Artwork for podcast GREEN Organic Garden Podcast
70. Arlee Farmer’s Market | Growing Effectively and Efficiently for Farmers, Markets, and Tasty Cooking | David Wolverton | Arlee, MT
10th August 2015 • GREEN Organic Garden Podcast • Jackie Marie Beyer
00:00:00 00:59:02

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Tell us a little about yourself.

Well, I’ve lived in western Montana all my life. I traveled but then I always just coming back here. Now I’m 60 and I’ve learned a lot in those years and I still have a lot to learn I’m sure.

What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?

I appreciate that… your question has organic gardening/earth friendly in it because as I have seen, the organic gardening mature, I’m glad to see it embrace more research, more discovery and make it something that’s actually far more valuable. I remember back in 1970,  when I was a teenager, exploring and discovering the organic method vs the chemical method there were a lot of ideas that have since been discarded fortunately because we have learned.


For me it’s a continuous process, we are going to learn, we’ve learned much more about beneficials, insects, for example. We’re exploring interesting features about micro-organisms and their interactions there’s just a whole range of things that are probably coming soon that are going to revolutionize agriculture. There’s just more cross-over, traditional, I should say chemical, traditional is really organic but chemical ag is adopting some of these things that were first. Adopting some of these things that were first tried out by organic gardeners. In that respect I find it a very fascinating time to be gardening. 

Do you want to go any deeper and tell us some of the things that your’e seeing the I guess if you’re not gonna call it traditional, the more big producers the chemical people using?

Well I think that there have been some realities, right now we have an easing of the energy issue, but that was a fear, that there’s definitely sometime going to be a limit to the fossil fuels, and a lot of people don’t realize that’s going to a major source of the nitrogen that’s used in standard agriculture comes from various fossil fuels, and that’s what’s pumped up production throughout the world, the entire food insudtry is so dependent on that, well, now we’re learning more about other ways to do things.

Understanding the soil

We’ve already explored different ways of breeding plants, that can maybe tolerate less fertility, perhaps we can get into a better understanding of soil, and have microbes that would naturally be able to provide some of the fertilizing it’s going in many directions, and some ideas no doubt that will be discarded later on, other ideas we can’t even imagine what they are, they’ll be coming along and we’ll be seeing major changes in how we grow the food for very large population on this planet that needs to eat every single day.

So many valuable things there… what you said about…. alternatives are expensive there’s not enough success, I think that’s key that we have to keep failing, and trying and trying… How many times did Thomas Alva Edison build that lightbulb? 10,00 times or something…. We have to keep trying and trying… why I think we need blocks in kindergarten because kids need to see what falls down and how to build it over and over again.. gardening is the same way because as soon as something is not working you start thinking this is what I’m gonna do next year to be successful….

What a great answer! One of the best ones ever!

Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?

I met a wonderful woman at my church, she’s gone now, Ida Nowel was her name. She was a subscriber to Rodale Publications, Prevention and  Organic Gardening Magazine . She brought older issues and i just thought this was wonderful. I didnt’ have much experience, my mother was working 3 jobs and tired, and so I was learning. It was so grateful to get this information, basically it was a system and a structure. It had all these experiences from all these different people and I just loved it!!!

Rodale Publications starting in 1970.

I talk about Rodale’s on my show a lot I LOVE THEM! But I also have been wanting to say for a long time now, so I’m just gonna throw it in here listeners that I would not have bought the Flower Farmer book I talk about a lot and many other great books if I didn’t get an email from Chelsea Green Publications in my box frequently. I love them and am always excited to see who’s new on their list of publications each month!

OrganicLifeMag  Organic Life Magazine

I think it’s interesting someone was asking about my avatar and target market and I was thinking it’s not a market as much as a lifestyle and now they have that magazine.

How did you learn how to garden organically?

Yes, I started trying the techniques, I told myself not to just run to the nearest can of  chemicals, which was the norm back them, oh yeah, I have weeds so I’ll just go find something in a can to dump on the soil, it wasn’t questioned it was just the way to do something.  

And pretty much all agriculture and home gardening, had gone over to using cans of stuff like DDT and cans of various fertilizers that had a detrimental effect on the overall soil health, turned it to concrete.

But it was this alternative that was saying , well, OK these innovations are interesting but we really need to develop more natural ways, more sustainable ways. It’s a theory in progress, because some recommendations back then we wouldn’t even think of doing now, but things have come along over time!

Tell us about something that grew well this year.

When I saw you at the market you had some amazing vegetables there!

Well, the pepper plants, and a lot of the potted things. I’ve been doing for years. I had to do a lot less for several years because  I’ve been caring for my aging parents, but they’re gone so I’m able to come back into the market. And there’s a wonderful woman at the Market that used to be on the board of the Missoula Farmer’s Market and she wasn’t any more but she was still one of the Godmothers, so she was always there and checking in and we shared ideas. So I asked her well I want to get back in “What does the market need?”

And she said “tomatoes

At that time there wasn’t once single tomato purveyor at the Railroad Market. The one purveyor had moved down to the market by the river. She said, “tomatoes and also do something about the prices.”

Love Your Mistakes

I said. Ok, that’s an interesting order, I’d never really done tomatoes other then my own personal use. So I did the research and I played around and I had a lot of fun growing tomatoes. And like I say, you learn from your mistakes, and I had a whopper of mistake this year. I think that’s one of the questions – what didn’t do well? Well, unfortunately the tomatoes I had a spectacular unrelenting aphid problem and I basically I had to pull my crop out. And that was a big blow to me, personally, I had to accommodate that. But as I said embrace your disasters learn from them, love your mistakes!

I know how to handle the aphids in a more timely and a more organic fashion. I did try to find an organic solution but it’s just that it was overwhelming and there really was no chemical alternative, people said I should have tried chemicals but there really wasn’t but the bottom line is next year I will have tomatoes and next year I will have other things too, I learned to branch out and start planning always for the following year.

Just I want to tell people if you don’t know there’s 2 markets in Missoula, one by the Railroad and one down by the river is what the Railroad Market means. And 2, are you going to tell us what your organic aphid solution was?

Tomato Aphid Infestation

We had an unusual spring.

We sure did didn’t we?

It was a spring I hadn’t seen in like 40 years. Perhaps not so spectacular to urban people, but as a gardener as someone who pays attention to the weather from dawn to dusk, it was so windy in Arlee where I grow. So April and May very little rainfall and lots of wind very low humidity, this was unprecedented!

I’m only theorizing, I’m doing more research but somehow this meant that as much as I would use the natural soap sprays to use eliminate the aphids. And even the chemical growers would recommend using these soaps that are considered organic.

I would knock out the population the winged females would come flocking back in from somewhere. I did drop the ball sometimes, but in 40 years, I had never really seen tomatoes infested in aphids. So I sure learned this year that they can be and if there are certain weather conditions, I need to be better prepared. What I learned for next year, is maybe I won’t see these conditions for 100 years. But I will be aware of them and

I can quickly order screening, for the entrances to the hoop houses so once I eliminate the infestation of aphids, I won’t have the winged females coming back in to reinvest the greenhouse. Again it’s something everyone said, they’d never seen such a bad aphid year, I felt I wasn’t alone I think I had a really bad problem in my area was overwhelmed, it was just a really tough year.

I did meet some people who had got there tomatoes already and they said they got them from you, so it couldn’t have been that bad? 

It was my crop, that I put in my greenhouse that got so infected. I still made money, I got my money back. That’s always nice.

I grow some no one else grows. I grow a seedless tomato. Again there were many people at the market that were depending on my crop of seedless tomatoes because they can’t eat seeds for medical issues, they can’t eat seedy things. So I had to disappoint them, so that’s why I’m doubling up so next year I can avoid this, and anticipate other problems in a more proactive way.

Did she tell me you start the tomatoes in your greenhouse in December?

I start them actually in my house in December. I would have to go back to that principle that wonderful woman Natalie Lyons, she said “Grow tomatoes and do something about the price.”

So I thought every inch of the way, “How can I do this the most economically? Obviously in December, my house is already heated, tomato plants when they start, they don’t need much space, so I just use my house to  start the plants that is already heated, then I’m not also heating the greenhouse, the expense, what would you say? The unnecessary use of fuels…

How to be as efficient as possible

so all along trying to be as efficient as possible determines how I grow things and then also I feel it’s keeping with the organic spirt and being as easy on resources as possible and yet grow things well, and grow them as efficiently as one can so my house is already heated, the plants don’t take much room initially and then as they get bigger

Increase carbon footprint incrementally 

then I start incrementally putting them in places where they have to be heated, then incrementally I increase the carbon footprint as you call it, but not right away. I don’t like heating up a huge greenhouse in the dead of winter for a few plants it’s not sensible and it’s certainly not economical.

But didn’t you say there’s like a 1000 of these plants? Even 1000 seedlings that seems like it would take a lot of room?

Indeed it does, so I have, when I start them and I sprout them they’re in trays of 200 seedlings in a tray that’s 1 foot by 2 foot. So actually 10 square feet, would accommodate 1000 seedlings. Of course they’re very tiny, they grow only for a week or 2, probably 2 weeks in that size container then they have to be moved to slightly larger container well then that’s 72 plants to a tray, so basically 36 plants to one square foot.

Small Plant House Holding 1000 plants

Now we’re talking about small footage, when I do have to start firing up what I call my plant house. And it’s not very big, it’s only 12×16 but it has double layers of shelving, with grow lights. That way I can concentrate in a small building, a very large number of plants again. Well a full 1000 then after a month or 2 I have to start expanding outside and getting the green houses heated but by then we’re talking February or March. The temperature starts to ease, there’s much more light coming from the sun, which provides a lot of heat. And it just keeps getting better week by week.

Grow Lights Crucial to Success

So I kind of wondered when you’re growing things in December if there is enough light, so do you use those grow lights right from the start?

It’s absolutely crucial. The reason is, there’s so little light at our attitude, the 47 parallel, runs right thru between Arlee and Missoula up where you are it’s probably the 49th parallel. So we’re quite far north, the trouble is, there’s very little light, the sun angle’s so low, and the sun is up for so few hours it’s not sufficient. So using the artificial lights, economically, to have just a few lights, again for a 1000 seedlings in a condensed area, and as time goes by I use more lights, as I repot them into more pots. The bottom line is, they do need the artificial light.

By March, then we’re getting enough light from the sky, that going outside, does work, actually by February. I heard that in Missoula, with it’s cloudy overcast weather, there’s usually only 5% of the light in Missoula as there is in July. So that’s a huge contrast and gives one an idea why its so crucial to use the artificial lights to start the seedlings. Then as time goes on by March, they don’t need the lights there, under plastic they get what they need from the sky.

I can see that, just the number of actual hours the sun is up in July is twice what it was in December. When we used to run solar panels, there were only 3 weeks in December we would have to run our backup generator. I know Missoula also has that inversion-cloudy piece to deal with.

I think I should talk about that cloudiness, June is usually a cloudier month. I think they were saying that July has probably the highest sunshine factor in Missoula, because it’s somewhat less cloudy then June.

Even thought your right June 22 is probably the highest sun angle and the longest hours, for our climate you have to kind of push it, and I’m sure for Eureka too, push it into June and July, that’s when you get your maximum amount of photons.

My husband starts the seedlings about February, and he starts them in the south window, and then he plastics our porch off of our kitchen and we open the window and door and the heat from our house heats it goes into that area, and he puts like a double plastic wrapper around the porch. But it’s on the north side. And he talks a lot about growing on the south and north side. Do you want your plants on the south side? Does the north side have the right kind of light?

In the winter time, the north side is going to be in the shade, there’s not gonna be much light. The sun rises not east or west, it’s rising in the north east and it’s setting in the southwest… the front part of your house isn’t going to receive the sunshine …. if it has a fiberglass ceiling where the light get in … it might be a little bit cooler, if there’s not a lot of light that can produce some good seedlings is true

Direct sunlight is so important failing having the artificial light, I should mention this shed I have, it has no windows because that would just be a source of heat loss… it’s well insulated… IT has fiberglass or whatever they use for the ceiling… I also keep the plants there at night so the cats provide the carbon dioxide, nice place for cats, nice for the plants, that way I reduce the energy because those lights they do produce enough energy where everybody and everything is warm and I watch the temperature.

If we have a chinook… It can get too warm. I have to use two exhaust fans, I recommend to everybody to watch the light. For a few plants… Every hardware store has lights for a few plants, you can grow a couple of dozen plants.

Wow! Fantastic I’ll bet people are excited to grow some stuff already.

Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?

Grafting Tomato Plants

One thing we missed is I graft the tomatoes, 1000 tomatoes is grafts. That’s why I start them extra early. Unless you have a hoop house, that you’re gonna heat in March, starting plants in December is way too early,

The grafting process knocks some of the speed out of your seedlings. In the long term it’s a fantastic process, it does wonders for producing healthier tomatoes for a much longer period.

The people that I grew for, they have hoop houses a little more sophisticated then mine so they start planting them out in February. The reason they like my grafted plants is that the root-stalk is a hybrid between normal tomato a wild tomato relative of South America.

By themselves they don’t produce any edible fruit but if you graft a good variety of tomato on top. Then this root stalk gives them this tremendous vigor they stay in production longer. It’s interesting that the hydroponics people, they often use grafted plants. Now they control their conditions perfectly, there’s no disease issues, the temperature’s perfect, they have their roots swished in that solution all the time. They graft because it gives a longer productivity, because the vines will last months longer even in those perfect conditions.

And for less then perfect conditions like...