Mother Nature Was Unkind to Strawberry Growers this Season

After an abysmal season for Florida strawberry growers, BerryStacks has decided not to go for a command performance next year. The farm will likely still be run by KYV Farm, but no strawberries will be planted. Instead, there will be a variety of fruits and vegetables grown. Status of the farm as a pick-your-own operation is not known; but visiting the BerryStacks Facebook page should keep potential customers informed.

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Big Changes for BerrryStacks in 2014

Two years of hydroponic farming have taught me plenty: first, I would have to know a lot more about farming in general to reach any level of mastery; second, it’s time to let a more experienced farmer take the reins. After a disappointing 2013 growing season all over Florida, the decision to lease BerryStacks for the next year was easily made.

KYV farm is bringing it’s expertise to BerryStacks for the upcoming season. Owned and run by Francisco Arroyo and his wife Vivian Bayona, KYV grows certified organic produce, and practices environmentally friendly farming methods. Francisco has a background in dairy farming. He and Vivian have been farming together for seven years. New to hydroponics, Francisco attended the training workshop offered by Bob Hochmuth of North Florida Research and Education this spring. We are confident in his ability to show us how it’s done!

BerryStacks will be planted with 30,000 strawberry plugs this September. That’s almost a 30% increase over the number of plants we had last season. KYV will be using coco coir and pine bark, in an 80/20 mix, as planting medium. This combination is fast becoming an industry standard in Florida, and should produce healthy, robust plants.

Plans to stock the farm store with a combination of seasonal certified organic and traditional field-grown produce are being made.  Opening date and hours of operation are yet to be defined.

We anticipate a terrific 2014 season. I for one, look forward to the novelty of going to BerryStacks and picking strawberries instead of trimming plants!





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Counting Days

We are counting the days till our re-opening on Thursday, November 29. The strawberry plants are looking great, and we have already trimmed blossoms and immature berries from two of our four cultivars. This will allow the plants a little more time to “green up”, which means bigger fruit and a more plentiful harvest. We will probably apply a blossom booster next week .


Strawberry plants are “greening up”

The pine bark we added to the medium is beginning to release acid as we hoped it would.    pH levels are optimum for strawberry production. We are in the process of adding the pine bark to the blueberries as well.

Due to our attention being on seeding and planting for the new season, the compost heap has disappeared beneath a lush carpet of flowers and other vegetation. I’m not really sure what to do with that, but it sure is pretty.

What happened to the compost heap?

What happened to the compost heap??

Just a few details left before we open for the 2013 season; frost cloth has to be repositioned and plastic has to be installed on the seed tunnels. I’ve been a little anxious about seed germination rates on the lettuce, but the recent cool snap seems to have remedied that.

We can hardly wait until the 29th. It will be so good to have the public back on the farm again! It’s been lonely without them.

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BerryStacks Season 2 Premiers November 29! (Sneak Preview)

Having reached the end of a grueling Florida summer, we are gearing up for what we most love; providing a fun place for folks to forage for fresh, delicious food! The strawberry plants are letting us know how happy they are by growing profusely. Sugar snap and snow peas will be climbing the stacks in no time. Chard and kale are maturing rapidly, and lettuces are breaking ground. Shade covering has been removed from the field, and clean-up from the late summer monsoon is progressing nicely.

In addition to the Strawberry Festival and Camarosa strawberries we produced last year, we are introducing two new cultivars; Albion (an early producer,) and Camino Real (preferred by chocolatiers for its long stems that are good for dipping!)

We have created a “Berr-0-meter” for the website, that will let folks know what the ripe berry count is in the field for a given weekend. This will be posted in the side bar on the “What’s Available” page.

Lettuces will consist of our old stand-bys, Romaine, Red Sails, Bibb, and Mesclun Mix, with a new twist; we will be offering the option of tender baby lettuces, cut from their trays before your eyes, for  ready-to-eat salads!

Our winter peas are Oregon Sugar Pod II, and Super Sugar Snap, both known for their great taste, heavy production (two pods per stem,) and disease resistance.

In response to requests by our patrons, we are adding numbered row markers, to make it easier to find what you’re looking for.

We have found a St. Augustine family who is producing raw honey, and has agreed to supply us! They are being mentored by a very old gentleman who has been keeping bees all of his life.

We will continue to carry old-fashioned soda pop and locally made sauces. Our jam and jelly supplier has added some new flavors, so we now have fig jam and pumpkin butter.

There are plans to dress up the store front a bit; those will become evident as they unfold. 🙂

All in all, it’s shaping up to be an exciting season!

Lacinato Kale

A new variety of kale will be available, in addition to the curly type we grew last year.


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Lesson Learned

Veteran Florida farmers we met over the last year all told us, “We don’t even try to grow anything in the summer here.” After weeks and weeks of fighting high heat, hot nights, stifling humidity, and bugs in numbers rivaling the plagues of ancient Egypt, we concur. The hope that hydroponic growing might be different is but a fading memory.

September, which would normally be spent seeding, planting strawberry plugs, and implementing new ideas for the up-coming season, will be a busy month. In addition to seeding and planting strawberry plugs, our focus is on doing the deep clean-up and sanitation tasks that would better have been tackled during July and August. Warp speed doesn’t begin to describe the rate at which this must be accomplished.

On a lighter note, we have decided to make broccoli our experiment for this season. We have spoken with several hydroponic growers who have had great success with it. Another exciting change in the mix is our increased tomato production. We will have multiple varieties, and plenty of them.  There will also be flowers in the bottom planters, which we hope will give the field added color, in addition to attracting more pollinators.

We are looking forward to a late November opening; possibly earlier if the weather cooperates. More will be posted here as we progress toward that goal.

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Tomatoes Hint at How Summer Should be Spent?

I’m scratching my head this week, trying to recall what possessed me to move to a sub-tropical climate. Heat stress is definitely affecting the tomatoes and peppers. While healthy, they appear to be sitting quietly, with little or no desire to expend any energy. Perhaps we should take a lesson from them. Short of that, Alaska is looking really good right now.

That being said, the yellow squash and zucchini are in hog heaven, flowering like mad and beginning to produce fruit. If we can keep the pest levels down to a dull roar, we should have a nice crop in a few weeks.

A row of squash

Squash is in hog heaven.

The herbs are responding well to the shade covering, and we are taking some time to redo that area. Older plants are which are no longer viable are being removed, and new ones seeded. We will seed one stack of kale and one of chard as an experiment, to see whether it can survive in the shaded area.

Lavender and other herbs under shade covering.

Lavender and other herbs under shade covering.

We began cleaning out the misting lines today on the half of the field that will be planted with strawberry plugs in September.

Elf Sunflowers that were planted recently are in full bloom, and love the hydroponic system. They are a sight to behold. What fun it would be to plant the entire field with those!

Elf Sunflowers

Elf Sunflowers in all their glory.

We have ordered mister heads for the tunnels, and are looking forward to installing them with a timer so we no longer have to manually water the seedlings.

In the meantime, we’ll keep working toward an end-of-summer harvest, with an eye to the sky each day in the hope of afternoon thunder showers.   🙂


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Our Favorite Time of Year (Not!)

Working in the field in 90+ degree temperatures is difficult. The black landscape fabric we use for ground cover magnifies the heat by 10 to 15 degrees. It is now too hot to work barefoot :-(.  It takes a lot of effort to stay hydrated and keep our electrolyte levels up. Even with frequent water breaks, some of us are suffering from headaches.

The plants are feeling it too. Tomatoes and tomatillos seem to like it, but beans and some of the herbs are struggling. We are now watering 6 times a day to compensate for increased evaporation, and to help keep the root systems cool. The lack of pests in the field is encouraging, as we expected to have been inundated by now. Good sanitation practices seem to count for a lot.

We have ordered a new nutrient mix for our upcoming season, based upon a detailed water analysis, and are excited about what it will do for the plants.

The zinnias J planted in the ground along the field side of the farm store are getting ready to bloom. It will be good to have them prettying up the place :-).

Shawna is keeping the veggies picked so they will keep producing, and so we have a few things in the farm store for seasonal open hours. We brought in a nice order of jams and jellies last week to compliment that.

The next few weeks will be spent focusing on one task at a time. We know what has to be done; now we just have to walk it.

Recovering old medium to save for seeding

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Mirriam-Webster, (of whom I am no particular fan), defines the word “transition” as the “passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another: change: a movement, development, or evolution from one form, stage, or style to another”. It’s a good word to describe the process we are undertaking at BerryStacks Farm.

Pulling 24,000 strawberry plants is no small task. In order to recover the most medium, we let it dry out for a few days before pulling. Let me be the first to say that phasing in 3/8″ pine bark fines to replace the vermiculite and perlite mix will be a relief on many fronts! It has been quite windy, and the dust from the dried medium covers us from head to toe, making us resemble creatures from the zombie apocalypse. Since vermiculite can absorb up to 300 times its weight in water, it would be stating the obvious to describe in detail the levels of dehydration we are attaining. Suffice it to say, shareholders in bottled water processing and companies who manufacture moisturizer are likely seeing their stock values rise. The worst part is what it does to our eyes. The effect is similar to that of swimming in a pool with too much chlorine. At least the safety glasses keep the large chunks at bay. Once the pulling is done, the cleaning and sifting of recovered medium will begin.

The pine bark mulch arrived yesterday, and it is beautiful! We look forward to reducing if not eliminating our acid usage this year. The mulch should produce enough acidity to bring the pH of our water into the range preferred by strawberries. The recovered vermiculite and perlite will be used in the seed houses and with herbs and vegetables that prefer a higher pH.

One of our regular patrons came for a visit yesterday. She stood, looking over the empty planters, and remarked that it made her a little sad. I could empathize, having felt a little of that myself. It’s funny how the growing season here in Florida mirrors that of more northerly zones. In the north, people with seasonal affective disorder dread the onset of winter; for us, it’s the hot summer months that fuel the melancholy. Not to worry; we will chase it away by planting more nasturtiums, with a smattering of zinnias and sunflowers.

As Summer takes over, the field will fill with color, as tomatoes, tomatillos and peppers mature; and before we know it, September will be here, along with a new batch of strawberry plants to nurture.  🙂

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Hydroponic Plants are Rigorous, Engaging Teachers

Plants communicate their needs plainly and simply. In a hydroponic system of growing, these communications are sudden; almost loud, to those who are listening. We must respond quickly and respond correctly. An ignored request for more/less water, more/less nitrogen, more/less calcium, higher/lower pH, etc., can turn into a disaster within days, if not hours. It is interesting to note that symptoms of too much can look the same as symptoms of too little.

Sometimes a plant’s cry for help has more to do with changing weather conditions than how it is being watered/fed. Sometimes it has to do with pollination or the number of fruits already present.

Tomatoes are an excellent example. Blossoms that are drying up before producing fruit can be the result of too many fruits on the vines, lack of pollination, day temperatures above 90 degrees, night temperatures above 70 degrees, excessive humidity, inadequate watering, too little or too much nitrogen, and more.

As a general rule of thumb, we give our tomatoes a break on the nitrogen for a few days each week, increase watering during hot spells, and make sure fruits are picked out every now and then.

While we can’t control everything that comes along to stress our plants, we can pay  attention to what they are telling us, and let them teach us what they will. When we get it right, they reward us with an abundance of delicious, healthy fruit. One thing is certain; they definitely keep us on our toes.  🙂

Roma Tomatoes

Dried blossoms on these Romas are likely due to heavy fruiting. The plants simply don’t have the energy to produce more at this time. Our response: Pick out the ripe fruit!


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Previews of Summer

While farmers in the north are readying themselves for big Summer harvests, it occurs to us that Summer means something very different to Florida farmers. We are told that it’s just too hot to grow many things here during the Summer months. Being the die-hards that we are, we intend to give it a go. Since this is our first summer, we realize things may not pan out the way we hope. Flexibility is key. Here is the initial plan:

The transition from winter crops to summer ones has begun in earnest. Realizing we will have shade only for one half-row, and partial shade for a couple more half-rows, we are mapping out what we want to grow in those areas. We will attempt to keep two stacks of kale, two of chard, and several of spinach under shade. The herbs will be maintained in partial shade.

Having had half a year to root themselves in, the very mature winter plants are difficult, if not impossible to remove from their containers without breakage (of planters and our backs alike). Our plan is to cut the nutrient/water supply to stacks of mature winter crops in full sun sections. Once dried,we will be able to disassemble the stacks more easily.  When that is done, we will refill the planters with medium, and put in our summer seedlings.

We have already seeded Jubilee, Cherry, Roma, and Black Krim tomatoes. They are breaking ground and looking good. In fact, the Romas are fruiting already. We have quite a few California Wonder Bell Peppers beginning to flower, and more on the way.  Lots of other peppers (Banana, Cayenne, Jalapeno, Serrano, and Habanero) will be going in as we pull what’s left of winter veggies.

We don’t know what will happen with the green beans as the heat sets in, but will continue to seed new rounds as long as they produce.  We intend to experiment with squash, and possibly cucumbers. The idea is to plant sparsely, and let them spread out along the tops of the stacks. Whether this is a good idea remains to be seen.

We have purple tomatillo plants to put in. They are already beginning to produce in our seed area, and await a more permanent home on the farm proper. It should be a great summer for salsa and Pico de Gallo! If only it weren’t too warm to grow cilantro 😦

The Strawberries are still pulling strong…we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. The heat is going to get them; we just don’t know exactly when.

The size of the growing area at BerryStacks Farm will shrink for the summer, allowing us the time we need to prepare for arrival of the new strawberry plugs in mid September.

Our field produce man has assured us he can supply our farm store with plenty of delicious, fresh watermelons for the summer, and of course we will still carry our line of sauces and old fashioned soda pops.

While we are excited about learning what our hydroponic system will do during the hot months ahead, we look forward to the fall, when we can once again plant the beautiful lettuces and other green leafy vegetables we have grown to love.

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