May 17, 2007
What a difference a month makes! Yesterday's rains have soaked the soil and coaxed open the most reluctant of spring's unfurling leaves. Every hue of green is evident out there - shoots are literally shooting and buds popping right before our eyes.
The gardens look spectacular, thanks to more than just a little help from my friends.....
The huge task of pruning some 1,000' of raspberries and blackberries fell to others this spring since my arms are still too weak to wield the pruners for more than a cut or two. Ralph took on the bulk of the Teddy Berry Blackberries, in honor of his best friend and the bond that they shared over those berries. In spite of long sleeves and heavy gloves, he still bears the slash wounds to show for his effort. Our friend Rich gave him a hand there, and Ricky helped with the Autumn-bearing Heritage raspberries, the raspberries that are cut completely to the ground in spring. Lara worked on the Heritages too, and did the selective pruning for the Killarneys. The bulk of the selective pruning in the Taylors went to Elisha, assisted by her 9-year-old daughter Asha. Five-year-old Juniper and I carried sticks to the burn pile. What fun it was to work with kids! During yesterday's heavy rains, Ralph lit the huge pile. All of those canes that had borne last year's fruit caught quickly, the flames flared up high in the sky, then burned down to nothing.
With that out of the way, planting is the real story this month!
Elderberries went in on April 25 and all the plants show new growth. Ralph's brother Johnny came up to help and the extra set of hands helped us lay out the soaker hose and apply the straw mulch that will help insure their success. Last year's planting by the pond looks very, very good with lots of lush new growth both from new shoots and off of old wood that should produce fruit!
Titania Black Currants and Johnker van Tet Red Currants went in the next day with the same tender loving care and again, all have produced fresh growth already. The Titanias even have tiny flowers (but I know I should pinch them to allow the energy to go to the roots). Our older planting of the Johnker van Tets looks splendid - loaded with flowers - we'll cross our fingers and hope that translates into fruits in July.
With two of the three beds made available when Ralph tilled up our 17 year-old Taylor raspberry planting now filled with elderberries and currants, I had planned on filling the third with something simple like annual flowers. Joy of Planting fever overtook me, though, and Elisha helped me put another 200 strawberry plants into the 3rd bed. (I realized while planting them that this year marks some 30 years since I planted 5,000 strawberry plants at my first farm in Leyden! 5,000! What was I thinking!?!?!) Last year's planting came through the wild winter looking green and strong, and the first flowers are just starting to open.
Killarneys look excellent and most of the Taylors do too, although there was a bit of winterkill in our older "perpendicular" row and at the most exposed end of the long row. Joy of Planting fever struck again as I had only planned on filling the bottom half of the Killarney row with new Taylors, but wound up planting another whole row as well, for an additional 200' or so. I love planting raspberries - all I do is move shoots coming up on the edges of an old bed to the new one. I haven't spent a cent on raspberry plants in decades - I just keep moving them around.
Blueberries came through the winter in great shape and are loaded with buds right now. Last year was an off-year for them, down more than 50% from '05's tremendous yield. I suspect that this year will be a bumper crop.....fruit tends to be alternate-bearing (without heavy fertilization) and I think that this will be a good blueberry year. Blueberries are largely pollinated by bumblebees and they've been out and about already.
Conversely, I think that the blackberries will be down this year. Last year's harvest was spectacular, unlike any thing we'd ever seen. We don't know precisely what variety we have and I suspect that we are at the northern range for this cultivar to begin with. Coupled with the weird winter and the tendency of fruit to bear alternately, I think this will be an off-year for Teddy Berries (but by no means a wash-out!). There are some fruit buds visible already.
Peaches, Pears and Plums
It's dangerous to get too cocky in May, but I think we will have some Damson Plums! The two trees closest to the house (which were not wrecked by the porcupine last summer) both put out huge numbers of blossoms that lasted for a couple of days before rain knocked the petals to the ground. But two days is pretty good for plum blossoms, and they were good days with lots of bee activity. In the younger, sidehill orchard, about five of the trees produced blossoms, another hopeful sign. The plums in the older orchard were severely attacked by the porcupine and the trees are working just to put out new green growth.
Pears were loaded with blossoms that hung on for a good long time. Again, I don't want to jinx anything by my natural optimistic tendencies, but I suspect we might get enough pears to put up into pear butter or preserves this autumn. (The porcupine tore a limb from each of the pear trees too last summer, but apparently they just don't have the yummy good flavor of the plum branches......)
Peaches are loaded with blossoms too, but since they're only a year old I think I should relieve the trees of the burden of producing fruit. Then again, if they want to make peaches so badly, who am I to deny them????
In the Greenhouse
Tomatoes, Peppers, Herbs and Flowers are all doing well for the most part. Every year I learn something new and realize that I don't always know what I thought I knew. For example, usually Giant Marconi peppers outperform Corno di Toro, yet I still grow both. Good thing too, because this year, for some reason, it's the Giant Marconis who look weak and the Corno di Toro who look stout and rugged. Socrates, the large red bell pepper we discovered this year looks strong as do both of the jalapeno varieties we're growing.
We moved into the greenhouse later than we'd planned, and the tomatoes were somewhat stressed by their extra time in the grow room. We lost some, but what remains looks strong. (I'm always so reluctant to cull seedlings as ruthlessly as I should, hence potting up some tiny ones that shouldn't be bothered with.......then again, I'm kind of a tiny one and I think I have an affinity for the little ones that make it in spite of the odds)
The crazy phoebes are at it again, stealing the sunflowers and zinnias as soon as I plant them. They've wiped me out of two separate sowings and also devoured the cucumbers, buttercup squashes and dancing gourds within 24 hours of planting. I'm not really complaining though, at least it's not the peppers!
The herb gardens will undergo changes this year too. The center of the slope that we planted to thyme and oregano 20 years ago has been invaded with grasses that we've struggled against for several years. With all the drama last summer, pulling grass in the slope was low on anyone's list of priorities. Rather than fight the grass, we've decided to let it grow where it wants to and simply mow it occasionally. On the left side of the slope, the herbs are all in fine shape. To the right, chocolate mint is taking over where English Lavender held court for years. We're going to let the mint have its way, and plant the lavender elsewhere. The first terrace that wraps around the herb slope was originally planted to strawberries, then garlic, then basils, then to chile peppers which flourished there for at least a dozen years. We've decided to cede that first terrace to herbs though and are filling that long bed with a brand new planting of Lemon Verbena, French Tarragon, Greek Oregano, Rosemary and English Lavender. This mix of perennials and annuals might be a bit tricky to care for in time, but for this year any way, it puts the herbs that we use most close at hand. The basils may go in there too if room permits, otherwise, they'll go in at the top of the hill.
Ralph's side project of transforming our old house into a barn was finally realized this spring. Two years ago Ralph and our friend Joe took down the old house, painstakingly salvaging all the materials they could (it would have been soooo much easier to have the volunteer fire department burn it down for a training exercise, yet sooo much better for the environment to carefully recycle it). This spring, Ralph drew up a plan and hired our friends Rich and Eric to construct the new/old building, a story-and-a-quarter-broken-back-saltbox of very pleasant proportions whose space encompasses what was our old bedroom and small porch. It's about 14' X 16' and with a loft, is cute enough to live in, but it will instead store Darwin the tractor and farm equipment like hoses, rakes, propagation materials, and so forth. Yes, they did it the hard way, and I'm so proud that they did.
Notes from the Woods
Rosie makes sure that we get at least an hour in the woods every day no matter how busy I am. The dogs tear up and down the hills, fly over rocks and boulders, and splash up and down every stream and brook they come to. Even Rosie has learned to give Barley wide berth when he comes out of the water as he shakes wildly then throws himself to the ground - twisting madly, toweling down in the dirt. With all the wildlife around, you'd think they'd be excited by deer or turkeys, but the creatures that drive them the craziest are the chipmunks. No matter how exhausted they are, they always succumb to the chipmunks' teasing chatter, flinging themselves up to pursue their little nemeses. Wise grey bunny (no doubt progeny of Big Grey Bunny) also gets a kick out of teasing Rosie but he might not be laughing once Ralph better secures the fence by the blackberries where he always escapes.
Our most noteworthy sighting, though, was the Big Moose who crossed Burt Hill Road just where we enter the old logging trail into the woods. I was in the car and saw his great rear end as I came around a curve and my mind was querying "horse?" "bull?" when he turned his big head around to look at me and there was no mistaking that great big face! Rosie and I have seen a moose in the same woods twice before in past seasons but this guy was much bigger. I wonder if we had seen him in his youth before, or if this is another guy. (There was no rack....I suppose it could have been a female.....but it was really big!)
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, Orchard Orioles and even the Bluebirds have returned and are scouring the trees for those nasty eastern tent caterpillars. Go birds!!! The dawn chorus of songbirds is earlier and earlier each morning; the frogs and peepers sing for so long into the nights that there's just a tiny window of quiet time. It's so nice to be able to sleep with the windows open again - to hear the birds, frogs and rushing stream, to smell the fruit blossoms and now, the lilacs. Rosie likes to perch on my pillow right beside the window and check out the nocturnal activity in the beaver pond. I cede the pillow to her and stretch out across the bottom of the bed. Auggie the kitty cozies up to Ralph and we all sigh with relief that Barley, now almost a year old and as big as me, prefers the floor to the bed.
It's now noon and time for me to get to work. I must check on the greenhouse, and pay my regards to the fruit trees in passing. All the fruit is still very vulnerable, in spite of the presence of all those hopeful blossoms. Frost can strike at any time into early June, and damage due to winds, rain and hail are always possible. Kaolin clay helps repel the dastardly Plum Curculio, that snout-nosed weevil that leaves behind the little smiley faces on the fruits it eats, but there is no repellent for the kind of damage an ambitious porcupine can do. All farming is risky, but if you grow fruit, well, you've just got to be a little crazy. And humble. After all, you can do everything right, and still lose the fruit. That's why I'm always so exceedingly grateful when everything actually goes right. I am ever-astonished by harvest, by the completion of the promise made by those first blossoms of early spring.
Market and Show Update
I won't be at the Waban Village Fair on the 20th after all. I need a bit more R&R before I'm up to trekking to Boston and setting up tent and tables. Good news, though! Dancing Bear Tom is taking my place so if you're looking for the very finest tomato, pepper and herb plants, see Tom in the village center from 11-3. Check out dancingbearfarm.com to read about Tom's outstanding plants.
Northfield Farmers' Market begins May 31, Thursdays from 4-7 at the Trinitarian Church on beautiful Main Street, (Rts 10 & 63) in picture-perfect Northfield
Newton Farmers' Market begins July 10 at Cold Spring Park on Beacon St., 1:30-6:00. This is probably the finest market in Massachusetts, set in a picturesque park. At this point, I am planning on attending the first market, then returning in mid-August. I want to get the harvests of strawberries, raspberries and currants completed and some of the blueberries and blackberries in before I begin the markets. I love the markets, but they take a toll on my energy stores and I really need to focus on the berries before I tackle the travel. (I also need to make vinegars!)