Soil blocking

I am trying to optimize my seed starting space by soil blocking. I had some success with soil blocking last year, and I found the seeds and plants that had to survive in blocks for the shortest amount of time did the best. I don’t know if I am a chronic over-waterer, or if I wait just a bit too long to water, but the blocks on the outside edges of the set seem to fail first.

This year I have added a humidifier to the room to help with dry air having its way with my blocks too quickly. I may also work with my humidity domes longer than just the germination period. The risk I run here is developing algae on the soil mix surface. Everything is a balancing act.

I started the first round of my eucalyptus this year blocking just straight promix. I don’t think promix or standard potting mix has enough water holding capacity for my very dry environment, so I am adapting a recipe from Blossom and Branch farm which includes coco coir to help with water holding capacity. Since water retention seems to be one of my limiting factors, you might ask why I don’t go up in soil block size to a 1.5″ or 2″ block, but that doesn’t allow enough plants on my shelves! So I am determined to find the right fit for me with the 3/4″ blocks.

A feverfew baby made in a 3/4″ block at planting time.

Making the starting mix for blocks is a bit tedious as a beginner. My potting mix is still in a compressed bale from last spring, so breaking it open and re-hydrating was a dusty endeavour. I split my mixes into two boxes with lids. One is my re-hydrated potting mix, and the second is the actual soil blocking mix. Leaving them in boxes with lids keeps the moisture in and I can come back to it, and get mixing much faster than having to start the process over again every time. Smarter, not harder 😉

Your soil block mix should hold together in your hand after squeezing, and water may even run out a bit. Perfect. The more you mix and press that mix in the soil blocker, the more you’ll get the hang of the desired consistency. Another one of those, “learn to do by doing” things! Hands must get dirty, knuckles probably get scratched, and blocks destroyed and remade all over again. All in the name of learning something new!

The last piece of the puzzle I will be focusing more on this year is the separation between blocks, even in the 20 block sets. Those little channels between the blocks are where water travels to reach each block evenly. During the germination period when I mist the top of the blocks, some of the vermiculite falls down in between the blocks. So I plan on tidying up the blocks with a toothpick, or skewer maybe, to make sure water can reach all the plants and blocks evenly. Follow along on Instagram stories and I will continue to update over there on this year’s blocks!

Seed starting in the house

This time of year I get lots of questions about starting seeds, what methods to use, my success rate and I love having these conversations and bouncing ideas back and forth! While I wouldn’t rule out a method just because someone had bad luck, it takes a lot of patience and testing to find what works best for YOU.

This is year three of my intensive seed starting in the laundry room. Some of the things I battle in this space are dry air conditions and fluctuating temperatures. Our house is on radiant heat which is a very dry heat, and the laundry room where my seed shelves are is thinly insulated, so is prone to heating up on those surprise sunny and unseasonably warm days.

I use one 48-inch shelving system that has four shelves, three of which I have added lights to. A 48-inch wide shelf allows enough room for four standard size seed starting trays. The standard size tray comes in many configurations and number of cells. A common size is 72-cells, but there are many options on either side of that. For my purposes, I won’t use any bigger than a 50 cell tray because the plant is actually so much bigger, it makes it more difficult to transplant into my burned ground cover.

This year I am trying to soil block more to optimize my limited space. I am using the Ikea cafeteria trays, and 6 of them can fit on one shelf. So in terms of plants grown per shelf, I can increase from 288 plants in 4, 72-cell trays up to 720 plants if I fill six trays with 120 soil blocks!

The shelves I assembled are outfitted with regular 48″ shop lights that would ordinarily be mounted to the ceiling and hardwired. The light boxes are hardwired together, so it will be a SUPER annoying task of moving the shelves some day, but for now, they are controlled by a smart switch that I can program on an app on my phone. The lights automatically come on at 6am, and stay on until 10pm and I do not have to flick a switch or even be home.

For light bulbs, I use one warm and one cool bulb to provide the full spectrum of light (you can see a subtle yellow and blue hue to each bulb in the photo above). Brad helped me drill holes in the steel shelves so I could hang hooks and chains for the lights. This allows me to control the height of the lights! Small plants grown under artificial light need the light source very close to prevent the plants from reaching for the light, becoming stringy and weak.

I’ll pause there on this edition before I deep dive into the actual seed starting and soil mix. Each and EVERY situation and limitation is different. A lot of this process is unfortunately trial and error. So while you’re scrolling your favourite seed site ready to order something to start, order double. Trust me 🙂

So, what’s the deal?

The number of times I have been asked about our Ruby Red Popcorn in the way the title of this post suggests, I couldn’t put a number on. We love this popcorn because it is something different. But different isn’t exactly a great selling term.

Popping ruby red popcorn at home is an entirely new snacking experience. From the red kernels, to the bright white of the popped popcorn it is something so unique! And have we mentioned DELICIOUS?!

Popped ruby red popcorn is light, crisp, and doesn’t have the same thick kernel seed coat that is sharp and gets lodged in places only the dentist can find. Yes, the seed coat still exists, but it shatters so nicely, and the popcorn is so crisp, it is a pleasure to the pallet, and the jaw muscles!

We grow ruby red popcorn here in Chatham-Kent on our multi-generational family farm. After harvest and air drying, we use a local seed cleaning service to separate out unwanted material and really make the ruby kernels shine. The finished, clean, product makes its short commute back to the farm where we weigh and package it all by hand!

Check out our popcorn + recipes page for a list of our current retail partners, or order right here on our website! Level-up your snack for your next movie night at home!

On left, our original packaging. Centre, the ruby red kernels on the cob. Right, our redesigned custom packaging that is retail-ready.

Starting my flower farm: Part 5 – reflections and goals

Being an entrepreneur is not something I thought would be in my future. For someone like me who is very task-completion oriented, it’s both fulfilling, and challenging. Fulfilling for all the reasons we talked about in the previous parts, and challenging because I have two speeds; on or off.

When I’m “on”, I’m a yes person. We’re doing all the things. But that’s not realistic and, a lot of times, doesn’t make good business sense. Slowing down and calculating each step is so important for me. The main reason is time. I grow this business in pretty tight windows of time outside my full-time job. Brain training, saying “not right now” and putting the idea on the back burner for the future. Like my desire to grow tulips and daffodils- that’s going to wait until fall 2024 at the earliest. I just do not have the time in the fall to plant thousands of bulbs, in addition to all the other fall tasks here like digging and storing dahlia tubers, harvesting pumpkins for the farm stand and other things for our commercial farm, AND raising the tiny humans.

I did make an investment this year for the future, and that was in peony roots. Fiona and I planted 30 peony roots in 5 different varieties. Peonies take their time getting comfortable in a new home, so I do not expect to have peonies for sale until 2024 or 2025 depending on the summers we have between now and then! I will certainly see a few blooms in the spring, but will not cut many stems off so the plants have lots of resources to establish themselves.

Other ongoing projects include establishing perennials like shrubs and flowering branches that make beautiful additions to bouquets. Establishing perennials also helps spread out some of the risk in growing annuals. After-all, flower farming is just as risky as commercial farming- weather, pests, diseases, and weeds can all make for a struggle of a season. I had so much success in my first year with perennials, I could see how integral their role is in the longevity of a flower farm.

And that’s the ultimate goal, longevity. Growing a business that grows with the family and brings pleasure and joy, not resentment and strain. I think the biggest part of growing this young business is the willingness to change, and maybe even walking away from something you thought would be a sure component of your business. My trial u-cut events this year were an awesome introduction to workshops and were received so well by all of you! Workshops feed my desire to teach, in a way. Not that I wanted to become a teacher for my career, but sharing what I’ve learned, and sharing the beauty of flowers with all of you, that’s way up there on the “brings joy” list.

Thank you so much for following along this 5-part series about my flower farm. Like I said in part 1, this was not intended to be a how-to guide, but more of a real-life peek at what starting this business was like for us! Don’t hesitate to ask questions, leave a comment, or reach out to me on our social pages!

Have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Starting my flower farm: Part 4 – Boundaries for real life

Having a business can be all consuming. I am the type of person who thrives off task completion, seeking perfection and those qualities can quickly turn you into a workaholic. Finding a balance and routine that would allow me and my family to get the most out of summer, and still grow a successful business, was important.

In the early season, while the young plants are competing for space, there’s no easy balance. Planting, weeding, watering is all time consuming no matter which way you cut it. Working every evening on your hands and knees pulling tiny weeds from the holes in the fabric, planting tiny plants, over analyzing the weather forecast to get the garden enough water (and not too much!) is hard physically and mentally. For a while there, Fiona and I would work up and down the rows of tiny plants thinking, “holy moly, this better be worth it.” Spoiler-it was.

From left, zinnias, Fiona weeding the dahlias, sunflowers that we grow in rows off-fabric, and cosmos in early season.

After the plants got off to a good start and could hold their own against the weeds, Brad asked me if I wanted to spend any time with him in the evenings this summer. Well, of course I did! So a new schedule had to emerge. It was NOT realistic or healthy to be out there every night, so that’s where the Thursday to Saturday/Sunday schedule was born. Fiona and I figured we could cut flowers Wednesday evening for Thursday’s farm stand, and then again Friday night, for a refill to Saturday’s farm stand. Thursday evenings we deadheaded, cut grass, planted sunflowers, or other odds and ends.

This was a great fit for us. That relieved a lot of the “heavy” work from the weekend, and our customers were so awesome to give us heads up if they were looking for something on a specific day. So expect you will see a very similar schedule next year as Thursday’s and Saturday’s were by far the busiest days at the farm stand.

Finding a work-life balance is a process for every family no matter the working situation, and it’s not easy. The other thing that seems to confuse people is why we take on so much! Yes, big projects come with time constraints, stress, and unknowns, but both Brad and I are the type of people who thrive on accomplishment. Not that raising healthy, mindful, caring and considerate kids is not an accomplishment we’re working towards, but something to continue into the long-term, to give our farm and farm-business longevity is so important in this highly competitive and fast changing agriculture industry.

For me, personally, I have less anxiety when I’m able to “scratch things off the list” as they say. Anxiety is hungry for certainty, and setting out on a task like cutting enough flowers for 6 table-centrepiece jars, is something that visually satisfies that need to achieve. I’ve also always loved interior house-painting for this reason. The result is so instant, and rewarding! Unless you’ve wrestled with, and done the work to find the source of your depression or anxiety, this can be very confusing. “Jess, just do less, take some things out of your mind.” I’m not wired like that.

The beautiful part of agriculture and farming, is that we have a slow season. We do not have livestock, so yes, we can actually put some tasks down for the winter. The winter seems shorter and shorter every year, but we still take the time to turn off and reconnect, refocus, and redirect our goals. Part 5 will talk about those goals! Thanks for being here and reading long.

Starting my flower farm: Part 3: The Leap

2021 is what I’m going to call, the leap. Jumping into larger area, new varieties, growing transplants, and offering my first flower subscriptions! I spent all my evenings reading flower production blogs and books, and reaching out to some Ontario growers about their tested practices.

This jump in production required a couple of major infrastructure improvements. First was an ability to grow healthy transplants. Some flowers can be direct seeded, some need a little extra love in their early life, and prefer to be started indoors. So, I assembled a 4 shelf system in our laundry room to grow trays of transplants. I could start approximately 860 plants on three shelves in 72-cell plug trays, under shop lights that Brad wired up for me.

Before, during, and after setup!

The lights were all wired to a light switch, and I actually used a Wi-Fi controller to program the lights to turn on and off at specific times so I didn’t have to live by the schedule of the lights! I have one more shelf I could add lights to for this year’s plants if needed (and at the rate I’m ordering seeds, I’ll probably need it!)

The second infrastructure improvement was the decision to change the layout of my flower rows. I expanded from approximately 140 square feet to 1400 square feet! The first year I laid out the landscape fabric, I laid it out in long 100ft rows thinking that would be the most efficient use of space. And it is, BUT it’s not the most efficient way for moving your body up and down the rows to harvest. So I turned the rows to run the opposite way, and cut the fabric down to 35-40ft, and worked in 8 sections. Each section is approximately 4 feet wide of planting space, and 2ft between sections. I use 6ft wide landscape fabric, so the 2 feet between planting areas is still fabric, suppressing weeds. Below on left, is my fabric layout in 2020. I didn’t have plants in even a quarter of the space- definitely bit off more than I could handle that first year. On the right is how I changed it in 2021. Something about more rows, but shorter in length, seemed more mentally manageable. And now having a year of this layout under my belt, I’m very happy with it.

The third infrastructure improvement I needed was water. Now, on the farm, we’re on a well that provides for the whole farm. And anyone who’s also on a well knows you cannot just turn the tap on wide open, and have someone get a shower, run the dishwasher, or laundry machine in the house at the same time. So I found a pair of 1000L plastic totes to hold water at the field. Brad bought me a little impeller pump to draw water from the tote through regular garden hose and watering wand. So, now I could water. It was slow, and we had to physically stand there to do it, but it was WAY better than pulling jugs and watering cans to the field (which we did for the first few weeks before the pump arrived!)

The next thing on my list to establish this flower field, was to invest in dahlia tubers. Investing in tubers with the plan of digging them, storing them, and splitting them to replant in 2022 is a bit of an expensive endeavor, but I can say now it was well worth the investment. We enjoyed dahlias until late October! The photo below is the last bucket of dahlias just before we cut down the plants and dug the tubers for storing.

One dahlia tuber planted in the spring will, on average, yield and additional 4 tubers to carry to the following year. The real challenge is storing so they don’t dry out, mold, or rot.

The last thing that was absolutely imperative to making this all work, was ASKING FOR HELP. Enter, Fiona. I asked Fiona if she would help me rototill the designated flower area, and stake down the landscape fabric in April. I quickly realized that working full-time and spending 2-3 hours in the daylit evening was too much for me to handle by myself, especially if I wanted to see my husband (and I did want to!) which I’ll talk more about in Part 4! So, for all the hours that I spent out there, Fiona was there too, and then some! And thank goodness for her. We work really well together, she cares as much about these flowers as I do, and we both got a lot of enjoyment out of what we built and grew this year!

Right now is planning time for next year’s flowers, and if you’d like to purchase a bouquet subscription, or gift one to a loved one, you can do so here! Thanks for being here and following my story, friends!

Starting my flower farm – Part 2: How did we get here?

In the winter of 2018 the idea of Snobelen Homestead was born with the plan of growing pumpkins, a few summer veggies, and sunflowers. I’ve always loved sunflowers. I mean, that cheery yellow, who doesn’t?!

Our first year, 2018, we grew an impressive number of jack-o-lantern type pumpkins for the number of seeds we planted, some flat white pumpkins, and a couple varieties of sunflowers that left me looking for more! The picture below shows the monster sunflowers that I was SO EXCITED about. It’s funny to look at them now, and see how big they are. But everyone starts somewhere! I mean, even from cutting them and leaving so many leaves on *face palm*, there are things you just don’t know until you try!

In 2019, Blaik was born so time spent on flower production was quite limited, but I did find sunflower varieties meant for cut-flower production- pollenless, single stem beauties. That year we expanded our offering of pumpkins, gourds, squash, and had our first fundraiser porch package offering.

Porch Package pickup day with Chatham-Kent 4H field crop club. September 2019

2020 was my summer at home on maternity leave with two mobile kids. I remember starting to follow flower farmers online that year, and I specifically remember one photo from a grower in PA who grabbed zinnias, dahlias, and sunflowers from her flower rows and bundled for a gift. I thought, that’s it! That’s all I need to get started. So I ordered 75 zinnia seeds, 15 dahlia tubers, and a few hundred sunflowers.

Here I am planting one succession of sunflowers in mid-June 2020.

I was fortunate to have nicely established perennial beds around the farm that I experimented with aswell. Things like coneflower, sedum, hosta, shasta daisy, and ornamental grasses all proved to have great vase life, and made my simple sunflower and zinnia combinations more complete.

2020 was a big learning year! I tried planting many successions of sunflowers, learned about growing on landscape fabric, learned I needed some way to water flowers (especially those dahlia queens), learned many lessons about why things failed, but ultimately learned that this was becoming my PASSION. It’s hard to compare raising flowers to raising kids, but when you focus in and give them lots of love and attention, the rewards are stunning! Not to mention, involving our kids in this Homestead is an amazing thing to watch.

Part 3 of the series, coming next week, will dig into how I scaled production to where I am now! Thanks for being here, friends!

Starting my flower farm: a series – Part 1

Let’s get this started in the right context. This is by no means a how-to series on starting a flower farm. If there were a how-to takeaway concept, it would be to follow your heart and create a path that works for you, because if there’s one thing above all else that I’ve learned so far, it’s that you have to listen to YOURSELF.

Gardening was never “in me.” I’m a trained commercial agronomist. Ask me to read a soil test result and I can recommend what you should apply to your soil to grow a good corn and soybean crop – but before 2018 I would say, “I can grow a field of crops, but cannot keep a garden to save my life.” I’ll talk about where my interest changed in part 2 of the series!

Cut to 4 growing seasons later, and I wrapped up my first intensive cut-flower production year. I still don’t feel like a gardener per se. In my head, a gardener has a big picture concept that they can create. I grow flowers in small square footage to produce long stems, and many, many blooms. A flower farmer.

My journey to business and entrepreneurship will be different than yours. It’s very hard not to compare, but it’s also not very helpful! The path I take my business in the future will be different than others as well. For example, I do not have a strong interest in floral design. Weddings? No, thank you. Have you met my friends Caroline, Jill, and Michelle?

Education. That’s where the mental wheels go to work for me. Truth be told, I have a geography degree because I wanted to enter the field of environmental education. Not in a classroom, but in the community. Workshops, open houses, extension and engagement with interested community members and groups. Agricultural education and advocacy has become a passion of mine, and the flower farm with U-cut events, and dreams of future workshops will fill this desire for extension and engagement with non-farming families and community groups.

The message here is that my business plan and goals will be different than yours, and that’s ok! There’s room at the table for all of us 🙂 Thank you for being here, I hope you’ll follow along my 5 part series, and share with a friend!


10 years in agriculture for this city girl

2019 marked 10 years that agriculture has been part of my life. From my early introductions at a Brant County family farm pitching hay, four summers spent in various field research assistant positions, four years as a full-time agronomist, and the six years living here on the farm where Brad grew up, it has been a learning curve like no other coming from the city.

If you asked me 10 years ago where I saw myself in the future, I certainly would never have guessed it would be here, planning for a third market season of our on-farm business. This market business is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done when considering day-to-day work.

The community of agriculture is a very special thing. The local community support, networking, and interaction from our customers in Chatham-Kent has been so amazing and has given us such a great opportunity to grow over our last two years. Social media also has given us a way to interact with other farmers across the country, and North America. We’ve connected with other pumpkin growers, flower farmers, homesteaders, and so many great families that share our passion. We might have large geographical distance between these connections, but it’s never been more clear to me how tight-knit the industry is.

My roots and path to the place I am today are certainly uncommon. I couldn’t be more grateful for my husband, and his patience, as I learn things every day that are second nature to him. And I couldn’t be having more fun connecting and interacting with people, in and out of agriculture, sharing our journey as a family in farming. As we turned the calendar over to 2020 this morning, I can’t help but be excited to see what the next 10 years will look like, for myself, our kids, and our business!

Party of four

Summer weather has finally arrived, and it seems like time is just flying!

I hope you’ll excuse my absence from keeping things up-to-date, but it’s been a little busy around here!

Last post, I was 33 weeks pregnant with Snobelen baby #2. At 38 weeks+4 days, we welcomed a baby girl at 6:01am, Sunday June 9th. She weighed 7lbs 4oz, and 21.25 inches long. We named her Blaik Elizabeth, and she is just the sweetest, most beautiful blessing making us a family of four. It seems crazy to think that five weeks have raced by already!

Just before Blaik was born, Brad managed to get all the commercial corn planted. This was an excellent stress relief because we had a large portion of our intended acres forward contracted, so it was really crucial we get the seed in the ground. Looking at it now 6 weeks later, it’s coming along quite nicely. A few days before baby Blaik arrived, I managed to plant the gladiolus bulbs, and the first of two plantings of our sunflowers. Brad also managed to transplant the tomatoes! Soybeans were planted soon after baby Blaik arrived, and the rest of the market crops like our popcorn, ornamental corn, sweet corn, pumpkins, gourds, and squash all made it in the ground. When I compare the stage of the crops this year (pictured below on right), to pictures taken on the same date last year (below on left), we are definitely a couple weeks behind, but the heat, and a little bit of rain should move things along.

We have started planning for our second annual Homegrown & Handmade in CK event, taking place on Saturday October 12th. We are so excited to see what year two of this event will bring to the farm, and equally as excited to bring people back to the farm to make a connection with the food and crops that we grow!

It will not be long before sweet corn, tomatoes, and sunflowers are the first things to come from the field. Stick close to our social media pages for sneak peaks at how things are coming along, and subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you know exactly when the first harvest is available!