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Lessons For Home Gardeners From an Organic Farm

 

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The 'Farm Walk' at Bear Creek Organic Farm. Photo by Noelle Johnson

If you have ever bought produce at a farmers market from an organic farm, you know how delicious and fresh tasting it is. Perhaps you have been inspired to grow vegetables at home so that you can enjoy your own organic produce. Whether you are a home gardener with a small garden plot or a farmer with acres of land, many of the methods for growing vegetables are the same.

 

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Entrance to the greenhouse. Photo by Noelle Johnson

While visiting my daughter in northern Michigan this summer, I had the opportunity to visit the Bear Creek Organic Farm during one of their scheduled ‘Farm Walks’ where the public is invited to tour the farm with the owners. The produce from the farm is sold in farmers markets, and restaurants in the surrounding towns and quite a few home gardeners took advantage of being able to tour the farm and speak with the farmers as well. Here are my takeaways from this informative visit that you can use in your own garden.

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Microgreens. Photo by Noelle Johnson

The tour began at the greenhouse where a container filled with flowering catmint, sunflowers, and parsley graced the entrance. Inside were tables filled with an assortment of herbs, plugs of a variety of leaf lettuces ready to be planted outside, and micro-greens. The main crop of the farm are microgreens, which are grown all year long. They are hand cut with scissors two weeks after planting and ready to be enjoyed on salads and sandwiches. The plants in the greenhouse are watered by hand using a watering wand. Fans keep the air flowing, which helps to dry the water quickly and prevents mold from forming.

  • For home gardeners, micro-greens can be grown throughout the year indoors, ensuring a year round supply of fresh leafy greens.

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Tomatoes are trained vertically onto string attached to the ceiling. Photo by Noelle Johnson

Our next stop was the tomato hoop house. Over eight hundred tomato vines were growing vertically up onto string that was suspended from the ceiling. This allows them to fit a large amount of tomatoes close together as they have a more narrow growth habit, while not reducing the yield. At the base of each plant, the bottom is stripped of its leaves to help promote airflow, reducing fungal diseases. Fans are also employed to help keep air moving within the hoop house. Tomato hornworms are seldom a problem as the sides of the hoop house are lowered at night which makes it difficult for the moth to lay horn worm eggs on the leaves.

  • Uneven watering can cause tomatoes to split. Water in the morning and the late afternoon to promote more even watering.

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Visitors to the farm learn why some of the fields are left empty.  Photo by Noelle Johnson

One of the hoop houses was empty of plants. The soil in the hoop house was being allowed to ‘fallow,' which is a long practiced method of giving the soil a rest and preventing it from being depleted of its nutrients.

  • Tomatoes are heavy feeders, so avoid planting tomatoes in the same spot each year, to give the soil enough time to recover before planting them again.

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A large field filled with lettuce. Photo by Noelle Johnson

Colorful fields of lettuce decorate the landscape with several varieties easily visible. Lettuce plugs from the greenhouse are planted outside every two weeks to ensure a regular supply of this salad staple. Leafy greens like lettuce should be harvested the same day they will be eaten for best flavor.

  • To extend the growing season of leafy greens, water the lettuce from overhead, which cools them off, staving off the summer heat, allowing this cool-season crop to maintain their delicious flavor longer.

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Garlic. Photo by Noelle Johnson

The scent of garlic greets us long before we see them growing in a field between the hoop houses. The garlic harvest was to commence the following week, but we were lucky enough to be able to purchase some garlic scapes, which are the flowering part of this aromatic vegetable. The scapes add the mild flavor of garlic to your favorite dishes. I was surprised at the lack of weeds growing in-between the rows. It turns out that organic weed control is quite effective with some planning ahead of time.

  • Natural weed control starts the year before planting vegetables. In spring, use a hoe to cultivate the soil and turn under any newly sprouted weeds. Repeat the process a few more times in summer and plant a cover crop in fall to keep weeds down through winter. In spring cultivate the soil and plant your favorite vegetables.

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Chives grow in the foreground with lavender in the back. Photo by Noelle Johnson

Chives, lavender and other herbs occupy an important part of the farm. In late spring, the leaves of chives are harvested, and in summer, the flowers are allowed to blossom and used as an edible garnish. In between the rows of herbs, weed mat keeps unwanted weeds at bay.

  • Often, herbs grow so quickly that you can’t use them fast enough. Instead of throwing them on the compost pile, puree the herbs, mix with olive oil, and freeze where they will last for several months, ready for you to add to fresh flavor to your favorite recipes.

I had a great time at the farm, seeing well-known organic methods put into practice while also learning some new techniques. One of the most important pieces of advice that I came back with is not to try to grow everything. Experiment with a variety of vegetables, choosing one or two new ones each season to try and gradually focus on growing just the vegetables you love - you will get more out of the experience.

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Plugs of lettuce in the greenhouse ready to be planted outside.  Photo by Noelle Johnson

At the end of our visit to Bear Creek Organic Farm, I couldn’t wait to return to Arizona to my own vegetable garden and implement the tips that I learned.

What is your favorite tip for growing vegetables organically in your garden?

Container Planting: Replace High-Maintenance Annuals With Succulents

Growing plants in pots is a great way to add color and interest that brings attention to parts of our landscapes. While flowering annuals are usually the plant of choice for containers, why not change things up by replacing your thirsty, high-maintenance annuals with succulents?

Drive down any neighborhood street, and you’ll be greeted by the sight of pots filled with flowers, which require regular water along with frequent applications of fertilizer. Also, flowering containers need to be deadheaded and replaced every few months when the seasons change.

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'Sticks on Fire' (Euphorbia tirucalli) with elephant's food (Portularcaria afra)

By switching out flowers for the unique colors and shapes of succulents, you’ll add an unexpected, yet attractive element to the design of your garden. Succulents are taking the garden world by storm, with countless new varieties available at your local nursery. Besides being a trendsetter in your neighborhood, you’ll have much less to do to maintain your garden containers when you make the switch. As opposed to flowering annuals, succulents require much less water, need infrequent applications of fertilizer, and do not need to be replaced annually.

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A single agave adds welcome color and texture contrast in the midst bright green foliage.

Much like flowering annuals, you can plant a single type of succulent or group several different ones together. A single agave (Agave spp.) can make a dramatic statement as does a columnar cactus like Mexican fence post (Stenocereus marginatus), or the brightly-colored ‘Sticks-on-Fire’ (Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’).

Create a delightful mixture of colors and shapes by combining several different succulents together such as Aeonium, Cotyledon, Echeveria, Sedum, and Senecio species. Many nurseries offer a variety of succulents within a single nursery pot, which you can replant into a larger, decorative pot. To help you choose succulents that will do well in your climate, talk to your local nursery professional or a master gardener.

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A container planted with a variety of succulents including Aeonium, Cotyledon, and Senecio

While succulents are less maintenance than annuals, they do have some important requirements, which begins with well-drained planting mix that is specially formulated for cacti/succulents. Containers should have holes for drainage. Water your succulents deeply when the top few inches of soil is dry. It’s important to remember that you are more likely to overwater than underwater your succulents. If you are worried that you are under-watering, look for signs of water stress such as the wrinkling of leaves. In winter, succulents should be watered monthly as they are dormant.

Like all plants grown in containers, succulents do need to be fertilized. Apply a liquid fertilizer such as fish emulsion or manure tea every six weeks throughout the growing season. 

So, take the plunge and substitute your thirsty flowers for uniquely beautiful succulents for your containers.

Herb Salts Make the Taste of Summer Last

Growing herbs is a popular pastime as they are easy to grow and nothing can match the taste that fresh herbs add to our favorite dishes. However, the winter season can leave us longing for their distinctive fresh taste. Of course, you can preserve herbs by drying them and storing them in glass jars, but their vibrant flavors are missing. So, is there a way that we can keep the fresh flavors of summer herbs alive throughout the year?  Herb salts are a wonderful way to preserve the flavors of summer while adding a gourmet touch to your favorite dishes. A healthy bonus is that you need less salt to flavor your food when used along with herbs.

While you can purchase herb salts at your local specialty grocery store, they are easy to make at home using herbs straight from the garden. The ingredient list for herb salts is short - all you need is kosher salt and the fresh herb(s) of your choice.

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When getting started with herb salts, I recommend beginning with making basil salt, which is the easiest to make and so versatile. You’ll need ½ cup of fresh basil leaves, a ½ cup of kosher salt (or coarse sea salt), a food processor, and a baking sheet. Put the basil and kosher salt into the food processor and pulse for approximately 30 seconds. The mixture will be wet and should look like green sand with tiny flecks of basil. Spread out the mixture in a thin layer on a baking sheet and place in an oven heated to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 15 minutes and then stir the mixture and bake for another 15 minutes until completely dry.

Take the basil salt out of the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before using your fingers to grind up any remaining clumps. Your first batch of herb salt is ready to use right away or can be stored in a tightly sealed glass jar for up to a year, available for use whenever the fresh taste of herbs is desired. The ratio of salt to herbs can be adjusted by increasing the amount of herb with the salt if desired.

Rosemary salt is another popular salt blend, which is made up of 1/3 cup rosemary leaves and 3 1/3 cups kosher salt. *Optional – add 2 Tablespoons lemon zest.

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Parsley, sage, and thyme are other delicious options for making an herb salt using a single herb. It’s important to note that the ratio of salt to herbs can be adjusted by increasing the amount of herb in relation to the salt, to your desired taste.

Combinations of herbs can be mixed with kosher salt to create custom blends for a gourmet touch to a favorite dish. Suggestions include using rosemary, sage, and thyme along with garlic and salt to add a Tuscan flair. There are no rules when it comes to what herbs to add to your salt blend. Have fun experimenting until you find the perfect combination! Use in place of salt along with an extra dash of herb flavor to kick up your recipes a notch on the flavor scale. Herb salts make great gifts and are a wonderful way to share the bounty of your garden.

Photo credit: Noelle Johnson