Growing berries in the Garden of Eve

2022-05-27T13:09:57-05:00June 1, 2022|Grower, Grower East|

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht of Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market in Riverhead, NY, recently profiled her operation during “Growing, Maintaining and Marketing a Successful Organic U-Pick Berry Operation” as part of the recent virtual NOFA-NY conference.

Kaplan-Walbrecht said she’s learned much about succeeding in growing berries at her 50-acre farm, which she started in 2001. She sells through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, three farmers markets and seasonally from the farm.

“There are varieties for every zone, so you need to pick the right varieties,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. Her farm is rated at Zone 7 for hardiness. “We get a buffering effect, which is nice in the spring; it makes things easier for strawberries. We have some very warm springs which push blossoms earlier.”

Customers who want to pick their own check in to get a map, instructions and containers. So far, the concept has been working. “With my experience, there’s almost an unlimited demand for organic, U-pick strawberries,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. “It’s worth doing … We’re basically the only organic farm doing it on a large scale … It’s something people remember doing as children and want to reproduce that for children. There’s immediate gratification.”

People want to eat the fruit in the field – and she does not discourage that practice. She cautioned other farmers to not “get mad at people” for doing so.

Kaplan-Walbrecht added blueberries to the farm six years ago, considering them a good bridge crop for the season, since strawberries begin Memorial Day weekend and peter out by the third weekend in June, just as the earliest blueberries begin to ripen.

Since blueberries grow well in sandy soil, they provide an ideal way for Kaplan-Walbrecht to use those areas on her farm; however, she cautioned that since blueberries are slow growing, farmers need to plan ahead. It took her four years before she had grown a crop of blueberries she could offer as a U-pick harvest.

Blackberries have also proven a good draw for the farm. She prefers the Chester variety, as the canes do not bear thorns. “They’re vigorous and hearty. They yield a lot so that we don’t even have enough pickers,” she said. She plants Chester blackberries and Bluecrop, Blueray and Jersey blueberries.

Kaplan-Walbrecht advised cultivating strawberries between April and May for best results; however, more northern farms may need to wait longer. “I’m not going to say that it’s easy, but you should start and pick a method and see what works best for you,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. “We’ve tried almost every type of method: black plastic, silver plastic, black landscape fabric … single beds, two rows, beds. We’ve mulched in between with straw. It’ll depend on your conditions and what works for you.”

Currently, her farm uses beds with spacing based upon her tractor dimensions. She grows 32-inch beds in two rows, placed 12 inches apart in each row. She plants spring varieties and the Chandler variety, a fall planting type that needs row cover and offers a one- to two-year yield.

Customers who want to pick their own check in to get a map, instructions and containers. So far, the concept has been working. “With my experience, there’s almost an unlimited demand for organic, U-pick strawberries,” Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht said. Photo courtesy of Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market

As with many other organic crops, weeds present an issue. “We get a lot of weeds and it’s hard to keep the berries cultivated and irrigated,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. “It can be hard to get them to root and keep the weeds down. You can keep them as long as you can and when they’re too weedy, get rid of them and keep planting. It’s not like a tree, where once you plant them, you maintain them forever.”

She said she’s tried numerous strawberry varieties. Recently, she planted the aforementioned Chandler; AC Wendy, an early variety; Honeoye, an early to mid-season variety; Everbearing, great for pots or in raised beds, but not very winter hardy; and Seascape, a new variety. She replaces her strawberries every two to four years.

From her experience, customers view strawberries as a seasonal, a May through June crop, not a fruit they want to pick all summer. She does grow Everbearing in pots to sell in the farm’s garden center because they work well for patio strawberries and for home gardeners.

For cultivating brambles and blueberries, Kaplan-Walbrecht said plants should be two feet apart in the rows and rows should be 10 feet apart. This enables her to use a rotary or flail mower or riding lawn tractor. “If the row is the issue, we’ve used weed whackers,” she said. “Machetes are just as effective as weed whackers. You have to go through in the spring and midsummer. It’s very time consuming.”

She thinks that for best results, planting into black plastic the first year can help keep down weeds, and then mulching with compost and wood chips each year after. Any plastic breaking down can be removed. “We got a lot of free wood chips from landscapers,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said. “A lot of times they’re looking for a place to dump. If you have the space and can make connections, you can get a lifetime of free wood chips.”

As an organic grower, because she doesn’t use herbicides and pesticides, her keyword is “vigorous,” because she wants her brambles to get ahead of the weeds. The ones that grow quickly do well.

Cross pollination is not a problem for growing brambles, as growers are not producing seeds. “They’re pollinated by bees and insects, but they can go to different types of brambles and it won’t affect your berries,” Kaplan-Walbrecht said.

Mugwort is a weed threat to berry operations. When the weed began overtaking some strawberry rows on her farm, Kaplan-Walbrecht weed whacked over the top of it so U-pick customers could find the berries. The next season, she pulled up the plastic and replanted the area. She had used a cultivator designed for strawberries, among other things; however, since it can also rip the plastic, “now we use a shank cultivator that’s more straightforward,” she said. The farm has also used an organically approved herbicide along the plastic.

Eve and her husband Chris have not shied from experimentation on the farm. When people began asking for out of season for berries, they tried growing in a greenhouse. They had seen a farm in Japan that offered berry picking during winter. They used wooden frames to hold organic potting soil bags, opened at the top. Although they grew well, “we had almost no interest in people picking them,” Eve said. “They wanted to pick them in the fields.”

Eventually, spider mite issues came in. Despite using beneficial insects, they could not manage to control the pests, so they disassembled the operation.

The couple has considered hydroponic growing however, they felt it would be too expensive to set up and that their customers’ interest is in picking berries growing from the ground.

Kaplan-Walbrecht encouraged anyone wanting to push their season to start earlier to use floating row covers. “If they bloom and you take it off and they get a frost, you’ll lose your crop,” she warned.

She’s also used netting to prevent birds from stealing her crop. “You pretty much need this once you have a larger yield,” she said.

Help needed: Green industry struggles with spring staffing

2022-05-27T13:01:26-05:00June 1, 2022|Grower, Grower Midwest|

by Gail March Yerke

It seems like there are “Help Wanted” signs everywhere you go these days. There are more job openings than there are people fit for those jobs. Whatever the cause, it’s definitely wreaking havoc with small businesses everywhere, especially those that heavily rely on seasonal help.

The most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Job Openings and Labor Turnover Report shows 11.5 million job openings in our country. That’s the highest number recorded since 2000, when the BLS first began tracking this segment of the labor market. With staffing needs often doubling during spring and summer, small farms and greenhouses are not exempt from the impact of this employment trend. Just ask Mike Backus of Prospect Hill Garden Center.

“How could so much change in a year?” he asked. “I look around and just don’t understand where the workforce went.” Patti and Mike Backus own and operate their family’s retail greenhouse and garden center in New Berlin, WI. Even with help from their son Greg and daughter-in-law Rachel, they are struggling to keep up this spring with atypical limited staffing. “We usually have 20-plus employees by this time of year,” he said. “This year we only have eight employees and six of them are part-time. It has been a really rough year.”

For the first time since the Backus family started their business over 40 years ago, Prospect Hill Garden Center has been forced to close one day a week. “We are closed on Tuesdays and we have never done that before,” Mike said.

“We just can’t find enough cashiers,” Patti explained. With so little help, Mike said that he typically arrives at work between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. to get a head start on the day. Patti added, “We usually don’t get home until 7 or 7:30 at night. That makes for a long day.”

Anyone who works in the greenhouse industry knows that being closed even one day during the spring season doesn’t equate to a day off. Plants still need to be watered and their displays need to be stocked or changed out. It hasn’t helped that recent Midwest weather ricocheted from cold, winter-like temperatures to extreme heat overnight. It’s unusual for Wisconsin to hit 90º in early May. But, like much of the Midwest, that’s just what happened this spring. It’s taken a toll. Mike said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been this stressed out in spring.”

Piala’s Nursery & Garden Shop of Waukesha, WI, has experienced similar staffing issues at their garden center this year. Kathy and Jim Piala opened their first greenhouse in 1976 and are joined today by son Quinn and daughter-in-law Amanda, both licensed landscape architects. Operating their 30-acre property with greenhouse, nursery and landscape divisions requires more staff than most retail garden centers. “It has been very difficult to find enough workers,” said Kathy. “And the new workers just come and go so easily.”

Corinne Kizewski of Nichols Farm & Orchard tending tomato plants. Photo by Gail March Yerke

Even farmers markets are feeling the pinch. When there is a shortage of workers at their farm, even seasonal vendors can miss a scheduled market day. Norman Bruce, one of the market manager volunteers for the Downtown Waukesha Farmers Market, said that they’ll be missing several vendors this year because of labor problems. A local bookstore owner, he is a member of the downtown business association that sponsors the market.

Simon’s Gardens is a greenhouse grower and produce farm that will no longer be attending the Saturday morning event. In addition to looking for help at their farming and greenhouse operations, Simon’s Gardens staffs their retail store in nearby Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee. “Simon’s has been with us many years,” said Norman. “When I didn’t get their application, I actually called and spoke with Chris [Simon]. He told me, ‘I can’t find people to work for $12, $13 or $14 an hour. When I do, they don’t show up.’”

The Waukesha Farmers Market is working on a pilot program through their Facebook page. Its goal is to connect those that would like to earn a little extra money with vendors looking for help at their booths on Saturday mornings.

Finding employees isn’t much easier in Illinois. Corinne Kizewski of Nichols Farm and Orchard said that it’s harder to find people willing to work to their standards and get the job done on time. She helps manage one of the greenhouse production areas at the farm. The Marengo, IL, 500-acre property has a greenhouse range with hydroponic vegetable production, field crops and an orchard. Growing over 1,000 varieties of vegetables and 200 varieties of apples, they attend a dozen weekly farmers markets in the Chicago area, service 90 restaurants and offer a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. “It isn’t that people don’t want to work,” Corinne explained. “It’s the dedication that comes with a job, the care factor. It seems that they are just coming to the farm or anywhere else just for a paycheck.”

She added that it’s hard to find people willing to get the job done on time as well as up to their standards. “Fulfilling specific job positions is hard, so we have hired people that can be flexible in different areas. That way, when we are short-handed in an area, everyone can jump in and help with everything from delivery orders to CSA packaging or greenhouse pruning or harvest.”

Even though more and more younger workers are entering today’s job market, they are outpaced by those retiring from the workforce. In addition, some employees have decided to not return to work after the pandemic due to health concerns or childcare issues. Henry David Thoreau said, “Success usually comes to those too busy to look for it.” The current workforce perfect storm is definitely keeping farm and greenhouse owners busy. Despite this, they’re finding a way to their own continued success.

Keeping it clean

2022-05-27T12:54:04-05:00June 1, 2022|Grower, Grower East, Grower Midwest, Grower West|

by Sally Colby

Emptying a greenhouse is just the start of a thorough disinfection process. Cleaning and sanitizing prior to the next crop is essential, but managing crops to prevent disease is also vital for greenhouse cleanliness.

Dr. Ann Chase, Chase Agricultural Consulting, said an integrated disease management program that includes consistent and thorough sanitation is the first line of defense against disease, and growers who ignore sanitation face a losing battle. “It can’t be hit and miss,” she said. “Every single person in your operation has to understand why they’re doing these things – it has to be uniform.”

The best sanitation programs involve a combination of chemical and physical measures. “If something is unsaleable, it needs to be thrown out, not stacked up and left on the bench,” said Chase. “If you have dump containers or a five-gallon bucket full of diseased leaves, get them out of the greenhouse. Don’t just collect the stuff, take it out.” Chase added that bagging waste or diseased crops is a good practice to help stop the spread of diseases such as downy mildew.

When possible, use reusable flats, but they must be clean with no potting media left in any cells. If flats with bits of potting media are dunked into disinfectant, they won’t be properly disinfected.

Chase explained that fusarium and Thielaviopsis are soil-borne and can survive for a long time without a host plant. Without sanitation, these and other diseases will continue to devastate a crop, but cleaning and sanitation can help manage the problem. Algae is a common greenhouse issue, and Chase said the same conditions that allow tropical plants to thrive are also perfect for algae.

Sanitation at propagation is the basis for a true IPM program. “If you aren’t able to do some of the things to have good sanitation and good methods of propagation,” said Chase, “it doesn’t matter how many fungicides and bactericides you buy – you will lose money.”

Propagation presents numerous problems in the greenhouse, and Chase said it’s because cuttings and seeds can harbor pathogens. “The characteristics of propagation lead to disease,” she said. “There’s a lot of water, very high humidity and poor air movement.” Chase added that handling causes wounds, which provide entry points for diseases such as Botrytis.

Chase advised growers to not reuse water in propagation, but if it’s necessary to reuse water, it should be treated. Chase reported having consistently good algae control with the use of ZeroTol®.

Regarding the use of chemicals in propagation, Chase said, “If you’re trying to put roots on an unrooted cutting, you may stop disease but if you stop roots from forming, you have no crop. You have to pay attention to more than stopping the disease.”

Some bacteria and fungi are easily and routinely seed-borne, including Alternaria, Pseudomonas and Xanthomonas. If seedlings emerge with spots on the cotyledons, there’s a good chance seed-borne disease is present. “Treating these at any point from now on will be a catch-up game,” she said. “For the last 20 years we have been pulling plants from all over the world and they get to us overnight. That means all the problems in South Africa, Costa Rica and Brazil are getting here immediately. This is an issue because there’s no such thing as ‘we don’t have it here.’ We do have it here, and it’s coming in just about daily.”

Greenhouse sanitation begins with an empty greenhouse and no organic matter on surfaces. Photo by Sally Colby

When Chase started to look more closely at incoming shipments of cuttings, she found unrooted Sutera cuttings that arrived with obvious Pythium, which had to originate at the farm of origin. She also found Pseudomonas on salvia, downy mildew on coleus, and Pythium on the base of unrooted geranium cuttings.

Chase has talked with many poinsettia growers over the years about why propagation is such a problem, and it’s the water. “A lot of people say they can grow poinsettias well without any Erwinia problems if they stay on top of the amount of water,” she said. “They stop the overnight watering as fast as possible. If you don’t, you get Erwinia, and I can tell you that in my experience in trying to stop Erwinia, it is hard to stop. It isn’t just something you can spray to stop.”

For many diseases, water management is the first line of defense. Problems are usually the result of too much water or water at the wrong time of day. Chase uses the example of Rhizoctonia, which in the presence of a lot of heat moves quickly. A tray with healthy seedlings at one end and diseased seedlings at the other end will quickly turn into an entire flat that’s contaminated. If there’s any evidence of disease starting, Chase advised growers to cut losses early and toss out the entire flat. Avoid the temptation to rescue part of a tray because plants that appear healthy will likely become infected. If obviously infected leaves or cuttings are simply placed in a trash pile in the greenhouse, they’ll continue to spread disease. Prompt removal of diseased tissue from the greenhouse is the only way to prevent further disease.

Propagation requires mist and/or water, both of which are potential catalysts for disease. “In propagation, you can use something like Reemay to keep the humidity up without getting the leaves very wet and get roots without wet leaves,” said Chase. “You’re going to have a much better time controlling diseases.” Another option is to use layers of newspaper over cuttings to help maintain humidity without wetting the leaves.

In addition to managing water, Chase emphasized the importance of not using contaminated seeds or cuttings. If seeds or cuttings arrive with disease, be aware of what you’re dealing with and treat immediately to avoid ongoing problems.

She cautioned growers to be careful about using fungicides or certain water treatments on unrooted cuttings. “You can cause problems with water disinfectants and some fungicides,” she said. “If you recycle water, treat it; and don’t use recycled water in propagation. You’re setting up your whole nursery for disaster if you recycle water.”

Managing water involves both timing and amount. “The amount of water, when you water and the way you water is critical,” said Chase. “Get plants out of propagation as fast as possible. There’s a lot of data showing that RootShield® Plus, Heritage®, Mural® or Pageant® Intrinsic® can shorten the time in propagation.” She added that such products help control disease and provide growth benefits.

Chase reiterated the importance of not trying to rescue portions of trays with diseased plants. “Don’t try to cure trash,” said Chase. “Trash is trash. Throw things away when they should be thrown away.”