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
“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,”
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
“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
“Plastic pots are fine. There is nothing wrong with them –
it’s just everybody has become much more conscious of what goes in the
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
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
“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,”
“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
Pesticides and insecticides also are important management
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
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.”