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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.

 

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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 https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

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

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.

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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.

Materials

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.

Design

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.

Building

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 https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods to keep up with what’s for sale on the stand.

 

 

 

Update: Taking steps to control winter moths

A few weeks ago I blogged about how to prevent winter moths from damaging — or destroying — your flowering trees, fruit trees and blueberries. And while that advice fit the strategy for a typical spring, we’ve not had a typical spring. So here’s an update on what to do, given the unusual weather conditions we’ve had.

What’s been unusual? It’s been far colder than normal, and we’ve had a lot of precipitation. This has made it hard to employ the first major step in an anti-winter-moth campaign: applying insecticidal soap or dormant spray oil. Both of these compounds need to be applied when its cold but the weather is also dry for a period of days, and that combo hasn’t happened.

So now it’s too late to apply them. We’re approaching mid April and buds are starting to swell. Both of those sprays will damage your fledgling buds.

Time to move to phase 2 — applying Bacillus thuringiensis, or bt for short. It’s an organic compound that can be sprayed directly onto your bushes and trees. It won’t hurt the buds at all; instead it will help to kill any winter moth larva that try to eat your buds.

This is a perfect time to apply it. The next few days will be unseasonably warm and dry, which will cause buds to accelerate their growth. It will also be a wake-up call for winter moth eggs to hatch. Best to get them while they are young. For details on what to buy and how to spray, check out my previous blog on the matter.

You may be able to get a couple of sprayings in before the rains return near the end of next week. That  will put a nice dent in the winter moth infestation. After that, try to spray every 3-4 days. It will be worth it!

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farm stand in Amesbury. To keep on top of what the farm is offering, like the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods

A fiery and fun end to all those branches in your yard

Brush fire

Just before this latest unwelcome round of slushy snow piled in, I started the annual spring yard cleanup. Like a lot of people, I discovered that this year I’m facing a much bigger mess than usual.

There are hundreds, or maybe thousands, of tree branches scattered all over the place. They range from 20-foor-long branches to just a few inches. Dead branches, live branches, branches that traveled over 100 feet from their tree — this was a brutally windy winter that did a real number on trees. I’ve never seen it so bad.

So cleanup begins. To get rid of branches you usually have 4 options — hire someone to do it, gather it up yourself and take it to your town’s yard waste dump, dump it yourself in a remote corner of your yard, or — my favorite — pile it up and burn it.

Brush burning is maybe the last caveman/cavewoman activity that is legally permitted in our modern life. Think about it — for thousands of years humans built big fires, and they got to be pretty good at it. Nowadays, most people don’t really know anything about how to get a rip roaring fire going. There’s some tricks to it that take practice to master.

Why burn a brush fire?

Here’s a few reasons why you should burn your brush:

  • You’ll get rid of it fast, and if you are a good fire builder/tender, there will be almost nothing left.
  • What’s left is a little pile of ash that makes for excellent fertilizer.
  • You’ll provide your neighborhood with instant and cheap entertainment, except for the guy/gal/guys/gals whose house(s) gets filled with smoke. Be sure to invite them over and let them throw their branches on your fire.
  • You will get the caveman satisfaction of building a tiny, wobbly fire into an awesome conflagration. You’ll be there for hours, fully entertained. You’ll love it and you’ll want to do it again tomorrow.

The law

Most towns allow you to have open burning fires. The restrictions are set by the state, though some towns throw in additional laws. In general, the season runs from Jan. 15 to April 30, and you need to get a permit from your local fire department. You can burn brush that fell or was cut from trees, as well as garden/orchard clippings. You can’t burn leaves, garbage, demo debris, tree trunks, and stuff like that. You can start burning at 10 a.m., and the fire has to be out by 4 p.m. Your fire must be at least 75 feet from a structure, and you need a nearby source of water, like a garden hose, just in case things get out of hand.

The setback from structures makes it legally impossible for a lot of people to have a brush fire, although a lot of people do it anyway. I think most fire departments will let you wiggle on that one as long as you have a safe fire, and you don’t create a nuisance.

Even if you have a permit, you can’t necessarily have a brush fire. The local FD decides whether to allow burning on a given day based on the weather conditions. You have to call the FD on the day you plan to burn in order to get permission for that day. In general, they don’t allow burning on really windy or cloudy/stormy days. Burning usually isn’t allowed on cloudy days because in theory, the smoke hovers close to the ground and annoys the neighborhood.

Setting your fire

So how do you go about getting a good fire going? It starts with stacking your wood just right. I try to create a tent-shaped structure that has lots of gaps for air to get in. You want to be sure to give the fire lots of room to breathe and suck in oxygen. A tightly-packed pile is a non-starter. Green branches won’t burn terribly well (at first anyway), so you want to be sure to have plenty of dead and dry wood in there. If you have a dry Christmas tree or evergreen branches, you’ve hit the pyro jackpot. That stuff will go up in a big blaze of glory.

Be sure to locate your pile in a good spot — as far as possible from neighbors, and in a relatively clear spot. It’s ok to have trees overhead as long as the fire isn’t going to reach the branches. If you build your fire near a pine tree, you’ll have an epic disaster on your hands.  Whatever is growing under the pile won’t be alive once it’s done. That grass or whatever will be completely fried and gone, and will need to be replanted.

I think an adequately-sized pile is about 4-5 feet tall and about 8 feet in diameter. If you have more brush than that, set it to the side and add it once the fire gets to the furnace stage.

I start my fire with some newspaper, cardboard, and some scrap lumber. I build that little fire on the edge of the big pile, close enough so some of the big pile is directly in its burn area. If you were in the boy scouts or girl scouts, try to retrieve that long-buried knowledge of how to start a fire — start with the small stuff and gradually add more material. Once you light your fire, you need to stay right on top of it — add material to it, but not too much.  This can be tricky, because usually a fire is pretty lazy.

A nice hot furnace

Often a fire doesn’t really want to get going, it prefers to sputter along for awhile. So you need to make it get going.  Sometimes it fools you into thinking it’s going well, like when you see a nice flare-up. Chances are that flare-up will quickly become a flare-down, unless you nurse it along.

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Here’s 2 brush piles before I lit them up. They are about 5 feet tall and 8-10 feet in diameter.

 

 

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Here’s what’s left after the fires are pretty much out. I also added the equivalent of 1 more pile when the fires were in full “furnace” mode.

Your fire is not really going good until you detect 3 things — the flame is a clear orange flume that shoots up about 3-6 feet in the air (not to brag, but…some of my proudest fires had 10-foot flumes), it’s throwing off enough heat so it feels hot when you get within 5-10 feet of it, and the branches are crackling loudly and nicely.  That transition can happen suddenly. Once it does, you’ll be very happy. You just created an awesome fire, way bigger and more entertaining than a fireplace fire.

 

At this point, that fire will burn just about everything you throw on it — wet branches, green branches, wet logs — it’s basically an open furnace. You’ll want to have a good shovel on hand to push in the remnants of branches and half-burned sticks that are on the outskirts of the hot mound of coals at the fire’s base. Keep feeding it.

Don’t take any dumb shortcuts, like throwing gasoline on the fire. That’s illegal. Even a caveman wouldn’t do it. First of all, it doesn’t do what you think it will do. It creates an enormous flare-up that usually flares down just as quickly. Secondly, fire will travel up that stream of gasoline, right to you. You can guess what happens next.

Invite the neighbors

You can be guaranteed that your fire will send billows of smoke all over the place. That’s why you’ve got to build it away from houses, and invite the neighbors over. We usually draw a small crowd to our fires, and the neighbors (whose houses are probably engulfed in smoke) bring branches and beer, and sometimes hot dogs. And everyone is happy. The caveman deep inside all of us gets a nice wake-up call.

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Here’s a fire with a nice “furnace” glow. This one is pretty hot, and it will burn anything you throw on it.

 

Your fire will probably burn for hours, and the embers will keep glowing for a day or more. If you want to thoroughly extinguish the fire, you need to spread the embers out and dose them with water.

I usually let the embers keep burning, in order to get rid of nuisance trunks and logs. Those embers will also gradually burn through any big logs you throw onto them. It’s amazing how efficiently they burn through huge chunks of wood.

Once the fire is completely out, you’ll have a fairly small pile of ash. Really small, compared to the amount of stuff you burned. The ash is ideal for your garden or yard.

That’s a brush fire, in a nutshell. So if you’re tired of watching your TV shows and regular “programs,” and you want to revisit the best part of being a caveman (or cavewoman), light a brush fire.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. To keep up on what’s for sale at the farm like his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

 

 

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

 

IMG_1312
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.

badseedlings
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/