PEP (Parsnip Eradication Program)

Slaying a parsnip.

Slaying a parsnip.

This spring I’ve been working on my wild parsnip eradication program. This involves wearing pants, a long sleeve shirt and gloves and digging up the taproot of the persnickety parsnips in a given area. I’m trying to prevent the spread out into the pollinator sanctuary so I’m working on various corridors to keep them parsnip free.

Wild parsnips are on everyone’s invasive hit list these days. Over the years, they’ve been spreading along the roadsides and then creeping into fields and lawns. When we were growing vegetables and plowing and tilling fields, it was especially easy for the parsnip seeds to sow on the bare ground. Now, with perennial fruits and no till, it’s a lot harder, but since the parsnip is already pretty well established in the road-side fields, it’s been tough to keep it confined. It keeps popping up farther and farther from the original road-side infestation. One of the biggest problems with parsnip is getting the sap on your bare skin and exposing the skin to the sun. This causes a blistering rash called phytophotodermatitis.  If you get a bad dose of the sap in the sun, the rash can be both unsightly and painful. It might even resulting in some scarring.

But back to my eradication program. I’m in one place where the parsnip is at least eight feet tall mixed within the goldenrod, grasses, ferns, Joe Pye weed and a host of other plants, all neck high or higher. I’m wading through the vegetation, stomping my shovel in at the base of a parsnip stalk, loosening the soil, pulling out the root, and throwing the plant in a pile, careful not to brush any of the leaves against my face. I’m working up a sweat especially as I’m wearing the long sleeve shirt, but I’m getting a good rhythm going. My dead parsnip pile is growing. I like being within this tall sea of plants, listening to the birds chattering at me because I’m getting too close to them or maybe their nests.

A breeze rustles the grass seed heads. I look close and far and close again, I’m doing well, no parsnips in sight. But then I look behind me, and it’s like they sprouted up when my back was turned, a dozen close and even more beyond. I’ve barely made a dent in the invasion. I will work harder, and I tell myself I will finish this one area today. Stomp, loosen, pull, throw. Stomp, loosen, pull, throw. The birds chatter.

Webworm destroying the flower head of a parsnip.

Webworm destroying the flower head of a parsnip.

I keep going because I’m already behind schedule, some of the parsnips are starting to flower. Keeping the plants from going to seed is a good way to prevent their spread, and that’s all I’m aiming for; to prevent their spreading to the back area. I don’t hate them. In fact, they have their good points. The parsnip flowers are food for flies and other insects which feed off the nectar. We’ve seen Tachinid flies, parasites of Japanese beetles, on the flowers. And lately, we’ve seen caterpillars (a type of webworm) living on a few flower heads. Unfortunately, not enough to slow down the spread down. Yet. So it’s still up to me. Stomp, loosen, pull, throw!

Cedar Waxwings Love Berries

IMG_3977 (2)I just finished picking the last of the honeyberries (haskaps – Lonicera caerulea). These little blue droopy berries are one of my favorites for jam – tasty and tart. We also sold them fresh at the farmers market, and I even made a pie! John loved it. We sold dozens of bushes at the nursery this spring too. They’re a pretty bush and one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring.

The newly awakened bumblebee queens love the little yellow flowers.

The newly awakened bumblebee queens love the little yellow flowers.

 

 

 

 

The other good thing about honeyberries, they’re one of the first berries of the summer coming in at the same time as strawberries. That’s good, but it also means that they’re a favorite of the birds too. While robins, catbirds and an assortment of other birds will steal the berries, it’s the cedar waxwings traveling in flocks that are the worst. They’ll pick your bushes clean in no time at all. Last week after I finished a row of the honeyberries, with cedar waxwing scouts watching me the whole time, I left the net off for them to have at the few I missed and the many that had fallen to the ground. The next morning, the bushes were clean. Robins may have eaten a few, but the horde of waxwings did the bulk of the picking.

IMG_3939 (2)So yesterday when I saw the waxwings buzzing around the red currants that were just starting to get a little color, I scrambled for more nets and spent a couple hours setting them up. We have red currants in three different places which makes it a bit more difficult for netting. Well, already this morning, I saw a waxwing fluttering within the netting, but when I went over to let it out, it was gone. It had already found a way out. They are so tricky and relentless in going after the berries. There must be a gap somewhere or a hole in the net that I missed – those are hard to find. How do the waxwings find them so easily?

 

 

Aronia and Elderberry: Thy Medicine

This article was originally written for the Local Banquet, Fall 2015 issue. We still have plenty of elderberry and aronia plants for sale in our nursery, so stop in.

Elderberry Shurbs

Aronia and elderberry are two fruits—native to Vermont and other places in the eastern United States—that are getting noticed by health-conscious consumers. The word on the street these days is “nutraceutical”—in this case, referring to berries that aren’t just nutritious but also have medicinal properties. Juice bar owners in New York City are apparently clamoring for aronia berries for their healthy raw juices and smoothies.

In Vermont, breweries, cideries, and distilleries are trying to source local elderberries for medicinal brews, and some farmers are taking notice by planting them. This year at our fruit nursery, aronia and elderberry plant sales to homeowners actually kept pace with more traditional fruit plants such as blueberry and raspberry. Big pharma watch out!

Both aronia and elderberry are high in antioxidants, vitamins C and A, minerals, and a variety of other plant compounds that exhibit anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and anti-viral properties, to name just a few. Modern science is finally catching up to what Hippocrates recommended more than 2,000 years ago; “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food.”

Historically, Native Americans used aronia (Aronia melanocarpa) for food, medicine, meat preservation, and plant dye. In the early 1900s, it was introduced into Russia and other European countries, where it has become an important juice berry (and is now exported to the U.S.). Likewise, elderberry (Sambucus nigra canadensis) and its flowers have been used for centuries for their medicinal qualities by Native Americans, Europeans, and European settlers. While elderflower cordials and elderberry syrups fell out of favor with Americans by the mid-1900s, they continued to be an important crop in Europe and still are today.

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One Vermonter turned aronia farmer, Guy Edson (of the VIBE Farm in Plainfield), jumped on the super food train four years ago and planted 500 aronia plants on the advice of a New Jersey nursery man. They grew so well that he planted an additional 500 in 2014. It takes a few years to get a substantial harvest so this year he’ll have his first major crop, although last year he marketed berries to Healthy Living in Burlington and local health food stores. He’s starting an aronia u-pick operation which will open this September.

Todd Hardie of Thorn Hill Farm in Greensboro and Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick produces Caledonia Elderberry Cordial. Todd wanted a local source for his elderberries so this spring he planted over 2 acres of seven different elderberry cultivars, two of which came from those bred by Lewis Hill, a famous pioneer nursery man and horticulturist from Greensboro. “It was exciting to bring Lewis Hill’s two cultivars, Coomer and Berry Hill, back to Greensboro,” Todd noted. “I am the keeper of Lewis’s marked cultivars and our farm is less than a mile from Lewis’ nursery where he developed these elderberries.” The Caledonia Elderberry Cordial from Caledonia Spirits is a beautiful purple-colored cordial that combines the tartness of elderberry with the sweetness and smoothness of raw honey. An apple juice reduction from Champlain Orchards, Shoreham, is also used in their cordial.

Spoonful Herbals in Burlington, a collaborative effort of Rachael Keener and Kate Westdijk, two clinically trained community herbalists, will be offering a “Vermont Superberry Syrup” for one of their fall Community Supported Herbalism (CSH) shares. The syrup will include aronia, elderberry, black currant, and sea berry. Our own elderberry, ginger, and honey syrup is one of our farm’s best sellers at the Burlington Farmers’ Market.

Aronia berries and elderberries both freeze well, so they can be processed and used at a later time. Once frozen, elderberries can be shaken off their clusters to more easily remove the stems; when fresh, a sieve can be used to separate the berries from the stems. Aronia can be eaten raw, although the berries are quite astringent. Raw juice and smoothie recipes recommend mixing them in with sweeter berries like strawberries and blueberries. Elderberries should be cooked before consumption as some of the secondary plant compounds found in the berries can be harmful when eaten raw in sufficient quantities. Both berries make excellent jams, jellies, wines, and syrups. Elderberries in particular, given their small size, are ideal for processing by steam juicing using one of the popular steam juicers currently on the market.

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Aronia and North American elderberry cultivars are easy to grow, disease-resistant, plentiful producers, and cold hardy for Vermont winters. Although very different in size and shape, both make attractive landscaping plants and are great for heavier soils or areas that occasionally flood. The waxy green leaves of the aronia bush turn bright red in the fall, making a spectacular native ornamental around the home. The bush grows to about 6 to 8 feet and spreads slowly by suckering from the roots. The pretty white flower clusters are attractive to bees and other pollinator insects. Aronia is also self-fertile, meaning that you only need one variety for pollination. Two common cultivars are “Viking” and “Nero.” For large-scale commercial production, aronia could be machine harvested.

Elderberry shrubs grow to 12 feet or so and once established send out suckers, which allow the shrubs to spread and become bushy. The elderflowers bloom in June and July giving off a subtle, sweet scent. (They can be used in syrups, cordials, and soft drinks.) The purple berries, which ripen in August and September, grow in clusters called panicles that make hand harvesting easy. There are more than a dozen elderberry cultivars suitable for Vermont; a few of the more common ones are York, Adams, Johns, and Nova. Two different varieties are needed for pollination. Because of their ability to withstand occasional flooding, wild elderberry shrubs are often found on the upper banks of streams and rivers, which means they are good plants for riparian zone restoration and can, in turn, help protect water quality in our streams and rivers by reducing bank erosion.

Ginger Nickerson of the University of Vermont Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture was recently awarded a grant from Vermont’s Working Lands Enterprise Initiative and the Northern Community Investment Corporation to look at the economic potential and commercial production needs of growing elderberry in Vermont. A production guide, videos, workshops, and an elderberry listserv are in the works and will help commercial growers get started in Vermont.

While aronia and elderberry don’t seem to be a favorite food for many insect pests, both are enjoyed by a variety of birds. This makes them great additions for enhancing wildlife but can make it difficult for commercial growers and even homeowners to beat the birds to the fruit. We net our plantings by making tall hoops from aluminum conduit. These hoops support the bird netting and allow for easy picking of berries without removing the net. If you don’t use netting, at least you’ll have healthy birds.

On our own farm, we have been expanding our plantings of aronia and elderberry in riparian zones that flood seasonally and in areas of our pollinator sanctuary that have heavy soils. These native plants provide food and habitat for pollinating insects and wildlife, and consumer demand for the berries is just beginning. The future looks bright for aronia and elderberry.

Aronia Jam Recipe

Rinse and de-stem one quart of berries and place in saucepan over medium heat.

Cook until soft and smash with spoon or potato masher.
Add sugar to taste and cook for roughly five minutes.
Test for gelling by placing a small amount on a cold plate and letting it cool. Cook longer if needed. Jam is ready when it gels.
Put it in jars and store in the refrigerator or freezer, or can in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Homemade aronia jam on a Mtn Seasons bagel with Sweet Rowen Farmstead farmer’s cheese.

Apple Trees and their Roots

John in the greenhouse with his dwarf apple trees.

John in the greenhouse with his dwarf apple trees.

We grow and sell many apple varieties grafted onto different rootstocks. The rootstock affects disease resistance, cold hardiness and size of the full grown tree. The true dwarf trees are around 8 to 10 ft tall and generally need to be staked or trellised to keep the tree from breaking. The longevity of these trees is around 20 years. The true dwarfs are commonly used for high density trellised apple orchards and for homeowners with small yards. John has been experimenting with putting these in our unheated greenhouses to try to get organic (no spray) dessert quality apples. The greenhouse provides a controlled environment that can help prevent diseases and pests (and late frosts).

Honeybee on greenhouse apple blossom.

Honeybee on greenhouse apple blossom.

Semi-dwarf trees are generally the favorite of today’s homeowners. They live around 50 or 60 years and get 12 to 15 ft tall, thus making them easier to prune and pick. The apple orchard on the side of our farmhouse is a semi-dwarf planting.

Semi-dwarf apple trees on the side of our house.

Semi-dwarf apple trees on the side of our farmhouse.

 

Standard size trees are often what you see in old orchards or on abandoned 19th and early 20th century homesteads. These legacy trees grow to around 20 ft and can live 100 years or more. We have been putting these standard sized trees our pollinator sanctuary orchard, a diverse planting of old, new, and unusual apple varieties with qualities that make good sweet and hard ciders.

 

 

 

Plums and Cherries

Honeybee on cherry blossom.

Honeybee on cherry blossom.

This week around the farm, we’ve been enjoying the phenomenal bloom of our plum and cherry trees. The native American plum trees have been especially fragrant, and I can’t wait to make plum jelly as I’ve heard the native plums make the best ever. We still have plenty of native American plum trees, Japanese-American hybrid plum trees (the round reddish-maroon plums) and European plum trees for sale at our nursery but we usually sell out by June.

For the Japanese-American hybrids, you need two different varieties for cross pollination. These trees get about 12-15 feet tall. They produce large round juicy fruit. The native plums will also pollinate the Japanese-American hybrid trees. These plums are small and vary in taste because they are seedling trees, not grafted. The European plums like Green Gage and Mount Royal are self fruitful meaning you only need one. They also get about 12-15 feet tall and produce tasty sweet fruit. The American hybrids will not cross pollinate with the European types.

Northern oriole in our cherry tree.

Northern oriole in our cherry tree.

The cherry blossoms have also been bountiful. As long as we don’t get a late frost, we should have a pretty good crop. We’ve seen bees (bumblebees, little native bees, and honey bees) buzzing around the flowers as well as flies, wasps and beetles. Last evening, we saw a pair of Baltimore Orioles drinking the nectar of the cherry blossoms. Unfortunately, they flew away every time we tried to get close, but we managed to get a photo from a distance. The cherry trees that we sell at our nursery are all self fruitful tart cherries that are great for pies, cherry juice, jams, whiskey cordials, or fresh off the trees.

The Nanking bush cherries are also blooming. These require two bushes for cross pollination. They’re a little sweeter than the tarts, but are small in size. They’re good for fresh eating and steam juicing. Hopefully, we can beat the chipmunks. Last year, they were climbing the trees and bushes to get the cherries!

Tips for Planting Blueberries

dighole (2)

Step 1. Dig hole twice as big as pot and about the same depth.

Blueberries need full sun and a rich well-drained acid soil (around pH 4.5). You can add soil amendments to make the soil more acidic. We sell a blueberry booster blend or you can make your own.  For other trees and berry bushes, we recommend back filling only with the native soil and adding a good compost on top. But blueberries are the exception because they need that acid soil. However, if you are using elemental sulfur to acidify the soil don’t let it come in contact with the roots.

Step 1. Dig a hole twice as big as the pot and just a little deeper.

removesod

Step 2. Remove sod and keep separate from soil

Step 2. If you’re digging into a grassy location, remove the sod. You can compost this or use it to fill in bare spots in your lawn.

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Step 3. Put soil on cardboard.

Step 3. Put soil from the hole on the cardboard. This will make it easier to blend with the blueberry booster (soil amendment). Check the hole with the pot to make sure it’s the right depth.

put some in hole

Step 4. Blend soil and blueberry booster amendment and put some in the hole.

Step 4. Blend the blueberry booster with the native soil and put a heaping handful into the bottom of the hole.

sprinkle remaining on top

Step 5. Back fill, tamp down soil, and put any remaining booster around the plant.

Step 5. Center the blueberry plant and continue to fill in with blueberry booster mixed with the native soil until the soil is even with the original soil level of the plant in the pot. Tamp down gently with your foot. Put any remaining amendment around the plant.

water in well

Step 6. Water in well.

Step 6. Water in well. Usually, a couple gallons for a small berry bush and more for larger bushes and trees. Go slowly so the water has time to infiltrate. The water helps soil settle into any air pockets as well as soaking the back filled soil.

make a collar for the plant with cardboard

Step 7. Sheet mulching with cardboard plant collar.

Step 7. Make a cardboard collar for your blueberry plant by cutting a slit on one side into the middle of the cardboard. Make a small hole there, big enough for your bush. Carefully slide the collar around the bush. This is called sheet mulching. The cardboard provides the necessary grass and weed control critical for bushes and small trees. Blueberries are especially susceptible to grass and weed pressure.

cover cardboard with softwood chips or shavings or pine needles

Step 8. Wood chips hold down the cardboard, but in the case of blueberries they also add more acidity.

Step 8. Softwood shavings, wood chips or pine needles should be added on top of the cardboard. We put them on thick for blueberries. Over the season, the cardboard will break down and the softwood shavings will add acidity and biodiversity to the soil as they break down. Adding fresh compost, sheet mulching, and topping the cardboard with softwood shavings, wood chips, or pine needles should be done every spring. Even large blueberry bushes are impacted by weed and grass pressure.

For most other bushes and trees, we recommend hardwood shavings (if you can get them) just enough to hold down the cardboard. But always softwood for blueberries.

A Keeper of Native Bees

Osmia cornifrons

Osmia cornifrons

The willows and haskaps are blooming around the farm, and that means native bees are emerging from their winter resting spots. Bumblebee queens are out and about already busy working the haskaps. The most exciting new native bees around the farm this year though are the blue orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria) and ground nesting bees (Colletes) which have been missing on the farm over the years up until now.

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Blue Orchard Mason Bee House

This year, we’re seeing these bees  because John has two native bee research projects. One project with Leif Richardson and the Gund Institute at UVM deals with surveying native bee populations in farms and gardens around Vermont. They are especially interested in cavity nesting bees like the blue orchard mason bee, as well as an introduced competitor (Osmia cornifrons) the horn faced bee. John’s been building nest boxes and the two of them have been putting them out – trying to beat the emergence of these bees. They are also looking at ways for farmers to establish these bees in their orchards. This spring John released some locally acquired cocoons in his bee boxes, and we now have blue orchard mason bees filling up straws with eggs, pollen and mud dividers. With any luck they will establish a viable population here and enjoy our nursery and pollinator sanctuary plants.

Ground Nesting Bee

Ground Nesting Bee

The other research grant is about establishing populations of ground nesting bees (Colletes) on farms and is funded by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. These are another great group of bees to have on the farm or in the garden to help with your pollination needs. Our farm is one of the test sites, so John has been collecting a subsample of these native bees from other locations and releasing them on the farm. Prior to their release he created conditions that are right for their establishment, sandy bare spots and cages with flowering cut stems for the ground nesting bees to get acclimated for a few days.

A method to introduce the ground nesting bees

A method to introduce the ground nesting bees

Ultimately, both research projects  deal with gaining a better understanding of these native bee pollinators in orchards and on farms in Vermont. Native bees are especially important in pollination, not just of food crops but of so many native trees, shrubs, and perennials. While honeybees are warm in their hives, avoiding the cool rainy weather of spring, many of the native bees are out gathering pollen and nectar and doing the needed pollination work. Some native bees also buzz pollinate, vibrating the flower at a high frequency, which is much more effective in pollinating certain flowers, such as blueberry and tomato flowers. Honeybees can’t do this. Not that honeybees aren’t important too, but they have beekeepers to help them. Native bees don’t, and they are no doubt affected by many of the same issues impacting honeybees, such as pesticide toxicity, loss of habitat and floral resources, and pests and diseases. John is now becoming a keeper of these native bees.

NOFA Conference – Beyond Borders

This weekend we were busy with the NOFA-VT (Northeast Organic Farmers Association) Annual Winter Conference in Burlington. We were among dozens of exhibitors at the exhibitor fair, and John presented two talks, one on solitary nesting bees with UVM researcher Leif Richardson. The other was entitled Butterflies without Borders; Monarchs, Milkweed, and Mexico.

I was excited to hear that John received the Jack Cook award this year. This NOFA-VT award is given out annually to the member who best embodies the theme of the conference. This year’s theme was “Beyond Borders: Our Role in the Global Food Movement.”

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John with a women’s organic farming group in northern India (2001).

I thought this award particularly apt for John. He’s worked in agriculture in the U.S. and abroad for over 35 years and as an organic farmer for 25 years. He’s worked on farmer-to-farmer programs in Myanmar, India, Guinea, Senegal, Jamaica, and Haiti. He’s led student groups dealing with agriculture and community gardening in Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic (DR). Through our nonprofit Seeds of Self Reliance he’s worked in Haiti and the DR. And last year through University of Vermont agroecology research, he again worked in Haiti. Recently, his off farm work has led him to taking up the task of fighting for the pollinators that are so important for the global ecosystem as well as our food crops. He worked on the Vermont Pollinator Task Force this past year, and traveled to Mexico to meet with farmers working with stingless bees. He also took a pilgrimage to the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries in Mexico.

I was quite proud of his award, but felt that maybe they should have included a “Jane Cook Award” for the spouse who stays home and takes care of the farm while the other person gets to gallivant around the world doing good work. Maybe I’ll sneak his award gift when he’s not looking.

Early Agritourism at The Farm Between

I was rummaging around some of my old stuff and came across our agritourism flyers from 1995 (give or take a year – I can’t quite remember). I think we only did it for one summer which is why I still have a boatload of these cards left. John and I designed the flyer and had it printed at a local printers. Twenty-some years later, I think it still came out great. I especially like Nolan with the ear of corn and giant strawberry and tomato. Those were the days when cut and paste really meant cutting and pasting. John and I have been at this for 25 years. It certainly has been an agricultural adventure. And it’s not over yet!cardfrom 1995

cardfrom 1995 other side

This Time of Year

img_3499There’s something about this time of year. When I look at our back fields, I just want to wrap myself in the colors; the fading greens, tans, and earthy browns against the slate-blue mountains and the gray skies. Especially early in the morning when the sun is just coming up over the hills.

When I was younger, I thought November was a letdown after the the bright reds, oranges and yellows of October. November with its bare trees and long-gone birds and insects was just the dreary month before winter.

img_3501-2But something’s changed as I’ve aged. This has become my time. A time to slow down, reflect on the past growing season and plan for the next. A time for writing and making art and appreciating nature’s beautiful transience. My own impermanence too.

Today after taking the dogs for their walk and feeding the horses, I felt compelled to go back out and take some pictures.

I just wanted to hold on to this beautiful season a little while longer.