August update: A berry good year

Every year there’s a crop that excels, while another one flops. So this year, as I update my Farmer John’s organic Foods blog, I’ll report on the highlights and lowlights so far.

Highlight — the berry good times

This is, beyond any remote doubt, the year of the berry. Here at Farmer John’s that means the blueberry and raspberry.  I have never, in my 30 years of gardening, seen such a productive crop year for berries.

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The blueberry crop started out looking great way back in April, when I noticed that the winter moth population had entirely collapsed. These nasty little imports from Europe have plagued the blueberry crop throughout New England, but this year something dramatic happened. They just plain disappeared. The winter conditions — specifically an early freeze that prevented the females from emerging from the ground to lay eggs — were the cause.

That is a huge deal. Two years in a row (2015 and 2016) they wiped out my entire blueberry crop. Last year I had a partial recovery, harvesting about 25 quarts. This year I’ve harvested 105 quarts, and there’s at least another 15-20 yet to ripen. That is an abnormally large harvest. I think it’s at least in part due to the work I put into the bushes. They were planted 70 years ago by the farmer who once owned this farm, Luther Colby, and they’d not been taken proper care of for many years. Last year I booked up on how to restore old blueberry bushes, and the efforts paid off. I also go to extreme lengths to keep the hungry birds out, constructing a massive temporary cage around them to protect the fruit.

Raspberries have also had an exceptional year. I use about a half ton of well-rotted horse manure to fertilize them in the spring, and they responded well to it, producing over 60 quarts. It looks like I will have a strong fall crop too. Those berries will go on the stand in mid September.

I also planted strawberries and blackberries. I expect to be putting them on the stand when next year’s crop arrives.

Lowlight… the hogs and rascally rabbits

I know I’m not the only farmer who has noticed that little critters have had an exceptionally fun and productive year. I’ve never seen such a huge population of rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels and chipmunks. I love to see them gathering food around the woods and field behind our house, but when they venture into my garden — not so cute. I’ve lost a lot of produce to them this year. My corn crop was entirely wiped out, as well as my broccoli, kale, collard greens, and cucumbers. These are all things that my customers like to have on the stand, so it was tough seeing them wiped out.

I did manage to drive all of the critters out of the garden. The kale is recovering, and cucumbers have been replanted and placed under a protective row cover, so I hope to have them on the stand in September.

It looks though like I have an even greater menace that’s nuzzling up to the edges of the garden. Last week I spotted 5 deer lingering around the edges, and I’ve noticed that they’ve chewed down everything that’s within heads-reach of the fence. I’ve erected what I hope will be an effective anti-deer barrier — basically a row of strings hung at intervals of 4, 5 and 6 feet. We’ll see whether I can keep the deer at bay.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods in Amesbury, Mass. It’s a low-cost neighborhood farmstand that features locally grown organic fruits, veggies and eggs.

April update: New chicks, new seedlings, and winter moth patrol

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost late April, and yet things are just starting to warm up!

The ground is still too wet and cold to do any planting, but there are still plenty of catch-up things to do. Here’s a look at what’s going on at Farmer John’s.

Seedlings

Last year I raised and sold about 300 seedlings. I ran out of many varieties. so this year I’m hoping to have about twice as many available on my farmstand at 8 Kendricks Court, Amesbury. Like all things at Farmer John’s, my seedlings will be cheap — $3 per 6-pack; $2 per individual plant.  I expect to start selling them around mid May.

They are coming along great. I’m a huge tomato fanatic, so I pour much of my energy into finding and growing the most interesting and tastiest varieties. Here’s a look at the varieties of tomatoes that I’ll have:

 

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Brad’s Atomic tomatoes

Sun gold, Brad’s Atomic, yellow brandywine, pink brandywine, Campari, pink tiger, Chadwick cherry, German lunchbox,  Amish paste.

I may have a couple other tomato varieties available — we’ll see how they do.

Also, I’ll have some squashes, a variety of herbs, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, and perhaps some flower seedlings for sale too. I’ll probably be selling raspberry roots as well. Keep an eye on my Facebook page for updates.

New chicks

With the weather finally heading into the 50s and 60s consistently, I figured now is the time to get some chicks to add to my laying hens. Last year I was able to get my chicks in mid March — that’s an indication of how much colder this spring has been compared to last.

 

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Golden comets and barred rocks searching for goodies in my brooder.

I raise them in the chicken coop, which is unheated, so I needed to wait until the outside temperature was a little more friendly to chicks’ need for very high and consistent temperatures.  With a heat lamp I can easily hit the 90 degree threshold that chicks need to survive their first week, and as the chicks begin to fledge, the needed warming temperature will also decrease (by about 5 degrees per week). So I should be all set.

I find that the best local choice for chicks is Dodge’s Agway, which has stores in Exeter, Hampton Falls, and Plaistow, N.H. I’ve bought chicks from Dodge’s several times and found them to be healthy, vigorous, and — most importantly — all properly sexed. And by that I mean they are all hens. I’ve bought from other sources in the past and found some young roosters included in the mix. Roosters, as you may know, are a major headache. They’re also “illegal” in my town.

Dodge’s also has a broad mix of breeds, all in line with the backyard farmer’s practical needs. I’ve been known in the past to buy some of the oddball breeds — like Polish crested hens — and invariably the novelty of these breeds disappears quickly when you realize how few eggs you get from them. Dodge’s stocks the proven egg producers, like barred rocks, Rhode Island reds, wyandottes, golden comets, auracaunas, and buff Orpingtons.

Winter moths

Winter moths have become the scourge of my blueberry bushes and fruit trees (although they don’t seem to like peach trees)… I had a devastating influx of them 3 years ago, but as time as gone on I’ve managed to put a big dent in their population. My primary weapon is the chickens — I let them free-range under the blueberries and around the trees. They eat the winter moth larvae as they descend from the branches by the thousands. But they can’t get to the larvae that hatch in the branches and are eating the buds, so to get those larvae I need to spray.

 

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Winter moth larvae

Now that the buds on the trees and the blueberries are about to open, the winter moth larvae are sure to hatch and start their voracious habit of destroying blossoms.  So in order to get them as they hatch, I spray the blueberries with Bt Monterey, an organic compound that is devastatingly effective on moth larvae.  I made the first application yesterday, and will repeat it every 3 days or so.

 

A friend swears by Neem oil as a more effective way to deal with winter moths. I’ve never tried it, but I might use it later in the season if I start seeing significant damage.

That’s the quick update for this week. By next week I hope to start planting.

John Macone owns farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. If you want to get updates on what’s happening at the farmstand, like the Farmer John’s Facebook page.

Spring farm update: Burn brush, plant seedlings, raise more chickens

Outdoors it looks like the depths of winter, but the calendar indicates it’s nearly spring. And with a Nor’Easter and 8-12 inches of more snow predicted for later this week, it looks like winter is keeping a firm grip on us.

Well, winter may still be clutching at us, but I’m going to try to defy it and stay with the calendar. It’s nearly spring, and so all of the activities that go along with spring prep at my small but growing organic farm are my primary focus.

I’ve been encouraged by the number of local people who enjoyed buying inexpensive organic vegetables and fruits at my stand last year. Some of them have been asking me what’s up for this year. Well, in short I’m planning to offer a lot more organic food, at very reasonable prices!

That involves a lot of prep work. So here’s a look at 4 of the biggest duties this coming week:

Chickens: This has been a really strong spring for egg production. In general I’m getting about 5-6 eggs per chicken per week, and that’s probably the best ratio I’ve ever had. So I’ve got more eggs to sell than normal. If you are interested in fresh eggs ($4 per dozen, best eggs you’ll ever have), email me at maconer@comcast.net and I’ll set you up.

I’m also looking at expanding the flock.  I’m thinking of getting a couple dozen day-old IMG_2007hatchlings and raising them to pullets. I’ll keep a few for my own flock, but I’ll sell the rest when they are about 12 weeks old — that’s the time at which they are big enough to survive on their own without a heat source or special diet. It saves a lot of hassle when you buy them at 12 weeks old. Are you interested in having chickens? If you are interested in buying young 12-week-old chicks, email me.

Winter moths: These nasty little creatures have really done a job on the local environment. They’ve brutalized our blueberry bushes, but now I think the tide is turning against them.

When we first moved to this farm nearly 4 years ago, the 70-year-old blueberry bushes showed what they are capable of producing. We got over 40 quarts from them, and we would have gotten probably 50% more if I had been able to focus on erecting an anti-bird barrier. But that fall, the winter moths moved in like a locust plague, and everything changed. For 2 years we didn’t get a single blueberry — let alone a single quart. But over the past 2 years I’ve managed to put a major ding in their population. My primary weapon has been our chickens, which eat the winter moth larvae by the thousands. I’ve also been spraying the bushes with a dormant oil spray and a mild form of Bt. You can really nuke them if you use chemical pesticides, but I choose to stay organic. And by staying organic, I think you need to use multiple strategies to deal with winter moths.

The strategy has been paying off. Last year we had a decent blueberry crop — about 20 or so quarts. That was good, but the real results of my winter moth vendetta shined in the late fall and early winter, when winter moths emerge from the ground and flock by the thousands at night. This past winter, there were very few of them.

So next week I plan to double down on what’s left of them. I’ll be spraying the homemade dormant oil mixture on the bushes. By mid April I’ll do some sprayings with Bt, and of course the chickens will be running wild once the snow melts.

Seedlings: Last year I had pretty good success growing and selling seedlings, so this year I’ve expanded the quantity and types that I’m growing. The new seedling table that I built last month has been working out well. It’s allowed me to increase the growing area by over 150%. I’ve got a decent crop of broccoli, lettuce and onions going, and later this week I’ll start growing tomatoes. I plan to sell the following types of heirloom tomato seedlings on the stand starting in mid May: Brandywine (pink and yellow varieties), Campari (this is a substitute for German Lunchbox), Sun Gold, Amish Paste, Chadwick Cherry, Tappy’s Heritage, Golden Jubilee, and Pink Tigers. I also hope to offer Brad’s Atomics, which are a brand new tomato variety that had a very loyal fan following at my vegetable stand last year.

I’ll also be growing and selling several other varieties of vegetable seedlings on the stand, including some new varieties that my customers asked me to grow. I’ll list them in future blogs.

Soil and grounds prep: This winter has been hard on the trees. We’ve had a substantial amount of damage caused by heavy wind, as well as by wet, heavy snow. The result is hundreds of branches of every size blown down and broken on the ground.

The remedy is brush fires. Not only do you get rid of the branches in a quick and fun way, you also get a rich source of natural nutrients in the form of wood ash.

So far this year I’ve had 2 large brush fires, and judging by the amount of downfall on the ground, I’ll need at least 2 more. but that’s still far short of last year’s record, when I had 8 large brush fires to get rid of the huge quantity of branches that were scattered all over the yard.

The tilled area of the farm has been fallow since last fall, when I cleared off all the dead plants (especially tomato plants, which were burned because they carry soil-borne diseases such as early blight). I laid down some compost and stockpiled some rotted horse manure, but this was the first year I didn’t do a fall rototilling. Instead I planted winter rye. The field sits on a fairly steep north-leaning slope, and tends to erode when the spring thaw and spring rains occur. So to avoid erosion problems, I’ve left it as is for now. I’ll probably rototill in mid April, once it sufficiently dries out.

Hopefully by next weekend we’ll have a spring-like look to the backyard. Looking forward to that!

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass.  Get the latest updates on Farmer John’s by liking its Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

May update: the spring that barely sprang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Spring chicks racing around the yard.

 

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

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

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

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

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.