A look back at 2018:Climate change leaves its mark

The growing season is finished here at Farmer John’s, and overall it was a good year — several crops had record-breaking production.  But I also had more than the usual number of crop failures, some of them with crops that have been reliable staples in past years — like broccolini. squash, corn, and cucumbers. As I look back at the records I keep, there’s a theme that passes through all of it — the climate is really out of whack this year.

I’d call that climate change, and it’s not just affecting farmers. I also fish in the ocean off Plum Island (Massachusetts) during the summer and fall, where I saw some dramatic changes in water temperatures and fish species. The water was unusually warm, bringing in fish species that normally don’t venture north of Buzzard’s Bay — some 80 miles south of here.

In the garden, I’ve never seen a year of such extremes in the 30 years that I’ve been growing vegetables. Three particular extremes worked together to put a tremendous amount of stress on plants — an unusually cold spring, followed by an unusually hot and humid midsummer that coincided with an unusually wet few weeks.

The cold spring made it difficult to grow seedlings. I usually start them indoors in March and April, and sell my excess seedlings on my farmstand in May. But it was just too cold for many seeds to properly germinate, and that reduced my seedling count. As a result, I had very few seedlings to sell at the farmstand, and barely enough to plant in the garden.

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The farmstand in mid August. Lots of tomatoes and ground cherries, but not much else.

Mother Nature knocks off an invasive species

June and July produced more seasonal weather, and that helped many seedlings revive and kicked the garden into high gear. I also had another unexpected bonus — the blueberry crop smashed all previous records. In 5 growing seasons, my prior record was 30 quarts — this year I hit 140 quarts. Unbelievable.

So what happened? I have 5 very large bushes that were planted in the 1930s, each containing dozens of fruiting canes. Over the prior 3 years they barely produced a single berry, due to largescale infestations by an invasive European insect called the winter moth. If you are a frequent reader of my blogs, you know about my ongoing war with these nasty bugs. In their peak year, 2016, there were hundreds of thousands of them — they chewed through many neighborhood trees and devastated the blueberry crop. They were spreading rapidly through the neighborhood and seemed to be unstoppable.

Something happened to them during the winter of 2017-2018. My speculation is that the ground froze in December, right around the time that they hatch from ground, mate and lay eggs (their December emergence is the reason they are called winter moths). I think they were unable to emerge due to the frozen ground, and died off almost completely. There are still a few of them left — you see them flittering around outdoor lights at night — but that’s nothing compared to the swarms that emerged in 205-2017.

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Newly-planted strawberry plants thrived this year. I’m looking forward to a big crop in 2019.

Hot, humid, too wet

In August, what looked like a solid rebound in the garden turned mushy. First we were hit with unusually high temperatures and humidity. Then the rains came. This was the perfect formula for diseases and damaging fungi to spread. It also led to a population explosion in the pest insect department. Since I am an organic farmer, it is difficult to stop the spread once it takes root. As a result, several crops were wiped out, and my tomato yield was far below its usual bounty.

Once the berry crops ended, there was little left to sell on the farmstand. Then the frost came early — around mid October, which is 2 weeks earlier than our normal killing frost.

Despite all these problems, it was a very productive year at the farmstand, thanks to the berries. I’ve learned that many of my customers love berries, especially organic (and cheap) berries. So that will be a major component of next year’s farmstand. I also expanded my berry crop in 2018 — I planted a few hundred strawberries, and I expect I’ll have a very large crop for sale in June 2019 to complement the blueberries and raspberries I already have in abundance. I also have what looks like a promising crop of blackberry canes, so hopefully I’ll be offering blackberries in 2019 on the stand.

I’ve begun preparing the vegetable garden for the 2019 season, and in January I’ll post an update on what I’ll be offering. There will be some interesting new vegetables.

So 2018 is in the record books. I look forward to 2019.

John Macone is the owner of Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a small scale organic farm in Amesbury, Massachusetts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August update: A berry good year

Every year there’s a crop that excels, while another one flops. So this year, as I update my Farmer John’s organic Foods blog, I’ll report on the highlights and lowlights so far.

Highlight — the berry good times

This is, beyond any remote doubt, the year of the berry. Here at Farmer John’s that means the blueberry and raspberry.  I have never, in my 30 years of gardening, seen such a productive crop year for berries.

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The blueberry crop started out looking great way back in April, when I noticed that the winter moth population had entirely collapsed. These nasty little imports from Europe have plagued the blueberry crop throughout New England, but this year something dramatic happened. They just plain disappeared. The winter conditions — specifically an early freeze that prevented the females from emerging from the ground to lay eggs — were the cause.

That is a huge deal. Two years in a row (2015 and 2016) they wiped out my entire blueberry crop. Last year I had a partial recovery, harvesting about 25 quarts. This year I’ve harvested 105 quarts, and there’s at least another 15-20 yet to ripen. That is an abnormally large harvest. I think it’s at least in part due to the work I put into the bushes. They were planted 70 years ago by the farmer who once owned this farm, Luther Colby, and they’d not been taken proper care of for many years. Last year I booked up on how to restore old blueberry bushes, and the efforts paid off. I also go to extreme lengths to keep the hungry birds out, constructing a massive temporary cage around them to protect the fruit.

Raspberries have also had an exceptional year. I use about a half ton of well-rotted horse manure to fertilize them in the spring, and they responded well to it, producing over 60 quarts. It looks like I will have a strong fall crop too. Those berries will go on the stand in mid September.

I also planted strawberries and blackberries. I expect to be putting them on the stand when next year’s crop arrives.

Lowlight… the hogs and rascally rabbits

I know I’m not the only farmer who has noticed that little critters have had an exceptionally fun and productive year. I’ve never seen such a huge population of rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels and chipmunks. I love to see them gathering food around the woods and field behind our house, but when they venture into my garden — not so cute. I’ve lost a lot of produce to them this year. My corn crop was entirely wiped out, as well as my broccoli, kale, collard greens, and cucumbers. These are all things that my customers like to have on the stand, so it was tough seeing them wiped out.

I did manage to drive all of the critters out of the garden. The kale is recovering, and cucumbers have been replanted and placed under a protective row cover, so I hope to have them on the stand in September.

It looks though like I have an even greater menace that’s nuzzling up to the edges of the garden. Last week I spotted 5 deer lingering around the edges, and I’ve noticed that they’ve chewed down everything that’s within heads-reach of the fence. I’ve erected what I hope will be an effective anti-deer barrier — basically a row of strings hung at intervals of 4, 5 and 6 feet. We’ll see whether I can keep the deer at bay.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods in Amesbury, Mass. It’s a low-cost neighborhood farmstand that features locally grown organic fruits, veggies and eggs.

April, you fooled us

April left us yesterday, the same way it arrived — like a soggy and cold lion. What happened to the lamb part?

I checked my garden log from last year and found what you’d probably suspect — this spring has been unusually cold, and late.

We’re about 2 weeks behind where we might normally be. The signs are everywhere — for instance, a local friend who fishes religiously for shad noted that the ocean and river water have been too cold to support them, so their arrival locally has been delayed. Plants that would normally be fully blossoming right now — like forsythia — are just barely starting to blossom.

I think most of us plant by the calendar, but this year it might be more accurate to use a time-honored technique called phenology. It’s not to be confused with phrenology, the quackish study of lumps on your head. Phenology is a very accurate guide to assessing soil temperatures and air temperatures by monitoring the progress of perennial plants, such as forsythias, maple trees, bulb flowers and the like. Here’s a quick and handy guide.

 

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The girls are hoping the grass greens up soon. Not terribly good pickings just yet.

 

With the help of phenology, you can determine whether the conditions are right to plant. And since vegetables are derived from every climate zone of the planet, you need to be sure that you are planting at a time when soil and air temperatures are correct.  According to the phenology calendar, we are finally able to plant peas, which I did earlier this week. By the weekend the spring timetable will likely take great leaps and bounds as the temperatures head into the unseasonably high mid 80s, and night time temperatures will stay above the mid 40s — in fact they will stay in the 60s for a few nights. That’s like leaping into mid June.  Based on the weather forecast, we’ll probably make up for at least half of our 2-week spring deficit over the course for the next few days. I’m hoping the unusually warm weather will dry out the soil a bit. It’s just too soggy right now.

New gadget

This year I’ve incorporated a new gadget to help with planting. It’s an Earthway precision garden seeder. It had generally good reviews on YouTube and elsewhere, and it’s fairly low cost for this kind of gizmo (about $110). The main reason I bought it is to do a better job planting small seeds like beets and lettuces over long stretches of garden rows. If you studied the lumps on my head via phrenology, maybe you’d find a different reason why I bought this thing.

They arrive partly unassembled, but assembly is quick and very easy. They seem to be well designed, lightweight and easily storable. The most clever aspect of it is how it disperses seeds. You insert a disc template into its drive that is shaped to accept whatever kind of seed you are planting. It then digs a furrow, plants the seeds at regular intervals, and them covers the seeds and packs them down. All you have to do is push it in a straight line.

I gave it its first tryout earlier this week, planting peas. I very quickly learned that it has some quirks. First off, the soil here is still fairly wet and clumpy, and that led to an uneven spread of seeds. Also, it’s best to have long straight rows. This thing doesn’t do short rows, at least not well. It also has a little bit of trouble processing the seeds correctly, so every once in awhile a seed would pop out of the hopper like it was shot out of a cannon.

But overall, I think it was worth the investment. You can plant large areas in a snap. It’s super easy to use.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it does with lettuce and beet seeds, which I’ll put in later this week or early next.

That’s it for this week. By this time next week I expect there will be a lot more to talk about — including the arrival of seedlings on the farm stand.

John Macone owns and operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farm stand in Amesbury, Mass. The stand will open in mid May.

April update: New chicks, new seedlings, and winter moth patrol

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost late April, and yet things are just starting to warm up!

The ground is still too wet and cold to do any planting, but there are still plenty of catch-up things to do. Here’s a look at what’s going on at Farmer John’s.

Seedlings

Last year I raised and sold about 300 seedlings. I ran out of many varieties. so this year I’m hoping to have about twice as many available on my farmstand at 8 Kendricks Court, Amesbury. Like all things at Farmer John’s, my seedlings will be cheap — $3 per 6-pack; $2 per individual plant.  I expect to start selling them around mid May.

They are coming along great. I’m a huge tomato fanatic, so I pour much of my energy into finding and growing the most interesting and tastiest varieties. Here’s a look at the varieties of tomatoes that I’ll have:

 

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Brad’s Atomic tomatoes

Sun gold, Brad’s Atomic, yellow brandywine, pink brandywine, Campari, pink tiger, Chadwick cherry, German lunchbox,  Amish paste.

I may have a couple other tomato varieties available — we’ll see how they do.

Also, I’ll have some squashes, a variety of herbs, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, and perhaps some flower seedlings for sale too. I’ll probably be selling raspberry roots as well. Keep an eye on my Facebook page for updates.

New chicks

With the weather finally heading into the 50s and 60s consistently, I figured now is the time to get some chicks to add to my laying hens. Last year I was able to get my chicks in mid March — that’s an indication of how much colder this spring has been compared to last.

 

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Golden comets and barred rocks searching for goodies in my brooder.

I raise them in the chicken coop, which is unheated, so I needed to wait until the outside temperature was a little more friendly to chicks’ need for very high and consistent temperatures.  With a heat lamp I can easily hit the 90 degree threshold that chicks need to survive their first week, and as the chicks begin to fledge, the needed warming temperature will also decrease (by about 5 degrees per week). So I should be all set.

I find that the best local choice for chicks is Dodge’s Agway, which has stores in Exeter, Hampton Falls, and Plaistow, N.H. I’ve bought chicks from Dodge’s several times and found them to be healthy, vigorous, and — most importantly — all properly sexed. And by that I mean they are all hens. I’ve bought from other sources in the past and found some young roosters included in the mix. Roosters, as you may know, are a major headache. They’re also “illegal” in my town.

Dodge’s also has a broad mix of breeds, all in line with the backyard farmer’s practical needs. I’ve been known in the past to buy some of the oddball breeds — like Polish crested hens — and invariably the novelty of these breeds disappears quickly when you realize how few eggs you get from them. Dodge’s stocks the proven egg producers, like barred rocks, Rhode Island reds, wyandottes, golden comets, auracaunas, and buff Orpingtons.

Winter moths

Winter moths have become the scourge of my blueberry bushes and fruit trees (although they don’t seem to like peach trees)… I had a devastating influx of them 3 years ago, but as time as gone on I’ve managed to put a big dent in their population. My primary weapon is the chickens — I let them free-range under the blueberries and around the trees. They eat the winter moth larvae as they descend from the branches by the thousands. But they can’t get to the larvae that hatch in the branches and are eating the buds, so to get those larvae I need to spray.

 

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Winter moth larvae

Now that the buds on the trees and the blueberries are about to open, the winter moth larvae are sure to hatch and start their voracious habit of destroying blossoms.  So in order to get them as they hatch, I spray the blueberries with Bt Monterey, an organic compound that is devastatingly effective on moth larvae.  I made the first application yesterday, and will repeat it every 3 days or so.

 

A friend swears by Neem oil as a more effective way to deal with winter moths. I’ve never tried it, but I might use it later in the season if I start seeing significant damage.

That’s the quick update for this week. By next week I hope to start planting.

John Macone owns farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. If you want to get updates on what’s happening at the farmstand, like the Farmer John’s Facebook page.

5 ways to get through the wintry spring blues

Technically it’s been spring for almost 3 weeks, but I guess Mother Nature prefers to replay winter’s Top 10 hits.

Boy, it stinks. Too cold to do much of anything outside. And yesterday, as if the biting and raw cold wasn’t enough, we got a coating of snow. And next week they say we are in for another Nor’Easter, our 18th in 3 weeks. Or something like that.

I know, we’ve all had enough. Check out the “scenic” photo at the top of this blog.  Says it all. Bleak. People are ready to get outside and start the spring planting process. But it’s a futile prospect for at least another week, maybe longer.

So what’s a bored outdoorsperson to do?  Well, in order to cheer myself up, and hopefully anyone else who reads this blog, I came up with a list of 5 things that may put a little spring in your step.

1 — Go to a spring-themed event

This is the time of year when chambers of commerce and horticultural societies hold their spring marketing events.   In my town, there’s a local home and garden show, which I plan to check out. There’s a bunch of different events going on this weekend around Boston. Here’s one that looks interesting, though a bit pricey.

2 — Watch some YouTube videos

YouTube is a fantastic resource for learning about new techniques for gardening. There are thousands of videos that will inspire you. Pick something you’d like to get to know better, say no-till gardening, and check out the uploaded videos. Here’s one channel that I’ve been watching.

3 — Find a new plant to plant

You may have already bought all your seeds, but maybe there’s a new plant out there that you’d like to try. Take a nice warm bath or shower, get warmed up and lulled into a springtime mode, and think about the stuff that you’ve wanted to grow but haven’t. Then, get on your computer and start finding your new plant for 2018. Here’s what I picked. (I skipped the shower).

4 — Find a new website to visit

Do a little web surfing, and you are bound to find a new site that has a bunch of stuff that you’d love to buy, or maybe a lot of information that’s useful for research. Here’s a site I found for my “find a new plant” project.

5 — Find a new tool to buy

There’s always some new (or old) gadget that’s worth checking out, some labor-saving device that might make your toil a little less toilish. Here’s a selfless self promotion — a column I did last year on 3 tools to check out. And of course there are tons of other tools to check out. YouTube is again a good place to look. Here’s a typical video on a great tool.

Well hopefully those five things will keep you occupied until the temperature hits 50. Think spring!

John Macone owns farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. If you want to get updates on what’s happening at the farmstand, like the Farmer John’s Facebook page.

 

March update: A no-till experiment

I’m an old dog when it comes to gardening and farming. But this year I’m going to try to learn a new trick.

Saturday’s fine weather (low 50s and sunny) was perfect for the first task of getting the crop field ready. Normally that first task would be rototilling and maybe laying down a smattering of lime, but this year the tiller will for the most part stay in the barn. I decided to try “no-till” farming to see if it is as effective as its fans say it is.

I have one main reason for being drawn to no-till. My growing field is on a moderate slope, dropping about 6-8 feet over a 65-foot width. It’s also located about 1/3rd of the way down a long sloping hill, and that means it is subject to a lot of water flow and erosion. Usually after I rototill, it seems that there’s a hefty rainstorm that causes dozens of rivulets to run through the field, pulling down the freshly turned earth with it. Occasionally the runoff ends up depositing in a wooded glade below the field. It looks like a mess. Not good!

Benefits of no-till

No-till gardening is ideally suited to prevent erosion from happening. It also has three other benefits of note.

  • It doesn’t suffer the compaction problems that tilling causes. Rototilling may seem to aerate the soil at first, but over the course of a few weeks the soil will actually compact into a much tighter mixture than before. The air pockets that you created by tilling are quickly eliminated because the soil has lost its natural structure. This makes it much harder for plants to thrive.
  • The billions of microscopic critters that live in your soil don’t have their world turned upside down. In effect you’ve killed the complicated world that micro organisms have worked all year to build. All of the benefits that the micro environment provides for your plants and for a healthy soil must be rebuilt from scratch every time you rototill. The experts argue that by leaving that micro environment in place, you will increase the fertility of your soil.
  • Old weed seeds don’t see the light of day. The act of turning the soil exposes thousands of weed seeds to a better growing environment. The argument goes that by not turning the soil, you’ll have fewer weeds.

From a practical standpoint, there’s a couple things to consider when doing a no-till garden. The soil still needs to be aerated, and that means some hefty work on your part. First you need to rake off all the “garden garbage” that was left on top of the soil last year. And you’ll need to cart it away — or maybe not. I was thinking I’ll leave it on the garden paths to act as a mulch/soil saver.

Next, you’ll need a pitchfork to loosen the soil in order to get some air down there. This I think is the hardest part, especially if you have some substantial real estate to garden in. You’ve got to push that pitchfork down as far as it will go, then pull back on the handle about a foot for so. Pull back just enough to loosen the soil, but don’t pull hard enough to pull up that clump of soil you’ve latched onto. You want it to stay pretty much intact so that the micro organisms don’t have their world turns asunder.

Stage 1 completed

So on Saturday, instead of rototilling (actually the ground was too wet to till), I got my measuring tape out and laid out my garden bed grids. Last year I expanded the garden significantly, and so I’m able to fit 20 125-square foot beds (each is about 5 feet wide by 21 feet long), plus 4 120-square-foor beds (each is 3 feet wide and about 40 feet long), plus a half dozen other odd-sizes beds. I also laid out a cross-shaped grid of 3-foor wide paths, connected by a grid of smaller 2-foot wide paths. that’s a lot of math and yes i screwed it up a bit and had to re-lay some of the lines. But in the end it all looks pretty neat and tidy.

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My early season beds after being raked. The beds are pretty long, about 3 feet by 41 feet, and they follow the slope of the hill. In past years I’ve had some serious erosion along these beds, so I’m hoping that no-till techniques will minimize that.

 

Next, I started the no-till process — I gently raked off the top detritus in some of the beds where I plan to plant my earliest crops. I didn’t have the hootspa to start the task of pitchforking/aerating each of the beds.  I’ll save that for tomorrow.

As you can see from my cover photo, I uncovered last year’s catnip, which caused my buddy Big Mac to have a very pleasant afternoon. In the photo he’s staggering off from a nice rendezvous with the catnip plant. Also, i spotted the first crops that are springing up — rhubarb. The asparagus won’t be too far behind.

Are you interested in a no-till garden? Let me know at my email address, maconer@Comcast.net. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

John Macone owns and operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury, Massachusetts that offers organic vegetables, berries and eggs at very affordable prices. For updates, like his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

 

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Rhubarb starting to spring from the ground

 

Spring farm update: Burn brush, plant seedlings, raise more chickens

Outdoors it looks like the depths of winter, but the calendar indicates it’s nearly spring. And with a Nor’Easter and 8-12 inches of more snow predicted for later this week, it looks like winter is keeping a firm grip on us.

Well, winter may still be clutching at us, but I’m going to try to defy it and stay with the calendar. It’s nearly spring, and so all of the activities that go along with spring prep at my small but growing organic farm are my primary focus.

I’ve been encouraged by the number of local people who enjoyed buying inexpensive organic vegetables and fruits at my stand last year. Some of them have been asking me what’s up for this year. Well, in short I’m planning to offer a lot more organic food, at very reasonable prices!

That involves a lot of prep work. So here’s a look at 4 of the biggest duties this coming week:

Chickens: This has been a really strong spring for egg production. In general I’m getting about 5-6 eggs per chicken per week, and that’s probably the best ratio I’ve ever had. So I’ve got more eggs to sell than normal. If you are interested in fresh eggs ($4 per dozen, best eggs you’ll ever have), email me at maconer@comcast.net and I’ll set you up.

I’m also looking at expanding the flock.  I’m thinking of getting a couple dozen day-old IMG_2007hatchlings and raising them to pullets. I’ll keep a few for my own flock, but I’ll sell the rest when they are about 12 weeks old — that’s the time at which they are big enough to survive on their own without a heat source or special diet. It saves a lot of hassle when you buy them at 12 weeks old. Are you interested in having chickens? If you are interested in buying young 12-week-old chicks, email me.

Winter moths: These nasty little creatures have really done a job on the local environment. They’ve brutalized our blueberry bushes, but now I think the tide is turning against them.

When we first moved to this farm nearly 4 years ago, the 70-year-old blueberry bushes showed what they are capable of producing. We got over 40 quarts from them, and we would have gotten probably 50% more if I had been able to focus on erecting an anti-bird barrier. But that fall, the winter moths moved in like a locust plague, and everything changed. For 2 years we didn’t get a single blueberry — let alone a single quart. But over the past 2 years I’ve managed to put a major ding in their population. My primary weapon has been our chickens, which eat the winter moth larvae by the thousands. I’ve also been spraying the bushes with a dormant oil spray and a mild form of Bt. You can really nuke them if you use chemical pesticides, but I choose to stay organic. And by staying organic, I think you need to use multiple strategies to deal with winter moths.

The strategy has been paying off. Last year we had a decent blueberry crop — about 20 or so quarts. That was good, but the real results of my winter moth vendetta shined in the late fall and early winter, when winter moths emerge from the ground and flock by the thousands at night. This past winter, there were very few of them.

So next week I plan to double down on what’s left of them. I’ll be spraying the homemade dormant oil mixture on the bushes. By mid April I’ll do some sprayings with Bt, and of course the chickens will be running wild once the snow melts.

Seedlings: Last year I had pretty good success growing and selling seedlings, so this year I’ve expanded the quantity and types that I’m growing. The new seedling table that I built last month has been working out well. It’s allowed me to increase the growing area by over 150%. I’ve got a decent crop of broccoli, lettuce and onions going, and later this week I’ll start growing tomatoes. I plan to sell the following types of heirloom tomato seedlings on the stand starting in mid May: Brandywine (pink and yellow varieties), Campari (this is a substitute for German Lunchbox), Sun Gold, Amish Paste, Chadwick Cherry, Tappy’s Heritage, Golden Jubilee, and Pink Tigers. I also hope to offer Brad’s Atomics, which are a brand new tomato variety that had a very loyal fan following at my vegetable stand last year.

I’ll also be growing and selling several other varieties of vegetable seedlings on the stand, including some new varieties that my customers asked me to grow. I’ll list them in future blogs.

Soil and grounds prep: This winter has been hard on the trees. We’ve had a substantial amount of damage caused by heavy wind, as well as by wet, heavy snow. The result is hundreds of branches of every size blown down and broken on the ground.

The remedy is brush fires. Not only do you get rid of the branches in a quick and fun way, you also get a rich source of natural nutrients in the form of wood ash.

So far this year I’ve had 2 large brush fires, and judging by the amount of downfall on the ground, I’ll need at least 2 more. but that’s still far short of last year’s record, when I had 8 large brush fires to get rid of the huge quantity of branches that were scattered all over the yard.

The tilled area of the farm has been fallow since last fall, when I cleared off all the dead plants (especially tomato plants, which were burned because they carry soil-borne diseases such as early blight). I laid down some compost and stockpiled some rotted horse manure, but this was the first year I didn’t do a fall rototilling. Instead I planted winter rye. The field sits on a fairly steep north-leaning slope, and tends to erode when the spring thaw and spring rains occur. So to avoid erosion problems, I’ve left it as is for now. I’ll probably rototill in mid April, once it sufficiently dries out.

Hopefully by next weekend we’ll have a spring-like look to the backyard. Looking forward to that!

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass.  Get the latest updates on Farmer John’s by liking its Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

Why you should build a seedling/sprouting table

Have you bought seedlings at the big box stores and discovered a couple months later that you wasted your money? Did those healthy-looking plants end up withering and producing poor quality fruit?

That seems to be the usual pattern. Oftentimes the methods used to produce those very appealing seedlings also makes them unhealthy in the long run. They grow too fast, with too much fertilizer. Then they become root-bound and they stagnate. And due to the noxious pesticides that are used in these mass-produced plants, you might also be killing honey bees.

You are better off growing your own plants from seed. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll end up with much healthier and more productive plants, and you’ll be able to grow very tasty and interesting varieties that aren’t available in the big box stores.

Many of the most desirable vegetables need to be started indoors from seed — like tomatoes, broccoli, onions (from seed), cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, peppers, and (for the best results) summer squashes.

Growing them on a sunny windowsill probably won’t cut it. To get good results you need a seedling growing table. It’s an investment, but it will pay off in the long run.

There’s two routes you go — you can buy a pre-made table, or you can make your own. Pre-made tables are expensive — you’ll spend $400 or more.  I think if you are somewhat handy with tools, you are better off building your own. It will be a lot cheaper and you can custom build it to fit your available space and needs.

Build your own

I just built a large table in my basement to replace a venerable table that I had been using for 25 years. The old table was designed by my college friend Todd and based around a 4-bulb fluorescent fixture that my brother-in-law/gardening bro Skip gave me. I had modified it over the years in an effort to solve the most vexing problem I had — heat consistency. Long story short, I couldn’t beat the heat problem. Also, I need to grow a lot more seedlings to keep up with my farmstand’s customer demand, and the fixture I was using was the old T12 bulb technology.

I built the new seedling table in my basement. Most underground spaces will have a baseline temperature of 50-55 degrees, which is a bit cold for seedlings but you can use some techniques to bump up the heat. The best reason to put it in your basement is the temperature will stay consistent. My old light table was in the barn, where springtime temperatures can swing wildly from the 20s to the 70s.

How much does it cost?

You don’t need to buy a lot of stuff to build a light table. Let’s say you want to build a 2-foot-by 4-foot table. That’s big enough to grow about 4 large trays of plants — in other words, hundreds of seedlings! Here’s a look at what you need to buy:

  • Lumber: eight 2x4s ($20); one 2-foot by 4-foot piece of plywood ($10)
  • Lights: One 4-bulb T8 florescent fixture ($40 to $50), 4 T8 aquarium/plant bulbs ($40) T8s are a newer technology that use a lot less energy than the old T12s, and can produce a richer range of plant-healthy light.
  • Heat pad: One seedling heat pad — they come in a variety of sizes ($20-$40)
  • Light timer: One light timer ($10)… plants should be exposed to light for about 14-16 hours a day; they need time to “sleep” with the lights off, just as we do.
  • Hardware: A box of 2-inch wood screws ($5), and a box of 3-inch wood screws ($5)
  • Plastic: A sheet of 3-foot-by-50-foot clear plastic, at least 3.5 mil in thickness. ($10)

TOTAL COST: $120 to $150

TOOLS: Here’s what you need for tools:

  • A power screwdriver (cordless is best), with phillips head attachment
  • A phillips head screwdriver
  • A stapler
  • A power saw
  • Tape measure

LABOR: Even for an awful carpenter like me, this project is pretty simple. Power tools can make up for a lot of knuckleheaded problems, like making sure the cuts are straight. There are lots of do-it-yourself blog posts and videos on how to build one, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. Here’s a good one.

This is a great project to tackle at this time of the year, when it’s too early to plant outside yet you’ve got the planting bug.

So clear out a junky corner of the basement and make room for a little project that will put you in great shape to have a fantastic vegetable garden this summer.

John Macone owns Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury, Mass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old secrets in a dusty cellar

It feels like the dead of winter, yet spring isn’t that far off. On March 1 I always plant the first of the cold weather transplantable crops — broccoli, cabbage, and brussels sprouts. I had been starting them in the barn, but it’s so cold in there they have a hard time germinating.

So this year I decided to move the seedling growing area inside, into the basement. It’s not your run-of-the-mill basement. It’s a 250-year-old cellar hole, with enough cobwebs and dust to choke you. So a major clean-up has been underway.

Along the way I’ve come across a few discoveries that remind me how many hidden and long-forgotten artifacts find their way into cellars. I cleared out all the “valuables” (as well as 30-year-old homemade pickles) first, and came across some interesting old crockery. But the discoveries that I really liked were at the bottom of the stairs, and an old shelf.

 

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Bottom step, with beveled edges

I’ve stepped on that step 100 times and never noticed that there are some unusual features on it. It’s a very hard wood, maybe oak, and when I started cleaning 50 years of dust and dirt off it I realized its edges are perfectly beveled. In its former life it must have been a part of a raised panel wall.

 

As I moved on to clear the dust off the bottom shelf of a very old and rickety wooden stack of shelves, an unusual feature caught my eye. The shelf had a carved bead running down the middle, where two pieces of wood joined together. Then I noticed that it also had some metal hardware — a hole to accept a latch. So this was an old door.

It’s hard to say whether these two features were originally from this house. The entire

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Old door, now used as a shelf

first floor is remarkably intact, with every piece of molding and every door accounted for. But the second floor doesn’t have any features from the 1700s — it looks like it was completely redone in the latter 1800s. in fact when we were stripped some of the peeling wallpaper, we came across the date “1870” painted onto one of the walls. Seems that’s when the major rehab of the upstairs happened, and maybe that’s where these two pieces came from.

 

I found one other item that was interesting — an old recipe for pickling cauliflower, along with the cost of buying the supplies. The recipe was faded and the paper it was written on is brown and brittle from its old age. This is a small piece of Colby family history (the Colbys had owned the land that the house was built on from 1654 to 1986, and owned the house from its construction in 1754 until 1986).

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Dated wall on second floor

 

So I left all of these pieces in place but documented them. They’ll stay right where they are.

Starting next week, the old cellar will get some new life as a vegetable plant nursery. By mid May I should have a great crop of vegetable seedlings for sale on the farmstand.

 

Every egg has a personality

I used to buy my eggs in the store. You know what they look like — when you open the box they are all the same size and same color. It looks like they came out of a factory mold.

That’s how they all look, right? Well, not so much. Turns out that every egg has a little personality, a reflection of the hard-working, red-blooded hen that cranked it out. When you buyimg_1142 them at the store, you’re buying a sanitized and organized version of the chaos of egglaying.

I’ve been selling eggs for years, and when my customers open the box it’s always a bit of a surprise for them. All sorts of shapes, sizes and colors are inside. That’s part of the charm I suppose. When you buy eggs from a local smallscale producer, you are getting the real deal.

During a recent week for example, I got a marble-sized egg, an enormous double-yolker, a blue egg, a beige egg, a light brown egg, a nearly white egg, and what poultry farmers call an “egg fart” — an egg with a super soft shell. Each one comes from a different chicken, but they all go into the same carton. Each chicken gets the job done in a different way.

There are over 175 breeds of chickens. But of those, only about 5 breeds are commonly used to produce eggs on large-scale egg farms. They are specially bred chickens — primarily leghorns and crossbreeds such as red stars — that lay an enormous quantity of eggs in their first year, then quickly taper off. Once they taper off, they are sent to slaughter and are commonly used to make chicken stock and cat and dog food. The egg farms sort the eggs by size and weight (medium, large, extra large and jumbo), thus ensuring a uniform appearance when you open the carton.

On small scale farms like mine, you’ll find unusual breeds of chickens, and thus a much wider variety of egg shapes, sizes, and color. Most of the small scale poultry raisers I know like to have a variety of chickens, as each breed has a distinct personality and lays a different sort of egg. Some breeds are particularly calm, or well suited for cold weather. Some are known to be protective, and that’s important when you don’t have a rooster. Oftentimes one hen will step forward and act as the flock’s leader and defender — defending against predators such as hawks.

Each egg is a reflection of the chicken that laid it… in fact I can tell which hens laid eggs on a given day by the size, shape and color of each egg. Blue eggs, for example, come from araucana hens, a South American breed that is said to be the most highly skilled chicken at foraging. Chickens that forage a lot have a much higher concentration of Omega 3 than the factory hens that are fed corn and soybeans. So the eggs are better for you.

One other thing about hens… they get pretty giddy when they lay an egg. I wasn’t really aware of how the whole process works until I witnessed it a few times in the henhouse. Typically they sit on the nest for awhile, patiently waiting and carefully placing a piece of straw on their back. When the egg comes, it’s not a delicate process. They usually shoot it out as if shot out of a cannon, and occasionally the egg will roll around the nest for a moment. Oftentimes the hen will then go into a “happy dance,” racing out of the henhouse and “singing.” The song is always the same. Here’s a video of what it sounds like.

“Farmer John” Macone operates a neighborhood organic farmstand in Amesbury. To keep up with what’s happening on the farmstand, check out the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/