Close this search box.

State of the Farm: 2023 Spring Cleanup

Some farms are pretty.

It’s mid-April and as I write this the temperature outside is approaching 90F—unusual up here in New England. Past experience has suggested that you don’t plant vulnerable crops until Memorial Day to avoid a frost but that rubric is pretty much gone. Spring has been coming earlier every year for some time to the point we sometimes get a Hammer of God Heat Wave in May.

But not in April. Until this week when it nearly reached ninety. Today is, mercifully, cooler but not all that much. After today, it’s supposed to move back towards normal: 50-60F during the day and in the 40s at night. Still warm by “normal” standards but in the ball park. Recall the April Fool’s Day Blizzard back in 1997 when three feet of snow dropped on us. Believe it or not, that was closer to normal.

Weather in recent years has been a more warmish April, warm May, miserable cold and wet late May-early June followed by a more or less hot summer towards the end of September. In 1979, when I first moved up here, there was a hint of cold in the middle of August and September was quite cool. That ship has sailed.

Anyway, early spring means early cleanup.

I have this idea of farms as working environments that are kept up for utilitarian reasons rather than esthetics. The barn is painted but there’s always some repair work needed. Equipment is stored in various places until needed. That sort of thing. I don’t mean we have trucks up on blocks serving as chicken houses or anything but sometimes things get away from us.

This makes spring cleanup an exercise in discouragement.

I mean, by now the place has been trashed by winter, even if the winter was extraordinarily mild. And there is no reason to do the cleanup in January because it’s just going to get trashed all over again. Been there. Done that.

That said, sometimes we go down into western Pennsylvania on the border of Amish Country and I feel ashamed. Those farms are beautiful. As precise and square as if they were outline by plumb lines and T-squares. I remember my cousins’ farms and they were pretty, too.

We’ve cleared up the big downed tree limbs but there remains an enormous amount of small debris. Things that we blithely left out in the fall now glare at us, daring us to clean them up. The grass hasn’t really started growing back and the lawn looks like it’s been flattened by a roller. Not to mention, I have about three tons of hickory wood to split and pile. Right now, it’s holding down the ground next to the driveway.

Over the course of the winter, things accumulate. Bits of trash blow over from garbage removal and get trapped in the lawn or buried under the snow. That needs to be cleaned up. We have a little dog and in the winter she makes her deposits on the lawn. Anything that hasn’t melted into the grass has to be policed. The compost added to the composter over the winter has suddenly woken up and made itself known. It’s time for the spring mucking of the chicken house.

And we’re still in drought.

I know it’s not so declared in the news but that doesn’t change things. At this time, in a “normal” year, the main garden is too wet to till. Not so, this year. We have a wet basement that sumps out every few hours depending on the rain and the water table. While I was tilling, every half an hour it poured five or ten gallons into the soil only for it to disappear. This ground is thirsty.

My mother and father were both from farming families. He, from Missouri, and she, from New Mexico. The farming wisdom was wildly different between them to the point that Missouri farmers planted in the top of the furrow to prevent seeds from being washed away while New Mexico farmers planted in the furrow so the seeds got as much water as possible. Mom had a phrase she used: “In the spring, when the land rises,” that struck me. When the rains came, the land absorbed the water and swelled.

We’ve seen it here. Our land is built on ledge and bits peek up here and there. We can tell how wet the ground is by how much rock is showing. This spring a lot of rock is showing.

Sigh. Musn’t grumble.

We got the tilling done. Most years we don’t till. We put down mulch and work around it. But last year the ground was getting hard. What we should have done was pick up a ton or so of horse manure and spread it over the garden, wait for it to season, and till that in. But we didn’t. We were lazy.

This year, we cleaned up the garden, tilled it, added a little chemical fertilizer—as an experiment since we’ve never done this—and then raked the whole thing flat. Today, I plan on going out there and plant some peas. I’m still too nervous to really start the garden six weeks early. But peas and carrots should be fine.

We have two new Birdie boxes coming on line this year. One is to hold potatoes—we had good luck last year doing that until the rodents figured out how to burrow inside. Since the bottom four inches of the new boxes is filled with heavy gravel, we have hopes for this year. The other one is to grow strawberries. We haven’t yet decided what to do with last year’s Birdie box.

We’re not planning to plant corn this year—which makes me sad. I just like growing corn. But we have enough stored kernels we don’t need it. We’re going to try for calories: potatoes, beans, squash, peas, and the like. The drought last year was so bad over so much of the country, I’ll feel better if we have our own calorie source.

We’re also going to try fence panel trellises. Cattle fencing comes in panels that range in size. The panels we’re looking at are 50 inches x 16 feet. The, you bend the panel lengthwise into an arch shape and secure the bottom with landscape stakes. The arch shape should be good to grow things like cucumbers, squash, or beans. We’re getting six of them to see how they work.

The hardest part will be transporting them home. 16 feet is long. I’m renting a trailer. Stay tuned.

Many of the trees are leafing out. The pears and stone fruits look heavy with buds. If we don’t have a freeze, we might get a good crop of pears and a few peaches. The persimmon looks happy, though as yet unleafed,  which is a big improvement. We got nearly nothing last year.

We replaced the line of plums with a line of quinces. But the falling hickory broke off one. It’s growing back so we will see. The northernmost quince looked fine and then one day just fell over. I don’t know what happened to it but we’re replacing it anyway. The Cornelian Cherries are covered with yellow blossoms and the cherry tree looks like it’s about to explode.

The apples look like they’re about to be eaten by caterpillars so I’ll be spraying them soon. Three of the four paw-paws have flower buds so I’m hoping for many, many paw-paws. I would love to have the problem of having so many that I have to figure out how to store them.

We planted a couple of new fruit trees last year and, with the exception of the quince, they look like they survived.

That’s all for now. I’m going out to plant peas.



7 thoughts on “State of the Farm: 2023 Spring Cleanup”

  1. I’m always a little awed by your descriptions of the farm and what it takes to keep it going and make it thrive. I’m also impressed if you get any fruit from your cherry trees: growing up, we had one healthy, productive cherry tree, and every year the birds got every single last bit of fruit, no matter what my father tried or how early we tried to intervene.

  2. Jennifer Stevenson

    Have you considered espaliering fruit trees on the cattle fence trellises? I’ve seen this with grapes at the Chicago Botanic Garden. And I’ve seen espaliered fruit trees on frames affixed to walls. Just wondering.

  3. I’d like to see the Chicago Botanic Garden espaliers. I have seen fence panel espaliers and they look fine but there seems to be a lot of wasted metal. The CBG might change my mind. I think espaliering on a fence panel that was already being used as a fence might be interesting. It occurs to me it might be possible to use the fence panel trellis idea as a sort of small fruit tree tunnel.

    I’ve done espaliers in two ways. In the first, I put up 4×4 posts capped with stringers and strung garden fence between them with extended lines to the stringers. The garden fence, being green, and the extended lines for growth above the fence were unobtrusive. The other way was putting up 4×4 posts with stringers, again, but this time just stringing single wires between the posts.

    I want to build a new arbor to replace two old ones next to one another. I might well use the fence panels for growing structure.

    1. Jennifer Stevenson

      Well Steve if you’re ever planning to be out this way, rattle before you strike and we’ll put you up for a day or so and show you around. We get a CBG membership every year, but we don’t go unless it’s with friends. Next time, I’ll photograph those espaliers for you.

      They use a wooden lattice for some and for others they have permanent metal strutwork embedded in a wall. As for the freestanding ones – I think they may have even done an arching trellis tunnel, and I know it was an unobtrusive structure. Shoot, now I want to go look. I just re-upped.

      I had no idea you had such a major farm. (Is there anything you can call a small farm?)

      1. Jennifer Stevenson

        PS, if I had a farm, it would definitely be the shaggy or not-quite-trucks-up-on-blocks kind. Everything I do is like that, including the food I make. Delicious, but looks like the dog sat on it. During the depression, my grandparents built a house out at the end of the streetcar line, including a barn made of old railroad ties and concrete that still stands today. (Dynamite might shift that.) They raised chickens for the eggs, which they sold. Also, a vegetable garden in back. Also, Papa had a pickup and a chainsaw and one of those huge circular saws they used in the 30s for back yard sawing of fallen trees into chunks. He would go to the local forest preserves (he and Gramma were very popular environmentalists) and get deadfall with the rangers’ permission and bring it home and make firewood, which heated the house via an iron stove in the living room. Pioneer stuff.

        He was splitting firewood into his eighties. Slowly.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *