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.

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.