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Here’s a bittersweet solution for your poison ivy woes

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

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

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

Poison ivy

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

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

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

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

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

Oriental bittersweet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessing your land

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

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

Now the positives;

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

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

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

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


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.

Notill2
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/

 

notillrhubarb
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.