Reaping the Benefits of Interplanting

Reaping the Benefits of Interplanting

Posted by Mandy + Steve O'Shea on

  Happy almost weekend y’all!  A little rainy lately, but the cooler temps have been delightful.  I for one am happy to work in a light rain in April with temps in the 60’s and 70’s even if it means heavy jeans and soggy socks.  It feels like a gift to have a real shoulder season, unencumbered by immediate and persistent heat and mosquitos.

  I’ve been spending part of each morning and evening harvesting the peonies in what is the most gardeny portion of our farm.  You can see a bit of it from the window of our farm store.  This section of the farm slopes down almost in the shape of a bowl, down towards the woods and if you curled into a ball and rolled down it, you’d be funneled through the bamboo archway, out the gate of the deer fence, into the hellebore studded understory of the woods, scoot past the big mulberry tree, down the little boardwalk next to the stream, and bump right into the cabin.

  This whole section up top used to be an orchard.  One of our failed projects.  We initially attempted to be a fruit farm against the good advice of knowledgeable people in this area.  We’ve always tried to buck convention to create our own niches.  Sometimes it pays off.  Sometimes it's a massive flop.  The orchard was the latter. 

  One skill you need to develop in order to be a farmer is to know the difference between when it’s time to push harder and when it’s time to accept your losses and start again with a whole new plan.  Having faith in your conviction is essential, but getting so attached to your vision that you can’t see when it's a mirage is self sabotage and can be the difference between a working farm and a failed farm.   

  About 7 years ago, we started planting peonies and removing fruit trees that never bore anything but rotten fruit.  Not all at once, but bit by bit. And for the inevitable person who will email me to let me know that they disapprove of us removing trees, I will preemptively respond by stating that it’s literally the foundation of virtually all farming.  To have room to grow plants, you need to remove other plants.  Farming is really about selecting for the organism you want by removing organisms that you don’t want.  Deer, aphids, Japanese beetles, squash bugs, weeds, trees, etc..  I hate it too, but it’s just reality.  Anyone who eats anything is part of this process.  It’s how food is grown.  99% of you, I’m sure, already know this.  But whenever we mention having to remove a tree, we always get emails kind of shaming us for doing so and clearly I’m a little gun shy as a result...

  For the record, we cleared no land to start this farm.  It was pasture.  But someone before us did….for farming. We actively steward 2 acres of woodland to maintain the healthiest and biggest trees possible, while removing invasive species and creating the optimal environment for natives in this region.  We have not diminished our woods in any way and never intend to. 

  Anyways, against the better advice of more knowledgeable people that said organic tree fruit was a bad bet in Georgia, we planted apples, pears, plums, peaches, nectarines, pluots, plumcots and apricots.  They were right.

  6 years later, against the better advice of more knowledgeable people, who said that we lack the required cold hours to grow peonies, we started to plant 100’s of them anyways.  Only this time, Mandy’s gamble paid off.  We are still a young peony operation, but we are the furthest south operation (that we know of) that grows them commercially and we keep adding more.  It’s a long investment with them.  They take years to pay for themselves if ever, but we like having them and our customers love them.  It was the first flower that I saw otherwise incredibly friendly people at the farmers market, start to get a little elbowy with each other over.  A rare flower in Georgia, so I get it.

  To run a farm efficiently, you have to look at every foot of plantable space in terms of what it costs you in inputs and what it pays you in yields.  Most locations, you can plant 2-3 different cash crops a year and harvest them for weeks if not months at a time.  You are buying seeds/plants, topsoil, nutrients, irrigating, weeding, blah blah….so you need to support all that expense with a harvest and robust sales to not only cover all the materials costs, but to cover the significant labor costs.  With something like peonies, your inputs are more expensive and you don’t get any harvest to really speak of for 3-4 years and even that is often small and maybe for only a week for any given plant. 

  To put it simpler, we could have planted a ton of relatively inexpensive zinnia plants and harvested thousands of stems in just a few months. Then pulled them up and planted cosmos in the same spot and harvested thousands of those.  Instead we planted very expensive peony plants that might give us 3 flowers, 3 years later, and requires us to weed 1/2 an acre for the bulk of the year, for all those years.  Not the most compelling math.

So, you either have to view it as a “loss leader” (something that is not directly profitable, but gets peoples’ attention and attracts them to your business), or have a long time horizon for your investment into those plants and that space.

  It’s a bit of both for us when viewed through the lens of our business glasses, but at this point in our life, we also place significant value on the uncommodifiable attributes of the farm.  Our home and our business are so intertwined that we need to find ways to bring the “home” part of it to the surface as much as possible lately.  

  When we were still a market farm, Mandy had the inclination to make better use of that space by interplanting other flowers between the peonies.  That way, while waiting half a decade for that space to produce a viable peony crop, we could grow and harvest some annual flowers so it wouldn’t be a complete loss.  A lot of these crops were great for farmers markets, but are not anything we feel comfortable shipping.  So we don’t.  

  We just let them fill out and spill over into the aisles and get all colorful and pollinated and pregnant with seeds and live and die their full cycle unencumbered by commerce, only to be born anew the following year.

  We do harvest the daffodils we grow in that area and a lot of people question us about that.  The daffodils fill out and bloom earlier than the peonies.  They green out and cover the ground, minimizing the amount of weeding we have to do, because they outcompete the weeds.  When they finish up, the peonies start to come in.  There are tradeoffs.  They do compete for the same nutrients, but all the services they provide are a fair exchange in our eyes.

  We also grow, but have stopped harvesting, the gorgeous Iris’s, yarrow, sedum, formosa Lillies, and roses.  We’re also flush with charismatic blue linaria that is a delight to walk amongst when I’m searching for ripe peonies.  The whole hillside is a favorite location for everything with wings and I’ll occasionally plop down at the top of the bowl and just watch the butterflies, hummingbird moths, and goldfinches with a dumb smile on my face as they all do their things.  Not only are all of those flowering plants providing food and habitat for the winged ones and beauty for us, but they provide erosion control, moisture retention, a modicum of frost protection for the peonies in the early part of spring and a degree of heat protection for them in the latter part of spring.  As mentioned before, they also reduce the amount of weeding required by outcompeting weeds and by being a living/dying mulch.

  Now we are just gratefully reaping the intangible benefits of these “crops” that fill the space between the peonies every year and I must say that it’s a favorite spot on the farm for me as a result.  It’s healthcare.

It’s a thriving ecosystem and it's a joy to behold, even when the peonies aren’t in flower….which is most of the time.