Archive for the ‘agriculture’ Category

Going to the country, going to eat a lot of peaches

August 24, 2014

Eight years on, the orchard plan is finally edging towards ‘fruition’.  The apple trees are starting to fruit, fitfully, but since I planted on standard rootstocks it will probably take a couple of years before they produce in quantity.  But knowing it was going to take a long time, we interspersed peach trees with the apples, since they grow quickly but are generally short-lived (at least in Maine).  The largest tree is a Lars Anderson, and it set a good crop this year; maybe 30 pounds on a 12′ tall tree.

peach harvest

Alexis, Weezy, and I picked them this morning, since a good number were ripe, and the birds and bugs were starting to get at them.  The ones in the trencher in the photo above were the ripe ones, and we blanched, sliced, and froze about 4 quarts.  We gave some to the neighbors, left some in Georgetown, and brought a tray home to process as they ripen.

So far I like the Lars Anderson variety (purchased from Fedco).  This particular tree got badly mauled by a porcupine a couple years back, and I cut it back as best I could, but I was afraid it would die of fungal infection given all the broken wood.  But it has grown over nicely and came through for us this year.  There are a handful of peaches on several other trees, but the Lars seems to be the earliest, and plenty tasty.  A couple weeks back I budded a handful of different peach varieties onto about 10 plum rootstocks that I have nurseried in the orchard rows; in another year I’ll plant them out to fill in more gaps, and hopefully we get larger and larger peach crops.  If anybody has advice on how to prevent peach trees from dying unexpectedly (often with oozing rubbery clear sap), I would love to hear it.

 

Stroudwater Roots Festival

August 24, 2014

The garden is in full swing, and with the usual busy lives we can’t keep up.  I roasted up a giant tray of potatoes, carrots, and beets – everything’s from here except the salt and oil.

stroudwater roots festival veggies

Fresh potatoes are amazing.  Good garlic harvest, so I put in a couple of heads.  Learned the trick to rapidly de-skinning the cloves from Max Davis – put them in a deep covered pot, and shake the pot vigorously up and down so the cloves bang against top and bottom. 15-20 seconds like that and the skins are knocked clean off.

The beets this year are lighter in color, really beautiful. Flavor might be a bit lighter than the usual dark red kind.  Kelsey ordered a mix pack of carrots this year, and the yellow ones seem to outcompete the traditional orange ones for real estate (though not for flavor).

2014 pruning

March 30, 2014

Despite crummy weather and the press of work, I ran up to Five Islands on Saturday to prune the trees in the main orchard.  After a summer’s growth, the trees typically look like this:

 

pruning example before

 

There is a lot of advice available in books and online about pruning, and I took an afternoon class a few years back, put on by MOFGA and taught by a professional orchardist, located at one of his customers’ orchards in Waterboro ME.  Some basic principles include:

  • Start with the big picture, looking at the structure of the whole tree, so you don’t end up snipping a bunch of twigs only to remove that entire branch.
  • Eliminate watersprouts (vertical branches that leap off the branches and the trunk), crossovers (i.e. conflicts between two branches vying for the same space) and anything that points back toward the center of the tree.
  • Aim for an open structure that lets sunlight into all parts of the tree; the old timers say you want to be able to throw a cat through the tree.  In a healthy tree that’s growing fast, you might remove half of the new wood or more in the spring.
  • For standard apple trees I aim for central-leader form, with scaffolds of 3-5 branches evenly distributed around the points of the compass, at 1.5-2′ vertical intervals.
  • The scaffold branches should be approximately horizontal, since that induces the tree to produce fruit.
  • You want the angle between the trunk and the scaffold branches to be close to 90 degrees, since shallow angles cause inclusion of bark that leads to weakness and breakage as the tree grows.  I use string (usually) and weights (occasionally) to tie branches down.
  • Different varieties have different habits.  Some shoot straight up and need to be tied down extensively to form a good structure; others spray out aimlessly and need all the help you can give them just to throw up an identifiable leader.

That same tree above, after I attacked it with the felcos:

 

pruning example after

vegetarian sushi, etc

November 15, 2013

veg sushi november

In addition to winching the old mill runner out of the muck, last weekend we got together with the Wilkins gang and rolled a big heap of vegetarian maki – 2 batches of rice the way I make it (3 cups per).  Ingredients included carrots, avocado, sweet potato, daikon, asparagus, jicama, red peppers, cream cheese, cucumber, tofu, fried portabello, sprouts, and probably a couple other things I’m forgetting.  The boys were surprisingly helpful – Bodhi especially enjoyed hacking up the rolls with a big knife.

The previous weekend I made a big pot of curry with the last summer vegetables from the garden, a big armload of eggplants and green peppers I gathered just before the first hard frost:

curry

At this point, the garden is basically kaput for the year, with the exception of the kale, which is still going strong.  We had good corn and spuds this year, lousy tomatoes, and amazing squash: two large wheelbarrowloads of butternut squash out of an area of about 20×20 feet:

butternuts 2013

Butternuts are hands-down the best winter squash – tasty, high-yielding, and lots of food per fruit – compared to a thin-walled, tough acorn, a watery, stringy pumpkin, or the other random also-ran varieties, butternuts are where it’s at.  There’s something especially satisfying about squash, potatoes, and other garden produce that actually contains meaningful quantities of calories – unlike the excess of cucumbers or tomatoes that gardens produce in the height of summer, that heap of squash could actually feed several people for several days.

 

 

Debugging a Troy-Bilt sicklebar mower

June 23, 2013

With the Jari on the disabled list (burned up motor, leftside wheel, and shroud), I set to rehabilitating the 42″ Troy-Bilt sickle mower I bought last weekend.  It started right up when I bought it, but it had a damaged belt, which I thought was the reason it jumped off the pulley when I engaged the sickle bar.  So I bought a new belt (1/2″x35″, for future reference), put it on, and it fired up the cutterbar, but it too jumped the pulley as soon as I put it under load.  There were two little bent steel ‘keepers’ on either side that seemed designed to keep the belt on, but they only extended halfway down the axial depth of the pulley, so I thought maybe they were insufficient, and I made better ones out of scrap aluminum.  However, as soon as I started to cut grass, the belt jumped the pulley again, and my new keepers very effectively ripped the belt in two.

mower broken belt

 

At that point I suspected something more fundamental, and in looking carefully I noticed that the motor pulley was axially mis-aligned with the cutterbar pulley by about 3/8″.  Joshua and I puzzled on it for a bit, and we noticed that the pulley was held on the end of the shaft with a suspiciously non-factory-looking bolt and stack of washers.  To my surprise, the pulley was not frozen to the shaft, but rather moved easily once the set screws were released.  I tapped it up into alignment:

mower shaft

 

Given the retrofit bolt arrangement, I didn’t judge that the set screws were capable of holding the pulley in place, so I whipped out a spacer on the Bridgeport – didn’t have round tubing the right size, but 1″ thin-wall aluminum square tube fit over with a bit of encouragement (must be a 7/8″ shaft):

mower shaft with spacer

 

I Secured the pulley with the bolt and washer stack, reassembled using the old belt (not about to blow another brand-new $14 belt on this mower), fired up, and it cut nicely for about 100 yards.  It was too hot in the middle of the day to really put it through its paces, but I think we’re provisionally back in the sickle-bar mowing business.

The Troy-Bilt seems a little slower than the Jari, but has 10″ of extra width, so they probably will work at about the same rate.  It’s a wider, heavier machine with janky plastic catches on the levers for the tank-style independent steering clutches, and at first go I don’t like it quite as much, but I suspect I’ll get accustomed to it.  Still, since I think I have a spare engine that will fit the Jari in place of the burned-up unit, I think I’ll order a replacement wheel and try to put it back in service eventually, as limited spare time permits…

Jari Mower RIP

June 16, 2013

jari on fire

I am sad to report that the Jari mower bit the dust this weekend.  I purchased it about two years ago from a guy upcountry, and put several hours into getting it running well.  I sorted out most of the issues, including the frozen-up cutter bar and rotted gas tank, but the replacement tank never quite fit right – there was a slight intermittent gas leak between the top of the tank and the carb, and I never could figure out why.  However, on Saturday it finally caught up with me.  The mower ran out of gas so I shut it off, filled the tank, and as soon as I cranked it up a small flame started on the surface of the carburetor. I tried to bat it out with a mat of fresh-cut green grass, and it almost worked, but the flames persisted.  I ran over to the neighbor’s and grabbed two fire extinguishers, and exhausted them on it, but by that time the metal was hot enough that it re-ignited after the powder stopped flowing.

I didn’t think it would explode, since the gas seemed to be escaping from the tank – at first through the leak, and subsequently through the zinc carburetor, which melted into a puddle on the ground.  Still, I ran down the hill for some hoses, to tap the neighbor’s water.  At peak the flames reached 6-8 feet high, but by the time we had the hoses up there the gas had burned itself out, and the fire was reduced to burning the rubber tire, belts, and the thermoformed plastic fairing on the front.  Ben Wilkins tossed a couple of pails of water on the smoldering heap and the excitement was over.

Once it cooled off, Bodhi and Kieran rolled the machine down the hill and I took stock of the damage.  The engine was pretty well baked (as I mentioned the carb had completely melted), the left tire and shroud were shot, and the belts were burned down to the fiber cores.  But the frame was intact, and even most of the paint was still in good shape – I tipped the machine over on its side when it caught fire so the tank was up, and there wasn’t much to burn up forward.  One of the idler pulleys looks pretty baked, so it would probably need to be replaced.  Joshua and I toyed with the idea of doing an electric retrofit, since sickle mowers don’t use a lot of power compared to rotary machines, and using two separate motors would significantly simplify the mechanicals.  Unfortunately, I haven’t got time to do a major rebuild (or an electric conversion), so today I bought another used sickle mower (Troy-Bilt make) from a nice retired couple in Cornish – I’ll tune it up next weekend and see how I like it.

Jari Mower rehab, rhubarb pie

May 28, 2013

The grass is growing rapidly and Saturday was a washout, so I took advantage to make some repairs to the Jari mower that  I bought for $125 two springs ago.  It has worked well for us, but the carburetor has been loose on its bolts for a while, and they were frozen into the cylinder so I couldn’t tighten them.  The two bolts holding the carb to the cylinder were hex head bolts so tightly housed in the casting that it wasn’t possible to get a wrench on them, so they were also cross-slotted for a large screwdriver.  The whole thing was clusterific, so I ordered a box of 1/4-20×3/4″ socket head cap screws from McMaster, and shortened the short end of an allen wrench so it would fit into the available space.  I cleaned up the mating surfaces as best I could, and reassembled with lock washers and some loctite (not sure how the loctite will do on a hot engine block), and with fresh gas and a shot of ether it fired up and ran happily.

sprag-clutch

I also cleaned the chaff out of the flywheel fan assembly; Jari adds a perforated steel intake screen over the flywheel, but there’s a hole in it where the recoil start enters, and it still sucks in an incredible amount of grass.  The centrifugal ball clutch is protected by a second, finer screen and a rubber bushing, but amazingly even that manages to fill with fine organic matter, to the point where the balls lodge in the clutch housing and won’t catch.  It’s gotten to be a sort of set routine to unbolt the flywheel cover (7/16 ratchet), remove the cover (1/4″ nutdriver), pry off the retainer cover (Swiss army knife), clean out the dust, and reassemble.

When I got the mower there was as much water as oil in the crankcase and it hadn’t run for years; at this point I’ve spent several hours fixing up this mower and I’ve developed something of an affinity for it. There’s something endearing about a small engine that seems to want to run.  The annoyance of keeping at least a half-dozen small engines running around a typical homestead (tiller, sicklebar mower, rotary mower, log splitter, generator, water pump) makes me think from time to time about a nice powerful BCS walk-behind tractor, but at $1500, the cost of just the log splitter attachment for the BCS is greater than the cost of many stand-alone log splitters  – of course you don’t get the cachet of the fine Italian engineering.

What would be really great is if Marcin Jakubowski and company over at Open Source Ecology would design a good open-source walking tractor, rather than trying to re-invent the skid-steer loader.

Pics of 2013 planting

May 3, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some photos that Emily took a few days after we planted.

ring of goodness around tree

 

 

 

redfield leafing out old tree, newground, fence

 

new pear tree new fence new peach tree

Orchard Weekend 2013

April 29, 2013

On Saturday several friends joined Alexis, my family, and me for an action-packed day of orcharding.  We put up a permanent woven wire fence at the south end of the orchard enclosing enough newground for about 8-10 trees, and planted new trees in that area and also between the existing apple trees.

We had done the preparation for the new fencing on the last orchard weekend two years ago, but had not had time to put up the fence.  So on Saturday we installed and tensioned the 6.5′ woven wire, stapled it to the posts, and braced it to convenient locations on nearby bedrock outcrops or stone wall boulders.  The woven wire (between 4×4 posts at about 22 foot intervals) makes a much more handsome and stout-feeling fence than the combination plastic netting and tensioned electric fence system we have been using, and counting the maintenance of the plastic netting and wires, I suspect it will actually end up being significantly less work in the long term.  Meanwhile, other folks raked the mulch away from the trees and spread manure and lime, as well as seaweed that was collected from the intertidal zone by an ambitious group of kids under the leadership of Jake and Joanna.  Emily and Joanna also patrolled for borers, finding a few small infestations in most trees and a couple of cases where the tree would clearly have been doomed without their efforts.  I didn’t paint the trees with latex and rotenone last year, and that might have been part of the problem – in any case, greater vigilance is needed.

We then planted new peach trees from Fedco, primarily in places where previous peach trees had died (some from apparent blight of some type, others from porcupine damage.  I’ve gotten reasonably good at bud grafting peaches, but I haven’t started a new batch, and I didn’t want to wait at least 2 more years, so I ordered several varieties from Fedco.  I also ordered another cherry tree just for fun, and we planted it on the southeast corner near the only other cherry tree.  We also transplanted a couple of apples to replace failed trees, and planted a new block of pear threes in the newground.  That area had been outside the fence, and was cleared and stumped a couple years previously, and left neglected to grow weeds and a rough sod.  Pear trees grow slowly, so I made the decision to plant them in the freshly broken newground rather than wait a year or two to cover crop it and smooth it out – we’ll see how that decision turns out.  Most of the large rocks and roots came out previously with the chisel plow and mini-ex, but I think it could use a final treatment with the moldboard plow and disk harrow before seeding down with oats and clover.  I’m going to try that mix because I’m sure the new area could use nitrogen, and the orchard grass I planted in the rest of the orchard is pretty aggressive, so it takes a fair amount of work to keep it tame around the trees.  I also turned over the sod between a couple of the newer rows at the west end of the orchard, to be planted in clover and pumpkins for the summer.  I’m going to try a mix of white and red clover in hopes of getting a long-term clover-dominated sod that can help feed the bees.

Thanks to everyone who helped out, thanks to MomJones for being with us in spirit and contributing to the tree fund, and thanks as always to my family, who enthusiastically go along with my orchard obsession.

 

Spring is on!

April 22, 2013

Yesterday Dave and I worked the newground on the south edge of the orchard – one goal for orchard weekend this year is to enclose the southerly boundary with permanent woven wire fencing, and while it had been cleared and stumped by Evan Holbrook a couple years ago, it was still pretty rough.   First I hauled off over a cord of firewood from the selective thinning we did in the woods to the south of the stone wall.  Then we used string to establish the fenceline grades, and the excavator to get as close as we could to those lines – the woven wire does not bump up and down over the terrain as well as electric or plastic netting does.  That being done, I hitched up the disk harrow and spring-tooth plow and worked over the new area, turning up a number of very large rocks which Dave shoved to the margins.  There are still a lot of roots in there and surely plenty more rocks, but the soil looked good, and with a bit of luck on the weather, we should be ready to string the fence and plant new trees in there next weekend.


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