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.
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.
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.
COST BENEFIT ANALYSIS
For those of you who live in frost pockets, here are the latest blooming of my 200+ apple varieties. There are some good ones in there too.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
*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:
*Patrick Hale https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYpFteNH2MOaFzQK7JPau_Q
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.
I ordered a batch of axe handles from house handle for use and review. Overall they suck, and I wouldn't recommend them. That's the short version :)
Over a year ago, we grafted an apple tree sucker at Chuck's house to 5 varieties of apples. Yesterday I revisited that tree for maintenance and training. I talk about grafting, borers, notching buds, training and other related stuff.
This is a continuation of my apple breeding project and video series following the process from pollination to fruiting and hopefully beyond. In this season, the seedlings are cut off and grafted onto dwarfing roostock. The dwarfing stock should induce fruiting more quickly (or so the common assertion) and keep the trees to a small size in the crowded test rows. At 12 inches apart, in rows 6 feet apart, I can't afford large trees. I show the two grafts I commonly use and talk some other basics. Soon we'll be planting these in new beds to grow until they fruit.
BITE ME!, my new public domain (and open source for apple breeders ha ha) is officially out. I have scions in the webstore and a page dedicated to the apple here: www.skillcult.com/biteme Scions are available in the webstore till they run out. I may re-sort the short and thin ones in my fridge and relist after that to get as many out there as possible. I should also hopefully have them available for some years to come.
I'm also taking a two week break from making youtube content and probably any other content, in order to get life on the homestead back on track a little bit. Some stuff needs doing around the place. Here is a quick review of the Snow and Neally boy's axe. The short version is that the head looks pretty nice, but the handle was so, so and the hafting was pretty bad. The Council Tool Boy's axe seems like a much better at 31.00 shipped, currently less than half the price of the S&N. The council has a less pollished head, but I think has a much better designed handle and the wood on my counicl is much superior v.s. this S&N. Too bad I was hoping it would be better.
Somehow in thinking often and long about what makes using an axe effective, I came up with these five things that I think are pretty fundamental. Surprisingly, they not only formed a real English word to use as an acronym, but three of them! Some of these are interrelated and it is not a completely tidy concept. It's more like a framework to define and identify the things we need to work on or have in line to operate effectively. But if you think about these five factors and removing any one of them, it becomes obvious that effectiveness will suffer. I think pursuing these ideas will ultimately make us able to function at a high level. This video series will be 5 videos long aside from this introduction.
Strategy: Strategy is all important. Starting to cut a log with no strategy is like starting on a trip with no map, no idea how to get there, just the general direction and that eventually with enough time and fuel you'll probably get there. Strategy is the planning of the trip to get to center of that log in the most efficient way. It may not be the shortest direct distance on a bumpy windy road, but it's something that we think will be the fastest or require the least fuel and time. Strategy is neglected for two reasons. One is not knowing that it's important. A lot of beginners will think about getting to the center of the log, but not how to best get there. Another is lack of faith in the strategy or abandonment of it due to frustration. Have a strategy, even if you aren't sure it is the best strategy and stick with it. Sure, vary it, experiment, adapt, but do those things with intent.
Tool: An axe is not just an axe. Most of them need work out of the box in order to cut effectively. There are seemingly infinite axe head designs, handle designs, lengths, weights and grinds that could work effectively. But, there are certain parameters outside of which chopping will become much less effective.
Accuracy: with an axe is a hard won skill. It certainly requires time spent, but I believe it can improve more quickly with intent and a little instruction. Without it, you can't execute your strategy effectively. Lack of accuracy is not a reason to abandon strategy or give up on attempting to be accurate. Quite the opposite I think.
Technique: as I mean it, technique is separate from Accuracy and efficiency, though related to both. What I mean here is the mechanics of chopping and what you do with your body to actually make the axe cut the wood effectively. If all the other 4 factors are in place, you will still cut the wood, but there are things you can do to make the axe cut better all else being equal. Mostly we'll be talking about the generation of velocity, but there are other things and not unlikely some I don't know about or haven't noticed.
Efficiency: Like the word Technique, efficiency could be interpreted in multiple ways. What I mean here though is economy of energy and motion. Basically how much result from a given expenditure of energy. We already know that it can take one person way more energy to get the same log cut in two. The ideal of efficiency would be to whittle the amount of energy down to a theoretical minimum by letting go of unnecessary, effort/tension/movement/error etc.
As Onix Pyro said in the comments on this introduction video, "practice makes better, not best" Any ideal of perfect axemanship is a fantasy when knowledge necessarily has limits, the machine is not perfect and the conditions are variable. And there is no need for perfection or ultimate speed or any other ideal. But realizing that there is something out there vaguely resembling a theoretical perfection gives us a measure to observe our effectiveness against. While I lack the teaching experience to prove it, I believe that a little thought and action around these five points will quickly accelerate a beginners effectiveness with an axe and provide a framework for anyone to measure and improve. I consider this a work in progress and am willing to revise this list if necessary, but it seems pretty solid as far as I can think and from the feedback I've gotten so far.
Most households have enough stuff already sitting around to do some basic or even advanced grafting. I like my doc farwell's grafting seal, grafting knife and budding tape, but I graft a lot and it gives me a slight edge when I'm making dozens of grafts in a session. To start learning to graft and get you feet wet, you may do just fine with any small sharp knife, some strips of plastic bag and some latex paint.
An experiment I've been wanting to try making a handle wrap for axe handle protection using casein glue made from cheese and a strip of muslin. A little homestead alchemy.
Apparently I can't keep up with myself. Here is a backlog of recent videos on everything from rawhide to roads.
The difference between the different sections of the leek bed are even more obvious now, confirming more what I observed this summer, which is that the soil with charcoal (biochar) has what is generally referred to as heart. That is to say it has staying power and isn't easily used up without regular additions of fertilizer. I've been very negligent with this leek bed and it really shows on the control end with no charcoal, but not much on the 10% char end. The 5% section is better than half way between the two others, but there is an obvious difference except that within one foot of the 10% section, the plants are nearly indistinguishable from most of the rest of the 10% section. The very end of the 10% section drops off in size, but that may be due to the shape, of the bed, which is pointed on the end. Also, many gardeners will have observed that plants tend to do less well on the ends of beds. If you took the difference between the control end and the 10% end as at least 600% difference, that could be interpreted as the 10% char end making 600% better use added amendments. That is a sloppy interpretation and doesn't take into account all possible factors, but it's still impressive and probably on the low side if anything. The leek seed from this project will be ready in the fall for planting about this time next year.
ROAD SERIES PRIMER
This one is a quick primer for what will be a series on the design of graveled roads based on what I learned and have observed building mine, as well as paying attention to other unpaved roads and what happens to them in various circumstances. It will have to potential to save a lot of people, time, money, unpleasant driving conditions, all while saving resources ultimately and keeping sediment out of stream beds. In the meantime, you can download the handbook for forest and ranch roads for free here. It is a dry read, but very worth putting to use if unpaved roads are a regular part of your life. http://www.pacificwatershed.com/sites/default/files/roadsenglishbookapril2015b_0.pdf
RAWHIDE HANDLE BRACE FINAL
This is the final part of the rawhide axe handle brace. As usual for me, this series wasn't just about making this one tweak, but about rawhide and sinew and hide glue and context and related stuff.
I walk around the property a bit and use various things as talking points to discuss some plans for projects and content this coming year. I also finally got patreon running! https://www.patreon.com/SkillCult
This is my original recipe and probably my favorite way to eat these orange chanterelles. It uses maple syrup and candy cap mushrooms to overdrive the already present, subtle maple flavor of saut'eed chanterelles.
Clean the mushrooms, but try not to saturate them with water. Slice to consistent thickness, under 1/4 inch. Saute in butter slowly enough not to burn the butter badly until the water cooks out and evaporates, and they brown lightly on both sides. They should be cooked enough to be lightly browned on both sides and have lost enough moisture to be somewhat firmed up. If you have candy cap mushrooms, add a small amount of crushed dried candy cap during the saute to infuse the mushrooms with maple flavor.
Remove the mushrooms from the pan, add maple syrup to the hot pan and cook until the sugar in the syrup caramelizes very lightly. Add more butter and syrup to make enough glaze or syrup. You can add water back after caramelizing to make it more syrupy if desired. Add the mushrooms back and toss to coat them with the glaze.
Toasted walnuts are a nice addition. I'm sure pecans would be even better. Good with traditional American breakfast stuff, bacon, ham, breakfast sausage, pancakes and waffles. I just eat it the way it is most of the time.