Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Back to Back to the Land

January 14, 2018

There was an interesting article in the New York Times today about folks living off the grid in western Washington State.  Some of the images reminded me of photos from when I was a kid – old woodstoves, rough-sawn boards, rough-and-ready privies, outdoor showers:


The article lacked the Times’ classic farmer-holding-chicken shot (a small dog stands in), but it had the same voyeuristic vibe (literally in one case).  I guess it’s a good thing that the paper exposes it’s striving 21st-century audience to positive images of people trying to live low-impact lives, but as usual I find myself wondering about the practical/energetic aspects – how are folks supporting themselves; do they manage to keep driving/flying to a minimum, what aspects of the economics and culture they’ve developed are scalable?

A fresh-looking 20lb propane tank and a beautifully ripe avocado suggest they haven’t strayed too far from global supply chains.  Beyond rustic settings and soulful portraits, there are elements of rural living of the sort I experienced growing up that are climate-favorable (not eating much meat; heating with sustainably-cut firewood), and others that aren’t (driving 15 miles each way to the grocery store); careful city dwellers can do as well or better on a carbon basis.

Another article I saw recently in Vox pointed to data that suggests that the largest factor by far is wealth.  Here is a key graph:

carbon inequality

Americans in the top 10% bracket of income emit about 3X more household carbon than the average American, and about 6X more than the bottom 50%.  I suspect a huge chunk of the difference is frequent air travel – per that article, one weekend getaway to Europe blows more carbon into the atmosphere than you can save in a year of driving an electric car, and nearly as much as going car-free entirely.  The average German or Japanese person manages to live a very nice life on half the carbon as the average American, and the top 10% in China use less energy than the bottom 40% in the US…


Cider Weekend 2017: The Fruit Of Our Labor

October 30, 2017

2017 cider corn shellerLast weekend we gathered with friends and family for the thirteenth year running to make cider using bicycle-powered equipment, and for the first time, the majority of the apples came from our orchard – a major milestone in a project that began in 2006, with the first trees planted out in the orchard in the spring of 2008.  It’s been a long time coming, and in the years since the Cider weekend has evolved and grown significantly.

The weather was amazing, sunny and mild, and we had a good crew to help.  In total we pressed 275 gallons on Saturday, with a yield of approximately 69%.  100 gallons went into glass between our root cellar and Holly’s basement, and the balance went into freezers and refrigerators across New England and beyond.  The equipment behaved fairly well, and we also made significant advances in both growing and processing grain.

2017 cider pressing

Friday night we gathered as usual by the cove for a picnic and campfire, then Alexis, Holly, Steven, Eerik, and I worked for a few hours in the barn on last-minute details.  By prior arrangement Eerik brought some linear guide assemblies made from rollerblade parts and T-slot extrusion to significantly improve the action of the dual counterpressure bottle-filling apparatus, and while he was assembling it I improvised a foot-pedal-operated mechanism out of scrap wood.  Previously the filling head assembly was supported on janky linear guides made from copper pipe with wooden bearings, and a hand-operated screw was needed to clamp the head in position so the pressure of the CO2 wouldn’t blow it out of the bottle in a volcano of carbonated cider.  Now the filling heads moved smoothly up and down, and a heavy counterweight reacted the pressure until it was released by stepping on the pedal, and it all worked brilliantly.  We contemplated how it could be further improved by automation driven by bicycle-compressed air; we’ll see if we get anywhere with that next year.

Meanwhile, Holly fit an antique cast-iron corn sheller to the bike-powered stand that also ran the cider press and the high-quality grain mill we added last year.  As usual he did an amazing job of cleaning up and restoring the cast iron, and he fit a crummy aluminum pulley to the shaft by manually matching the square taper of the handle.  The sheller worked amazingly well on the wheelbarrow-load of corn we had previously harvested from the patch of newground by the Upper Cabin.  It has an amazingly clever and hilarious mechanism whereby the spent cob is ejected upward diagonally so that it doesn’t fall into the bin of shelled grain.  The only issue was that kernels went everywhere; we solved that problem by sacrificing a plastic storage bin to confine the flying grain.

With the equipment in good order, we turned in, returning at dawn to get things spun up.  No matter the preparation, it always seems to take a couple of hours to get everything ready to go (and a pause for Kelsey and Beth’s delicious breakfast burritos), but by shortly after nine we were in operation.  As usual, the first stage of the process is washing the apples; we resurrected the pedal-powered, astroturf-lined rotary wash drum from last year, with the addition of a couple of finely-balanced soft-bristle brushes that may or may not have actually made much difference.  The crew sorted apples on the way into the drum washer, composting the bad apples and cutting out bad spots; this attention to detail is probably a big part of why our cider tastes so good.


Tubs of washed apples were hand-carried to the grinder, where two folks pedaled while one more fed apples in, two at a time, and a fourth forced them into the grinding drum with a wooden plunger.  With vigorous pedaling the chains and forks popped off now and then; a more rigid assembly with less wood in the compressive path would probably eliminate these issues, but in any case the freewheels on the driveshaft prevented injury or damage.  I did get the sense that when the process was running smoothly, the grinder did seem to be the bottleneck, indicating that a third pedaler might be in order (or perhaps Eerik will come through with a rowing machine as promised for next year).

2017 apple wash and grind


From the grinder, tubs of fine, soupy pulp were carried or dragged to the other side of the barn, where they were baled into cloth-lined forms, folded into cheeses, and fed into the pedal-hydraulic press.  Holly did buy new press-cloth this year, but it seemed to be too impermeable, leading the stack of cheeses to get squirrelly, to the point where some of the wooden grates suffered damage.  He says it’s the same stuff per the internet fabric site where he ordered it; next year we will need to try some different fabric.  In any case, we reverted to the old cloths, and the press settled down to its work.

2017 cider pressing


All the while, the same hacked Schwinn exercise bike that ran the hydraulic pump was also grinding corn and rye (both grown in the orchard this year) for dinner; it was relatively simple to pulse the valve on the hydraulic pump to get the desired flowrate of cider while pedaling steadily for the grain grinder.  All in all the new multipurpose pedal hydraulic stand we built was a great success.


Increasingly in recent years the overnight crew has been reinforced during the day on Saturday by a surge of day-trippers, including lots of locals, family friends, and this year a delegation from the Rand family. Many hands make light work, and despite a leisurely lunchbreak (complete with Nebraska Cream Can Dinner) and a near record supply of apples, we were done in time for dinner; we hoisted the gear into the loft of the barn, set up tables and benches, and served Holly and Becky’s amazing feast of chili, cornbread, and apple crisp, baked in the barn using a used electric range secured from Craigslist.  We also had a temporary sink with hot running water from a Craigslist hot water heater, and even an improvised outdoor shower so folks could rinse off the sticky apple mist.  Folks with kids retired to various cabins and tents after dinner; others hung out by the fire in the mild evening.

Sunday morning another beautiful day; pancakes, homefries from Stroudwater garden potatoes; more cleanup as well as orchard tours, and playing by/on the cove.  Ela even conspired to get Holly and me to break out our fiddles and play in the sun, a reminder of times when somehow there seemed to be time for music.  Leftover lunch, and goodbyes capped a fantastic year, with great people, great food, and delicious cider.  Thanks to everyone who pitched in, and thanks to Eerik and Terran for the photos in this post. Here’s a link to Eerik’s photos: if you have others in a world-readable place, please put a link in a comment – thanks again!


A week on the Maine Island Trail: Concept and Preparation

August 30, 2017

DSCF0244One of the challenges of trying to live as if CO2 emissions matter is that it’s tough to go on vacation.  A cross-continent flight or a long-distance road trip can quickly undo the gains carefully accrued over months of bicycle commuting and solar-powered living.  Fortunately, here on the coast of Maine we live in a top-notch summer holiday destination, and fantastic renewable-powered recreation is near at hand.  We tried this out for a week earlier this August, and had a great time. Besides the beautiful scenery and occasional relaxation, the trip provided a great opportunity to think about the coastal ecology and economy of the place where I grew up, with its uneasy — but symbiotic and picturesque — coexistence of the recreational and fishing economies that give the folks at the Island Institute so much to write about and photograph:DSCF0139

Naturally, climate change was not the only factor in deciding to do the trip.  It had been a while since we’d done any real backcountry, and our two dogs are getting too old for serious hiking.  We’ve enjoyed kayaking and sailing a small dinghy around Casco Bay and Five Islands, and for years I’ve wanted to do a more serious trip on the Maine Island Trail, a loosely-defined 375-mile coastal route from New Hampshire to Canada, enabled by over 200 small islands sprinkled along the route where travelers with a membership can land and camp overnight.  Membership cost is very reasonable, and it includes a useful paper guidebook with precise info about each island, including where on the perimeter of each island provides the best landing and tenting.  We managed to keep the paper guidebook dry (at least until the drive home), but all of the same info is also available in an iphone app, built locally by the good folks at Chimani. Here is Alexis taking advantage of a calm stretch to pick our next camping spot in the guidebook:


We were fortunate to have access to a suitable vessel for the trip – a Trinka 12′ dinghy.  Most people who travel the trail use kayaks, but we like to sail and wanted to be able to bring the dogs, so the dinghy worked out well.  The Trinka is a beamy, plumb-stemmed, high-sided fiberglass tender with a self-bailing hull, and a single large sail on a stayed aluminum mast.  There’s not much information available online about these boats and I don’t get the sense they’re very common, but the design is by the same guy who designed the Laser racing dinghy (there are also 8′ and 10′ Trinkas by different designers; the commonality seems to be the builder, Johannsen in Florida).  There are some photos available online to give a sense of the boat.  With an LWL of about 12′, hull speed should be about 4.5 knots, but it’s a planing hull, and in a strong wind we saw 5.5-6 knots on a reach (surely it goes even faster when not loaded with camping gear, dogs, and water).

Initially the dogs were a bit put out by the uneven footing and constant motion, but they soon settled in:DSCF0173DSCF0174DSCF0041


As to the particular boat we used (sail number 18, if that means anything), around 20 years ago my dad bought it from an elderly neighbor who found it too tippy for his own use. We used it a lot when I was a kid, especially since it was a lot drier and warmer to sail than the lower, sportier singlehanded dinghies like the Laser.  Then it spent 15 years or more up on blocks, until we cleaned it up this spring for Fern’s birthday party on Beal Island (which is incidentally also on the Island Trail, though it is owned by and accessible through the Appalachian Mountain Club).

Later in the summer we did an overnight test trip, sailing out of the Little Sheepscot river, stopping for lunch near the mouth of the Kennebec, and then making a trial crossing of six miles or so to Damariscove harbor before running back up the Sheepscot and camping on Powderhorn Island.  That trip went well, so we began preparation for a more serious journey.

A boat this size isn’t big enough to live and sleep on comfortably (thus the island part of the Island Trail), so one major question dealt with how to put up the boat for the night. While it’s light enough for two people to move around a bit, it’s too heavy to carry, so we contrived a couple of methods of dealing with the 10-12′ tides of the Maine coast.  For the typical rocky shores, we carried a ‘haul-off’, consisting in this case of an 8lb Danforth-type anchor with 70′ or so of rode, and about 350′ of light synthetic potwarp arranged in circulating loop passing through a ring on the end of the anchor rode.  With this setup we could set the anchor offshore, trail the haul-off rope to land, put our cargo ashore, then attach the boat to the circulating loop of rope and pull it out beyond the low-tide line, where it would ride comfortably overnight through the tide cycle.  In the morning we could pull on the other end of the rope to bring the boat in to shore.  The 350′ line (which of course gives half that much reach when doubled) was a comfortable minimum, requiring us to carefully select our location and dodge ledges, given that much of the coast of Maine looks like this:DSCF0218Here are a couple of photos of the haul-off in action:DSCF0234DSCF0098To keep the doubled rope from twisting or fouling, the junction between the single anchor rode and the doubled haul-off line is typically made to float, and is given enough width to prevent it flipping over in the water from the inevitable twisting tendency of the rope.  I made the connection with a stout piece of clear-grain oak with a galvanized steel ring bolted to it; to accomplish the antirotation I lashed a red PFD cushion to the oak bar, which can be seen in the photos above.  In doing it again I would definitely incorporate a dedicated float, as the lashing and unlashing was annoying and took valuable time.  In general we spent a lot of time fiddling with knots to secure our gear; on a subsequent trip I’d find some kind of small, corrosion-resistant locking carabiners and incorporate more fastex clips and other time-saving tools, which would be especially valuable in trying to make a fast departure in squally conditions (which fortunately we didn’t have to do).  This photo shows me in the distance at far left fiddling with the haul-off, trying to get the anchor set among submerged ledges and ghostly abandoned lobster traps near Allen Island:DSCF0088

For landing on the rare and wonderful gradual sandy beaches, we brought two hard foam rollers 6″ in diameter, of the sort that athletes use to massage their backs, which worked well for maneuvering the boat up and down a smooth beach surface.  I am told that inflatable dock bumpers work well for this also.  We also had some pulleys that would allow us to turn the haul-off rope into a 3-fall tackle to help pull the boat up a steeper slope. Here are some photos of the beach rollers in action:

DSCF0584DSCF0470DSCF0471We ended up using both the haul-off and the beach rollers multiple times, and both worked well. The rollers performed nicely on surface roughness up to apple-sized rocks; for rougher surfaces we switched to the haul-off.   One time we were able to find some driftwood planks that did a nice job of enabling the rollers to work on a slightly rougher beach; as the coast of Maine is famously rocky I’m happy to have made the trip without damaging the fiberglass. If the weather had been rougher, we would have naturally been driven further inshore, up the rivers and bays to flatter water and muddier, gentler landings, but as it was the winds were on the light side and we kept to the outer islands for the most part.

If I were contemplating more serious or extended expeditioning, one modification to the boat that I would consider would be to cut some high-quality access ports into the double hull, both to check on the condition of the internal flotation foam and to make use of the substantial volume under the seats for gear and water storage – possibly even to the extent of fitting an internal water tank.   As best I could tell, the 2+2 of us consumed about three gallons a day on average, without trying too hard to conserve.  We carried fresh water in two 2.5 gallon plastic jugs lashed in the stern, as well as five 1qt nalgene bottles for daily use, and we picked up an extra 3-liter Poland Spring jug in Port Clyde. We also brought three types of water purifiers (pump, iodine, and a newfangled UV disinfector), and didn’t use any of them, though if we’d been trapped on an outlying island by several days of stormy weather we might have been glad to have at least one of them to purify rainwater.  One piece of gear I would add would be a couple of large collapsible water bags, the weight would be nothing and they would add flexibility and psychological margin, though in reality there was fresh water all over the populated parts of the coast.

DSCF0079Continuing on the theme of gear, we also acquired several dry bags (90L, 65L, 2@20L, two for cell phones) and other maritime sundries including a handheld VHF, a plastic foghorn, a collapsible radar reflector, a small compass that we fitted to the boat, and a waterproof camera that we didn’t take the time to experiment with beforehand (this explains the datecode on the photos).

We also bought a small folding solar panel for recharging phones, headlamps etc.  This seemed kind of awkward, but it actually worked pretty well and wasn’t too much of a hassle.  The phones didn’t get coverage for much of the trip, and we only used the GPS navigation app a few times, so we didn’t need much juice.  The test would be an extended period of cloudy/foggy weather, which would mean more using and less charging.  A surprising amount of gear has gone over to lithium and micro-USB, which I guess is a welcome change compared to hauling lots of AA and AAA batteries:DSCF0120Other than that, our equipment was the usual camping gear – tent, sleeping bags and mats, white gas stove and pots, etc.  While in theory we could have upgraded our meals with bulkier or heavier items, or fresh food in a cooler, we were short on drybag space and wanted to keep things simple, so we kept to our usual backpacking meal planning.DSCF0117

We decided that our launching point would be Five Islands, and that we would go ‘Downeast’, following the prevailing winds to our destination, a friend’s cottage on an island east of Deer Isle.  The following posts will describe the trip piece-by-piece.



November 2016: The ceremony of innocence is drowned

November 12, 2016

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-W.B. Yeats, 1919

More detail on the pedal-powered apple washer

October 29, 2016
[This is a note I wrote to Gene after he and I cooked up this idea after dinner a few weeks ago]
So sorry you and Cheryl couldn’t stick around for the big cider event.  We did manage to slam together an apple washer along the lines we laid out that evening – video attached shows kids chucking in apples.
The foundation was a scrap of culvert maybe 4′ long and 16″ ID (polyethylene I think).  It was smooth on the inside but corrugated on the outside, which made it easy to work with.  I paid $7 for a pair of rollerblades in good condition at Goodwill, and used the polyurethane wheels and bearings to make it roll.  On one end I set the wheels in one of the grooves (which were too deep, so I had to spin on about 1/4″ thickness of duct tape at the root of the groove to pad it out so the wheel would ride on the bottom of the groove rather than scuffing on the sides).  On the other end I set the wheels to run on one of the ridges to avoid an axial overconstraint conflict between the two ends (the tops of the external ribs were flat rather than rounded, so this worked fine). I set that end lower to encourage motion of the apples. The whole thing turned surprisingly smoothly, and I drove it with a V belt from a ~12″ pulley in one of the grooves adjacent to the one with the rollers running in it.  Polyethylene being very waxy, the belt slipped, so I took a used innertube from a skinny bike tire and attached it in the groove with brads; this gave it enough friction and torque to turn reliably even with modest belt tension.
That was as far as I got on a previous weekend; Saturday morning BenW and Bodhi pitched in and we got a piece of green astroturf in to line the ID of the tube, attaching it with doublestick tape and sheet metal screws.  I aimed the nozzle of an ordinary garden hose spray gun down the length of the tube (fiddling the adjuster nut to get a modest spray), and they put a 2×4 across the lower end to cause the apples to pile up and spin against the astroturf for a while until enough piled up that they started jumping over the barrier into a waiting bucket. In operation it sprayed a lot of water off both ends, so we ended up fastening 10 mil aluminum flashing around it for splash guards.
With the exception of the belt getting loose once, it basically ran without incident for about 2500lb of apples.  All in all it was a fun project and worked surprisingly well for the amount of time put into it, which I attribute mostly to the dimensions and details of the culvert being tailor-made to the application. I didn’t experiment with known dirty apples to see how clean it made them, but my overall sense was that it was doing a credible job, and it produced plenty of volume.  Unlike recent years with hand washing, the production constraint was clearly the crusher this year.  I think the quality of the wash could have been improved by positioning some of those soft-bristle brushes above the carpet of spinning apples where they gathered near the outlet end of the tube.
While the washer contraption was a success,  I’d really like to get the conveyor version of the washer working, just for fun. I hope you can make it for next year’s pressing – I think you’d enjoy the crew and it would be great to have your help with the contraptions.

Holly’s year 12 report up on Tooling Up

October 25, 2016

Holly posted a writeup with more and better photos; check it out at his blog.

Cider year 12: Dry Spell

October 22, 2016


We gathered last weekend with family and friends as we have for 12 years now, to turn over a ton of apples into sweet and traditional cider using muscle power and bicycle-powered equipment.  Despite the drought we managed to secure 4 bins of apples (about 2400lb) and pressed them into about 190 gallons of cider.  About 70 gallons of this went into carboys; the rest was distributed among the many folks who pitched in.

The pedal-powered cider equipment that we use to make the cider has stabilized over the years; it functions reasonably reliably, and with work obligations and projects in Gorham, we’ve been content to leave good enough alone.  One thing that’s helped is the discovery of Fluid Film, a strange cross between WD-40 and axle grease; it smells strange (apparently it’s made out of sheep) but it acts like cosmoline and keeps the sprockets, chains, and bearings from rusting between pressings.  The grinder was running hard when I set it up, and I traced the problem to a single bad bearing (we use the cheap 5/8″ pillow blocks that McMaster sells); fortunately it was one of the easier ones to get at and replace.

The big addition to the cider equipment this year was a washer/tumbler that we cobbled together this year in response to repeated complaints about the drudgery of hand-washing the apples.  Historically we have given each apple a light scrub by hand on its way to the grinder; this removes mud and gives an opportunity to find bad spots and cut them out.  I believe this attention to detail is part of what makes our cider so tasty, but it’s a lot of work, and it gets unpleasant especially on a colder day.  So the Kaufmans and I hatched a plan for a pedal-powered apple washer.  I’ll report the details in a separate post, but despite extreme levels of kludge and haste, it actually worked pretty well. Here’s a photo of the washer in action; there’s video at this link:


Friday evening folks started to gather in Five Islands by the shore cabin; we ate burritos and continued the tradition of Viking Funeral Ships, then talked around the campfire. Stephen and his crew helped unload the last bin of apples using the four-fall block and tackle in the big barn:


With only 4 bins of apples to process, we could afford a leisurely start; unfortunately the Kaufmans had sick kids and couldn’t make it, but nonetheless Kelsey and Beth pre-made the usual fantastic breakfast burritos enjoyed by the morning crew.  Ben and Bodhi used their Odyssey of the Mind skills to put finishing touches on the apple washer, including lining the tube with astroturf and arranging splash guards made of aluminum flashing.

Meanwhile, we threshed the winter wheat grown between two rows of apple trees in the orchard this summer.  The first step was to thresh it in a 50-gallon barrel; we tried threshing by hand but the sheaves had gotten disorganized and this proved difficult, so I resorted to attacking it with a string trimmer in the barrel.  This worked remarkably well, and deserves further attention to see if it can be made to work for oats, buckwheat, or other stuff that’s hard to hull.  We then winnowed over a stack of window-box fans:


This resulted in a fairly clean 16 lb of wheat, which was ground along with dried sweet corn left over from the Stroudwater garden and some ordinary whole-grain corn Holly brought to make the cornbread for dinner, as well as for the crisp.  Gene and Kelsey Kaufman had previously built a compact, attractive stand for the grain mill we got last year, with a built-in pedal drive hacked from the bottom bracket of a cheap bike from the dump.

We got rolling around 10AM, and grinding and pressing went smoothly, with nothing more than a few loose bolts and dropped chains requiring attention. Having processed nearly 3 bins we broke for a leisurely lunch, and the heavenly smell of the Nebraska Cream Can Dinner. Ned also made cider donuts, which turned out more like fritters; oddly one of the newcomers had misheard the event they were attending as an apple fritter party, so in the end we managed not to disappoint.

Bottling the 2015 cider got started late, so we only bottled 6 tanks, but it’s not the end of the world to have a few gallons left in kegs for use this fall.   After lunch we processed the last few hundred pounds of apples, and cleared out the barn for dinner.    Holly and Becky made a delicious pot of chili, hearty cornbread with pedal-ground grain, and massive quantities of delicious apple crisp.  Here is the tired couple enjoying the fruits of their labor:


After dinner we lit a fire in the ‘redneck reflector oven’ fashioned from an old heating oil tank, and warmed ourselves with an entire truckload of pallets that Rachel hauled up from Westbrook in her truck.  We also lit a section of hollow pine log, a trick learned from arborist Brian Gehan, which burned spectacularly and then settled down into a remarkable ‘demonic esophagus from hell’ – truly an arresting sight:


On Sunday morning we ate blueberry pancakes (wheat, berries, and syrup from the land on Five Islands), continued cleanup, and said goodbye as folks departed for as far away as San Francisco.

One of the highlights of the trip was the reprise of the custom event T-shirts, generously provided by the Jones family in St. Louis, even though a musical performance prevented them from attending as in previous years.  The screen retained Jonah and Holly’s acclaimed chainring/apple design, referenced the historic drought, and noted the passing of my grandfather, Bill Herman, who was a big part of my inspiration for growing apples and making cider.  Here’s the cleanup crew dressed in cider shirts – we had some printed on undyed fabric and used them in the press, giving them the lovely cider-tanned color we’ve come to love.  In another year or two they should take on the hue of Holly’s pants and hat (at left in the photo below), which has proven remarkably colorfast – witnessed by the fact that those are one of the two pairs of pants in Holly’s rotation, thanks to his admirable decision to forswear buying clothes.


As I write these words by the warmth of a low fire, a grateful rain is falling, and the river awoke and rose in the night. Next year’s apple blossoms wait beneath the bark as the leaves yellow and fall. Perhaps the drought will be over soon.  Thanks to all who helped to make year 12 a special memory.



Spring mowing

May 28, 2016

It’s amazing how fast the grass grows in the spring, and this time of year it seems like all we can do to keep up with stuff growing.  The orchard was still practically asleep when last I was up there 2 weeks ago, and today the grass was thigh-high.

Dave bought a used 5′ rear-deck mower to replace the 4′ unit we’ve been using for the last 30 years, so I hooked it up and gave it a try.  It’s too big for the 25hp Kubota, but works well on the 50hp.  That tractor (mostly its bucket) is a bit big for convenient maneuvering in among the trees, but it has power steering and a crazy tight turning radius, so it actually worked out OK.  At lunch I read in the manual how to remove the front-end loader, so next time I’ll give it a shot – should make a huge difference.

The mower leaves a lot of grass still in the rows, so I went at them with a two-handled Stihl brushcutter.  I started out with a four-blade grass-cutting disk, but it wasn’t very aggressive, so I switched over to a string trimmer head – burned through a lot of string but it did the job.  It was around 80 and super humid, so I was drenched by the time I was done, but the orchard looks great and the trees will appreciate the lack of competition. It’s amazing how different the orchard feels when it’s freshly mowed. Emily has been doing a great job killing tent caterpillars, and someone in Five Islands has bees, so despite our lack of a hive we should get some pollination.

It’s been quite dry so I hooked up the siphon from the pond and filled buckets to water the trees we planted in the spring; Emily hauled pails and watered trees while I finished the string trimming.  The tide was pretty high by late afternoon so I jumped in the cove to cool off – the water is definitely not frolicking-temperature yet, but it wasn’t too bad.

Late in the day Aunt Weez arrived from Hopkins, so we caught up for a bit  before I hit the road for home.  She has written a book called Mother Time with a cool concept – it’s basically linked stories of thirty generations of women, starting in the present and going backwards in time, daughter to mother to grandmother.  I’m going to download it on my phone.  .


Spring grafting and photos

May 13, 2016

Here are a few pics from this spring.

First, Dave transplanting an apple tree in a bucket as described in the previous post:

bucket transplant

A few weeks back the fiddleheads were popping up when I walked the dogs downriver of a Saturday morning.  So I grabbed a bunch, boiled for 5 mins, and made an omelette:

fiddlehead breakfast

Continuation of the grafting experiment I described from last year, where I notched a large wild apple that had broken off at face level, grafted in some scions, and let the northern half sustain the tree while the new grafts took.  It suffered a setback when a porcupine attacked last summer, but all but one of the scions was live:



I carefully cut away the top with the small Stihl, so as not to smash the delicate year-old grafts:


I then made the final cu with a pruning saw to give a nice surface finish, stuck in some Golden Russet scions on the north side for a two-tone tree, and doped up the cut surfaces. I also whip-and-tongue grafted a couple of small watersprouts that were kicking around, so the tree is 100% grafted over.


Expecting great things from this technique, I applied it to a large (>8″) wild apple near the house that was way too skinny and tall to be fruitful, and had broken large pieces of the top in a previous year’s ice storm.  The extra energy had gone into a profusion of healthy new branches down low, so I took advantage to saw off the top at face level, graft in some scions (again a 50/50 split), and leave the branches to sustain the tree while the grafts take.

decapitation graft

This ‘decapitation grafting’ is pretty aggressive stuff, and I’m not sure if the tree structure below will stay healthy with such limited photosynthetic horsepower above, but I have high hopes.  I think I’ve finally learned the lesson of going too high up or far out in the tree to find wrist-size branches, only to realize that the fruit will be way out of reach. On the other hand, if the topworking is too low the deer just rip it to pieces.  Face level seems to be a pretty good happy medium so far as I can tell at this point.

Blossoms are just starting to show – let’s hope for another good harvest this year!

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.