mike mclellan

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since Nov 13, 2011
Helena, MT zone 4
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Recent posts by mike mclellan

Some general observations from Montana. I see buffaloberry commonly growing with hawthorn and chokecherry in the draws along I-90 in south central MT. Seems to be a naturally occurring guild where there’s a bit more moisture collecting. These are much drier sites than anyplace I can imagine in Maine. I have no idea if it may be too moist back in eastern deciduous forest country.

I inherited several buffaloberry when I bought the property where I reside. They were likely planted in the mid to late 60s and stand 2-3 meters tall. I know there is one male plant and it seems to pollinate the five female plants immediately beside it in a north-south line. All of them were overshadowed by huge Russian olive until four years ago. The removal of the olive released all of the plants. They produced berries sparingly before that time. They now have a much larger crop. These grow in an area with a high water table so I have never watered them in the 11 years I’ve been here. I  have no idea if these are a named variety but the berries tend to be quite small (IMO). It takes a lot of work to pick a handful. These plants are extremely spiny and make a person pay if one gets too close. They are a great wildlife food plant and tough as nails against the wind but caveat emptor on trying to grow these for berry production. I hope to someday plant some more elsewhere but more like in zone 4/5 on the place. Mine just are not great berry producers. Three have started to sucker since the olive tree was removed so I have some candidates for transplanting. I hope this helps with some of you thinking of adding this plant. Oh, they do grow very close to clump of Colorado blue spruce and don’t seem to be bothered by them.
3 days ago
I have planted many Caragana arborescens in the Helena Valley as well as I inherited a few old, large specimens. We are drier than you in Wisconsin but same zone (4b). It is not invasive here. It does thrive with a bit of attention at the start, and has shown strong growth most years. It is a favorite of bumblebees. The only place I’ve seen it volunteer is beneath a Caragana hedge. Most people in the west, in my experience would not consider it invasive.
I have tried
Autumn olive has had moderate success here. Most of my original plantings a decade ago died in the first three years. The survivors tend to die back after cold winters . My guess is the low winter humidity is a factor in survival as well as our low “average” precipitation. I know people farther east of you feel that autumn olive is invasive but that climate is wetter and and warmer than here. Caveat emptor.
1 month ago
Probably my biggest experiment was with Painted Mountain corn. Yes, I live in Montana and Painted Mountain was developed here but still, every part of this state is not the same habitat by a long shot. I planted four raised beds and an in-ground bed. The first raised bed was around June 10 and the successive three a few days apart. The in ground bed was planted July 1. I wanted to see if the advertised short season variety really would ripen before frost. I planted the seeds at 9 inch (around 25 cm) apart and rows about three feet apart ( 1m).  In the raised beds I tried planting zucchini in the large space between the corn rows. Alas. this past summer saw temperatures daily in the mid 90s ( around 35 to 38 C) and unreal smoke making the Helena valley more like a snow globe with smoke as a substitute for the snow. Brutal growing conditions. To top it off, a doe mule deer took off(10cm). The zucchini got jack hammered and never really did much after that. So by late June-early July I’ve got stubs from my experiments. The doe moved on by midJuly and the corn took off like a rocket. Everything matured by late August to early Sept. Most every stalk had a cob and what colors! The in-ground bed was a bit more hit and miss in terms of mature cobs. The stalks were about 2 m tall but some didn’t produce. Still a successful experiment IMHO. We only had a bit less than 1 inch(25mm) of rain from June 1 to the end of Sept.  All the rain came over a four day span in mid Aug and I didn’t irrigate after that until harvest. I let the cobs dry on the stalk and picked them mid October. yes, I had to irrigate before then@but that is standard here in the dry west. Still. the corn plants were quite resilient despite the drought, heat and deer pressure. I  plan to use this year’s production to increase the number of plants and have enough to give our chickens a daily ration.
Perhaps it is a Rouge vif  d’tamp. Same shape and the seeds are real similar. Some of mine have grown way bigger but the size has varied and the smaller ones are quite flattened like your example.  I won’t swear to it but it is a possibility
7 months ago
I have found after a few years of growing Egyptian walking onions in the same bed that the density of bulb clusters has slowly diminished. I dug the remainder and am moving them to a different bed(s) . Yes, I personally would add some amendments to the soil if you are replanting your alliums. I am tempted to create a new row of walking onions in a couple of different beds as well as growing them under/near fruit trees. Depends on my time and energy this fall. The original walking onion bed grew densely enough to choke out most grass and whitetop(Cardaria). That is no longer the case . I have not amended that bed at all in the last few years.
Yes, James, I have had to irrigate the trees for the first several years- oldest trees in the ground 5 years and youngest 3 years.  I used irripans ( aka tal-ya) around the trees to funnel extra water to the trees/shrubs and reduce grass competition. I use large diameter soaker hoses strung along both sides of the trees.  I do have a high water table in the orchard area. I believe it was used for hay when this place was a dairy farm some 60 years ago and it appears that the land is subirrigated.  Distance to water is about 4 to 5 feet depending on the exact location. This past summer, it appeared that the oldest trees in the orchard really took off growth-wise, both in crown diameter and height. Those trees were an Evans cherry, two Adirondack gold apricots, a Brianna apricot, and a couple of the bush carmine jewel cherries, and the Ely pear.  I have in not fertilized them nor really have done the best job in reducing grass competition but these trees really hit the accelerator anyway. My hypothesis is that they have gotten roots deep enough to tap the top of the capillary fringe of the water table. I estimate that to be around 28-30 inches deep. When we excavated for an addition to our house, we had standing water in the footing trenches at 48 inches.  It is my hope and general expectation that most of what I've planted will eventually get to this same  point and not need much in the way of added irrigation but I'm just now really getting the hang of this orchard growing and my trees need more TLC than I have generally provided to date.

As for reaching the capillary fringe, I have tried numerous haskap/honeyberry varieties and most have not thrived at all, many have died. They are reputedly shallow rooted and again, I wasn't the best at consistent watering their first couple of years in the ground. I would not consider those a success at all to date. I have planted haskaps in a raised hugelkultur bed and they have absolutely thrived. The bed is seven years old and the plants have come to dominate  their space in it- heights generally about a meter ( 3.5 feet) and spread easily that wide as well. I rarely water the hugelbed, about once a month, and everything growing in it has done very well in terms of growth, spread and producing luscious fruit (raspberries and haskaps). Generally, extra watering is an absolute must almost everywhere in the interior West (crest of the Sierra/Cascades to east slope of the Rockies). It's just too dry for far too long in the growing season. This season, the trees will get a great start based on all the snow we've got on the ground, but come mid-June or even a bit earlier, we will need to water them on a regular basis. That will depend on the May/June rainfall, which usually is our heaviest precipitation season.
3 years ago
I am located in west-central Montana, in the Missouri River Valley,at 4,000 feet elevation just north of Helena , Montana. We are in zone 4b,and based on the last two winters and this totally insane February of 2019, zone 4b is dead on.  Getting enough chill hours is not a problem here but late frosts can be. We have experienced as little as 6-7 total inches of precipitation in a year to around 14 inches last year. Three of the last  seven winters have seen very little snow cover, the last two winters have had 90 to 110 consecutive days of snow cover, and this one had virtually no snow cover until mid January and now we are buried as deeply as 20inches (45-50 cm) of snow and most nights below 0 F. We clearly have a great deal of climatic variability.

We are growing about 10 cultivars of apples: Sentinel apples-varieties red, golden, and North Pole, dwarf honey crisp, yellow transparent, Carol, wealthy, liberty, sweet 16, and a few others I can't think of at the moment.
I have had decent success with the "prairie cherries"developed at the University of Saskatchewan: Evans (Bali) Romeo, and carmine jewel bush cherries so far with Juliet on order for this spring (assuming we have Spring). Local nurseries sell the Juliets and say they do well and I see no reason why they won't. I do have one. Traditional pie cherry- montmorency. The oldest Evans came into production last summer and have thrived in spite of abuse their first couple of years in the ground ( deer browsing and psychotic late winter warm spells followed by Arctic freezes  causing die-back)
Pears include Summercrisp, gourmet, Ely,Patten and a few others. The Summercrisp, Ely and gourmet have thrived and the others have poked along the last four years.
plums- the prune types have done well and started producing well after three years in the ground. They are tough as nails in terms of putting up with wicked north winds and poor original soil. The cultivars ar Stanley, Santa Rosa, and Italian prune. I have surrounded these specimens with Bocking 14 comfrey and these plants have done wonders to suppress grass and provide mulching fodder.  
I am growing hybrid plums as well. Six varieties all in the ground two years and still establishing. I lost the black ice cultivar to who knows what. Survivors with hope for good growth include: superior, Alderman, Waneta, and three others .

Enough of my rambling. Would gladly discuss other fruiting plants later.
3 years ago
Sherry,  in another life long ago, I worked in the dry, high desert of northern Nevada around Humboldt and Pershing counties and eastern Washoe county so you've piqued my interest a bit. What currently grows in the surrounding area? That can give you some clue as to how alkaline/saline the soil is. Is your 5 acres of lakebed an actual playa that floods seasonally? If so, that will be extremely tough to establish anything as the salinity of the soil is extreme in those places.  Does greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus) grow around you?  Also look for salt grass (Distichlis) growing between the greasewood hummocks. Both plants indicate a high water table and saline soil. If you have big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) you may have a few more choices as to what you could establish for forage as it does not survive in the higher saline soils greasewood indicates. In any case, your natives will give you some indication of what your site is capable of producing. Good luck. That is some beautiful country but tough as far as growing conditions go.
3 years ago
Dina, a couple of thoughts on the protection of new plantings.  Have a look at the bone sauce made by Sepp Holzer. There's a great video on permies showing you how to make it.  It is quite simple to make and a little goes a long way and lasts a long time. I have used it on most of my new woody plantings and it seems to be deterring nibblers. However, we had a vole explosion three winters back and they tried to chew anything that I hadn't protected. I use 1/2 inch hardware cloth cylinders around all new fruit trees. Only lost one tree to girdling after I started using these cages when the snow was so deep the little beasts burrowing under the snow came out above the top of the cylinder. UGH! The cylinders take little time to cut out and I use baling wire to tie the ends together or you can even use twist-ties. I also use a similar mesh made of heavy duty plastic. It's easier to cut out and seems to be as effective in stopping the nibblers. Bought that at a local big box store. I used cement reinforcing wire to make large cages around several fruit trees to keep the deer off of them until they got large enough to hold their own against deer browsing. These worked well in keeping the deer away.

As for grasshoppers, consider Bill Mollison's approach- you don't have too many grasshoppers, you have too few turkeys. I don't run turkeys myself ( just chickens, so far) but I understand turkeys will gladly eat grasshoppers whenever/wherever they are found.  I don't mean to complicate getting your system going but just food for thought. I know hoppers out west can really go through population explosions some years. Turkeys or other birds could turn that surplus into food.

My suggestion for starting, based on my own experience of starting basically from scratch, concentrate your efforts on a given area within a larger design framework. I spread myself far too thin in the early couple of years here (now in year 7) and have been concentrating on smaller areas since.  Beware, not all techniques identified as permaculture will necessarily work for you in your context.  I still like Geoff Lawton's advice to develop your water systems in place and access before mass planting of vegetation.  I flunked on that one too and am still playing a bit of catch-up five years later. Think zone 1 and work outward.  That way, hopefully,  implementation of your plan won't seem so overwhelming. Slow and steady wins the race. Good luck.
3 years ago
John,
Your efforts on behalf of this amazing planet and so many good people have allowed thousands of us learn how to be kinder and gentler to our earth home.  Thank you for making it possible to learn so much from this website. Peace and blessings to you and your family.

Mike McLellan