Farm garden: Sights and smells of springtime

It was already the third week of April when “Old Man Winter” decided to pay us one more snowy visit. But I was in a springtime paradise, inside a vast tunnel greenhouse surrounded by hundreds of vigorous five-foot high tomato plants.
I was at Woods Market Garden (just a couple of miles south of Brandon and not far from where I live in Goshen) and the owner, Jon Satz, was graciously giving me a guided tour.
Home-grown tomatoes in early June
In my own garden I am lucky if the cherry tomatoes are ripening by the end of July, with the larger varieties only ready several weeks later. Of course, this is two months after we switch from winter soups to summer salads for lunch, and I am truly coveting some tasty fresh tomatoes. Thus I was particularly interested to learn how Jon has luscious home-grown heirloom tomatoes for sale at his farm stand by the first week in June!
Jon grows his tomatoes in long double rows directly in the native soil of the greenhouse. And, to keep the soil moist and warm, under all the rows he has installed underground heating pipes and drip irrigation tubes. On the end wall of the greenhouse an impressive-looking bank of instruments monitors the temperature and humidity of the air while also controlling the various venting systems. For instance the ideal humidity for growing tomatoes is 85 percent. So, when the humidity gets too high, the top greenhouse panel is pushed up for a few minutes.
Jon opens his tomato greenhouses in the first week of February. However he is able to buy large trays of tomato “starts” — young plants that are large enough to transplant into their final growing spot — from a colleague with a season-long greenhouse operation.
I was also interested to learn that, to create one adult plant, Jon actually grafts two “starts” together — a variety with excellent tasting fruit is hand-spliced above a variety with a sturdy rootstock. Once the plants are in the ground a team of three workers carefully attach the plants to vertical twine supports and then remove all the superfluous side shoots and bottom shoots that could sap energy from the main fruiting stems. Also I was fascinated to see some “non-human helpers” busy at work. Dozens of bumble bees, emerging from their cardboard hive at the far end of the greenhouse, buzzed from flower to flower to pollinate the tomatoes.
Growing thousands of plants from seed
From there we went to another greenhouse with thousands of baby plants of all kinds growing in trays on huge tables. Heating coils beneath the trays kept the soil at the correct temperature the various plants. This was the province of nursery manager, Beth Wimett, and her two colleagues. The plants were all bursting with vitality and, in a few more weeks, would be ready for planting outdoors.
For our flower gardens there were hundreds of varieties of both common and not-so-common plants — everything from Alyssum to Zinnias — as well as dozens of vines and ornamental grasses. And the ceiling was filled with beautiful hanging baskets, each brimming with cascading flowers. There were also plenty of vegetable starts, both for customers’ gardens as well as for planting in the farm’s own fields.
I could only imagine the elaborate task of deciding which varieties to grow each year and then planning the planting schedule for all the different varieties (each needing a different seeding date to have the plants ready for sale in May). So it came as no surprise when Jon and Beth showed me some of their detailed spreadsheets, with everything they would be growing this season organized by seed planting date. From early May onwards all these plants and hanging baskets will arrayed at the farm stand, ready for eager gardeners to pop into their gardens and hang by their front doors.
Woods Market Garden – a Brandon icon
For over 100 years Woods Market Garden, with its weathered red barns and wide open fields backed by the Green Mountains, was owned and farmed by successive members of the Wood family, most recently Bob and Sally Wood. Then, about 20 years ago, as they decided it was time to step back from the long hours and responsibilities of running the farm, they began to look for a buyer.
At that time Jon was working for an organic farmer in Massachusetts, when he decided he wanted to make farming his career. So he set off in search of a farm for sale that would meet his needs and his budget. Along the way he came to Brandon, met the Woods and saw their farm. Everything clicked! The land was perfect and he established an easy rapport with Bob and Sally.
But, as everyone knows, buying a beautiful piece of land is expensive. So, to help with financing, Jon secured a low-interest loan from the Vermont Community Loan Fund. Furthermore the Vermont Land Trust stepped up to buy the development rights of the entire farm. (This is the difference between the price of the land had it been be sold for housing development and its value as agricultural land.) In addition helping finance his purchase, by selling the development rights Jon has ensured this beautiful land will remain as farmland in perpetuity.
After the sale, Jon approached Bob and Sally about retaining the Woods name for the farm. They were delighted! Now, although Woods Market Garden is not actually owned by a member of the Wood family, their farming tradition continues. To this day, Sally Wood, who lives just down the road on Wood Lane, continues her involvement with the farm; indeed her delicious home-made jams are a huge seller at The Farm Stand. And each spring she uses a portion of Jon’s greenhouse space to start seeds for her cut flowers that she sells at the Brandon Farmers Market.
Farming in the 21st century
In 2008 Jon was joined in his endeavors by his new wife, Courtney, and today they are raising their two young sons in the old Wood farmhouse. While maintaining the traditions of yesteryear, Jon and Courtney are also moving with the times. For instance, the Locavore movement — where people strive to buy food that is both locally grown and gently raised on local family farms — is flourishing in Vermont. Indeed according one survey, since 2013 Vermont has more Locavores per capita than any other state!
Today, to cater to all the “foodies” among us, Woods Market Garden offers an amazing array of their own home-grown fruit, veggies and herbs, as well as local cheeses, jams and baked goods, at their farm stand. Special favorites include luscious strawberries for three weeks in June and field-grown corn from the first week of July onwards.
Locavores also love organic food and, while Jon has always used organic techniques, his entire farm is now certified as “fully organic” by NOFA-VT. And, like other family farms today, Woods also has CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) customers who pre-pay for their farm stand produce to help with the farm’s up-front costs, and then are compensated with free bonuses during the summer months.
And finally, all home gardeners, myself included, love to experiment in our own gardens with different varieties of vegetables and flowers. But, with our short growing season, all warm-weather crops — such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers — need to be planted in the garden as little plants. And, since most of us do not have heated greenhouses, the huge diversity of ready-to-plant “starts” grown by today’s farmers is nothing short of amazing.
Judith Irven and her husband Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a landscape designer and Vermont Certified Horticulturist. She also teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. She writes about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. You can reach her at [email protected]

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