Old secrets in a dusty cellar

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

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

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


Bottom step, with beveled edges

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


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

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

Old door, now used as a shelf

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


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

Dated wall on second floor


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

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


Every egg has a personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next year’s crops

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

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

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

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


What to do with all those tomatoes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tomato mill in action


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

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

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


Want to learn how to grow organic food inexpensively?

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Shore Permaculture Collaborative

Newburyport, MA
636 Permaculture Advocates

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

Next Meetup

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

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

Check out this Meetup Group →


May update: the spring that barely sprang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Spring chicks racing around the yard.


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

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

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

How to deal with 2 bummer tomato maladies

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

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


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

Can you tell I really don’t like them?

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

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

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

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

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

Early blight

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

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

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



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

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

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

Where to get plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Applying the row cover

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

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

Final notes

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

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

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




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

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.

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



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.

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