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Ask Tom: Annual Farm Gizmos Column

October 29, 2012

ImageThis month’s column departs from our traditional approach and offers a series of ideas and links to inspire farm efficiency improvements as we enter fall and winter – when we may actually have some time to do research and follow-up. Please comment freely if you have tried any of these devices or if you have invented “gizmos” that may be useful to others in our on-line community.

Gizmo Definition – a mechanical gadget, especially one whose name the author does not know or cannot recall.

Image Solar water pump – Here is an interesting design by the Full Belly Project in Wilmington NC. It is a hand cart with a solar photovoltaic (electric) panel which powers a portable pump. Contact information is at the site listed below as well as a full list of their other products. Below that is a link to a You Tube clip on this same device.

ImageMobile Cooler – Penelope Perkins-Veazie with NCSU developed this Cool-Bot design for a mobile cooler which might be useful for folks using leased land or needing quick cooling during harvest (for berries or greens perhaps). The You Tube link on the second site listed below provides a quick overview of the construction process. Much of the $3500 cost of this device covers the trailer and air conditioner which will be less if obtained used.

Net Bags – Anyone who has toured our farm will hear me rave on about how useful net bags are in salad mix Imageharvesting. This is one of many useful links at the Healthy Farmer/Healthy Profits site from the University of Wisconsin. I will highlight several others from this site below.


This year we tried an over-the-shoulder model that worked well for squash and pepper harvesting. Just tie a rope or piece of webbing around a handful of the bag top in two places. Adjust the length to fit the height of the user.

Back-saving Harvest (or weeding) Cart – This device is human powered and has an estimated construction cost of $150. We built a similar device with two wheels but this one looks better.

Motorized versions are also described at


Hands-free Washing Station

You can add a foot-operated valve to save water for about $80


Healthy Farmers – Healthy Profits SiteAt the bottom of this page are other links related to berries, dairy and nursery enterprises. While your farm may not be in those categories you might find some useful gizmos there like the strap on stool for berry harvest.

Happy fall and happy reading.

— Tom

Farmers: Got a Question for Tom? Email it to us


Ask Ruth: Quick, DIY Winter Row Covers

October 29, 2012

ImageDear Ruth,

As we head into November, I am looking for an easy way to protect my fall garden from winter weather. Do you have any simple solutions?


Burnsville, NC

Dear Eddie,

In my own garden, I use a super-simple system. It’s fast, it’s easy, and practically anyone can construct it in just a few minutes. I will demonstrate the steps to “building” this DIY winter protection tunnel, and then talk about issues to contemplate when using this and similar systems, and finally offer a few other ideas. I have used similar shelters on a grander scale for lettuce for the wholesale market. Most of the lettuce was still in decent condition the following March – though some of the lettuce ribs were starting to get brown – but the lettuce was planted early enough that it was nearly full size by mid-October.


8’ Fiberglass Rods – these work for a bed width of 4 feet

Length of tunnel divided by 2 plus 1 = Number of rods you will need

For a 12’ tunnel, you will need 7 rods

Floating Row Cover

Length: length of tunnel + distance to ground on both ends + 1’ minimum

Width: should be 7’ (minimum) to 8’ wide for 4’ wide beds

For a 12’ tunnel you will need a minimum length of 19-20’of row cover, at least 7’ wide

Rocks, Bricks, Soil

Enough rocks/bricks to weigh down floating row cover about every two feet

OR use soil to weigh down one long side of the tunnel. The soil technique will limit harvest accessibility on that side.


 Lay out the garden area you are going to protect. You will be planting before you need to worry about frost protection, so site and dimension your fall garden accordingly. The rods can successfully span about 4 feet, so measure that width. Determine your length. It is sometimes easier to have two shorter tunnels than one long tunnel. If you like things to be really straight, lay out with string and a tape measure. In wintertime the sun will not be directly overhead. It will be at a lower angle in the sky. Make sure the area will still be in full sun during wintertime. If you have more than one tunnel, make sure one tunnel will not shade the other tunnel.

ImageTake your fiberglass rods and jam them down in the ground every two feet on both sides of the tunnel. I try to set them about a foot deep in the soil. If you hit a rock, move the rod slightly and try again. If you want the tunnel shape to look consistent, make sure the angle of the rod going into the ground is the same everywhere. I don’t recommend setting the rods further apart than 2 feet. It will be too flimsy.


Now, pull your row cover across the rods. Center it widthwise and lengthwise. On all sides, you should have at least 6” of extra row cover lying on the ground. If you don’t have quite enough, try pushing the rods further into the ground. Rain/water does pass through floating row cover to nourish your plants. Floating row cover comes in a variety of weights. Lighter-weight row cover allows for more light transmission, offers a bit less frost protection than heavier covers, and can double as an insect barrier in warmer weather. Heavier-weight row cover gives you a little more frost protection, but less light transmission. I usually use lighter row cover.


Place your rocks/bricks over the extra flap of row cover on the ground. This will secure the cover and keep it from blowing away during a winter storm. Be generous with your rocks/bricks…it’s a bummer to have your cover blow away and see the devastating results in your garden.


The corners are important. You will need to scrunch the excess row cover at both ends of the tunnel. Gather the excess up in a few places along the tunnel end and make sure it is secure. I like to pull the sides tighter and flush with the ends. Extra rocks/bricks are helpful for securing the corners.

You’re done!



HINTS & More:

  • Plant early enough that your plants are nearly full size before frost. Your plants won’t grow much during cold weather, but if your plants are large already you will have plenty to harvest.
  • It is easier to plant the tunnel area first – before you build the tunnel.
  • Spinach and lettuce planted now won’t grow much, but they will quickly kick into gear at the first sign of milder weather in late winter/early spring.
  • Sometimes I put another layer of rods on TOP of the row cover. Then, when I am harvesting, I push the row cover up between the rods, and the rod-sandwich helps to hold the cover in place during harvest.
  • Anywhere the cover touches a plant, frost damage can occur. Plant taller plants toward the middle of the tunnel.
  • Mulch right up to the rods to keep weeds from sprouting in early spring. In fall, soil left bare inside the tunnel will stay warmer.
  • Soil can be used very effectively to batten down one long side of the floating row cover. However, you cannot harvest very conveniently from the side where soil is holding the cover in place.
  • Take good care of your row cover so it will last for more than one season. When you unearth the cover for use the following season, keep a lookout for spiders as you open it up, and then check for tears.Image
  • When it’s really windy, keep an eye on your floating row cover. It typically flies off at dusk in bitter weather with a nor’easter blowing.
  • Not a big problem, but sometimes animals will burst holes in your cover…maybe because they like the warmth inside.
  • Snow loads can flatten the fiberglass rods, but they will pop right back up – unfazed – once you dust the snow off the cover.
  • You could add plastic over the row cover to create a mini-greenhouse. The addition of plastic will require attention to watering and a ventilation plan.


# 9 Wire: Instead of the fiberglass rods you can use #9 wire. This is very thick sturdy wire. It comes on a roll and you will need to cut it to length. Because of its thickness, cutting it can be challenging. You can use bolt cutters or (with caution) a circular saw with a metal-cutting blade. I have used a chisel and a small sledgehammer (yes, it was labor intensive!). Usually the diameter of the roll is the right length for support hoops. Places like Southern States sell this wire. One downside: When I used this wire as bows for my tunnel, a snow load permanently distorted and somewhat flattened the arch of my wire bows (but they did not collapse completely).

PVC pipe: PVC pipe is more rigid than the fiberglass rods, but it is more complicated to work with, requires a supporting structure, and it doesn’t have the long term longevity. After it starts cracking, it ends up in the landfill. Alternatively, PVC gray “conduit” in the electrical section at building supply stores is treated to be sun-resistant, so it does not become brittle the way white PVC water pipe does. It will collapse under a heavy snow and pop back up as the snow melts like the fiberglass rods.

Wire ladder masonry reinforcement: Found at building supply stores, these wire ladders can be bent into an arch for use in low tunnels to support floating row cover.

High Tunnel Link: Here is a great link that Tom Elmore sent me for building a high tunnel/hoop house. This is a serious structure that would take some time and planning to construct. The fastening system can be used for constructing low tunnels also. Check it out:

SOURCES for materials:

The rods can be purchased locally at Reems Creek Nursery, Fifth Season Gardening, and possibly others. They can also be ordered from Seven Springs Farm

The floating row cover (also called Reemay) can be purchased at local garden supply stores, agricultural supply stores, and possibly at hardware stores.

Thanks for writing Eddie. I am just going to add that I LOVE the simplicity and ease of this fiberglass rod system. Besides being easy and quick, the rods take up very little room in storage. Ten rods take up about the same room as one PVC pipe.

All my best,


Gardeners: Got a question for Ruth? Email it to us at

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, local food advocate, and founder of the Tailgate Market Fan Club where she blogs at In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

Ask Ruth © 2012 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Ask Ruth September 2012: Harvesting Sweet Potatoes

September 28, 2012

Dear Ruth,

 This is the first year I have grown sweet potatoes. How will I know when they are ready to harvest?


Canton. NC

Dear Jennifer,

Yum! You’re looking forward to a harvest you will enjoy for months. Here are some factors to consider prior to your sweet potato harvest:

  • Determine when you planted your sweet potatoes. They take about 95 days to mature – so count back to when you planted them and decide when you can safely dig them up. If you planted near June 1st, your crop is ready to harvest.
  • The longer you leave sweet potatoes in the ground, the larger they will get…and sometimes they get gigantic. Do you want football-sized sweet potatoes?
  • Harvest when the weather is still hot, because sweet potatoes cure faster in hot weather.
  • Harvest before frost. Even though sweet potatoes can take a light frost, some of your tubers could be damaged.
  • Harvest when the soil is dry for best curing.
  • Harvest when you have ample time to complete the job. Sweet potatoes can develop sunscald if left in the sun for several hours.
  • Slowly-yellowing leaves on your sweet potato plants indicate that your potatoes are ready for harvest.

So Jennifer, balance the above considerations to figure your best harvest window. Leave your sweet potatoes in the ground at least 95 days, but don’t wait too late to harvest – because sweet potatoes will not cure as quickly in cool weather. You can always dig up one plant to monitor how the potatoes are looking.


Sweet potatoes must be handled gently to prevent bruising. Using a potato fork, dig about 8-10” away from the main stem of the sweet potato. Once you have loosed the soil all around the potatoes, feel around with your hands for your tasty treasures. Gloves can make this easier. Set any nicked potatoes aside to eat quickly. Do not store injured potatoes with your good potatoes, or you will be faced with a smelly science project. Potatoes can be stored in corrugated cardboard boxes.


Right after harvest, sweet potatoes should be cured. Proper curing “sets the skin” and heals minor injuries. Ideal conditions – high temperatures and high humidity – will allow the potatoes to cure quickly so any superficial wounds will heal. Sweet potatoes will cure in about a week in temperatures around 85 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity level of 85-90% (Hey wait…that sounds like summer in the South!) Curing is much slower in cooler temps, and can take 4-6 weeks. During the curing process, provide adequate ventilation, protect potatoes from too much light and moisture, and don’t let them get too hot or too cold.

According to NC State, “proper curing has been shown to increase the sensation of moistness and sweetness, enhance the aroma, and decrease starch content while increasing sugars.” Sweet potatoes prefer temperatures around 55 degrees once they are cured. Temps below 50 degrees can actually DAMAGE your potatoes. Colder temps can cause the sweet potato to discolor, cause various root rots and pithiness, and later on – may prevent sprouting when you want “seed” for next year’s crop. Don’t store sweet potatoes in your refrigerator, in cold garages, or anywhere below 50 degrees. However, if your potatoes get too hot they will start sprouting prematurely, which will diminish the quality of the potato and shorten their storage life.

Does the above curing process seem too complex? I think you will have fairly good luck if you gently harvest your sweet potatoes, and store them in a cardboard box or a brown paper bag in a dark spot that is not too hot and is not colder than 55 degrees.


  • Harvest all tender veggies before frost (peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, etc.).
  • Harvest basil before evenings are cool, or the leaves will turn black and become unusable. Preserve extra basil by making pesto or drying the leaves for winter use.
  • Let green gourds frost on the vine.
  • Many fall veggie plants (greens, spinach, some lettuces, etc.) can handle a light frost initially, but enjoy the protection of floating row covers or cold frames as fall progresses. Frost is reputed to make greens, like collards, taste sweeter.

Jennifer…I hope your sweet potato pie is delicious!

Best wishes,


Gardeners: Got a Question for Ruth? Email us, or you can leave comments at the end of this article.

 Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, local food advocate, and founder of the Tailgate Market Fan Club where she blogs at   In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

Ask Ruth © 2012 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Ask Tom September 2012: Changing Average Temperature

September 28, 2012

 Tom –

This season I seemed to have a new set of bugs and disease that were only minor problems in the past. Did you notice that too?

— Perplexed in Grapevine



Dear Perplexed –

I noticed that lettuce bacterial spot was particularly bad this year. It was an irritation in the past but it became a major problem this year. My theory is that the warm temperatures in June favored some pathogens and insects over plant resistance and natural controls. Once they became established the problem lasted most of the season.

My theory is based in part on an experience several years ago with grey mold (botrytis) in my tomato greenhouse. Botrytis infects tomato blossoms so fruit never form. It can invade the calyx so fruit drop before they are ripe. It can turn fruit with minor imperfections into culls. In consulting with other growers, they recommended keeping our greenhouse temperature above 55 degrees. I reset the greenhouse thermostat from 50 to 55, and the botrytis disappeared within a week. That disease likes growing in cool conditions but produces spores at higher temperatures (in the mid-seventies). By keeping the temperature above the ideal growth temperature for the fungal growth and then running quickly into the 80s when the sun rose, we avoided temperatures that favor both fungal growth and also fungus reproduction. Our higher production and better fruit quality was well worth the expense of extra greenhouse heat to maintain a five degree higher nighttime temperature.

Inside the greenhouse we obviously have more control over temperature than in the field. Our nightly lows in the summer are typically in the sixties but for those hot weeks in June, the overnight lows were often in the seventies. As it turns out bacterial spot in lettuce grows the best at 74 degrees. Adding the moisture of evening dew created a pathogen incubator in our lettuce patch. A disease that was an irritation in the past took down several plantings of lettuce this year.

 Without access to a weather “thermostat” for outside temperatures, we plan to be more aware of overnight lows. This graphic may be useful in tracking the projected lows. It is found at:

 If we see the nightly low leveling off at temperatures that favor our pathogen (mid-seventies), it may be time to turn up our controls a notch or two. Next year we intend to

  • plant more resistant varieties during warm periods,

  • spray regularly with immune stimulants like Regalia, and

  • physically separate plantings to make the spread of disease more difficult.

One last thought on average evening temperatures is that climate change may make extreme summer temperature more and more common. If June 2012 is a glimpse of the future, growers can consider it a “heads up” as we prepare for future growing seasons.

Thanks for your question.

— Tom

P.S. Gemplers has an ice suit for overheated growers at

CRAFT TOUR: A Way of Life Farm Teaches Practical Soil Building Tips

September 28, 2012

Sara Jane and Jamie Davis, with A Way of Life Farm in Rutherford County, were our gracious hosts for our seventh CRAFT tour this year on Sunday September 9th. It was a beautiful day and we had a great turn out for the tour which focused on “Alternative Approaches to Soil Fertility.” Big thanks go out to the Davis family for sharing their farm and the clever combination of techniques they employ to build soil fertility with us.

A Way of Life Farm began in 2009, as the manifestation of Jamie and Sara Jane’s desire to care for the land and grow good food. They’ve put a lot of thought, hard work, and a healthy dose of trial and error into developing a set of farming systems that suits their lifestyle, beliefs, and landscape. The Davis’ and their two interns grow a variety of vegetables intensively on 1 ½ acres; tend a hill-side blueberry patch with several fruit trees; and rotate pigs through scrubby woodland paddocks. To market their vegetables they travel to the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, manage an Asheville-based two season CSA, and are a member farm in Plateful Multi-Farm CSA.

The tour began as we settled down under a shade tree and Jamie gave us the rundown of their alternative methods for soil fertility. Jamie explained that soil fertility is determined by the balance between the chemical make-up, physical structure, and biological nature of the soil. But, none of these aspects exist in isolation. Since, all three are connected if you change one component you change the others. To achieve true soil fertility we must approach each aspect understanding its influence on the whole and chose farming methods that support one another for building, managing, and balancing soil.

For the chemical make-up of their soil Jamie and Sara Jane are utilizing the Kinsey-Albrecht Method. Based on the scientific research of Dr. William Albrecht this method involves conducting a soil audit that determines soil chemistry and recommends what is needed to reach a balanced chemistry for your particular soil. Once a year, Jamie and Sara Jane send in soil samples to Kinsey Agricultural Systems to determine their course of action for soil amendments. Jamie explained that while this soil analysis is more costly than an analysis from NC State, he is willing to pay the extra cost because the Kinsey-Albrecht method aligns with his belief in approaching soil fertility as a way to balance the soil and not simply to feed the plant. The best soil will grow the best plants. Jamie suggests attending a workshop with Neal Kinsey, as he did, or reading his books. Then, start by taking soil samples from the worst part of your field, test it, do the recommended amendments, and see how it plays out.

The second alternative approach to soil fertility Jamie and Sara Jane shared with us was cultivating Indigenous Micro Organisms (IMO) to get at the biological side of their soil fertility program. IMO is an idea developed in Korean Natural Farming. The basic idea is that you cultivate micro-biology best suited to your farm by using micro organisms uniquely found on your own property. The technique is an inexpensive one to begin on your farm since it mainly involves a pot of rice set in the wildest part of your farm, but it does take some investment of time. Once you have cultivated your local aerobic beneficial microbes you then start a process of expanding their numbers. Jamie suggested using the Hawaii Cooperative Extenstion for the most comprehensive set of resources on cultivating IMO. The end goal is a biological soil amendment that will augment the active microorganisms in your soil. The Davis’s prefer this to making compost because it only takes 4-5 weeks from start to finish, and can be completed in the winter.

The third tool in their arsenal for soil fertility is the Yeoman’s Keyline Plow – rounding out the physical element for balanced soil composition. P.A. Yeoman’s Keyline Design system was developed in Australia to build topsoil and manage large acreage in dry landscapes, and is similar to permaculture. We took a short walk down to see their Keyline plow attachment. Similar to a modified chisel plowoutfitted with two hillers, the Keyline plow shapes and raises the vegetable beds 6 in, and aerates the bed 20 inches down without inverting the soil. You can watch a great video of Jamie putting the Keyline Plow to work on their website.

While, Jamie and Sara Jane are excited about the methods they use they recognize they are still missing some pieces to the cultivation puzzle. They hope to eventually incorporate a small tractor with a Rotary PTO tiller, because now after the initial bed shaping with the Keyline they must clean the shoulders and flatten the bed by hand before planting can begin.

They irrigate with drip irrigation fed by a reliable creek on the property, and have had great success using a fine mist irrigation for 20 minutes twice a day on beds where they direct seed. As we walked around to the side field, we saw their stand of Bloody Butcher dent corn, a remnant of their foray into growing grains. Now, they grind the dent corn into cornmeal and grits as a special treat in their CSA shares. Next, to the corn Sara Jane told us about the 16 different varieties of sweet potatoes acquired from a local woman who cultivates hundreds of varieties of sweet potatoes in Rutherford County. They’ll cure the sweet potatoes in their basement which they’ve set up to function as a root cellar.

Finally, we trekked up to the woodland pig paddocks. Originally, they began with just 3 pigs but expanded once they got the hang of it, and currently have 12. They are only able to process 4 at a time with May’s Meats due to limited freezer space. Just this year they switched to having automatic waterers and self-feeders. Jamie said they’ve found the pigs actually eat less when the food is always available, and it saves them time since they only have to refill every 2-3 days instead of twice a day like before. Ultimately, the pigs’ purpose on the farm is to clean out the underbrush in the scrubby second-growth woods on the farm. They will clean things out but won’t strip it bare, so eventually with some selective cutting and time the farm will have sparsely treed pastures to move animals through.

Once again, we capped off the tour with an abundant potluck and plenty of lively conversation. We are so grateful to Sara Jane and Jamie for their hospitality and willingness to share their farming secrets!

Our next CRAFT tour will be Sunday October 7th at Green Toe Ground Farm. The tour topic will be “Introduction to Biodynamics”. Join us!!

CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers and their interns networking and learning opportunities. Membership is rolling, so join anytime! For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, OGS Farmer Programs Coordinator at 828.338.9465 or

CRAFT Tour: Mountain Harvest Organics

August 30, 2012

For our sixth CRAFT tour this season, we were hosted by Carl Evans, Julie Mansfield, and their farm crew at Mountain Harvest Organics in beautiful Spring Creek. Carl and Julie treated us to a non-stop farm tour with a uniquely insightful look into sustainable forestry and timber framing that even a sudden deluge could not deter.

We can’t thank the Mountain Harvest Organics group enough for sharing their farm, expertise, and awesome pizza oven with us!

The tour started out with a brief introduction Mountain Harvest Organic farm, tag-teamed between Julie and Carl. They came to the land in 1998 still working full time computer jobs. After spending time cleaning and reclaiming the land they were able to switch to farming full time in 2000, and started a CSA. In 2001, they expanded to tailgate markets. Now they are able to grow 5 acres of produce, fruits, and flowers, raise pastured pigs and poultry, and manage 80 acres of timber. They market their farm products at two tailgate markets and to a 68 family CSA with two share sizes.

Then, we stopped by 3 of the farm’s 6 greenhouses. In the first, a Jaderloon greenhouse, they do their primary propagation for transplants. They heat this greenhouse with propane and a conventional Modine greenhouse heater but their other greenhouses are heated using a hydronic wood boiler furnace using firewood harvested from the property which allows them start earlier in the season, and grow until December.

During the summer the greenhouses function as high tunnels, but with changing climate conditions they are looking into ideas for growing with greenhouses in extreme heat since the summers have been hotter the past few years. The tomatoes in the third greenhouse were heavy with fruit, and they have already harvested 3,000 lbs of slicers so far.

A good time was had by all in the production field…

In the large production field, they have fenced in 4 acres. To cultivate they start with the turning plow, then disc and add any amendments, followed by rotovating to raise and make beds. For planting, they employ a Lannen Plantek carousel transplanter and can plant a 300 ft. bed in 15 minutes! For direct seeding they use an Earthway push seeder and Jang seeder.

Carl recommends irrigating with aluminum pipe if you are able to find enough of it. It doesn’t need to be replaced, and can be found on old tobacco farms. The pipe is set up on 40×60 ft. grid for sprinklers, and the handy swivel valves off the mainline make rotating watering a cinch.

After a quick stop by the pig paddock, we walked into the woods to hear more about the sustainable forestry plan for the farm. Carl and Julie are trying to take advantage of the abundance they possess in their 80 acres of forested land to build a timber frame rental cabin and pavilion for farm outings. Carl hopes to pair a side business in building custom timber frames for buyers during the winter season with the farming enterprises.

When it comes to sustainable forestry careful planning is crucial. The first step to sustainable forestry is creating a forestry plan for managing your woodlot. You are required to have a forestry plan if you plan to apply for land use taxation. Carl recommends finding a forester that will let you go along with them as they survey the forest. They can help you see the trees in the midst of the forest, so to speak, and explain which trees to cut and when, which ones to leave and how they are useful in your plan for harvesting as a bumper tree or maintaining the health of the forest but serving as a seed stock.  Selective cutting is an art, and it’s a different mindset trying to see what a tree and the overall forest could be in 20 or 40 years.

When it comes time to actually harvest the trees they have selected, it’s a three step process:

  1. Felling – cutting a tree in a way that makes it easy to remove
  2. Limbing – removing the branches; and
  3. Bucking – cutting the tree into appropriate lengths to be removed. Carl and Julie use the Swedish felling technique which involves making a notch in the tree trunk, plunging the saw in and boring out the middle leaving the back intact. Then you insert plastic wedges in the cut side, and cut the back tab out for a more controlled fall.

Carl advises that you also think about how invested you want to be in terms of time and money. Carl and Julie are trying to manage as much of the process on their own as possible, and have invested in several key pieces of equipment. A Farmi attachment turned their Kubota L4200 tractor into a skidder for around $3,500 so they can move the bucked trees to a staging area to be loaded on a trailer and hauled out. A snatchblock enables them to pull a tree that is out of line with the tractor without pulling the tractor over. And, a portable bandsaw sawmill allows them to mill all of the beams and boards on their land. Since timbering is one of the top three most dangerous jobs, having proper safety equipment like chainsaw chaps, and a hard hat are also wise investments.

Timber framing, or as Julie calls it Slow Building, is a type of building that dates back to the 1500s, and resurfaced in the U.S. in the 1970s. It is known for precision joinery, where the joints are held together with wooden pegs – no nails allowed! Carl started his training a week long workshop with Scott Stevens of Grand Oaks Timber Framing. Using a poplar saw horse Carl demonstrated the basic techniques of timber frame building. The basic joint is a mortise and tenon, where a tapered end (the tenon) is cut in the end of a beam to fit inside a corresponding hole on another beam (the mortise). The dimensions are careful planned before the first cut is made and you measure to the 32nds of an inch. Then, holes are made and wooden pegs shaped to be inserted to lock the joint in place. Carl suggests that if you have any interest in timber framing investing the time and expense in an intensive workshop is a great idea.

Despite a heavy rain towards the end of the tour the pizza oven stayed lit and we feasted on homemade pizzas, and other delicious dishes. We cannot thank Carl and Julie enough for the great tour they put on and for sharing their wealth of farm knowledge and inspiration.

Our next CRAFT tour will be Sunday September 9th at A Way of Life Farm led Sarah Jane and Jamie Davis. The tour topic will be “Alternative Approaches to Soil Fertility.” Join us!!

CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers and their interns networking and learning opportunities. Membership is rolling, so join anytime! For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, OGS Farmer Programs Coordinator at 828.338.9465 or

Ask Ruth: Organic Horticultural Oil for Fruit Trees

August 27, 2012

Dear Ruth,

I missed the first spraying (dormant oil) for my fruit trees. When should I spray them and what do I use? Do I trust any spray labeled “organic”?  I have dwarf apple, peach, pear, plum, and nectarine trees and I live in Pitt County in Eastern NC. Thanks in advance for any advice on this matter.

~Gayle Morgan, Pitt County 

Dear Gayle,

Talking about fruit trees is like opening a can of worms – it is a huge and complicated subject. Generally fruit trees are considered a higher maintenance adventure than other gardening endeavors, but the rewards are oh-so-sweet. Each fruit has its own special needs, and organic approaches to orcharding evolve every year.

Horticultural oils are used to smother insects and their eggs and to suppress overwintering diseases. Opinions vary about exactly when to spray dormant oil, and suggestions ranged from midwinter to late winter/early spring before the buds have begun to swell. Other recommendations were much more specific such as: when green tip is ¼ to ½ inch long (the buds are open at the tip and green is beginning to show).

In the mountains of North Carolina this usually occurs in February/March and probably earlier in Pitt County, NC. Lighter- weight horticultural oils (like all-seasons oil) may be sprayed anytime of year, using caution since sometimes the oil will damage plant leaves.

For horticultural oil to be effective, the oil must contact and coat the pest; complete coverage of the tree is very important, including the crevices/cracks in the tree’s bark and buds. Scale, mites, pear psylia, and aphids are some of the insects targeted by horticultural oil.

Oils should not be sprayed on plants when freezing weather is expected. Refrain from spraying during windy weather since much of your spray will be blown off course by the wind and will not end up on the tree. Likewise avoid rainy weather. If you spray just before a heavy rain, you will have to re-spray following the rain.

The spray you use should be mixed fresh each time you spray, so mix up only the amount you will use right then. Agitate the oil in your sprayer frequently so that it remains in suspension. You want a very fine mist of oil, not blobs. You will need one to two gallons of spray per 8-10’ tree when you are spraying dormant trees. If your trees are super-small, you could get by with a hand-held plant mister (your hand will cramp up pretty quickly if you have very much to spray). A two gallon pump sprayer works well in most garden situations. Be sure not to overfill past the fill line on the tank – or the gasket may blow.

I personally love using a backpack sprayer (3-, 4-, or 5-gallon), but they are a bit costly with about a $100 price tag. Having a sprayer with a wand is extremely useful for reaching into all the nooks and crannies and under leaves.

In lieu of dormant oil, organic orchardist Michael Phillips mixes up a concoction of diluted 100% neem oil with a tad of soap emulsifier, liquid fish, effective microbes, blackstrap molasses, and liquid kelp. On a warmish day, he thoroughly coats the tree and sprays the soil area in the tree’s dripline too.

Here is a list of a few OMRI Approved Oils. (Some may state restrictions for Certified Organic growers):

  • Monterey Horticultural Oil (previously called SAF-T-SIDE):  80% mineral oil (92% unsulfonated residue of mineral oil) for control of fungal diseases, insects and mites. For year round usage-dormant and growing season. Use on most crops, including fruit and nut trees, vegetables, berries, ornamentals, grasses. Controls powdery mildew, mites, scale, botrytis, leafminers and more.
  • Golden Pest Spray Oil – OMRI: 93% soybean oil.  For Fruits, nuts, evergreens and woody shrubs. Controls mites, sooty mold, scale, whitefly, and mealybug.
  • Bayer Advanced Natria™ Multi-Insect Control Concentrate – OMRI: 96% Canola Oil
  • Concentrate Worry Free® Brand Vegol™ Year-Round Pesticidal – Oil – OMRI: 96% Canola Oil. For dormant and growing season use to control all stages of insects and eggs for roses, flowers, fruits, vegetables, houseplants, and trees.
  • Ahimsa Organics Neem Oil *- OMRI: 100% Neem Oil. Note: This is pure, unformulated oil and is not registered for use as an insecticide, fungicide or for any specific herbal use. Use as an insecticide would need to be cleared with your certifier.
  • Organic JMS Stylet Oil – OMRI: 97.1% paraffinic oil (superior grade white mineral oil). Used to control fungal diseases, insects and mites.

Note: ALWAYS check any product you intend to spray for suitability to your objective (does it target the pest you want to target?). Also check for safety precautions, mixing precautions, and general precautions – and follow the safety measures indicated on the product. Pesticide rules and organic rules change over time. Determine the current status of a product prior to use. Certified growers can check with their certifying agency.

Useful Links/Sources:

Local Apples: Photo by Ruth Gonzalez

Other considerations for orchard health:

  • Because of their smaller stature, dwarf (8-10 ft.) and semi-dwarf (12-15 ft.) fruit trees are easier to spray, prune, and harvest.
  • Choose your location carefully – most fruit trees require full sun for good fruit production. Plant fruit trees halfway down the slope where they will enjoy good air drainage. Don’t plant at the bottom of a slope, or in frost pockets, where frost is liable to collect. In mountain locations where spring weather is sporadic, a northeast-facing slope makes an ideal orchard site – because northeast slopes stay cool longer in the spring and therefore the risk of frost damage is reduced.
  • Prepare your planting hole well. Dig a generous wide hole, and plant your tree no deeper than it was in the pot. Backfill the hole with 50% native soil mixed with 50% compost. Soft rock phosphate, greensand, kelp and/or azomite can be added to the backfill as well.
  • Water your fruit tree religiously for the whole first year and (after the first year) during dry periods. Water deeply to the bottom of the rootball. Most trees enjoy moist well-drained soil.
  • Plant disease-resistant cultivars. Plant fire-blight resistant apples and pears.
  • Check your pH. Ideal pH for many fruit trees is 6.5. Soil that is too acidic contributes to fire blight susceptibility.
  • Don’t over-fertilize. Too much nitrogen produces succulent growth that is more susceptible to insects and diseases – such as fire blight.
  • Employ good sanitation throughout the year. Pick up and dispose of fallen fruit. Rake up fallen and diseased leaves. Destroy diseased fruit, diseased branches, and diseased leaves (do NOT compost).
  • Prune fruit trees regularly to maintain good air movement, and fruit access to sunlight.
  • When fruit trees are in bloom, don’t spray insecticides since pollinators (such as honeybees) could be killed by the insecticide. I think it is always safer to spray oils very early or late in the day, so that the risk – of bee traffic and plant injury from sunburn – is minimized.

Gayle, not all organic products will be labeled OMRI, and restrictions apply to some OMRI-labeled products, but seeing OMRI on the label does help you quickly discern whether the product is considered organic. There is also an EPA label with three little leaves that reads “For Organic Gardening”. Click here for more information on the EPA label. Some companies, such as Seven Springs, label various products as NOP (National Organic Program) compliant.

Look for organic products in your local garden center/agricultural supply. If you cannot find the product locally, try Seven Springs Farm, Johnny’s Selected Seed, Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, or Harmony Farm Supply.

Best wishes,

PS: Put the 2013 Annual OGS Spring Conference (March 9 & 10) on your calendar – this is our 20th year and cause for celebration!

Gardeners: Got a question for Ruth? Email it to us at
Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, local food advocate, and founder of the Tailgate Market Fan Club where she blogs at In her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

Ask Ruth © 2012 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School