By Marcy Harris
A look inside the hoop house.
During my last visit to the Roadhouse farm in Dexter, I spent most of my time in the greenhouse watching Farmer Mark Baerwolf tickle baby tomato plants in planters. This time, I spent nearly the entire time in the hoop house trying not to step on rows of those same plants after transplanting, which means things are progressing in a timely manner. We will be eating juicy, ripe heirlooms before you say “to-may-to” and I say “to-mah-to”. But that’s not all…
Kale of a different color.
When we enter the hoop house, I am immediately captivated by the most beautiful row of kale I have ever seen in my entire life. It looks like a sunset on an exotic beach. This Russian kale doesn’t get by on just its looks, however. As far as raw kale salads go, the Russian variety is one of the best because it is tender and flavorful. A bite of this kale tells a perfect story of seed quality and the importance of where it started. A good seedsman or seedswoman will take the time to breed plants for how they work best on your plate.
Mark gets his Russian kale seeds from Frank Morton, who operates Shoulder to Shoulder Farm in Oregon. Wild Garden Seed exclusively sells his organic seeds, and he is trusted for the quality of his heirloom breeding. He is known for cross-breeding specifically for a more stable line of plants, then selecting seeds from varieties that develop the best color, flavor, and texture.
According to Mark, “Many times a farmer grows something and they like the color, and it tastes good, but then what’s really cool is to take it the next step further and to think of how it actually works in a kitchen. If you really look at what’s the best in terms of these characteristics, then it starts a dialogue of what it contributes to a dish and why it is so special.”
So we know that we are sourcing the best seed, and while a lot of things grow well here in Michigan, farmers like Mark still have to use different tricks as far as keeping the right conditions for plants to thrive. One of the best ways he can do this is in the hoop house, where the majority of our tomatoes are currently planted.
From our garden to your plate.
There are 10 varieties of tomatoes in the hoop house right now, and about 600 plants total. Mark keeps careful control over the climate by adjusting upper louvres, as he wants to maintain the temperature between 70 and 80 degrees. Regulating the temperature in this manner allows him to keep the plants from developing flowers too early. There are a couple of cherry tomatoes, Mountain Magic and Clementine, that are starting to flower. This is good because we will want to harvest them before we do the bigger tomatoes. They will develop fruit set behind the flowers soon, and it will only take 30 more days before they can be picked. These will be our first round. Be ready to try them by the end of June or early July! The bigger tomatoes will be ready 45 to 60 days after the fruit sets.
Spacing the plants out, Mark is trying to ensure that they will develop really good tomatoes. But there is plenty of room until they grow, so he fills in the space with things he can harvest sooner, like basil, carrots, arugula, and beets. The basil is actually being used for our refreshing Basil Gimlet!
As I hop around these things, I actually land on a carrot before Mark can warn me. Because he is trying to maximize the space, the footpath is much narrower than I realized. I am not entirely convinced there is anything there until I crouch down and touch the tiniest carrot plant I’ve ever seen with my fingertip.
Mark has created a microclimate on the edges of the hoop house where he is growing lettuces that need cooler air. I am gazing at rows of Swiss chard in a dizzying show of rainbow colors. I feel like I’m in a discotheque. The Swiss chard brings an abundance of leafy flavor to menu specials at the Roadhouse. There is also a lovely row of lettuces, like the Winter Density romaine and the Red Butterhead, which we use on our special salads.
Notes of flavor.
In truth, the secret to the success of the plants in the hoop house is the control over the environment. It creates an ideal space for not only creating the ambient temperature, but for also keeping bugs and other critters out. But that is not the only tool Mark keeps in his shed of gardening tricks. The entire time we’ve been on the hoop house talking, I’ve had to really lean into hear Mark over the music!
In the corner, Mark keeps a radio propped up that I had theorized kept him company while he was planting. Turns out, not only does the noise help keep the deer and other creatures out at night, but also the tomatoes really do love the music. For the most part, Mark keeps it tuned into NPR, but he likes to grow what he calls “jazz and blues” tomatoes by occasionally switching over to WEMU. He’s caught one of the other planters putting in on a classic rock station, but insists that the tomatoes will not grow well to Sammy Hagar.
Good to know. Thank you for the yummy tomatoes, WEMU.
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