Good's recent comment was "Open burns really are the way to go. I thought about biochar for a long time and looked at all kinds of systems that I really didn't feel like building... then started making big fires and spraying them with the hose. Now I have lots of char." 

I’ve said it over and over again, the primary problem of biochar that needs solving for the masses is accessibility.  The idea that you have to make the proper kind of char, the proper way, or that there is a material difference between “biochar” and charcoal in every context is unsupportable.  The best biochar is the biochar you get made and buried in the ground, just like the best camera is the one you have with you.  We can always view things in ideals like super high production, beauty, convenience and so on, but that view approach minimizes the importance of context.  If anyone interprets this article as being negative against, or disregarding other methods of biochar production, you aren’t reading carefully enough.  I could definitely see adopting other methods than open burns in the future, but only when and where they make sense.  I am just as much not trying to sell you in particular on open burns v.s. other methods.  I’m just imploring everyone to think in context and consider, costs, benefits and resources in making these decisions.

We can apply this type of thinking to life, problem solving and decisions in general, and we should.  We may not always have all of the information, or the best information, or be able to foresee everything that we need to foresee to make the perfect decision, but that is not what problem solving is about.  Good problem solving, design and understanding are a journey not a destination.  For all I know someone will read this article, drop some new knowledge or information on me that affects my thinking and ultimately changes the way that I produce biochar.  That would be great.  Better is better and that’s where I’m always trying to head.  But that also doesn’t mean that I’m going to put large amounts of resources into research and experimentation to refine the process and my approach to it to within a gnats ass of perfect efficiency, because the time and energy and thought space to do so is also part of my context and my personal cost v.s. benefit equation.  So, at this point, I’m fairly content to just hang here with what I’m doing and refine it in small ways as I can until I have some reason to stretch out in other directions, or someone wanders along and drops some game changing knowledge on me.


AVAILABLE RESOURCES


COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS


CONTEXT

 

Grafting Series Finally Here! How to Dormant Graft Fruit Trees

partially healed graft

partially healed graft

Grafting has generally been seen as the domain of experts and super-geek enthusiasts, but it doesn't have to be.  It is a skill that many, if not most, fruit tree owners could benefit from having.  Without it, you are at the mercy of economic and social trends, nursery owners, growers and distributors.  Fruit collecting, testing and breeding are exciting, life affirming, useful and meaningful pursuits which all pretty much require grafting.  There are exceptions, but most grafting is not that hard and once you've assimilated the basics, you don't have to really know or remember all that much.  You can go find any extra information you require on an as needed basis, or come back and review this stuff later. 

I've been meaning to do a basic dormant grafting series for a couple of years.  A week or so ago, I decided if I didn't throw my standards under the bus and just shoot the footage, it wasn't going to happen, and all those people out there with scions sitting in the fridge would be all like "WTF do I do with these?"  So, I shot enough for the whole series in one day regardless of lighting and other considerations that I prefer to pay more attention to.  I actually have to re-shoot the last few segments, but I have 5 of them published now for those of you who don't follow me on YouTube here is the entire playlist, which will be rounded out with segments on why grafts succeed or fail, grafting and grafts, aftercare, and follow up care.  Look down the page for the individual videos published so far.  If you are grafting this year and not totally sure what you're doing, I'd recommend watching all of them.  If not, they'll be here when you need them.  The sharpening video stands alone as a good treatment of what is important in sharpening and will be useful to anyone wishing to learn that skill.

At this point, I don't even make 100.00 a month on YouTube advertising revenue.  Patreon and commissions from people using my Amazon link when they shop on Amazon both bring in more.  Maybe I'll someday get enough views to make it work, but for now Patrons and Amazon link users keep the boat floating, and have so far prevented me from taking a working vacation to generate income.  Anyone who uses and enjoys my content can thank them, as I do.  THANK YOU!  You guys rock.  Onward.

THE FULL PLAYLIST

 


Bookmark this Amazon link and use it when you shop amazon, no cost to you, but a big help to me.

Apple Breeding, Promising Lines and Possibilities, What I'm Crossing and Pursuing

It’s bloom season and time to be out pollinating apple blossoms during sunny late mornings and early afternoons.  Since it’s raining, I’m going to write down some thoughts today on promising directions in apple breeding.  As I’ve pointed out elsewhere before, the interests and goals of large scale commercial breeders who have bred most of the apples now available in stores, are to an important extent different than the goals that benefit home growers and home breeders, and even to some extent, consumers.  While the apple is capable of much further development, entire genetic areas are ignored or even intentionally bred out.  Some of these genetics may actually be desirable to us for various reasons.  Not only do I think they are worthy of pursuit, I feel we have almost a responsibility to pursue and improve some of them if we are to begin to re-take partial responsibility for our own food supply and not simply hand it over to a system who’s first priority is profit.

Anthers, dried to release their cargo of pollen, ready to do the deed.

Anthers, dried to release their cargo of pollen, ready to do the deed.

The big breeders mostly breed for commercial production now.  That means apples have to meet a lot of criteria and be acceptable to growers, shippers, wholesalers and grocers.  Of course they have to be acceptable to consumers too, but with a limited number of choices the consumer by extension has a limited education in their selection and critical estimation of the apples widely available.  Most Americans will have a preference for which apple they like, or what style of apple, but they are familiar with the available options only, and may not even know, for instance, what a russet apple is.  The market has ideas about what we want and will buy as consumers.  Whether those perceptions are accurate or not, I can't say for sure, but even if they are accurate now, I think the market can be trained, or retrained, to want and like other options.  For instance, Cuyama a large organic orchard in California took a chance on Crimson Gold, a very small apple bred by Albert Etter in the first half of the 20th century.  As far as I can tell, they are doing quite well with it.  The apples are no more than a few bites worth, but bags of them appear in the market here every fall and I’ve heard that they are also available on the East coast from the same grower.  It’s no wonder.  It’s an excellent apple, with more flavor than a typical large apple.  Once someone bites into one, they are likely to become a fan.  More on Crimson Gold below.

Busy morning at the apple sperm bank

Busy morning at the apple sperm bank

FLAVORS, AND OTHER EATING QUALITIES v.s. DISEASE RESISTANCE

While growth characteristics and disease resistance can be important when it comes to actually getting apples into our hands, we eat them for texture, flavor, sugar and to a lesser extent appearance and size.  And it is those things that are inspiring to me.  It seems as though we should be able to take any type of apple that we can come up with by mixing crazy flavors and extending seasons etc. and eventually have something like it in a disease resistant apple with long enough effort and intention.  But if we pursue disease resistance first, then our options for parents are much more limited.  So for me, the pursuit of apple breeding is largely a feeling out process to see what can be created in terms of the things that make us want to eat apples in the first place.

I don’t talk about disease resistance much, because I don’t think about it much.  Disease pressure is fairly light here in our dry summer climate.  I’ve noticed some increase over the years and it will likely become more of a problem as I build up a reservoir of disease pathogens and pests.  No doubt they’ll entrench themselves along with my establishing trees.  I understand that folks in less favorable circumstances would naturally look toward disease resistance as a primary goal and I think it’s an important long term goal and a great endeavor.  There are still plenty of good apples to work with that are disease resistant, including heirlooms.  In fact, I’m sure there are more than ever due to the efforts of large scale breeding programs.  While I choose to keep it simple and not avail myself of much information related to plant breeding, there is no doubt much to be gained from studying how the various disease resistant traits are passed or reinforced.  No doubt much has been learned on the subject, which might be found out by reading scientific papers or communicating with breeders at universities.

But for me now, I cross whatever I’m moved to cross and let the cards fall where they will.  I’ve already seen horrid scab on a couple of seedlings, but the information I want is what the apple turns out like as far as other characteristics go and I’ll worry about the rest later, or let someone else worry about it.  I’m particularly interested in the idea of introducing new exotic flavors into the lines I want to work with.  The most intriguing are the cherry and fruit candy flavors and whatever psychotic combination of flavors are contained in sweet 16.  Fortunately, one of the other flavor groups I’m fascinated with, the berry flavors, are found most strongly, in red fleshed apples, one of my other great interests.  Combining the former and the latter to find out what happens is high on my list and well underway already.  I’m also interested in pineapple flavor, but it is not super common in any apples I have fruited, at least not strongly, except in Suntan, which is a triploid and very hard to pollinate.  I think I’ve gotten one viable seed from suntan over the years for all my efforts, and it died.  And then there are the crab apples with the unique flavor they bring to the table and which Etter showed in Vixen and Amberoso, can be brought into larger apples.  My seedling, BITE ME!, a small to medium sized apple, but certainly not a crab, has enough of that special taste to be it’s star flavor component.  I’m hoping that crossing larger tending apples with that flavor component, like BITE ME! and Vixen, with other larger Wickson offspring will reinforce that flavor trait in normal sized apples.  Vixen is the most promising large parent I’ve tasted in this line.

Encouragingly, BITE ME!, has some of it's seed parent Wickson's flavor, though it is not strong.

Encouragingly, BITE ME!, has some of it's seed parent Wickson's flavor, though it is not strong.


SMALL APPLES AND CRABAPPLE GENES

Once I realized that the remarkable flavor characteristics and high sugar content of Albert Etter’s Wickson was due in large part to the crab apple genetics used by Etter in breeding, my gears started turning.  Later I was able to taste some of the other Etter crab derived apples, which have similar flavors, including Crimson Gold, Vixen and Muscat de Venus.  I feel quite sure that small apples with concentrated flavor and high sugar could be a class of popular apple.  You may have noticed as I have that large size often comes with diluted flavor.  Breeding large apples with concentrated flavor and high sugar is a worthy goal as well, and it is possible to do, at least to some extent, but there is no good reason to neglect small apples.  If someone bites into a truly remarkable miniature apple, there will be no turning back.  Is it just coincidence that both Wickson and Chestnut Crab show up so often on favorite lists?  Nope, not a coincidence.

The diminutive and delicious chestnut crab is favored by many who are fortunate enough to taste it.  The phenomenon is very similar to the favoring of Wickson, both of which are commonly cited as favorite apples.  A perfect Chestnut crab is remarkably rich and delicious.  I've crossed it with Wickson, Maypole Crab, and others.  I'm excited now to cross it with high quality russet types, especially Golden Russet, but my chestnut tree died, so I have to wait for a new branch to start flowering next year.

The diminutive and delicious chestnut crab is favored by many who are fortunate enough to taste it.  The phenomenon is very similar to the favoring of Wickson, both of which are commonly cited as favorite apples.  A perfect Chestnut crab is remarkably rich and delicious.  I've crossed it with Wickson, Maypole Crab, and others.  I'm excited now to cross it with high quality russet types, especially Golden Russet, but my chestnut tree died, so I have to wait for a new branch to start flowering next year.

I’m fairly well convinced that the small, intense apple endeavor alone would be a worthy pursuit for an amateur breeder.  Collect all the very best crabs, along with other interesting apples to breed in other traits such as flavors and keeping ability, and start mixing it all up.  The crab derived apples Chestnut, Trailman and Wickson are all already excellent out of hand eating, and a great base to work from.  There are also a lot of red fleshed crabs, though I don’t know of any that are dessert quality out of hand.  I have made a lot of crab on crab crosses and have crossed wickson with many larger apples.  My own thoughts are to continue crab on crab crosses, but also continue to breed crabs with remarkably flavored apples like cherry cox, sweet 16 and golden russet to shake it up a bit.  I’m also mixing in a red fleshed crab called maypole and the red fleshed grenadine.

Muscat De Venus, another probable Etter variety, small with high sugar and the unique taste that comes from crab genetics.  it is not great out of hand eating to me, lacking balancing acidity, but I consider it a very promising breeding parent, thus the orange tags on these hand pollinated apples.

Muscat De Venus, another probable Etter variety, small with high sugar and the unique taste that comes from crab genetics.  it is not great out of hand eating to me, lacking balancing acidity, but I consider it a very promising breeding parent, thus the orange tags on these hand pollinated apples.

More Chestnut crab.

More Chestnut crab.

And why not go even smaller.  My friend Becca sent me an unknown tiny crab that hangs in clusters like cherries and has yellow flesh.  It was allegedly acquired out of an orchard at a North Carolina college.  They are truly one bite apples, the size of a cherry.  Most people would probably find them too tannic for munching, but they are sweet and delicious along with the pucker, and I love munching them down, seeds and all.  The flesh is crisp and juicy and they hang on the tree well.  I’m definitely working with Becca’s crab this year.  Imagine the possibility of a one bite apple that grows in clusters like cherries, and has very red flesh.  The red pigment would bring berry flavors to the mix.  Add some of the cherry flavors of Cherry Cox or Sweet Sixteen and that apple could be something else!  It’s a project that’s not going to come to fruition overnight, if it's even possible, so I’ll not likely see it in my lifetime, but I can damn well start the ball rolling and see what happens.  I also think such an apple could be marketable if it was good enough.  It could be sold on the antioxidant angle since they will contain a lot of antioxidant system stimulants.  It will certainly inherit more natural polyphenol content than the average apple, because of the tannic nature of crabs.  There is also the red flesh, which contains anthocyanins, widely promoted as healthy.  Even further, there are the seeds, which contain cyanic compounds shown to have health benefits as well.  The flavor of the seeds also reinforce the cherry aspect.  Give it a great name and sell them as cherry apples in clusters.  Who would not at least try them?

The apple I acquired from my friend Becca and refer to as Becca's Crab.  About the size of a cherry, crisp, juicy and tasty, if a bit tannic.

The apple I acquired from my friend Becca and refer to as Becca's Crab.  About the size of a cherry, crisp, juicy and tasty, if a bit tannic.

The beautiful cherry-like clusters of Becca's Crab inspired the concept of a "cherry apple".  I've got apples with all the characteristics I'd want in my cherry apple, but getting them all together in one variety could take many crosses and crosses of crosses and crosses of crosses of crosses, if it's possible at all.

The beautiful cherry-like clusters of Becca's Crab inspired the concept of a "cherry apple".  I've got apples with all the characteristics I'd want in my cherry apple, but getting them all together in one variety could take many crosses and crosses of crosses and crosses of crosses of crosses, if it's possible at all.


BLOOD APPLES

I have not sampled all that many red fleshed apples considering the number that seem to be out there, with more surfacing all the time, but my general impression is that they are badly in need of improvement all around.  My suspicion is that being mostly from primitive genes and receiving very little attention in the past from breeders, the red fleshed trait likely comes with a package of other less desirable genes equating to high acidity, low sugar and not so great texture.  Teasing those genes apart and refining selections to get the traits we want from other apples, while retaining the red flesh may be something of an undertaking.  Albert Etter started the process, and while I haven’t tried all of his red fleshed creations, my impression so far is they could use improving.  Greenmantle nursery has put trademark names on some apples that they allege to have salvaged from Etter's experimental orchards, but aside from Pink Parfait, I can see why Etter would not have released any of them.  Pink Parfait, which has only pink mottling in the flesh and very mild berry flavors, is the only significantly red fleshed apple I've tasted that has very high desert quality.  The others would never stand on their own merits without the red flesh, as interesting as that makes them.  The others I’m most familiar with are as follows:

Grenadine: dark pink to reddish with excellent fruit punch/berry flavor.  Variable quality on the same tree in the same year, lots of early drops and some of the apples go mealy early.  Variable size.  In a very good year it is grainy when ripe enough for good eating and high flavor, but more often it is mealy by that time.  Sugar is not particularly high.  Tannin content fairly high.  But that flavor!  The juice is excellent and it's a heavy and reliable producer for me.

Grenadine left, with a grenadine seedling, right, that fruited last year and which very much resembles it's parent.  While it will not be the amazing dessert apple I'm hoping to get eventually, it won't surprise me if it's an improvement on the problematic grenadine.  More importantly, the excellent grenadine flavor is present in force and that is the reason I used Grenadine as a parent in the first place.

Grenadine left, with a grenadine seedling, right, that fruited last year and which very much resembles it's parent.  While it will not be the amazing dessert apple I'm hoping to get eventually, it won't surprise me if it's an improvement on the problematic grenadine.  More importantly, the excellent grenadine flavor is present in force and that is the reason I used Grenadine as a parent in the first place.

Rubaiyat: Very dark pink to almost velvety light red, strong berry flavor, but maybe not as complex or punch like as grenadine.  Seems to be very Scab prone, drops from tree, Often mealy by the time it is really ripe, but it can have a nice texture and it is a somewhat more refined apple than Grenadine.  Not all that sweet.  At it's very best it makes decent eating and has excellent "red" flavor.  It is a very nice looking apple when it escapes the scab.

The velvety fleshed Rubaiyat.  Great potential, but still represents a project that was far from finished by Albert Etter.

The velvety fleshed Rubaiyat.  Great potential, but still represents a project that was far from finished by Albert Etter.

Pink Pearl:  Not particularly rich or flavorful or sugary.  A good cooking apple.  Better texture than the above apples.  Light pink flesh.

There are a bunch of commercial breeders and university programs now working on red fleshed apples.  I don’t know what took them so long.  Albert Etter knew 80 years or more ago that they would be popular, but he just didn’t quite have time to get them off the ground before he died and no one took up his important work.  Any red fleshed apple breeding program should be assessing his apples as possible breeding stock.  I have successfully passed the remarkable Grenadine flavor on to a seedling that I’m already hopeful will best it’s parent (even though I’ve only fruited two apples of it, and one was stolen by a raccoon!)  I’m hoping to get a few more this year.  It isn’t going to be an outstanding dessert apple, I can tell that already, but if it’s better than Grenadine that’s a start.

I haven’t talked to him in a while, but I seem to remember my friend Freddy Menge saying that about 25% of the red fleshed apple seeds he’s planted yield apples with red flesh.  Once crosses with non red fleshed apples are made though, I'm hoping those apples can be crossed with each other to reinforce the trait and bring it out since both parents will carry the gene.  That is the experiment anyway.  I make crosses of non-red fleshed apples with multiple red fleshed apples with just that plan in mind.  I’m also hopeful about crossing the resulting red fleshed x non-redflesh crosses with Pink Parfait and William’s Pride, both only slightly red fleshed, but both excellent desert apples in every other way.  You see where I’m headed I hope.  Take the best apples with red flesh, even if it’s not very much, and cross those to reinforce the red and hopefully also retain the desirable dessert qualities.  That is why I’m crossing William’s Pride and Pink Parfait this year, both great apples with some pink in the flesh.  Check back in about 6 or 8 years, lol.

William's Pride x Pink Parfait ?  Could these two excellent eaters yield a redder apple that retains the fine qualities of it's parents?  Or will reinforcing the red genes reinforce less desirable traits lurking in their genes at the same time?  I'm going to find out.

William's Pride x Pink Parfait ?  Could these two excellent eaters yield a redder apple that retains the fine qualities of it's parents?  Or will reinforcing the red genes reinforce less desirable traits lurking in their genes at the same time?  I'm going to find out.


RUSSETS

Russets are another neglected but very promising line of genetics.  The phenomenon of russeting has been selected against in apple breeding for a long time now, so it’s not likely that large scale breeders will be pursuing a true russet apple, or even using them in the mix at all.  When I had good russets for sale at farmer’s market, people bought them.  They are somewhat wary at first, but once bitten, they almost always buy some.  Heirlooms are big, flavor is becoming more and more important to people, food is huge, foodie-ism is huge, and because of all that, and their inherent value, russets should become popular again.  There is nothing like them.  They have their own character and uses.  Not only should we not let them die out or languish in the background neglected by the monetary interests that drive our food systems now, but they should be taken in hand and improved, which has probably rarely been attempted due to appearance alone.

Not particularly attractive russets.  This trait has been long selected against in breeding.  Unfortunately it is often accompanied by a unique and excellent type of quality and flavor that probably cannot be gotten in a non russet apple.

Not particularly attractive russets.  This trait has been long selected against in breeding.  Unfortunately it is often accompanied by a unique and excellent type of quality and flavor that probably cannot be gotten in a non russet apple.

The best russet I’ve tasted, and still one of the very best apples I’ve ever tasted for that matter, is the Golden Russet, a classic American apple.  At it’s best it has a well balanced symphony of flavor.  The flavor is concentrated and lasting.  It also has an extremely high sugar content and was once widely employed in cider making.  So, what’s not to like?  Well, culturally, it’s a pain in the ass.  It grows lanky and tippy with long bare interstems.  It’s hard to know how to prune it and I’m inclined to just let it grow and then hack off some bigger branches once in a while.  I’ve never seen it to be particularly productive either and I hear the same from others in the area.  Perhaps low productivity is the cost for all that flavor and goodness, but it if it doesn’t have to be so then I want more!  Compare that to another American classic The Roxbury Russet, which is better behaved and more productive.  But alas, though very good and very similar, Roxbury Russet is not the apple that Golden Russet is when it comes to flavor. If I had Roxbury here, I’d probably cross the two of them this year with a view toward an all around better russet.  I may cross Golden Russet with Ashmeads Kernel this season for similar reasons.  Another very high sugar russet I’ve been trying to acquire and fruit for possible breeding purposes is the Golden Harvey.  I’ve run into a couple of other breeders online working with Golden Harvey.

A more attractive russet, probably Egremont's Russet.  It's easy to learn to appreciate the rustic, antiqued beauty of some russets once you taste them.  One bite of an excellent russet will put a big dent in the facade built up thru decades of glossy, polished apple marketing.

A more attractive russet, probably Egremont's Russet.  It's easy to learn to appreciate the rustic, antiqued beauty of some russets once you taste them.  One bite of an excellent russet will put a big dent in the facade built up thru decades of glossy, polished apple marketing.

To anyone well versed in heirloom apples and apple types, the thought of discarding russets from the world of apples would be absolutely horrifying.  Some of the best English, French and American apples are russets.  A person could stay pretty busy just collecting, archiving, researching, testing, tasting, photographing, documenting, making available and breeding russet apples and they’d be doing the world a great favor.  Another of many things I’d love to do, but that someone else will just have to do.


VERY LATE HANGING APPLES

Pink Parfait hanging on the tree around christmas.  This apple was crisp, juicy and delicious!

Pink Parfait hanging on the tree around christmas.  This apple was crisp, juicy and delicious!

Extremely late hanging apples represent another whole area of possibility waiting to be expanded and improved.  Though my latest hanging apple, Lady Williams, is ripe February first, I’m inclined to think the season could be pushed later.  Some apples store really well, but to have fresh apples straight off the tree on a frozen February morning is another thing.  Also, the same apples could probably be harvested in January and store all the better for being picked so late.  I’ve found sound seedling apples hanging in a hedgerow here in March.  They were the pretty sour and useless, but that’s beside the point.  They were not a mushy mess.  We just need those kind of genes in a better eating apple.  Granny Smith, Lady Williams and Pink Lady are all promising apples for this line and all related, Granny smith coming from the very late, long keeping French Crab, Lady Williams from Granny and Pink Lady from Lady Williams.  Other Late hangers that I will probably use, or have used, are Pink Parfait (December), Grenadine (December), Pomo Sanel a selection from a local homestead (January) and Whitwick Pippin (December at least).

Cripp's Pink (aka pink lady) at New Years with ice frozen in the stem-well.  Not only still edible, but better than what you're used to, though this is about the end of it's season.

Cripp's Pink (aka pink lady) at New Years with ice frozen in the stem-well.  Not only still edible, but better than what you're used to, though this is about the end of it's season.

I’ve looked for other late hangers, but not concertedly enough to find much.  I’m sure there are many more out there, but it will take some effort to find them.  Others will not have been noticed, either because the owners always pick them early, or because they are growing in cold regions where the fruit can’t hang so long.  I can hang any of these in temps down to and possibly a little below 20 degrees f, though some will be partly damaged by cracking near the stem well, probably due to ice forming there, and may then start to rot.  Others varieties would probably hang that long in good condition, if they didn’t crack so easily.  Many apples will hang late, but there is a clear difference between something like Lady Williams or Pink Lady not even ripening well until very late, or improving in storage if picked and held for a while, and some apple that looks well enough hanging there, but is declining in eating quality all along instead of improving.  My most promising acquisition aside from the two Ladies and Granny Smith, is Pomo Sanel.  I don’t know much about it, just that it came from a local homestead.  It has some similarity to Grime’s Golden and Golden Delicious in form and color.  The apples hang very late.  They have a coarse flesh and fairly rich flavor, though not quite equal in quality to some of the others.  Pomo Sanel is a little more prone to cracking and not as late as the Granny line, but it is still promising and I’ll probably use it to make some crosses this year.

Apples hanging on Frankentree at christmas.  A video still pulled from the videos below.

Apples hanging on Frankentree at christmas.  A video still pulled from the videos below.

 

#APPLERENAISANCE !

Onward we go into the adventure of apple seeding, breeding and selection.  Those who prefer instant gratification and sure things are probably better off messing about with peaches, which will usually yield decent fruit with less variation from the parents.  But, peaches don’t come in a jillion sizes, shapes, colors and flavors.  You either get it or you don’t.  If someone can read this article and not become excited about playing mad scientist mixing apple genes to see the results, they should go do whatever moves them.  I’ve run into people that are doing the same thing I am.  The apple renaissance is afoot!  Not just the apple revival, but the renaissance.  A new era in which the diversity and awesomeness possible in apples will be realized more than ever.

If I had to do it over, I’d do even more research than I did.  I’d collect potential breeding parents more carefully, collecting and testing everything I could get with very intense flavor, especially fruit, pineapple, berry, cherry and almond.  I’d collect as many allegedly great or super long keeping old school russets as possible and as many out-of-hand edible crabs as possible.  I would also try to acquire more good red fleshed apples to work with.  Albert Etter said something to the effect that breeding up new apples was as simple as breeding up good dairy stock, just start with the best herd you can.  That means either trying out apples that someone else grew, or more likely growing them out yourself for assessment, a several year process, even when using dwarf stock or grafting onto established trees.  Etter trialed about 500 apple varieties and thought most of them were not worth growing.  By choosing the best of those to breed with, he said that he improved on the average of those 500 in the first generation.

I'm very interested in high quality crabs with high sugar or unique taste, truly amazing russets, better red fleshed dessert apples and extremely late hanging apples that are still crisp and solid on the tree after new years as well as being good eating.  If they hang till March and are just okay eating, I'm still interested.  Please contact me if you can help with any of those that are not already listed here.

I've been making tons of crosses this year.  Below are some of the crosses and parents I've been using, though not necessarily in the order presented.  I make up others as I go, like Coes Golden Drop x Muscat De Venus.

Becca’s crab w/ wickson, maypole, sweet 16, cherry cox, trailman, grenadine

Golden Russet w/ Ashmead’s, Egremont, Chestnut (most exciting, but can't make this one till next year), pendragon (red flesh, Welsh), Coe’s Golden Drop, Suntan, St. Edmund's Russet, Muscat de Venus, Roxbury russet (if I had it.  I REALLY want to make this cross!)

Chestnut crab (if I had any blooms or pollen this year) w/ Golden Russet, , Muscat de Venus, St. Edmund’s Russet, Coe’s Golden Drop, Ashmead’s Kernel

Williams' Pride w/ Pink Parfait, Rubaiyat, Pendragon, Sunrise (early), Sweet 16

Cherry Cox w/ N. Spy, Vixen, Muscat de Venus, Sweet 16, Pink Lady, Becca's Crab, Pendragon, Maypole

Pink Parfait w/ Pendragon, Lady Williams, Williams' Pride, Pink Lady, My own seedling Grenadine x Lady Williams #11/12, and Pomo Sanel

Lady Williams w/ Pomo Sanel, Whitwick pippin, Allen’s Everlasting, Newtown Pippin

Sweet 16 w/ Vixen, William’s Pride, Cherry Cox, King David, etc...

Trailman w/ Becca’s, St. Edmund’s, Chestnut Crab, Maypole

Pomo Sanel w/ Goldrush, Lady Williams, Whitwick Pippin

 

THE FULL APPLE BREEDING PLAYLIST

No Brush Left Uncharred! The New Scorched Earth Policy!

It's not much harder to make a big pile of charcoal out of a burn pile instead of just burning it to ashes.  The short version is that you light it from the top and then put it out with a hose.  There is a little management involved and I do like to stack it neatly myself, but you can cut all kinds of corners and still end up with a lot of charcoal.  The charcoal lasts forever, and works amazingly well in my garden, so it's a pretty good deal!

Final Selections are in For the Bulgarian Giant Leek Seed Saving Project

I recently went through and picked the final winners in my seed leek trial.  This time I went for some short stout ones, but all were still probably at least 18 inches long.  I think size and up to almost 3 inches diameter are probably a little more practical than the really tall and somewhat more slender ones.  the leeks will now flower in their new home and seed should be ready by fall.

First Three Axe Cordwood Challenge Participants Finished! Shoutouts, Questions and Comments

Three people have finished the cordwood challenge cutting a cord or more!  Those people rock.  Also a shout out to people that have started or are planning to do it, all of whom are listed below.  Anyone who is doing the challenge should leave a comment on the official web page so that we all know who everyone is, and so that I can keep track of people. 

FINISHED!:

*Tim Springston, Oxbow Farms https://youtu.be/YbeCFT_SIh4?list=PLGQ0YYG8MKkXMuOmeHl_9Bloy5nLnR41d

*Todd Walker, Survival Sherpa https://youtu.be/dRJvHtcS55U?list=PLpxU0SQfqX02pmlspLody0oV8EJKSD2oBhttps://survivalsherpa.wordpress.com/

*Timothy Sutton, Flatland Woodsman https://youtu.be/8zlF4ZLu7v8?list=PLQunotaCvTeKSXcWdUVCU53QWLwxMc8-G

IN PROGRESS OR PLANNING TO DO:

*DevaJones03https://www.youtube.com/user/DevaJones03

*Aaron Fosterhttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgwXsfSS1lO3Jj_P0_sJiqA

*Patrick Hale https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYpFteNH2MOaFzQK7JPau_Q

*EmLill Thingshttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCl8L71gIPWRs5muBtgUNRHw

*Homestead Boxhttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCD60T9zMzdmXr696wfqoZOA

*JayDigHsxhttps://www.youtube.com/user/dighsx

*J. Vanier

*Capt Henderson

*Brian Larson

*Crescentson

Axe Handle Shock and Preventing Repetitive Stress Injury in Chopping

These are factors I know of that play a role in the amount of shock you absorb from your axe handle, such as chopping style, grip, handle rigidity, cutting ability and wood type.  These are the kinds of things that can allow a person cut more, longer and in harder wood without incurring numb sore hands, tendonitis, etc.   More text below.

 

Chopping with an axe is a high impact, high energy exercise.  As choppers, we necessarily absorb some of that energy since we are holding the tool.  There are a number of factors I know of which are important in the cause or prevention of repetitive stress injury or discomfort in chopping, most of them at least partially controllable. 

The axe should not be gripped very hard while chopping except as necessary in specific situations.  A hard grip unavoidably tires and stresses the hands, but it also creates a more efficient transfer of the energy from the vibrating axe handle back into the hands.  The Style of chopping is also important and interrelated to grip.  A heavy handed chopping style should be avoided.  Don't think of chopping as pushing or forcing the axe through the wood, but rather as whipping or throwing the axe head into the wood using the handle.  Pushing on the handle after the axe hits the wood adds little if any real power to the cut, but stresses the handle and the hands and probably sacrifices control to some extent.  You can cut plenty deep if you build velocity in the axe head before it hits the wood.  If the work is done before the axe hits the wood, then the grip is only to lightly control the axe after it strikes.

The handle of the axe, depending on it's thickness, density, inherent flexibility of the wood and probably other factors, will transmit more or less shock.  Thin handles transmit considerably less shock than thick ones do and tuning your handle or thinning it down is probably mentioned by authors writing about axes more often than not.  Older axes tend to have thinner handles than modern axes, and vintage axes, old photographs and older illustrations demonstrate this fact.  There is a reason that axe handles have become thicker, which is that they aren't actually used very much.  Most axes are now the equivalent of handbags for men, and are put to real use only infrequently for short periods of time.

If you cut into wood at an angle, usually around 45 degrees, it cuts more easily than if the cut is made at a right angle.  When cutting at 90 degrees the axe stops suddenly and more of the energy embodied in the head is transferred to your hands rather than cutting into the wood.  It's fine to cut at 90 degrees as needed, but generally a poor habit to get into on a regular basis.  Most axe work is done with cuts around 45 degrees for a reason.

Another way to transfer a lot of the energy embodied in an axe head back up the handle and into your hands is to use an axe that is not cutting well for any number of reasons.  The axe must cut well and easily or it will stop suddenly causing more vibration.  Most axes as they come from the factory, nearly all in fact, require at least some reshaping to get them cutting well.  In most cases, a significant amount of metal needs to be removed from the sides of the axe near the bit in order for it to be able to slide easily into the wood.  It is often recommended to file the cheek of an axe in a fan shape, but that depends on the shape of the axe head to start with.

Finally, the wood plays a role.  When chopping hard dry wood, less of the energy from each blow of the axe is dissipated in cutting, whereas when cutting soft and green woods, the energy is dissipated gradually as the axe sinks deeply into the cut.  You may or may not be able to control what wood you end up cutting, but you can control other factors that cause or prevent the kind of handle shock and fatigue that might keep you from working or cause a longer term injury that will put you off of work for a while.  The stuff mentioned here is important if a person want's to be able to use an axe under varied conditions, on varied woods, for longer periods of time, on consecutive days.  What separates the men from the boys isn't being tough enough, young enough or dumb enough to tolerate a club of a handle or an axe that otherwise doesn't cut well, but to be wise enough to work smart and not hard.  If you are going to sit at your computer trying to breath life into your flaccid member to some freaky internet porn, or work your thumbs out pushing buttons on your t.v., remote then I guess maybe none of it matters all that much.  If you're going to dig, carry, lift, hammer, weed, process and otherwise use your hands, wrists and arms, you'll be able to do all of it more, and longer, day after day if you pay attention to these types of details.