Lessons For Home Gardeners From an Organic Farm
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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