Debbie's Blog

Van Till Family Farm & Winery

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The Storm That Took Out the Strawberry Towers

Last month, my brother Lonnie Scott,  Bobcat Properties Farm,  wrote about his experience in an unexpected storm that came through the Farmer’s Market in the parking lot of Gen Ivy Hot Springs Spa in Joseph Canyon,  California.   He sells honey from the farm and has a “mascot bee”, Hanna.  This blog is a response to his story with a similar story of our own about a storm coming through Rayville, where our winery is, just 2 days before his storm!  I am just having some fun as  our mascot, Strawberry Shortcake is being re-introduced!  Life has been so full this summer with wine, pizza and the experience at the winery, that we are  just have a little fun here!

Hi Lonnie, this is Strawberry Shortcake.  I live at the Van Till Family Farm & Winery.  I am the Senior strawberry plant.  Since Farm to Table is the theme around here, the community of strawberry plants in the towers are responsible for producing the strawberries for the Strawberry Salad and Strawberry Shortcake for the Patio Dining and strawberries for the Farmstead Strawberry Spread that is sold at Christmas in the Wine Shop.  Though we can’t produce all the strawberries for the Strawberry Festival Wine that is made here also, we do play an important role around here in the greenhouse.  We help out during the tours, showing the guests how happy we are growing in the towers in the greenhouse!

All the plants are pulled at the end of the season, which is around this time of the year, but I always hide and overwinter somewhere and then get back into the strawberry towers  (we don’t have ‘runners’ for nothing!) just in time for the beginning of the next growing season in February. I live a secret life here!  It is amazing what you can do with phones these days, as I have secretly posted on The Van Till Farms and Winery  Facebook page  as far back as 2010.  I kept a bit of a journal from a plant’s point of view and posted on Facebook.  I made a lot of friends.  I have since retired from strawberry production, but I am still

around and keep an eye on things.

Hanna, the Honey Bee, probably has made a lot of friends at the farmers market too, and who knows, maybe she has a blog somewhere or she is on Facebook,  or both!

It sounds like you had an experience just like we had out here.  The Wednesday night, before your Saturday morning experience, Cliff and Brian  were coming back from Ladoga Ridge Winery, which is a winery in our Great Northwest Missouri Wine Trail Association and it is located about 45 minutes west of us. They had been helping at the winery and were on their way home in the evening.  As they were heading back, a storm with near straight line winds and rain  was moving fast, right toward Rayville.  They called Debbie and told her to get ready!  She took down the farmers market umbrella that was over the pool, so  the wind wouldn’t pick it up and sail it over the house.  Even though that did  happen quite a few years ago and it was found, undamaged,  in the front yard upside down the morning after a wild storm,   she didn’t want to  risk it this time.

Then, Debbie ran to the shop to close the big roll up door so the bags of cement that were being used to finish The Secret Garden wouldn’t get wet, as the winds now were blowing like mad.

Me, I was in the greenhouse when the winds kicked up.  Cliff forgot to tell her to roll up the sides  of the greenhouse, so the wind just blew right through, and took out the 2 rows of strawberry towers!

I wasn’t hurt, I could see it coming. Just like you I tried to warn the others, but all I could do was get to safety.  I had remembered the  “stop, drop and roll” in the literature for training when Cliff was a Wood Heights Fire Department Volunteer.  I needed something to read during those lonely winter nights that I was in hiding!  Yes, Cliff had great foresight when he built the greenhouse, it has lights!

Strawberry Towers on the ground after the storm!

As you can see in the before and after picture, the greenhouse isn’t the same!

But, as I mentioned in the beginning, the strawberries were just about finished.  Last week the boys took the soil and plants to the compost pile and refilled the towers and got everything swept up.

You wouldn’t have even known that this was home to 500 strawberry plants!

Well, it is time to go.  We have another tour coming through this Friday and I need to supervise the changing of the guard in the greenhouse.  The cucumbers, though they have been sharing space this summer,  are acquiring more space and the strawberry towers are now being converted to Tomato Towers, so the grape tomatoes can garnish the salads served on the Patio. These guys, the cucumber and tomaotes,  do a good job in showing people how their food comes from a farm, but I act in an advisory capacity to them, helping them do a great job!.

The winery is busy today too!  The grape harvest is on and there is juice running through a stemmer crusher, 2 pumps and a big bladdar press. Cliff is having a grand time!  He loves the stainless steel tanks and valves.  Last year, when the tanks were full and harvest was finished, he had so much fun, that he wanted to get more grapes and tanks so he could keep working with his equipment!

He is a happy man these days!

I would like to meet Hanna the Honey Bee someday, she sounds like she is a great asset to your farmers market experience!  Maybe I could learn some people skills from her, since she hangs out at a spa and  goes to the farmers market every week.   I have tasted your honey and used your lip balm, they are both good.

Well, good-bye from Van Till Family Farm & Winery, where you will find

Wine, Pizza and The Experience.


Strawberry Shortcake


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Drip Irrigation Project

Cliff Hooking up drip hose in Kitchen Hoop House

A frog on a lettuce leaf in the shade on a 95 degree summer day.

Shade cloth and regular watering with drip tape means sweet lettuce!

Today, Cliff is hooking up the drip irrigation for the Kitchen Hoop House where we have been growing lettuce for the salads and basil for the pesto sauce for the wood-fired oven pizza.  We have shade cloth stretched over the hoops that block 45 % of the sun.  The real test has been this last month, with daytime temps  in the 95-102 range and we have been growing lettuce the whole time!  We pick the outer leaves as they get to the size we want and leave the rest of the plant to grow.  This allows us to harvest the same lettuce plant over 4-6 weeks.  I have planted small lettuce plugs in between the lettuce plants that we are harvesting so that they can get established.  When we pull the older plants, then the smaller ones take off, keeping bare dirt to a minimum.  Growing lettuce during the middle of the summer has been quite challenging because it can get bitter rather fast.  But we are finding that growing under this shade cloth, with regular watering, we are harvesting sweet, succulent lettuce.

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From Wine to Wall

The grapes have been picked, stemmed and crushed.  The winery is filled with the wonderful smell of fermentation!   There is something very rewarding about the concept of vineyard to vat, grapes to goblet, farm to table, farm to fork, onions to oven, pesto to pizza and squash to salad.   We are always coming up with a  fun way to describe our motto here at Van Till Family Farm & Winery.  We are farmers and love to value add to what we grow so our guests can have an enjoyable experience here at the farm & winery.

But there was another harvest this fall at the winery, though along the lines of farm to table,  this one is more like weeds to wall!

Clay for the Wall

Yes, we took our own soil (where weeds come from), added a few stabilizers and built an Earthen  Wall on the east side of the Patio Pavillion gardens.  It is quite a piece of craftsmanship.  We thoroughly enjoyed watching Floyd and Linda build it last month. The wall  has been made with Compressed Earth Blocks , also called CEB, which are bricks that are made from mostly clay, and a little sand and cement.    This mix is loaded, somewhat dry,  into a hopper, and with hydraulics it is pressed into  large bricks.

Under  1200 psi, these   bricks are durable!

Bricks from Clay for the Wall       Earthen Plaster is applied to the bricks giving a  smooth  finish to the wall.  With a water repellent finish,  it will be water proof and ready for the weather.   The wall will be the backdrop for a

East Wall

The finished wall waiting for the water feature.











The water feature will certainly add to the  peaceful and relaxing atmosphere that is here at the winery. Even though the weather has cooled down, the garden path is still extending an invitation to explore the fall garden.  Follow the path and come  see the wall!

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Dynamic Accoumulators

Comfrey plant before leaves are cut off for compost around this young espalier tree.

Comfrey as a Dynamic Accumulator

In this second picture, I have chopped down this comfrey plant, (Russian Comfrey),  for the 3rd time this year and laid the leaves down around the small fruit trees that we have started in the Secret Garden.  This plant was put into the garden as a Dynamic Accumulator, to bring nutrients, especially calcium,  (which is vital for good, sweet fruit),  from deep in the soil into the leaves.  The plant had grown  very lush  with leaves and flowers, and then I cut it back  to the ground, as you can see in the picture, and spread the leaves around the root zone of these small fruit trees.  This doesn’t hurt the plant at all, in fact,  I will be cutting it back again a few more times this summer and into the fall.  The best way to tell if it is really  accumulating calcium is to take a soil test.  I will wait until next year or the year after to do that.  Building the soil without purchasing ” off-farm” inputs does take patience,  and is an ideal way to build soil in a urban garden, too.

Since there is always something exciting happening in the garden, I am willing to wait a year or so to tell if my soil building on these trees is effective.  In the meantime, I am training the fruit trees in the Secret Garden using two techniques developed in Europe called Espalier and The Lorette System.   These trees will be trained and  pruned during the summer months using methods that allow for lots of fruit in a small space.   Building a wall for the garden is in the August plans just before grape harvest  so, when we begin construction, I will post on that progress.  Too much to do outside to spend too much time on the computer.  Enjoying the season, Deb

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Never underestimate the power of green onions!

Last winter about this time, in preparation for Friday Night Pizza, I was gathering up the green vegetables in the Farm Kitchen  that Chef  Josh had discarded to go into  the compost   when I noticed on the top,  a bunch of green onions (scallions)  that we had purchased from the store.  He had used what he needed and cut off the root ends which were

still bound together with the rubber band.  I could see that they were still alive!  I took those out, set them aside and took the  onion peels, outer leaves of the lettuce, carrot ends and cilantro roots to the compost bin.  How could I discard something that was still alive!

Green Onions in February on the Patio

The next day, I found a 1 gallon nursery pot, filled it with potting soil mixed with compost, took off the rubber band and planted and watered  those

scalllions in the pot.  The next week  I could see they were growing, and soon we were harvesting the tops of  these green onions for our Southwestern Pizza.

It was pretty simple and didn’t take much effort.  In fact, they even survived with  very little water in the summer,  winter in an unheated greenhouse  and are now growing on the patio, ready to be harvested again this week.  And we thought the onion was only an ordinary  vegetable crop.

Oranges and Lemons on the Patio Pavilion in February


Order the Southwestern Pizza and you will be enjoying local fresh grown greens, in winter, in Missouri!  And did you notice the bright orange and yellow in the picture?

Yes, those are oranges and lemons growing on trees in our Patio Pavilion!  Stop by and see them,  but please don’t pick the oranges!


A Tribute to Our Mothers and Fathers

Early this month , I enjoyed pruning and transplanting in the greenhouse Patio Pavilion.  It was so rewarding

to be able to dig in the soil, and work with plants that have blooms ( geraniums),  foliage ( boston ivy),  and fruit ( naval orange

and Meyers lemon trees) when most of the ground all around was  just beginning to defrost!

Frozen ground and 7 inches of snow didn’t stop me though,  from harvesting in the farmscape.   I collected cuttings of  pussy willows ( Salix Chaenomeloides, Giant Pussy Willow),  curly willow ( Salix Matsudana Golden Curls) and a bright orange one (Saliz alba  Britzensis,  Coral Bark Willow).   I made these  ‘ornamental woodies’  into  dry arrangement decorations for the Patio Pavillion and the Tasting Room.  And compared to a  snowy day  like yesterday,  the Patio Pavilion temperature stayed near 62 degrees most of the day, such a taste of spring!

I had gotten behind in my maintenance this winter and spent the last few weeks trying to  catching up.  As I was working with the plants in the sun, I reflected on why I hadn’t done this earlier, because it should have been done a long time ago.  We like our patio and farmscape to look relaxing and  inviting and we aim to set a stage for our guests to enjoy the plants and atmosphere while they visit here at the winery.  We certainly don’t want them to  feel like they  must jump up and clean out dead plant material from the flower beds!

We are a farm family, though,  and when my Dad passed away early December, all of the load shifted to Cliff and the staff as Brian and I went to California for a few weeks.

Deb's Parents: Ted and Louise Scott

As expected, shifting back into gear takes time and I couldn’t get to these plants.

But as I stopped and reflected on the events over the last few months, I realized how much both Cliff and my parents had contributed to who we are.

My mother loved to garden, and I think I inherited the love of plants from her.  I had seen her successfully start plants from cuttings that had been discarded on the ground.  Is that a green thumb?   And what did I do today?  Why I picked up a broken branch from a geranium plant growing in a container near the patio door, got a mason jar filled with water and stuck that green branch in the water. Did I think twice about it, no!  I just knew, that was what needed to be done and I am quite confident that it will grow.  That must be an “inherited green thumb”!

My father kept very good records and loved history.  He would keep records of phone conversations for years and actually refer back to them to verify some facts.

I remember my brother telling me he had talked to  Dad regarding some business transaction and had told him the details.  Months later, my brother couldn’t remember the details, but he called  Dad, and Dad found the yellow legal pad which he had taken notes on and gave the facts to my brother.

I keep  a lot of records and have a lot of pictures of plants on the farm.  I must admit though, I don’t have them organized well and they get lost in a pile on my desk!

So, where do I get the ability to take care of the plants on the farm and keep records and enjoy writing?  I probably caught it from my Mom and Dad.

They devoted a great deal of time to us seven children and I am grateful for their dedication to us.

Cliff's Parents: Jim and Verna Van Till

Cliff’s parents enjoyed people  and were always having someone over to their house for dinner or coffee.  His Mom had a real gift of hospitality, even keeping  notes on what you were served so she wouldn’t serve the same thing the next time you came to dinner!  Cliff thinks of the farm as an extension of our home and we try to make our guests feel

welcome and comfortable  as if the Patio Pavilion were our home.   Cliff’s Dad was an honest man and a man of  integrity and  Cliff  shares those same values too.  Cliff’s parents devoted a great deal of time to raising their six children too, and for that we are also very grateful.

So, it is our hope, as you read this blog and if you can visit the farm and winery, that you will enjoy your time spent here and  that you will enjoy your  visit to the farm and winery.

Though my husband and I have some  God given talents and abilities, it was our parents that helped guide us and never told us we couldn’t achieve our dreams.

Thanks Mom and Dad.


Harvesting Ghost Peppers

The Ghost Peppers or Bhut Jolokia, look great!  The plants are loaded right now


Ghost Peppers ready for harvest. Now what do I do!


with green, orange and yes, red fruit.  As the pepper ripen they change

colors from green to orange to red.    I have been watching the plants

all summer  with a healthy respect for the unusual crop they bear.

This is the hottest pepper in the world and I have been eyeing them

from a distance,  they seem to carry a mystery about them!

I am just not sure what to do with these peppers!

Jalapenos can be as hot as 8,000 SHU (Scoville Heat Units), habaneros

can be as hot as 350,000 SHU, with Ghost Peppers checking in at 1,000,000 SHU,

the hottest pepper in the world!

We have 2 Chipotle Peppers Sauces  and 3 Pepper Jams that we make here at the

winery with the jalapeno peppers that we grow on the farm. And those sauces range from

mildly hot to hot!  I use my habanero peppers in a tonic that ages with garlic, horseradish,

onions and vinegar that builds the immune system!  Wow, is it hot, but really good!

So what am I going to do with these Ghost Peppers?  They are ready for harvest.

Has anyone every used them?  I would be interested in hearing how you have used these peppers.