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Garden Party Blog

A Produce Farmerís Winter Life

Posted by Theresa Schumilas Jan 18, 2016

clearing snow from green houseThe top question I get on the farm (after, “Was this sprayed with anything?”) is  “What do you do in the winter ?”  It usually turns out that the questioner assumes I  spend hours lying on a beach somewhere drinking margaritas.  I wish.  Indeed by September I’m longing for Thanksgiving to come and go because that signals the end to my summer toil and I can sing, “No more backache  no more sprains, no more lugging to give me pains!” (to the tune of “no more teachers, no more books….”) 

Think again.  Between November and May (when Garden Partyre-opens),  I spend nearly as much time doing farm work as I do in the summer.  But instead of spending that time in the fields, you can usually find me in the greenhouse, packing shed or farm office.  So to give you an idea of what goes on in the ‘off-season’, when you aren’t visiting farms, here’s what is on the ‘to do’ list for a small scale produce and flower farmer.


row cover pictureAfter the summer CSA ends and the on-farm market closes, we race with Mother Nature to get everything tidied up and secured for the big freeze.  Fall 2015 was a pleasure. We had loads of time, but that isn’t always the case.  Garlic needs to be planted and mulched. Berries and tender perennials get mulched with straw after the first freeze. Blueberries need to be covered to protect them from deer and bunnies.  The row covers and netting that was protecting crops from insects get washed and rolled up. Fences, trellises, stakes and cages that were being used for peas, beans, flowers, tomatoes, etc.  get removed, cleaned and stacked.  Any final rotting vegetables, and TONS of flower stalks get carried to the compost,  which gets one last turn and is covered with straw and a tarp for winter.   Drip irrigation lines get rolled up and organized.  All my tender bulbs, tubers and roots (dahlias, gladiolas, canna lilies …) get dug up, divided, cleaned and packed in vermiculite and stored in the walk in cooler.  This process too three days this year.  (Note to self: raise dahlia prices next year.)  My giant gourds get laid out to dry.   This year, I’m experimenting with drying them in my unheated greenhouse. If it works,  it will save the clutter in the farm kitchen.  The process of drying and cleaning gourds is wild.  They dry by shedding moisture gradually through their skin and as that happens it creates white furry mold that you have to keep scraping off.  It’s not the kind of process you really want to do in a kitchen if you can avoid it. 

I also do a major packing shed  and walk in cooler clean up every November.  This year, that process was aided in an unfortunate way.  We rose one morning in late October to  find a flood in the packing shed and farm kitchen.  It seems there was a gradual leak in a pipe up in the ceiling and when enough water accumulated, everything came crashing down.  Plumbers and insurance adjusters  responded quickly, and the room got torn apart.  The good news is,  we’ll have a spanking new room so we are planning on launching a Sunday – “All Things Floral”  market in May.


In December I spent a lot of time in the greenhouse.  It is still not frozen in there and a small propane heater makes it a very comfortable workspace.  Usually I host my ‘seasonal greenery’ sales in there and it’s filled with evergreen boughs, holly, yew, boxwood, and beautiful dogwood branches.  But this year,  because of the flood, I didn’t have time for that.  Instead I used the space to clean, repair and sharpen all my hand tools, service my walk behind equipment and repair hoses.  Then the entire space got its annual shower. Each year in December, I run a hose from the house to bring down hot water.  I wash all my pots, and potting benches,  then I crank up the setting on my water heater and spray everything -  getting into all the corners.  It helps  a lot pest and disease management.

This is also the time of year when the farmer meetings cycle starts: Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO)Guelph organic conference,  Eco-Farm Day, Toronto Organic ConferenceFoodlin/Taste-Real B2B Networking Day and a steady stream of single day workshops and kitchen table meetings. 


Usually by now ( this year seems to be an exception), moving snow is a daily task.  The driveway needs to be cleared,  I have to keep a long path to the packing shed clear so I can get winter deliveries in.  I have to clear a path down to the greenhouse.  Plus we need to keep snow swept off the greenhouse or the steel frame could bend under the load.

January is also big planning month,  so I’m in the office more than any other time of year.  Seed and plug (small plants) orders are a major task on an organic produce & flower farm.   I take stock of all the seed I have (saved and purchased) on hand.  I clean any seed that I didn’t get to last fall (major task).  Seed catalogues arrive in the mail daily,  and I eagerly page through these over coffee in the mornings.  I also spend most evenings searching the web for new (and very old) varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs that I should try. There are so many on-line facebook groups and listservs where people discuss these things. I usually let myself get lost in all the choices for a few weeks,  before I get down to serious planning!

I pull together my sales records for the recent season, revisit all that and set some revenue targets and expenditure limits.  This has been a major focus for me this year because I’m emphasizing sustainable cut flowers.  So I’m scaling back on vegetable and fruit production.  This requires a whole new organic plan -  how every field will be used, schedule of planting and harvesting,  a plan for rotations and cover crops,  as well as new pest and weed management plans.  

Once I’ve planned what’s happening with the land,  I translate that into how many seeds, plugs (baby plants), and other inputs (straw, potting soils, mulch, trellising…) I need to order.

In addition to planning for the next season,  I still have storage vegetables from last season in the cooler to monitor.  By January quality has started to deteriorate.  So I’ll haul out everything - garlic, potatoes, carrots, squash and beets.  I’ll inspect it,  re-wash it if needed and sort it.  Items that are spoiling get put in my ‘use right way’ pile and the rest gets put back into cold storage.   This year I didn’t have that much because I’m not running a winter CSA (because of the flood).  Usually cleaning he cold room is a full day job -  and I do it at least 3 times over the winter.


cut flowersThings start to get really busy now.  I make the final preparations in the greenhouse to start seeding. I create a ‘greenhouse in a greenhouse’ using duct tape,  aluminum foil and shower curtains.  Then I only have to heat a smaller area.  I take the cables people put on their roofs to melt snow and sandwich them in foil.  All the plant trays sit on top so they get bottom heat.  I wrap my plant shelves in shower curtains on the south side, and styrofoam on the north side. That will keep my little seedlings well above freezing even in an unheated greenhouse.

 I start a few things in February (leeks, onions, parsleys  and some flowers) and I take cuttings from mother plants I’ve been wintering over in my living room windows (lemon grass, lemon verbena, scented geraniums, pineapple sage, bay, rosemary).  Even with my ‘greenhouse in the greenhouse’ preparations though,  it is still too cold in the greenhouse at night for these.  So -  they do fine inside for a few weeks month.

In February,  I also try to focus on marketing . This will be a big year for that.  I’m piloting a new on-line market system that I hope to have ready for May plant sales.  Plus, re-building the packing shed and kitchen after the flood gives me an opportunity to re-think everything there and get it organized for the “All Things Floral” Sunday markets.  Plus,  I’m planning a promotion for Valentines Day,  where people can purchase 5 ‘pick-your own’ gorgeous bouquets for less than half the cost of a dozen roses. Who wouldn’t prefer to receive local, sustainable, hand-picked, fresh bouquets instead of sprayed, imported flowers?  Finally this month I’ll get my CSA promotion ‘out there’.  I’ll be offering 20 vegetable shares, 20 fruit shares and 5 barter shares for people who sign up to work a day a week (May – October) in the flower fields. 

March - April

tropical looking greenhousewinter landscapeAll heck breaks loose now.  The days are long and on sunny days I’ll break a sweat in the greenhouse. Seeding in there feels like another race with Mother Nature. There is so much to do in a 6 week period. But seeding and minding little baby plants is my favourite activity.   If I could make a living just doing that, I would.  I’ve started seedlings every spring for over 30 years and  every year I am still overcome by the wonder of it all. 

By April I want to take my sleeping bag down there!  The air is rich with oxygen from all the plants. It feels like a different world when you step in the door.  The harvest begins in there -  spinach, arugula and other early greens. It is also time to  transplant peppers, tomatoes and eggplants into well prepared holes in there for extra early crops.

By the middle of the month I’ll start working outside daily.  I farm on silt loam so it’s early and dry -  a bonus for a produce farmer.   The perennials need cutting back, dividing and potting up for May sales. Fruit trees and raspberries must be pruned.  The asparagus bed gets racked and scuttled. Strawberries are watched closely, covered and uncovered with mulch as weather dictates.  The garlic needs compost.  I love how the little garlic sprouts  look in April.  It’s an Easter tradition that my nieces and nephews come on a garden walk with me.  I always have to rope off the garlic bed because the small children  can’t resist pulling out those little green sprouts.  And the outside seeding starts - early beets, arugula, spinach,  kale and peas.  All my inputs have arrived.  The equipment gets tuned up. My CSA shares are sold. Up goes the signage for the  ‘All Things Floral’  market and the cut-your- own flowers plots. 


Here we go again. Oh and yes -  "Hey la, hey la, my backache's back" (sung to the tune of "My Boyfriend's Back").

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