Archive | August 2014

Hazelnut Experiment


Hazelnuts or filberts are my favorite nut.  Several years ago I decided to try growing my own hazelnuts.  The woods are full of wild hazelnut so I figured the cultivated varieties should survive here.  I bought two tiny American hazelnut trees and heeled them in a nursery bed for three years. When they reached a height of two feet, I transplanted them to a permanent spot in the orchard.   a2

This is the third year in the orchard.  One tree has taken off and the other is lagging. I probed the hole and didn’t hit any ledge so I’m not sure what the problem is with this little guy. For fertilization, two trees are required.  The second tree is struggling along and does produce catkins (flowers.)  I may try transplanting this tree to a different spot to make sure there isn’t a problem with the hole.

a4This summer I discovered nuts forming on the bigger tree.  If they are not fertilized, they will be blanks, just empty shells.  In a couple months or so, they will be ready to harvest and we’ll see if there are any nuts.

Hazelnuts require a soil pH above 5.6 and need boron to set nuts.  They also must be pruned, a job I will tackle this winter with the big tree.  These photos were taken prior to orchard mowing, so the grass is a little tall.

Pests and disease are significant problems for hazelnuts.  Commercial orchards use all sorts of pesticides and herbicides to produce marketable nuts.  Here at Phoenix Farm, we grow things organically.  So far, knock on wood, the hazelnuts appear to not be suffering from any major problems like Eastern Filbert Blight.  I’m not positive, but these may be bred to resist the blight. Guess I’ll find out.  Growing hazelnuts is just an experiment. If I get some edible nuts each year, that will be reward enough for me.a3


Canning Wax String Beans


The beans are here!  They are coming on strong and need to be picked every few days.  Time to get canning.  To me, there is no better vegetable in the middle of the winter than canned wax beans from my own garden.  Home canning can be very satisfying, can save money, and is perfectly safe if done correctly.  Botulism bacteria occur naturally in soil so it is possible to make oneself very ill or dead if canning is done wrong.  I always follow the instructions.

High acid foods like tomatoes are easier to can because their acid content is inhospitable to many bacteria including botulism.  These foods are canned in a hot water bath, meaning they are packed in canning jars, immersed in boiling water and cooked for a certain amount of time.  The temperature of boiling water is hot enough to safely preserve acid foods.

Low acid foods like wax beans require steam canning to raise the temperature of the cooking process to 240 degrees F so the preserved vegetables will be safe to eat.  The higher temperature kills any bacteria if the canning is done as instructed in such manuals as my handy little Blue Book by the Ball Corporation, makers of canning jars.b8  I use the raw or cold pack method for bean processing because I don’t like my beans to taste over-cooked.  For canning, I have an assortment of pressure cookers ranging from four to eight quart size.  The smallest cookers hold three jars and the big cooker holds five.b2

b3Fresh, tender beans are snapped and thoroughly rinsed to remove any dirt and foreign matter.  I can in pint jars that fit neatly into my pressure cookers.  A pint of beans is the perfect size for dinner at our house.  The cleaned, pre-heated jars are closely packed with raw beans.  Too loosely packed allows beans to float and leave a large water space in the bottom.  A waste of space that should be filled with vegetables.b4

I add one-half teaspoon of canning salt to each jar, I like my beans with a little salt. Then boiling water is poured over the beans.b5  I leave one-half inch head space.  The lids are tightly applied and the jars go in the pressure cooker.  I set the jars on the rack inside the cooker.  Warm water is added to the cooker to half-full.  After the lid is locked, the weight is placed on the lid at ten pounds.  The heat is on high until the weight starts to jiggle, releasing steam.  Then the heat is reduced to maintain a steady, easy boil in the cooker with the weight rocking a few times each minute.  Processing time is thirty minutes from when the weight begins to rock.b6

When the time is up, the cooker is removed from the heat and allowed to cool completely.  Do not try to quickly cool the cooker by running cold water over it.  Too rapid cooling forces out the water inside the canning jars, resulting in dry jars of vegetables, blah.  Once the cooker is cooled and the pressure is back to normal, the lid is unlocked.  The jars are removed to a towel to completely cool and seal.b9  Each lid is tested by gently pressing the center to assure it is sealed before storage.  Sealed lids are concave in the middle and will not move.  I do not try to tighten bands as that can break the seal.  Now the beans are ready to go in the cupboard for winter. I write the date on the lid so I know which jars to use first if more than one year is in storage.

One great advantage to using glass jars for canning is they can be heated in the microwave when it’s time to eat the beans.  I just pop off the top, pour out most of the water and heat the beans in the jar.  Two minutes later they are ready to place in a serving bowl for the table.b7

Of Global Warming and Highbush Blueberries


When I was a kid, my dad planted about four hundred highbush blueberries in several varieties.  The plants have been there a good forty years now.  For most of that time, we raised organic berries and sold them to help pay the land taxes.  The plants needed little care beyond pruning and mowing. Between mid-July and early September was blueberry picking time.  I was a champion harvester, collecting by hand an average of twelve quarts per hour when the pickings were good.  That has all changed.b2b1

The year 2006 is the last date I have on blueberries in my freezer. Since then every crop has been ruined by the blueberry maggot.  The maggot is the larva of a very small fruit fly, (Rhagoletis mendax) slightly wider than 1/8″, with black-barred wings shaped a bit like a B2 Stealth Bomber when viewed from above.  And stealthy they are.  Just as the berries begin to ripen, the female flits around depositing one egg in each of an average of twenty to forty berries. With a horde of the flies working, that’s a lot of berries with eggs in them.  The egg quickly develops into a tiny white worm-like maggot that eats the inside of the berry.b3  When the berry shrivels and falls to the ground, the maggot burrows out and down into the soil where it winters over five to seven inches below the surface.  The next summer adults emerge to begin the cycle anew.

The maggot has several native plant hosts including wild blueberries and bunchberries.  Because Maine is full of these plants, it’s impossible to eradicate the fly.  For most of history, the fly has been limited in range by cold winter temperatures.  Blueberries along coastal Maine are sprayed heavily with pesticides like Malathion to control the maggots and produce a palatable crop.  The tolerance for maggots is 0%.  If someone finds a wiggly little white critter in their berry, they are unlikely to want any more.  The maggots are especially noticeable when berries are cooked, as the dead bodies float to the surface.  This ruins blueberry jam and pies.  For most of the years we had highbush berries, the cold winters with temperatures falling as low as forty below zero kept blueberry maggot infestations away.

Changes in climate due to the general warming of the Earth have made our winters too mild.  The maggot has spread its territory well inland, hitting our berry patch in 2007.  The coldest winter in recent memory occurred last year with temps to twenty below.  Still not enough to wipe out the maggots.  This year we have a bumper crop of beautiful, big berries.  Many are as wide across as a quarter, and so sweet.  Like eating little bites of the best blueberry pie.

Sadly, we can’t pick any for sale or even to put in the freezer because there is no way to reliably tell which berry is infested with maggot.  A ripe infested berry may feel slightly softer than a good berry. That’s a very subjective standard and not always accurate.  Upon opening a ripe berry, the maggot is usually obvious.  The thing is tiny and very active.  The inside of the berry where the maggot has been eating has a slight reddish cast where a clean berry is all white.b4  From the outside, good and bad berries look the same.

If I want some fresh berries to eat, or to bake, I have to open each berry and check for a bug.  The quickest way to open the berry is to use a thumbnail to make a slit in the bottom end and lay the berry open in half.  The reddish tint is the first indicator of infestation, then the tiny maggot becomes apparent as it squirms around.  In the photo at right, the top berry is clean, the bottom berry, infested.  I have been desperate enough for a blueberry pie to open a quart of berries.  Takes awhile, but worth the effort.  Most years I find one in twenty nice looking berries has a maggot inside.  That is the ratio this year as well.

Not all is lost, or we would have cut the plants and turned the berry patch back into pasture.  Highbush berries can be grown organically in maggot regions. The maggot requires high humidity at the time it drops from the plant so it can travel down into the soil. In dry years, maggots die.  The top few inches of soil must be easy for the insect to penetrate. The adult female fly does not lay too many eggs, usually between twenty and one hundred in her life span.  It is possible to catch the flies with sticky, baited traps before they can harm the crop. Commercial growers use such traps to determine when they need to spray.  When flies are caught, get out the spraying equipment.

To turn our blueberries into a cash crop again, we must invest time, money and effort.  When the plants were set out, they were spaced too closely.  As the crop matures, the branches droop, and each plant requires twelve feet of space.  Ours are set six feet apart.  They lie on each other, creating deep shade at the roots.  The close spacing makes them hard to mow so weeds grow up, providing even more shade–humidity for maggots.b7

Since the devastation by the maggots, we have sold about half the plants in the patch, the smaller ones that are easier to dig.  Easy is a matter of opinion.  Digging a mature highbush blueberry plant out of the ground would be good punishment for chain-gang criminals. The effort required to remove the mass of roots from the ground is back breaking.  We sold the plants we dug for $30 each, and didn’t feel justly compensated for the work involved.  The remaining plants are at the center of the patch:  huge, healthy, burgeoning specimens with giant root systems.  It is not feasible to dig them by hand.

I have developed a plan for returning the blueberries to a profitable crop that my husband is almost on board with.  It involves cutting every other of the remaining plants.  He has not quite wrapped his head around destroying nearly one hundred perfectly nice plants.  So we are at a stand-off.  Every other spring I prune the plants and cut away the young trees and vines that try to grow up.  Then the patch gets ignored as summer work adds up, mowing isn’t done on time,  weeds grow tall and the maggots have another feast.

I would like to thin the plants so there is adequate space around them, put down a mulch barrier to make it more difficult for the maggots to reach the ground, and buy enough sticky fly traps to control the adults.  The berries we could produce would soon pay for the mulch and traps.  We would not have to mow the patch, weeds would not grow well anymore.  This seems like a good plan to me.

My husband talks of getting a small machine that could be used in the rows to dig up the plants for sale.  Such a machine is expensive and not very practical since the rows are so tightly spaced, it would be hard to maneuver.  Finding the cash to buy or rent a tiny excavator has not been possible to date, so the crop continues to be lost.  I say bite the bullet, cut the plants and lets grow good blueberries again.  I almost have him convinced.b6


Growing Christmas Trees


For many years, the beginning of the Christmas holiday season was marked at our house by the search for the tree.  With about fifty acres of woods, there are always a few balsams worthy of a place in the livingroom.  As I get older, I find the long trek back to the house hauling a tree to be less enjoyable.  Not to mention the endless searching for a balsam full enough to serve as a Christmas tree.  Most young balsams are understory trees, tall and thin-branched.  The best Christmas trees grow in sunny locations.  Years of harvesting the best trees left the pickings thin.

I had a flash of inspiration one day when I found a young balsam situated right beside a tree soon to be cut for firewood.  The baby balsam needed to move or it would die.  I dug it up and transplanted it to a rough area below the garden that was under-used.  As time passed, I saved more little trees from the middle of logging roads, from under the branches of apple trees in the orchards, or from certain death near a hardwood destined for firewood.

Once the little trees found themselves in a place with fertile soil and plenty of sunlight, they thrived. Now, there are over a dozen young future Christmas trees right out in the yard, only a few steps from the house.  No more tramping the heavily wooded hills, sometimes through foot deep snow, to find a tree!

I prefer my Christmas trees to look natural, not over-trimmed like commercial varieties.  To me, a traditional tree has nice, full, even  branches with a good leader, but is not so thick it can’t be seen through.  For this reason I don’t prune the balsams as tree growers do.  I let them develop natural fullness from the influence of sunlight.  A couple times during the summer I cut the weeds around them so the lower branches develop.  The biggest trees in the photos are over six feet tall and are about five to seven years in the plot.  They all started as small, spindly things, less than two feet in height. a1