Spring planting and transplanting

April 30, 2016

A couple of weeks back our spring Fedco Trees shipment arrived, so I ran up to Five Islands for the better part of the weekend to get things situated.  Saturday afternoon I picked up a few bags of ProGro organic fertilizer, some lime, and some clover seed at Ames in Wiscasset.  The first order of business was to transplant three overgrown black walnuts that I’d ‘temporarily’ stuck in the orchard at least five years ago; I got them on a lark because Poppy had tried to grow some walnut trees in the land that I ended up clearing for the orchard many years later; as it happened the forest swallowed up his efforts, and between the nuts, the wood, and the history I thought it would be cool to have some walnut trees somewhere.  The problem was that they had gotten pretty big in the time since; the largest was probably 3-4″ at the base.  I had cut around them with a shovel in the fall to get them ready to move; on the fateful day I further excavated outside my shovel cut (still easy to find after the winter); then Dave snarfed them up with the mini-excavator and dropped them on a wooden platform he keeps attached to the bucket of the big Kubota.  A reasonable amount of dirt came with the trees (maybe a couple hundred pounds each), and we plopped them in holes we dug behind Um and Pops’ house where they won’t be in the way.

We then planted two new peaches, two new pears (to replace a couple that were mauled by porcupines), and one new apple.  We also transplanted six peach trees of various flavors that I had bud grafted a couple summers ago, filling in the empty spaces between the apple trees, and stuck in 10 plum rootstocks to be grafted over to peach.  Rather than putting them tightly together in a nursery bed, I chose to stick the plums in the spots where I want peach trees, figuring if the graft doesn’t take I can always try again or drop in a ready-made tree from Fedco.

We also tested a technique I cooked up to simplify transplanting of trees when we do decide to nursery them.  Several years ago I did some benchgrafting and planted several apple trees in rows between the older trees, but I planted them in empty 5 gallon buckets that I slit all the way down the sides in four places.  I planted the small benchgrafted trees in the buckets in the usual way, being sure to spread the sides of the bucket a bit to make openings for the roots to escape as I backfilled with soil.  They grew into good-sized trees, maybe 6-8 feet tall, and didn’t show much sign of stress from the constraint of the bucket.  I figured it was time to move them and we had spaces for a couple, so I excavated, and was pleased to find that the roots had found the slits in the bucket (and jumped over the rim in one or two places where the backfill was deep.

I had planned to rig ropes through holes in the rim of the bucket and lift them bodily out of the ground, which would probably work and might be worth it if we were to get serious about the technique, but as it was I just dug around and cut roots until I could lever the bucket out of the hole, then Dave grabbed the whole business, bucket and all, with the excavator and plopped it down next to the waiting destination hole. I stripped off the bucket by hand and schlumped the tree into the hole, backfilling carefully. The technique worked pretty well; I’m confident that the transplant shock will be a good bit less than if I had dug them up bare-rooted.  I’d definitely recommend others try it for nurserying benchgrafted trees.

Toward the end of Sunday I spread lime and fertilizer around the trees by coffeecan-fulls, and watered in all the new stuff.  Emily has taken good care of the trees since, watering as needed and keeping a vigilant eye out for tent caterpillars.  Today I went back up, renewed the labels on the trees (some of which were tied on with wire that was too short or flimsy), and mulched the majority of the trees from the big pile of wood chips that Dave has accumulated from various jobsites.  The big tractor with the extension platform and plywood sideboards can probably hold a cubic yard, and if so I moved at least 20 yards of chips today.  I would be feeling absolutely thrashed if I had done a tenth that much work with a wheelbarrow; it’s amazing what diesel fuel can do.

Some of the trees e.g. Wickson are already leafing out; should have blossoms soon, and the season will be underway.

2016 pruning, remembering Poppy

March 12, 2016

Today was the day for the annual spring pruning, and it was a great occasion to remember my grandfather, who died peacefully earlier this week at the age of 95.  William F. Herman (‘Bill’ around town, ‘Poppy’ in the family) was a big part of my life as a kid, and his love of growing things inspired me to plant the orchard when we moved back east over 10 years ago.

Pops and my grandmother, ‘Ummy’ grew up and lived their professional lives in eastern Massachusetts, but spent a lot of time in Maine – her father was an avid rod-and-gun sportsman. In the sixties they bought a slice of land on a remote island in the midcoast, two miles beyond the end of the electric power lines near the village of Five Islands.  When my parents decided to settle down after some years of teaching mountain-climbing in the mountains out west, Um and Pops invited them to homestead on the land in Five Islands, and I grew up off the grid, surrounded by the natural wonders of the Maine coast.

In 1983, Pops retired from a 25-year career at Polaroid, and my grandparents joined us in Maine.  By then electricity had come to the North End, and my father built them a passive solar home.  Though rocky and overgrown, the land had been a farm until early in the 20th century, with stone walls, foundation holes, and odd bits of pottery and rusted iron in evidence. Over the years the family cleared land and planted gardens, berries, and apple trees, and some of my earliest memories of my grandfather relate to agriculture.  He kept a very neat vegetable garden, which he would weed in khaki pants and a button-up shirt (he’d shower and put on a jacket and tie for dinner every night until he was far along in years). He grew masses of vegetables – great sweet corn, bowls and bowls of shell peas, and so many cucumbers and tomatoes that he put a wooden box at the end of the driveway and wrote ‘Help Yourself’, to the joy of the neighbors.

The garden was surrounded by semi-dwarf apples – Cortland, Winesap, Rhode Island Greening, Red Delicious, and he showed me how to prune the trees.  There was also a big wild tree behind their house that was saved in the construction, and it gave great green apples that were my favorite kind when I was a kid. In the fall we would collect the fruit in bags, and Poppy, Ummy, Joanna, and I would press them using a hand-crank cast iron press that had belonged to my great grandfather – the same press that Alexis, Holly, Becky, and I used back in Cider Year 1.  I think he tried to ferment some a couple times, but it was a casual attempt in a plastic milk jug and I don’t remember anyone thinking it tasted good.

In all the years of living and romping around as a kid, I can’t remember Poppy ever raising his voice.  He became a respected character around town, serving as selectman and sometimes as moderator at the old-fashioned town meeting. An engineer by training, he loved to keep careful records – of the amount of firewood he burned each month of each winter down to the tenth of a cord, of the number of quarts of blueberries his waterfront bushes produced, and of gallons of maple sap we collected each spring.  He taught himself to play ragtime piano by ear, and made some pretty nice oil paintings in an engineer’s realistic style – I think he said Norman Rockwell was his favorite artist.

If I drank another pint of this 2014 cider I could probably go on all night, remembering Poppy teaching me how to build kites and drive a tractor, and ‘messing about in boats’, fishing for mackerel in the Sheepscot river out of a 13′ Boston Whaler – he loved the water though he famously would never swim no matter how hot the summer. As the years went by, Poppy’s world gradually compressed; the boat trips shorter and the garden smaller and weedier, but he stubbornly kept at it. I remember a couple years ago when I was working in the orchard, I looked back toward the house and saw him at the edge of the field, using his old-fashioned scythe instead of a cane – he’d take a couple of swipes at the overgrown brush, then lean on the tool to catch his breath.

As Poppy slowed down my parents increasingly picked up the slack, mulching and pruning the berries, planting the corn, and splitting the firewood. And in 2006 I asked him if I could clear some land off to the the south to start a new orchard for cider apples, and he was happy to let me get started. For as long as he could walk, he’d totter up the woods road to the orchard gate to see what I was up to, and we’d talk about trees and plans.  I’m grateful to my grandparents for the opportunity to grow up in a unique and beautiful part of the world, and for the sense that tending and caring for the land is a project that can last more than a lifetime, and build connections across generations.

 

 

Me with a chicken

December 13, 2015

All two or three regular readers of this blog probably know that it irks me to see photos of stylish young farmers holding chickens – e.g. A chicken is not an accessory, NYT pimping chickens, More photogenic chickens at NYT.  So I couldn’t resist my own glamour shot when Beth Wilks’ aunt Judy brought this delightful creature for a visit over the weekend. Somehow I don’t think it’s going to get me in the Times though…

ben with chicken

Another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat

November 29, 2015

stroudwater thanksgiving gathering

We got together with the Kaufmans, the Wilkins, my folks, sister, and her kids for a feast this weekend.  Besides the usual favorite dishes, Ben W fried not one but two turkeys, and there were five pies and a cheesecake.  Here’s the spread:

stroudwater thanksgiving 2015

Holly’s writeup of cider weekend year 11; apple washer concepts

November 8, 2015

Holly has posted his usual thorough roundup of this year’s festivities at his delightful blog: http://tooling-up.blogspot.com/2015/11/cider-11-blockbuster-year-for-apples.html

I’ve been thinking more about an apple washing machine; the concept that comes first to mind is a roller-chain-based setup with wire loops or paddles hitched to the chain at intervals to singulate apples out of a tub and raise them up through a tube made of strip brush.  But on youtube it appears that most commercial units are in a bed configuration with transverse horizontal-axis brushes; they run at different speeds to get shearing action; presumably this is also what advances them (or maybe the whole machine is on an incline?  I worry that bike power will have a hard time spinning a whole array of brushes fast enough to do the job – seems like a lot of windage on those drums, and probably not cheap to buy the rollers.  Please drop a note in the comments if you have any ideas!

Cider Weekend 11 – Mast Year

October 31, 2015

 

Last weekend marked the 11th year we have made cider with Holly, Becky, and an ever-expanding group of pedal-powered cider enthusiasts.  We’ll remember this year for the record cider production and the massive apple crop that fueled it.  With help from Holly, Andy, and Emily we gathered the usual two bins of mixed sweet apples from Autumn Hills, plus a bin of Dabinet and mixed sharp and bittersweet apples from Poverty Lane, totaling a bit over 2000 lb. And the orchard finally started to kick into gear, producing perhaps 3 bushels from a number of the trees. But what made this year special was the massive influx of semi-cultivated and wild apples harvested all over Georgetown by my parents, and all over southern Maine by the folks who came to help us make the cider.  I’m told this was what the botanists call a ‘mast year’ – a year when trees deliver fruit in reckless profusion, and we took full advantage. (Thanks to Eerik Hantsoo for the photos in this post – if you have good pics please send along or post on your own site.)

buckets of apples

I managed to get up to Five Islands the weekend before the big event, and with Dave’s help I got the equipment down from the loft of the barn, hooked it up, and got the basic functionality tested.  Already by then he had dozens of buckets full of apples from around the property and around the island – at least a bin’s worth (about 600lb).  The gear came together smoothly, and I attribute this to our liberal use in recent years of ‘Fluid Film’ aerosol lubricant, a WD-40-like product that goes on with a satisfying fizz of bubbles and leaves a cosmoline-like film on everything to prevent rust.

The big event started early afternoon Friday when I arrived with a truckload of apples and a trailer of random gear; I cleaned and provisioned the cabins, set up the water system, and organized apples.  Holly and Becky, Holly’s mom, and the kids arrived well before dark and set up camp in the lower cabin, then he, Dave, and Ben Wilkins worked to assemble the latest addition to the pedal equipment collection, a cast aluminum hand-cranked grain mill adapted for pedal power.  Holly and I had coordinated beforehand, and we had pulleys, 5/8″ shaft and pillowblocks, bike chain, and adapters that go from shaft to the fine-pitch thread that accepts a bike freewheel.  With these parts they soon had the rig set up and working smoothly.

pedal-power grain mill

A cold front had come through and a cold wind was blowing straight off the water, so we elected not to do dinner at the shore, but rather serve out of the barn, and we refried a big bucket of black beans and folks made burritos followed by Emily’s chocolate chip cookies and smores around a campfire.

In the morning we ate delicious baked goods and breakfast wraps provided by the Kaufman/Wilkins/Kneen clan, then we got to work.  We set up the usual wash station to clean the apples going into the process, but many of the feral apples in the mix were really small, so for expedience we set up a parallel processing step to clean them using a pressure washer.  Even the ones that got pressure washed got individually inspected and bad spots cut out – I think this attention to detail is an important part of why the cider ends up tasting so good.

The grinder worked smoothly all day with the exception of the chain coming off the starboard bike once, and the derailleur on that same bike lost a sprocket once, but we were able to pilfer the missing part from another derailleur and get back online within a couple of minutes.  The press ran smoothly, thanks in part to new press cloths that were properly cut to size and thick enough to do the job (mostly) with a single layer.  Now that Holly has discovered the joy of sewing pants from used press cloth, we are going to cycle new canvas and muslin through the process each year to keep him and his family in trousers, since he refuses to buy pants.  All through the weekend he was wearing the first pair he made, which look awesome, and the construction process is detailed on his blog.

violet runs the press

holly and millie peel apples

Meanwhile we set up the carbonation and bottling system, washed 750ml glass bottles, and set to work bottling the 2014 vintage.  We ended up bottling 7.5 tanks of cider; there was half a tank left over when the capper broke just before dinner, so we left the remaining cider in the root cellar.  The bottling rig could definitely use some streamlining; the janky linear guides I made out of copper pipe and scrap mahogany don’t work that smoothly, and a foot-actuated spring- or gravity-balanced system using 80-20 linear guides could make a big difference.  And the failure of the capper was a wake-up call; now that we are processing this much cider it makes sense to keep some redundant equipment around.

cider and baby on back

My folks made up the usual Nebraska Cream Can Dinner for lunch, along with random tasty food that folks brought.  We paused the process briefly to eat, then got back to grinding and pressing.  We filled the 100 gallon bulk tank with sweet cider, washed and filled plastic jugs, then started on the hard cider mix, using a combination of Dabinet, Bramtot, Wickson, etc. from Povlane, mixed sweets from Autumn Hills, and a wide variety of feral apples.  We filled the tank again with hard cider mix, filled all the carboys from it, and still the cider kept flowing – and more people kept showing up with more apples.  By the end we were searching everywhere for clean jugs, and even resorted to using a few of the 2.5 gallon jugs that my folks use to collect maple sap.

Holly brought some whole kernel corn and wheat to grind for cornbread for dinner, and it went through the grinder fine in two passes (even though we didn’t have the special large-grains auger for the mill). In the afternoon we experimented with grinding the buckwheat that we grew this summer between two rows of trees in the orchard.  We succeeded in winnowing and sifting the grain, but it still had thin black hulls on the groats.  After some experimentation we determined that we could grind the grain extremely coarsely, which would crack off most of the hulls while leaving the groats mostly intact.  We then winnowed a couple of times using a box fan, which drove off most of the hulls, then we ground finer and passed through a mesh strainer which pulled out still more hulls. Finally we ran the material through with the grinding plates quite close together, yielding a satisfyingly fine flour. There was still a fair amount of dark hull material in the flour, but we figured this would be good for our digestion.  Later someone looked online and read that the trick is to size the grain using a series of graduated sieves, then crack the hulls off each size of grain separately, so as to get more of them off without breaking up the grain too fine.  If we grow buckwheat again next year maybe we’ll get some better sieves, instead of just using the hardware-cloth versions I made for this year.

Dinner was served just as we finished the last of the pressing, and it was delicious as we have come to expect, with chili, cornbread, and apple crisp made entirely with apples from the orchard.  Then more sitting around the campfire, and more cleanup as light rain was predicted in the morning.  All day and all evening the ragtag tribe of kids ran around with spears and bicycles; Bodhi faceplanted at one point and banged up his face a little, but it’s a miracle there wasn’t more carnage.  We got most of the equipment put away and a rough squeegee-ing of the floor, then folks retired to the cabins.

shifting carboys

Saturday night was warmer, and a light drizzle set in around breakfast time.  We made pancakes with 100% Five Islands buckwheat flour topped with Five Islands maple syrup, and some had Five Islands blueberries as well. Plus home-fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, etc.  We did some more cleanup, including breaking down the water system and pressure-washing the barn, then said goodbye to most of the crew who headed home mid-morning. We transferred 9 carboys of cider to the root cellar, sulfited, and set 2 gallons of starter going to pitch on Monday. Holly and family stayed through leftovers for lunch, then got on the road in a zipcar minivan heavily-laden with cider.

All in all we produced a massive 292 gallons of cider from 3448 pounds of apples on Saturday, with a calculated 71% yield.  This smashes the 2014 record of about 230 gallons, and it was such a prodigious amount of cider that I don’t feel the need to exceed it next year; rather we can make however much comes natural from year to year depending on the crew and the crop.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in and made Cider Year 11 such an amazing success!  Here is the final tally sheet:

IMG_20151025_095152

Hanging in there

May 31, 2015

The orchard is hanging in there as another summer leaps into action, despite not having a lot of time to devote to it.  The winter was as hard as could be – no way to get the gate open, but fortunately there was a place where the snow came up close to the top of the fence, so we could climb over and inspect – here’s Emily snowshoeing past trees in snow at least 3 feet deep:

deep snow in orchard

For all that there was surprisingly little damage – a couple of trees lost some bark to mice above the spiral wrap, but nothing fatal:

mouse damage above spiral

Unfortunately both hives of bees failed over the long, cold winter.  Emily has been the main beekeeper, and she was too busy/discouraged to take on another set of hives, so instead Alexis and I made nesting blocks for orchard mason bees using scrap wood and a 5/16″ drill bit.  On some of them Alexis made cool patterns:

bee house

We’ll see how the bee houses work in terms of occupancy and pollination.  Not much in the way of planting (though I did transplant one small pear tree that I grafted a few years ago).  But I did manage to haul a load of composted goat manure to the orchard and spread it.  Here the dogs caught a ride on the loaded dump trailer:

dogs and compost

The orchard is greening up nicely now; soon I’ll have to mow and mulch:

green spring orchard

Back at Stroudwater we have also made small increments of progress.  The winter wreaked havoc with grafting that I’d previously done on wild apple trees in the north side woods, with heavy wet snow dropping pine limbs that smashed a couple of bark grafts that had taken nicely, so I did some rework there.  I also tried something interesting to convert a large wild apple that was savaged by ice.  Over 50% of the top had broken off under the weight of early winter snow:

broken tree

The trunk was damaged by the ripped-off section to the point where it would never heal effectively; also the branches were way too tall and the wild apples of no particular quality.  So I cut a wide notch with a chainsaw below the broken part (face height seems to be the best compromise between ‘above the deer’ and ‘low enough to reach’) and grafted in several scions on the exposed half of the trunk. (I don’t remember what variety, but it’s written on the tag).

notch grafted

With any luck the remaining top will provide enough photosynthesis to keep the roots alive, and the radical pruning of the top courtesy of ma nature will push a lot of energy into the new scions.  Then in a couple of years once the new wood has taken off and is 5-6 feet tall, I’ll delicately dice off the top, trim the trunk flush with the notch, and graft in some sacrificial scionwood to help the wide cut-off stump heal.  Here is the tree as I left it:

finished graft

We also planted some berries in one of the few sunny spots in the yard; a row of 7 Boyne summerbearing raspberries, and some new highbush blueberries – from west to east: Jersey, Northland, Earliblue, Northland.

After the long melt-out the spring started dry but now we have a solid chunk of rain coming; we’ll see how the fruit sets and the season progresses.

Nutty pumpkin/squash pie

January 29, 2015

Tony asked me to share the recipe for the pie I baked for the winter get-together at Stroudwater last weekend.  First some thoughts on pumpkin pie in general:

  • Nowadays I always make 12″ pies, in a deep ceramic dish my mom gave me.  Go big or go home.  Cut the filling recipe in half if you want a 9″ pie, and make a 1-stick-of-butter crust.
  • Butternut squash is my standard for ‘pumpkin’ pie.  As best I can tell, squash is in every way superior to traditional round pumpkins, which give coarse, loose, watery pulp.  Reading online, it seems that the canned stuff they sell at the grocery is probably actually squash.
  • To avoid a watery pie, the squash should be roasted or steamed, with roasting giving better flavor but taking longer.  If steamed, it should be left to drain in a colander for a while after it is stripped out of the skin.  I usually use fresh or frozen Stroudwater butternuts, since we always grow lots, but this is one case where canned is fine (though I’d steer clear of the pre-mixed pumpkin pie filling; I’ve never used it but pre-made pie filling usually sucks).
  • Once all the filling ingredients are together, they should be blended vigorously with a hand blender to shred the fibers of the squash and get a good mix.  I would say this is the main secret to making a really luscious pie from homemade squash.
  • Another secret is to use coconut milk in place of some of the evaporated milk.  Coconut is basically magic in baked goods, I picked this up from Kelsey and don’t know why we don’t use coconut for everything.
  • After all kinds of attempts including pre-baking the crust, I have basically given up on getting the crusts of pumpkin custard pies to come out crispy/flaky.  The time it takes to cook the filling will saturate the crust anyway.  So I am gravitating toward nut crusts that are tasty and have some crunch even when saturated. This was a definite improvement, but I was not entirely satisfied, and will probably go further in the nut direction in the future.

All that being said, first the crust, which is approx 3/4 of a two-crust 9″ pie (for a single 12″ crust):

  • Mix together:
    • 1.5c white flour
    • 1T sugar
    • 1/2t salt
    • 1/2c almond flour (TJs has)
    • 1/2c unsweetened shredded coconut
  • Cut in 1.5 sticks of cold unsalted butter with pastry blender until largest chunks are pea-sized (I used a food processor for the first time last weekend and it worked fine, but it’s easy to overdo it and smear the butter hopelessly.)
  • While mixing continuously with a fork, sprinkle with ice water until it’s not powdery and seems like it would form a mass when pressed.  I don’t measure how much water it is, and you shouldn’t either – it’s too dependent on the flour.  If it won’t roll, use more water next time.
  •  Form into a disk and refrigerate for a while, if not in a hurry.  If refrigerating for a long time, wrap in waxed paper or the like
  • Roll out and transfer to pie plate.

For the filling:

  • Blend with a hand blender for a better part of a minute:
    • 4c well-drained squash
    • 5 eggs
    • 1 can thick coconut milk or cream
    • 1 can evaporated milk
    • 1c white sugar
    • 2/3c brown sugar
    • 2t cinnnamon
    • 2t ginger
    • 1t nutmeg
    • 1/4t allspice
    • 1/4t cloves
    • 1t salt
  • Pour into crust.  Usually it doesn’t quite all fit, so I take the scrap crust and press it into a small ceramic cereal bowl and bake it, it cooks quicker than the big one and you can eat it while preserving the virtue of the the big pie for whatever social affair you have in mind.
  • Bake at 375 till the center is no longer liquid-y when you nudge the pie plate in the oven.  This will take a good long time -seems like over an hour though I never time it.  It’s OK/good for the center to still be jello-like, but by the time it gets there the periphery will have risen and have temporary holes in it.  There is probably some way to prevent it from cooking from the edges in, but the end result is fine anyway.
  • The edges of the crust should be protected once they approach the desired state of brown-ness.  Alexis got me some reusable silicone rubber thingies to do this, but aluminum foil is traditional.

Let it cool. That’s it.

Stroudwater Thanksgiving: year five

November 28, 2014

We joined forces with the Kaufman and Wilkins crews for “another Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat,” with a fair measure of local content including potatoes, beets, squash,  kale, and brussels sprouts.

stroudwater thanksgiving dinner 2014

I was hoping my folks could join us, but the big snowstorm put the kibosh on that, with power out in all of Georgetown and lots of work for the plow, chainsaw, and volunteer fire crew.  Maybe next year.  We got off pretty lightly by comparison, a few branches down in the woods and the light deer netting around the garden pulled down by the heavy snow – nothing in there but the last few frozen stalks of kale anyway.

I’m becoming more a fan of galvanized wire cattle panels – might consider permanentizing the garden fence with these come next year. Kelsey has been using them to stake tomatoes for a few years, and this fall she suggested rolling them into rings to protect young apple trees from the deer.  If overlapped by one pitch of the verticals and wired tightly together, they make a nice enclosure that protects a small tree so long as the branches don’t spread too widely; since we are on standard or B118 rootstock I am tending to train the yard trees with the first rung of laterals higher in any case, to keep above the mower and the deer.  The next step would be to create some kind of three-roll type arrangement to form the panels so they naturally hold the circular shape – that way the end could be easily pried open by hand to access the trees, for instance to seek and destroy the evil Round-Headed Apple Borer.

 

Holly’s report on cider 2014

November 28, 2014

Holly and Becky Gates have been our steady partners in cider madness these ten seasons – here’s Holly, his mom, and eldest daughter Ultraviolet preparing cornbread from freshly hand-ground grain to feed the multitudes:

holly and fam making cornbread

To see Holly’s report and more photos on this year’s cider adventure,  check out http://tooling-up.blogspot.com/2014/11/cider-10-ten-years-of-pedaling-malus.html – and I highly recommend perusing his blog for reports on his various other adventures.


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