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.


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

 

Why you should build a seedling/sprouting table

Have you bought seedlings at the big box stores and discovered a couple months later that you wasted your money? Did those healthy-looking plants end up withering and producing poor quality fruit?

That seems to be the usual pattern. Oftentimes the methods used to produce those very appealing seedlings also makes them unhealthy in the long run. They grow too fast, with too much fertilizer. Then they become root-bound and they stagnate. And due to the noxious pesticides that are used in these mass-produced plants, you might also be killing honey bees.

You are better off growing your own plants from seed. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll end up with much healthier and more productive plants, and you’ll be able to grow very tasty and interesting varieties that aren’t available in the big box stores.

Many of the most desirable vegetables need to be started indoors from seed — like tomatoes, broccoli, onions (from seed), cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, peppers, and (for the best results) summer squashes.

Growing them on a sunny windowsill probably won’t cut it. To get good results you need a seedling growing table. It’s an investment, but it will pay off in the long run.

There’s two routes you go — you can buy a pre-made table, or you can make your own. Pre-made tables are expensive — you’ll spend $400 or more.  I think if you are somewhat handy with tools, you are better off building your own. It will be a lot cheaper and you can custom build it to fit your available space and needs.

Build your own

I just built a large table in my basement to replace a venerable table that I had been using for 25 years. The old table was designed by my college friend Todd and based around a 4-bulb fluorescent fixture that my brother-in-law/gardening bro Skip gave me. I had modified it over the years in an effort to solve the most vexing problem I had — heat consistency. Long story short, I couldn’t beat the heat problem. Also, I need to grow a lot more seedlings to keep up with my farmstand’s customer demand, and the fixture I was using was the old T12 bulb technology.

I built the new seedling table in my basement. Most underground spaces will have a baseline temperature of 50-55 degrees, which is a bit cold for seedlings but you can use some techniques to bump up the heat. The best reason to put it in your basement is the temperature will stay consistent. My old light table was in the barn, where springtime temperatures can swing wildly from the 20s to the 70s.

How much does it cost?

You don’t need to buy a lot of stuff to build a light table. Let’s say you want to build a 2-foot-by 4-foot table. That’s big enough to grow about 4 large trays of plants — in other words, hundreds of seedlings! Here’s a look at what you need to buy:

  • Lumber: eight 2x4s ($20); one 2-foot by 4-foot piece of plywood ($10)
  • Lights: One 4-bulb T8 florescent fixture ($40 to $50), 4 T8 aquarium/plant bulbs ($40) T8s are a newer technology that use a lot less energy than the old T12s, and can produce a richer range of plant-healthy light.
  • Heat pad: One seedling heat pad — they come in a variety of sizes ($20-$40)
  • Light timer: One light timer ($10)… plants should be exposed to light for about 14-16 hours a day; they need time to “sleep” with the lights off, just as we do.
  • Hardware: A box of 2-inch wood screws ($5), and a box of 3-inch wood screws ($5)
  • Plastic: A sheet of 3-foot-by-50-foot clear plastic, at least 3.5 mil in thickness. ($10)

TOTAL COST: $120 to $150

TOOLS: Here’s what you need for tools:

  • A power screwdriver (cordless is best), with phillips head attachment
  • A phillips head screwdriver
  • A stapler
  • A power saw
  • Tape measure

LABOR: Even for an awful carpenter like me, this project is pretty simple. Power tools can make up for a lot of knuckleheaded problems, like making sure the cuts are straight. There are lots of do-it-yourself blog posts and videos on how to build one, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here. Here’s a good one.

This is a great project to tackle at this time of the year, when it’s too early to plant outside yet you’ve got the planting bug.

So clear out a junky corner of the basement and make room for a little project that will put you in great shape to have a fantastic vegetable garden this summer.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Old secrets in a dusty cellar

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

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

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

 

IMG_1973
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

IMG_1974
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).

IMG_0595
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 https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/ 

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 maconer@comcast.net, 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.

 

How to deal with 2 bummer tomato maladies

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

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

Cutworms

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

Can you tell I really don’t like them?

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

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

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

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

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

Early blight

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Where to get plants

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

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

Update: Taking steps to control winter moths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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