Sunday, April 27, 2014

The First Harvest

We've reached another milestone here at our little farmhouse - our first homegrown harvest!  Today, I picked some spinach, baby lettuce, tatsoi and purple mizuna for a salad.  While this was a rather meager start by anyone's standards, I couldn't help but to think and hope that this will be the first of many harvests this year and in the years to come. 

To see what others are harvesting, click here!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Our Planting Beds - A Work in Progress

A couple weeks ago, we resumed work on one of several planting beds we have planned for this year.  This particular one lies adjacent to the one I installed last fall on the opposite side of the fence.  For this space, which becomes shaded from late August to when the leaves drop, I intend to grow a mix of flowers, leafy vegetables and fruiting shrubs this year.  For the moment, I'm still debating where to position everything.  Already, I've planted a Knockout rose, an autumn flowering white clematis, three small currants that I'd started from cuttings and a gooseberry.  I also have two honeyberries that I'd purchased from Stark Bros and am expecting a  shipment of purple asparagus crowns from Nourse Farms in May.  Planted among these will be perennial flowers that will bloom in shades of blue, purple, pink, magenta and white.  How it will all come together is anyone's guess at this point.

Unlike the bed to the left, which I'd covered in cardboard and a thick layer of soil mix last September in order to smother the grass, for this particular bed, we actually had to remove the sod since there wouldn't be enough time for it to break down this spring.  It wasn't as intense as I thought it would be since the soil is not as compact this time of year and the grass was like a matted carpet that we easily  lifted in small sections with a garden fork.  We'll need to add a good amount of organic matter to this bed, but aside from that, it's pretty much good to go.  As you can see from this photo, we also removed a section of fencing because we grew sick and tired of having to walk all the way around this fence to access the side door to our barn.  Later this year, I intend to install a small informal walkway where the remaining patch of grass lies.  For now, I can only imagine what this space will look like once it becomes filled. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Planting Our New Home Orchard - The Tall Spindle Growing System

This past weekend was a rather busy one as we finished planting our fruit trees - 14 to be exact.  Most of our trees came from Stark Bros while two of my apple trees and my Asian pear trees came from Adams County Nursery. All and all, I was happy with the trees I'd received.  Obviously, as a home grower, you have less say in what is sent to you, but in the long run, the overall quality of each tree is really what matters.

At the front of our house facing the main road, we planted seven trees - 'Wilson Delicious' apricot, 'Stark Surecrop' pie cherry, 'Shiro' plum, 'Methley' plum, 'Sunrise' pear, 'Shinko' Asian pear and 'Shinsui' Asian pear.  In the middle of our front lawn is an old peach tree that still produces loads of peaches, though I have a feeling it tends to be a biennial bearer.  I removed all of the dead branches this past summer and pruned it a few weeks ago to create more of an open center.  My cherry and apricot trees are self-pollinating, while I planted two plums and Asian pears to cross-pollinate with each another.  I only planted one European pear but my neighbors have an unknown edible pear variety and several ornamental pear trees that I'm hoping will cross-pollinate with mine. 

For the most part, digging up our front lawn was not too arduous.  We encountered several mighty roots and rocks when we dug near where the old maple trees used to be, but all in all, the soil was in decent shape.  Our holes were about 2 feet wide and 20 inches deep.  When planting out our trees, we replaced the soil in each hole with high quality soil mix obtained from a local landscaping company and firmed it well.  I also mulched the top several inches of each planting hole with some amazing leaf mold taken from the neighborhood compost pile behind our home.  We've had quite a bit of rain earlier this week, which I'm sure helped greatly to settle the soil around these trees. 

We encountered much more resistance when we went about planting my row of high-density apple trees in a spot to the side of our home where a row of cedars used to be.  The topsoil was virtually nonexistent and filled with lots of large rocks and tangled roots.  It took us a good 45 minutes to dig each hole and by the time we reached the depth desired, there was nothing but shale. 

 Here is the pile of rocks we removed from the first three holes alone.  

In this spot, I planted 6 apple trees spaced 3 feet apart - 'Red Rome Beauty', 'Gold Rush' and  'Honeycrisp' from Stark Bros, 'Pristine' and 'Daybreak Fugi' from Adams County Nursery and 'Winesap' from our local Home Depot. For those of you who might be interested, I'm growing my apples using the tall spindle planting system.  I won't go into too much detail about this apple growing method in this particular post, but I will say that more and more commercial growers here in New England are switching over to this high-density system of growing apples.  The yields per acre associated with this method are quite impressive, but for the average home grower, I believe it's ideal for several reasons - including early fruiting (possibly the year after planting), limited space requirements, easier pest/disease management and very straightforward pruning.  In addition to these things, I like the fact that I can grow six different varieties of apples in a space that would traditionally accommodate only one or two, and still get a respectable harvest from each tree.  Finally, for our family of three, I'd rather get several modest pickings of many different types of apples stretched over a period of three to four months than one large haul of one variety all at once.

Ideally for this growing method I would have planted un-pruned trees with many short feathers, but unfortunately, this was not an option with the nurseries I'd purchased from. I will most likely miss out on a first harvest next year because of this, but to have apples within two years of planting is still an accomplishment.

Because of the tight spacing, each tree will be supported by a 10 feet length of medal conduit driven two feet into the ground.  I still have to tie my trees to the poles and bend down any existing branches to focus most of the tree's energy into growing the leader, but other than that, most of the hard work is now done.  I really liked how this project turned out and am looking forward to seeing how this particular growing method performs in our small home orchard.  As for now, I can only imagine the wall of different apples that might one day come into fruition.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

And......We're Back to Winter

We awoke to snow this morning.  After two weeks of 'spring-like' weather, this came as quite a shock.  I'd forgotten that temperatures were excepted to plummet last night.  It was 50 degrees F at 11 PM - right when I was about to head to bed.  Luckily I decided to check the weather forecast.  To my horror, the folks at said that by dawn, temperatures were likely to drop to near freezing.  So out I went in my pajamas and rain jacket to cover my beds and haul all of my more tender potted trees and shrubs and trays of seedlings back indoors.  Since we are heading out of town for the remainder of this week, I also had to figure out how to protect my plants while we're away, which required me to drastically reorganize my indoor growing shelves and find a frost-free place outdoors for my larger plants and shrubs.  Unfortunately for me, it was also pouring rain last night and by the time I went back inside at around midnight, I felt like a drowned rat.  When I conveyed this story to my husband and neighbors (who were all asleep at the time of course), they were more struck by my gardening devotion than anything else.  Better to be regarded a devoted gardener than a crazy person I guess. 

 In any case, I was still surprised to see snow this morning.  In addition to laying a heavy-duty tarp over my mini hoop house, I re-covered my bed of spring greens with fabric row cover.  I also placed several pots in between my plants to prevent the top of the fabric from collapsing onto them under the weight of rain (or in this case snow). 

 My garlic was utterly unfazed by the snow and cold.

 On a side note, my potted tulips are sprouting and appear to have survived the winter well.   Unfortunately, my potted daffodils have still not emerged.  I think I might have grown a late variety but still, it seems strange that there's no sign of life at this point.  I might have to do a little digging to get to the bottom of it. 

 Sedum 'Autumn Joy' is coming back to life.  I think a sedum hedge is the next best thing to boxwood.

We have a flowering quince shrub in front of our kitchen window that was at least 10 ft tall and drooping over from years of neglect.  I pruned it to half it's size and cut at least half of the canes down to the grown.  I'm glad to see it producing buds this spring.  Hopefully, we'll see a lot of fresh growth this year. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spring Awakening

I love this time of year.  The weather is perfect for working outdoors and this past weekend was no exception.   We've been very busy flexing our muscles these past few weeks and are slowly making process on our garden projects for this spring.  I planted out some of my early spring greens (spinach, bok choy, tatsoi, mizuna, lettuce and scallions) a week ago and they seem to be thriving.  Unlike my old garden, there's not a slug in sight and I'm guessing that it will still be a few more weeks before the first cabbage whites appear.  If I'm lucky, I'll actually get "hole-less" Asian greens this time around.  At nights, I cover this bed with fabric row cover if temperatures are expected to reach down into the 30's.  So far, they've remained untouched by frost. I've also direct sown my Fava beans and snow peas.   This year, I'm starting my shell peas and purple podded soup peas in pots as I'm still working on installing their planting beds. 

 All around us, plants are being to wake up from their long winter sleep.  The currant bushes I started from cuttings two years ago are looking very healthy.  Last year, I removed all of the flower buds to allow the plant to focus its energy on growing.  I'm hope that that slight sacrifice will result in a bumper crop this year.  On a side note, the additional red currant, white currant, arctic kiwi and gooseberry plants I'd started last spring have all survived in their pots as well.  I'm looking forward to setting them out this summer and waking them grow even more this year.

 My potted figs have come out of dormancy as well.  At our old home, I overwintered my fig trees in our unheated garage with success.  When we moved to Vermont, we didn't have a garage so I kept them in an unheated enclosed patio.  Unfortunately, they were no match for the severe Vermont winter and both of my original trees died. When we moved back to Massachusetts last spring, I made a second trip to Joe Morle's nursery and purchased three new fig trees - the two varieties I had originally bought ('Black Triana' and 'Paradiso') and an 'Italian Honey' Fig. I had a figs last summer and they were all excellent.

Growing figs continue to be a challenge in our climate.  The fig varieties I've chosen tend to produce two crops a year.  Unfortunately, the second (and often bumper) crop tends not to ripen in time before fall sets in.  I'm hoping that I'll be able to install a fully functioning greenhouse one of these days so that we can take full advantage of what these trees have to offer.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sprouting Garlic

Like clock work each year, my garlic is up!  I'm growing four varieties this year - Music, German Extra Hardy, Pskem River and Red Russian.  And from the look of things, they seem to have fared the winter well.  Some people look forward to the sight of crocus in early Spring.  I do as well.  But to me, sprouting garlic is the most comforting sign that warmer days lie ahead. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Warmer Days Mean a Warmer Hoophouse

 Now that our daytime temperatures are reaching into the 50s F, I'm having to remind myself to vent my mini hoop house before I leave for work in the mornings.  A few of my plants (particularly my Montauk daisies, penstemon and cascading lobelia look slightly fried a the moment.  Fortunately, it's nothing they can't recover from eventually.  It's hard for me determine if this was due to the few days that I forgot to vent the hoop house during the day last week, or if this is the result of some light frost damage at night.  To be on the safe side, I'm now venting daily and placing a heavy tarp on at night to prevent any major temperature swings.

Large binder clips sure come in handy in the garden.  In this case, it's keeping the plastic covering prompted open.  My rudbeckia, purple coneflower, Jupiter's beard (red valerian), delphiniums and sweet peas are thriving inside my hoop house - which is a good thing considering that it will be several more weeks before I'll be able to safely transplant them out.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Old Trees Are Gone and New Trees Arrive

The first of my fruit trees and shrubs that I'd ordered online last year have arrived!  It feels like such a milestone in a way.  If anything, it's yet another reminder that we're now firmly settled in our long-term home and that the years of us moving from place to place are behind us.  This particular delivery is from Stark Bro's and contains 8 fruit trees.  The box arrived a little banged up but the bare-root trees themselves seem in pretty good shape aside from a couple broken branches.  I'd ordered all dwarf trees, including an Ichi-Ki-Kei-Jiro Asian persimmon, Gold Rush apple, Honeycrisp apple, Red Rome Beauty apple, Wilson Delicious apricot, Shiro plum, Methley plum and Stark Surecrop Pie cherry.  I have a second delivery from Stark Bro's currently on its way of mostly fruiting shrubs and a dwarf pear tree as well as an order from Adam's County Nursery of two Asian pear trees and two additional dwarf apple trees that is scheduled for delivery for later this month.  I've always wanted to grow a small orchard and 13 fruit trees is about the most our one acre property can handle since we have very limited areas in full sunlight.   For the time being, the trees are being housed in our unheated basement.  I'm really looking forward to planting them out this weekend. 

 In preparation for the arrival of our fruit trees and also for aesthetic purposes, we had several old enormous trees removed from our property.  This huge chokecherry sat in a rather shady spot in front of our home and we don't plan on replacing it with something else anytime soon.  We decided to remove it because 1) it wasn't very pretty to look at and 2) according to the prior owners of our home, one of its huge limbs had fallen onto our power line a couple years back.  In late summer, it also sheds tons of small black berries that cover the ground and stain your feet and shoes.  That was enough for me to say goodbye. 

 We had a second chokecherry on the other side of our house.  Not only was it ugly and messy, it also shaded various parts of our lawn throughout the day.  It didn't take me long to decide that this had to go as well.
 At the end of our circular driveway was an old maple tree that had seen better days.  It had lost several major limbs through the years and shaded most of this area for much of the day.  It also had a reputation of causing several visitors to drive their vehicles over a big boulder (bottom-left) on the opposite side of the driveway in order to avoid it - sometimes causing major damage.  Since I was planning to plant an apple fruiting wall directly behind it, in the end, I decided that it had to go. We also plan to widen the driveway a bit here in order to deter folks from the boulder. 

 Finally we had two huge maples at the end of our driveway that were badly pruned through the years (particularly by the utility company) and both had rotting hollow trunks. I would have loved to keep them if they were our native sugar maples but they were Norways - a non-native and rather invasive species that grow like weeds around our part of the would.  I will admit that I was not sad to see them go. 

 So in early March, we hired a local tree company to take them all down and grind the stumps.  I was really surprised and impressed by how quickly and precisely they went about their work. 

 What I thought would take all day ended up taking only 5 hours.  All of the small limbs were chipped and hauled away (though in hindsight, I would have liked to keep some of it) and we were left with enough hardwood to keep us warm for at least the next two winters.  We had them cut the trunks and large limbs into manageable-sized logs so the only thing we'll have to do this summer is rent a wood splitter.  I figure we'll have at least four cords of firewood when all is said and done. 

 With the old maple gone, our circular driveway is much sunnier now.  And I have big plans for the island in the middle.

Our front lawn has also really opened up.  You can see our old peach tree to the right of the picture, which I'd pruned last summer to remove all of the dead branches and again a few weeks ago to open up the center.  We were told that the tree had fruited very heavily last summer so I suspect that it has biennial bearing tendencies.  Only time will tell I guess.  In front of the peach tree is where I'd like to plant my two plums and apricot.  To the left of this tree, I will plant my pear and two Asian pears trees.  Our next door neighbor has several large pear trees so I'm hoping that cross-pollination won't be an issue.

Once all of my fruit trees are planted, I will then focus on planting several dwarf ornamental trees during the next few years.   Obviously it will take many years for these trees to become established and fill up this space.  To be honest, I don't quite mind.  It will be interesting to see how this new space changes and progresses through the years.