It’s that time of year again; the seeds are warmly germinating, the outdoor sounds fill with distinct bird songs, and the green world springs to life. This is undoubtedly an exciting time at Willy Street Co-op, as we herald the change of season with the steady procession of seedlings. They beckon with their fragrances of basil or lavender, and entice with their ability to stir up imaginative garden designs or hopes of summer sustenance on a limited budget. Perhaps you are wondering, will they fill up the green space in my yard, neighborhood, porch? Will they maintain their strong growth, showy leaves, and lovely flowers after I take them home and subject them to my whims?
The powerfully humble task of coaxing seeds into seedlings is something farmers and gardeners around the world share in common. At Willy Street Co-op, the beautiful seedlings on display often speak for themselves. They are testaments to nature’s true brilliance, and the careful nurturing of devoted hands and minds. But who are the folks behind those pots of soil and potential?
I set out with Kathy Kemnitz (Willy East Seedling Buyer) on a rainy spring day to find out. We spoke with George Kohn of West Star Farm and Mark Voss of Voss Organics about various facets of seedling propagation. Both local growers have been farming in Wisconsin since the early 1990s, and both have a devotion to organic standards and the perpetuation of clean food.
West Star Farm’s seedling setup includes three separate greenhouses, including an impressive three-bay greenhouse that fits approximately 4,000 trays. This natural-gas heated structure has been up for about seven years, and includes many unique features. Some of the tables rest on large wooden crates, which are later utilized for winter squash harvesting. The greenhouse also comes equipped with an automatic overhead watering system. With the help of a university researcher, George recently tried a new approach of pulling in outside air between the two outer layers of plastic that cover the greenhouse in an attempt to lessen the condensation there. This greenhouse is the second one that will be turned on, serving primarily to house the plants once they are transplanted into three-and-a-half-inch pots. George estimates that this greenhouse fills up sometime in mid-April.
The large size and particular design of this greenhouse has also posed challenges. Years ago, just after it was reconstructed and the plastic put on, a big snow hit the area. All the valleys in the greenhouse were filled with snow, and there was no heating element installed yet that would be able to melt it all. George was given a quick lesson in what would be his yearly winter maintenance of this structure. Each year, he has to periodically turn the empty greenhouse on in the winter, to prevent heavy snow from caving it in.
Before anything can be started in any of West Star’s three greenhouses, they are completely washed out, and all reusable tools, trays, and equipment are sterilized. As seedling propagators, they are especially concerned with not spreading plant diseases. On January 26th of this year, the first greenhouse was turned on and fired up, as George and his daughter-in-law Tonya started cuttings of mint. This was followed quickly with the seeding of thyme and fennel. This first greenhouse is distinctly different from the larger three-bay one. There are barrels filled with water for added heat retention, and a very sensible 100-tray germination chamber. It is also partially heated by a pellet stove, and this stove was partially heated by grains that George grew throughout the previous season. Another impressive aspect of this greenhouse, designed by the same innovative university researcher mentioned before, was a movable layer of heavy dark fabric, which blocked off the top layer of the greenhouse to conserve heat at night. George estimates that this thermal layer saves the farm about 40 precent of fuel costs.
The setup for Voss Organics’ seedling operation looks quite different. In 2001, Mark Voss and his wife Michelle purchased a home on Madison’s north side. “We thought, let’s just buy a big lot in town, we’ll put up a greenhouse and hope that the neighbors don’t mind, and see if we can fly under the radar,” Mark says. This is the official site of Voss Organics, where their propane-heated greenhouse constructed with electrical conduit hoops measures about 400 square feet. (For an interesting comparison, the largest of West Star Farm’s three greenhouses is almost 6,000 square feet.) Mark credits his neighbors with being supportive of this urban farming endeavor, which is certainly a factor in its success.
At both Voss Organics and West Star Farm, the farmers spoke about the process of growing seedlings in accordance with having a greater sense of control. One way they achieve this is by making their own potting soil, which both farmers do. At West Star, George says, “We want to have the control so that we can grow plants that are healthy for the long term, not just to make them look good to sell, but for them to be sustainable and strong throughout the growing season.”
On the flip side, plant failure is inevitable, too. “It’s humbling when you have a germination failure because your germination chamber is a little too warm or something…and I have one of those every year,” Mark reveals. Interestingly, Mark’s transition into seedling production emerged from a situation beyond his control many years ago, when he was farming five acres in Cottage Grove. Mark explains, “There was an herbicide drift from a conventional farm about a mile away . . . I could feel the droplets and smell it. I was out weeding and noticed some white spots on the weeds, and I thought, maybe this is a disease. I look over on the tomatoes, and it was there, then over on my lettuces, and it was there too.” Mark self-reported to his organic certifier, and his field crops were quickly decertified. However, his greenhouse operations were not, since they were in an enclosed space and were free of the herbicide contamination. The following year, Mark grew some transitional crops, but shifted gears, putting more energy into his greenhouse production. Now, he says, “My mood just lifts as soon as greenhouse season starts. It’s so intense—mixing soil, succession planting…There’s so much you can do in there! And it smells so good.”
“Peat moss and propane are my two sustainability quagmires,” Mark explains. He is looking at options utilizing coir (natural fiber extracted from the husk of coconut), as well as other greenhouse-heating possibilities like vegetable oil and in-ground coils. Mark is also excited to be involved with the planned manure digesters near Middleton, which will be creating enormous amounts of waste heat. He hopes to seize the opportunity to design a system so that waste heat could be funneled into hoophouses, which could then grow food during the winter.
For George this year at West Star, pansies have been introduced to the lengthy list of available seedlings, as well as some new varieties of peppers. He has been growing an incredibly hot variety—called “ghost pepper”—and is currently saving their seed in isolation. George continues to overwinter mints, tarragon, and chives, and he is only selling two-year chives, since they are stronger. His outlook on selling seedlings has a long-term vision: “Our philosophy is that we want the customers not just to buy a plant, but to come back next year because their tomato or pepper plant did great.”
Browse our various seedling selections from West Star Farm and Voss Organics at Willy East and Willy West. West Star Farm also sells plants at their farm, on Thursdays from 2:00pm-7:00pm, from June to October.