Tag Archive | farm living

News From The Farm

Spring is in full swing here at the farm.  The primroses, daffodils, narcissus and hyacinths are all blooming.  It must have been a fairly mild winter compared to the winter before last.  I do remember some bitterly cold weather in December of 2017 before we got snow cover.  The flowers were not so impressive last spring as they are this year.  The bulbs are strong and both the star magnolia and the forsythia are in full flower.  Last year there were only about a dozen flowers on the forsythia.  This year it’s gorgeous.

One of the two baby mountain ash trees I planted last spring survived the winter.  It’s looking pretty happy about its spot on the side of the hill that supports our driveway.  Luckily the voles and field mice did not nibble the mountain ash over the winter.  The same can not be said for the expensive crabapple tree I planted two years ago.  Even though I wound a plastic tree protector around it last fall, after giving it a good covering with white paint, the voles still got at it.  They pushed the plastic out of the way and gnawed off large amounts of bark from the first 2 feet of trunk.  I don’t think the tree will live.

Last year we suffered from an over population of field rodents.  They attacked grown apple trees, killing a couple dozen, and chewed up large regions of grass roots in the hayfield leaving bare patches.  I read that painting the lower parts of the fruit trees with white latex paint will repel rodents.  This past winter the rodent population must have been down.  We’re not seeing grass damage like last year, nor as much tree chewing.  But several apple trees that I sprayed white with paint were chewed.  Looks like the rodents just scratch away the bark until the paint is gone then proceed with devouring the tree.  They sure devoured my crabapple.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained is the old adage, but I spent over $100 on paint for the trees, plus my time and effort to apply it, to no avail.The horses, Vista and Maddie, are happy to see green grass!  Especially since their hay is almost gone.  The weather has been quite chilly, slowing the growth of grass and causing us to use more hay than usual.  It’s great to finally have enough grass to sustain two hungry horses.

Vista (on the left) is now 30 years old.  It is possible this is her last summer.  She is really beginning to show her age.  We may have to put her away in the fall to avoid having to deal with a down horse next winter.  A sad time for me.  Vista has been with me since she was 10 months old.  She has always been a loving, loyal, hardworking and willing animal.  A wonderful saddle horse, we have spent many memorable hours together including two trips to the carriage trails of Acadia National Park.  I will sure miss the old girl.

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The Art of Tapping Maple Trees

Maple syrup season is in full swing here at the farm.  I tapped three days ago and have filled the 50 gallon boiler tank.  Today is the first day I’ve fired the boiler.  By tomorrow evening we should have over a gallon of fresh syrup if all goes well.  Here at Phoenix Farm we make maple syrup much as the ancestors did hundreds of years ago.

Improvements were implemented over the years with the development of galvanized buckets to replace the old wood ones, better spiels and a more enclosed method of boiling the sap to keep the smoke out.  Syrup was once made in open containers over open fires.  Generally, we collect and process sap much as was done in the 1700s here in New England.  I prefer the old fashioned way.  Besides the nostalgia factor, using metal rather than plastic for long term sap contact alleviates concerns of plastic contaminant leaching.

There is an art to drilling and caring for tap holes using the old methods.  It is helpful to tap on a day when the sap is running so you know the hole is patent.  Dry holes are no good to anyone.  Sap season occurs when air temperatures are in the 40sF during the day and 20sF at night.

I use an antique manual bit and brace drill.  Choosing the correct drill bit size is essential.  Too large or small a hole can lead to tree damage.  The correct size to fit standard spiels is 7/16″.  The spiel must be straight and perfectly round to fit snugly in the drill hole.  The materials required for tapping are the drill, a hammer, a study twig about 6″ long, spiels and buckets with lids.  Some lucky people also have a spiel driver which is a solid piece of metal that fits inside the spiel and allows you to hammer it into the tree without a chance of damaging the spiel.  Someday I will afford a spiel driver!

If the trees are being tapped in mid to late March, try to drill on the more shady northern, northeast or northwest sides of the trunk.  This helps protect the sap gathering in the bucket from getting too hot in the warm afternoon sun.  Sap must be kept chilled or it can spoil.

The hole is drilled with a slight downward slant to encourage the sap to run out.  Too steep a drill angle will allow the spiel to pull out when it holds the weight of a full bucket.  The holes are drilled between two to five feet from the ground.  Trees can be tapped when they reach ten to twelve feet in diameter at chest height.  I put one bucket on smaller trees, two buckets on trees larger than fifteen to twenty inches in diameter.  We have so many trees in the maple orchard that we don’t need to triple tap any of them.  It is safe to place up to four taps on a very large tree.


Drill the hole smoothly and evenly with no wobbling of the bit.  You want the hole to be straight so the spiel will fit flush, containing the sap and sending it out through the spout into the bucket.  Sloppy, loose holes leak and leaky holes are a waste of sap and time.  Drill in about 2.5″ to reach the xylem, where the sap travels inside the trunk.  Use the sturdy 6″ twig to clean any drill dust out of the hole.  Then, use the hammer to gently tap the spiel on the wide area above the spout to drive it into the hole until it is just snug.

A spiel driven in too deep can split the trunk, greatly damaging the tree.  A spiel that is too loose is in danger of falling out when the bucket gets full.  When the sap starts to run out the spout, I clean the first of it away since it will be full of bits of drilling dust.  Finally, hang the bucket on the spiel and pop on a cover.  It takes me four to five minutes to complete each tap.



On a nice, warm afternoon in March when the sun is shining and the temperature is around 45F, the sap will practically pour from the drilled hole. Each tap hole produces between one to two gallons on a day when the sap is running well.  Temperatures below the 40sF, cloudy, cool days and chilly, windy days reduce sap production.  
After the trees are tapped, (we have twenty-five taps this year,) it takes two to four days to collect enough sap to fill the boiler pan, depending on the weather. The average ratio is forty gallons of sap produces one gallon of syrup. I suspect the soil in our maple orchard encourages very robust trees because they gives us a little more syrup per gallon of sap. More like 35:1.

Once temperatures are sustained above freezing at night, the maple trees begin to bud:  their leaf and flower buds are swelling in preparation for opening.  Budding signals the end of syrup season.  The sap becomes dark and bitter.  To me, care of the tap holes at the end of the season is as important as at the beginning.  Certainly, there are plenty of people who will swear that all you need to do is pull out the spiel and let the tree alone.  The sap that bleeds out in profusion from the holes is not a problem for the plant, some claim.  I ignore this advice.

It makes sense to me that a bleeding tree is losing energy.  It also is obvious that an opening that leads 2.5″ into the trunk of a tree is an invitation for insects and microbes to invade.  At the end of the season, I use the hammer to gently tap each spiel out of the tree.  I cut ash saplings selected to fit snugly in the opening.  Using ash rather than maple saplings reduces the chance of introducing disease into the tree.

I peel and whittle the sapling, as necessary, until it perfectly fits the hole.  Then I cut off a piece about 1″ long and tap it into the hole.  The chunk of sapling acts as a plug.  It greatly slows the loss of sap.  As the tree heals, new wood forms inside the hole and pushes outward against the plug, popping it out of the trunk.  Filling the hole completely with foreign wood so that the plug remains in the tree will damage the plant since it creates a dead space in the trunk.  In the photo above, the plug placed last year is on its way out of the hole.  Below is a well healed old tap hole.

Improper drilling can create catastrophic results for the tree.  When a tap is driven in too hard and the trunk splits, the wood below the hole dies.  A wide section of the truck is lost, resulting in a hole in the tree near the roots and much dead wood.  When I first started tapping maples, I made the mistake of splitting the trunk a few times and damaged several trees including this fairly young one below.  There is a big hole on the left lower side.  This tree still produces plenty of sap and is healthy, but some do not recover from the damage.  They are weakened to the point where they have to be cut down.

One of the joys of maple season for me is listening to the sap drip into the metal buckets.  Quite a cadence can be heard of a warm afternoon.  So that others might enjoy this rare tree music, I’ve made a couple short videos of the dripping sap.  Notice in the close-up shots how the hydraulic force appears to create a heartbeat-like rhythm.

First Snow and First Eggs

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Time to finish cleaning up the garden!

We awoke today to the first measurable snow of the season, about 1/2 inch of wet accumulation.  The white won’t last long.  The next few days will have temperatures in the 40sF with rain.  It’s pretty to see, dusting the trees, carpeting the lawns.  A warning of what is to come.

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Winter dusts the harvest decorations

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Snow never stops Otto from enjoying his favorite ball

The first snow of the winter is later than last year by about three weeks.  We have enjoyed a very warm autumn.  The ground has not frozen yet.  I am still harvesting the late apples and they are in good, hard condition.  I also collected my hazelnut crop, a total of eighteen nuts! b6

Next year should bring a better harvest.  Only the largest hazelnut bush produced nuts.  Hazelnuts require good cross pollination.  There are two other hazelnuts struggling to produce flower catkins.  They should provide enough to fertilize my largest plant next spring, as long as the deer don’t chew on them again this winter.  I trimmed my husband’s hair last night and collected the clippings.  Legend holds that hanging little cloth bags of human hair in the branches of trees will stop the deer from eating the twigs.  I’m giving it a try.b1

The pullets hatched in May and June have just started laying.  There are a total of thirteen hens.  Every morning the lights in their pen come on around four.  This gives them enough supplemental light to stimulate laying during the dark, dreary days of late fall and early winter.  We are getting an average of eight eggs per day.

b5The shell color on the eggs being produced by these young Ameraucana hens is lovely.   My latest flock is all silver or black plumage color.  I believe the blacks produce the deepest blue shade on their eggshells.  I breed specifically for the bluest shell color and things seem to be heading in the right direction!

 

News from the Frontlines: Battle of the Rattle

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Update on the Battle of the Rattle, my ongoing campaign to wipe out yellow rattle in my hayfields:  the scales are tipping in my favor.  After mowing the entire hayfield with the rotary mower in mid-June, I hoped the rattle would be defeated for this year.  Surveillance proved otherwise.

Plentiful rains after the mowing encouraged regrowth from the cut stems.  Rattle sprang up and rejoined the fray.  By last week, the parasitic plant was blooming all over the field.  I have a new tactic, this one will be the decisive move of the war.  Methodically, by quadrant, I am sweeping the entire field and pulling the parasites by hand.

The work is long, hard, hot and grim.  Deer flies and mosquitoes buzz my head and attack any exposed flesh. The burning July sun beats down.  My back aches from bending to pull the endless plants.  I fill bags with the plant bodies and throw the casualties deep in the dark woods where they will never be seen again.

So far I’ve cleared about one-third of the field.  I’m not sure how big the entire area is, several acres, at least.  Yellow rattle is a rigid, brittle plant.  To remove it from the ground, a gentle, steady pressure is applied.  Pull too hard and the stem snaps.  Pull just right and the entire puny root system comes loose. Rattle does not require a lot of roots since it gets nourishment by tapping into the roots of other plants.r3

r2I use great care not to drop a single seed pod. Each pod contains twenty or more seeds. A dropped green pod will mature to papery-gray with loose seeds rattling around inside, ready to start a new generation of the weed.

Removing rattle by hand will defeat the plant.  The only threat that remains is seeds that got into the field in the last couple years.  They can still germinate next year.  I will be ever vigilant.  If more plants show their miserable yellow heads next spring, I will be all over them, yanking them from the ground.  Next year, I will not lose my hay crop.

Fancy Lawn Mowers

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Here at the farm we have a fancy pair of lawn mowers.  They are grass powered and self-propelled.  They do an excellent job, with a clean, close cut.  Steep hillsides are trimmed with ease.  Edging is a breeze.  They even provide some fresh fertilizer from time to time!

In the spring the horses need fresh grass and we need to keep ahead of the rapidly growing lawn grass.  Horse lawn mowers work out very well for us.  The fence is not even electrified.  The horses are so trained to the fence they stay inside.  Sometimes they get excited and prance around a bit, tearing the ground with their hooves.  The damage is minimal and quickly repaired.  Our four-legged lawn mowers are tireless and always eager for work.h2

September Garden

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Garden with second hatch (June 3) of Ameraucana chicks.

The Harvest moon has passed without a frost and the garden is still booming in September.  The fence has worked well so far this year.  No chickens or other undesirables in the garden.  Above, the 15 young chickens from the second hatch run by the garden with no thought of the juicy tomatoes and squash inside.

g10g8Things are beginning to wind down, the bean harvest is finally over.  I pulled the plants yesterday. We have 19 pints of wax beans put up for winter.  As I uprooted the bean plants I also weeded, and the area looks nice and neat.g11g7  My horses enjoy bean plants and were happy to provide their unique composting services. While the string beans produce one major harvest, and several smaller ones, they continue to bloom up until frost.  If left in the garden, enough beans for a meal form every week.  The winter squash plants are visible on the side of the photo to the right. They are nearly ready to pick.

g13g5Bachelor buttons are about done for the year. They were so pretty. The Jerusalem artichokes are in full bloom.  The heads of flowers are so heavy they weigh the tall plants down, causing them to lean.  Maybe I will proved them some support next year.  The sunflowers also are finally in bloom.  I lost one tall plant to high winds, snapped off at the base, so I have three plants.  All are yellow.  I was hoping for some orange or burgundy.  Oh well.

g3g4Indian corn has ripened and is now ready to harvest.  The husks of the ears are drying and shrinking back from the tops of the cobs.  Unfortunately this exposes the corn to hungry birds and insects so I must pick all the ears soon.

g12The tomato jungle continues to pump out fruit.  I can not keep up with production.  Many go to the chickens and horses, but that’s ok.  We have plenty of tomatoes in the freezer and all the fresh ones I can eat and give away to unsuspecting friends.  Most years I mulch the entire tomato patch with lawn clippings.  I never managed to finish the job this year.  The mulch is good for keeping dirt off the fruit and weeds down, so next year I will try harder to get this chore done on time.

g2The carrots have recovered from their second thinning and are growing nicely.  Harvest time is right around the corner for them.

g14Also ready for harvest are the pumpkins. We have 9 large field pumpkins, many tiny Jack-Be-Little pumpkins, but no pie pumpkins.  Those apparently failed this year.  The gourds on the mountain look to be a plentiful harvest.  I may have to open a little roadside stand on one fine weekend in October to unload some of the excess squashes and Indian corn.  We live on a high traffic road.  On a warm, sunny fall day sales can be brisk.g9

More Wildflowers

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Wildflowers are one of my favorite subjects.  The abundance of spring wildflowers in Maine brings me many hours of enjoyment.  Here are a couple of wildflowers with similar petal structures, prefering the same sort of woodland habitats, although they are from unrelated families.  Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica,) pictured above, is from the Portulaca family and grows from an edible, nutty flavored corm.

a2I find the fine purple veining of the petals very beautiful. These grow on our farm in many places, especially along the banks of Martin Stream, a small river.  The seeds of Spring Beauty include elaiosomes much as Dutchman’s Breeches’ seeds.  Ants eat this fleshy part of the seed cover and disburse the seeds by adding them to their underground waste piles.a3

Wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia,) also called Nightcaps, in the photo above, are from the buttercup family.  These lovely little white to pinkish-white flowering plants form large colonies in our woodlands.  a4The anemones spread by underground rhizomes, are quite sensitive to habitat change and die out easily. Their petals are actually sepals.

Finding a spread of anemone in the woods, a carpet of green and white against the brown winter leaves, is magical.  A perfect place to seek for tiny elves and woodland fairies.