Here’s a bittersweet solution for your poison ivy woes

It’s a good time of year to beat through the bushes in the remote corners of your property to see what’s been hiding in the shadows. In my case, I’ve been on the hunt for two nasty vines that I’ve been battling for years — Oriental bittersweet and poison ivy.

I’ve got a couple sections of my property that are hard to get into during the bulk of the year. They are thick with undergrowth, fallen limbs and other natural detritus, and they are a bit swampy. But right now the leaves are down and the ground is frozen, making it the best time of year to get in there and clear out the junk.

If you have a neglected section of woodland on your property, chances are it has both poison ivy vines and Oriental bittersweet. They are a nuisance, and it’s worthwhile to get them out. But there’s a trick to both of them.

Poison ivy

No doubt you are familiar with the low-lying plants that run along the ground, with the telltale clusters of three shiny leaves. Many people aren’t aware that poison ivy is actually a vine (and a misbehaving member of the cashew/pistachio family of plants) that prefers to grow up vertical surfaces such as trees — up to 50 feet or more — fed by a central vine that can grow to an inch or more in diameter. That vine is easy to spot — it’s grey, with what looks like hair growing out of it. That hair is actually a mass of roots that keeps the vine firmly attached to the tree.

Whenever you are dealing with poison ivy, you are dealing with a toxic plant that requires great caution on your part. Like the leaves, the vine contains urushiol, the irritant that most of us are allergic to. You shouldn’t touch the vine.

But the good news is the vine — and the foliage above it — can be easily killed. Use your loppers to cut through a section of the vine, then cut through it again a couple inches above that first cut. You should be able to grab that short section of vine with your loppers, then twist the loppers and tear out a couple inches of vine. The plant will die quickly. Be sure to wash off your lopper blade afterwards.

This poor tree has several poison ivy vines growing up it, ranging from pencil diameter to over an inch diameter. I cut all the vines 3 years ago. They are all long dead, but they are still clinging to the tree.

The plant is a goner. The bad news is that dead vine will remain toxic for a long time — many months, if not years. It’s firmly attached to the tree so you can’t tear it off. And if you burn it, you will release urushiol into the air — which you can breath in and suddenly have a very serious health problem on your hands. The safest route is to let nature take its course. The vine will eventually dry out and fall off. This will probably take years.

Oriental bittersweet

Like many other invasive plants, oriental bittersweet was introduced into the United States as an ornamental plant. You may be familiar with its colorful fruit — small clusters of red berries poking out of a bright yellow shell. Very attractive. Many people cut them and make them into holiday wreaths — among them, I’ve discovered, is Martha Stewart. And birds love the berries, so bittersweet spreads like crazy.

The vine itself is easy to spot. Here’s a good guide.

The problem with bittersweet is it will choke out and kill native plants, including the trees it clings to. It wraps so tightly around the host tree it strangles its growth and causes limbs to break off. I’ve never seen a vine that grows more quickly than bittersweet. I’d estimate it can grow about 10 feet a year, and I might be conservative on that.

An Oriental bittersweet vine that has wrapped around a small tree, choking its growth.

The vines can grow surprisingly fat. When I was out cutting them this week, I found a couple that were 3 inches in diameter. And they can grow much thicker than that.

There’s good news and bad news when dealing with bittersweet. The good news is unlike poison ivy, there’s nothing toxic to worry about. Also, the vines are somewhat soft, making it easy to cut through them with loppers. Cut the vine off as close to the ground as you can. The vine that grows up the tree will now be dangling, and you can cut off a good-sized section that’s within reach. The upper unreachable parts will rot within a couple years and will fall down on their own. If you burn your branches in the winter, as I do, you’ll find the vines burn well.

The bad news is this plant just doesn’t die easily. You really need to get it out by the roots, and absent that, you need to revisit that root and keep cutting the new growth. Plus, the birds have probably been spreading the seeds all over your property. Keep and eye out and pull the young vines out by the roots.

I spent a couple days cutting out vines this week. It’s a satisfying way to get outdoors and do something constructive, and next summer your trees will thank you for ridding them of unwanted hangers-on.

John Macone operates a small-scale organic farm in Amesbury, Massachusetts. For up to date info on the farmstand, check out his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

A yeoman’s guide to opening a farmstand: Part 1

I’ve had a few people ask me about the nitty gritty of running a small-scale farmstand. Is it worth the effort? Can you earn a living?

The answer is, well, mixed. Personally I enjoy doing it. It doesn’t earn a lot of money. But there is some money to be made, and if nothing else it scratches your itch to grow things.

I’m going to write up a three-part blog on the nitty gritty of what I’ve experienced in my 3 seasons of running a farmstand. Here’s the first part — we’ll take a look at your land and your zoning.

Your very first consideration is the amount of farmable land. Under ideal circumstances you have plenty of open ground — fertile soil, no trees, no shading, no obstacles, relatively flat and close to a water supply. But I don’t know anyone who has all that.

So instead, you have to work with what you’ve got. Do you have enough arable land to grow enough food to sustain a farmstand? If you have at least 5,000 square feet of farmable land, I’d say yes.

Another key consideration is zoning. Does your community allow you to operate a farmstand? You might be surprised to find out what the answer is. Around here there are several towns that have adopted the state’s Right to Farm bylaws, which give generous property rights to people who want to grow food and/or raise animals on their land. My town isn’t one of them — in fact it’s quite restrictive. Even though we live on a 2-acre property that has been farmed since the mid 1600s, we are very limited in what we can do.

Here’s a Google Maps view of my land. You can see the cultivated area along the right-hand border (the nearly square parcel), plus 3 rows of berries to the immediate left of the cultivated area. Overall there’s about 2 acres of land. I have about a quarter acre under cultivation. I place the farmstand out on the street, in front of the barn (big building in the 
lower middle of this photo.
)

Assessing your land

If you’ve decided that you have enough land for a farmstand and you have zoning on your side, take a walk around your property with a critical eye. What’s good and what’s going to cause you headaches? On my land I have a few positives and a few negatives. First, here are the negatives:

  • The entire property is on a north-facing slope, which tends to keep the soil cooler in the spring than I’d ideally like to see, and also allows for some erosion in the spring. Also, the northern quarter of the property is a swamp (in the photo, that’s the top section).
  • The open land where I have created my farm space (about 10,000 square feet) is boxed in by trees, which limits the size of the arable land. I can potentially double my growing area and max out at about 20,000 square feet without removing a single tree. If I were to take the trees down, I’d probably be able to get another 10,000 to 15,000 square feet, but that would be a major hassle. So I’m sticking with what I have now — about 10,000 square feet. It’s about all I can manage.
  • From a farmstand perspective, I’m not in the ideal place for marketing and exposure purposes. I live on an extraordinarily narrow dead-end street, and due to zoning restrictions I can’t put up a sign at the busy end of the street to get customers to find me. Zoning also restricts the location and structure of the farmstand itself. I have to have a temporary structure, so I built a small farmstand on wheels that I bring out in the morning and store in the barn at night (and off season).

Now the positives;

  • The soil is excellent. Very fertile, no rocks — that’s a minor miracle for New England — plus it drains well, and there are minor springs throughout the property that keep the moisture levels consistent. The north-facing slope also allows for excellent air drainage.
  • There are plenty of farm-friendly resources onsite, such as a dug well for water, a big barn, a field for harvesting grass clippings, and plenty of room for expansion if I chose to make significant investment in opening up and fencing in new land. I also have a huge bonus — 70-year-old blueberry bushes that produce an enormous yield.
  • There’s a built-in demand here for fresh and local organics, especially if the produce is priced right. People are willing to drive a long distance for the right produce at the right price. We have a half dozen large scale farmstands within 10 miles of us, and even with that intensity of competition there is still a demand for small scale farmstands.

So that’s my assessment of my own farmstand potential. There are 3 important positives to pick out of it — I have enough arable land (5,000+ square feet), I am permitted to have a farmstand under the zoning laws, and I have a strong local demand. If you are thinking about operating a farmstand and you can check off those 3 boxes, you’ve got the start of the “right stuff.”

That’s it for part one. In part two, I’ll talk about product and marketing strategies.

John Macone operates an organic farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. You can reach him at jmacone@gmail.com.