State of the Farm, May 2021

(Picture from here.)

Spring in New England is a shambling walk to summer. Warm days stumble into light snow, fall over into rain reminiscent of November, stagger back upright into warm sun.

Rinse. Repeat.

It doesn’t stop the flowers.

That said, starting in April we began getting blooms on first on the Cornelian Cherries and then on the honeyberries. The new plums opened up one after another, the first closing just before the second opened, so that pollination is questionable. (These are new plums supposedly resistant to black knot, the disease that killed our other plums and took out most of our apricots.)

Then, came the almond and the volunteer nectarine. The volunteer just appeared one spring. I suspect that one of the nectarines was eaten by a squirrel and buried. We’ve been watching it carefully. Nectarines are one of my favorite fruits.

Two years ago, I pulled up the plums from one of the espaliers, leaving a long, empty fence-like structure next to the driveway. Last summer we planted strawberries there. This year we have blossoms on one variety and buds on the other. I have good memory of our strawberry beds. When Ben was two or three, he discovered that he could go out there and pick strawberries anytime he wanted. He also discovered the difference between green and red strawberries. Ah, good times.

We were planning on planting quinces there, thinking that strawberries would match easily with them. Quinces are in the apple family and don’t get black knot so if there was any left in the soil, the trees would be safe.

I had originally planned on pulling the old stumps so we could plant the quinces in the central portion of each section. But the stumps defeated me. I dug out one and just couldn’t face the idea of digging out three others. So, we’re letting them rot in place. Instead, I’ve come up with a different approach inspired by the angels on the top of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Each angel was holding their arms and wings to point to the other. So, that’s what I plan to do. We have four “cells”, one for each tree. So, I’ll plant them on the outside of each cell pair and grow each member of the pair towards the other one.

That was the plan, anyway.

However, we didn’t get the quince delivery. When it came to service our order, the nursery, apparently, went to their stock room and found it empty of quince. They, of course, didn’t mention it to us until we asked. Then: so sorry. Here’s a refund. Won’t be doing business with them anymore.


The apples leafed in and were covered in buds. Our sole current quince did the same but I noticed some of the leaves were wrinkled. I pulled them apart and found, unsurprisingly, tiny caterpillars. The apple blossoms were already opening but quince blossoms open later so I figured I had at least a couple of days. I pulled out a hand sprayer and hit the quince with Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew—an extremely powerful insecticide. This stuff kills on contact. Since there were no blossoms to attract bees and rain was forecast the next day, I figured the risk was worth it.

I still have to spray the rest of the apple blossoms with kaolin clay—a material that is not a poison but essentially acts like ground glass. The caterpillar eats it and gets ground up from the inside. It’s safe for bees and other insects that don’t actually eat the plant so we can spray when the blossoms are open. Insects that eat the plant, well…

We tend to avoid sprays when we can but, unfortunately, that’s not always possible. We ask a lot of our plants and sometimes we ask too much. We have several apples and two big cedar trees. Cedar trees harbor cedar apple rust—little orange spots on the apples that do a fair amount of damage. But I love those cedar trees. They remind me of life back in Missouri. They’re old trees—cedars don’t grow quickly. They were planted all across the area back in the Depression and they’ve been dying and falling over. We’ve kept these two alive for the last thirty years. So far, the cedars show no symptoms. The same can’t be said for the apples.

So, this winter, I pulled out a strong fungicide and dormant-sprayed all the apple trees. Lo and behold, no orange spots so far. After the blossoms fall, I should spray fungicide again.

The biggest worry we have for the fruit trees is the low number of pollinating insects. This year we neglected to order orchard bees. We were hoping the local honeybee and bumble bee populations would be able to do the trick. However, not so many showed up. We’ve decided that we’re going to have to put ladybugs and orchard bees on the yearly purchase list. Ladybugs for the aphids that like the greenhouse. Orchard bees for pollination.

Let me point out we are extremely careful in the use of insecticide. When I sprayed the quince, it was with a small hand pump sprayer like what you’d use to clean a counter. And I was careful to keep it to the tree so it didn’t inadvertently cover any open flowers. That said, we don’t live in a vacuum and I have no idea (and little faith) that our neighbors are as judicious as we are. We are surrounded by MacMansion subdivisions that use a lawn care service and on the other side of the hill is a golf course—site of more chemicals/square foot than nearly any other industry.

We have two pollinating areas: the garden/orchard and the greenhouse. Turns out honeybees are great outside but fairly poor in a greenhouse. Bumblebees do great in a greenhouse but buying bumblebee hives is expensive and temporary. People have to do it every year. It’s only feasible for industrial hydroponics operations. Orchard bees seem to do okay but not great.

We’ve been considering getting into beekeeping for the garden/orchard but I have to say I’m a little intimidated by it.

I grew up in Southern California and there were orange groves everywhere. There were, of course, honeybees everywhere. As kids we caught them all the time and learned how to tell which variety would sting and which wouldn’t. There was a variety we called the “H-bee”—because the fur on the back resembled the letter “H”—that would never sting. That was the one we caught all the time and played with, then letting them go. I’ve never found that variety in our research.

Back in the garden, we’ve started putting in some sets and direct seeding for those garden plants that can take a frost—Wendy reported light snow the other night. Nothing that stuck but our shamble towards spring has a lot of stumbles on the way. The snow peas are in. So are the radishes. We’re trying beets this year. Back in the greenhouse, we have corn sets, and others, ready to be planted when the weather is right.

We’re also trying sunchokes (“Jerusalem artichokes”) again. We tried them a number of years ago and gave up on them because while the tubers were tasty, they would not keep. We figured they might be interesting as a summer only crop. They are easy to grow and over winter handily.

A final note.

A couple of people have asked me where I get the energy to do the things I do. Well, there is one simple answer for this: there is no I. Wendy and I are a team on this project. She does at least half the work and in some cases, as in the greenhouse, most of it.

When I was asked this question, I realized that I was giving a false impression that I—and only I—was doing all this work. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t mention Wendy or Ben much in this blog for a couple of reasons. We didn’t want Ben to have an online presence while he was a child. And I didn’t feel comfortable flinging Wendy’s name about in public forum. But if anybody has ever read the Copyright and Credits section of any of my books, her name is prominently displayed.

That’s it for now.




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