From Mélie’s Garden
An interview with John Ski
I am sure you all have seen, driving down the island, a new little hoop house on the right just across from the Navy Station. I was curious to find out what was growing inside, so I called John Ski to see if I could stop by for a visit. John has been on the Island since the 1960s, when he came to work for Dick Foyle at L. C. Foyle & Sons. He built a wonderful log cabin on his property here, where his family lived during the summers. About six years ago, he took it down and built a more winterized house. He and his wife Mary, of the famed “Hit and Miss Thrift Shop”, now live on the Island year round. John is an incredible gardener and got interested in “all season organic gardening” in his talks with Dave Beckwith, who has an organic farm in Vermont. This spring John built his new hoop house on Fishers Island, where he is growing the most magnificent heirloom tomatoes!
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John told me that he started the tomato seeds in the dark on a heating pad inside in March. Once the seeds sprouted, he placed them under grow lights for ten hours a day until they were ready to be transplanted outside into the hoop house. The organic soil in the hoop house was obtained at the Fishers Island Compost Station. The day I saw the tomatoes in late June they were four feet high with 1” round stems, probably the healthiest tomato plants I have ever seen! John keeps the hoop house at 85 degrees and rolls the sides up and down to control the temperature and to allow pollinators to enter. The tomatoes had lots of buds and John shook them to encourage pollination. He also removed all the suckers that grow between the branches. On each side of the tomatoes he has planted peppers… “Sweet peppers on one side and hot on the other”. All of these plants are mulched with “Fishers Island straw” also found at the Compost Station. The heirloom tomatoes John likes to grow are “Brandywine”, “Red Rose”, “Russian Rose”, “Virginia Sweet” and a couple of others that had labels we couldn’t read because the plants were in the back. John’s pepper plants were from Gilberties Nursery.
We then went to look at the potatoes he was growing in three large plastic trashcans next to the hoop house. He cut the bottoms out of the cans and filled them part way up with FI Compost mixed with a hand full of packaged cow manure. “The absolute best fertilizer you can have, as long as it is aged properly”, said John. As the potato plants grow, he covers up the leaves with the soil mixture and continues to do so, watering the cans well each day, until the soil reaches almost the top of the cans and the leaves die. He then says he harvests about forty potatoes per can.
John also likes to grow cucumbers, sugar snap peas, dill and glorious beets all in the Fishers Island Compost. This year, he has planted his cucumber vines in an old bathtub with the idea that the cucumbers will spill over the top like over flowing water and will be easily picked. John added, “Mary makes delicious cucumber pickles and cans the tomatoes I grow each year”. I noticed that Mary has her own gardens where she grows flowers and vegetables that she likes to have.
We then went to see his three beehives. He took beekeeping lessons last year in Stonington, CT and produced about 50lbs of honey. Quite an accomplishment for the first year! I am sure the bees he has are very happy feasting on all the wonderful, healthy plants that John and Mary have growing on their property.
However, my tour was not finished with just bees and vegetables because he then showed me his extensive “mushroom farm”. John has been growing Shiitake and Wine Cap mushrooms on Fishers Island for a number of years. He cuts hard wood logs in the winter and in the early spring when the sap is in the trunk. “If the wood has a good sap wood ring the injected mycelium will take better”, he reported. He marks the logs carefully with the species of tree, date they were cut and the weight of the log. He then stacks them in different ways to age in a cool damp place. Once the logs have lost about 25% of their original weight, they are ready to be injected. John drills holes in the logs about 6” apart and injects the mycelium that he buys from Field and Forest Products. Once the mycelium is injected, he seals the holes with wax. The logs are then stacked vertically or on an angle in his ‘holding yard’ where they are kept cool and damp for about 27 months of incubation. John will often put a sprinkler on the logs, if he feels they are becoming too dry. Once he thinks that the logs have aged enough, he takes them down to his ‘soaking tank’, which is fed by the well on his property. The temperature of the purified well water is between 57 and 67 degrees. The logs are submerged and soaked for 24 hours. Once out of the tank, John said, “the logs rest for about three months and then I give them another 24 hour soak”. After that last soak, John removes the logs and gives them “a good pound on the ground to wake them up.” The logs are then taken up to the ‘fruiting area’ where he hangs the logs in a tree. John explained, “In about three days they will start to button. Once the buttons become 2 1/2 in diameter I will cut the mushrooms off of the log. A log may produce mushrooms for five years, if they are not allowed to dry out. You can get about 235 mushrooms in three to six years.”
The day I visited, John took a couple of logs out of his soaker and we took them up to the ‘fruiting area’. The very next morning he called me very excited because one of those logs had sprouted some shiitake mushrooms. I raced down and the log was certainly thrilling to see with little mushrooms sprouting all over!
If you would like to see John in action, you can go to YouTube and type in Raising The Illusive Shiitake Mushroom. It is a wonderful video that John’s grandson, Eric, filmed of his grandfather talking about raising his mushrooms. We share it with you here: