Archive for the ‘agriculture’ Category

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

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.


2014 apple wrangling

October 22, 2014

This weekend Alexis, Dave, and I made the annual pilgrimage to Poverty Lane Orchard.  It was a wet day, but we dodged rain showers, and had the place to ourselves.  Proprietor Steve Wood kindly sold us a mixed bin of bittersweets that he had, rather than the usual single-variety bin – thanks to Steve, Brenda, and all the folks at Poverty Lane, well worth the trip.  We also picked a few hundred pounds in their 2 Below apple menagerie, which was a bit sparse this late in the season but we got some bittersharps and yellow newton pippins, plus some yarlingtons for old time’s sake.

poverty lane 2014

Then we hung out with Andy, Emily, and Elsie, and checked out the CSA where he works, Sunrise Farm in White River.  In addition to vegetables they do sheep, pigs, meat hens and layers, and maple syrup – a beautiful and well-tended operation:

sunrise farm

I was tempted to have Andy and Alexis pose with chickens in the classic hipster manner that I so despise, but nobody was wearing skinny jeans, so I had to settle for this:

sunrise chickens

Finally I made a run to Autumn Hills Orchard in Groton, MA, where the owner, Ann Harris, set us up with two bins of a very nice mix.  Holly met me there, and together we topped up with some Greenings and Golden Delicious.  He was sporting his classic wooden shoes plus newly-handmade woolen trousers, and looked fabulous:

hg eating an apple

Being a country boy I was not aware of the indignities that city folks routinely endure in order to pick apples (a brief tour of eastern MA orchards in Yelp portends hayrides, candy, petting zoo, popcorn machines) but Ann and Autumn hills are the real deal – just a couple of barns and acres and acres of apples.    I returned heavily loaded and ready to rock this weekend:

truck and apples truckload of apples

Fruit pics 2014

October 11, 2014

Just 2 weeks until the big event!  Meanwhile, Emily sent me some great pictures she took in the orchard:

Peaches (not sure which kind) – we got a great crop this year.  Lars Anderson, then Reliance, and finally Madison.  It was a cool summer, but even so I think I favor the early ones; seems like peaches should ripen in summer, not fall.


Dabinet (I think):


Virginia Crab (I think):virginia crab

Pail of apples from orchard – poor pollination this year (despite two active hives of bees) – not sure what’s up with that.  But we get more apples every year, and hopefully soon we will be awash in fruit.

bucket o apples 2014

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:


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…