Never too old to try something new

Dad with a fawn found in the blueberry fields

March 2012

Dad will be 88 yrs old in August. God bless him, he’s still a man of vigor, smarts and wit. He will never tell you that old age will stop a man, rather it is when a man stops learning that he will be in the ground. It is true, one must never stop learning. Knowledge is like a garden, the more you cultivate it the more it grows.

When we (7 Rivard siblings) embarked on this new farming mission via the business grant, it seemed to open up a door for Dad to put his ideas to work. Let me assure you that he didn’t need our permission or our enthusiasm, he has plenty of that of his own. What I mean is, he took this as a challenge. When I told him I was putting up a hoop house, it wasn’t long before he wanted one too. Of course, he’d been talking about hoop house tomatoes for some time now, toting about how profitable they could be. But he would always remark, “Mother would never go for that. She doesn’t want me making more work for myself.”

Mom enjoying berries with milk

Now, I wouldn’t say she is sold on the idea but I think she is warming up to it, knowing, we (the kids), are all on board with exploring ways to expand the farm’s viability. Dad says, he doing this (growing hoop house tomatoes) for us but I know he will be guarding this project like a mother cow protects her new calf. He is going to do it his way, built with his ideas, his growing methods and with all the bragging rights. You go, Dad!

So in recent months, Dad and I have been sharing a lot of ideas about growing hoop house tomatoes. We have both spent many hours on the internet researching hoop house construction, growing methods and needed supplies when it comes to growing tomatoes inside a hoop house versus growing them in the field. We have found that there is no one way to take on this task. This is not a new idea, places like Backyard Farms have been very successful with their hydro-ponic operation in Madison, Maine. We found there are as many growing methods as there are success stories. This is where Dad and I have chosen different paths.

Simplicity in growing methods is still our number one goal but we hope to reach it in different ways. My approach is to go with what I have to work with… fertile soil, sun power and a cooling breeze, while dad is taking the approach of hydro-ponics and all it’s gadgets.

Hydro-ponics is a system of growing plants, (mainly tomatoes, but peppers, cukes, melons and lettuce can be adapted as well), with or without soil, grown in a bag or container and watered and feed through a timed watering system.

hydroponic tomatoes can be grown in pots or bags in the hoop house

soil-less lettuce grown in PVC pipes filled with water

It may be surprising that Dad, a life-long traditional farmer, is taking a technical approach to growing. But if you know the man, he is known for taking the approach that will lead to the best end result without a ton of labor. So the proof will be on the vine. Research has shown that hoop house tomato crops out produce field crops by a wide margin.

cluster tomatoes are a popular hoop house variety

Tomatoes grown in an unheated hoop house are at least 30 days earlier and twice as productive as field tomatoes, according to trials the past two summers at the University of Missouri. Researchers found that 1,000 square feet of tomatoes (170 plants) would cost $1,073 to grow in a hoop house (high tunnel). Yield was 10 pounds of marketable fruit per plant, or 1,700 pounds. And with sales at $3.00 a pound, the tomatoes would more than pay for themselves and the hydroponic system in the first year.

Dad and I are not looking to strike it rich our first year out but we are both hoping that our hoop house trials will turn out to be worth the effort. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to growing in a hoop house.

One advantage to growing tomatoes in a hoop house is that you can extend the growing season on both ends. Tomatoes can be transplanted in the hoop house in early May (heat at night may be needed). In about 6-8 weeks they will start producing fruit and will continue to produce weekly until October.

The disadvantage is that hoop house tomatoes require daily maintenance. Tomatoes grown in a closed environment will need to be watered daily and fertilized regularly. In addition, they will need to be pruned, clipped to a support line, and harvested. In addition, the plant will need to be lowered every week or two. The lowering allows the plant to continue to grow upward as fruit continues to develop at the bottom of the plant.

Each tomato plant will have a watering/feeding probe that is attached to a water line coming from a holding tank.

Growing tomatoes hydroponically requires the same daily maintenance but also requires careful monitoring of the watering and fertilization system. This system involves a drip irrigation system that waters the plants 5-7 times a day for several minutes at a time. The fertilizer is also feed thru the irrigation system. It really is a complex system.

Dad began building his hoop house in the barn with electrical conduit and wood.

Dad has been working diligently to get the hoop house ready for the arrival of his tomato plants in early May. They are currently being grown in my attic solar garden under the 6 x 6 sky-window.

Finishing the inside of Dad's hoop house.

Wooden hangers that our brother Roland made to hold up the roll-up sides of the hoop house.

Dad's 12 x 24 hoop house.

Here is Roland’s report on the hoop house move:       Dad and I trucked 7 loads of sand from the pit on Monday . After lunch, I graded the fill , then Dad and I moved the hoop house from the barn onto the pad . Tuesday, Uncle Ronald , Dad, Annette and I put the plastic over the house and attached it to each end . Then I went to pick up conduit to build the rolls for each end . In the afternoon, Dad and I taped the rolls to the plastic until the wind picked up , and we had to quit . Wednesday,  we finished putting the tape on none to soon, as the wind picked up again.    R.R.

With the plastic secured, Dad worked on hooking up the fan. The fan will help to cool off the hoop house during the heat of the summer.

When the roll-up sides are rolled up on the outside of the hoop house, the rolls will rest in the ‘S’ hooks designed by Roland. You can see them hanging on the inside of the hoop house in the photo on the left. When in use, they will be turned around to hold the rolls on either side of the hoop house.

In the coming weeks, Dad will be hooking up the drip irrigation system and installing a shutter vent that will work with the fan.

In about 4-6 weeks, the tomatoes will be moved into the hoop house. By July 1st, Dad hopes to have fresh vine tomatoes for sale at the farm.    Diane


Feeding the Caterpillar

let the sun shine in!

March 18, 2012

The weather this past weekend and this week has been unbelievable.  As I’ve been walking out to the South-East garden to vent the hoop house in a short-sleeved t-shirt, I have had to remind myself that it is only mid-March. The sky is a brilliant blue, the air crisp and clean, the buds on the trees are beginning to swell, and temperatures in the seventies and eighties! This is hard to beat. A gardener’s dream.

For a few weeks now, daily temperatures in the hoop house have been rising into the eighties and budging ninety. It’s so wonderful to step inside the hoop house and feel the warmth. The little plants are loving it too. However, too much of a good thing (ninety degree temps) can stress the plants. That’s when I knew it was time to let some of the warm air out and the cool air in.

On Sunday, Jamie and I, took down the inside layer of plastic in the hoop house. While I held one end of the plastic overhead, Jamie unscrewed the screws. As the first section came down so did the condensation. A little rain shower on Jamie’s head! Jamie poked the remaining overhead sections bringing down the water droplets as he sang, “I wonder what it would be like to be the rain maker…..” We both laughed as I reminded him that this (the plastic) was coming down a lot easier than it went up.

With the second layer down, the inside of the hoop house was a lot brighter. It’s surprising how a second layer can block an additional 30% of sunshine. But that is the trade-off for an extra layer of warmth.

adjusting the string that will hold the window open

I pulled the vents open on the north side as Jamie lifted the windows on the south side. A nice gentle breeze flowed through immediately.

Two kale plants that wintered-over in the hoop house. Now they are growing new leaves. They are so good right off the plant.

In the afternoon, I went to the shed to dig out an old Garden Weasel tool.

Garden Weasel

I’ve had this tool for years but never found it to be very useful. The summer soil was always hard and dry and the weasel did very little to loosen it up or remove the weeds. When we put up the caterpillar last week, I had hilled up the soil within the caterpillar so it would dry out.

Now a week later, the soil was moist and clumpy. I thought I’d give the garden weasel a try. And try I did ,with much success! It broke down the clumps and evened out the planting surface. I worked from the outside edges of the caterpillar, moving it back and forward towards the center.

Garden weasel doing a fine job.

With the soil ready, it was planting time.

Seedlings and Dr Earth Organic fertilizer

seedlings inside the caterpillar tunnel

A little fertilizer goes into each hole.

Somewhere around 120 transplants in the caterpillar! Everything from lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, broccoli. cabbage, arugula, tatsoi and joi choi (both are Japanese greens).

With the expected heat this week, I added a row cover to the underside of the plastic to act as shade cloth. I wanted to give those new seedlings a little shade from all this intense heat that is coming our way.

Every morning, I open up the hoop house and pull up the sides of the caterpillar. Every evening, I give them a little water and cover them back up for the night.

Three days later everything is doing well expect for the cat’s thinking that the caterpillar is their new digging ground. Today, I found five holes where plants should have been. I was hoping the cats would help out with the rodent watch instead they’re de-planting! Naughty kitties!

Busby likes hanging out in the garden

March Madness

Seeing green!

Since late December, I’ve had my head wrapped around growing something, anything, inside the realm of winter. The fever all started with the raising of the hoop house. An early planting in late January has not yielded very much. Feeling a bit drained, I went back to reading, research and waited for a new opportunity. Luckily, time was on my side. The hour of daylight was lengthening and the nighttime temperatures were rising.

With March came the second planting and much better growing results. Two week after sowing the seeds, the spinach is already the same size as the spinach of the first sowing. (Cold soil, cold temperatures, and low pH levels may all have contributed to the lack of growth from the first sowing.)

Planting from a month ago. Not growing very well.

Eight-one degrees in March! In the hoop house that is.

Temperatures in the hoop house were now reaching into the seventy and eighties. Vigorous growth is becoming evident despite the hands of Winter clutching to his last chilling spell, but not for long. March may have come in like a lion (a foot of snow on March 1st), but Spring is moving in with leaps and bounds. With two days in the fifties, I was eager to fill another bed in the hoop house.

Third row ready to be seeded.

However, I had new concerns. It is my goal to have veggies to sell at Sanford’s first farmer’s market in May. If I was going to make that first market, I needed plants to grow for a timely harvest. I also needed to sow seeds at regular intervals for a continuous harvest. More seeds=more produce.

But how was I going to do this when the hoop house was reaching it’s growing capacity? I have trays full of seedlings waiting to be transplanted. Do I dare say I need another hoop house already? Ya maybe, but not before I can prove this venture is going to be profitable.

seedlings in the dining room

seedling by the wood stove

Problem+thinking=solution. I needed more growing room. Temperatures were rising. The ground was thawing. What could warm the ground, create an environment for cold weather crops and protect young plants from cold nights? Answer: A caterpillar tunnel!

What in the world? Have I really gone mad? No, not at all. The definition of a caterpillar tunnel is…a segmented tunnel — constructed of PVC pipe, re-bar, and rope. They can be up to 300 feet long, and don’t require flat ground. An inexpensive variation of a hoop house!

So with nine pieces of 10′ plastic electrical conduit, scrap piece of re-bar cut to 18″, a 12′ x 52′ piece of plastic and a spool of orange marking string (something we had on hand) a caterpillar was morphed.

10' plastic electrical conduit

There may be 4 inches of mud out here, but we were determined to build a caterpillar!

Pounding in the re-bar through the mud and frost.

The pipe slides over the re-bar pins.

Nine hoops spaced six feet apart.

A tension rope is secured at one end, wrapped around the top of each hoop and secured at the other end to a pin in the ground.

12' x 52' piece of plastic draped over the top of the hoops.

All it takes is a string to hold the plastic in place. I love simple construction.

tying the string to the hoop.

The end of the caterpillar is gathered and tied to the end post.

With just a few materials and a couple of hours (first-timers) a caterpillar tunnel was born.

The March Caterpillar

From madness to gladness. 😉

After the mud dries, it will be planting time!

March brings second sowing

Hoop house update: March 7, 2012

3/7 second hoop house planting

On Sunday, March 4, I made the second planting in the hoop house. I pushed back the row cover, and added some wood ash for a potash boost to the soil.  I seeded the 18 ft row with three types of spinach, early maturing carrots, radishes, and baby-leaf lettuce.

light application of wood ash













I also transplanted several arugula plants that I started in the house. I wanted to see how well they would take to the transition from inside temps (70-75), to garage temps (40-45) to hoop house night temps of 23-32. I’m happy to report that they are doing well.

radishes and spinach to the right

The first row that I planted on 1/28 has been growing, oh so slowly, (to be expected) but it is amazing that they can tolerate nightly temperature below freezing. I would say that I have had nearly 95% germination. Many varieties are growing their true leaves now.

Today, with the temperature pushing 55 degrees outside, the hoop house reached an all-time high (since early January) of 88 degrees! I think it’s time to provide a little ventilation.

On Monday, Dad traveled to Griffin’s Greenhouse in Gray to buy some oasis cubes for starting the hoop house tomatoes. The oasis is just like the oasis used in a cut flower arrangement. One tomato seed will be inserted into each cube. After the seedlings are a week old, the cubes will be separated.

oasis planting sheets

Dad also stopped at Skillin’s Greenhouse in Falmouth to buy 3″ peat pots which will be used to transplant the tomato seedlings when they are three weeks old. I have three varieties of hoop house tomatoes that I will be starting very soon. They varieties are Geronimo, Clermon and New Girl. The plan is to have 8-12″ plants ready for the hoop house by May 1-10. That’s less than 8 weeks away!

Geronimo, hoop house variety

Garden of Weedin

March 3, 2012

One thing that I have come to know is that farmers love to share their knowledge. This doesn’t mean that they will tell you all their trade secrets, but if you show them that you are interested in the farming trade, you’ll be surprised at just how much a farmer will tell you.

It use to be that the only farmer I would take time to talk to was my dear, old dad. Of course, out of respect, I would listen to his words of wisdom. I didn’t always agree with his philosophy but I would listen and ponder and keep most of my young-maturing ideas to myself.

Over the year, when I took a stab at gardening, I would recall a thing or two that my dad had taught me and put it into practice. Most of the knowledge was good plain ol’ common sense, after all, farmers have a lot of it (sense) after years and years of trial and error.

If my gardening failed it was not because of my dad’s words of wisdom, but more of my own failure to carry through with what was required of cultivating a good gardening.

dream garden

How many of you, have had the ‘big idea’ to grow a garden? So very ambitious from the start, plotting the garden, sowing the seeds, watering and waiting.

First, the excitement of the sprouting seeds keeps us content to come back for another look, but by the time the weeds are taller and more numerous than, let’s say the bean plants, our interest has faded. It’s summer, it hot, and who want to pull weeds when you can sit by the lake and read a book. I often choose that opinion, telling myself that I would come back in the evening when it was cooler. Most time, I would not. So summer went by, and the plants produced a mediocre crop despite the knee-high weeds.

What you would expect Dad's garden to look like. Weed free.

I remember one year, I had planted a garden up at the family farm where I grew up. It was suitable in size, in that it included a sample of most crops from radishes to tomatoes; broccoli and carrots; and cabbage and beans. Everything came up and grew along with the weeds. I was a busy mom at the time and gardening (mainly weeding) was not high on my list of things to do most days.

I had planted the garden and expected it to grow on its own without my help. I neglected to weed the garden plot. It was pretty hard to tell that anything edible was growing in there and by mid-summer my dad had vowed that he would not till me a plot the following year


What my first garden looked like that summer! Weeds, weeds, weeds!

One afternoon during that summer, I was wandering through the weedy garden looking for some collectible produce. Just when I was about to give up finding anything worth picking, (only finding greens beans with seeds protruding through the sides, radishes the size of turnips, and yellow cucumbers swelled like footballs), I found cabbages the size of basketballs!

Alleluia! I put two hands around one of the monster cabbages and tried to pull it out of the ground. I pulled and pulled. (Remember the childhood story, The Tale of the Turnip, when the farmer and his wife who had to get help from the boy, the girl, the dog, the cat and the mouse to pull out the turnip!) Yup, that was me, (minus the help). Ha-ha!

Tale of the Turnip

Once I got the long tap root out of the ground, I lugged that beast down to the farmhouse porch to show my dad.
“Look dad, look what I grew!”, I said, thinking he would be impressed with my green thumb (weed thumb, more like it!). He smiled and chuckled.
“Where’d ya find that, in the weed patch”, he said with a grin.
“That’s right, I think the weeds helped it grow this big”, I said smiling.
We laughed and joked about the weed patch producing anything worth eating.
I often wondered how much the weeds helped those cabbages grow. My dad will never agree with what I”m about to say about those good for nothing weeds. My dad despises weeds. He hates to see one weed growing in his vegetable garden or berry patch. The weed, which includes many types, is a resilient plant. It has grown for hundreds of years and has adapted to many climate changes, diseases and insects. It is what seed growers call, resistant, resistant to most environmental-type weed killers. The weed as we know it, germinates, grows, goes to seed and reproduces itself year after year. It has a purpose like most living things. It has a strong root system to support itself, but more importantly, it help keep moisture in the soil and helps keep the soil from eroding. And, many insect love the sweet nectar and pollen from the weed flowers.
So, why do I think those cabbages grew to the size of basketballs without my help, well maybe it was…the weeds! Sorry, Dad.

Well, I think as those young cabbages grew, the weeds grew a little faster. The weeds helped support the growing cabbage, helping to retain the moisture it needed (’cause I wasn’t watering) and eventually, provided shade for the cabbage in the heat of the summer. (They are a cool-weather crop). I also think that the insects, cabbage moth and cabbage loppers, had so many other choices of things (weeds) to eat that they didn’t bother to make their way down through the weeds to find the cabbage.

Now, any farmer would probably tell you that this is hog-wash, but I know something, (um like, common sense, maybe?), helped those cabbages grow. Ha-ha, have I convinced you yet?

My dad would say it was the fertile soil or it was just plain luck. It was the ideal growing conditions, cool summer weather and average rainfall. To all my dad’s availing sense, he would be right. It was NOT by the help of the weeds that those cabbages grow so big.

So why did the man, who despises weeds, let my garden go to the weeds that summer?

I’m sure it was a struggle for him to not go in that garden and pull the weeds. He must have put a blind eye to that plot on top of the hill just to the right of his strawberry field. I know he saw it everyday.

If he had pulled the weeds for me, what would have happened? Crops would have produced and would have needed harvesting. He would have had to call me to say…”the beans need picking, the cukes will be too big tomorrow, or the cabbage moth is laying eggs on your cabbages.” I would have come, from my home a half a mile down away, and collected the vegetables and would have been proud of what my garden produced. And what would I have learned about gardening? Nothing.

My dad told me later on, that he had been in the weed patch quite regularly and had seen how nice those cabbages were growing. If I hadn’t come back to get them, he was going to bring them home to mother. He knew what he was doing all the time.

Fast forward twenty years…. I have returned to the practices of gardening. I must say, I am much better at it (gardening) now then I was 20 years ago. The difference is, back then I wanted a garden just for the novelty that it would grow vegetables. Today, I grow vegetables because I WANT to grow my own food and I WANT it to feed me. It has a purpose and an end result that is of importance. It plays into my ability to be self-sufficient. It feeds into my love for the land, and into my love of knowing I can produce the food that we eat.

One thing for sure, I have a long way to go before I know what my dad knows about gardening. It is a learning process every time I open a packet of seeds. No two growing situations or growing seasons are the same when it come to Mother Nature. That is the challenge I love, or hate when a mid-July hailstorm ruins your garden.

Today, my gardens are not filled with weeds. There may be a few that get ahead of me but for the most part I take pride in a well-managed garden. My garden is my art work. It changes shape and color from day-to-day. Gardening is not work if you love what you do. It is the job that gives back to you in the cold winter months when you can go into cold storage and grab a couple of potatoes and carrots to make dinner with.

Farmers are a wealth of knowledge

There is still so much to learn from what farmers know. In a way, they have paved the roads for many of us wanta-be-farmers. They have been through the trials and tribulation. They all have valuable stories to tell. Where would we be without them. They have been the source of our food for hundreds of years. We can’t let them be a thing of the past.

One thing my dad said recently is, (in regards to his children taking over the farm), “I want to be needed.” Farmers want to share what they know. They want others to be enthusiastic about farming. Who is going to promote the life of farming, but a farmer.

New farmers growing crops with hoop houses.

Today there is a growing interesting in farming, and it’s not just from the younger generation wanting to work the land. Many people are thinking about where their food comes from and how they can incorporate this idea into their retirement years.

Dad says, “retirement is when they put you in the ground.”

It’s true, if you retire from your life long career and don’t have a daily purpose, your body and mind is going to stop. You need something to do to keep you active and to keep you thinking.

Recently, at a New Farmers Workshop, there were more people over forty in the room then there where younger people. Collectively, these people were there to learn ways to be self-sufficient and find ways to make a little income to get them through those so-called retirement years. Now, farming is not for everyone. You have to want to do the work and love what you do.

winter storage crops

That brings me to where I am today. Five years ago, I wanted a garden to have fresh vegetable, today, I want to plan a garden that will produce year round. One that will feed Jamie and I, and one that will create some income. So dad, thanks for sharing your wisdom, it has encouraged me to go in a new direction. You are a smart man and I learn every time we talk about growing things. Hopefully, someday I’ll have my own farming stories to share with those who ask questions like… ‘how do you grow cabbages the size of basketballs?”.

Hey Mister, how'd ya grow those cabbages so big?!

Poor Man’s Fertilizer

March 1 is the 61st day in the leap years with just 19 days until the Spring Equinox.

March 1 snow storm

What could be better that a good old fashion, 24-hour, snow storm on the first of March? Well, having the day off was a good offering but knowing that the finish line of winter is (or was) in sight, I wasn’t too excited about this storm. After all, the hoop house is waiting to flourish in a wave of green and the seedling trays in the south window are stretching to soak up the warmth of the ever increasing daylight.

Daffodils getting ready to bloom. Little did they know they poked their heads out of the ground too soon!

But nothing can change the fact that March has definitely comes in like a lion but looks much more like a lamb out there in the yard. Twelve inches of snow has fallen making all that WAS hinting of the signs of life, now non-existent, buried under what old timers call, poor man’s fertilizer.

snow drift on the south side of the hoop house

The claim is that a late snowfall is good for the soil and helps to green everything up when the snow melts away. Snow contains nutrients such as nitrogen, sulfur and other trace elements and of course lots of moisture. So if I have to wait a week or two for the brown earth to appear again, I feel better knowing the heavens have blessed the soil with something nourishing. Until then, I’ll keep planting those seeds!