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/

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/