The perfectly ordered world of the chick

Yesterday I got my biannual restock of spring chicks, and within moments I was reminded that nature loves a pecking order.

We got 6 chicks — 2 blue-egg-laying auracanas, 2 golden comets, and 2 sturdy Rhode Island Reds. At this point they are about 3-4 days old, furry golfball-size puffballs on spindly legs with oversized, curious eyes.

Their activity varies between racing around madly on their tiny legs, to suddenly falling asleep and awkwardly toppling over. They are incredibly cute, yet even at this nascent furball stage they are already setting the order of their world. That became obvious after watching them for just a few minutes.

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A golden comet pecks at wood shavings next to its food container.

 

The “pecking order” was set within 2 hours of their arrival at our coop, and individual personalities became apparent. Both my wife and I noticed that one of the auracanas (the one in the photo at top) was establishing herself as the leader. She moved quickly from chick to chick, pecking each around the eyes and head. Most just cast their heads downward and accepted their leader. But there was one that showed a slightly rebellious streak — she waited until the auracana walked away, and then when its back was turned she jumped on it and knocked it down. Twice. So we’ll be keeping our eyes on those two.

One other personality trait is apparent in the auracana. It tends to wander from the flock to explore its surroundings and gets close to humans, looking up at us with its big eyes. It’s far more curious and much braver than the rest of its flock. It will be a good leader.

The process of setting a pecking order is an incredibly important component in a poultry flock. If a rooster is present it will take the lead role, and if there’s more than one roster, they will fight for dominance. It usually gets settled quickly, though not always bloodlessly.  Roosters are fascinating to watch, though they are usually a lot of trouble. They rage with male hormones, they are noisy, and often they’ll challenge humans for dominance. They also tend to herd their hens to keep them orderly and safe. And as I’ve seen on one occasion, they’ll fight to the death against a predator to protect their flock.

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Chicks require a steady and high heat in order to survive. The red glow comes from a heat lamp. The chicks tend to stay near the edge of the light, an indication that it’s too hot directly under the light, but too cold in the far reaches of the brooder. So they tend to stay where the temperature is just right. As time goes on, they’ll be less dependent on heat, and we’ll raise the heat lamp to lessen the heat.

 

When the flock is composed entirely of hens, it’s a slightly different story. Just like humans and every other species, chickens are hardwired to establish a leader. One hen will step up and take on that role, usually taking on some of the masculine traits that are typically reserved for roosters — like guarding the entrance of the roost at night, getting between the flock and a human, and occasionally even challenging a perceived threat. One of my good friends swears that one of his leader hens grew small spurs on its legs — a feature  usually reserved for roosters.

These 6 new chicks will mature fast, and in about 3 months I’ll be integrating them into my existing flock of six 2-year-old hens. That flock already has a dominant hen leader, a wiry, undersized, and very scrappy Rhode Island Red. Auracanas typically grow up to be big, heavy birds with a thick coat of feathers — potentially a real bruiser. They’ll have to blend 2 distinct “cultures” into one. It will be an interesting melding to watch.

  John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury that sells seedlings, fresh eggs, vegetables and fruits. For updates on produce that’s available, “like” the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

 

 

 

3 keys to battling your winter moth infestation

If you noticed ugly grey moths flitting around your property in late November and early December, I have some bad news for you — you have a serious bug problem that will erupt in about a month.

But there are some things you can do about it, and that’s what we’ll talk about in this week’s blog.

Those bugs were winter moths, a European invasive species that has been steadily chewing its way through the Northeast United States and Eastern Canada. Their offspring hatch as tiny green worms in April, and they’ll emerge by the millions — as many as 250,000 in a single large tree.

Here are some telltale signs that you have a winter moth infestation:

  • Lots of moths flying around your property at night in late November/early December.
  • Dozens (or hundreds) of tiny lime-green worms hanging from silk-like strands in April and May.
  • Cars and outdoor furniture covered with tiny black pellets in April/May (this, I hate to say, is their poop).
  • Leaves on your maple, ash, and flowering trees chewed heavily, if not completely denuded.
  • No fruits on your fruit trees and blueberry bushes.

They love to eat all sorts of flowering trees and bushes — crabapples, apples, plums, cherries, and blueberries, to name a few (they don’t seem to like peaches or raspberries…hmmm…). They also eat the leaves of maples, ash, and many other hardwood species of native trees. They’ll wipe out the buds on these trees and bushes when they are most vulnerable — when the buds are swelling and starting to blossom. They will wipe out your fruit crops and do serious, potentially deadly, damage to your trees.

This is the time of year when you can start to fight back. They’ve laid their eggs in the bark of your trees, and so they are somewhat vulnerable. Winter moths don’t have a natural predator here in North America to keep them in check, so it’s crucial to take steps to reduce their numbers.

There’s a two=phase strategy you should employ.

Phase 1 –Dormant oil sprays and insecticidal soap

Before your trees start to break open their buds, you can apply sprays that will kill at least some of the eggs that winter moths have laid on the bark.

Spraying your trees isn’t as much of a hassle as it sounds — as long as they are fairly small trees, like no taller than 10-15 feet. If they are taller than that, I’m afraid they’re a lost cause (but there’s some hope — see Phase 3).

You can buy a 2-gallon spray can for about $20, and the  ingredients for dormant oil and insecticidal soap compounds are cheap and easy to come by.

Here are a few recipes:

RECIPE 1: 2 tablespoons of ultrafine canola oil and 1 tablespoon of baking soda mixed with a gallon of water.

RECIPE 2: 2 tablespoons of horticultural oil, 1 tablespoon of baking soda, 1 tablespoon of kelp and 1 tablespoon of mild dish soap mixed with 1 gallon of water.

RECIPE 3: 2 tablespoons of baking soda, 5 tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide, 2 tablespoons of castile soap and 1 gallon of water.

You should apply the spray when the trees are dry, and the temperature is above freezing. These sprays can potentially do some damage to the tree itself, so you need to be careful.

These sprays will apply a thin film that will suffocate the eggs, but I’ve found they aren’t terribly effective on their own. Winter moths are clever at laying eggs in crevices and nooks that make it hard to get a solid dose of spray on them. Still, you’ll  put a dent in the population, and that’s good.

Phase 2 — Organic bacteria spray

Once your trees start to bud out, you need to change your strategy. The winter moth larva hatch and start to crawl to buds to begin their feeding. They are voracious, so you need to pin their ears back by applying some generous sprayings of an organic insecticide called b.t. kurstaki. A quart of it will cost you about $15 to $20, and that’s enough to apply about 20 sprayings to your trees and blueberry bushes. You’ll want to spray about every 3-4 days from around mid April to mid May.

B.t. does a number on the moth larva’s digestive system. It will kill them in large numbers if you are diligent and thorough with your spray applications. This is your best and last option for spray controlling them — once they begin to mature the b.t. is ineffective.

Phase 3 — The poultry option

Nature always seems to provide remedies to balance things out, and in the case of winter moths there is a bonafide natural solution. It’s backyard chickens. They eat just about every bug you can imagine, including some species that pose serious health problems to humans such as deer ticks that carry Lyme disease. Chickens will plow through a big population of winter moths and will utterly devastate it, as long as they have access to the ground underneath the tree or bush.

Chickens are a natural, low-cost and low-impact solution to many bug problems that we currently use expensive and environmentally-damaging pesticides to deal with.  Some communities have progressive laws regarding backyard chickens that allow homeowners the flexibility to own small flocks. Unfortunately, my hometown of Amesbury isn’t one of them. Most people here are prohibited from having chickens due to the size of their lots. And even those who have large enough lots must adhere to onerous regulations. These laws can be changed, but for now, most Amesbury residents need to spray and pray in order to knock back the winter moths.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury. Add https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/ to your list of Facebook likes to keep up to date on fruits, vegetables, plants and fresh eggs that are sold at the farm.

 

3 offbeat garden tools you should have

With the temps outside dropping into the single digits, it looks like we are back into winter mode.  So here’s a way to overcome the late-winter doldrums — take a look at your gardening tools and make some upgrades where necessary. With that in mind, here are 3 offbeat tools that are worth adding to your collection.

2-Way Loop Hoe

I literally stumbled across this tool about 12 years ago. Someone had abandoned a metal hoe2-way loop hoe in some tall grass, and my foot caught the metal handle. After dusting myself off, I pulled it out of the weeds and gave it a look-over. Then I brought it home and started using it, and I was astounded at how great of a tool it was.

Basically it’s a double-sided blade on a rounded rectangular piece of metal that is attached to a long handle. The blade has a slight spring motion to it.  You work the handle back and forth, and the blade sinks into the ground a half inch or so and sweeps along parallel to the surface, cutting weeds off at the root. You can weed large patches of ground in just a few moments. It’s almost effortless, because the blade does all the work for you. What kind of genius came up with this?

These retail for about $30 or so.

Mattock

Have you ever hit a root, or a rock, or a thick clump of sod that you just can’t move withmattock your shovel, hoe, burly arms or whatever? Well, these sorts of difficulties require a real heavy hitter on your side — a mattock.

A mattock consists of a heavy (5 pounds usually) metal head that has a thick cutting blade on one side, and either a pick or an adze-like blade on the opposing side of the head (pictured here is the pick-headed version). The head is attached to a very robust wood handle. The combination of these 2 elements — the heavy cutting head and the long thick handle — gives you an enormous amount of chopping power when you swing this thing. It’s little wonder why Medieval peasants used mattocks as a weapon in battle.

In your own battles with rock and roots, the mattock is a perfect ally. It will blow through a root in a few swings, and dislodge rocks with ease. It you are trying to cut through thick sod, a well-aimed hit with a mattock will toss that clump up in the air and send it winging 5-10 feet. It requires some practice to get the art of the swing down to a science. It’s good to wear a pair of safety goggles, because a mattock causes a lot of chaos — dirt flying, woodchips flung far and wide, etc. And just like you would with a chainsaw, you need to take a stance that protects your legs from being struck by the blade should you completely miss your target.

A good mattock sells for about $35 and will last for a long time.

Metal Shovel

I know, there’s nothing offbeat about a shovel. But an all-metal shovel isn’t so common shovelfor gardeners. Most people prefer to buy a wooden-handled shovel. They are cheap, and you get what you pay for.

The great weakness of a wooden-handled shovel is the handle itself. A shovel works best when you can get leverage on it, by pulling on the handle and prying out whatever it is you are digging (dirt, rocks, etc.) Oftentimes, that wooden handle will snap under pressure, especially if its a few years old and it’s been left outside for awhile.

An all-metal version usually has a slightly thicker shovel blade, attached to a metal tapered handle — tapered into a somewhat oval shape, as opposed to a wooden handle’s rounded shape. This shape adds to its strength. The handle and blade are fused together. That adds to the shovel’s durability. The toughness of that metal handle makes all the difference. It can withstand pulling/prying pressure that would snap a wooden-handled shovel in an instant. Its uniform heaviness also makes it a better balanced tool, allowing you to really drive that blade deep into the ground and pull your full weight on the handle. Once you’ve used a metal shovel, you’ll never go back to its cheaper wooden-handled cousins.

The cost of a metal shovel is high ($40 or so), so that’s why you don’t see many gardeners buying them.   Think of it as a longterm investment that will outlast a lifetime’s worth of wooden handled shovels. In that regard, it’s a bargain.

John Macone operates an organic farm in Amesbury, Mass. Fresh vegetables, fruits and eggs are available seasonally at reasonable prices, and seedlings will be available in the spring. To stay on top of what’s available on the stand, check out his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

It’s worth the effort to grow your own raspberries

If you are a berry lover, there’s nothing that compares to growing your own raspberries. You can buy them at the supermarket, but if you do, you can be guaranteed of 2 things — they’ll be expensive and their taste will be meh. Why? They’ve probably traveled a long way, and they don’t travel very well. Every mile they travel makes them mushier and more tasteless.

But grow them in your backyard, and it’s a whole ‘nother world. They’ll be fresh, with fantastic taste and texture. And — as a cheap guy, this is what I like — they are an incredible bargain.

I’ve been growing raspberries for 25 years, and I have a very large patch of them on my farm. They are super popular on my farmstand. Of all the berries and fruits I’ve grown over the years, raspberries take the prize as the easiest to grow, and the most popular with customers.

Here are some tips if you want to grow them:

Where to grow raspberriesIMG_1125

Like a lot of plants, raspberries want full sun and a rich soil. They don’t like competition, like weeds and such. But they love to take over every other plant’s space. They send out “suckers” that will pop up everywhere within a foot or so of the patch that you carefully created. So for your own sanity, they should be in a confined space that you can mow around. Mowing will keep those suckers in check. Ideally you should lay out a row that’s about 2 feet wide — and no wider than 3 feet. A 10-foot long row will give you plenty of berries.

What kind to get

There are dozens of varieties available. I have 3 types growing on my farm, but I prefer my everbearing berries. They came from my parents’ old farm in Maine. I think they may be a Latham variety, or an old New England variety that is no longer available commercially. Every spring, your everbearing raspberry plant pushes out 2-3 tall canes that produce a very large crop in the fall. Then the canes give you a second (albeit much smaller) crop the following summer, then they will die. That dead cane isn’t something to worry about — the most important part of the plant is the root, and those roots will keep pushing up raspberry canes forever if you treat them right.

How to plant them

I plant raspberry root stocks about 18 inches apart, mindful that they’ll fill in the intervening space quickly. As I mentioned above, they don’t like competition, so you’ll need to keep the bed well weeded. I usually put down a 2-inch-deep bed of composted horse manure as a mulch/fertilizer. The plants seem to love it.

If you are planting a 2-foot-wide bed that’s 10 feet long, you are going to need about 18 plants. They sell for about $5 each, so that’s $90. That’s a big upfront cost, but over the years it will reward you many times over. And unlike just about every other berry or fruit, raspberries will start paying you back in the first year.

Longterm care

 

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Raspberry canes that have been trimmed and thinned (and a cat photobomb).

Raspberries aren’t terribly finicky, as long as you prepared your soil well and you keep them well watered and weeded. In the winter I trim out the dead canes (these are the 2-year-old canes). In the early spring I thin out the spindly canes, and cut off the tops of the 1-year-old canes. That’s basically it. There are a few types of pests that like raspberries, primarily Japanese beetles and cane borers. They are both easy to manage. Birds also like the berries, so unless you invest in netting (and it’s a pain to manage), you’ll probably lose about 1/5 of your crop to birds. Oh well. Birds gotta eat too.

 

Growing your own raspberries is a great way to get your fix of an excellent (and local) fresh fruit. They freeze well, so you’ll be enjoying the “fruits of your labor” throughout the winter. And if all of this sounds like too much hassle, stop by Farmer John’s farmstand when the raspberry crop is in season (mid July, and late August-late September).

John Macone operates an organic neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. Like his Facebook page to receive updates on the crops that are in season. The address is https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

 

 

 

 

How to grow your own seedlings

seedlingsMarch 1 is a landmark day if you have a home garden. In 6 weeks, you can safely put cold weather vegetable seedlings — like broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and cabbage — into your garden. Those seedlings should be about 6 weeks old when you plant them, and that brings us right back to March 1 — the day to start your cold-tolerant seeds indoors.

Those cold weather seeds are just the start. In coming weeks you can start to plant other vegetables that are ideally started from seed — tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers for example.

If you are new to this, you may be wondering 2 things: How much hassle is it, and how much will it cost? The answer to the first question is “not much,” and to the second question, “it depends.”

A final question to ask is, “Is it worth it?” I think it is, but it really depends on how much stuff you want to grow. You can make a safe bet that you’ll pay about $3 for a six-pack of vegetable seedlings at a garden store or big box store. If you are growing about 24-36 plants, the $3 six-pack is probably a good deal for you. But if you are planting more than that, you may want to consider growing your own.

What do I need?

Here’s the simple version:

  • A bag of seed starter soil ($6-$24, depending on the size)
  • Seedling trays ($1 each at Agway)
  • Empty six-pack containers ($1 for 8, which is what a seedling tray can accommodate)
  • Seeds ($1.50 to $3 per package; usually a package contains about 30 seeds)
  •  A south- or southwest-facing window that gets lots of light.
  • Shelving or a desktop for the window.
  • An empty spray bottle ($2 or so)

What to do

You can easily do the planting in you kitchen, as watering is a big part of the process. The easiest way to do it is put the six-packs into the trays, then fill each cell with soil to within about 1/4 inch of the top. Then gently, and evenly, pour in warm water. The soil will bubble up and make a mess if you pour it in too fast, so go slow.  This process will take some time and may require repeated pouring of small amounts of water. You’ll want to get the soil moist, but you don’t want to have a pool of water at the bottom of the tray.

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These tomato seedlings are too close together. They should have at least an inch between each plant.

 

Next, gently press down the soil with your fingers, in order to compress it and make a firm base for your seeds. Now plant your seeds per the instructions on the package. I usually put in 2-3 seeds per cell. It’s important to keep them separate, because in a few weeks you’ll be pulling the rootballs out of the cell and replanting the seedlings. Next, put down a layer of soil — 1/4 inch is fine — and them use the spray bottle to gently spray this dry top level of soil. Once it’s good and wet, set out the seed tray at your window. Be sure to record what you planted — for instance, take a popsicle stick and write down the vegetable’s name, and plunk that stick down into the soil. If you don’t do this, you might forget what you’ve planted.

It can take anywhere from a few days to 2 weeks for seedlings to emerge. In the meantime you’ll want to keep an eye on soil moisture, light and heat. If your house isn’t too drafty, your seedling heat situation should be fine.

There’s several popular vegetables that are ideally suited for starting from seed indoors: Tomatoes, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Eggplant, Peppers (peppers are a bit hard to grow as they require very high soil temperatures to germinate).

If you’ve bought 1 seedling tray and the 8 6-pack containers that fit in it (and you put 2-3 seeds in each cell), you now have the potential of seeing about 100 seedlings sprout. That’s a big number! Planting your own seedlings is a major cost savings if you are planting a moderately-sized garden.

If all this seems too much of a hassle, Farmer John’s can help. This spring we’ll have a good assortment of organically-grown seedlings for sale at our farmstand.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods in Amesbury, Mass., a neighborhood organic farm. You can find out more about the farm’s offerings at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/