Tour Harvest Moon Flower Farm

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An early morning view of the barn.
Photo by Linda Chapman.

The farm is located in southern Indiana, 20 minutes northwest of Bloomington and one hour south of Indianapolis. It produces year-round, ramping up flower production in the warm season and concentrating more on vegetables in the cold months. The weather can be quite cold in the winter, with snow and temperatures below 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

The farm sits on a slightly sloping site, bordered by various features on the sides, both natural and built. Linda sees the farm as a massive number of little microclimates and this allows her to tailor what she plants to each of those spots.

Growing flowers allows Linda to work surrounded by beauty, and this is a big motivator for her. The farm is quite diverse, growing more than 100 species of flowers with many succession plantings (crops planted multiple times in the same season to extend their harvest). In addition, many of the beds on the farm are replanted multiple times each season, a typical approach on compact farms, usually referred to as “double cropping” or even “triple cropping.” The farm isn’t certified organic, but Linda considers it sustainable and her practices focus on improving the soil and creating a healthy ecosystem.

Photo by James J. Kellar.

Linda is not mechanically inclined so there is minimal mechanization. This saves her from having tools that break and can’t be easily fixed, and it allows her to provide more work for people around the farm. Over the years, she has favored investing in her employees instead of expensive equipment to do the work.

Customers and Markets

The farm sells through four main channels: farmers’ markets, direct to chefs, subscription flowers for businesses, and weddings. Weddings have the biggest profit margin and the farm has supplied flowers for more than 80 weddings in a year. The farm works with a handful of chefs, supplying both vegetables and cut flowers for their restaurants. Harvest Moon also works with more than a dozen businesses that have flower subscriptions, delivering customized fresh-cut flower displays weekly. During the warm season, Linda goes to three farmers’ markets a week; in the winter she drops down to two a week. The farm used to sell a lot of flowers to wholesale florists, but expanding direct markets now allow more direct sales.

Harvest Moon’s primary crop is cut flowers, sold as bouquets and other arrangements. The farm also produces vegetables, culinary herbs, and microgreens for chefs and the farmers’ markets and in the spring sells bedding plants at the markets.

Season extension is important on the farm. In the fall, the farm extends the flower season with dried flowers and wreaths, candle centerpieces, and Christmas wreaths. The selling season stretches into the winter with winter vegetable production of carrots, kale, chard, salad spinach, and microgreens. In the late winter and early spring, tunnels help them get an early start with flowers and vegetables again.

Check Out the Harvest Moon Flower Farm Harvest and Distribution Windows

Labor

Although Linda runs the farm full-time, she has incredible help from experienced, longtime employees. Her neighbor, Gay, has worked on the farm part-time for 24 years. Both Linda and Gay have daughters who grew up working on the farm and now are there full-time. As Linda gets closer to retirement age, she is starting to work on the process of transitioning the farm to the next generation, and she has purchased an adjacent property as her “retirement farm.” There are many details to work through in handing over control, and financial and legal obligations, so it is a process that likely will take many years of planning, thoughtfulness, and discussions.

In addition to the two longtime families, the farm also hires one or two part-time workers each summer to help in the field and at markets. Occasionally, high school students hire on for short-term labor projects such as mulching the fields early in the season.

 

Water

A municipal water connection supplies the farm with water for irrigation, washing, and packing. Indiana enjoys regular rainfall in summers, but there have been dry years that required irrigation. Linda makes the call each year on whether to install a drip system or gamble on a potential scramble later. Drip irrigation is labor intensive for the farm to set up and then work around. For several dry years, Linda used drip tape to irrigate the entire farm. The 2015 crop year was a wet one, so Harvest Moon removed all of the drip irrigation equipment. When drip irrigation isn’t available, an oscillating fan-type lawn sprinkler covers critical areas. The sprinkler requires frequent moves, but it’s a simple and easy process.

The hoophouses utilize drip tape for irrigation.

Fertility

To monitor fertility requirements, Harvest Moon tests its soil every spring and fall; the results influence decisions for the plants. Any ground without a crop on it gets a cover crop. In the summer, buckwheat or cowpeas help build soil between seasonal plantings. The straw mulch used over the years has provided significant organic material to the soil.

The farm makes some compost to supplement that purchased by the truckload to spread on beds in the spring. Chicken manure pellets are an additional amendment. The farm applied sulfur in one of the hoophouses to bring the pH down after incorporating a load of bad compost. In general, the soil on the farm is well balanced and naturally fertile, needing few amendments.

Tools and Infrastructure

Bed preparation is very simple at Harvest Moon Flower Farm. Most crops are transplanted and mulched, so they don’t require a fine seedbed; turnaround is quick. In the field, the primary tool is a 48-inch rototiller on the back of a Kubota utility tractor. Following tender crops, the rototiller works the crop directly into the ground and incorporates compost and other amendments.

When conditions are good, direct replanting can occur following a single pass with the tiller. If the bed is particularly rough and there is time, the bed sits for a week before a second tilling and then planting. In beds with tougher plants to incorporate — such as sunflowers — Linda uses her zero-turn mower to cut down the crop before tilling.

There is very little measuring on the farm; Linda does most things by estimation and feel. Bed tops are roughly 48 inches wide, the width of the tiller, and pathways range from 18 to 24 inches wide. In the past, the farm applied straw mulch to bed tops after planting. A trial of plastic mulch didn’t work well, so for the past few years it has been paper mulch on the bed tops and straw in the pathways. Some beds, particularly the perennials and zinnias, get heavy-duty woven weed cloth.

Linda uses a small electric Mantis tiller in the hoophouses. The tiller has a power cord, but two of the six houses have electricity and the others are close to electrical outlets. The electric tiller is quiet and doesn’t generate fumes, which is especially important in the cold winter months when the houses are closed to maintain heat.

Greenhouses and Propagation

Almost all of the plants on the farm are transplanted into the fields. This gives them a jump on the weeds and results in even stands in the field, with no gaps. Seeds start in a 16-by-30-foot solar greenhouse built into the side of the barn; the temperature stays above 48 degrees Fahrenheit all winter with no supplemental heat, due to good insulation and plenty of thermal mass. From there, seedlings move out to one of the farm’s 14-by-40-foot hoophouses, where a propane Hot Dawg forced-air heater provides supplemental heat. Set at 38 degrees Fahrenheit, it is just enough to keep the hoophouse from freezing. In the summer, the seedlings move outside to harden off before being planted in the fields.

Seeds develop in 72- and 120-cell 1020 trays filled with purchased potting mix, usually supplemented with chicken manure or compost. Seedlings get sprayed weekly with fish emulsion from a Solo backpack sprayer. Linda likes to use a Vibro hand seeder for seeding in the greenhouse.

Trays that need extra warmth for germinating sit on electric bottom-heat mats that rest on a sheet of rigid foam insulation and are protected by a plastic sheet. A thermostat controls the mat temperature via a temperature probe stuck into the potting soil in one of the trays. The solar greenhouse has enough bottom-heat space for about 54 trays, which is about 75 percent of its space capacity.

Hand watering in the solar greenhouse utilizes a head on the hose that provides a fine mist. Once the seedlings move out, they’re watered with a Dramm wand with a heavier spray pattern.

The hoophouses are set up with both roll-up sides and automatic louvers on a thermostat for ventilation. There is a hanging shelf over the center bed of the hoophouse to allow plants in the ground at the same time that seedlings are on the shelf. In the summer, two box fans hang at the ends of the shelf on bungee cords. Hung this way, they naturally slowly rotate back and forth, creating good airflow in the house. The hardware-­cloth shelf doesn’t shade the beds when seedlings aren’t there, and it’s high enough that the shade is minimal when seedlings are there.

 

Inside the hoophouse, where it stays above freezing all winter
Photo by James J. Kellar

Spreading Amendments

The farm spreads all amendments and compost with 5-gallon buckets or conveniently sized coffee cans. Farm workers dump buckets of compost at regular intervals along the beds and then rake them out evenly. Amendments are evenly applied by hand, using the buckets as carriers.

Tulip bulbs laid out for planting in the fall
Photo by Linda Chapman.

Seeding and Planting

Three crops on the farm are direct-seeded: salad mix, carrots, and sometimes beets. The farm crew makes a furrow with a hoe and then drops in the seeds by hand.

All other crops on the farm are transplanted, usually into paper mulch or landscape fabric. Linda determines spacing by experience and feel. The spacing is based on the eventual target size of the plant and its growth characteristics. She sets out example plants to start off the planting and then the crew follows her lead. Rows are not always straight, but when the plants fill in no one can tell.

Transplanting trowels punch through the paper mulch to set the plants. Weed cloth ­features pre-burned holes and set spacing.

Blooming Tulips in the Spring
Photo by Linda Chapman.


Gimme Shelter

The terms “greenhouse” and “hoophouse” are sometimes used interchangeably. I use the term “greenhouse” to refer to any structure that is used specifically for propagation of seedlings. Usually this means the structure has some supplemental heat, as well as furniture to hold seedling trays up off the ground. Frequently it also means there is some sort of automatic ventilation, and maybe automatic watering systems.

“Hoophouse” typically means a structure that is made from metal pipe, bent into bows and covered with plastic film to create a protected space. I usually use the term to refer to structures where plants are planted in the ground for production of crops. Hoophouses usually don’t have any supplemental heat or permanent furniture for holding up seedlings.

On many compact farms (and even some larger ones), some or all of the hoophouse space will be used for seedlings at one point in the season and for in-ground production at another. Sometimes this is the case for greenhouses as well, but not as often. Many of the greenhouses on farms in this book are not hoophouses, in the sense that they are not built from metal hoops but are instead framed from lumber, but there are exceptions.

There’s a wide range of structures out there, and they are used in widely varying and frequently creative manners.

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Excerpted from Compact Farms© by Josh Volk, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Photography © by James J. Kellar p. 66,71; Photography © by Linda Chapman p. 67, 72