State of the Farm: Spring, 2018


It has been a long winter.

Last year we had an incredible caterpillar infestation. Many of the fruit trees didn’t bear at all—either the blossoms or the early fruit buds were destroyed by gypsy moth or tent caterpillars. The garden wasn’t attacked by those little, bristly creatures.

We keep box turtles in the east garden and they love to eat anything that moves. I’m confident that any caterpillar that feel from the maple tree met an unpleasant, squishy death. The turtles grew fat.

The main garden has an apple in it and while the apple was attacked, the caterpillars didn’t bother the vegetables. They left that for the cold, wet June. Many of our plants either never got warm enough to blossom or, if they did, never grew much. We had watermelons that set in August but up here in New England, what’s the point?

We got a few potatoes, a fair amount of corn. No peppers or eggplant to speak of. Not much in the way of tomatoes or tomatillos. We tried planting cold crops but as soon as they grew large enough to eat the hot weather came in and they didn’t do very well.

If it’s not drought, it’s wet. If it’s not caterpillars, it’s potato bugs. Welcome to New England.

I sprayed the fruit trees like a mad man. Wendy wrapped the trees the gypsies liked in tanglefoot tape. We were happy none of the caterpillars liked the pines since we have a lot of them on the property.

It’s interesting to watch the slow war that happens on the property. Half our property is wooded. In the south side there are two huge pines, a massive hickory and some smaller trees—including a small stand of struggling birches. . On the east side is a grand maple and oak and to the north and west a stand of sixty foot pines.

There are some deciduous trees amidst the pines on the west side. This is a stand only a half dozen trees thick between us and our neighbors. Consequently, they’re vulnerable to a windstorm. Every year I sweat the inevitably increasing storms, wondering if this is the one that brings a pine down on the house. So far. So far.

Because the stand is so thin there’s enough penetrating light to allow deciduous trees to get started: cherries, maples, ash. All trees we like. But they’re at war with the pines.

I mean it looks peaceful. These pines shed their lower branches as they grow so the understory filled by the smaller trees gives us a buffer in the summer. But a maple has height on its mind and these damned pines are in the way. The deciduous trees have a broader root base than the pines so I imagine four fifths of this war is taking place under ground.

Cutting the understory out is a long standing discussion. Cut out the ash? It’s under attack by many imported pests in our area but these trees are vigorous and strong. There are a couple of maples—one swamp and one sugar. Cut out the swamp? It will be a pretty tree, says one side. It’s going to drop the pines on us, says the other.  Cut out the cherries and lose the pies. This discussion has been going on for twenty years. It’s not going away soon.

The winter was hard on a lot of trees. It snapped to so fast in the fall several trees never lost their leaves. Then, in the late winter, we had a series of wet snow storms and lost a lot of branches and trees. Nice wood but still. I especially regret losing a lot of our chestnuts. We make a pretty good haul in chestnuts every year. Not this one.

That big hickory split four different massive limbs, the lowest is forty feet over the ground and droops menacingly over the drive way. I have a long saw but it’s not that long. Several birches fell down and a whole lot of pine boughs. We cleared up most of it but I left a pile in the corner of the lot. It took down the fence and has now replaced it in our dog’s mind. I can’t pull it out until I’m ready to repair the fence.

All that said, spring has been glorious.

Last year I cleared at least fifty gypsy moth egg clusters. Maybe a hundred. This year I cleared three. The trees are blossoming ferociously. None of them show caterpillar damage. (Yet. I keep telling myself.) This year we could get apples. There’s an odd kind of peach I have growing on one of the espaliers that I have my eye on. It’s never set fruit. Every one of the apples has blossoms—even ones that haven’t had blossoms in twenty years.

We’re redoing a lot of the fruit trees. We have one nectarine that produces leather or brown mold reliably every year. It’s a grafted dwarf. Some squirrel gifted us with a volunteer in another corner of the property. That produced a nice nectarine so we think the root is the problem. We have a replacement but it hasn’t woken up. Not promising.

We also finally did in two plums that were covered in blackknot. We have replacements that I have to put in. We have seedlings waiting in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse fruits are also really kicking in. We have guava, pineapple and papaya setting fruit. No banana blossoms this year but we cut the trees down hard last year so it may be a bit. We picked up some interesting fruit trees from Logee’s last year—some lemons, kumquats and the like. We’ve had bad luck with the citrus in the past. They get a smut in the greenhouse we can’t seem to shake. But the Logee greenhouses have varieties that seem to tolerate it so we’re trying again.

Lastly, we have a wood crop this year.

Remember all that dropped wood we had last year? Well, I cut it up and then sealed the ends so they would dry without checking. (A fancy word meaning the ends crack. I just wanted to sound cool.) It’s been a year so they should be dry now. I’m going to pull the lathe out into the driveway and make some turning wood.

Things look (cautiously) optimistic.




State of the Farm: Spring, 2018 — 2 Comments

  1. Healthy Ash trees: please, please keep. It might be that they’re just not exposed to pests, but it’s also possible that they’re more resistant than others, and we need to keep resistant strains alive.

    Thanks for the report; I’m always fascinated by in-depth observations.

  2. Thanks, Steven, for an important reminder that in farming, you win some, you lose some. We are blessed that our lives do not currently depend on our back yard harvests.

    I love your tree reports. I’m a big one for planting trees. 🙂 Hope you get fruit this year.