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.

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.

Breaking Ground: building our foundation

WE STARTED OUR HOME! At the end of June we began work on our foundation. It has been a slow and steady process and we are certain that we will have a strong foundation to build the rest of our home on. It seems appropriate that our home site sits on top of a wildflower field!

We are building a passive solar house that we designed, and so naturally over the course of the past 8 months Jonathan and I have spent a lot of time thinking about home sighting and calculating the sun’s angle at different times of the year. Passive solar means that we harness the suns energy to help us efficiently heat our home in the winter, so we have to install a concrete slab floor (from here on out referred to as “the slab”) that acts as a heat bank. It captures the heat in the winter and holds it, keeping the house warm. However, the other side of passive solar is to make sure that our hot NC sun never shines into the house in the summertime. So we have learned to calculate house position and roof eaves to achieve sun in the house in the winter, but not in the summer….whew!!

Megan and Pedro at the job site. Photo by Thomas Fisher
Megan and Pedro at the job site. Photo by Thomas Fisher
Breaking Ground! Photo by Thomas Fisher
Breaking Ground! Photo by Thomas Fisher
We hired out the digging and pouring of the footers to Pedro Barcenas (of Barcenas Construction). He and his crew also installed 4 courses of concrete block which helps to raise our house level up and helps the plumbing drain better. They also dug and installed our foundation drain and put in a driveway for us. They did a fantastic job and we are having them come back and pour our final slab foundation in a few weeks.

Next Jonathan and I spent a long time moving over 40 TONS of gravel into our foundation. Thank goodness for our neighbors with tractors who scooped all the gravel into the foundation for us. We raked it all into the middle, leveled it out and dug the trenches for the plumbing. Let me tell you what, slinging gravel in 95 degree whether ensured that our sweat, blood and tears (mostly mine) made it into our foundation.

Jonathan throwing gravel around!
Jonathan throwing gravel around!
I dug these trenches through the gravel for our plumbing
I dug these trenches through the gravel for our plumbing

Next our plumber, Bruce Carver, came and installed the plumbing that goes under the slab. He did such a great job and was so kind to us. We are planning on installing the rest of the plumbing in the house ourselves, so we watched and learned a lot from him.

What’s next?? VACATION! Jonathan and I are leaving for for 5 whole days and getting up to my Grandma’s lake house in Maryland. When we come back we are installing insulation under the slab, a vapor barrier, rebar and then finally our radiant floor heat. We are doing all this ourselves and then we are hiring out the final pour of the slab!

Stay Tuned for Home Foundation Part II, the well digging, and for opportunities in August to help us raise walls!

Mr. Bingley at the home site
Mr. Bingley at the home site

 

Perennials, Revisited

This is an exciting weekend at Spring Forth Farm. We are doing flowers for our first weddings of the year, and we congratulate Brandon & Kelly and Hayley & Jay. (Look for photos of the wedding flowers sometime next week.) It isn’t too late to order fresh, seasonal Spring Forth Farm flowers for an event or wedding this season, but we are filling up. Please contact us if you are interested.

This past March, we wrote about our trip to Maryland and brought back a truckload of peonies, hydrangeas, and other perennials. We barely fit them all in the truck.

Our truck, overflowing with perennials for planting.
Our truck, overflowing with perennials for planting.

Now, they have been planted, taken root, leafed out, and to our delight they are blooming! Here is a photo update of this excitement on the farm.

We were most excited about the peonies.

Peony in bloom.
Peony in bloom.

We brought back fifty established plants, each one a mystery. We knew we had pink, white, and burgundy, but we had no idea how many of each, or which plant was which. With the stress of the late transplanting and without irrigation, about half of our peonies aborted the buds, but that means about half bloomed! We were so excited about these sweet-scented balls of color. Most of the ones that bloomed were pink, but we expect we have more burgundy and white that will bloom next year. We are learning so much as we grow this year, and the importance of irrigation for these crops really hit home this spring.

We also brought back hydrangeas, which are starting to grow flower heads, and curly willows. The willows have been growing in trays but we’ve started planting them and are really looking forward to this great crop. Here are before-and-after photos of the hydrangea, stored in our straw pile for planting in March, and now in May.

Here are the first of the rooted willow cuttings being planted out.

When it comes to plants, we get excited about different things, but we both like to experiment. Jonathan was particularly excited that we brought back two dozen eremurus roots, also called foxtail lily. These are sort of an experiment – we don’t know if they will survive the late summer rains – but we hope they do so we can offer these unique spires next year.

We are really excited about nurturing and growing these perennials on our farm and dream about adding many more varieties of perennials to the farm over the next few years.

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.