by Sally Colby
When Craig Mercer’s father retired in 1980, Craig had just graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in Ag economics. Craig knew he wanted to farm, but wasn’t sure exactly what to start with. Since Mercers’ property was on a major road, they decided a u-pick strawberry would be a good start. Craig and his father started growing strawberries and customers were more than happy to come and pick them.
“It has decreased,” said Craig, noting the decline in u-pick popularity. “It used to be a good part of our market with a lot of people picking quantities for jellies and jams,” said Craig. “Now it’s more of a recreational thing for people; coming out to pick strawberries for table use.”
But Catalpa Grove Farm continued to grow with other vegetables and greenhouse-grown plants. Today, the Columbiana, Ohio farm includes about 75 acres of vegetables with 35 to 40 acres rotated in cover crops or row crops.
The first planting of sweet corn was in the ground on April 10, which Craig says is a bit late. “We plant two rows, 18 inches apart, and the planter digs a trench and the plastic layer lays plastic over top,” said Craig, explaining how he establishes early-season corn. “There’s about six to eight inches of gap between the surface of the soil and the plastic, so the corn comes up and can grow to about eight inches before it hits the plastic.” Craig says if the plastic has to stay on due to cool weather, the corn bends down and grows sideways, but it doesn’t take long for the stalks to straighten and start growing upright when the plastic comes off.
Craig’s goal in establishing early corn is to have fresh-picked, local sweet corn ready for customers on the Fourth of July. “It depends on the weather,” said Craig, referencing when the plastic is removed. “If we get a lot of warm weather and the corn grows well, I can take the plastic off sooner. If it’s cold and wet without a lot of sunshine, it stays on longer. Typically, the plastic comes off between May 10 and May 15.”
There’s significant labor involved in laying plastic and taking it off just four weeks later to get early sweet corn, but Craig says it’s worthwhile. “We plant under plastic up to about April 25,” he said. “The big advantage of later plantings under plastic is I can get a really good stand of a variety that doesn’t like cold soil. That way I can get that in early. Then we move on to the longer season varieties that have higher quality, a nicer ear and better flavor.”
Craig will continue to plant sweet corn in succession until about July 18, with the goal of growing quality, early corn. “The last couple of plantings are hit-or-miss as to whether or not we’ll get a frost,” he said. “Last year, we had a warm summer and late frost so we were able to harvest everything we planted.” Craig added late summer corn doesn’t sell well after Labor Day, so it isn’t worth trying to extend the season much beyond that date. Most of the corn is sold at the market, but Craig also maintains some wholesale accounts.
Although strawberries are no longer a major crop, Craig still maintains five acres of the fruit for you-pick and market customers. He has had good success with early strawberries on plastic. “We plant Chandler in late August and pick them the following year,” he said. “We raise about 1 ½ acres of those. Then we go into the you-pick varieties that are also for the market.” Strawberries are covered with straw in late December, then floating row covers provide extra protection until March. Craig says following this year’s fairly mild winter, the strawberries look good and he expects a good crop.
Other major crops at Catalpa Grove Farm include tomatoes and peppers, which are started in a greenhouse then transplanted to the field. Craig grows about ten traditional tomato varieties which sell well in the market, and tries new varieties every year. He also grows several popular heirlooms.
Fall crops include eight acres of pumpkins, gourds and winter squash. “We try to plant them in standing rye that we’ve killed,” said Craig, adding he maintains healthy cucurbits with a carefully planned spray program. “That keeps the mud and dirt down.” School groups visit the farm, and are usually young elementary students who learn about the growing process, then have fun with a straw maze, farm animals, and a hayride to the pumpkin patch.
The farm’s large greenhouse is used to start annuals, which are sold throughout spring and early summer. Craig’s wife Joanne handles much of the greenhouse, packing house and retail market, with the help of greenhouse manager Jenell Martin who has been with Catalpa Grove Farm since 2004.
Jenell started growing cut flowers on the farm last year with an ambitious assortment of seedlings started in the greenhouse. “I did seven different varieties of sunflowers,” she said. “I seeded the first two plantings in a jumbo 36 insert tray, two weeks apart. We then planted them on plastic. For the third planting, I directly seeded in the field on plastic. Then I did every other planting directly in the field and every other planting inside first. It worked out well — I learned as I went.” Jenell says she didn’t have nearly enough sunflowers last year, so she will plant more this season.
For ageratum, zinnias, celosia, gomphrena, snaps, asters, statice and dianthus, Jenell planted plugs in the greenhouse then transplanted in the field onto plastic. She planted gladiolus bulbs every two weeks from the end of April through mid-July. “This year I am going to tie them to keep them from falling,” she said. “We also put in a perennial section from perennials that were left over from the end of the year. I also added dahlia bulbs this year, as well as more ageratum and celosia.”
Jenell oversees mum production, and grows around 5,000 nine inch pot mums and 500 six inch pots as well as large and small baskets. This summer she’ll hold classes which utilize some of the farms’ greenhouse grown plants, including fairy gardens, succulents and broken fairy pots. This fall’s classes include a wreath and a pumpkin planted with succulents.
Craig plans to add cut Christmas trees to the farm’s offerings in late November, and customers will also be able to purchase poinsettias from the greenhouse. Although growing this Christmas favorite will be new for Jenell, she’s looking forward to learning about growing poinsettias from start to finish.
Visit Catalpa Grove Farm online at .