Tag Archive | farming

Russian Knapweed

So this is what I found in my hayfield last week.  There were about a dozen plants in one small area.  This is the first time I’ve seen it in my fields.  Russian knapweed is a pernicious invasive weed.  It is toxic to horses.  A marvelous find in my horse hay field.

The first time I saw this stuff was last year in a mown field on the coast.  It had taken over large portions of the field.  The weed is a perennial that spreads mostly through the roots.  It also produces plenty of seeds.

Knapweed is native to southern Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.  Its roots even grow in the winter.  The weed produces poison that kills other plants so that it forms dense monocultures.

Eradication is difficult.  The roots can cover six square yards in a growing season.  The recommended way to control it is to kill it with herbicide then plant grasses that can survive its poison to out-compete it.  Repeated manual removal to stress the roots, along with encouraging grass growth through irrigation is an organic control method.

My farm is organic.  I pulled all the growth as soon as I found it.  The field will be mowed in the next few weeks.  That will make it easier to spot re-emerging growth.

I plan to stay on top of this weed and stress the heck out of the roots.

Who knows how Russian knapweed got in my field.  I suspect it was brought in on haying equipment used by the farmer who cuts my hay.  That’s how yellow rattle invaded my fields.

By manually removing all the rattle before it can seed, I nearly eliminated it.  Unfortunately, the farmer brings in more each year.  I have to patrol my fields every spring looking for rattle and ripping it out.  I spotted the knapweed while I was looking for rattle.  Patrolling the hayfields has become an essential part of farming for me, it seems.

I hope one day soon to own haying equipment.  Cutting my own hay will make my life easier in many ways, including reduction in the numbers of invasive weeds.


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.

Figs Ripening!


It’s very exciting for me!  My first figs are ripening!  They are getting a pretty pink blush.  When the color is mahogany they will be ready to pick!!  The little tree is ripening six fruit.  Can hardly wait to eat them.  I bought some fresh figs are the grocery store last week.  They were sad, wrinkled and over-ripened things, but still better than dried figs.

The fig tree is in a race with the weather.  Temperatures have remained warmer than normal here. We’ve gotten several light frosts, mostly right around the full moons.  Covering the tree at night with an old bed sheet has spared it from being nipped by frost.  If the temperatures dip any lower than about 28F, I will have to move the tree inside.

The full sun it receives outside is spurring the fruit ripening, I sure.  Moving the tree inside will shock it some and cause it to drop the leaves quickly.  Not sure what that will do to my fruit.  I’m rooting for warm weather to continue for at least a couple more weeks.  If past weather patterns hold, it will stay warm right up to late October.  We have been getting warm, wet autumns and cool, dry springs for the past several years.  Keeping my fingers crossed for figs!

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


Wonderful Wood Ash

Here in Maine the rain can be acidic.  Power plants and other coal-burning enterprises in the Mid-West and South produce sulfur that mixes in the clouds to form sulfuric acid which then drops on us. The rain is not so caustic that it burns holes in things, but the lower pH makes a noticeable difference in the soils and waters of our state.  To combat the acidification, we farmers must sweeten the soil by raising the pH so certain plants will grow better.

Some plants love low pH:  blueberries, azaleas, rhododendrons, all thrive on more acidic soil so don’t sweeten around those plants.  Many garden plants and trees need soils closer to neutral pH and in this area require soil amendment to do well.  The primary additive for raising soil pH is lime.  Finely ground or pelleted, farmers and gardeners spread this mineral liberally.  Lime can get expensive, especially if there are large areas needing attention.  Here at Phoenix Farm we have a free neutralizer:  wood ash.

Our efficient, low emission, wood burning stove heats the whole house all winter and produces a plentiful supply of ash.  Ash is the powdery, whitish-gray residue of wood burning, not the black chunks that are coals of incompletely combusted wood.  Wood ash is a very potent pH neutralizer. The alkaline properties of ash were discovered thousands of years ago when people first learned to extract lye from the ashes of their cook fires.  Ashes are more efficient at neutralizing than lime and are spread more thinly on the soil.

My pear trees are an example of the power of wood ash.  For years they bloomed and did not fruit. Pears require boron in the soil to set fruit so I added borax around the bases with limited results. Then I learned that too much acid in the soil can damper fruit set.  I spread wood ash around the bases of the trees during the winter and as soon as that following spring, the fruiting improved. Now, several years later, the trees produce copious harvests, more than we can use!pear

I’ve spread wood ash on grass areas where moss is trying to take over.  If moss is allowed to grow, the built-up layers of dead moss will leach more acid into the soil until only moss and other acid-loving plants will grow there.  The wood ash effectively ruins the soil for moss, killing it and encouraging grass to grow.  I have greatly improved places in the lawn and pastures where moss was trying to take over.

Lilacs, fruit trees, grapes and most garden plants benefit from wood ash application to the soil. I’ve found that the best time to apply the ash is in the winter.  The snow catches the powdery ash and prevents it from blowing away.  At the spring thaw, the ash causes snow to melt more quickly.  The ashes rapidly settle onto and then into the ground.

An example of the power of higher soil pH in the garden is my experience with tomatoes.  When I began gardening, the tomatoes I got were very acidic tasting, so strong that they were nearly unpalatable.  The next year I added lime in the holes dug for the transplanted tomato seedlings.  The tomatoes grew better and their fruit was sweet and tasty, the way it should be.  To keep the garden pH up, I broadcast wood ash over the plot in the winter.  The ashes improve my tomatoes, corn, beets, carrots and squashes and cause the snow to melt more rapidly in the area, warming the soil sooner for earlier planting.

So, don’t throw those wood ashes away.  If you burn wood, save the ashes and use them yourself or give them to local farmers and gardeners.  Wood ash is not trash, it is a valuable commodity.

Really Warm October

sunset acadia

We have been having such a warm fall.  Usually by now we would have gotten a few killing frosts, but no.  The grass is still growing joyfully.  The sunflower is blooming and even the little moss roses in the planters are thriving.  They are so sensitive to the cold that usually the first night below 30 does them in.  There is no hard frost in the near future, either.

While I can’t complain about warm weather, it is troubling.  Doesn’t feel right.  The deciduous trees notice the weather is wrong.  Their colors are muted.  Many trees didn’t even develop nice autumn shades.  Their leaves went from green to a drab, anti-climactic brown and dropped from the branches.  These subtle changes:  extended growing seasons, too much summer rain, storms with rain instead of snow, have been creeping up on us for a couple decades.  Just as the water level in the ocean creeps up, nearly unnoticeable until a hurricane demonstrates how much more water is available to throw inland.

If no one else notes the changes to the weather patterns, the farmers see it.  And it makes us nervous.  Unsettled that something we could always anticipate and predict has suddenly swung wildly out of control.  While no farmer could ever control the weather, most learned early how to read it and adjust to the patterns so crops would continue to grow and be harvested and livestock thrive.  Now we are left guessing and struggling to keep up with the surprises.

This farmer does not like the weather changes that humans seem to have caused, nor trust the thought that humans will act to stop what we have wrought.