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.

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

High winds bring down the power line.

They predicted high winds for our area and we got them. First of course we got heavy storms which kept everyone awake for the first part of the night, then around 5.30am the wind really came up. It roars around our house, with all the trees around our little farm it makes the wind sound a lot more ominous than it would without them. The roaring woke everyone in the household but we all tried to sleep again.

Then the power went out! Great! The UPS started beeping and woke everyone up again. I waited, sometimes it will flick back on again, but not this time, so we are up with flashlights turning off all the power we can, shutting down the computers (not the internet servers) and reducing power while Steve went and switched over to the battery backup from the solar panels. Oh how I love those solar panels, and the batteries of course, solar is really no use at all for holding your power without the battery backup. We shut down and all went back to bed ignoring the raging wind.

Several hours later we finally emerged to check the new day. The wind was still raging and roaring around but the sun was up and shining brightly. That’s good we are getting good solar generation. Having checked our output we added the heating to the mix – although its oil heat we still need electricity to run it unfortunately. I went just outside the front door and listened. Its my first test of how bad the power outage is. If we can hear the generators of our neighbours then its widespread, if its silent then its most likely a problem just for us. Silence, Great, its us.

Togged up we went to examine the driveway. Our driveway is 125 yards long and runs through a band of trees. We have our own personal power line and even our own electricity pole near the house. Today there is the top of a large tree had just snapped off and dropped across the driveway ending up in the top of the tree on the other side. It brought down the power line when it fell and is now lodged at least 15 feet above the ground with one large branch open like a fan down to ground level. The power line is curled along the edge. This is a big problem, the tree is stuck up off the ground so its not easy remove, the power line is down so we cant get near it even if we wanted to work on the tree and its blocking the driveway so we can’t get out. So we are stuck here until the power company comes to rescue us. Fortunately there is always more than enough to do on a small farm so we can all keep busy, its just that our agenda will have to change from what we originally planned.

Hopefully the power company can get to us soon. Tomorrow is Monday and some of us have to work off farm during the week. A downed line they often do but its going to depend on how many other problems there are. One small rural farm does not come high on the priority list. We could be trapped for a while. Thank goodness for solar!

wind snapped tree
Wind snapped tree, brings down power line and blocks driveway