Want to learn how to grow organic food inexpensively?

Here at Farmer John’s, “cheap” is our middle name.  And I mean that in the nicest possible way. We hunt around for low cost and no-cost sources of organic material that we use to build up the soil, then we stick to the regimen of growing our produce organically.

There’s an old saying, “A healthy soil makes for a happy plant.” And it’s true. If you can pump up your soil with the natural ingredients that it needs, it will reward you with fantastically healthy plants that are able to ward off many of the diseases and insects that are the bane of “chemical gardens,” the gardens that are raised on a diet of chemical fertilizers.

And that leads me to my sales pitch. Tomorrow (Saturday, Aug. 4), at 9 a.m. here at 8 Kendricks Court, Amesbury,  I’ll be leading a talk/demonstration on where to find low-cost, no-cost organic material for your garden. We are surrounded by many prime sources of no-cost organics, you just need to know where to find them!

We’ll talk in detail about how to get them and how to process them correctly. We’ll dip into the science of how each of these components benefits your garden, and we’ll talk about how chemical-based fertilizers are doing serious damage to our environment.

The program is being sponsored by North Shore Permaculture Collaborative, a great local organization that is helping people learn how to live healthier lives.

The cost is $10. Here’s a link to the sign-up.

North Shore Permaculture Collaborative

Newburyport, MA
636 Permaculture Advocates

Our group seeks to provide a structure to link, support, collaborate with and expand the community of individuals and organizations in our area interested in learning and prac…

Next Meetup

A Low-Cost/No-Cost Way to Healthy Soil – and it’s Local!

Saturday, Aug 5, 2017, 9:00 AM
8 Attending

Check out this Meetup Group →


A fiery and fun end to all those branches in your yard

Brush fire

Just before this latest unwelcome round of slushy snow piled in, I started the annual spring yard cleanup. Like a lot of people, I discovered that this year I’m facing a much bigger mess than usual.

There are hundreds, or maybe thousands, of tree branches scattered all over the place. They range from 20-foor-long branches to just a few inches. Dead branches, live branches, branches that traveled over 100 feet from their tree — this was a brutally windy winter that did a real number on trees. I’ve never seen it so bad.

So cleanup begins. To get rid of branches you usually have 4 options — hire someone to do it, gather it up yourself and take it to your town’s yard waste dump, dump it yourself in a remote corner of your yard, or — my favorite — pile it up and burn it.

Brush burning is maybe the last caveman/cavewoman activity that is legally permitted in our modern life. Think about it — for thousands of years humans built big fires, and they got to be pretty good at it. Nowadays, most people don’t really know anything about how to get a rip roaring fire going. There’s some tricks to it that take practice to master.

Why burn a brush fire?

Here’s a few reasons why you should burn your brush:

  • You’ll get rid of it fast, and if you are a good fire builder/tender, there will be almost nothing left.
  • What’s left is a little pile of ash that makes for excellent fertilizer.
  • You’ll provide your neighborhood with instant and cheap entertainment, except for the guy/gal/guys/gals whose house(s) gets filled with smoke. Be sure to invite them over and let them throw their branches on your fire.
  • You will get the caveman satisfaction of building a tiny, wobbly fire into an awesome conflagration. You’ll be there for hours, fully entertained. You’ll love it and you’ll want to do it again tomorrow.

The law

Most towns allow you to have open burning fires. The restrictions are set by the state, though some towns throw in additional laws. In general, the season runs from Jan. 15 to April 30, and you need to get a permit from your local fire department. You can burn brush that fell or was cut from trees, as well as garden/orchard clippings. You can’t burn leaves, garbage, demo debris, tree trunks, and stuff like that. You can start burning at 10 a.m., and the fire has to be out by 4 p.m. Your fire must be at least 75 feet from a structure, and you need a nearby source of water, like a garden hose, just in case things get out of hand.

The setback from structures makes it legally impossible for a lot of people to have a brush fire, although a lot of people do it anyway. I think most fire departments will let you wiggle on that one as long as you have a safe fire, and you don’t create a nuisance.

Even if you have a permit, you can’t necessarily have a brush fire. The local FD decides whether to allow burning on a given day based on the weather conditions. You have to call the FD on the day you plan to burn in order to get permission for that day. In general, they don’t allow burning on really windy or cloudy/stormy days. Burning usually isn’t allowed on cloudy days because in theory, the smoke hovers close to the ground and annoys the neighborhood.

Setting your fire

So how do you go about getting a good fire going? It starts with stacking your wood just right. I try to create a tent-shaped structure that has lots of gaps for air to get in. You want to be sure to give the fire lots of room to breathe and suck in oxygen. A tightly-packed pile is a non-starter. Green branches won’t burn terribly well (at first anyway), so you want to be sure to have plenty of dead and dry wood in there. If you have a dry Christmas tree or evergreen branches, you’ve hit the pyro jackpot. That stuff will go up in a big blaze of glory.

Be sure to locate your pile in a good spot — as far as possible from neighbors, and in a relatively clear spot. It’s ok to have trees overhead as long as the fire isn’t going to reach the branches. If you build your fire near a pine tree, you’ll have an epic disaster on your hands.  Whatever is growing under the pile won’t be alive once it’s done. That grass or whatever will be completely fried and gone, and will need to be replanted.

I think an adequately-sized pile is about 4-5 feet tall and about 8 feet in diameter. If you have more brush than that, set it to the side and add it once the fire gets to the furnace stage.

I start my fire with some newspaper, cardboard, and some scrap lumber. I build that little fire on the edge of the big pile, close enough so some of the big pile is directly in its burn area. If you were in the boy scouts or girl scouts, try to retrieve that long-buried knowledge of how to start a fire — start with the small stuff and gradually add more material. Once you light your fire, you need to stay right on top of it — add material to it, but not too much.  This can be tricky, because usually a fire is pretty lazy.

A nice hot furnace

Often a fire doesn’t really want to get going, it prefers to sputter along for awhile. So you need to make it get going.  Sometimes it fools you into thinking it’s going well, like when you see a nice flare-up. Chances are that flare-up will quickly become a flare-down, unless you nurse it along.

Here’s 2 brush piles before I lit them up. They are about 5 feet tall and 8-10 feet in diameter.



Here’s what’s left after the fires are pretty much out. I also added the equivalent of 1 more pile when the fires were in full “furnace” mode.

Your fire is not really going good until you detect 3 things — the flame is a clear orange flume that shoots up about 3-6 feet in the air (not to brag, but…some of my proudest fires had 10-foot flumes), it’s throwing off enough heat so it feels hot when you get within 5-10 feet of it, and the branches are crackling loudly and nicely.  That transition can happen suddenly. Once it does, you’ll be very happy. You just created an awesome fire, way bigger and more entertaining than a fireplace fire.


At this point, that fire will burn just about everything you throw on it — wet branches, green branches, wet logs — it’s basically an open furnace. You’ll want to have a good shovel on hand to push in the remnants of branches and half-burned sticks that are on the outskirts of the hot mound of coals at the fire’s base. Keep feeding it.

Don’t take any dumb shortcuts, like throwing gasoline on the fire. That’s illegal. Even a caveman wouldn’t do it. First of all, it doesn’t do what you think it will do. It creates an enormous flare-up that usually flares down just as quickly. Secondly, fire will travel up that stream of gasoline, right to you. You can guess what happens next.

Invite the neighbors

You can be guaranteed that your fire will send billows of smoke all over the place. That’s why you’ve got to build it away from houses, and invite the neighbors over. We usually draw a small crowd to our fires, and the neighbors (whose houses are probably engulfed in smoke) bring branches and beer, and sometimes hot dogs. And everyone is happy. The caveman deep inside all of us gets a nice wake-up call.

Here’s a fire with a nice “furnace” glow. This one is pretty hot, and it will burn anything you throw on it.


Your fire will probably burn for hours, and the embers will keep glowing for a day or more. If you want to thoroughly extinguish the fire, you need to spread the embers out and dose them with water.

I usually let the embers keep burning, in order to get rid of nuisance trunks and logs. Those embers will also gradually burn through any big logs you throw onto them. It’s amazing how efficiently they burn through huge chunks of wood.

Once the fire is completely out, you’ll have a fairly small pile of ash. Really small, compared to the amount of stuff you burned. The ash is ideal for your garden or yard.

That’s a brush fire, in a nutshell. So if you’re tired of watching your TV shows and regular “programs,” and you want to revisit the best part of being a caveman (or cavewoman), light a brush fire.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. To keep up on what’s for sale at the farm like his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/



Don’t let your leaves leave your yard

It’s late fall here and the leaves are mostly off the trees, scattered across lawns and piled up against fences and walls.

Most people are raking them up, putting them in those big brown paper bags, and leaving them at the curb for the Department of Public Works to pick up and cart off.  That’s the routine that we’ve all be trained to follow — make the yard neat and cart all the leaves off to somewhere else.

It’s a bad idea. You and carting off one of the best fertilizers you can get for your garden and your lawn. And whoever invented those badly-designed bags is making a fortune off you. You can find better things to spend that money on.

Nature has its own clever way of dealing with leaves, but you can do a few things to make it work even better.  All you need is a little help from your lawnmower, and maybe your rototiller if you have one.

Why leave the leaves in your yard? Think about the last time you were in the woods. Every fall it’s blanketed with fallen leaves, pine needles and plant debris. They provide two essential assets to the forest — a protective ground cover and a fertilizer base. That blanket of leaves protects plant roots from the dehydrating effect of cold. They also gradually break down into an excellent source of compost for trees and plants. Pound for pound, leaves are actually more nutritional to your plants than manure. They contain not only the three essential compounds — nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — but also a host of other minerals that should get back into your soil.

Chop them up

The natural process of leaf decomposition is very slow. It takes months, and in some cases, years. You can speed it up and make it far more efficient with your lawnmower. You may want to start by raking your leaves onto your lawn, then start mowing from the outer edges, constantly directing the leaves inward. Go over them slowly, you’ll want the mower to  really chop them up good. Go over them a few times.img_1217

You’ll be astonished by what’s left. That huge pile of leaves is now reduced down to a mere shadow of its former self. What remains will be about 1/10th to 1/16th the size of the initial pile that you started with, and most of the tiny shreds are now implanted into your lawn. You can use a rake to evenly spread around the tiny pile that remains. This may look a little unsightly compared to the guy next door with the cleanly-raked lawn, but those leaf fragments will be gone by the time the grass starts thriving in the spring. Earthworms and other natural processes will chew them up and convert them into fertilizer.

And next spring, when the guy next door is paying $50 to $150 for chemical fertilizers and sweating profusely while he’s spreading them on his lawn, you’ll be swinging in your hammock with a great-looking lawn underneath you.

Garden application

The other thing you may want to do with your leaves is transfer them into your garden, chop them up and then rototill them in.  This is an ideal fertilizer that will get your soil in top shape for the spring. You’ll want to apply some lime as well, as the leaves are acidic. One 50lb bag per 1,000 square feet of garden space is ample. A bag of lime should cost you about $5.

My usual thing is to rake the leaves onto the lawn, then mow them with my riding tractor. This also cuts the lawn and introduces grass clippings into the mix, which are very high in nitrogen — they’re like gasoline for your composting fire. Then I put the lawn sweeper to work. These sweepers are definitely worth the money if you have a lawn large enough to merit using a lawn tractor. They cost about $150 to $350 depending on size and quality, and the better ones have a great dumptruck-like feature that allows you to dump the load without having to dismount from the tractor and jigger around with the sweeper.  They are a fantastic labor saver, well worth the money. Be sure to get a good one, don’t cheap out, because they take a beating.

I attach the sweeper to the tractor and run over the lawn, picking up the chopped up leaves and grass clippings. Then I dump them on the garden, spread the piles out, and rototill them in. Sounds like a lot of work? It kind of is. But it’s worth it to use those leaves as your fall fertilizer.

John Macone operates a small organic farmstand in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Like his Facebook page at Farmer John’s Homegrown Foods.


The why of winter rye

It’s starting to get cold here and we’ve finally had our first frost. Most plants in the garden are dead or slowing down, with the exception of one — winter rye.

This grass-like plant actually likes the cold, thus the name I suppose. I usually plant it around the end of September, and now it’s about 8 inches tall. By next string it will definitely be over a foot.

Why plant winter rye? Here’s a few excellent reasons:

  • It holds your soil together through the winter. Winter rains and melting snows will probably cause some erosion in your garden, but the tough and dense roots of winter rye will hold things in place.
  • It’s a nitrogen scavenger. Winter rye is a “green manure” that pulls nitrogen out of all sorts of nooks and crannies in your garden, and holds it within its roots, stems and blades. So that means the nitrogen doesn’t wash away during the winter, and when you rototill your soil in the spring all that mass of winter rye rots back into the soil and releases nitrogen for your plants.
  • It digs deep. Winter rye has an extensive root system, so it aerates your soil.  And when you rototill it into the soil in the spring, it breaks down fairly quickly and gives your soil a nice boost of organic material for the worms and whatnots to feast on.
  • It’s allelopathic. I know, I had to look it up too. Winter rye has a compound in it that acts as a natural suppressor of weeds. One thing to be aware of — it can also have a suppressive effect on the vegetable seeds you put down, so be sure not to plant winter rye in areas where you’ll be putting down a lot of seed in the spring.

I plant winter rye in areas of the garden where the main crop has died off or is on its downward slide, like under the corn crop and the tomatoes, or in spots where the pumpkins and squashes are growing.

For organic farmers, winter rye is one of those miracle products. It does a lot of good for your garden, and it is fairly cheap to buy, about a dollar a pound. You’ll need about 1 pound for every 200 square feet of garden. The seeds are pretty big for a grass plant — they look like orzo pasta. And they’re not terribly fussy about how they are planted. Just throw them around in your garden as evenly as you can, ideally just before a rainstorm. If you want to help them out a bit, lightly draw your garden rake over them to give them a light covering of soil. There are some types of critters that like to eat the seeds, so the light raking is a good way to keep them out of your winter rye.

In the spring, you’ll find a lush green covering all over your garden. You’ll rototill that into the soil, and you’ll probably be amazed at what it does for your bed of crops.

John Macone is an organic farmer and founder of Farmer John’s Homegrown Foods.