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 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,

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.


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

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).

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 

November update, or… I can’t believe things are still growing

For the past 25 years or so I’ve followed the same routine — by this time of year, the first killing frost has occurred and all of the expired plants have been pulled up. But this is a strange year, unlike any I can recall.

It’s November 3 and a killing frost isn’t predicted for at least another week or so. And according to the meterologists, we’ve had the warmest October on record. Many plants are still producing a nice crop of veggies, such as eggplants, chards, peppers, broccoli, kale, and snow peas. We’re even getting some tomatoes, which is bizarre.

I’m not getting enough produce to reopen the farm stand, but this year’s weather has me thinking that maybe I need to start thinking about longer growing seasons here in New England, and how to adapt to them. One example — the tomatoes that are still producing are the “volunteer” plants that sprung up from seeds that were left from last year’s spoiled fruits. Those seeds germinated on their own in various random spots, spread around by the rototiller. It might be a good strategy to plant 2 tomato crops next year — one from traditionally transplanted tomatoes, and a second from tomatoes that are directly seeded into the garden.

Next year’s crops

Just before I closed down the farm stand in early October, I asked my customers to suggest veggies that they’d like to see me add to the stand next year. I got a lot of great suggestions, and I think pretty much all of them will be on the stand next year. Here’s a breakdown of what people would like to see added to the stand:

  • Strawberries
  • Blackberries
  • Delicata squash
  • Ground cherries
  • Lettuce and sprouts
  • Arugula
  • Yams
  • Succotash beans (Lima beans)
  • More varieties of broccoli
  • Rutabega (I grew some buy will grow more)

If you’d like to see some new products on the stand, email me at, or leave a comment in the box below. Thanks!

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury. Keep up with what’s growing at his Facebook page.


What to do with all those tomatoes?

Are you drowning in a sea of tomatoes?  Are the neighbors barring their doors when they see you coming with armloads of them?

Well, we all know that 6 months from now you’ll be longing for that enormous pile of fresh tomatoes. Nothing in the store nor in the can comes close.

Did you know that you can keep that fresh tomato bliss alive all year long? I’m overstating it a little bit, but you’ll see my point.

Now is the time to stew them up and freeze them. The flavor of a fresh stewed and frozen tomato is unbeatable, especially if you enjoy making tomato sauce dishes. I’ve been doing it for years and I think I finally have the right formula and combination of equipment. So let’s get started.

First of all, you’ll need a decent amount of freezer space, and a fair number of plastic storage containers. I use quart-sized yogurt containers. They are sturdy, they stack well, they hold a convenient quantity of tomato sauce, and you don’t have to buy them separately.

Next, gather your tomatoes. I find that a 50/50 combination of salad tomatoes and paste tomatoes makes for a good consistency. Wash them well, and remove the stems. You can cut them up if you want, but it’s extra work and isn’t crucial. Put them in a large covered pot (fill it to the top if you can) and heat it on a low temperature. After about a half hour, you should have a nice stew of tomatoes, skin and seeds.

The cheap way to proceed is to dump this into a blender and grind it into a puree. The problem is you’ll never eliminate all the seeds, and you have lots of small (and not so small) needle-shaped pieces of skin.

The slightly more expensive way to proceed is to get a grinding mill. They miraculously remove the seeds, skin and any other undesirable stuff from the mix. You are left with a perfectly smooth sauce. They come in all shapes, sizes and costs. I recently bought one that I feel I can recommend — a Norpro Sauce Master. It cost about $60 and is easy to assemble, and relatively easy to clean. You can easily process gallons of tomatoes with it in a short period of time.

A tomato mill in action


Which ever way you choose to process your tomatoes, fill your containers up about 5/6ths of the way, let the stew cool down if it’s hot, cover it and put it in the freezer. You’ll have perfect tomato flavor all year round.

If you don’t have enough fresh tomatoes, stop by our farm stand and we’ll set you up with a nice mix of fresh organic heirlooms at our wicked cheap prices!

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass.  


Want to learn how to grow organic food inexpensively?

Here at Farmer John’s, “cheap” is our middle name.  And I mean that in the nicest possible way. We hunt around for low cost and no-cost sources of organic material that we use to build up the soil, then we stick to the regimen of growing our produce organically.

There’s an old saying, “A healthy soil makes for a happy plant.” And it’s true. If you can pump up your soil with the natural ingredients that it needs, it will reward you with fantastically healthy plants that are able to ward off many of the diseases and insects that are the bane of “chemical gardens,” the gardens that are raised on a diet of chemical fertilizers.

And that leads me to my sales pitch. Tomorrow (Saturday, Aug. 4), at 9 a.m. here at 8 Kendricks Court, Amesbury,  I’ll be leading a talk/demonstration on where to find low-cost, no-cost organic material for your garden. We are surrounded by many prime sources of no-cost organics, you just need to know where to find them!

We’ll talk in detail about how to get them and how to process them correctly. We’ll dip into the science of how each of these components benefits your garden, and we’ll talk about how chemical-based fertilizers are doing serious damage to our environment.

The program is being sponsored by North Shore Permaculture Collaborative, a great local organization that is helping people learn how to live healthier lives.

The cost is $10. Here’s a link to the sign-up.

North Shore Permaculture Collaborative

Newburyport, MA
636 Permaculture Advocates

Our group seeks to provide a structure to link, support, collaborate with and expand the community of individuals and organizations in our area interested in learning and prac…

Next Meetup

A Low-Cost/No-Cost Way to Healthy Soil – and it’s Local!

Saturday, Aug 5, 2017, 9:00 AM
8 Attending

Check out this Meetup Group →


May update: the spring that barely sprang

May has finally come to an end, and here’s an update on what’s going on at Farmer John’s Organic Foods.

I heard somewhere that there’s this thing in the sky called “the sun.” It made a brief appearance a couple of weeks ago. Looked impressive.

The plants seem to think the same thing. They’ve been huddled down close to the ground, with all but the peas and broccoli deciding they are better off staying put. This is one of the poorest springs for seed germination that I can recall — too much rain, not enough warmth. That means the soil isn’t heating up enough to allow for germination of most of the seeds that gardeners plant at this time of year, like cucumbers and beans.

On the other hand, plants that love a moist spring, like tomato seedlings, are doing well. Certain kinds of cold weather crops are also thriving, like spinach.

The biggest project that’s underway is a 30% expansion of the vegetable area. We’re adding about 1,100 square feet, primarily for sweet corn and fall crops. Our super sweet and hyper fresh corn was a huge hit with customers last year, and we sold out every time we put it on the stand. In fact, one guy was so excited about it he chased me all over the farm, hoping to get every last ear. So this year we’re hoping to keep our customers happy with full shares of corn.

The field-clearing exercise is hard work, as the sod here is extremely robust and requires a frontend loader to strip it off. Otherwise, a rototiller just bounces off it. That will take several days to complete.

This year, for the first time, we offered seedlings at the farmstand. Thanks to the many customers who stopped by and bought from us. We specialize in rare/heirloom tomato seedlings, and I’m happy to report that nearly all of them sold out. Next year we’ll be expanding our selection.

The best news of the spring has been the near collapse of the winter moth population. Those nasty little creatures wiped out the blueberry crop 2 years in a row, and did tree-mendous damage to the trees. It appeared in the late fall that we’d be pummeled again, given the number of adult moths that were flittering around. But something happened over the winter that savaged them. I have 2 theories — we had an extraordinarily windy winter, with at least 2 storms with wind gusts exceeding 60 mph. Those storms blew down hundreds of branches, and no doubt also dislodged many winter moth eggs. The other factor is the poultry plundering. I set the chickens out all year to feast on the moth’s larva. I know it sounds gross, but the chickens loved it and the moths didn’t. The chickens took a big chunk out of their population.

The net effect is a happy one for our customers. This year we’ll have a good crop of highbush blueberries, in addition to the raspberry crop that looks to be very robust. The blueberries will be on the stand around the end of June, and the first crop of raspberries should be available a couple weeks later.


Spring chicks racing around the yard.


Lastly, we have increased the size of our poultry flock, with 6 pullets. They’ve been integrated with the older hens, and I expect that by September we’ll be seeing a substantial increase in egg production. These are true “free-range” chickens, wandering all over the place to get the proteins they need to create the best tasting and healthiest eggs you can find. Can’t wait to get “the girls” up to full production.

The farmstand will be sort of dormant for awhile, as we wait for the much-delayed produce to ripen. I expect that by mid to late June we’ll have a great selection of organic produce to sell at our wicked cheap prices. Stop by!

John Macone operates Farm John’s Organic Foods, an organic fruit/vegetable/egg farm in Amesbury. To keep up with what’s on the farmstand and in the fields, like his Facebook page

How to deal with 2 bummer tomato maladies

It’s the time of year when I think every Italian farmer (and every tomato lover) does a little happy dance. It’s time to put the tomatoes in the ground.

It’s a beautiful thing, getting those spindly young plants in the soil and watching them grow — that is, unless 2 common maladies decide to rain on your tomato parade. One is an ugly and not-so-clever grub, and the other is a nasty little fungus that lurks under the surface. We’ll talk about how to deal with both of them, easily and organically.


Cutworms aren’t really worms. They are caterpillars — usually greyish in color, about an inch or so long, and fat. They curl up into a “C” and remain motionless in the soil, then emerge at night and start doing their damage to your precious tomato plants. Someday they will grow into beautiful moths — if you think the dull grey, mean and warty look is attractive.

Can you tell I really don’t like them?

It’s not their appearance, it’s their gameplan that I really don’t like. Instead of chewing a few leaves, they go for the gold on the very first bite. They chew all night, chopping down your tomato (or broccoli. cabbage, or whatever) and leaving its decapitated top lying prostrate on the ground. A really demoralizing sight for you in the morning.

Luckily, they are not well equipped to deal with an enraged gardener. If you dig all around the plant, somewhere within a 6-inch radius you’ll find the culprit. There’s 2 scientifically proven actions to take at this point — either you fling them as far as you can, or you squash them. Both have the desired effect. And if you have chickens, this grub is like prime rib for them.

How do you protect your plants? I always advocate the cheap but effective route, and in this case that means cutting up cardboard boxes — like cereal boxes, or pasta boxes or something like that — into 3-inch wide strips that are about 6-8 inches long. Wrap those strips around the plant, with the printed side facing out. The printed side is slightly slick and that helps defeat the clumsy cutworm. Bury the collar into the ground about an inch or 2. If you don’t have enough cardboard, feel free to go to the grocery store and buy something you can empty fast — like your favorite cookies or crackers. Then eat the contents rapidly and cut up the box. Remember, this is all in the name of organic farming, so it’s OK.

There’s the slightest chance that a cutworm is within the collar that you just created, but it’s a longshot.

Another method is buying diatomaceous earth, and sprinkling it around your plants. It acts like broken glass on the cutworm’s body. Nasty stuff if you are a worm. But it can be fairly expensive, and it prevents you from the legitimate need to go cookie shopping.

Early blight

This is a big bummer for tomato lovers. Pretty much everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains — and we’re pretty far east of them — has early blight in the soil. It’s nearly impossible to get rid of, but you can manage it.

Early blight, and its lethal sibling late blight (the cause of Ireland’s Great Famine of the 1840s that sparked the massive wave of immigration to this nation), will utterly wipe out your tomato crop. It starts as black or brownish spots on tomato leaves, with yellow usually surrounding the lesion. It spreads fast.

A row of brandywine tomatoes that has anti-cutworm collars and grass clipping mulch.



Here’s the key to preventing it. It’s in the ground and usually gets transmitted to your plants by water splashing on the ground and spraying the undersides of leaves with infected soil. If you mulch the ground around your plants, it largely prevents the whole transmission from happening. If the infection gets ahold of your plants, go out and buy copper fungicide, a very effective spray that will stop the blight in its tracks.

Mulching is an excellent strategy for tomatoes in general, because it helps hold moisture around the roots and prevents problems like blossom end rot. I like to use grass clippings as a mulch, or horse manure. I’m a big fan of horse manure, as I’ve pointed out enthusiastically in a prior blog.

Oh and guess what? Cutworms have a hard time navigating over and through mulch, so there you go.

Where to get plants

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I sell an excellent variety of heirloom tomatoes (and other vegetables and herbs) at my farmstand. You’ll find some truly unusual and tasty varieties, at low prices. Stop on by and we’ll load you up with plants that will make you the tomato hero of the neighborhood.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods farmstand on Kendricks Court, Amesbury Mass. The farmstand is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

How to build your own floating row covers, cheaply and easily

I just started transplanting to the garden the cold weather tolerant seedlings (broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage), and wouldn’t you know it? I made some unknown critter very happy.  It loved the tender leaves, and I’m sure it would have thanked me if only I’d been around to witness it.

I wouldn’t have responded by saying, “you’re welcome, eat all you like!” Nope, instead I’m taking action. I’m putting up floating row covers, and blogging about how to do it.

I had planned to put the covers up a few days after planting, but the critter (maybe a rabbit?) decided it was dinner time now.  It took about 2 hours to build the structures and put the covers over them — efforts that are well worth it if you want to keep your plants alive and out of the mouths of hungry creatures. It also helps to keep away all sorts of bugs that will savage your plants.

Let’s walk through the basics of how to do it.


Row Cover: Floating row cover is a very willowy material, kind of like a very light cloth. It allows water to pass through and is a little bit tougher than paper, but not by much tougher. It can tear easily.

Years ago when I first starting using it, it was expensive and generally available only in narrow widths. Now it’s pretty cheap and comes in all kinds of widths. The best width for gardening purposes is 5 feet. The length is up to you — generally they sell it in 25-foot, 50-foot and 100-foot lengths. It’s about $12 per 25 feet length. For my project, I needed about 50 feet.

Wood: You need to build a structure to keep the row cover from sitting on top of your plants and essentially crushing them. Because floating row covers are so lightweight, you don’t need to go nuts buying heavy-duty wood. I get the cheap 1×3 strapping material, which runs about $1.25 or so per 8-foot piece. You need about 3 pieces of strapping for each 8-foot-long section.

You’ll also need a 2×6 piece of wood. An 8-foor long section will probably be enough.  That will cost you about $4.

Screws: You’ll need a bunch of screws, about 8-10 per 8-foot section. I prefer to use the 1.25-inch drywall screws, because they screw into wood nicely. This will run you about $5 for a box of way more screws than you need.

Tools: The basic tools are a hammer, a power screwdriver, and a saw of some type. I use an electric circular saw, but any saw will do the trick. And a sledgehammer is better than a hammer, at least for this project.


The design is very basic. First you build a handful of simple supports that look something like the legs of a sawhorse. Let’s start by building the piece that is the central building block of their form.

Take the 2×6 piece of wood and cut it into triangle-like shape that has 45-degree sides and is about 5 inches wide at the top, wide enough so the 1×3 pieces of wood can sit comfortably on the top. If you’re a math major, you’re saying, “aha, he means a trapezoidal shape.” I’m not a math major so I had to look itIMG_1414.JPG up. But yeah, it’s a trapezoid.

Then, cut one of the pieces of strapping into 2-foot-long sections. These are the legs.  Next, screw them into the trapezoids.

You need to make a handful of these things (I’m going to call them sawhorse pieces), depending on how long the floating row cover tent is that you intend to build. You need one for every 8 feet of length — so if it’s 8 feet long you need 2, if it’s 16 feet long you need 3, if 24 feet long you need 4, etc….

Now it’s time to bring all this stuff out to the garden and start building the tent structure.


Did I mention it should be a windless day? Unless you want to provide your family and neighbors with some cheap entertainment — i.e., you getting wrapped up in billowing sails of rowcover and chasing it all over the yard — do this on a nice calm day.

Start off by planting your seedlings. I plant them about 3 feet apart in a zigzag fashion. Keep in mind that whatever you plant, it has to fit under the tent structure and you have to allow for some headroom.

Next. put up your first “leg.”  Push it a little ways down into the ground, like an inch or so. Then put an 8-foot piece of strapping next to it. Put up another leg at the end of the 8-foot strapping. Now you have something that looks kind of like a saggy sawhorse. You want to eliminate that sag by driving a short post into the ground halfway between the 2 sawhorse pieces. The post will support the strapping at its midpoint and will prevent the sag. Next, use your power screwdriver to secure the strapping to the sawhorse pieces. Keep repeating this pattern for however long you need the structure to be in order to cover over your tender plants.

Applying the row cover

Once youIMG_1415 have the structure built, you can put the row cover over it. If you’ve followed my clever design closely, you’ll discover that the row cover material covers it perfectly, and has about 8 inches to spare all the way along the length. This excess material you’ll either bury a ways into the ground, or you’ll put something heavy on top of it to hold the material down.  I’ve been using old metal stakes; just laying them on top of the material.

And that’s it. Well, unless you decide to put down mulch before you put the row cover down.  putting the mulch down is a good idea, but the ground was too soggy when I built my structure.

Final notes

It’s best to uncover your row cover about every week or so to see what’s going on under it. Chances are there’s a lot of weeds sprouting. and maybe some pests got in underneath it. You’ll want to stay on top of that.IMG_1418

I discovered that my cat Big Mack thinks that the row cover is the perfect thing to sit on after he’s imbibed a large share of his favorite catnip snack, which is located on a big plant about 5 feet away. He managed to rip a nice big hole in the row cover and staggered around inside the tent, in his stoned state of mind. Occupational hazard I guess. Oh and by the way, we’ll be selling this highly effective catnip on the stand this summer, called Big Mack’s Stash. If you have a cat, he or she will love you for getting it (if he/she can remember afterwards).

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic food stand in Amesbury, Mass. Like his Facebook page at to keep up with what’s for sale on the stand.