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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

 

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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.

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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/

Time to think spring (chickens, that is)

As the snow continues to pile up outside my window, it’s hard to imagine that in less than a month one sure sign of spring will emerge — spring chickens.

Right around the beginning of March the local farmstores will start to get their first deliveries of chicks. Cute, chirpy, endlessly entertaining to watch… they’ll sell hundreds of them in a short period of time. I’ll be one of the people lining up to get a few, to add to my small flock.

But don’t let all the cuteness and the chirping lull you into a false sense of  cuddledom. I’m a big advocate of the “chicken in every backyard” concept, but raising chickens from day-old chicks has some tricks to it.

Here’s a few tips for people who are thinking about raising chicks:

Buying your chicks: How many and what type? If you are starting out, get no more than 6, and not less than 4. There’s a huge variety of chickens available. I’d start out with some of the more reliable and hearty types — Plymouth barred rocks, Rhode Island reds, buff orpingtons, golden comets, and Ameraucanas. These are large and calm birds that are easy to manage, and Ameraucanas will produce something that many people find interesting — colored eggs, usually green or blue shelled. Many people also buy leghorns, because they produce a tremendous number of eggs when young. I’m not a big fan, as they are very skittish and they “burn out” on egg production at an early age. Also be sure that you buy from a trustworthy dealer, and that the chicks are indeed hens — you don’t want any roosters around.

What you need: You’ll need to spend about $20 or so on essential equipment — an infrared lamp and bulb, a watering station (the best option is a 1-gallon plastic watering station), and a covered feed trough (the plastic ones are fine). You’ll also need a brooder — basically an enclosed area to keep the chicks safe and contained. You can get by on the chirp, I mean cheap, with a plastic container such as a recycling box. Keep in mind that the infrared lamp is very hot, so you’ll want to have a fireproof setting (voice of experience here). You’ll also need feed for chicks (usually a 25- or 50-lb bag will do for 6 chicks for a month or 2). Eventually you’ll also want something to cover the bottom of the brooder, such as pine wood shavings (don’t use cedar as these are toxic to birds).

 

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A few homegrown eggs. Note the blue egg in the corner is from an ameraucana. The brown eggs are from Rhode Island reds, and the light colored eggs are from buff orpingtons. The light brown colored egg in the upper right is from a barred rock.

Where to do it: Chicks are incredibly messy and loud, and stinky. Put them in a garage, or better yet, a shed. As they mature they create an incredible amount of dander/dust. It’s nasty stuff, gets all over everything.

 

Daily care: You’ll want to check on them frequently — a few times of day to start. Chicks require a strong and hot light source to keep them warm, and access to plenty of clean water and food. Your brooder needs to be large enough to allow them to race around without knocking over the food tray and water (or the light). Keep it as clean as possible. Also, keep an eye on their temperature — if they are huddled under the light they are too cold; if they scatter far from it they are too hot. Adjust the light accordingly. As time goes on, their need for heat will diminish.

Timetable: Within a week of buying your cute chicks, they’ll morph into fairly ugly/gangly teenagers. So enjoy those handful of chick days. Their growth rate will astound you. By the time they are 4 months old, they are close to being full adult size. At about 5.5 to 6 months, they are laying eggs. The brooder will be needed for about 2 months. After that, you’ll need a coop for your birds. We’ll get into the henhouse requirements in another blog.

Are you thinking spring (chicken?) If so, start researching your breeds and check in with your local farmstore. Come March 7 or so, the store will be peeping like crazy.

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

Seeds will green up the grey of winter

Happy 2017! Ignore that dull grey snow, cruddy-looking ice and lifeless landscape outside your window. Spring is closer than it appears. The days are already getting to be a bit longer, and once you clear the next 2-3 months of shoveling, shivering and slushing around, you’ll be happily back in the garden surrounded by green.

This is a great time of year to be thinking about your 2017 garden. And even better than that, you can start taking action. You can plot out what you plan to grow, and you can start getting seeds.

Here are my 5 rules for seed-buying:

  1. Buy varieties of vegetables that you can’t find in the market, or that are expensive to buy in the market. Chances are the seeds are no more expensive than the cost of more mundane varieties. Make sure they are vegetables that you (and your family members) actually like to eat. In my house, that’s the sad fate of broccoli — I like it and it’s a cost-effective thing to grow,  but everyone else in the house hates it.
  2. Get seeds for the vegetables that you would otherwise buy as seedlings. Then grow them yourself — it’s easier than you think and it will save you a lot of money. Tomatoes are a good example of this. (We’ll get into the details of this in a later blog).
  3. Don’t buy seeds for vegetables that aren’t really worth growing in your garden, either because they take up too much space, they are too high maintenance, or because homegrowing doesn’t give you a noticeable bump-up in flavor and cost savings. I think potatoes and carrots are good examples of this.
  4. Try something new every year. You may stumble on your new favorite food. Oftentimes, the best-tasting varieties aren’t sold in markets at all, because they are too delicate for the rigors of shipping and they are too small of a niche for mass production.
  5. Buy seeds for vegetables that make the “dirty dozen” list of foods that have the most pesticides sprayed on them. Tomatoes and cucumbers are on the list, along with other popular foods. You can grow those foods without pesticides.

The next step is — where do you buy your seeds?

There are a lot of seed companies that you can buy from online. Dozens of them. I’ve bought from quite a few of them over the years, but I’ve settled on my favorite (for now anyway). It’s Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. This company popped up about 20 years ago, founded by a very ambitious 17-year-old young man, Jere Gettle, who has a natural talent for picking seed varieties and advocating for seed diversity. He’s built his company into an impressive enterprise.  Every year he introduces new varieties of vegetables — all sorts of eye-popping and interesting vegetables and fruits that will wow you. The catalog alone is worth looking at. This

catalog
A page from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog. Ever eaten a black tomato?

year’s new addition is a tomato “mad scientist” who has come up with some very interesting new varieties. I get probably half of my seeds from this company. It’s best to order now, in the depths of winter, because some of the seed varieties sell out.

 

For the rest of my seeds, I buy from local sources.  First up is Plum Beach Farms in Salisbury, a nursery and garden store. Owner Freeman Condon does a great job providing a wide variety of  hard-to-find seeds, along with all of the supplies you need to grow them. Next up is Harbor Garden Center, also in Salisbury. Owner Tim Lamprey has a good selection of seeds. More than that, both Freeman and Tim are excellent sources of information on pretty much everything you need to know about growing things. You will never get this kind of service in the big box stores. My third local source of seeds is Dodge’s Agway, which has 3 locations in the area. Agway is your standard farmstore, and this is where I get standard varieties of vegetables (such as silver queen corn) in bulk quantities at low prices. Agway also has good deals on all the other things you need – seed-starting soil, seedling containers, fertilizers, etc. the staff is always friendly and helpful, it’s a family-run business. None of these places will have their 2017 seeds available for sale until about March or so.

Buying seeds and planning your 2017 garden is a great way to brush off the winter blahs.

John Macone operates a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury. For more information, visit his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

The secret life of a backyard at night

I live in a suburban part of town. There’s lots of houses close together, though some of us have good sized backyards. It’s a quiet place with a little hint of mother nature — birds, squirrels, and some rabbits. Maybe a skunk and a woodchuck once in awhile. I live within about 400 feet of Route 110, and close to its busy intersection with Main Street. There’s no boonies here in this neighborhood, although there’s a swamp and some woods.

My cat loves being outside at night, and I used to oblige him. At least, up until I got a wildlife camera with an infrared setting and started filming what goes on at night in the backyard.

Turns out I really had no clue just how wild the backyard really is. Here’s a few photos from the wildlife cawgi_0005m to prove it.

The camera is secured to a fencepost at the edge of my garden, about 200 feet or so from the house. There’s a light wooded area that it looks out on, but otherwise it’s surrounded by lawn.

The photo I posted at the top of the blog is one of the very few daytime photos that I managed to get. It’s a full sized doe that has been coming to our yard for months, occasionally jumping over my garden fence and raiding it until I figured out how to keep it out (that’s the subject of another blog).

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The first nighttime photo I’ve posted here is what appears to be a lone coyote. That’s a surprise to me, because I’ve never heard a coyote howl in all the years (23) that I’ve lived in this neighborhoowgi_0003d.

Next up is what I think is a fisher cat. And that’s probably the worst of the backyard critters. These creatures are known of their ferocity and hunting prowess. They will attack all sorts of domestic animals, such as chickens and cats.  I heard its strange, child-like howls the same night that the camera snapped its photo.

The third photo is a fox. Another prowler who likes domesticated animals. I’ve never seen one in this neighborhood during the daytime.

Next up is a new visitor — a 6-point buck. I’ve seen him around the backyard at dusk a few times, but the wildlife camera showed me that he’s here every night, visiting and revisiting multiple times each night. I have dozens of photos of him. He’s very bold and brash, and I’m surprised that he’s managed to live here so successfully. There are busy roads all around us, including Interstate 495, yet somehow he’s managed to swgi_0034teer clear of cars.

The last photo, which is posted at the end of this blog, is the most satisfying. The doe that I photographed last summer seemed to disappear after awhile. I feared the worst had happened. But one night, the wildlife cam captured a fuzzy but interesting shot — there she was, accompanying the 6-point buck. Maybe next year I’ll be recording photos of the two of them and their  fawn.

Oh and the cat’s nighttime escapades are over. I bring him inside every night now that I know just how wild the backyard is at night.

John Macone operates a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury. For more information, visit his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/wgi_0081

 

Winter is coming… and so are the moths

It’s mid November and we’ve had enough hard frosts to pretty much kill off nearly every insect, but there’s one remaining pest that’s about to hit us with its full fury. Now’s the time to take some steps to protect your trees and shrubs from this ravaging creature.

It’s the winter moth, an invasive species imported from Europe that can cause devastating damage to your plants. They first arrived in Nova Scotia over a half century ago and slowly migrated southward. They have hit much of New England hard, doing immense damage. They are particularly fond of trees that produce fruited blossoms, like apples, crabapples, pears, cherries, plums, and especially blueberry bushes. They also attack ash and maple trees — sometimes completely defoliating them — as well as other species of native trees.

Around the end of November they will emerge from the ground. The males – ugly grey moths, about 2 inches across – will flock in great droves to lights at night. That’s the signal that the entire population is active and reproducing. The females can’t fly; Instead  they climb up trees and lay their eggs by the tens of thousands.

Next spring — around April — the eggs will hatch, and the small green worms will burrow their way into fruit blossoms and destroy them. They will then move on to the leaves, and in many cases they will strip them bare. If you have winter moth larvae in your trees, you’ll no doubt have seen their “ballooning” migration — they attach themselves to thin, silk-like strands and billow down from trees by the hundreds. After about 6 weeks of heavy feeding, they burrow into the ground, waiting for the winter to arrive to start the process all over again.

The numbers are unbelievable. Scientists say up to 250,000 winter moth larva can hatch in a single tree. Sounds like a locust plague, and in some ways it is. They don’t have any native predators to speak of, so their numbers grow substantially each year as they spread to new territory. In my own experience, they hit our neighborhood like a freight train 2 years ago. They ate their way through many of our neighborhood trees. I have 5 large blueberry bushes that produced 40 quarts each year — until the winter moths arrived.  I haven’t gotten a single berry since then.

What to do

With numbers like this, it’s hard to put a big dent in their population. But you can protect your most cherished trees, such as flowering crabapples or fruit trees. Right now your goal is to stop the females from climbing up the trunk. There’s a few ways to do this.

One way is to get some sticky tree wrap. It’s available in many garden centers. It’s a paper wrap that goes around the trunk, with a sticky coating on the outside that creates a barrier that the moths get stuck on. It’s semi effective — you really need to monitor it, as it can get overwhelmed by the sheer number of climbing moths. They can also crawl underneath it if the bark surface is fairly bumpy — or they will lay their eggs further down the trunk. If you use sticky tree wrap, check on it daily and replace the band as needed.

You can also spray heavy-duty insecticides on the female moths while they are climbing. I’m not a big fan of this approach, as I like to stick with organic solutions. It also requires frequent spraying, and no doubt many moths will muscle through when you aren’t monitoring and spraying. It’s not an effective remedy.

I have a third solution that’s proven highly effective — get some chickens and let them do the dirty work for you. Chickens are a fantastic alternative to pesticides in general. They spend their entire day eating bugs. It’s what they are hardwired to do. Here’s an example — I have a flower crabtree in my yard that was devastated by winter moths. Two years ago they stripped it bare of all its flowers and most of its leaves. The next year I built a chicken run under it,  and the following spring the tree was full of flowers and leaves — and also quite robust from the other “gifts” the chickens laid at its roots.

This year I’ve extended a temporary chicken run around my blueberry bushes. The chickens are already busy digging around underneath them, no doubt finding a trove of winter moths. I look forward to seeing what kind of impact they have on the winter moth population.

In many towns in the local area, raising chickens in your yard is legal and the regulations are common sense. Unfortunately in the town I live in, the rules arechix far too restrictive — it’s too bad, as chickens can solve some of the environmental woes that our government officials spend tons of time and money trying to regulate. But that’s a topic for another day.

This time of year provides you with your first opportunity to fight against the winter moths. If you have them, you should take steps to knock back the adult population by preventing the females from getting up into your most prized trees. In the spring you can wage another campaign against their larva. We’ll talk about that in a few months.

John Macone operates a small organic farm in Amesbury, Mass.

 

Don’t let your leaves leave your yard

It’s late fall here and the leaves are mostly off the trees, scattered across lawns and piled up against fences and walls.

Most people are raking them up, putting them in those big brown paper bags, and leaving them at the curb for the Department of Public Works to pick up and cart off.  That’s the routine that we’ve all be trained to follow — make the yard neat and cart all the leaves off to somewhere else.

It’s a bad idea. You and carting off one of the best fertilizers you can get for your garden and your lawn. And whoever invented those badly-designed bags is making a fortune off you. You can find better things to spend that money on.

Nature has its own clever way of dealing with leaves, but you can do a few things to make it work even better.  All you need is a little help from your lawnmower, and maybe your rototiller if you have one.

Why leave the leaves in your yard? Think about the last time you were in the woods. Every fall it’s blanketed with fallen leaves, pine needles and plant debris. They provide two essential assets to the forest — a protective ground cover and a fertilizer base. That blanket of leaves protects plant roots from the dehydrating effect of cold. They also gradually break down into an excellent source of compost for trees and plants. Pound for pound, leaves are actually more nutritional to your plants than manure. They contain not only the three essential compounds — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — but also a host of other minerals that should get back into your soil.

Chop them up

The natural process of leaf decomposition is very slow. It takes months, and in some cases, years. You can speed it up and make it far more efficient with your lawnmower. You may want to start by raking your leaves onto your lawn, then start mowing from the outer edges, constantly directing the leaves inward. Go over them slowly, you’ll want the mower to  really chop them up good. Go over them a few times.img_1217

You’ll be astonished by what’s left. That huge pile of leaves is now reduced down to a mere shadow of its former self. What remains will be about 1/10th to 1/16th the size of the initial pile that you started with, and most of the tiny shreds are now implanted into your lawn. You can use a rake to evenly spread around the tiny pile that remains. This may look a little unsightly compared to the guy next door with the cleanly-raked lawn, but those leaf fragments will be gone by the time the grass starts thriving in the spring. Earthworms and other natural processes will chew them up and convert them into fertilizer.

And next spring, when the guy next door is paying $50 to $150 for chemical fertilizers and sweating profusely while he’s spreading them on his lawn, you’ll be swinging in your hammock with a great-looking lawn underneath you.

Garden application

The other thing you may want to do with your leaves is transfer them into your garden, chop them up and then rototill them in.  This is an ideal fertilizer that will get your soil in top shape for the spring. You’ll want to apply some lime as well, as the leaves are acidic. One 50lb bag per 1,000 square feet of garden space is ample. A bag of lime should cost you about $5.

My usual thing is to rake the leaves onto the lawn, then mow them with my riding tractor. This also cuts the lawn and introduces grass clippings into the mix, which are very high in nitrogen — they’re like gasoline for your composting fire. Then I put the lawn sweeper to work. These sweepers are definitely worth the money if you have a lawn large enough to merit using a lawn tractor. They cost about $150 to $350 depending on size and quality, and the better ones have a great dumptruck-like feature that allows you to dump the load without having to dismount from the tractor and jigger around with the sweeper.  They are a fantastic labor saver, well worth the money. Be sure to get a good one, don’t cheap out, because they take a beating.

I attach the sweeper to the tractor and run over the lawn, picking up the chopped up leaves and grass clippings. Then I dump them on the garden, spread the piles out, and rototill them in. Sounds like a lot of work? It kind of is. But it’s worth it to use those leaves as your fall fertilizer.

John Macone operates a small organic farmstand in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Like his Facebook page at Farmer John’s Homegrown Foods.