Finally the temperatures are cooling down.

We can get some real work done.

While I know that there are some people who just love to work outside when its hot and humid, I am not one of them. I worked with someone like that not long ago. He just loved to go out in the hot sunshine and work in the fields. I loved him for it and was very sorry to see him go (to a more distant university to get his doctorate).
Me I don’t like to work when its too hot. In the summer months I get up very early, mostly when the sun comes up. Get outside and do what I need to do and get in before 10.30am when the sun gets too hot.

Now however the temperatures are cooling down and I can spend the whole day outside working without overheating. I love the crisp fall weather. Being outside at this time is exhilarating even if it does come with hard work. Its easier to work in cooler weather although its alarming just how many jobs suddenly need doing. This year has been especially bad for heat so the normal set of tasks have built up a bit more than usual. We still have a lot of plants flowering but others have finished and need to be cleaned up before winter comes and the weeds have increased in size more than I would have liked but now it can be hit hard and pushed back into order.

I like to keep my fields with a few weeds as possible. I know many farmers who don’t weed their rows much and will often abandon a crop if the weeds get too bad. It’s a tough choice, often there is not enough time to do all the weeding, the darn things grow so fast. However if you keep the weeds down and don’t let them seed, eventually you get less and less weeds to remove. Sadly I am not at that stage yet, while I have less weeds others still blow in and crabgrass is always rearing its evil head scattering seeds everywhere. While I do have a band of wild turkeys who seem to love crabgrass seeds they don’t eat enough of them for my liking. If I could just train them….

Group of turkeys.
Group of turkeys at the top of one of our fields.

I hate ants!

At least ants that bite me.

Black ants. Photo courtesy of
Black ants. Photo courtesy of

Some ants are fine, they go about their business in my fields and we ignore each other. However there are some that are not so indifferent. They bite they don’t sting, they bite with their nasty sharp little pincers. I was lead to believe that ants would only attack if they were around the nest area. Well the ones on my farm have not read the literature and they will bite anywhere anytime.

There are two different varieties of ant on our farm that bite. The problem I am having at the moment is with some black ones. They are about half an inch long all black and they LOVE raspberries. They think that the raspberries were put there for their benefit and they don’t want to share. I really don’t mind sharing my crops in a small part with some insects, they have to eat too and as long as they only take a small portion that is fine with me.

These guys are different, and they are vicious. They swarm up over the raspberry bushes and chew on the fruit meaning that I get less fruit. Well that’s OK I never get to use it all anyway. However when the decide to bite me because I want my share then all bets are off on ‘Mr. nice guy’ and I want to go to war. These guys are certainly at war with me.

They run up your hands, bit any bit of flesh they can find. If my legs brush the bushes they bite those. IF I lean over to pick something and they get on my T shirt then they run up it and bite me on the neck. I cant get any workers to pick raspberries because on one wants to go in the field and get attacked. I don’t blame them.

Fresh picked raspberries
Freshly picked raspberries

I really don’t know how to control these nasty creatures. I asked the eorganic experts and all I got was ‘get traps from home depot’ (this is paraphrased). Huh! I’m a farm I can’t use a ton of ant traps in my fields!

Normally I use beneficial nematodes to help control the ants but this year its been so dry that they poor things have just dried up with the soil and cant get to the ants to do their job, so the ants have flourished.

Anyone got any ideas? Remember I have two 190 foot rows here, not just a tiny patch.

Harvesting Catnip and Rue seeds.

This week the catnip and rue seeds have ripened and are at their peak for harvesting. These two plants need very different approaches in the harvesting process.

When harvesting seeds, all plants, and hence the seed, needs to be very dry. If not the plants and seeds tend to retain moisture and may develop mold. So instead of being able to harvest first thing in the morning when the temperatures are cooler we have to wait for around mid day when the plants have totally dried off before we can start. This makes the job more unpleasant if you don’t like too much heat.

Seeding catnip plants
Catnip seed ready to harvest

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is grown in full sun in large beds. Its not bursting with seed. Fortunately its not to difficult to harvest the plants, we do this with a scythe and lop the plants off. In most cases they will regrow a fresh crop of leaves for late fall harvest, often they will flower again. It also means that harvesting is fairly rapid with most of the seed separation done later in the seed processing shed.

The other problem with heat is that the harvester tends to sweat more, and is wearing sunscreen a very important factor for working in the direct sun. The downside is that this tends to make the skin sticky. Add to that the person is working in hot sunny weather so they tend to sweat as well, making them even more sticky. Now place that sticky person in a field full of catnip plants bursting with seeds. The result tends to be a very interesting plant/person hybrid or someone that looks as if they have a very unpleasant disease. It also tends to mean that a lot of seed wasted in the shower drain. Sometimes it can take hours to remove all the seeds afterwards, and never ever put your hands in your hair while harvesting!

Seeding rue Ruta graveolens plant.
Seeding rue Ruta graveolens plant.

Rue (Ruta graveolens) is a different matter. It’s a semi shrub like bush with seed heads that need to be cut off individual, while a scythe can be used it usually more effective to use snips. This means that the harvest takes a lot longer. The later processing is faster because there is not as much extraneous material but the bulk of the work is done outside in the sunshine not in the shade of the shed. Additionally rue plants exude a sap which can be very irritating to some peoples skin and cause very unpleasant dermatitis or ‘rue rash’. Intolerance can also build up over time so just because someone was ‘immune’ last year does not mean that they will be this year. So to overcome this problem the harvester must have long sleeves, long pants and gloves. Not the most desirable attire in hot summer weather. We tend to draw lots each year as to who harvests the rue. Which takes much longer to harvest that then catnip due to the selective ‘pruning’.

This year the short straw has fallen to me, so I am just waiting for the dew to evaporate off the rue bushes before I gear up and go harvest in the heat. This is one of the days when being a farmer is not quite so pleasant.

Beating The Heat On A Small Farm.

This past two weeks we have had an ‘excessive heat warning’ and now even though the heat is reducing a little its still HOT out there. This makes life on a farm difficult to say the least. While some people seem to enjoy working outside when its hot I don’t and neither does anyone else on our farm. So we have to plan a strategy.

In the late evening we take a walk through the fields to check everything out and see how the crops are doing. Any immediate problems are addressed. This usually means fixing an irrigation leak or removing an errant weed or two. We make a note of what crops are in need of harvesting.

We get up with the sun, usually around 5am and get out in the fields by 5.30am to harvest the crops earmarked for that day. How much that is will depend on what the weather is going to be like for the rest of the week. If its going to be hot and we have a cooler day we will harvest everything we can fit in our fridge and process them during the week. Otherwise we harvest only what is essential to be harvested that day.

We plan our harvesting by the suns location. All harvesting in our side field is done first as the sun will hit that first as it rises over the trees on the east side of the property. Then we follow the line of shade across the fields harvesting as we go to try and stay in the shade as much as possible. It does not always work, sometimes a crop takes longer to harvest or we just cant keep up with the sun line, but most times it works pretty well.

Then we all scurry back to the house by 10am at the latest for a late breakfast. On really hot days we try for 9am unless we can work in the shade. Then we spend the rest of the day working on what we just harvested and getting as much into the dryers as possible, the rest goes in the refrigerator to be worked on the next day. If we have time we also try to get some office work – and blog writing done too. Office work always comes last as it’s not as perishable as crops. While this means that often our blog does not come out every few days it does mean we have a really great crop harvested and dried at its peak.

Keeping hydrated when working in the heat is always very important. We lug gallons of water down to the field and stop frequently to drink. This is extremely important for everyone who is working or even just being outside in the heat and sunshine. Staying safe and keeping cool is important. never stay or work outside if you can’t tolerate the heat.

main farm field
main field baking in the sun

Gooseberries Are Ripening Fast!

This July we have had a lot more days with temperatures in the very high 80’s and low 90’s with ‘real feel’ temperatures over 110 and excessive heat warnings on many occasions. While I know some people love this kind of weather and think its not summer without it I hate it. For one thing the gooseberries ripen too fast.

Usually it takes a while for a gooseberry to turn from green to pink, then deep red, this year its been really rather fast. This means that our plans to ship out fresh gooseberries has to be shelved for this year. We like to send them out green to slightly pink. Even though they are sent with frozen packs and shipped overnight or at most second day post the weather is just too hot and the berries would not arrive in good condition.

fresh red gooseberries
Container of Fresh Red Gooseberries

So we can only sell fresh to those close to us. If anyone in central New Jersey, is interested in fresh gooseberries we have them. Our fresh ones are mostly red now but we have frozen berries in green, green/pink and red. If you are interested in purchasing please see our gooseberry page and contact us.

It’s Gooseberry Picking Time.

July is Gooseberry Month.

It’s an early morning activity. Pick a day when there is little dew on the ground, get the bin ready along with a long sleeved shirt and think leather gloves and its time to pick.

Gooseberries have thorns and even with gloves and long sleeves I still get scratched up picking them. The variety we have known as pixwell is said to be ‘mostly thorn less’. I am not sure who decided that but they certainly didn’t try picking the little green globes. Seem to be a lot of thorns to me. Fortunately this variety has the fruit hanging on the underside of the branches so its easier to pick than some varieties. Gooseberries can be prolific if nurtured and given the right environment. Four hours of picking gives me 30lbs of fruit and a lot of scratches. Keeping a medicinal wipe handy is always a good idea

Still its better to pick than many other fruits and its worth it. First off I get to be outside in the early morning listening to the sounds of nature. There is a family of blue jays cackling in the background and the little ones scream at their parents for food. The catbirds are squawking and they are all eating my raspberries which I did not get chance to net this spring. No matter I will get a fall crop. Its peaceful and even with the thorns I enjoy picking gooseberries. I am hooked on this tart little green to pink fruit.

We will have fresh gooseberries for sale in a couple of days time. Don’t know much about gooseberries? We are declaring July as gooseberry month and will be offering fun facts and information about gooseberries all month long.

Gooseberries ready to be picked.
Gooseberries ready to be picked.

Harvesting is in full swing.

At this time of the year its hectic on the farm. There is still planting going on and the harvesting is in full swing too. I like to harvest quite a few things at once then come in and work on processing them through the dryers over the next couple of days. This is especially important when its going to be hot and humid, or if its going to rain. Of course we cannot harvest on rainy days and I really don’t like being outside working when its really hot. If and excessive heat warning is predicted its time to get out, harvest and store in the refrigerator for a couple of days while its processed.

So with that in mind I harvested solidly for two days.

Day one was catnip day. We have a lot of catnip and it was beginning to flower nicely. That means its time to harvest for ‘flowering tops’ which is very popular with cat owners as the catnip has higher concentrations of nepetalactone the active compound that cats react to. Catnip harvesting is always active, its not just cats that react to the smell, its more stimulating to humans and is often used in tea blends.

Day two was more gentle. It was lemon balm harvest time. This is more calming plant and even during harvesting it’s has a more calming effect. Its also a little faster to harvest so I was able to get the lovage and the rest of the meadowsweet harvested at the same time. That filled up the fridge so for the next few days its washing and processing down for the dryers and time to stay out of the excessive heat.

Lemon balm plants
Lemon Balm plants ready for harvest

The lavender harvest is over.

So why are there so many flowers left behind?

When I told my visiting friend that I have finished harvesting the lavender she was amazed.

“But there are so many flowers left out there” she gasped.

“Yes, I replied those are for the insects and the planet.”

Maybe I should be more ruthless in my harvesting but I just can’t do it. When I am working down a row of lavender and I see the bees and butterflies working the flowers I can’t just cut it all down and take it away. Even this year when there are much fewer insects and bees than there have been in previous years, I can’t take away their food source.

Lavender Rows after harvesting.
Lavender Rows after harvesting.

I also don’t think its right for the plant. It’s put a lot of work into making those flowers in the hopes or reproducing, I don’t feel as if I should cut every bloom down. So each plant has some blossoms left on it. I can go back later when the seeds are ripe, cut them down then and extract the seeds. This way our plants get to reproduce, the insects get to enjoy the flowers and so do I. I just love to look out the window and appreciate the loveliness of all those lavender flowers, to watch the butterflies flit from flower to flower. Most years we have more butterflies in our field than any butterfly garden I have ever been to.

This way everyone gets to enjoy the lavender. I may not get as large a crop as I could, but what is a few extra bunches of lavender over helping to feed the bees, butterflies and other pollinators. They will pay me back by pollinating my plants, making the fruit swell and producing great seeds!

Bunches of lavender fresh from the field
Bunches of lavender fresh from the field

The frantic spring push is finally over.

Will normality return?

I am sure some other farms are different, maybe other farmers or ‘specialist grower’ as we prefer here like hot steamy weather, maybe they like being outside in heat and humidity. Well I don’t, neither do our people.
So we try our upmost to get as much as possible done before it gets hot and more especially humid. Its horrid working outside when the air feels like the inside of a sauna. I push and cajole everyone along to get all the field prep done before the heat hits.
Most years we make it, this year we did not. Well not exactly. This year we have been lucky its not been humid yet. Most years by this time in June its humid as all heck but not this year, not yet. So we were able to get most of the stuff finished.

It makes spring an extremely busy time. First the rows have to have their yearly compost additions, then the irrigation tape must be laid and then overlaid with the plastic mulch and the lumite put back down in the ‘aisles’ to keep down the weeds and contain any soil borne diseases (mostly molds). We don’t spray anything not even with organically accepted chemicals so prevention is extremely important.

It’s a mad rush to get it all the fields prepared. At the same time we are looking after our little seedlings, watering them in their trays and then transplanting them into larger individual pots to grow on large enough to be planted in the fields. Then of course when they are big enough planting them out in the newly prepared fields.

If that is not enough on a medicinal herb farm harvesting of perennials starts early, usually long before the field preparation is completed and always before all but a very few new plants have been transferred to the fields. Some plants crop very early Greater celandine is one of the first but its soon followed by nettles, motherwort, cleavers and honeysuckle. All these need to be harvested checked over and dried ready for sale or use in many of our products. Its also the busiest time for our seed sales as everyone else wants to get their garden up and ready too.

Its not uncommon at this time of the year to be working outside for 8 – 9 hours straight – we rarely break for lunch. Farm work is very season and weather dependent, you cant put a task off until next week because you want a break it has to be done NOW or its too late. Little plants need a place to grow and crops need to be harvested at the peak of ripeness.

Portion of the field late spring all is growing well
Portion of the field late spring all is growing well

This means that almost everything else in the world is put on hold. Farmers don’t get out much, they are either working or sleeping because they are exhausted from working. Other stuff in life suffers, friends, social life (what social life) and especially social media. I had intended to update this blog on a bi weekly basis and keep everyone informed about what we were doing, well that didn’t work out well. There was just not time to write the articles. I made a few notes but that was about all. Sorry everyone but that’s life on a farm. Hopefully I can get back on schedule now and maybe do better next year.

Happy gardening everyone.

350 plants transplanted to the field today!

It took nearly seven hours, but with cloudy skies and cooler temperatures it was a perfect day to transplant many of our little plants to their field locations. Transplanting on a cloudy day is essential. When little plants are placed in a new setting they are stressed – just like people – setting them out under bright hot sunshine can be too much for many plants and they fry. Picking a cooler cloudy day to do this work gives them more time to acclimatized to their new environment and get their roots moving to pick up moisture. Its even better if the cloudy day is going to be followed by rain, steady solid rain is better than abrupt storms but rain of any kind is good.

During the spring months I watch for these days and get outside as soon as possible to hand transplant as many plants to the field as possible. Friday was just such a day, well almost it poured with rain first thing so I was held up a bit before starting.
We grow all our plants in 2” square pots, when they are large enough to survive in the fields they get moved out from our patio area. A hole is punched in the white plastic mulch and the plant is knocked out of the pot and placed in the ground. Once the row is completed the irrigation is run to allow them enough water to set their roots in well. If the irrigation for a particular row is not yet set up they are watered by hand.

newly planted seedlings
Portion of newly planted row

Each plant hole is punched by hand and each plant is transplanted by hand, the empty pots are then collected up and returned to the greenhouse for washing and sterilizing ready for next years plants.

350 plants is 350 holes and 350 transplants, it’s a lot of work. Still we now have a portion of our crops in the field where they are easier to take care of. The others are still growing to a large enough size and waiting for the next cloudy day to be transplanted to their new homes.