Garden Experiments

MSHS has been celebrating its 150th Anniversary this year, and the big anniversary party was held last Saturday at Tangletown Gardens Farm in Plato, MN. As part of the event, Dean Englemann gave a walking tour around the garden, talking about some of the processes that he and business partner Scott Endres are using on the farm and in their related businesses, Tangletown Gardens Nursery and Wise Acre Eatery.

Scottish Highland cattle graze on a rotating basis throughout the farm.

Scottish Highland cattle graze on a rotating basis throughout the farm.

The first key to their success is that the farm is run as a system with the needs of  plants and animals integrated together. The focus is on the soil and making that the best it can be. You can hear Englemann talk a bit about the system in this short video from earlier this year.

Rows and rows of fennel.

Rows and rows of fennel.

A second key to their success, Englemann says, is that they are always experimenting, whether it is raising Scottish Highland cattle in Minnesota or trying different mixes of cover crops for the fields at the farm, which are in heavy rotation raising enough vegetables for the restaurant and a CSA program they run. Walking around the farm, I couldn’t keep track of all of the different garden experiments they were trying, but a few stuck in my head.

They don’t till much. We have written about no-till and low-till gardening in Northern Gardener before. The idea is that it’s better to let the soil develop from above, by growing a variety of plants and adding compost or other nutrients on the top rather than digging around in it and potentially bringing up weed seeds. Scott compared what they are doing to the difference between Swiss cheese and packaged Parmesan. Swiss cheese has big holes in it, but is otherwise solid. Parmesan would blow away in a big wind or wash off in a big rain. You get the big holes by growing plants with large roots that create spaces in the soil for moisture and air to go. Part of their cover crop mix, for example, has radishes in it, which grow quickly and create space.

They try new varieties and crops.  A big field of fennel really impressed me. I love fennel, but had a lot of difficulty getting it to grow in my home vegetable garden. Yet, here was a huge field full of beautiful heads of fennel. In the aquaponic garden, Tangletown is growing a new variety of lettuce called ‘Fusion.’ This variety is a hybrid combination of leaf lettuce and Romaine. It is available from some seed companies and after seeing the lush heads at the farm, it’s on my list for next year. They have crop failures some years, of course, and Englemann walked us by rows and rows of tomatoes done in by the rain to prove it!

They fertilize with fish emulsion and molasses. Adding molasses to the soil has its proponents and its opponents, but Englemann says that a combination of molasses and fish emulsion as a fertilizer fires up their crops. They use fish waste products in their aquaponics systems as well where koi provide most of the nutrients for growing lettuce.

If you ever get a chance to visit the farm, take it. It’s a fascinating place for any gardener. Thanks again for Tangletown for their assistance with out 150th Anniversary event!