It's mid-January at Half Moon Gardens in Thorndike, Maine, but inside a dedicated greenhouse, organically grown winter greens are thriving. Lynn Ascrizzi photo.
The "organic house" at Half Moon Gardens is alive in midwinter with parsley, lettuce, beets and Asian greens. Lynn Ascrizzi photo.
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Last January, the big commercial greenhouses at Half Moon Gardens in rural Thorndike, Maine, looked anything but green.
Engulfed in deep snow, the tunnel-shaped poly-film structures at the end of an asphalt drive off Route 220 seemed more like an outpost in the Antarctic than a year-round garden center.
But a walk inside the center's main entrance and showroom brought the tantalizing, spring-like fragrance of moist, fertile soil.
Despite near-zero temperatures outside, plants were thriving at the innovative enterprise owned and operated by Isabel “Izzy” McKay of Brooks.
The well established, multifaceted greenhouse operation, now in its fifth year, offers conventional and certified organic products, including flower, vegetable and herb seedlings, garden seeds and supplies, and in fall, pumpkins and gourds. The center also offers organic livestock feed. The local Amish community is one of the center's organic grain customers. “We need to set up a hitching post for their horses and buggies,” McKay said.
In February, McKay hires about 10 employees for the spring and summer season. “That’s when plant orders arrive in plugs. Our pansy order comes Feb. 2.” Many of her flowers are raised organically, including nasturtiums, violets, pansies, calendula and borage. By fall, staff is cut back to three part-time workers – McKay, her administrative assistant, Willa Dibner, and Sandy Willette, both of Freedom. Willette’s core responsibility is winter greens production.
In winter, Half Moon extends its season and annual gross income by producing certified organic, fresh greens for retail and wholesale markets.
The organic aspect of the garden center is one of her main passions, McKay said. The words “local, organic and self-sustaining” are three green directives that drive her life and work. Moving toward a sustainable lifestyle is not just a personal goal, she said, but one that empowers everybody.
“Even if you’re an ‘office rat,’ you can still do little things to bring more greens into your life. I have a friend who lives in Bangor who does container gardens on her porch. She lives in an apartment. Where there is a will, there is a way,” she said.
Growing food puts people in touch with where their food comes from, she added.
“Most people in the United States have a terrible relation with food. It is refreshing to see a kid pull a green bean off a farmers’ market stand and just eat it, right there, and not to be afraid of it,” she said.
Izzy McKay, owner and operator of Half Moon Gardens, thins a bed of beet greens. Lynn Ascrizzi photo.
Sandy Willette harvests organic greens, such as baby chard, spinach, beet greens and tatsoi, that she has raised in a heated greenhouse at Half Moon Gardens. Willette oversees the winter greens operation at the year-round garden center. Lynn Ascrizzi photo.
The Organic House
That wintry day, Dibner was busy at her desk in the garden center showroom, ordering seeds and supplies for the coming spring-summer season. The spacious area forms the hub of Half Moon’s five greenhouses, which altogether provide 32,000 square feet of growing space.
Behind Dibner’s desk, an "Organic Veggies" sign was posted over an arched doorway that led to the heated greenhouse dedicated to winter greens. McKay and her staff call it the “organic house.”
There, growing in neat rows in raised beds and in jumbo six-packs, was a wide array of tender young greens – lettuce, spinach, arugula, kale, Swiss chard, pac choi, tatsoi, radish greens and pungent herbs, such as cilantro, parsley and basil – a vibrant and delectable feast for the winter-weary eye and palate.
The winter greens operation adds roughly $15,000 to the garden center’s approximately $200,000 gross annual income, McKay said.
The bulk of Half Moon’s greens are wholesaled locally. Venues include Mount View Regional High School in Thorndike, Crosstrax Neighborhood Deli in Unity, and Ridge Top Restaurant in Knox. She also sells through three Waterville businesses: Uncle Dean’s Good Groceries and Barrels Community Market – delivering the greens weekly – and the city’s farmers’ market. This year she added the Augusta and Brooks farmers’ markets to the list. Retail sales to walk-in customers make up only 5 percent of winter greens sales; “We’re off the beaten track,” said McKay.
That gray, icy morning, Willette was getting ready to cut greens to fill the week’s orders.
Most of the seed for Half Moon’s winter greens comes from Maine-based Fedco Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont, according to Willette. (See the sidebar for favorite varieties.)
“I have to pick lettuce varieties that will grow back quickly,” she said. She likes ‘Waldmann’s Green,’ a Grand Rapids type lettuce. “It’s got a good-sized leaf. Also, any kind of pac choi and tatsoi works well. I have to have things that don’t bolt so fast. And, I have to watch that the romaines don’t get tip burn, because it gets so sunny” (in the greenhouse).
‘Red Cardinal’ spinach from Johnny’s is another favorite: “When it’s cut, it has a good weight to it. It’s disease resistant and comes back good. I can get a lot of cuttings out of it,” Willette said.
The winter greens operation has not been without growing pains. In their first season, they tried to grow greens on vertically stacked wooden racks that held long plastic tubes, with 21 plants per tube.
“There was an issue of mildew; there were temperature variations,” McKay said.
“There was no good air flow,” Willette added. “The top tubes got hot and dry. You’d have to water them a lot. The water dripped down to the lower tubes. Bottom tubes were always saturated, and produce rotted.”
They turned the racks into tables by laying them on their sides, and Willette started seedlings in plug trays and later transplanted them into jumbo-sized six packs.
“A tray holds three of those six packs, or 18 plants. We got double the production that we did from the tubes. Everybody is happy and everybody gets watered evenly," Willette said of the plants.
“We don’t have half as much insect and disease problems that we did with the tubes. Timing is the biggest issue. Keeping the flow going. I have lettuce going to seed, and I need to plant more to keep production flowing,” she added.
The ideal growing temperature for small winter greens is 55 to 58 F, “or they’ll sit and rot in the dirt,” Willette said. “Once they get going, they’re OK. The night temperature is usually around 48 to 50 degrees F.”
In the greenhouse, Willette uses Living Acres Light Mix, a blend of humus and spaghnum peat moss, perlite, compost and fish meal produced in New Sharon, Maine, and approved by MOFGA for organic use.
“It’s ready to use... I use it for the beds, my six packs – for everything. I don’t have to add anything,” Willette said.
McKay sits with two of her farm dogs in the two-tiered perennial rock garden in front of the energy-efficient home she shares with her husband, Rick Thompson, at Stantial Brook Farm in Brooks, Maine. Lynn Ascrizzi photo.
McKay offers one of her two milk goats a treat. McKay and her husband also have a subsistence vegetable garden and raise chickens for meat and eggs. Lynn Ascrizzi photo.
The season for winter greens typically begins in September or October, but this year, she plans to start earlier. “It takes up to three or four weeks for plants to get to transplant size and get growing. I can start all my babies at the end of August. We’ll just have to keep the greenhouse a little cooler,” she said.
Willette keeps a wary eye on temperature changes. Even in January or February, a warming thaw can heat things fast.
“On a couple of warm days this winter, we were hot – 100 degrees F. We were wearing shorts. We opened the door and sides to keep an even temperature,” she said.
By mid-June, Half Moon stops growing winter greens, but production in the organic house keeps going with peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers. Half Moon does not try to compete with local market farmers by selling lettuce and greens in summer.
"They can sell it cheaper,” Willette said. “But when the farmers’ tomatoes and peppers go ‘blah’ in the late fall, we have great peppers and tomatoes. Our ‘Bianca’ peppers won the blue ribbon at the Common Ground Country Fair in 2010.” ‘Bianca’ “comes out white, then turns all different colors. When it’s orange, it’s gorgeous. It gets a blush and then turns red.”
Office work at Half Moon, which includes crunching numbers and implementing cost-saving strategies to push the business into the profit zone, consumes a lot of McKay’s creative time.
“A lot of young farmers do not understand that they also have to deal with business issues. They all need to know how to deal with the administrative, legal and clerical aspects of their business. You’ve got to do it. I’d rather be putting seeds in the ground. But if I didn’t tend to these things, I wouldn’t have a business to run,” she said.
Operating a large garden center is fraught with complex issues. To her, one particularly irksome detail is the Maine sales tax on vegetable seeds and seedlings.
“If you want people to become more self-sufficient and grow their own food, don’t kick them in the gut by charging sales tax on tomatoes, broccoli and other vegetable six-packs and seeds,” she said.
McKay serves on MOFGA’s certification board, and her garden center has a display booth at the Common Ground Country Fair. Because of her role at MOFGA, she certifies her organic produce through Baystate Organic Certifiers in North Dighton, Massachusetts.
Greenhouse manager Robert Giordani, who lives on site, next to Half Moon’s greenhouses, holds a pesticide applicator’s license and uses Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI)-listed products approved for organic growing.
“The purpose behind getting at least one greenhouse organically certified is to improve the credibility of our product. It verifies trust. There’s a whole system of rules and a list of things you can use in your organic certified operation. We are verifying that we are not applying products that are not acceptable to an organic criterion,” McKay said.
Some retailers, such as Uncle Dean’s in Waterville, require organic certification before they’ll purchase your product, she noted. But getting certified and maintaining organic status takes extra effort.
“There’s a lot of fairly rigorous record keeping involved. We have to show [whether] we purchased enough organic seed and supplies to produce the poundage we are representing. We have to show what percentage of seeds are organic, what we’re using as amendments and where they’re stored. We have to keep track of what we’ve sprayed and what we did by way of prevention, before we sprayed,” she said.
Moreover, she must prevent any intermingling of the (greenhouse) watering systems. If fumigation is applied in a conventional greenhouse, she has to ensure that fumigants don’t spread to the organic greenhouse. And, she has to show that any plants bought as plugs were certified organic.
These details create transparency and prevent possible mix-ups of organic and non-organic plants, but McKay said the extra effort to grow certified produce is worth it. “Bottom line, I don’t want to eat stuff that’s not grown organically.”
Lynn Ascrizzi is a freelance writer and home gardener who lives in Freedom, Maine.
A Passion for Horses and Farming
Abbie Charrier gets a riding lesson on Wally, her Morgan horse boarded at Stantial Brook Farm. The farm's 80-by-120-foot indoor horse arena is in the background. Lynn Ascrizzi photo.
Besides running a year-round greenhouse operation, Izzy McKay is an equestrienne, a home gardener and small farmer, and a licensed Maine forester. For years she practiced law in Newburgh, Maine.
She and her husband, Rick Thompson, live in a spacious, owner-built Cape at Stantial Brook Farm in Brooks. The 4,000-square-foot energy-efficient home, built in 2002, overlooks the farm's 428 acres of field and woods.
“The farm is designed to be off the grid,” said McKay on a sunny August day, as she pointed to a 100-foot-tall wind turbine that her husband set up on land between their workshop/barn and house.
“It gets pretty windy up here. The turbine is a 1-kilowatt generator,” she said. Solar panels on their workshop/barn also provide power.
“We don’t have an electric bill. We’re totally off the grid. We also have a back-up generator, but the majority of our electricity comes from the wind turbine and solar panels. Our freezers take up a lot of electricity.”
A 60- by 200-foot vegetable garden helps feed the couple. Every year, McKay plants one-third of the garden with Dutch white clover.
Artfully landscaped perennial beds, including a two-tiered rock garden, surround the house. “I believe in functional landscape,” McKay said, while standing beside a border of hardy perennials. Later, she served iced tea made with anise, spearmint, peppermint, hyssop and lemon balm, herbs growing near a side entry to the house.
The south facing, energy-efficient home is heated with wood and has walls with an insulation factor of R-47. To keep the house cozy in winter, she fires up a Finnish soapstone heater set up in the living room, cooks with a Clarion wood stove in the kitchen and heats the rest of the house with a wood boiler in the basement.
They use 5 cords per winter of firewood that her husband harvests from the farm’s 400-acre woodlot. He also hays their fields.
The home’s north side has only a few windows. And, spanning the southwest side of the house is a 12- by 30-foot greenhouse, with a concrete floor, where they start seedlings for the vegetable garden.
One of McKay's passions is training and riding horses, so the farm has an impressive 80- by 120-foot indoor arena and, next to that, a horse barn with seven 12- by 12-foot stalls, home to her two riding horses and boarding horses that “come and go.” Boarded horses add to the farm income.
McKay also raises Buff Orpington chickens for meat and eggs and two dairy goats for milk.
“The farm almost pays for itself, but it doesn’t pay real-estate taxes,” she said.
McKay grew up in the suburbs of New York and in New Canaan, Connecticut. She began dreaming of riding and keeping horses after spending summers at her step-grandfather’s thoroughbred horse farm in Nicholasville, Kentucky.
“When I was growing up, I was not allowed to have a horse of my own … This is what happened,” McKay said, making a sweeping gesture to the horse barn and indoor arena.
Another income-generating asset on the farm is a guest house, which she rents to hunters. “My husband was a Maine Guide for years. He is no longer a Guide, but we still come from a hunting ethic,” she said. In fact, venison and even moose meat are a welcome part of their menu.
– Lynn Ascrizzi
Favorite Winter Greens
These are some favorite varieties for winter greenhouse production at Half Moon Gardens:
‘Crisp Mint’ romaine
‘Speckled Amish’ bibb
‘Flashy Green Butter Oak’
‘Flashy Trout Back’
‘New Red Fire’
Ovation greens mix
‘Early Wonder Tall Top’ beet
‘Bulls Blood’ beet
‘Osaka Purple’ spicy mustard
Yellow and red chard mixed together
‘Beedy’s Camden’ kale
‘Red Cardinal’ spinach
'Prize Choy’ pac choi
‘Hong Vit’ radish greens