Around the Hoop House in Dexter: Spicing up the Soil

By Marcy Harris

It’s been a hot summer, but things are getting even hotter at the Roadhouse Farm with our pepper transplants!

Pepper me with flavor.

In addition to the collard greens, Swiss chard, and kale we are harvesting at the Roadhouse Farm, Farmer Mark is really focused on the variety of peppers he can eventually add to our menu. At the end of August, he will be able to harvest his first peppers, which are called Glow. They are aptly named because they will be a fiery orange-yellow; however, don’t judge a book by its cover, because they are delightfully sweet.  A few of our hot chilis, such as Maule’s Red Hots, will be used in our pepper vinegar, and The Brinery in Ann Arbor will use them in their hot sauce. Mark is also excited about a variety called Krimzon Lee, which will be versatile in the Roadhouse kitchen with its spicy-sweet pungency. Maybe salsa? Oh my, I am starting to daydream about Huevos Rancheros…

Rows of transplanted peppers, including Jimmy Nardellos.

The Jimmy Nardello peppers that were hiding underneath the soil in the greenhouse are now peeking up in 150 foot long rows outside of the hoop house. They are spaced about one foot apart. Water drips down the middle of the rows and soaks them, which is super important as the days get longer and hotter. Mark grows them alongside the Carmens we use for our roasted red peppers.

The little Nardellos will be packed with big, sweet flavor, and many people who have eaten them attest that they are the sweetest pepper they’ve ever tried. They are from an heirloom seed, a classic tale of an Italian family bringing what they could from their home when they immigrated.

Planting the seeds of history.

Jimmy Nardello’s mother brought the seeds to the U.S. when she moved with her husband, Guiseppe, from the Basilicata region of Italy in 1887. Jimmy nurtured the peppers in Naugatuck, Connecticut, growing them in terraces. He would then dry some out for winter, so they could be enjoyed year round.

Mark loves this connection between seeds and the food we eat: “If you are leaving your home country and you don’t know if you are ever coming back, you bring those things that are the most important to you. To have something from your home country, that link between the food and what we grow is crucial, because otherwise the food won’t taste the same as it did back home.”

I’m intrigued by this idea that the authentic, regional cuisine we know today is what it is because people thought to bring seeds from their countries. It’s so romantic, but at the same time surreal to think that if they hadn’t, there is so much we would have missed out on! The thought is almost enough to keep me up at night. Thank goodness for midnight snacks!


This lil’ guy wouldn’t be here if the Nardello family hadn’t thought to bring seeds from Italy.

The secret is in the soil.

Mark’s process of planting the rows of peppers is fascinating. He uses a tractor to run plastic and drip tape the length of each row. By going back over the rows with a water wheel transplanter that pokes holes in the soil then fills the holes with mud, he has made it that much easier to plop the plants into the holes.

Mark packs his compost in around the plants to help them flourish.

I find him pointing to a huge compost pile behind me that he has accumulated over the last year from local cows. The compost gets packed in the holes around the plants. Apparently it’s called “side dressing”. It becomes a slow-release fertilizer, providing micronutrients that the plants need to thrive and remain disease-free.  

These delicious beet greens are nourished by rock powder.

Compost is great, but Farmer Mark takes things a step further with some of his plants. We stop to munch on beet greens in the hoop house, which have an amazing sweet and nutty flavor, with a buttery mouthfeel. To keep the beets healthy for our amazing beet and goat cheese salad at the Roadhouse, Mark uses rock powders in the soil. Specifically he brings in azomite from a quarry in Utah, which has 92 trace minerals. “Quarry fines” – the powders left over from cutting granite – act like a multi-vitamin in the soil, and a little bit goes a long way. Who knew that ground up stone could be like a One-A-Day for plants?

The tomato and basil plants grow together harmoniously.



Like peas and carrots.

Tweaks like these on the Roadhouse Farm help Mark to understand what will contribute to the best flavors overall. He wants to be able to grow a tomato and have people say, “This is the best Brandywine tomato I’ve ever tasted!”. Companion planting is a practice that he hopes will lead to this kind of “wow” factor. He purposefully plants basil next to the tomatoes with the idea that one will provide better flavor to the other. I find it very convenient, and am already plotting to bring fresh mozzarella on my next visit, so we can make caprese salad.

These cherry tomatoes will be on the Roadhouse menu soon!




Speaking of ripe tomatoes, Mark shows me beautiful green clusters of cherry tomatoes. The Mountain Magic and Clementines that were barely flowering during our last visit are just a couple weeks away from ending up in the Roadhouse kitchen! I am counting the days…

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