Liz Fiorenza of Wind Ridge Herb Farm gives a presentation at the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference.
Liz Fiorenza of Wind Ridge Herb Farm gives a presentation at the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference.
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — It was uncharted territory for Liz Fiorenza when she moved into the organic herb production business 15 years ago, but through the resilience of both the plant and grower, Wind Ridge Herb Farm has since flourished.

The farm in Caledonia has since grown to include more than 400 varieties of herbs in greenhouses and fields and also offers other herbal products, including organic vinegars, dressings, seasoning, dips, teas and potpourris.

“When I first started, there were basically no organic products that I could find and greenhouse supply stores, so it was a challenge,” Fiorenza during her presentation at the Illinois Specialty Crops, Agritourism and Organic Conference.

“Most greenhouse businesses were strictly traditional sprays and fertilizers, and I had a real difficult time trying to find out how to do this. It was a learning process. I’m still learning.

“Obviously, greenhouse production wasn’t my background, but when we opened our business, I couldn’t find any greenhouses that had a supply of organic plants. So in order to have the product to give to my customers, I had to create it.

“I was fully self-taught in greenhouse management. It is tough. I couldn’t even ask anybody because there was no one else out there doing it, and I had to just make up my own as I went along.

“But, thank God, herbs are very resilient, and they’re fairly resistant to diseases, so I was able to struggle along and get to the point where we are now.”

Organic production requires a complete management system from the soil selected to pest and disease control, and Fiorenza provided details of those practices.

For the greenhouse, Fiorenza uses certified organic products listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute such as Fafard and Sunshine. Other commercial soil mixes available in smaller quantities include Happy Frog, Espoma and many others.

“There are a lot more now than there ever were before,” Fiorenza said.

Wind Ridge Herb Farm began using plastic conventional pots in its greenhouse, but has since move to biodegradable fiber pots or plug trays that also help develop the plant’s root system.

“With the biodegradable fiber pots, you get more lush vegetation on the top, and then you avoid transplant shock,” Fiorenza said.

“I always had a noticeable stoppage of growth for about two weeks after I transplant. This way, there is none of that. You can put the whole thing into a bigger plot or into the ground, and you don’t lose those two weeks of growth.

“Plastic pots are fine. There is nothing wrong with them – it’s just everybody has become much more conscious of what goes in the landfill.”

Fertilizer availability also has changed in the past 15 years from only a few to many different kinds in both liquid and dry forms.

Pennacle, a liquid plant food, is used by Fiorenza as a foliar feed or root feeding system as it is absorbed by the roots or leaves, depending on the type of application.

“We put everything on a schedule. Every week, we do the plug trays, and when things are transplanted, we mix something like earthworm castings or use another prepared dry fertilizer that’s slow release,” she said. “We hit them with a liquid fertilizer if it looks like they’re slowing down in growth or looking a little yellow.

“It’s a visual thing. Herbs are used to arid, kind of desolate types of conditions, so they’re not heavy feeders like some of the flowering plants or vegetables with have to set flowers.

“If you over-fertilizer herbs, you’re going to end up with a lot of upward growth and very little leaf growth. You want more of a shrubby herb because you are harvesting the leaves, so if you want to get that, you want to kind of slow it down a little bit. You don’t want really high numbers on your fertilizers.”

Dr. Earth, a slow release fertilizer that contains extra calcium, also is used at Wind Ridge Herb Farm.

The farm also addresses the growing needs of vegan customers.

“They don’t want any kind of animal byproducts whatsoever on their plants, so that means no earthworm, no bat guano, no chicken poop, nothing,” Fiorenza said. “The Pinnacle doesn’t have any of that in it or you can use a seaweed plant food or fish emulsion.”

The bat guano is a natural phosphate fertilizer. It can come in high nitrogen or high phosphorous levels, depending on what is being grown.

“If you do high nitrogen with herbs, you get a lot of upward growth, but very little leaf production, so I tend to stay away from that. But it does promote strong root growth, and it’s a good greening fertilizer, so if your plants are looking a little yellow, it will green them up really fast,” Fiorenza said.

“The same with seaweed and fish emulsion. It’s great for hydroponics. Hydroponics is based on your fish providing the fertilizer for you plants and the plants providing oxygen for fish.

“When you transplant into a field or whenever you’re going to plant herbs, we never fertilizer herbs when they’re planted out in the garden. We do mulching that provides some natural fertilization.

“But if you’re growing organically in a garden, herbs get plenty of nutrients out in a garden — if you have good healthy soil with earthworms depositing what they’re supposed to deposit, you really need very little fertilization.”

Pesticides and insecticides also are important management tools.

“The benefits of these organic pesticides and insecticides are there is no harm to any pets or people and most of them can be used within a few hours harvest,” Fiorenza said.

“The bad side about organic pesticides is you have to have a program and you have to stick to it. It’s extremely important that you stay on top of it. Otherwise, you’re going to get bombarded, and it’s going to take over. I’m mainly talking about greenhouses.”

Diatomaceous earth outside planting controls crawling bugs, snails, slugs, ants, earwigs and flies, but is harmless to worms.

Insecticidal soaps control aphids, earwigs, leaf hoppers, mealy bugs, mites, squash bugs, thrips and whiteflies.

“Milky spore is really good for Japanese beetles. It’s a bacteria. Since our gardens and our farm is so large, it’s really hard to constantly do something outside,” Fiorenza said.

“So if you have a certain plant area, so you have berries planted somewhere or basil planted in a certain area, you can spread that around a certain area and it will help decrease grubs and that will diminish some of your adult Japanese beetles. It stays in your soil for 15 to 20 years.”

Pyganic is a brand of pyrethrum extract. Pyrethrum is an oil from an chrysanthemum. That kills over 40 different types of greenhouse and outdoor pests, including Japanese beetles.

“The pyrethrum does not hurt beneficials, and the rest of these do kill off some beneficials. I don’t want to kill off any honeybees or butterflies, so I’ll either apply it early in the morning,” Fiorenza said.

Beneficials are natural predators that help control insects that damage plants.

“There are predators for nearly every pest. They include nematodes, ladybugs, praying mantis and lace wings. Herbs attract many of these to the garden naturally. Pollinators like honeybees are also attracted to herbs,” Fiorenza said.

As with commercial agriculture, organic production also faces the challenges of resistance.

“Currently, there are 300 different types of insects that are resistant to every one of our chemicals that we’ve been spraying with, and that number is just going to continue to increase over the years,” Fiorenza said.

“So we need to find other ways of killing off bugs without using a lot of chemicals. It’s kind of like the ragweed that’s now resistant to Roundup.

“You should rotate the pesticides. You don’t want your bugs to get a resistance. You also have to know what the bug’s lifecycle is. For example, if you have something that hatches after seven to 10 days, that’s when you need to reapply.

“You can’t just do it once and figure you have a knockdown and it’s all gone. You have to be vigilant, and you have to be diligent and keep up with that”.

Neem is a multipurpose botanical that can be used as an insecticide, pesticide, miticide or a fungicide. It targets aphids, whiteflies, mealy bugs and more than 30 other pests.

Neem repels for about seven days and does not affect earthworms and other beneficials or honeybees. It can be used indoors or outside.

The most common diseases on herbs are powdery and downy mildews. Those mainly affect basils, rosemary, monarda and sage.

“For the most part, they’re very resilient to disease because of the high essential oil content in the plant. It’s like a natural antibiotic that the plant has in its system. But when they get too stressed or too crowded or whatever the reason, you end up with disease,” Fiorenza said.

“We use Actinovate a lot. It attacks foliar diseases such as powdery or downy mildew, gray mold, leaf spot and others. It also prevents root rot like fusarium.

“MilStop is a broad spectrum foliar fungicide and works for powdery mildew, black spot and several blights.

“Oxidate can be used for powdery and downy mildews, botrytis, fusarium and other diseases. It’s great for cleaning out greenhouses.

“Organocide is a fungicide and insecticide together. Herbal teas can also be used.”

Weed control is another challenge for organic production.

“Mulches are probably one of the easier things to do, the least expensive with natural resources-type composting,” Fiorenza said.

Straw, grass clippings and black landscape fabric are among the items that can be used.

“We use a newspaper-grass clipping mulch. It’s very time-consuming the first thing in the spring, but we have very little weeding the rest of the season,” Fiorenza said.

“It keeps the soil moist. It keeps temperature even in the soil, plus it decomposes and you have a natural fertilizer. For our vegetables, we use a lot of biodegradable landscape fabric for the large garden areas.”

Horticultural vinegar — 20 percent acid vinegar — will eradicate any plant it contacts. Essential oils — cinnamon and clove oils — also can be used.

“Corn gluten is another great herbicide. It prevents seed germination by killing feeder roots of seeds. It will do that with any seed, so you can’t put that on if you’re going to reseed a lawn or plant vegetable seeds because it will kill them up to a year,” Fiorenza said.

“It’s easier to prevent diseases than to treat them. Maintain a good airflow on your plants inside and outside. We have a lot of extra fans that we have just on our basil to eliminate mildew.

“Water early in the day so that your plants aren’t sitting wet all day long, and you should also have good hygiene with your hands and tools. Set a regular schedule for fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides in your greenhouse to keep everything going.”