In the offseason, gardeners' work moves inside: Planning for next year

"Farmer Mark" Risso at the Longview Center. In the off-season, work continues. When he's not checking on onions, chard, lettuce, and kale in the greenhouse or high tunnels, he's repairing tool handles, whacking weeds, or perusing online seed catalogs.

Like many kids, Mark Risso resented having to weed and clear his parents' garden of rocks. He even disliked picking beans. "Made my hands itch," he says.

But here he is at age 30, earning a - mostly - joyful living among those once-detested weeds, rocks, and beans. They call him "Farmer Mark" at the Longview Center for Agriculture near Collegeville, formerly Willow Creek Orchards, where he helps manage a 90-acre certified organic farm.

"It's a pretty sweet gig," he says.

Beginning in January, Risso will share what he knows in a yearlong Homestead Series of workshops at the center, which is run by the nonprofit Greener Partners. Topics range from composting, seed-starting, and garden layout to building a bat box, pruning fruit trees, and keeping bees and chickens.

What could be better?

"You're teaching people who want to learn," he says, noting that the center works with food hobbyists and students, would-be farmers and home gardeners. The latter comprises "both newbies looking to incorporate more sustainability into their lives, and people with more experience wanting to get to the next level."

Bottom line for everyone: This may be the official offseason for growing food - die-hards are still harvesting arugula, parsley, and kale - but it's no time to be a slug. The work continues.

When he's not repairing tool handles, whacking weeds in the orchard, or checking on the onions, chard, lettuce, and kale in 70-degree high tunnels or hoop houses, Risso is scrutinizing online seed catalogs and planning the farm's second season.

Planning is critically important, he says, which makes most gardeners crazy the same way "get a soil test" does. Nag, nag, nag.

Unfortunately, the experts agree: Planning and record-keeping make a huge difference. Sorry!

"It enables us to time things better. Our crop rotations will be predetermined and really well laid out," says Risso, whose debut season was a sprint from April to autumn.

"We were in triage mode all the time, go, go, go. It was always frantic, but we made it work," he says, grateful that he has plenty of time to organize 2012.

In creating a plan, Risso suggests we think about what worked, what didn't in 2011. A journal is useful for this, especially an online version. "When you get busy, journals are one of the first things to go, but you can be very efficient about it. Just sit down and do it every night," Risso says, "and keep it simple."

He also advises: Compost all the time. Move tomatoes and other plants around the garden every year, if you can, to avoid problems with pests and disease.

And keep your scale manageable. Err on the side of smaller, especially when starting out, because "plants will grow no matter what. It's weeding - early and often - and harvesting that are the major time-consumers," says Risso, who grew up in rural Snyder County, studied sculpture in college, and worked as a carpenter and custom cabinetmaker, like his father, for seven years before easing into farming in West Philly and, now, Montgomery County.

Two other tips: Mulch with shredded leaves for healthy soil, which is all-important, and buy high-quality tools. His favorite: a sturdy digging fork with four beefy tines that allow water and nutrient-rich compost to percolate down.

"I really like the way the fork breaks up the soil," he says. "It goes down much deeper and is less work than a shovel."

For vegetable lovers who have no lawn to dig up with a fork, Longport garden designer/coach Liz Donaghy recommends containers. For tomatoes especially, she says, "get the biggest container your space can handle, even bigger than you might want it to be because it takes up more room."

She's talking "whiskey-barrel-size or that large, large size of plastic terra cotta, a minimum of 20 inches in diameter - and only one tomato plant per pot."

Tomatoes are known as "heavy feeders," which simply means that tomatoes need a lot of water and nutrients. Putting only one in a large pot ensures that the roots can grow and move around and get the most out of the soil - and that they have no competition.

Other veggies can be potted up with herbs and even flowers, with this caveat: "By giving a plant the best environment for it to grow and thrive, you're going to get more yield."

Donaghy, who worked in investment sales in a former life, has one nonnegotiable demand when it comes to containers. "You must pay a premium for the good potting soil, because the stuff that's cheap is cheap.

"Why go through all that effort and then not have it work because of poor soil?" she asks.

These are things that Trish See, an experienced Haddonfield gardener, loves to think about. In fact, she confides, she'd like to be a full-time gardener. Alas, she manages a law office and gardens on the side - and you better believe she's already thinking of 2012.

See has had it with peppers - too much work. And she's had terrible luck with tomatoes the last few years, so she's thinking of growing only cherry varieties in pots and buying the rest at farmers' markets.

But See has had success with herbs, especially cilantro, which can be finicky and bolt in the heat. "We're going to have a big tray of that," she says, sounding like the kind of gardener Risso and Donaghy would embrace.

She took gardening classes. She was a dedicated planner. She even sketched out her rose garden, everything drawn to scale and grouped by color, size, and density.

But come spring, See will be looking more like the rest of us. She'll be cruising the aisles of her favorite nurseries - Whitcraft Farms in Cherry Hill and Platt's Farm Market in Clarksboro - and "oohing and ahhing and seeing what looks good.

"I don't plan anymore," she says. "I wing it."

 


For Information

Mark Risso's Homestead Series of workshops will run on specific Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Jan. 28 through next December.

Building a bat box is the first, Jan. 28. Crop planning and garden layout is Feb. 25.

Dates for the other workshops have not yet been set, but topics include: winter fruit-tree pruning; seed-starting and propagation; backyard bees and chickens; composting; preserving the harvest; potluck and recipe swap; cob-oven building; cold frames, low-tunnels, and season extension; and beer brewing and fermentation.

Cost: $8 per class

for Farm Friend members, and $10

for nonmembers.

Some classes have materials fees.

Classes will be held at Longview Center for Agriculture, 3215 Stump Hall Rd., Collegeville, Pa. 19426.

Information: 610-584-8202 or www.GreenerPartners

.org.


Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/ginny


VIDEO: Farmer Mark Risso explains how to build healthy soil with organic matter: www.philly.com/ginny


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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