Creek Valley Farm

I think strawberries are natures way of apologizing for the heat that’s about to come in the following months. Each year our family looks forward to stuffing our faces with gobs of the sweet red berries any way we can get them: strawberry pie, shortcake, jam…and it’s so sad when they are gone. Growing our own strawberries also falls in the “eventually” category around here (along with asparagus) – If I would have just planted them when I moved here years ago I could be feasting on my very own heaping pile of strawberries as we speak. I keep putting it off because as soon as I make the investment I know we would find our forever home and I would have to leave it all behind.

The other thing is: Why bother planting strawberries and waiting years for them to produce a large crop when just a few miles away, nestled on gentle hills off a country road lies an amazing family owned strawberry farm? I have been going to Creek Valley Farm to pick and buy berries ever since I can remember and I recently got to chat with Aaron Smith about his families unique crop.

Strawberries in the Field
Fresh Picked Raspberries

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nearly 40 years ago Stanley and Carol Smith planted their first small strawberry patch in Waldron Michigan after they were first married. They and their children Aaron & Stephanie still work the farm today. These days the Smith family’s strawberry patch sprawls over ten acres and they didn’t stop at strawberries. About an acre is dedicated to blackberries and raspberries too! They grow around 8 different varieties of strawberries, some “early” bearing and some “late” bearing, with a customer favorite being Jewel, a large juicy variety. Keeping a mix of plants helps to keep their crop a constant throughout the month of June, when there is a lull in activity after planting their fields of corn, beans, & wheat.

Stephanie, packing harvested berries into quart boxes.

The strawberry business isn’t as simple as “plant it and they will come”. I talked with Stephanie and Carol about the challenges they face with weather. Remember those late frosts we got this year? For the Smith family it meant sleepless nights checking temperatures and spraying the strawberry blossoms with water to form ice on the blooms to protect them from the damaging frost, because no viable blossoms means no berries. Thankfully their efforts were successful and they were able to save their crop, but other Michigan strawberry farmers weren’t so lucky. The hard frosts coupled with the heavy rain we got in the following weeks took it’s toll on many strawberry crops across the state.

Selling a fresh perishable product that isn’t preserved in any way is its own challenge. The berries are meant to be consumed or cooked with immediately for optimum flavor and freshness. I learned that a lot of their sales aren’t from people stopping at their big red barn to purchase fruit like I thought but rather wholesale, to places like St. Johns Produce, Glei’s Orchards & Greenhouse, and several other local businesses that sell fresh fruit. You will also see them set up at local farmers markets.

Already picked berries waiting to go home with you.

Under the lean to of their pole barn you will find a table filled with flats of berries already picked and waiting to go home with you. To be honest, this is the route I take, maybe when my boys are a bit older that will change. OR you could choose the U-Pick option. If you take this route you will be directed towards the U-Pick Specialist, Sarah. She’s been working at Creek Valley Farm during strawberry season for 9 years.

Sarah, The U-Pick Specialist, will help you when you come to pick fresh strawberries.

Sarah will show you the places to pick, and tell you how to pick, which is helpful not only to them but to those of us who haven’t picked a strawberry in years or maybe even never at all. You must pick all the red berries whether they be large or small, then place a flag at the point where you stopped. This way the folks that come after you get to pick in an unpicked over spot. I had a great time chatting with Sarah about her job. We talked about how grocery store berries can’t beat the flavor of the strawberries here at Creek Valley Farm and she says it largely has to do with the fact that the California grown strawberries that are found in grocery stores across the country are picked before they are ripe otherwise they would spoil before they made it to their destination. This results in firm red berries sure, but they have zero flavor. Buying your strawberries locally from Creek Valley Farm and farms like it ensure that you are getting produce at it’s sweetest and juiciest peak. In my book these tasty little berries are worth every last penny!

One of the things I love about coming to Creek Valley Farm to purchase strawberries every year is the family atmosphere. They remember their customers and greet each one while happily answering any questions you may have. Walking around their beautiful farm to the U-Pick section was really peaceful, it was a beautiful day with a slight breeze and I could hear the creek babbling nearby. The hills, the quiet, delicious berries, and the great people who run this farm are the stuff memories are made of. Taking your family here to pick berries will last with you your whole life, like it has for me. Your kids wont remember it was hot or that it was hard work picking, but they will remember the feeling of accomplishment when they fill their berry box and they will remember the giant strawberry pie heaped with whipped cream you made for desert that night.

If you’d like to visit Creek Valley Farm to get the whole strawberry experience you can stop by during business hours at: 6600 East Camden Road, Waldron, MI 49288 or Click here to like them on Facebook and keep updated on all the goings on of the farm. I hope you stop to get berries here this season, I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Already stopped out to Creek Valley Farm to get berries and you want to try something new? Try my recipe for FRESH STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE ICE CREAM!

Prune Your Blackberries To Maximize Yield

While all bramble fruit seem pretty no muss no fuss, they actually do require some tender loving twice a year. They will continue to fruit and reproduce without pruning of course, but they won’t be nearly as vibrant from season to season if you don’t devote just a little time to them. These pruning methods can be applied to raspberries, too, since the plants’ growing habits are the same.

There are several kinds of blackberry plants that behave in all sorts of different ways. The three main types are Erect, Trailing, and Thorn-less. It helps to know what type you have when it comes to trellising the canes. I happen to have erect blackberries, they have tall arching canes. This year I did manage to put up a very affordable trellis…My husband was tired of getting ripped to shreds while he mowed next to them, since they got so heavy with fruit the canes would come down to meet him.  I used 6 rebar fence stakes, and some wire to keep the canes in check. I think the entire thing only cost about $12. Simply tie floricanes to the wire to keep them in check, and tuck new primocanes back into the confines of the fence. No matter the type you have, they all like to be pruned in the same manner. Pruning has many benefits including helping ward off diseases, larger berries, and higher yield.

 

Blackberry Primocane, This primocane is ready to be tip pruned!

Blackberry canes are “biennial” meaning that the canes live for two years. In nearly all varieties first year canes will not bear fruit and are called “primocanes”; they are easy to spot because they are bright green. In the spring you will want to tip prune the first few inches from the primocanes when they are still shorter than 3 feet tall. This makes the primocane grow a thicker stem that will support a larger fruit load next year, and send off more lateral branches where more berries will grow. You will notice in the fall that the primocanes will have grown their thin brown bark in preparation for the winter and next year.  In the spring after the plants “wake up”, the lateral branches that were set last year will begin to grow longer.  Trim these lateral branches back to about 2-2.5 feet in length, this will cause the plant to put out more buds along these branches not only meaning a larger fruit load, but larger berries as well.

Blackberry runners or “suckers” Suckers will pop up 2-3 feet away from your blackberry patch, we like to dig them up and plant them back in the row!

Some varieties of blackberries send runners or “suckers” off a few feet away from the patch. If the suckers look nice, we like to dig them up and plant them back in the row. Its a nice free way to expand our patch. -Suckers are primocanes.

The current year’s fruiting canes are called “floricanes”. Besides blossoming and bearing fruit these canes can be identified by their thin brown bark. After their fruit ripens the leaves on these canes start to fizzle out. In the winter trim the spent floricanes back to the crown. In winter when there are no leaves and the brand new floricanes for the coming season look the same at first glance as last year’s dead floricanes, pruning can be a little tricky if it’s your first time. Last year’s spent floricanes will look brown while new floricanes (last years primocanes) will have a purplish tint when compared with each other. Another way to tell them apart is to look for the remnants of last years fruiting blooms. And if that isn’t quite enough to make you certain you are about to chop the right cane, you can take your clippers and scrape a teeny bit of bark off. If it is green underneath the bark you have a new cane, if its brown you have a dead cane that needs to be pruned. Getting rid of the spent canes in the winter before fruiting helps the plant to focus nutrients on the new floricanes.

Blackberry floricane
Floricanes Bearing Fruit

 

Dead Floricane
A Spent Floricane, This guy needs to be pruned. Notice last years blossom ends where the fruit formed.

When pruning there are a few tools you will need:

* A good pair of hand clippers
* Leather gloves and or kevlar sleeves
* Alchohol wipes
* Wagon, to haul away the debris

In between cuts wipe your clippers off with an alcohol wipe to prevent spreading diseases from one plant to another, especially if you are moving between species (raspberries, black raspberries etc.) sure it takes a little more time but this one simple bio-security measure can protect your berry investment for years to come.  All bramble fruit is susceptible to a wide array of fungal diseases and other icky stuff so it is always a good practice to burn the pruned canes after the job is done to prevent spreading disease.  Wild black raspberries are notorious for giving diseases to domesticated bramble fruit so do your best to keep your blackberry patch well and away from wild varieties.  But please folks, don’t rip them out as they are an important food for our beloved wildlife.

Black Walnut Toxicity; What It Means For Your Garden

I chose the location of my garden based on two factors. The first being that a house was demolished years ago on one end of the property, so I wanted to put it far away from any hidden debris and avoid the clay that was turned up during the demolition and excavation. The second, was that my hose had to reach. In the end I really didn’t have much choice where it went. I had no idea that I had to take into consideration the trees growing near my garden. I found out, however, after a crappy first year of tomatoes and a conversation with the lovely gal who owns the local garden center, that the young black walnut tree right next to my garden was likely the culprit.

Walnuts

 

Its called allelopathy.  Its a trait some plants posses and it means that they produce one or more biochemicals that affect growth, germination, and reproduction of other plants. Known as allelochemicals, they can either support the growth of neighboring plants or kill all the competition.  Think of it as a plants survival instinct, instead of spraying a putrid odor from their anal glands like a skunk these plants emit biochemicals to protect themselves. They can also use these allelochemicals to from keep from being eaten by animals. Black walnut trees produce a biochemical called “juglone” that kills many types of plants (including tomatoes) in an effort to ensure that the tree can get the most nutrients from the surrounding soil with little competition. The biochemical works by inhibiting respiration, and essentially starving out sensitive plants. Juglone exists in all parts of the tree, bark, roots, leaves, and of course the walnut hulls. Underneath the tree’s canopy is where most of the danger lies, however it can be as far-reaching as 50-80 feet from the trunk of the tree. Even if the tree is cut down, it will be years before the toxicity declines, as it is impossible to remove all of the roots from the soil.

Plants suffering from juglone toxicity will show wilting and yellowing of the leaves that doesn’t improve with thorough watering. And eventual death of the plant. There are many lists of juglone-sensitive and -tolerant plants out there and this is a very short one at that. There is also some debate about what plants belong on the list and ones that don’t. It seems that some varieties of tulips, for example, are juglone tolerant, while others still are sensitive and won’t survive near the trees. Most of the studies regarding juglone sensitivity have focused on tomatoes and a few other popular crops. Check out your state extension services for more lists.

Juglone Sensitive Plants:
Tomatoes
Rhubarb
Potatoes
Peppers
Cabbage
Asparagus
Peas

Juglone Tolerant Plants:
Beans
Corn
Garlic
Onions
Melons
Squash
Beets
Carrots

I admit that my juglone sensitive plants have still done quite well despite this toxin being present in the soil, besides peppers, that is, never did have much luck with peppers. I attribute my success to not allowing leaves/twigs nor nuts and hulls to decompose in my garden. Also, my whole garden gets tilled twice a year, and in between rows several times in the season.. The aeration and well drained soil goes a long way in aiding the decomposition of juglone. Making sure your garden is nutrient-rich and has lots of healthy microbes from lots of compost helps a lot, too, but it only delays the inevitable. As the tree grows the toxin will spread and I will be forced to take action. Luckily there are ways to get up and away from juglone. Raised beds lined with weed/root proof liner or even container gardening are possibilities, along with the obvious: Moving the garden.

Since juglone exists in all parts of the tree, be sure to never ever compost any part of the tree and never use it as mulch. Black Walnut trees aren’t the only juglone-producing tree you need to look out for either. Butternut, hickory, and English walnut are also guilty of producing the toxin. So if your garden is a little sad and wilted, look up and take a gander at the trees that surround it.