Category Archives: Gardening

‘Apple Man’ let new guy feel welcome at market

ApplesI FIRST GOT to know the “Apple Man”—Lester W. Deal—during the early 1980s on my first day as a seller at the Fredericksburg Farmers Market. I had sold produce and eggs door-to-door since 1961 and also at four other locations around Fredericksburg so I already had a customer base.

The evening before, I had picked two pickup loads of very large Superstar cantaloupes from my 1-acre patch. I left half of a pickup load at my roadside stand and loaded the other half

of that load onto my already loaded pickup.

I had built two-by-four sides on the pickup as high as the cab. The two-by-four panel that would normally go above the tailgate was left off.

I got to the market early so I could get the first parking spot next to William Street. At that time all State Route 3 traffic was funneled downtown because there was no Blue and Gray Parkway. My truckload of cantaloupes was quite a visual feast for all the traffic going east on William Street.

Wives would be yelling to their husbands to pull over and park—and they did. After the first few dozen sales, I could open the tailgate and a person driving by would see solid cantaloupes from the bed of the pickup as high as the cab. As they were sold, more would roll down taking their place. By midday, only a few dozen cantaloupes were left near the cab. I had to climb up into the truck to bring the cantaloupes to the rear of the pickup.

Mr. Deal (as I called him) had been parked in front of me, facing south on Prince Edward Street, with a load of apples and peaches. He said he had sold out over an hour earlier than normal. He very generously helped me with my last sales. Business was so brisk that I was even able to sell out of all the “cull” cantaloupes after selling all the perfect ones.

Mr. Deal was very delighted with business that day. He suggested we should always park near to each other because our different products seemed to complement one another and draw in more of the same type of customers. I especially enjoyed trading whatever I had in season for his peaches.

Asparagus was his favorite. Everybody referred to Mr. Deal as the “Apple Man.” To me he was the peach man. His wife was known as the “Apple Lady” (Hazel J. Deal) in Sperryville where she owned and ran an antiques store on the main drag. She also sold apples, cider and peaches from a display in front of her shop.

Mr. Deal says that my dad was his best friend in Fredericksburg. My dad would go to the farmers market and visit with him most every day. One day Mrs. Deal sent my father a container of sliced peaches to eat as a snack while he was at the market. Mr. Deal asked him, “How did they taste?” My dad responded, “Like more.”

Each day of that week continued on with the same conversation along with a larger container of peaches each day. When the container size reached a quart, my dad said, “Just right!”

Some days Mrs. Deal sent me a homemade biscuit with Virginia ham.

I had started taking Jessica with me to the farmers market when she was 2 years old. I had fixed her a cubbyhole directly behind me, in the bed of the pickup, where I stood selling produce. I had also erected a beach umbrella shielding her and myself from the sun. Immediately, after I set up one day, Mr. Deal handed me a ham biscuit. I took one bite of the biscuit and set it on a shelf near Jessica. I became so busy with customers that I did not have time to eat the biscuit.

I kept noticing out of the corner of my eye that Mr. Deal would look in my direction and laugh. I was beginning to think that perhaps I had left shaving cream on my face. A slight lull occurred. I turned to reach for the biscuit only to see Jessica put the last bite in her mouth. It was amazing what she could eat with one tooth. The tot was apparently a “throwback” to her grandfather. After that, Mrs. Deal always sent two biscuits.

A few years later the twins were born at MCV in Richmond. The day I brought Ellen and the girls home,

Mr. Deal was sitting in his pickup truck on my driveway. Mrs. Deal had cooked a complete roast beef dinner. It was still hot. By this time, Jessica had all of her teeth.

The last year I personally sold produce at the Fredericksburg Farmers Market was 2003. Emmie and I would work the roadside stand at my farm in Caroline County on U.S. 17. Savannah would go with Jessica to the Fredericksburg Farmers Market on Saturdays. Mr. Deal and Jessica’s last year at the Fredericksburg Farmers Market was 2006.

Mr. Deal still sells apples in Sperryville on pretty days. He told me recently that, last spring, a Japanese man in his 90s stopped at his place in Sperryville. They instantly recognized each other from having met in northern Japan (near the Russian border) where Mr. Deal served, post-World War II. His friend from Japan had brought his own interpreter with him. They reminisced for some time. Mr. Deal says he cannot believe how small the world has become in his lifetime.

Disappearance of wild blackberries relates to farming issues

Berries Nowadays people ask, “What happened to all the wild blackberries?” Years ago people would pick wild blackberries, wild asparagus and wild strawberries off of the edge of highway and railroad right-of-ways. With these right-of-way edges now sprayed regularly to kill noxious weeds, the desirable plants die off as well. What’s more, 99 percent of all dairy farms in Virginia from the past have gone out of business because it’s difficult to break even. It’s rare to see even a small-scale dairy farm succeed. Beef cattle operations are also cutting back.

The reasons are twofold. Grain farmers can pay much more rent for land than beef cattle farmers because of high grain prices. The high price of grains also causes grain-fed beef margins to be very tight even though the price of beef has risen dramatically. As more and more pastures are plowed up for grain farming—all around the world (especially in Argentina)—there is less and less habitat for blackberries, animals and wild bees. Wild blackberries and bees are in decline.

A way to try and “beat the system,” beef farming, is to raise hormone-free, grass-fed, free-range beef. This type of farming has its limits, too. It requires way more land (pasture) to produce what a feed lot can produce. Also, it takes six to eight months longer (on grass) to bring a steer to market weight. There is no such thing as a free ride in farming.

Years ago, when I went to farmers markets, some people would accuse me of picking all the wild blackberries and leaving none for them. I would try to explain there were hardly any wild blackberries left, to speak of, and that all my blackberries were cultivated. They would look at me like I was crazy and stomp off. I guess they were used to getting them for free (they might wish) or paying 25 cents per quart.

At Snead’s Farm in Caroline County, I grow six different varieties of blackberries. The varieties are chosen purposefully so that they can be harvested consecutively. Each one lasts around two weeks. The first blackberries usually get ripe around the second week of June and the last ones finish up around Labor Day, give or take, depending upon temperatures.

Blackberries have their own unique mix of tart and sweet flavors. It’s fun to watch the expression on a person’s face when they first taste-test a blackberry if they’ve never had one before. They are generally Yankees from up north where blackberries are not native. If the blackberries have some red on them, they are very tart. I always tell them: “The blacker the blackberry, the sweeter the blackberry juice.”


Start earlier, harvest later in a garden that includes tall tunnels



SOME FARMERS call them “tall tunnels.” Others call them “hoop houses.” The name may vary but I have been using high tunnels since the 1990s.

They let me extend the growing season on the front end and the back end for four to six weeks. Tall tunnels first caught my eye because dollar-wise they are very inexpensive compared to a greenhouse. However, they do require a lot of labor and management.

To cool a tall tunnel, you raise up the sides and open up the ends. Conversely, to warm the structure, you do the opposite. A tall tunnel is not heated or cooled from within like a greenhouse. Therefore, you cannot grow summer crops in the dead of winter. But you can grow greens and spinach.

In the past, no one has recommended that home gardeners should use tall tunnels. I believe that full-time dedicated home gardeners could get a cheap thrill from growing crops in a tall tunnel. Especially since the main investment would be your time. It’s thrilling to watch tomatoes take on a tropical-like growth.

My tall tunnels are 17 feet by 96 feet. Many other farmers’ tall tunnels are much larger. It’s easier to ventilate a narrower structure than a wider structure. The only thing I would change on mine would be to make them a foot and a half taller to allow for even more ventilation. You can build your own or order them pre-built and put them up yourself as I did.

They come in 4-foot sections. I would recommend starting with a 17- by 20-foot structure, give or take, depending on your level of commitment. It’s better to start off too small than too big. All it really takes is a backyard and a strong desire. That’s the beauty of gardening. The exercise and better-than-summertime tasting tomatoes are just the icing on the cake.

Because you control the weather within a tall tunnel, it can be more conducive to organic farming. The plants are watered with a trickle tube in the row, instead of being watered overhead by either rain, willy–nilly, or irrigation. Rain and nightly dews that promote disease in tomato plants, along with rot and splits in the fruit, are avoided.

It’s easier to keep beneficial insects (including bees) inside a tall tunnel and the undesirable, “bane of your existence” (as a gardener) insects out. The water spigot on the outside of your house should be sufficient to supply a small tall tunnel with water.

A tall tunnel has to be baby-sat to be successful. If you go off and leave it, you will end up with fried green tomatoes. But the benefits of a tall tunnel far outweigh the investment in management over a regular outdoor garden:

–Very inexpensive compared to a greenhouse.

–Backup heat for cold snaps can be used to extend the growing season even longer.

–A big space saver for small backyards.

–Protects the Chesapeake Bay from fertilizer and pesticide runoff.

–Makes organic farming relatively easier.

Bumblebees for tall tunnels can be purchased from Koppert—810/632-8750. These bees are not aggressive unless you kick their hive. On days the tall tunnel is open the bees will pollinate all the flowers on your block as well as the plants in the tall tunnel.

Prebuilt high tunnels, in sections of 4 feet, can be ordered from Ledgewood Farm—603/476-8829. The owner, Ed Person, was helpful with advice when I first started out.

To view an existing tall tunnel with a lush-growing tomato crop, you may visit my farm. We’re open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays noon to 5 p.m.—unless I’m sold out of produce.

Emmett Snead operates Snead’s Farm along Tidewater Trail in Caroline County.




Mr. Buchanan’s bees were a honey of a deal

Emmett Snead operates Snead’s Farm along Tidewater Trail in Caroline County.


IREMEMBER first meeting Mr. Buchanan in 1963. My dad and I were burning brush piles on a piece of land he had on the corner of Lee Drive and Lansdowne Road. He had bought the land to plant timothy hay on to help feed his 280 head of Golden Guernsey dairy cattle. Mr. Buchanan pulled up to where we were in his state trooper car. He and my dad had apparently known each other for some time. He told my dad that he had seen a big buck cross over Lansdowne Road the night before. That was significant in 1963 because it was rare to see a deer back then.

After Mr. Buchanan left, my dad told me Mr. Buchanan had served on PT boats in World War II. He seemed godlike to me.

One day in 1984, Mr. Buchanan pulled up to my roadside stand to buy some asparagus. He told me that he had recently moved into my neck of the woods (Moss Neck, that is) and that we were neighbors. I had heard he was an expert on honeybees. There were plenty of bees around at the time. I figured a few more wouldn’t hurt.

So I asked him how much he would charge me to keep some bees on my farm. He said, “I’ll supply you with whatever personal honey you need. I get to pick for free whatever fruit and vegetables I need. And I get to sell any extra honey.” I said, “Deal!” It’s been working like a charm ever since. During her high school years, Jessica (my daughter) helped him with the bees and extracting honey. She said he always smelled like honey.

My brother moved onto my farm several years ago. He and Mr. Buchanan really hit it off. George has become Mr. Buchanan’s apprentice and helps him with the heavy lifting. If and when Mr. Buchanan retires from the bee business, George will take over. The goal would be to have plenty of bees and local honey for my CSA.


Mr. Buchanan learned beekeeping from his father and grandfather. His grandfather was known as the herb doctor. He doctored people, animals and bees. He kept little black Dutch bees. They were known for their meanness. He was so good with the bees that he never wore bee protection.


Many articles written about the demise of honeybees and wild bees. I asked Mr. Buchanan what was the greatest threat to honeybees. He said, “Beekeepers.”

From 1926 until about 10 years ago it was illegal to import bees because scientists were afraid of importing bee diseases and parasites along with the bees. They changed the law because almond growers in California did not have enough bees to get the trees pollinated. That’s when all the diseases and parasites we have now were brought into the USA. Even before it became legal to import bees, he says some beekeepers would smuggle bees from overseas into this country.

Mr. Buchanan says all bees are substantially stronger at Snead Farm because of successive plantings of buckwheat, sunflowers, fall greens (plantings of turnips, kale, cress etc. flower at a time when other flowers are generally scarce, and they tend to be frostproof) and many different fruiting trees.

Buckwheat is the bees’ favorite because of the volume of bee food it produces. It flowers 20 days after germination. It makes so much seed that it can supply songbirds with seed and reseed itself.

It’s also the farmer’s favorite. Buckwheat closes its flowers up at noon. Bees can get all the daily bee food (nectar and pollen) they need from buckwheat with just a half day’s work. Bees are not like most people; they want to work all day. After the buckwheat closes up, they pollinate crops such as cucurbits, peaches and blackberries that are less desirable to the bees but essential to the farmer.

Sunflowers are the perfect crop to interplant with buckwheat because the buckwheat is already finished its life cycle by the time the sunflowers get going. The seed of sunflowers is also much desired by songbirds. When the life cycle of the sunflower is finished, the soil can be lightly tilled, and both crops reseed themselves. This can be repeated two or three times in a season.

Wild bees are just as important pollinators as tame bees. Plum trees are another favorite of honeybees, little wasps and wild bees. On one of my plum trees, George counted more than 15 different kinds of wild bees this spring. I have a hollow cedar tree on my property that Mr. Buchanan estimates has 20,000 to 30,000 wild honeybees in it.


Bees are good predictors of the weather. They started swarming a month earlier than normal this year, letting me know to plant some crops earlier and some crops later (such as pumpkins). There were 10 swarms this year that we know of from the five hives that Mr. Buchanan tends for me. One swarm was the largest Mr. Buchanan said he had ever seen in his lifetime. He estimated it to be more than 20,000 bees. It was quite a sight.

They were about 25 feet up in a tree. The limb they had amassed on had a “bee beard” that hung down 7 or 8 feet, causing the limb to sag. Mr. Buchanan placed a tarp on the ground underneath them and a large empty bee hive to the side. George took a pruning saw with a long handle and sawed off the limb.

This was real life folks–not a cartoon. Almost all of the bees fell on the tarp. Mr. Buchanan dug through them with his hands. Upon finding the queen and her buddies that surrounded her, he placed them in the empty hive. All the rest of the bees immediately went into the hive. It was like instant karma. We had a mega-hive of “free bees.” Everyone had stopped work to watch at a safe distance.

Bees are on the decline for two main reasons–some beekeepers and some farmers who believe that they can take from bees without giving back. It’s the same principle as trying to take a crop off of a farm every year without adding enough or any compost, fertilizer or lime. They are reaping exactly what they have sown. Or in layman’s terms, it’s like trying to get the milk for free without buying the cow. Farming was not made that way, and neither is beekeeping.