The hoop house is open!

The plastic is off and the plants are ready for the world.

Hoop houses are wonderful things, they keep the plants warm and toasty in the winter. Well they keep them from freezing over at least. A lot of plants don’t like it if their roots freeze. If they are in the ground they are mostly OK and can protect themselves unless there is a really hard winter and the ground really freezes solid. That is why sometimes plants don’t come back the following spring, the roots froze and the plant died.

If a plant is in a pot then it’s a whole different matter. The soil in the pot is isolated and it gets a lot colder than the ground, so its going to freeze a lot faster. This means that the plant roots will freeze and the plant wont be happy. IF you only have a couple of pots this can usually be solved by placing them in the garage over the winter months. If the plants die down in the winter they don’t even need light and can be stored under a bench or some other out of the way spot until spring comes around. Just make sure that they stay a little moist. IF they totally dry out they will likely die, roots need to stay plump and moist. Just slightly moist not wet. A little water once every two weeks is usually enough for a cold garage, if your garage is warm then you might need to water more often.

For plants that stay green, putting them on a table near a garage window is a good solution. Again keep just moist and everything is usually fine until spring.

If you have a lot of plants in pots like we do then putting them in the garage is not feasible. That’s where a hoop house comes in. Plants are placed under a plastic protection layer that is just enough to stop the plant pots from freezing in the dead of winter and keeps the plants alive. If you live in an area where there are commercial growers you will often see they have a lot of these hoop houses. In winter these are covered with either clear or white plastic. This is to protect their crops from freezing and keep their plants alive so they are ready for sale in the spring. IN most areas come early spring the plastic comes off of these hoop houses and the plants are open to the air again.

Hoop houses get HOT. For that reason they are often used to start crops, prolong growing cycles so plants can be grown earlier or later into the season and to grow crops that need a lot more heat than the region would normally give them. A good example is baby ginger which is becoming much more popular with CSA and other farms that sell at farm markets. Once it was found that ginger could be raised easily in hot hoop houses or high tunnels the market opened up for fresh and organic ginger.

Our hoop house at present is used just to keep pots from freezing. The weather has been all over the place this year so we kept our plastic on longer than we anticipates. But this weekend it came down. The plants inside have had free air passage for weeks now so the shock of being open to the elements should be lessened. We also try and do it when its going to be cloudy for a few days to allow the plants to acclimatize to the new light levels before they get hit with full sun.

open hoop house
hoop house frame wraped with deer fencing.

We had to wrap deer fencing around the hoop house structure to stop the deer wandering through. IF we don’t do this they just stroll through, knock over all the pots and ruin the irrigation setup. This causes a lot extra work having to fix it all the time. Deer are a real pain to small farm agriculture.

Some of our plants will find homes in the ground this year, but a lot wont. Its going to take a lot longer to prepare our new field that we had expected so we don’t expect it to be done until next spring now. So they plants must remain in pots until its ready.

Compost compost compost.

It’s the secret to a good soil and good crops.

No matter what kind of soil you have, unless you extremely lucky your soil will need improvement. Even if you are lucky enough to have good soil if you start growing things in it before long it will still need improving. For us, we have a sandy loam soil which in its natural state has very little organic material in it. Since we started our farm every year we add lots of organic mushroom compost every year to help improve the soil and move it towards a good soil structure that holds together rather than a sandy mess which will blow away in the first high wind. It’s a long hard battle but we are getting there.

Last week our new truckload of compost arrived so we can continue to add it to our field rows. We spent all Sunday shoveling compost onto our rows and are now finally finished! Hooray! For us it takes a LONG time to do because, at present, we have to do everything by hand. If we had a front end loader the task would be faster, but they are expensive and we cannot yet afford to purchase one. So its people power that runs our farm. After three whole day sessions we have completed all the rows in all our fields that needed compost added to them. This is not to say that all compost work is done, we still have sections of our new field to work on, repotting of larger shrubs that don’t yet have a home and more repotting to do. However all the field rows are done so its downhill from here (at least for compost, its all uphill for the rest of the farm work).

This year marks the beginning of moving around some of our perennials to give them new improved soil and allow us to amend soil in the field which has not been done in quite a while. The main field is easier to work with as we can take the tractor down the rows to put the soil on, however it needs more cart loads of compost since it has not been worked for a while, and next year will be back under perennials so it wont get much more apart from side dressing after that. So it took 12 cart loads of compost to do one row, which is a LOT of digging.

The last two weeks have had pretty good weather for digging, last Sunday was a perfect day to do this, it was cool and mostly cloudy which is excellent for hard physical work. It was also rather windy which we could have done without but hey, you cant have everything. This past Sunday was still cool but a lot damper since it had rained overnight but the humidity was still pretty low. We are all glad that the job is done, none of us like digging when its humid that really sucks.

The last of the compost pile is gone!

Now we can order more.

This weekend was for shoveling. All the rest of the rows in our fields need to have compost added to them ready for this years planting. Our mulch pile was getting low so we needed to dig all the remainder out and put it on the fields so we can get a new truckload ordered this week. Then we can do the same thing again next week. Hooray!

We have a small cart that goes behind the tractor that we have to fill by hand, then move to our side field then transfer it to the wheelbarrows, to transport it down to the rows that need it. It’s a lot of work. Sadly we don’t have enough space to keep our rows far enough apart to get the tractor down the side field rows it all has to be done by hand. If we had more land we could spread out a bit but as it is we need to use every inch that we have. Sadly this means more manual labor, at least at the moment, maybe later we can figure out a better system but so far we have not be able to do so.

Four truck loads got all but two rows in the field completed, by that time we were both tired and drained. There is still a lot of work to do before full planting can begin but we are on our way.

Potty for Repotting

It took all day to repot our trees.

I thought it was going to be a simple task that would take a few hours, but that was not the case.

We have quite a number of trees mostly hazelnuts and kousa dogwoods waiting to be planted. They have been waiting for a few years now, but since we have all the useless dead and dying trees to move out of the way first we don’t have space to plant them yet. – Yes we could have someone come and cut them all down for us, but it would cost a LOT of money, which like most people working a farm we don’t have. – So it’s a gradual process.

I had repotted the trees into the largest pots we had available, really large pots cost a LOT of money. However we were fortunate enough to find a wholesale nursery that was going out of business and had a lot of used pots to get rid of. They were only too happy for us to haul them away from them, so we loaded up our trailer and dragged them home. I know many people don’t like re using pots, but these things are large and expensive. Most wholesale nurseries do a reasonable job of keeping pests down, if they did not they would go out of business. Plus we could pressure wash them with bleach solution before we used them.

Our trees were getting bigger and they kept falling over as the pots were not large enough. Add to that that when we had them stood up the deer just love to come along and walk right through the middle of the bed and knock them all over again. A few years ago a bear wandered in and not only managed to knock half the pots over but totally destroyed the irrigation system we had set of for them. We needed a better solution.

line of potted trees and shrubs
Trees repotted in large pots

I decided to move the trees to the small berm that runs along the west side of our house. It is most likely the soil that was dug out to make the miniscule basement we have (but that’s another story). The area gets a lot of sunshine during the daytime so its perfect for the trees. We moved them all there after removing them from their winter protection in the hoop house. However this area is a little more exposed and it was a forgone conclusion that the pots would fall over. Never fear we had all the new super large pots.

Problem is that a super large pot takes a LOT of filling. I wanted to use the mushroom compost for most of the pot filling with a layer of our sandy loam soil on the bottom and the top to help keep the moisture in. Rather like a reverse Oreo. I had already done a few pots on my own and realized that it was going to be a two person job to get it done faster and effectively. Since we needed two soil sources, move the pots down from the berm, – its too hard to repot on a slope – then repot them and move them back with a hand truck. I filled and repotted the trees, Steve shifted them back. We both dug compost and he got soil from the field for the outer Oreo look and feel. Having soil on the top of the pot was essential as the mushroom compost looses moisture much faster than the soil does. A layer a couple of inches thick on the top helps to keep the moisture in and the plant happy. It was also important to use last years compost which had compacted down. The new stuff is light and fluffy, if we use that to fill a pot it compacts down during the next year or so and the plant is left with only about half the depth of the pot in soil.

Because some of the pots were quite large, it took a much more soil than I had expected and we had to fill three cart loads of mushroom compost and at least 6 barrow loads of soil to get the job done. We spent all day at the task and still did not entirely finish.

However now all the new trees are in much larger pots that wont fall over in the wind, and wont get knocked over by the deer. A bear could still do it if he is determined, we just have to hope he’s not. The trees will be fine now for a few years, and with any luck we will have their final home in the ground ready before they outgrow these pots.

This Weekend Was Very Chipper!

Fourteen hours of chipper work to be exact.

The time had come to clear up the dead and downed trees so we rented a chipper and set to. Goggles on, earplugs in and we were off, seven hours later we staggered out and viewed our handiwork. The new field area was almost clear, almost, but not quite and we still had quite a bit of work to do on the other side of the electric fence.

Chipping was our last resort. I wanted to use a lot of the dead trees to make bio charcoal to put on the fields. However after working solidly for a whole weekend moving trunks and dead branches to the drying racks we looked at our meager progress we had made and realized that this was not going to work. We had only made a small dent in the project and the racks were full. It had taken us a lot of time to do very little. It was not productive and it was wasting time.

So chipping was the only option. We started by renting a chipper from Home Depot. However that was an abortive project as the feed on it did not work and Steve had to take it back after an hour and get our money back. Yet another delay.
Finally we located a larger chipper for rent but it was an hours drive away. So Steve had to get up at 5.30am to get there for 7am on Saturday morning when they opened and drive it back. We ate breakfast and started out around 9.30am. It was overcast and threatening rain but the rain never came, the clouds stayed most of the day which was great as it kept the temperature down.

Dead and cut trees before we started.
The area before we started, lots of cut and dead trees.

Much of the time was spent dragging dead trees to the chipper and watching them get chomped into chips. I have to admit its pretty satisfying to watch. However the chipper would not take the large trunks of many of the trees so we had to cut them down to size and chip only the top portion of the tree. Then all the smaller branches had to be cleared up and run through the chipper. That was the job that fell to me, mostly because I was not strong enough to haul the larger trees with all the branches still attached to the chipper. Clean up was essential as moving around with a chain saw to cut up trees with lots of loose brush on the ground can be dangerous. I moved the smaller trees but Steve did the larger ones. Only the two of us available for the task this weekend, but to be fare more than two and there would have been a lot of standing around waiting for the chipper to be available to chip your contribution. With two of us one was at the chipper while the other went for more to feed its hungry maul.

area mostly clear of trees
Area at the end of day one. 3/4 cleared.

At the end of Saturday we were both very tired, sore, stiff and aching.
But next morning we were up again, and after a bit of creaking and hobbling got moving and put in another seven hours to almost finish the job off. Sunday was bright and sunny, the temperatures were not as high fortunately because it was hot work in the sun, dragging trees around.
We finished off the main area behind the fence, the dropped the electric fence and dragged the trees from the second area to the chipper too. Most of the trees in this area had been cut down but there were still a few dead ones standing. Fortunately they were mostly dead and smaller so Steve cut them down and I dragged them straight to the chippers maul. There are still a few left, some are large and need cables to help bring them down safely and not hit our new hoop house, others are holding up the electric fence so cant be cut down until we get the fenced moved to its new route. There area also a few dead ones on the perimeter of the chosen area. Until you get them down its hard to see that there are yet more dead trees behind them that need to come down.

We did not get everything done that we would have liked. I would like to have cleared up more of the fallen branches from our grove and under the white pine stand, plus we still have a couple of older brush piles that have accumulated over the past few years. Those need to go too, but fourteen hours of chipping is enough. The rest can wait for another day.

Monday I went back out to take the after photos and count the stumps, the only real way to determine how many trees we cut dragged off and moved. Some stumps are a bit rotten as the trees fell over on their own, others are pretty easy to spot.
The main area we set out to clear had 106 stumps from trees we removed. The area on the near side of the fence had 54 stumps. This count does not include the ones we had already put on the racks, or those taken down last year to help clear space for the new hoop house.
That comes to 160 trees that we dragged, cleared and chipped in a fourteen hour marathon chipping session.
That number did make us both rather chipper! Stiff, sore but chipper!

Finally cleared. 106 trees cut and removed from this small area!
Finally cleared. 106 trees cut and removed from this small area!

Who needs a gym?

When you have a farm.

Why spend a whole bunch of money on a gym or fancy exercise machines? All you need is a small farm. OK there is not so much to do in the winter months but come spring its get out there and work, at least we are in the fresh air.

With the beginning of spring comes the compost work. Every year we put more organic mushroom compost on our field rows. This year we are also redoing some of our perennial rows since its time they were changed around. This work in our ‘main field’ (named because it was the only field we had to start with) is easier than our side field (named because its on the side of the main field). We can take the tractor down the rows rather than having to barrow it in as is needed in the side field. However its still a lot of work and exercise.

The process is.

  1. Drive the tractor to the compost pile, which is at the front of the property, the only place the tractor trailer has access to dump the load when they deliver it.
  2. Dig the compost pile out and fill up the cart behind the tractor.
  3. Drive the tractor to the row and slowly add the compost to the row.
  4. Do the whole thing again until the row is finished.
  5. Start on the next row.

We tend to buy a load of compost about every two years. Why mushroom compost? Because its cheap. Here in New Jersey we are fairly close to the mushroom farms in Pennsylvania and they always have a lot of spent compost. Its fairly cheap to buy a whole truckload, actually it costs a little more to have the guys truck it over here than the compost itself costs. But it’s the cheapest good organic material we can get.

When it first arrives its wonderful stuff, all light and fluffy and easy to shovel. Like shoveling soft ice cream. The downside is that its light and fluffy so you need more of it to do the job so you need to dig more cart loads of the stuff.

After its settled which takes about 6 months it gets harder and more compacted. You actually need to put your foot on the shovel and dig it out. More like shoveling hard frozen ice cream. Its tough but the upside is you don’t need to shovel as many cart loads because its more compacted.

Even so there are a LOT of cartloads need to be moved. This past Sunday we did 7 cartloads, I had already don’t 3 on my own last week. That did the two perennial rows in the main field.

Why add it every year? Because we are on really poor sandy loam soil. When we moved in there was almost no organic material in the soil at all. It was terrible and had no soil structure at all. Now with the addition of compost to the rows every year its beginning to form a reasonable structure and retain more moisture. It’s a slow job but we are getting there. For most of the rows where we grow annuals we don’t need to add that much every year. For perennial rows they get a really heavy addition every time they get changed which can be anything from 4-8 years depending on the species. Anything that is being put into production also gets a hefty addition since its going to be in pretty poor shape otherwise.

This year we are moving some perennials around and thus redoing some rows in the main field this has to be done early so we can get the plants moved before they grow too much. This weekend we prepped two rows.

We have another two there to do. Then all the rows in the side field where we grow the annual plus the new extension we are adding this year. Today I am stiff and aching, wont get out there to work again until tomorrow. By the end of the month I should be back in shape and used to digging. Keeps you fit and its free.

adding compost to field
Adding compost to our main field from tractor cart.

Hooray for the power company guys.

While they did not come in record time it was hardly their fault. I always feel these guys do a really wonderful job, the come out in all weather, clean up the problem and get the power flowing. Three cheers for them

The problem lies with the schedulers. They seem to be there to waste the time of the hard working guys and to frustrate those whose power is out. We have run across this countless times but it never changes.

This time Steve called and I insisted that he give a really throughout account of what the problem was. We needed a tree crew to come and get the hanging fallen tree down and clear up the line before we could do anything. He called three different times.

First time they just seem to log the call, even though we told them the line was down and the tree had fallen.

Second time, ‘Oh there is a down cable, we don’t have that here.’ – Update the listing.

Third time. We need a tree crew don’t forget. ‘Sure we get it’ Right!

8.20pm the door goes. It’s the power company. Surprise! They don’t have a tree crew so they cant do anything. Not to mention its dark now there is no way it would be safe to work on that tree at night.

What a waste of the power crews time! They came all the way out here but could do nothing because the idiot scheduler still had not logged that we needed the tree dealt with first.

I am sure these guys have a lot of people to help, a lot of power out, they don’t need to be sent somewhere that they cant do the job because the idiot scheduler had not logged the problem correctly! It must really annoy them.

Monday morning the scheduler calls to ask if our power is back. Of course its not! Does he think the tree magically vanished in the night? Every time we have a downed tree they call and ask if its magically been fixed. I really wish we did have a magic tree removal service. The whole tree problem on the farm would be dealt with by now.

The tree crew came shortly after with a huge bucket truck, chopped up the tree in no time and got our driveway cleared. Three cheers for them. The power crew arrived shortly afterwards and fixed the line. Hooray for the power crews, Boo to the schedulers!

removing tree from driveway
Power company crew removing tree from driveway

This weekend we planted trees.

It may seem strange for a farm that has so many trees to want to plant more, but trees are very important. You just have to have the right kind of trees. The ‘Christmas’ trees we have are old, straggly, and in many cases dying. These need to be removed. Our forest trees are too much of a monoculture. Most of them are new growth, according to the previous owner he just let things grow and could not be bothered to do any work. This means we have an overabundance of Sweet gum trees and not much else. Having a more diverse woodland, and in our case trees that will be more useful as medicine are important to add.

moving chestnut tree
Moving Chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum) to its new location.

So this weekend we cleared away some of the understory and greenbrier thicket (man I hate greenbrier, it’s lethal) removed a few small sweetgums and a couple of dead or dying chokecherries and planted a few new trees. My new trees are two lovely horse chestnut trees and three Chinese apricots. Usually expensive trees we were fortunate enough to pick them up at a bargain price from a nursery that was closing and no one else wanted them. I am delighted. The apricots are lovely small trees with beautiful flowers in the springtime and medicinal fruits later. The horse chestnuts we planted are about 15 feet tall but will still be a few years yet before we get useful fruits from them.

Cutting pot from chestnut tree to preserve the roots.

Five trees, it does not seem as if it should take that long to plant, but when you have to clear out all the underbrush, remove all the greenbrier, clean out all the fallen branches, twigs and other unwanted material before you even start to plant it takes a while. Then we had to fix the desired position for the tree, dig the hole to the correct depth, ease the tree into position and fill the hole back up again. We had hoped to get it all done in one day but somehow it took most of the weekend. Still finally we have some different trees in our mix.

Orientating tree before placing in hole we dug for it.

Eventually the larger sweetgums around the new trees will be removed and recycled as shitake food or logs for our winter fireplace. Our new trees will offer a better green canopy and provide a more diverse woodland at the same time.

Settling tree into its new location

Saturday I Picked Up Sticks.

All day long I picked up sticks. Well actually they were small branches. Annoying twiggy things, the dead ones that hang on the bottoms of fir trees as they grow larger. Especially if planted close together, much too close in the case of the ones we inherited. The result is you get a mostly dead tree, or in a lot of cases considering how close they are, a totally dead tree, with lots of twiggy branches at the bottom. These prevent you from walking in amongst the trees. Its an impossible thicket not to mention a total fire hazard.

Pine tree thicket before we started work
Pine tree thicket before we started work

Add to that the fact that trees planted too close together tend not to do well, especially if you don’t thin them out. This is what the previous owner of our land had done. Planted lots of Christmas trees – mostly balsam fir and white pine – then ignored them. Today we have only a few decent trees but most are skinny and spindly or dead. The last two hurricanes took a big toll on a lot of the balsam fir and they died in large clumps. So we need to get them down, well the ones that have not already fallen down that is.

So phase one of the project has begun. First we have to remove all the lower twiggy branches just so we can move around under the trees and get to the trunks. If you cant reach the trunk you cant cut the tree down. Some of the ones in the area we did today are going to stay, but others will be going. So the branches have to come off.

We spent all Saturday doing this. Steve cut the twigs off with a chain saw and I collected them up and moved them to the storage rack. This way we can actually move around under the trees (hooray finally) without having to fight through a thicket and the branches are out of the way when we come to cut down the mostly dead trees. You really don’t want a lot of stuff on the ground when you are working with a chain saw. We got all the first phase of the trees done but there are a LOT more to go. Our storage racks are already full (more on those in a later blog) so phase two is going to be a little different. There are still a LOT of trees to clear out before planting season begins.

Pine trees after a day of clearing lower branches
Pine trees after a day of clearing lower branches