Friday, February 27, 2009

That time of year... almost.

It is almost that time again! The temperature is starting to be almost tolerable, I see drip-drip-drip from the roof for a good part of each day, and the sun is still pretty darned bright at 4:30pm. So what if we have 6 foot snowbanks and a good couple of feet still on the ground?

I've ordered my seed starting and transplanting mixes, in giant bags which my husband lugged downstairs; oops, guess that will be a multi-year supply. I've also got a big box in my office containing the smallest size of the new Dot Pots we carry, and plastic trays and lids (plus seeds, of course). I've been saving the industrial-size cardboard toilet paper tubes we use here at work (hooray for recycling!) and will use those for transplants - I figure that the thick cardboard , while bottomless, will be a fair bulwark to the cutworms, and I know it will rot away pretty quickly, so my plants roots have plenty of time to grow. I've got my grow lights set up down cellar in a permanent location on my potters bench (apparently it was once a woodworking bench), and the heat mats in the same place, ready to go. I have a zillion seed packets to organize, some of last year's dirt to sweep up (it's an unfinished cellar, largely ignored unless we need to check the oil burner, and we don't have cats, so that's no big deal), and a bunch of labels to write out, and I'll be ready to go!

I always plant WAY too many seedlings. This year I'm going to try to keep it constrained. I'll plant a couple of tomatillos (green salsa is SO delicious!), and a couple of husk cherries (they didn't ripen before frost last year, and I am excited to try them), and some peppers and eggplants first - it seems that they need just a bit more time than tomatoes - a two week headstart on the tomatoes gives me good luck with the other members of the family Solanaceae. Last year I think I ended up with 90 tomato plants. This year I'm going to try to plant only the 40+/- heirloom tomatoes that I'll use in my garden, and just a few to share, because some of those poor little plants went to waste. I usually plant 2 seeds per cell, but I think I might try 1, and see if I waste less. I just can't kill a seedling, I know I should, but I just can't.

This year I'm planting my cucumber and squash seeds indoors a couple of weeks before they can go out, as well as some sunflowers and morning glories for the flower bed. We have a chipmunk problem in my yard - they live under our compost heap, and they LOVE those pumpkin seeds. So, rather than set up the bucket trap this year (because apparently I don't like to kill seedlings, but have no problem dispatching chipmunks), I am going to start with plants. I think they'll do better this way, and so will the chipmunks.

I sure hope the weather works out this summer. Last July and August it was so rainy that I had very poor yields on most things, and many of my interesting heirloom tomatoes just didn't get ripe. Ah, but that's beyond my control, and I'm very lucky to work here at Johnny's, since we test many seeds and employees can reap the fruits of those tests.

Yes, this is the time of year to start getting ready, but also to practice patience and constraint. I know that if I plant my seedlings too early, they'll get leggy, which can weaken the adult plants. Plus, I'll be tempted to plant them early, which can be dangerous up here in Central Maine where Jack Frost likes to wear out his welcome, kind of like those relatives who show up out of nowhere around the Fourth of July. So, a few more weeks, and I can get planting.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What's New At The Farm? 2/25/09

2/25/09 BLM

Another snowstorm! Well, that's one step closer to spring. At least the temps have warmed up and some melting is occurring. The banks are getting a bit high but it'll go fast once the weather pattern changes a bit.

Looking back on then past five years of writing this column; I see this time of year is when I get low on things to write about. You can only say so much when the snow's deep and it's still cold. There isn't much wildlife out and about – other than the occasional skunk and a few birds; mostly turkeys and ravens. The turkeys are wandering a lot in search of food; I have seen many at the base of bird feeders picking up wasted bird seed.

I also saw a mature Bald Eagle on Saturday picking up fish the ice fishermen left on the ice. He wasn't wasting any time either; as soon as the group would leave he would swoop down and pick up any leftovers. The deer must be yarded up what with all the snow as I haven't seen much sign lately.

The snow is getting rather high up on the sides of the greenhouses. Most of our greenhouses are Gothic styles and the snow slides off readily – that is if it has a place to slide off to. We left room enough for the bucket loader to go between the houses and keep the snow cleaned out. Snow removal is much better now that we have a tractor with a cab and heat. No one wanted to plow snow with the old loader but now that we have a tractor with a cab and heat and a radio I can't seem to get near it. I purposely came in an hour early a couple of weeks ago to plow, but it was all done when I arrived.

I plowed snow here at Johnny's Research Farm in Albion for approximately 20 years. Most of the time was with a nearly antique John Deere 401C with a snow bucket. Yep, that's the height of luxuries that old tractor had. Two wheel drive, chains, no cab, heater or radio; yeah them were the good old days. We bought our first truck with a plow on it three or four years ago and that was some change. Of course I didn't get to use that either. I think driving a tractor in the winter is just about the coldest job I can think of; not much heat coming off the engine but on the other hand there's plenty of fresh air.

The days are getting longer; I can do my chores before it gets dark. The hens appreciate that. As the days get longer I feel more like doing something other than sitting in front of the TV. I've watched everything at least once and now am working on watching shows the second time around. I have managed to clean a path through my workshop so I can work out there a few nights a week. I've got about half the parts cut out for thirty new bird houses and should be able to finish them within a week or two at the most. A couple more projects and I'll be ready to start working more outside. New window boxes and some new chicken nests and I'll be already for spring.

Until next week - I'm going out and snowblow a spot to put my lawn chairs.

What's New At The Farm? 2/18/09

2/18/09 BLM

With the warmer weather and longer days the skunks are coming out. Seems like February and March are prime mating times for skunks although I doubt he was looking for a mate next to my henhouse. He did however find one of our dogs, Maisy, and now she can't figure out why no one wants to be near her. A trip to the dog groomer will take care of this small but very obvious problem. At least it wasn't a porcupine; looking for a vet at eleven o'clock on Sunday evening would not only have been nearly impossible but expensive as well. Seems all these incidents happen at odd times of the day. We had a pony once that came too close to a porcupine and required a vet – of course it was Sunday morning.

For the time being we are having seasonable temperatures. Thirties during the day and teens and twenties at night. Seems warm after those -25 degrees mornings. Looks like we might see some snow before the week's out. OK, just as long as it doesn't last long. Even though we're still in the throes of winter, I can see spring coming – a month from now ice fishing will be all but over and the birds will be coming back once again.

I am in the process of building new birdhouses. Quite a few years back I built around 20 or 25 houses for Johnny's farm. Several of these get replaced this year and I'll put some new ones up too. We have loads of barn and tree swallows of which the tree swallows readily nest in the bird houses we put out. I think we have around thirty houses out and we'll install another ten or fifteen and replace some of the older ones. I'd say 98% of all the houses are filled every year with swallows and the occasional bluebird, although they're a rarity.

Lots of deer sign this winter, as the deer move in search of food. I saw two deer last week in a neighboring town – one was watching me and all you could see of the other one was his hind-end as he dug in two feet of snow looking for food. This is a good reminder to plant some deer forage for them next fall. The turnips I planted last fall have fed the deer locally and naturally in at least three different locations this winter. Next year I plan on seeding turnips closer to midsummer than early fall. I was thinking I would create a mix of brassicas that deer like and plant them in a few selected spots to determine if they preferred a mix over straight turnips.

This has been more of a typical Maine winter than what I remember over the past few years: An adequate amount of snow, cold temps but not extended cold spells, and relatively dry. No precipitation in the past two weeks – but I hear that may change. The rain last week certainly dropped the level of snow we had. I actually saw bare ground in a few places. There seems to be lots of cloudy days now but at least it's not cold. The wood piles' taken a beating this year but it pretty much does so every year. For next year, my wood has been cut and split and is now waiting to be stacked. No more splitting wood in July for me!

What's New At The Farm? 2/11/09

Hard to believe but next Sunday February will be half over; the colder half too. In little more than a month the days will be longer, lots more heat in the sun and little signs of spring will be evident for those who look. Seemed like a short winter. I know it's not quite over yet but it's closer than it was.

I'm spending some time looking through catalogs seeing what new cover crops I'm going to plant this year. So far I'm looking at Austrian Winter Peas, sorghum you can make syrup from, forage kale and a couple of small grains. For legumes I'm looking at Berseem clover, Crown Vetch and perennial alfalfa. And a few crops just for fun; to see what they‘ll do: dry-land rice, safflowers and sunflowers, sugar beets and perhaps a couple of mixes I have going around in my head. We'll see. I'll keep you updated on what I plant and how it turns out.

The seed catalogs are piling up on my desk; each offering the best garden you'll ever have. I've got probably twenty or so catalogs to look through; most will only get a quick look see before I relegate them to the "Save until next year" pile. I've trimmed down where I order from to a couple of seed houses; Johnny's of course being one. In the past I've ordered from Jung's (got a great pear tree there a few years back), Fruit trees from FEDCO (can't beat their selection of Maine hardy trees) and Western Maine Nurseries for my evergreen needs (really nice trees and great customer service).

And of course along with the seed catalogs are the poultry catalogs, although there's not so many of the latter. I suppose I'm a creature of habit when it comes to ordering chickens. Like garden seeds and plants I look for the company with the best reputation and the best customer service. I called a poultry company several years ago to order 50 hens and, after talking to the customer service rep, ordered another 75 or so. The poor old henhouse was bursting at the seams. I ordered from another company last year instead of my usual – got a double shipment plus some added ones for warmth –the seams were really busting then. Guess I'll go back to where I had the best luck; the company I've ordered from for 35 years plus.

And soon will come those catalogs with things that I can't live without in the garden; Garden gnomes, gazing balls and fountains. True, I'm not perfect: I do have a cement turtle, frog and a very realistic statue of ALF in the garden. And a sundial but that about covers it, actually these are all in the flower garden. For the vegetable garden I have a plywood cutout of a man hoeing which I have yet to put out. I think every time I saw it I'd think there's someone watching me from the garden; like hanging a jacket on a branch or a fence post. How many times have I done that and then think there's someone there? Maybe that would work around the farm. I've always threatened to make up card board cutouts of myself and place them strategically around the farm. Hmm......

Friday, February 6, 2009

What's New At The Farm 2/04/09

Welcome to February! Now is the time to start thinking seriously about spring. Hopefully the coldest weather is behind us now and with the days getting longer and with more heat in the sun, we'll be more apt to get some planning done as to what we're going to plant this year. I know I'm ready to get out in the garden.

I'm busy here on the farm ordering supplies for the upcoming season. The bigger items have been ordered: the 512 potting mix for the greenhouses, organic fertilizer for the fields and we already have the IRT mulch on hand. What I have left to order is lots of greenhouse supplies, field stakes, row covers and liquid fish fertilizers for transplanting. Then there are things like tomato stakes, trellising supplies, planting flats, more fertilizers for the greenhouses and cover crop seed for the upcoming season.

I've got to call the furnace people to have the furnaces cleaned, the electrician to do some much needed updating and our crop advisor to help plan this year's crop growing schedule. Along with these few things, I've got to hire some new farm crew; three full timers and two part timers, I think. Unfortunately we didn't get all our field work done last fall so we'll have to pick up where we left off this spring.

We also have some maintenance and up-keeping jobs in the greenhouses. Let's see; we've got two doors to installed, two exhaust fans along with automated louvers, one greenhouse to extend, one to convert from a shadehouse to a insect proof poly tunnel and new plastic to put on two houses.

I'm doing some research now in finding a good, steady supply of compost. When I first started here and up until about ten or twelve years ago, we made our own. We got to the point where we made five or six hundred yards a year. Raw materials became increasingly harder to get as time moved on, costs increased on everything and much of the farming disappeared drying up local sources of raw materials.

We used to use poultry manure as our nitrogen source exclusively. There were several cage layer facilities close by we could get raw materials from but now there are none. The only remaining source is fifty miles away and, because we are organic, cannot use as they use fly control products. Sawdust is extremely expensive, so much so that some local farmers are grinding bales of mulch hay for bedding. Of course we used straw some but that too is expensive. Seems like everything is.

When we first started buying compost we paid seven dollars a yard delivered. Last year we paid thirty five plus a fuel surcharge. I don't foresee getting it that cheap this year. I think fifty or sixty is more like it for this year. When you buy three or four hundred yards a year this turns into a big expense. Last summer's compost was made when fuel prices were high so the composter must recoup their increased costs. More and more people are turning to compost as fertilizer prices have risen dramatically. We have a new field we're thinking about putting into production and it would take about nine hundred yards a year for several years to bring up the organic matter to where we want it. Something to think about for sure!

Until next week, Brian