What the heck have they been doing on the farm?

Although you wouldn’t know it from our blog, it has been a very busy summer on the farm. We’ve grown more flowers than ever before and we have been planning and preparing for an even bigger season next year. Our heads are dancing with visions of sugar plums and deep loamy soil. Of course here in Hurdle Mills we only have red cement that passes for clay. But we’ve already started taking the steps that will transform our clay soil into sugar plums — or at least friable loamy clay — with time and love. The farm is still too wet to work in, but the sun is shining at last. While the soil dries out, here are some pictures of what we’ve been working on:

The farm and house.
The farm and house. This summer’s flowers are in the front with new fields for next year in the back.
Some of next spring's flowers growing in landscape fabric for weed control.
Some of next spring’s flowers growing in landscape fabric for weed control.

The most exciting projects we’ve been working on this year have been investments in soil health. We have started a heavy rotation of cover crops that will add organic matter to the soil and help break up the clay, making it more friable. We have also experimenting with no-till agricultural practices. Tilling “burns up” organic matter in the soil and destroys the soil organisms which build healthy soils and grow healthy plants. In order to make our no-till work, we are using “occultation,” a process of using tarps to create an environment that encourages decomposition. We learned about this method from Bare Mtn Farm in Oregon and from Jean-Martin Fortier in Quebec.

We have been using cover crops to build our soil.
We have been using cover crops to build our soil.
Occultation is a techniques that uses tarps to speed decomposition and build soil.
Occultation is a techniques that uses tarps to speed decomposition and build soil.

While we have been planning for next year, our flower business has been growing by leaves and blooms. Our DIY Buckets have been very popular this year. We have started offering buckets of foliage as well, which really makes the flowers stand out and is an economical way to make the flowers go further.

DIY foliage bucket.
DIY foliage bucket.
Fall DIY bucket
Fall DIY bucket
Fall DIY bucket
Fall DIY bucket
Four-bucket fall DIY wedding
Four-bucket fall DIY wedding

In addition to doing weddings and events, we do weekly arrangements for businesses. Here are a couple examples of our business arrangements. In addition, we are considering starting a flower CSA subscription program next year with pick up near downtown Hillsborough. Are you interested in getting weekly flowers for your business? Would you like to join the flower CSA? If so, please contact us.

Fall arrangement.
Fall arrangement.
Fall arrangement.
Fall arrangement.

Now you are up to date on the farm. While the soil dries out, we are trying to get as much done on the house as we can. Our goal is to get our rough-in inspection by the end of the month. What does that mean? Stay tuned for our next post, “What the heck have they been doing on the house?

Spring Farm Projects

After transitioning onto our land in Hurdle Mills last year, this year we are focused on really improving how we grow flowers. How? Better handling, better cultivation, and happier farmers. Building our hoop house last winter really helped us meet our goal of improved germination. This spring we are focusing on three new projects: irrigation, landscape fabric mulch, and refrigeration.

Early spring flowers with irrigation.
Early spring flowers with irrigation.

Irrigation: This isn’t something we can easily capture in a photo, but having drip irrigation has made a huge difference. Last year, we grew flowers relying only on the rain. This year, with some assistance from George at L’il Farm, we are using drip irrigation. Although it is still only spring, we have already noticed a difference. Our plants are growing taller and faster, which makes sense. If plants, like us, are mostly water and they don’t have enough water, they will be small and not as healthy.

Landscape Fabric: We have a huge problem with yellow nutsedge on our farm. This perennial weed grows back faster than we could possibly pull it out, and we were feeling discouraged and desperate. We needed a solution that would allow us to spend less time weeding and more time growing and selling flowers and building our house.

Zinnias, Celosia, Tomatoes, and many other plants growing in landscape fabric.
Zinnias, Celosia, Tomatoes, and many other plants growing in landscape fabric.

We decided to use woven landscape fabric as a mulch. Using a form that we made, we used a propane torch to burn holes in this durable material. We transplant into the holes, which we still have to weed once or twice, but the transplants quickly shade out the small opening in the mulch. And unlike traditional agricultural plastic, landscape fabric can be reused for many years. The landscape fabric also warms the soil in the bed, and combined with our irrigation, we have found this benefit to greatly increase the speed our plants are growing. We will definitely be using landscape fabric as much as possible in the future.

Using a torch and cardboard form to burn fabric. We have stopped using the foil, which isn't worth the trouble.
Using a torch and cardboard form to burn fabric. We have stopped using the foil.

And landscape fabric has increase our efficiency in another way, too: We found we weren’t planting at the density we thought we were. By standardizing our bed width and planting at the proper density, we have really increased the number of plants we can fit in each bed, meaning we need fewer beds for the same number of plants and greatly improving our efficiency.

"Chief" Celosia growing in landscape fabric.
“Chief” Celosia growing in landscape fabric.

Refrigeration: We have been told time and again that nothing will improve the quality of our flowers or our farm profitability as much as having a cooler. Having a cooler allows farmers to pick flowers at the perfect stage and store them for a couple of days until they can be sold, as opposed to picking them just before sale even if it isn’t the ideal stage of harvest. This reduces waste and improves quality.

With inspiration from our friends Lee and Dustin Pollard, who are opening a food truck and catering business called Lost Boys, we decided to buy a used commercial reach-in refrigerator. We found this fridge on Craigslist. It was in our budget and was a lot easier for us to deal with right now than such a big project as a walk-in. It will hold everything we need it to for the foreseeable future. After that, we expect we’ll be able to build the walk-in cooler that we will need, but while we’re building our house, it is simply too big of a project for us to take on.

Our new two-door reach-in commercial fridge.
Our new two-door reach-in commercial fridge.

We are so excited about everything we have going on here at Spring Forth Farm. Adding irrigation, landscape fabric, and a fridge will allow us to spend more time on other farm projects such as planting, harvesting, and soil improvement. With more flowers and more time, we can also increase our sales. We are excited to share that our flowers are now at Haven Salon in Hillsborough.

And we are slowly starting to work on one other project: Woody Perennials.

We know that offering a wide variety of perennials is one way we can set ourselves apart from other local farms. Adding these plants is a long-term project, but this year we were able to start with two, Chinese Snowball Viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum) and four colors of Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii). Since we have such wide open spaces on the farm, we also hope that these woody shrubs will act as windbreaks, helping reduce the force of the wind on our flowers.

It has been a busy and eventful spring on the farm and we are excited about where all of these new projects can lead.

Spring Forth Farm.
Spring Forth Farm.

Our New Hoop House

We have taken a short break from the house this month to build a small hoop house for ourselves. The main purpose of this 12×28 structure is to give us a place to start seedlings for the farm. However, we also built two 2-foot wide raised beds to grow winter vegetables for us to eat. yDSC_0090 We drew a lot of our design from Alberta Home Gardening (1, 2), but made a few changes. The main change was to build each hoop out of a single piece of PVC, since the hoop house we were borrowing last year broke at the joints. We tried building a caterpillar tunnel without any joints.

If the first version of the PVC caterpillar looks too weak, well, it was. The day after we finished we had a wind storm with gusts between 40-50mph and two of the hoops broke. We doubled the hoops and added purlins. We’ve had windy days since then and the reinforced hoop house stood up just fine. That was a HUGE relief. Here are step-by-step photos in case you want to build something like this.

1) We laid out the edge of the beds, staked them down, and put in rebar to slip the PVC over.

2) We put a 2-foot leg on each end of each hoop to give us more growing room at the edges, then put the hoop over the rebar and used metal straps to attach the hoop to the frame. (We didn’t want a joint at the top where it would be weak, but there is a lot less stress on the joints at the sides.) Each hoop is made of a 20-ft section of 1″ PVC. DSC_0019 3) Designing the end walls was a challenge for us. We based the end wall design on the design from Alberta Home Gardening (1, 2) and we are pleased with how sturdy the end wall is. The solid end wall does cast shade, so we’ll have to see if that is a problem or not. We used a hoop to trace the shape onto the plywood and used pipe insulation on the edges of the wood to protect the plastic.

4) We bought energy-efficient IR/AC (Infrared/Anti-Condensation) plastic from Farm Tek. The IR/AC plastic is only marginally more expensive than standard plastic and can have a big impact. It was breezy, almost too much to get the plastic on, but we did. We attached the plastic to the end walls using plywood laths.

5) We created the “caterpillar” by pulling 3/16″ polyester rope back and forth in an “X” pattern. It took two ropes, each running the length of the hoop house. We used eye bolts at each hoop to pull the rope through.

So here is Version 1 of our hoop house. It may not have been strong enough, but dang, the caterpillar tunnels look neat and nice. DSC_0076DSC_0075Sadly, it wasn’t rigid enough. With 40-50mpg gusts of wind, the hoops bent all the way down to the ground and broke where they were strapped to the frame.

Lesson Learned: A much more rigid, stronger material is needed for a caterpillar-style hoop house without any purlins connecting the hoops. DSC_0084 6) In order to reinforce the hoop house we added two purlins running the length of the hoop house. We also doubled up every hoop. (We’re not sure if the purlins would have been enough on their own, but we couldn’t take any risks with the wind wreaking more havoc.) We added rebar for the extra hoops and connected each hoop pair with several zip ties. The purlins end in Ts which are strapped to the end walls. The purlins are attached to the hoops with 2″ drywall screws and zip ties.

DSC_01007) We built doors out of simple frames and ends of plastic. xDSC_0092 8) Once the doors were on, we began filling the beds. The beds were sheet mulched with cardboard and newspaper, then filled with layers of leaf mold, top soil, and compost.xDSC_0099 Mr. Bingley loved having piles of earthy black piles lying around the farm in the winter sun. zDSC_0096Now the hoop house is finished. It has survived strong winds at least once since we reinforced it and done well. We will build tables and a heat mat to start our seedlings (we’ll post about that soon). For now, we are excited to have completed this, look forward to starting a bounty of spring flowers and veggies, and can’t wait to eat out of our two new beds, and are eager to get back to working on our house. yDSC_0113yDSC_0089

Approaching Winter

Winter approaches and we are excited: it is our first chance to plant trees since moving onto our land. One day we will have a fruit orchard and ornamental trees will grow around the farm but with the house project we’re starting small the year.

We planted three of one of our favorite trees, the native red maple. These trees flank entrances to the farm and we look forward to when we enter under the gateway of their branches.

With winter approaching our thoughts are also on next year’s flowers and next year’s weddings. We started preparing for our first wedding of next spring right after our last wedding of the fall.

Megan uses the Gravely walk behind to mow the beds.
Megan uses the Gravely walk behind to mow the beds.

Megan prepared our beds by mowing down this year’s flowers with our Gravely walk-behind tractor. The mower is very powerful and it easily took down the husks of the summer annuals. We planted some beds into cover crops and planted hardy annuals such as poppies, snapdragons, feverfew, and larkspur into others. They will grow strong roots over the winter for a profusion of spring blooms.

Hardy annuals in the ground for spring's blooms.
Hardy annuals in the ground for spring’s blooms.

The farm may sleep through the winter but as we approach winter we are preparing for spring and for a lifetime on this land. Planting trees is an optimistic activity. We already dream of next spring’s blooms and future summer’s shade.

Wildflower Wedding, May 31, 2014

May was a busy wedding month at Spring Forth Farm.  Clients are taking advantage of our DIY bucket of flowers we offer as well as the “a la carte” option for a mixture of DIY buckets with Spring Forth Farm making the bouquets and boutonnieres.  Jonathan and I put together a wedding with a “wildflower theme” for Saturday May 31, 2014.  Here are some photos of that process.  Enjoy the beauty of the flowers.

Wildflower Bridal Bouquet
Bridal Bouquet. Photo by Thomas Fisher.
Bridesmaids Bouquet
Bridesmaid’s Bouquet.
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Boutonnieres.
Boutonnieres.
Boutonnieres.

The handiwork for making boutonnieres and bouquets takes a lot of focus and organization.  We like to lay out the flowers as we work so that we aren’t scrambling to find what we need and to strip leaves off of the stems.  A year ago I spent a month at Harvest Moon Flower Farm where I first learned to build bouquets from experienced flower farmer, Linda Chapman.  We also used Fresh From the Field Wedding Flowers by Erin Benzakein and Lynn Byczynski, a wonderful book to help us continue to learn how to build bouquets and wire flowers for boutonnieres.  Spring Forth Farm wouldn’t be where we are now without these resources.

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Building a bridesmaid bouquet. Photo by Thomas Fisher.
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Photo by Thomas Fisher.
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Photo by Thomas Fisher.
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Photo by Thomas Fisher.
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Making boutonnieres.

We cut the final few bunches of flowers for the DIY section of the order Saturday morning of the wedding before the flowers were picked up.  We love providing the freshest possible flowers to our customers.

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Cutting matricaria. Photo by Thomas Fisher.
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The wedding florals ready for pick up! Photo by Thomas Fisher.

The wedding flower pickup by the groom’s step-father on the morning of May 31, 2014.

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Photo by Thomas Fisher.
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Photo by Thomas Fisher.

Congratulations to the happy couple!  We loved doing this wedding and love the opportunity to continue to improve our arranging skills.  We look forward to our next couple of weddings in June 2014.

 

A Photo Essay

Time is getting away from me.  Here is a short photo essay of happenings on Spring Forth Farm over the past few weeks!  Stay tuned to find out where you can get your next Spring Forth Farm bouquet.

Frolic Life: living without electricity has proven to be easier than we thought and quite relaxing.

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Bath Time
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Night time reading and writing-Photo by Tom Fisher

Market Bouquets and Wholesale Accounts: as we continue to figure out how we will market this summer, we are blessed to be able to set up a small flower stand at the school I teach at, Orchard Hill Children’s School.

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Market Stand Bouquets
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Last Fridays in Hillsborough Stand

Maggie at Pine State Flowers in Durham, NC is buying our flowers for her new shop.

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Wholesale poppies and bachelors buttons-Photo by Tom Fisher
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Jonathan harvesting for wholesale-Photo by Tom Fisher
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View from the far side of the farm-Photo by Tom Fisher
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Megan seeding wildflower mixes and cover crops into our fields

A Bittersweet Beginning

Have you ever traveled 300 miles to spend the weekend digging over 100 perennial flowers in the mud?  Well there is a first time for everything.  On Friday March 28th, Jonathan and I celebrated his 31st birthday and the beginning of my spring break from teaching by driving to southern Maryland do just this.  The forecast was mid 40’s and half an inch of rain over the course of the day.  Believe it or not, we ended up lucky.

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Jonathan digging peonies

It drizzled nonstop the whole time but started rain buckets just as we were leaving.  We actually had a wonderful time together covered head to toe in mud and actively digging up the beginnings of Spring Forth Farm.  There was sadness in the trip too.  The reason Farmhouse Flowers sold us their perennials is because they are going out of business.  It is bittersweet to take from one small farm ending to begin another small farm.  We wish Dave Dowling all the best as he starts a new chapter in his life and we give thanks from the bottom of our hearts for the generosity he showed us as young flower farmers.

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Literally overflowing with plants

We packed the truck to the brim with our hydrangeas, peonies, sedums, foxtail lilies, mountain mint, gooseneck loosetrife, pussy willows, curly willows, and more.   We made it home to Hurdle Mills, NC and unloaded them into our bountiful supply of straw!

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Limelight Hydrangeas waiting to be planted

We spent the day yesterday building two beds by hand to plant everything in.  We finished planting just as the sun was setting.  It was a successful trip.

Planting Peonies
Planting Peonies

Thanks again to Farmhouse Flowers and good luck on the next adventure!  Stay tuned throughout the summer for more photos of our perennials in bloom.

If The Flowers Can, Then I Can Too!

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Brrrrrrr, it has been a frigidly cold winter (for us southerners) with temperatures in single digits, inches of snow, ice and so on and so forth. The snow caved in the hoop-house and the ice knocked over trees onto our deer fence.  The deer are STILL getting into our fence, so we beefed up the brush around the garden to deter them.  The brush might be a bit unsightly, but it seems to be working.

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Tree down on fence

Jonathan and I planted a whole bed of flowers in October to winter over until early spring blooming.  We covered the bed with 2 layers of frost cover and left them for the winter.  I have been worrying about our little flowers for months on end.  With such unusual temperatures and heavy snow and ice making the hoops cave in on top of the flowers, I thought that surely the flowers were dead or suffocated.  But no!  We opened up the bed the other day when the row cover had defrosted enough to not tear when removed.  The flowers were not only alive they were thriving!  They love the cold!  In fact, more learning has taught us that some cannot even bloom properly without the cold.  We gave the bed a good weeding and left it uncovered to get more sun and rain.  This bed of flowers includes larkspur, nigella, bachelors buttons, agrostemma, bupleurum, red sail poppies, tulips, and matricaria (a flower in the chamomile family).

Will I continue to worry about the flowers even though they clearly love the cold?  Yes indeed. I can’t help it. I want them to succeed. I want us to succeed.  Yet in the darkest and coldest times of the year, the flowers are happy and thriving, promising a lovely spring crop.  I take heart in that realization.

These past few weeks I got started on seeding for our spring flower crops.  I seeded over 1000 flower starts into trays including snapdragons, lavendar, ammi majus, dianthus electron, flowering kale, black-eyed susans, zinnias, gomphrena, herbs, and more, plus some vegetables for us.  The “gardner” at Orchard Hill Children’s School has been helpful in watering the starts with me as part of their rotating weekly job.  Today I managed to work in the garden beds, seeding carrots, turnips, beets, onions, lettuce, and arugula.  Just as I was finishing it started to rain, sometimes the timing is just perfect!!

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Flower seeds are tiny

The recent warm weather has left the taste of spring in my heart, but with nighttime temps back in the mid 20’s my hopes aren’t too high yet. Sigh… I guess we have a little bit of winter left.  Maybe it will leave our little farm alone.

But I know that if the flowers can survive this cold and busy winter… then I can too.

Breaking Ground

This summer has presented many unexpected challenges and many opportunities to roll with it as farmers must, while we get Spring Forth Farm off the ground (or into it). After the record June rainfall, the ground finally dried out enough for the equipment to be able to get in to pull stumps, the day before we left on a 2 1/2 week vacation months in the making. Once the stumps were carried off, we started breaking sod with a tiller we rented… until it developed a fuel problem and conked out on us.  We will be ready to tackle the tiller again after a much-needed getaway, and we are excited about bringing you beautiful cut flowers and fresh veggies as soon as we’re able.

Here is how the land looked earlier in the clearing process:

To prepare for clearing, we had to mow:

Finally, the stumps were knocked over…

…And carried away, leaving the land clear:

We were able to do a first pass with the tiller before it conked out:

And we’re ready and excited to get back to work as soon as we get back!