2012 Growing Season

Early farmer's market finds

Early farmer’s market finds

Ever wonder why some of your favorite gardening/farming magazines only produce 11 issue a year with June and July being a combined issue? It certainly isn’t because they have nothing to write about. Could it be that some of the best contributor are  growers and farmers alike? And that their busiest time of year to work the land is, well, summer time?

It occurred to me this past growing season that my available writing time was at a bare minimum. I am by no means one of the best growers or writers but I do know that once the temperature started to rise above 55-60, I was switching my inside pleasures for outdoor ones.

Tomatoes and Peppers are planted in the Hoophouse on May 20th.

Tomatoes and Peppers are planted in the Hoophouse on May 20th.

The growing season here in Maine is relatively short compared to other parts of the country but that doesn’t mean you have to wait until Memorial Day weekend to plant your garden. Last winter, I spent a lot of time exploring extended season growing. It involved hoop houses, caterpillar tunnels, determining seed varieties and quantities, seed starting dates, maturity dates, fertilizing schedules, insect controls and marketing.Caterpillar Tunnels planting in early AprilJuly 2012 Gardens and fruit 052

The hoop house was perfect for growing tomatoes, cukes and peppers.

The hoop house was perfect for growing tomatoes, cukes and peppers.

As I planned a schedule for myself built around the available time I had outside of my day job, I managed to start my growing season in March instead of late May-early June. My goal was to have produce ready for the farmer’s market in early May.Grand Opening  Despite the roller-coaster ride the weather took us on last Spring, I hit the first farmer’s market in Sanford with fresh salad greens, radishes, chives, tarragon and oregano.

Fresh packed salad greens

Early radish, crisp and crunchy!

Early radish, crisp and crunchy!

From there it went on with a weekly supply of salad greens, kale, tomatoes, cukes, peppers, summer squash, garlic scapes, snap peas, green beans, potatoes, melons and squash. For my first year at marketing, it was a great success. I surpassed my goal two times.

Note: I completed the marketing research as part of the Farms for Maine’s Future business grant Rivard Farm received in 2011. StuCroft Farm  (my farm) sold produce grown in Acton, Maine. Rivard Farm sold tomatoes and berries from the family farm in Springvale, Maine.

Below are photos from the Farmer’s Market and Growing Season 2012 year in review.

cluster tomatoes are a popular hoop house variety

cluster tomatoes are a popular hoop house variety

The Blueberry Season arrived 2 weeks early.

The Blueberry Season arrived 2 weeks early.

Blueberries and Raspberries were a good seller at the farmer’s market.

Melon, squash and corn patch

Melon, squash and corn patch

Sept Farmers Market 002

Watermelons and Cantaloupe anyone?

Watermelons and Cantaloupe anyone?

Labor Day Harvest

Labor Day Harvest

As I write this post in mid January 2013, I realize that it won’t be long before I fill the seed trays with potting soil and start dropping in tiny seeds for a new year of growing. I would like to say that I will have time in the coming months to keep you updated but somehow, I know that the pleasures of writing will succumb to the demands of growing produce. I’ll do my best.

Busy as a BEE

Busy as a BEE

Best Wishes for the New Year! Diane

PS. Stay tuned for some great news from Rivard Farm!

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The good, the bad, and the green!

venting the hoop house on a warm spring day

With the beautiful weather lately, who hasn’t been thinking about getting seeds into the garden. In years past, I would be watching and waiting for the spring-like weather to arrive so I could get started on the growing season. In the last three years, I’ve managed to get some early seeds in the ground by the middle of April. This year it was January 28th, thanks to the hoop house!

There has been some good and not-so-good that has come with planting so early here in Maine. It requires more awareness of the forecasted weather, the daily high and low temperatures and a physical effort to monitor the growings in the hoop house whether its opening or closing the vents and windows, watering, sowing more seeds, of figuring out what insect is eating holes in the leaves of your lettuce.

I would say for the most part this new adventure has been on the good side of things. The not so-go-things have been some near misses.

One day in February , I looked out to see the hoop house door swinging open in the wind when the temperature was only 15 degrees. We quickly affixed a door clamp and bungee cord to the door to preventing it from opening accidentally.

Before the wind storm

Then on Friday, April 27, I came home to the two caterpillar tunnels completely blown over.

The wind was so strong that it ripped a couple of cabbage plants right out of the ground. Others had broken leaves. Considering the whipping these plants got, I only lost about 10 % of my plants.

wind whipped cabbage

Another disappointment has been the spinach. I’ve planted spinach seeds three times on three different dates and have yet to see any significant growth. I’m not sure what the probably is. If anyone has a remedy, let me know.

Red Russian Kale, very tasty!

I haven’t completely given up of spinach yet, I’ve planned it two times in the Caterpillar tunnels (named CAT I and CAT II) and seems to be having somewhat better results. I can’t figure out if it been the temperature, the fertility of the soil, or the daylight hours. I definitely need to read up on this problem. I love spinach and it’s driving me crazy that I can’t grow it.

Early radish, crisp and crunchy!

In the last few weeks we have been harvesting radishes every day or two, and collecting enough greens to have a salad with dinner. It is pretty amazing to be eating greens this time of year when in years past I would have just been putting seeds in the grounds.

Mesclun greens, great addition to the salad.

Last fall, the National Weather Service had predicted that the winter of 2011-12 would be a winter of extremes, and extremes it was. We had a snow storm at the end of October, a snowstorm at Thanksgiving and really very little snowfall after that. And it continued right into Spring. The temperatures have been all over the board, with dips in the twenties and highs in the 60-70-80 in February, March and April. And this weekend its been not exception. The last two nights have been in the mid twenties and tonight is predicted to go as low at 21 degrees!

These unusually high temperature for spring in Maine have confused some of the plants and trees. The warm weather has forced many crops to blossom early. Now they are in jeopardy of being killed by these very cold nights.

peach tree in bloom, three weeks ahead of normal.

Vitamin greens, by far the most prolific grower in the hoop house.

Normally, plants like kale, tatsoi and arugula love cool growing temperatures, but when temperature soar into the 70-80 outside, the hoop house was pushing into the 90’s. This surge in temperature causes these plants to bolt. The plants think the high temps are a sign of the end of its growing season and starts to produce a seed head. This shouldn’t be happening to plants that I haven’t even had a chance to harvest yet. So off with their heads!

A delicious salad to go with dinner.

I’ve been clipping back the seed heads and adding them to my salad. The plants will continue to grow but will probably not mature to their full size.

It’s hard to predict what Mother Nature will do next. She is still in charge even if I tried to out smart her this year by planting two months ahead of schedule. She can bring on another chilly night, cause I’m right on her heals. Does she wear stilettos?

row covers protecting the tender strawberry blossoms

The strawberries are under the row cover and the young fruit trees are wrapped in a trash bag to protect their blossoms. The hoop house is closed up tight and the CAT tunnels are anchored down with rocks. (We’ve got plenty of rocks around here to be put to good use.)

One thing I’m learned through this growing process is, don’t put all your growing ideas in one basket. For if one crop doesn’t grow or is killed by frost, there is another crop waiting to fill the void. Therefore, today we planted 25 lbs of seed potatoes. Another crop that just might see the warm weather return and grow an abundance of spuds. Let’s hope!

Wherever you live, I hope tonight’s polar dip won’t crush your growing spirits. Press on, for warmer days are coming.

Do you have any experience growing spinach? I’d love to hear your comments. Diane

Tomato Graduation Day

My tomato babies!

April 21, 2012

by: Diane Rivard

Just 6 weeks ago, I planted some tomato seeds for dad’s hoop house project. I was a little apprehensive at first because I had the expectations of growing something for someone else. No, not just anybody, it was my dad, a man, a farmer with years of experience. I knew I had to get it right.

hoop house tomatoes started in oasis cubes.

I’ve grown tomatoes from seed many times before but this time was different. The seeds were started in oasis cubes. After nine days I need to fertilize them because the nutrients in the cubes ran out, then 2 weeks after sprouting they were turned on their side so they could grow a stronger root system. So many things to think about.

Everyday, twice a day, I climbed the ladder to the loft’s attic garden under the 6 x 6 sky window to check on my little tomato babies. I made sure they had enough water, they were rotated so they got even light exposure, and brushes my hands over the tops of them to help strengthen the stems. I could almost see them growing before my eyes. At four weeks old, they were transplant into peat pots and fertilized with fish fertilizer.

As they grew, I had to move them apart from each other so the leaves would not shade its neighbor.

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the loft garden

Then three days ago, dad said he was ready to accept his tomatoes. Oh boy, did I think they were ready to leave home…so soon? I put 12 Clermon and 12 Geronimo’s in trays and carried them down the ladder on my right shoulder. I brought them out to the garage and set them up with an oscillating fan.

the fan running on medium speed, 6 feet away from the tomato plants

The move to the garage would get them ready for cooler temperature (nighttime temps of 60 degrees) and the fan got them ready for the stiff breeze that would no doubt blow through the hoop house.

This morning, I loaded the tomatoes into the car and drove them down to the farm. It was a bittersweet moment when I sprang the trunk and my tomato babies got their first taste of pure sunshine at their new home. Dad walked out of his hoop house with a smile and said, “What do we have here?”

“Your tomato graduates!”, I said

We carried the trays into the hoop house. It was a comfortable 78 degrees. Together, dad and I put two tomato plants, peat pot and all, into a five gallon grow bag half-full with bark mulch, we added more mulch to the bag, filling in around the sides of the pots and over the tops.

adding bark mulch to the grow bags

We talked about keeping them warm at night, a few nights a 60 degrees, then lowered a few degrees each night down to 55 degrees. My motherly instinct was working, I guess. Dad assured me that he planned to cover them with a low tunnel and use a quartz heat for supplemental night-time heat.

I gave dad a hug and said, “Take good care of my babies. I guess they’re not babies any more, they’ve graduated!”

Dad with his new hoop house tomatoes

Starting hoop house tomatoes

March 31, 2012

A few weeks ago I started tomatoes for Dad’s hoop house project. Starting tomato plants from seed is usually a simple process of dropping a seed into a 6-pack cell filled with soil-less potting mix. Starting tomatoes for the hoop house requires a different approach.

Dad and I visited McDougal’s Orchard recently to inquire about the how-to’s of starting hoop house tomatoes. Ellen McAdam, who grows hoop house tomatoes at McDougal’s Orchard gave us lots of growing tips.

oasis cubes used for starting tomatoes or other vegetables.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oasis is one of the growing mediums used to start hoop house tomatoes. The 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 cubes come in a sheet and can be purchased at Griffin’s Greenhouse in Gray, Maine. The cubes are just like the oasis medium used in flower arrangements.

Three varieties of tomatoes were ordered from Johnny’s Selects Seeds. Two varieties, Clermon and Geronimo were hoop house recommendations, while New Girl is a variety used by Eliot Coleman.

One seed is dropped into each oasis indentation and a light covering of potting mix covers the seeds.

first tomatoes seeds starting to sprout.

Clermon, hoop house tomato variety.

When the tomatoes are 2″-3″ tall, the oasis cubes are separated and turned on their side. This forces the tomato plant to grow at a new angle, which in turn, will cause the tomato plant to grow a deeper root system. When the seedling is potted deep in the peat pot, it will grow new roots along its stem.

oasis tomato ready for transplant.

This tomato plant was turned on its side and is now ready for transplant.

Ready for transplant.

oasis tomatoes on the right, transplants on the left,

transplants ready to be moved to the attic garden.

For the next few weeks, the tomatoes will grow in the attic loft under the 6 x 6 sky window.

It’s very cozy up here with plenty of sunlight.

In about 4 weeks, the tomato plants will be transplanted into 5 gallon grow bags filled with bark mulch.

At that point, they will be at their permanent location in Dad’s hoop house at Rivard Farm.

You can find more about Rivard Farm at rivardfarm on Facebook.

Happy Planting! Diane

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!