Tag Archive | spring work

Planting Time


Here are some of the seeds I’ll be planting today.  Just seeing all that lovely produce inspires me to get out there and weed and till!

Currently the garden is little more than a 50 foot square spot of dirt choked with weeds and overgrown with Jerusalem artichokes in one corner.  The area will quickly transform, with my exertions, into a fenced spot of fresh earth marked with rows of newly sown seed.a1The spring has been cool and dry, again.  Chance of frost still exists, but I’m willing to get started now.  Tomorrow’s forecast is rainy, perfect for jump-starting plants.  Next week I will put the tender tomato and pepper seedlings in the ground.

By the first week of June we should be safe from frost.  Yesterday was 86F, with lots of sun.  Today is cloudy and mid-fifties.  The weather is so changeable in Maine in spring that it doesn’t do to take something like last frost dates for granted.


Signs of Spring


Although snow flurries visited us just a couple days ago, signs of spring are everywhere.  The crocuses opened their petals wide to the bit of sun we saw this morning.  The spring peepers, tiny frogs with big voices that live in our pond, have been getting louder every night for a week.  Yesterday I heard the first male grouse thumping out his mating call from deep in the woods.  Male woodcocks hold their nightly aerobatic shows in the skies above the orchards.

The snow has all melted except for tiny remnant patches in the shade where once tall drifts stood.  Today I set up the outdoor cage so our house cats can enjoy some safe time outside.  All three cats have ventured out the pet door to sit in the wind for a few minutes.

After nearly a week of dreary clouds and sporadic rain showers, the weather is finally changing.  Once the high winds die and the sun comes out, we might even see temperatures in the 60s, the weather people say. For sure that will bring the worst sign of spring:  the bugs–black flies and mosquitoes.  Until then, let’s enjoy the crocuses.


Pruning Apple Trees


Spring finally arrived this week and with it came the start of spring work.  Right now I’m pruning some of our apple trees using the new chainsaw I got for Christmas.

The orchard is full of mature apple trees that are badly overgrown.  Many have heavy limbs right near the ground and are a mass of tangled growth.  It is very difficult for me to mow close to the trees.  To keep the orchards all apples, every year any wild tree sprouts must be cut.  Otherwise our orchards would soon be woods.  Since there are so many limbs in the way, I have to cut invasive saplings under the trees by hand before they become too big.  Being unable to mow close to trees also allows the Virginia creeper, wild grapes and nightshade a chance to climb up the trunks and weigh down the branches.

Every spring for the past several years we have limbed up a few apple trees.  Each tree that is pruned makes my mowing job that much easier.  So far this year I’ve done seven trees.  Much of the brush will be chipped. The best brush is sold for apple wood Gnawers in my online stores.  The smaller limbs I cut up for our firewood.  The larger limbs are left long, anywhere from two to six feet long.  This wood will be sold to meat smokers.  I have already sold the first cord I collect.  A man saw me working in the orchard today and stopped to buy the wood from me.  There must be nearly half a cord already cut.

In the before photo, above, and after photo, below, the difference in accessibility after the pruning is obvious. I will be able to mow right up to the tree.  The lowest limbs are high enough for the tractor to pass beneath. When the ground is a little drier, I will return with a trailer hitched to the tractor.  I can stand in the trailer and reach some of the higher limbs that still need pruning.  To finish the job, I will use a pole pruner, or climb the tree and cut away excess growth with a pruning saw.  Right now clearing the low limbs for mowing is the priority.

Note the assistant pruners in the photos, Holly and Otto, the German shepherds.  They are never far away.a2

Maple Sap Season


Today I tapped the maple trees.  Bright sun, mild breezes and a temperature around 44 F made the sap run strong and steady.  I hiked down to the woods through knee deep snow, hitting a few drifts that came up to my thighs.  It was so warm I didn’t need a coat!

DSC03257The drilling of the tap holes I do with an antique hand-operated bit and brace.  The hole is fitted with a metal spile, a spout to guide the sap from the tree into the bucket.  Once the trees are tapped, the maple orchard is filled with the sound of sap dripping into metal buckets.  I love collecting sap in this old-fashioned manner.  Makes me think of my ancestors, the hardy New Englanders who toiled in much the same manner.DSC03252

There are 23 taps, enough to make a gallon of maple syrup a day if the sap runs well.  One gallon of syrup requires about 40 gallons of sap.  Some days it doesn’t flow very well due to weather conditions.  High winds or a daytime temperature below 40 F can slow the sap.

This year’s season is late.  January, February and March were all colder than normal and very snow filled.  We had a couple days here and there in the past two weeks when sap would flow.  All the maple syrup producers in the state are complaining.  The season sometimes starts in early February.

DSC03263The next week to ten days will be our season.  After that, the temperatures will go too high.  Once it doesn’t freeze at night, the trees begin to bud.  The sap turns dark and bitter, signaling the end of the season.  In the next few days I hope to make three to four gallons of maple syrup.  We’ll see how it goes.

Preparing The Vegetable Garden


Gardening time has arrived, along with the swarms of blackflies.  A perfect combination.  Here in central Maine we can get frost right through late May, so it doesn’t pay to plant vegetable seeds too soon.  I no longer grow the cool weather plants like peas, radishes, chard, lettuce or spinach.  They are too much work, especially the peas, since I’m the only one who eats them.  So I can wait until late in the month to start.

The garden lies fallow for the winter, although we do spread wood ashes in the area.  Any vegetative garden waste such as vines, stalks and roots are removed in the fall so insect pests can’t winter on them. When the soil dries and is no longer a mud pie, I use my manure fork to pull any large weeds that established last year.  Then I spread composted hen manure and wood ash on the area.  I once used horse manure, but hen contains much less weed seed.  It is also a very potent manure so less is required.

Our trusty old Troy Bilt 8 hp Horse rototiller makes short work of tilling the soil to an 8″ depth.  The photo above was taken after the initial 5″ deep pass.  The next pass with the tiller will dig 8″ or more down, breaking up and spreading the manure and giving the soil a uniform fine texture.a3

One year I tried no-till gardening and it was a disaster.  I mulched everything heavily with old hay and planted all the rows and hills of seed without breaking up the soil except right where the seeds were planted.  Sprouting and growth were slow.  Many of the plantings failed, including the indian corn which is nearly impossible to kill. I harvested a few pumpkins and beans.  Only the tomatoes did well, to be expected from mulch-loving plants.

The concept of no-till gardening is that the network of mycelia of essential fungi and the beneficial bacterial colonies within the soil are not destroyed.  By maintaining the structure of the natural flora and fauna in the soil, the vegetables are supposed to benefit.  My experience is that tilling somehow gives the seeds a necessary advantage.  The fungi and bacteria seem able to re-establish themselves very quickly after the soil is broken.  My vegetables perform much better with tilling. I mulch, water and weed and never have an entire garden fail.

Following the final tilling, it’s time to install the fence to keep hungry, digging chickens and rampaging dogs out of the garden.  For years I used chicken wire and stakes.  The set-up was difficult to work with.  It took hours to erect every year, and in the fall was a nightmare to remove.  Weeds grew through the wire, binding it.  Pulling it loose caused tears in the wire weave.  Then the wire had to be cleaned of weeds and re-rolled for next year.  Baby chickens were small enough to squeeze through the wire and scratch in my seed beds.  Finally, I decided to find a better way.

After much thought I developed a simple system that takes a lot less time to install and remove, stores well, is more attractive than wire and doesn’t develop holes for chickens to exploit.  At the garden center, I bought several 4′ x 8′ white plastic lattice-work panels and sawed them in half length-wise.  Also, I found pressure treated wood balusters for deck stairs.  These are the perfect length and are pre-sharpened on one end.a2  The panels are supported by one baluster stake at each end and one in the center.  Baling twine holds the panels to the stakes.  I also run a line of baling twine along the top of the stakes to add height and dissuade athletic dogs from leaping over.a4

This system has been working for, I believe, four years now. I’m still using the original parts, they appear strong and ready to go several more years.  There have been no problems with animals getting in the garden.  The lattic hides the tempting open soil and juicy vegetables from the chickens’ view, so they don’t even bother to get inside.  I imagine pressure treated wood lattice would work as well as the plastic, but I was looking at cost and longevity when I made the purchases.

Now, the garden is tilled, the fence is in place and I’ve planted the long season vegetables:  indian corn, decorative sunflowers, gourds and carrots.  Today I’m setting out the tomato seedlings and planting wax beans, winter squash, pumpkins and a decorative top border of bachelor buttons.  The Jerusalem artichokes are a perennial and have already sent up shoots in their corner of the garden.

We have had exceptionally chilly, damp weather, slowing the warming of the soil.  Many seeds, like beans and squash, require warm soil to sprout.  Today there is supposed to be some sun, that will be nice.  Then rain is predicted for the weekend.  A good time to plant, nature will do the watering for me.

Pruning Pear Trees


Our four pear trees

We have four pear trees.  Three are Bartlett, one is a red pear, Stark Crimson.  They are badly in need of major pruning.  The trees have grown so high that the best fruit is ten to fifteen feet out of reach.  April is a little late in the season for pruning, but the nights do still get chilly, helping the trees to heal before warm weather arrives.


Three branches removed on the right side

I have to climb into the tops of the trees with my extending aluminum ladder and cut off the upper third of the tree with a pruning saw. The branches are four to six inches thick at that height.  I can only do three or four branches per day due to a recovering sprained wrist.


Trusty pruning saw

Here are before and after photos of the tallest Bartlett, the tree most in need of pruning.  I cut three branches off the day before these photos were taken.  The stubs of those branches are visible on the right side near the top of the tree.

The handsaw is deceptively sharp and cuts through a six inch diameter branch in less than five minutes (with rest breaks!)  A dangerous moment arrives as the wood makes a cracking sound and the branch separates from the tree.  All that weight comes crashing down.  A good pruner plans the trajectory of the fall so that the branch doesn’t swing back and knock her in the head or off the ladder.

The tree appears much closer to the desired shape with the tall leaders removed.  Fruit will grow on the long branches loaded with fruiting spurs.  The weight of the fruit pulls the branches downward, nearer to the picking zone.  Now I can enjoy more of my pears plucked from the tree instead of off the ground.


All the too-long top branches removed

The tree is still too tall and will be cut down another few feet next year. Also still required is a more thorough pruning to thin and to remove weak, dead or intersecting branches. In a couple years these trees will look much better and produce more, as well.

Making Maple Syrup The Old Fashioned Way


One drop at a time fills the bucket

Out in the maple orchard there are a few days of hard work, then syrup season is over.  When the nights are below freezing and the days are warm and sunny with little breeze, sap runs freely from the sugar maples.  a3Good sap is clear, like water but if you  taste a drop, it is sweet.

Every day the sap must be collected so it doesn’t become too warm in the bucket and spoil.  We fill our 50 gallon stainless steel boiler pan until it contains at least 40 gallons of sap, enough to make a gallon of syrup. The sap in the photo below has been boiled down for about half a day and is acquiring the distinctive color of maple syrup.


Tim and friends gathering sap


Evaporator pan

Our evaporator is very simple:  a pan set on a fire box.  My brother, Bryce, welded the box for us to specially fit the pan. We use gasket to seal the juncture so no smoke escapes.  Smoke near the sap creates a smoky taste in the syrup that most people do not appreciate.


The evaporator set-up

a7To speed the evaporation process, we cover the pan with a stainless lid specially made to fit.  The lid is domed so precipitation and contaminants run off the top, and condensation from the boiling sap flows to the outside edges and drips off.  When the steam is heavy, the dripping from the edge of the lid is constant.
We use stacks of galvanized joist ties to lift the top off the pan so steam can escape.  Covering the pan makes the sap boil down twice as fast as when it is open. When the fire is roaring, the sap reaches a rolling boil and the steam pours out.  a9a10We can boil down 40-plus gallons of sap in two days.  If the sap is running well and we need storage room, we have some plastic garbage cans lined with food safe plastic can liners.  We bury the cans in the snow and cover them with a tarp to keep the sap cool.  This natural refrigerator works very well and lasts for the entire season.  a8The storage cans are under the blue tarp behind my husband, Tim.  The firewood, mostly dry pine from fallen trees and limbs and waste wood such as limbs from firewood trees, is stacked each year, mostly by Tim. Lots of dry, resinous pine, a mix of large and small pieces, makes a hot fire. We have been know to roast hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire for lunch during a day of sap boiling.


Condensation dripping from the edge of the pan lid

Care must be taken as the sap nears the bottom on the pan.  Too hot a fire can reduce the sap to syrup, then maple taffy and finally a burned mess.  Once the sap has boiled down to about four gallons on the bottom of the evaporator pan, it is time to draw it off.  The sap is carried to the house and finished on the electric stove in the kitchen.  Trying to finish the syrup in the woods is not practical.  The heat can’t be controlled well enough and the environment is not clean enough for bottling the finished product.


Drawing off the nearly finished product

The sap is strained twice through special felt-like filters, once before the final boil in the kitchen and again to remove the maple sand before bottling the syrup. Maple sand is a precipitate of minerals that forms when the sap becomes concentrated enough.  It must be removed or it will form a sludge on the bottom of the syrup containers.a14


The four gallons of near-syrup carried up from the sugar bush take a few hours to reduce down in the house.  Sap becomes syrup when it reaches a temperature of 219 degrees F.  We cook ours a little longer to make it nice and thick, the way we like it.  As the sap nears syrup stage the pot must be watched.  When it becomes syrup, it can easily boil up, expanding to several times its volume, to overflow and make a sticky mess of wasted effort.  Not to mention wasted maple syrup! The finished syrup is strained, then ladled into sterile jars.  Syrup must be maintained at a temperature of at least 180 degrees F while it is bottled to kill any mold spores or bacteria in the air.  Well canned syrup will keep for years.


Bottling the syrup



Full rolling boil


The boiling sap fills the house with a delicious maple aroma, unmistakable to anyone who has ever made syrup.  To me it is the true scent of spring.


Nice medium amber color maple syrup


Intrepid syruping buddies

The weather has now gone very warm.  I pulled all the maple taps last night and we are boiling down our second and final gallon of syrup.  Not bad for a syrup season that lasted about one week.  The maples are starting to bud, the snow is disappearing fast, and soon we will have all the rest of the spring work to keep us busy.