Intense Planting Makes a Little Farm Go
Want a bigger garden in your life? Think you’re limited by the size of your yard, or your full-time job? Then check out the MacAllers’ Four Leaf Farm in Rougemont, ten miles northeast of Hillsborough. “It’s a mixed ‘farmlet,’” jokes Helga MacAller of their farm, a relatively small property with so much going on, you won’t know where to look first.
Our tour makes a loop around the MacAllers’ home, surrounded on all sides by vegetation and growth. We start at the top of the driveway with the nursery—bedding plants, perennials, and herbs—split into shade-loving plants on one side and sun-lovers on the other. Plant sales were what got Tim and Helga back into farming after a long hiatus: they’d quit when they had children. In 2002, their son was in the Ag program at Orange High, and they started selling plants at the Hillsborough and Durham Farmers’ Markets. They decided to focus on one market and chose Durham.
Now they can barely keep up with sales. They grow all kinds of vegetables, in greenhouses through the winter and in the beds surrounding the house. Additional row crops are grown on rental properties—things like potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers that don’t require everyday attention.
On the way to the greenhouse, we pass the kiwi vine, pruned back for the new season. Recently trimmed, it’s just bare sticks poking out from the top of a trellis in the sun. By the end of summer, says Tim, it will be lush and full, with leaves reaching everywhere. The kiwis must be picked at the first frost, and then stored for about six weeks until they ripen. The MacAllers stored the kiwis in the bottom drawer of their fridge until it became a problem in 2006, when they harvested 800 kiwis.
We also pass the raspberry patch. This variety produces fruit on new canes, meaning the plants can be easily pruned back every year. When I see them, they are less than a foot tall, bare and leafless, but they’ll begin growing soon. The berries arrive in late June and continue until frost.
It’s warm and bright in the greenhouse. Clustered around the door are potted plants; the back two-thirds of the room is planted with vegetables. I always pictured greenhouse plants in pots, but these are right in the ground. This bed is planted several times through the winter; it’s used until the greenhouse gets too hot in early summer.
The greenhouse is also the home of Pea Shoot Production: the MacAllers plant ten to twelve pounds of pea plant seed twice a week. This germinates into pea shoots in about two weeks; the biweekly plantings maintain a constant supply. I can see four stages of growth, from dirt and newly split seeds to single green stalks to the fluffy, curly green leaves that are ready to harvest. Half of one tray has been chopped with scissors, leaving even, green stubble. Helga breaks off a shoot for me to try—it’s sweet and delicate, more substantial than lettuce, but not tough at all and not spicy like arugula.
Outside the greenhouse is a bed of row vegetables: leaks, garlic, fava beans, radish, kale, onions, and rhubarb are what I’m able to write down as Helga lists them. This space will be used two to three times this season; the MacAllers will have the new plants ready to go, as seedlings, not seeds, when the old plants are done. The intense rotation allows them to maximize the production of their small space.
Tim pushes his finger into the soil to demonstrate how nice it is: in spite of its redness, it’s more like coffee grinds than clay. This is thanks to the compost they’ve added, much of it remnants of harvested pea shoots. The MacAllers use drip hoses and lots of mulch to keep the weeds out and the moisture in. Where they do use black plastic in place of mulch, it’s a biodegradable brand.
We head down the west side of the yard towards the woods, passing a metal humming bird hovering over a metal flower. Other pieces of yard art sun themselves on the grass or lurk in the bushes around the house. In the shade behind the house, a gate opens to a path leading down through the trees to the north fork of the Little River, where visitors can perch on a rock to enjoy the peacefulness. Planted along the edge of the trees are native and wild plants. There is a tiny tulip, called a “species tulip,” which is the original variety that other tulips came from. Even in the southern heat, this tulip produces flowers year after year. At the far end of the trail, I spot delicate white bloodroot, blooming through the dry leaves covering the ground. The native plants are labeled and many of the varieties are for sale.
As we approach the nursery where we began, I can see the shiitake logs, side by side, standing on end and resting on an angle against a horizontal beam. I’m reminded of the primitive lean-to we built in sixth grade, on a “wilderness survival” field trip to an outdoor center. Dusty the cat makes a late appearance, following us with disinterest as we head back to the driveway.
The MacAllers know what they’re doing. They keep their land and plants healthy, paying attention and planning ahead. Their farm and their home are so well integrated, it’s impossible to tell where one stops and the other begins. And when you see how many things they grow in spite of their full-time jobs, you’ll be inspired.
Four Leaf Farm is frequently part of the Piedmont Farm Tour in the spring. Visit them online at http://www.fourleaffarm.org/.