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.

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