Archive for the ‘agriculture’ Category

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…

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.


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