Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What's New at the Farm? Thinking spring, sling bags, and tomatoes

The winter continues with temps barely reaching out of the 20s. The woodpile is looking pitifully small even after adding two cords from my neighbor. A couple of inches of snow bonded to the ice at least makes the walking better. One more week of February and we’ll be into March; then I know spring isn’t far behind.  March brings maple syrup, warm days and cool nights. The birds, who’ve been gone since last fall, start filtering back.

Planning for the upcoming season takes up most of my time now. Greenhouse three will be the first one started early next month. We had the furnace cleaned and serviced yesterday so that’s ready. The potting soil is here as are many of the supplies we’ll need to get things going. Last year we used nine 2-yard bulk bags of potting mix; this year I ordered 12.

Bulk bags, commonly called sling bags, are large woven plastic bags that can be picked up with a bucket tractor and put where it is wanted, in our case in front of the greenhouses. Using these bags eliminates all those small bags that require constant restocking and disposal of the empty bags. Sling bags can also hold fertilizer so again small bags are no longer needed. These bags of fertilizer will hold either 1,000 or 2,000 pounds of fertilizer and can be hoisted above the fertilizer spreader and dumped in all at once. After their initial use, sling bags can be used to hold all kinds of things. I know one grower who used to harvest his winter squash into one; he hung it over the bucket on the tractor and drove through the field; the farm workers tossed the fruit into the bag. Of course these fruit were for seed so the rough handling didn’t make much of a difference. For eating quality you would want them undamaged so they store longer.

They can also be useful for storing used plastic and row covers before going to the landfill; it’s just a giant trash bag. I supposed their use is only limited by ones’ imagination and the ability to handle them. They commonly arrived on pallets so a forklift or pallet jack is useful when moving them. I’m sure there are lots of uses for them; if you know of one please let me know and I’ll pass it on.

The farm plan includes lots of tomatoes for seed and lots more for our breeding program. We like tomatoes and that’s a good thing as we have acres of them. Tomatoes are grown in our greenhouses, poly tunnels. Caterpillar tunnels, in the fields and in containers.  We have early, mid season and late tomatoes, determinate and indeterminates, cherries, plums, pears, grapes, saladette, sauce and cocktail types.  Add a generous selection of heirlooms, and colors that include red, pink, yellow, black, gold, green, purple, white and striped and that about describes our tomato lineup. Taking care of all these tomatoes provides us with much work from early June through September each year; the tasks include seeding in the greenhouses, bumping up to larger cells, growing until mid May, hardening off, and transplanting into the field.

Field work for tomatoes includes fertilizer application, bedforming, laying IRT mulch and drip line, punching the holes and setting and watering in the transplants. Once transplanted, the trellises (a steel stake every 20 feet) are installed, a top wire run and the tomatoes get their first pruning. One string goes up first and a little later the second string goes up. The plants are continuously pruned and trained until they reach the top wire, and then left alone for the rest of the season. Besides pruning and trellising weed control takes a lot of time as does harvesting starting in September.  Throughout the season constant scouting for pest and diseases along with irrigation as needed takes more time. Once harvesting has been completed, the twines are removed, the top wire rolled up and the steel stakes taken out of the field. In 2010 we got this done in early October and had time to get some winter rye established before cold weather settled in.

Once harvesting has been completed, then the majority of the work moves inside where seed extraction takes place. This process usually takes two or three people a couple of weeks to complete; a good job when it’s raining and we can’t get out into the field.

One nice thing about all these tomatoes is that it provides us with plenty of work. On a farm there’s usually plenty of work but typically August is somewhat of a slow period for us -- kind of the calm before the storm period. The planting is pretty well wrapped up and the weeds are primarily under control and the hectic harvest is still a few weeks away so we have some time to wrap up on some projects and get ready for the upcoming harvest season.

Until next week, Brian

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Raffle winners announced.

Johnny's is pleased to announce the winners of three separate drawings held recently for $100 Gift Coupons.

Shelia Gallagher of Easton, PA was the winner at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference.

Caitlin Burlett of Wild Carrot Farm in Newfane, VT won the top prize at the NOFA Vermon Winter Conference.

Danya Klie of Belfast, Maine won the drawing at the Maine Agricultural Show in Augusta, Maine on January 11-13.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Video: Edible Flowers

Many flowers have edible blossoms. Among the most popular types are nasturtiums, calendula, bachelor's button, marigold, and viola. Edible flowers may be added to a salad mix, used as garnishes, or as edible decorations. The key is to pick the fresh blossoms early in the morning and use them promptly. Watch our video to learn more about edible flowers.

Johnny's offers 40 flowers that are edible. Shop »

Edible Flowers Recipes. Download .pdf

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


If you have a copy of Johnny's 2011 catalog, you may have noticed an interesting photo on page 106, the lead page to the Farm Seed section. There's a photo of a chickshaw, or mobile chicken coop. It was taken at Eliot Coleman's Four Season Farm here in Maine.

The photo has prompted a few questions about chickshaws on this blog. While we don't sell these contraptions, we do have a few more photos to share from a trip we took to Stone Barns Center back in December. Stone Barns has several mobile poultry shelters at their farm in upstate New York.

See slideshow below.

Here's another blog link from a farming couple, who built their own chickshaw, in Washington State. Their chickshaw is quite a bit different from Eliot's model, but the photos show you how to build one.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's New at the Farm? Innovations in Farm Equipment

This week we’ll talk about my favorite things and innovations in farming equipment over the years. Among the list of my favorite things are cordless grease guns. Relatively inexpensive and extremely easy best describes the cordless grease gun. The first major improvement in greasing equipment was the grease gun. I remember growing up on the farm, my father loading grease guns from a 5-gallon pail of grease with his hands.

Then I remember what a vast improvement it was once grease gun cartridges came around; you could almost remain fairly clean while loading the guns. Grease and roofing tar are two things I just have to walk by and they get on me; perhaps I’m an attractant!

After cartridges came along the next improvement was the pistol grip grease gun; you could hold the hose on the fitting and pump grease at the same time. Next came the air powered grease gun but you needed an air supply and air hose, but a cordless grease gun is a great addition to the workshop. It’s powerful enough to dislodge old grease, supply plenty of new grease, and it can go anywhere. It’s perhaps easier to use grease so equipment will now get an adequate supply of grease.

Next comes the air compressor; how many uses can I find for this one? The answer is unlimited! There are many air tools on the market; ones that do everything from inflating tires to cutting metal to sanding and painting.

Of course the first thing that comes to mind is using it to blow air; to clean tractor air filters, radiator fins and vacuum cleaner filters. You can blow out the dust from threshers and combines, seed cleaners and milling equipment. There are air powered drills, impact wrenches, die grinders, metal shears, needle scalers and sanders. There are also cutoff tools, air hammers and chisels, ratchets, and sandblasters.

With all these tools comes the need for impact sockets, air filters and regulators, paint guns and lots of fittings and accessories that we can’t live without. The air compressor can be powered by electricity or a gasoline engine, can be portable or permanently mounted, and can be a single or dual stage. They can be put in another room and piped into the workshop eliminating some of the noise.

The biggest innovation in the last 100 years is the tractor. My father and grandfather used horses and had many tales of them, but I have always known the tractors.  Operating a vegetable farm, we employ many tractors of different makes and uses. We currently have 10. The lineup includes 5 John Deere’s, 2 Farmalls, an Allis Chalmers, a Kubota, and a Ford. Each performs best under one set of circumstances and sometimes perhaps two. Of these tractors, four are primarily used for cultivating and weed control, two are general purpose; performing everything from laying plastic to spraying, and the three largest ones are for heavy ground prep activities and snow moving in the winter.

Another great invention was the tractor cab; especially in the winter. After plowing snow for 20 plus years with our John Deere 401C (I think C stood for convertible) we now use the Kubota with the heated cab and the radio. Much better!

Along with an array of tractors comes and even wider array of equipment. And as we grow bigger we are starting to duplicate some of this equipment. One is no longer enough to satisfy our needs. Everyone wants to use certain pieces of equipment at the same time. So, we added a second transplanter last spring and we’ll duplicate more equipment as time progresses.

I don’t think anything has changed farming more than the inventing of tractors. At least nothing I can think of. There have been many other additions that certainly have made their mark, and it doesn’t take much to name some of them off, but nothing so big as the tractor. It must have been quite something when the farmer switched from horses to tractors – something I shall never feel, for I have never used horses.

Until next week, spring’s coming.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

What’s New at the Farm? Enjoying trees

Last week I wrote about trees and this week I’m going to finish up on trees. In last week’s article I talked about the red maple, the apple tree and the cherry bushes, and the plum orchard. This week, I’m writing about a few more trees around the yard and the history behind them.

 Let’s start out with the 20-foot hemlock next to the old well. When my daughter was perhaps four or five we went for a walk down to the brook where the sucker spawn. On the way back we went through an old, abandoned gravel pit. We stopped to look at this tiny hemlock tree growing in the sand and gravel. We decided it didn’t have much of a future there so I pulled it up, stuck it in my back pocket, and we went home to plant it. After picking out a spot, we dug the hole, planted the spindly little tree and watered it. That was 25 years ago and now that tree is taller than the garage and growing quite well. It is located right beside the old, dug well so it has plenty of water and is also on the south side of the house so it’s got the perfect spot. I trimmed the lower branches last spring so the dogs can rest in the shade but still keep an eye on what’s going on in the yard.

The two main shade trees are heartnuts, which I bought and planted some 20 years ago. A heartnut tree is a Japanese walnut known for its fast growth and delicious nuts. The trees do indeed grow fast; at twenty years their trucks are about a foot across. They have large tropical looking leaves and produce abundant crops of nuts some years.  The squirrels enjoy the nuts as is evidenced by all the heartnut volunteers coming up around the yard shows. One tree is healthy and produces nuts every year but the other tree; well, I wouldn’t be surprised if it died at any time. The woodpeckers have drilled it full of holes, but it never was as robust as the other one was anyways. The nuts are incredibly hard to shell; a task I leave for the squirrels. And like oak and walnuts, nothing grows underneath these trees save for violets, which take over the lawn in the spring.

Rounding out the lawn trees is a grafted lilac I planted maybe 20 years ago. I went to a local tree sale and bought this small grafted lilac bush. Planted on the northwest corner of the house, it seemed to like it and thrived there. Each spring the fragrance wafts in through the windows and we get to enjoy its smell for a couple of weeks.  Rounding out the bushes list includes a hedge of Rosa Rugosa roses between the house and the road. We live quite close to the road, and even though it’s a small country road, it gets more than enough traffic. This hedge not only is beautiful and fragrant, it helps to block the noise from the road and also serves as a barrier to keep the dogs and birds in the yard.
Out by the pond there are two mock oranges I planted three or four years back which are doing quite well. One is being overtaken by Virginia Creeper so it’s on the spring list to trim that back a bit. There’s a bush; I believe it’s a snowberry. It has small, white balls on it and doesn’t seem to thrive but neither does it do poorly, it’s just there. A hedge of hybrid lilacs to the east of the lawn, a Kentucky coffee tree and a handful of Norway Spruces close out the backyard highlights. Out front are two pear trees, a hedge of American cranberries, some blueberries and a couple of tree lilacs and a tree peony. All of these trees were purchased and planted since I’ve owned my home some thirty years or so. There’s a small spruce tree up in the pasture, which we light up for Christmas. And then there’s that land across the road…

So, to stop before I launch into everything we’ve planted down the road, my purpose here is to explain why we plant trees. Trees are perennials in all forms; plants that will come back year after year. Our lifespan as compared to a tree is relatively short, so we can watch a tree grow all our lives and hopefully someone in the future can enjoy it as we did once. The old trees that are beside the road – one can just imagine what they’ve seen – winter storms, horse and buggies giving way to automobiles, people growing up and old, generations passing and ways of life gone and forgotten.  A tree is living, unlike rocks which have been around since the beginning of time, and you can watch it grow and change throughout the years, And we all plant trees that we hope others will enjoy and watch long after we’re gone.

Until next week, Brian

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Enter Johnny's Small Space and Urban Gardening Contest

Win a $25 gift coupon from Johnny's by telling us how you overcome the challenges of gardening in small spaces and/or in the inner city. Questions to consider:
  • How do you make the most of tight spaces in congested areas?
  • How have you transformed an urban eyesore into a green gem?
  • How do you keep urban garden pests at bay in your neighborhood?
We'd like to hear from you!

Please send us your story via email or U.S. Postal Service. You'll be eligible for prizes, like a Johnny's baseball cap, gardening books, or a drip irrigation kit! We'll also publish your ideas on the website and in our Growing Ideas blog. Photos are welcome. You may submit photos via email (2MB size limit) or share them with us on our Flickr photo site. Please limit essays to 250 words of fewer.

Visit for more information about this contest.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What's New at the Farm? Tree talk

In the middle of winter I sometimes scramble for something to write about so I thought this week I’d recycle an older column; change the dates and such and post it. So, I got to looking at columns I have written over the past five or six years and have come up with some subject material that will keep us all enthralled. Well, maybe not all of us, but some of us.

Trees are a good subject for today. The basics include types and species of trees, what they’re used for and whom they’re useful to besides us, transplanting them and taking care of them. Trees not only surround us, but provide homes and food to wildlife, shade, lumber, fruit, maple syrup and a huge list of other things that make our lives easier and more enjoyable. There’s a thousand websites that offer advice on what to plant and how to plant but only a handful that tell us why we should plant them.

I’m thinking of the trees I have around our house and property. There’s the large Red Maple my dad planted in 1955 which shades our house in the summer from the brutal sun, the same tree hangs the bird feeders in the winter, the same tree harbors all species of songbirds during all the months of the year. This is the tree that shades my lawn chair; where we watch the ducks and geese bathe in the pond.

Then there’s the apple tree at the corner of the garage. I planted this maybe 25 years ago. What possessed me to put an apple tree there is beyond me. Something happened to it; I believe the goat gave it a pretty good going over and it regrew, but from the roots and not the trunk. So as it’s growing from the rootstock it probably won’t be the variety I planted, whatever that was. It has perhaps fifteen trunks now, which I intend to cut back to two. We’ll see what it does. If nothing else it’ll make a decent shade tree someday. It’s surrounded by Honeysuckle so it’s a good place for the dogs to hang out.

On the south side of the garage I like to call this a microclimate because it’s quite warm out there; that’s where I have my plum orchard. Not a big orchard but at least six trees that produce some years and don’t produce others. Plum trees are nice for two reasons: they aren’t big trees and I really like plums. As a kid growing up my aunt and uncle had a couple of old plum trees that would bear by the bushel some years, and that was one of my fondest memories of growing up on the farm, was those laundry baskets full of tree ripened plums.

I had two plums trees die last year; one died during the winter and the mice girdled the other one. I replaced one with two American chestnuts planted in the same hole. They were kind of spindly little whips so I wanted to grow them, at least for a few years, where they will get lots of care and attention. You know where that’s going to lead – like the year I got ten tiny cherry trees and planted them in a raised bed in the garden to get bigger before they went out into a permanent spot. The raised beds are long gone, but the trees are still there. And they’re not small anymore either. Even though they’re planted quite close together, they do provide nesting spots for songbirds and shade for when the hens go out into the yard, and tiny, extremely bitter little cherries.

A few years back I convinced Peggy one afternoon to go down to Dresden with me to see the alewives run. In May alewives swim upstream by the thousands to spawn and it’s quite a sight to see them. Of course the day we went was cloudy and cool and they weren’t running, so what are we going to do now that we’re almost on the coast? We went to a greenhouse and landscaping company to poke around a bit. Long story short, we came home with a beautiful magnolia tree. Now while magnolias aren’t native here, in the right microclimate, they should be fine. We planted it on the south side of the house where it’s warm and protected from the cold northwest winds of winter. It hasn’t blossomed yet and it doesn’t seem to get much taller every year, but its trunk diameter is increasing every season.

Well, it looks like I found plenty to talk about this week after all. Next week I’ll wrap up trees and add some shrubs and more reasons to plant trees.

Until then, Brian

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Photos: Trip to snow-covered farms in upstate New York

Johnny's employees Adam Lemieux, Tools Manager, and John Dillon, Visual Asset Provider visited a couple of farms in upstate New York last week. They peeked inside the hoophouses at Paul and Sandy Arnold’s Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle, NY. That’s Paul in some of the photos. It was about 5 below outside. The temperature under the row cover in the cold houses was 39 above before he removed the Agribon. The Arnolds do a Saturday winter farm market in Saratoga Springs where they sell greens, winter squashes onions and garlic.