Valley Bounty: Bernardston’s Couch Brook Farm offers fresh starts, organic and essential

By JACOB NELSON

For the Recorder

Published: 04-21-2023 8:10 PM

Vibrant yellow and purple pansies coloring local farm stands, their faces turned upward to greet the sun, are sure signs of warmth returning to New England.

“I already delivered some last week to Upinngil Farm in Gill and Atlas Farm Store in South Deerfield,” said Elaine Morley. After more than 40 years of farming and starting plants for others at Couch Brook Farm in Bernardston, she’s well accustomed to the rhythms of spring’s arrival.

Morley and her husband, Peter Cevasco, bought land and set down roots in Bernardston in 1981. Today their 17 acres are home to several farming projects, but as Morley explained, “our main crop is actually the plants.”

From flowers — both perennials and annuals — to herbs and vegetable starts, they grow with home gardeners’ desires in mind. Morley estimates half of what they sell is ornamental and half edible, but the diversity of choice among vegetable and herb varieties is vast. They offer lettuce in 14 varieties, 15 kinds of tomatoes and dozens of different herbs. All of what they grow is certified organic.

Fruit is Morley and Cevasco’s other farming love. “We grow raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, peaches and apples,” Morley said. “We sell most of what we get to Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop in Bernardston and Upinngil Farm in Gill. Upinngil sells fruit at their store, and both places freeze it and to use in their baked goods throughout the year.”

Come July, they’ll also open for pick-your-own blueberries — also certified organic.

Visitors at any time of year can also view and purchase Morley’s pottery, her other vocation.

“Once things wind down in the fall, that’s when I return to pottery,” she said. “I make bowls, plates, mugs, vases, bird feeders — all kinds of stuff. It’s stoneware pottery, so it can be used in the oven, microwave and dishwasher.”

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Growing plants organically, with careful attention to inputs and avoidance of harsh chemicals, is important to Morley. With that comes a focus on disease prevention and giving plants what they need to be as healthy as possible from the beginning, minimizing the challenges that chemicals might be called on to treat.

“We don’t buy cuttings or plants from anyone else,” Morley said. “We grow everything ourselves from seed, so we don’t inherit anyone else’s problems. And we mix our own potting soil from organic inputs. I think it grows healthier plants, and it’s the least expensive way to do it.”

Preparations for this season of seed starting began when most home gardeners were still harvesting last summer’s bounty.

“I order most of my seeds in the fall and collect them all by December,” she explained. “By the first week in January, I’m planting pansy seeds indoors.”

A few weeks later, the greenhouses open up. Couch Brook Farm has three heated greenhouses, all warmed by wood stoves with propane heaters as backups.

Then the seed planting begins in earnest. First come perennial flowers, herbs and anything that takes longer to establish. Then annual flowers, and then a succession of veggie seedlings, timed to be ready for their respective planting out dates.

“Last week I started tomato seeds,” Morley said. “That’s probably the last big seeding we’ll do for the year.”

Once seedlings are strong enough, they’re transplanted from trays into larger pots for selling, either plastic six-pack containers or 4-inch pots for individual plants. In addition to Upinngil Farm and Atlas Farm Store, people can also find their plants at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Starting Saturday, April 22, they’ll also begin selling straight from the farm at 184 Couch Brook Road. They plan to be open Thursdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through June 4.

“People can come walk through the greenhouses and look at everything,” Morley said. “I update our website (couchbrookfarm.com) every week during the season with a list of plants and prices. My hope is that people find what they’re looking for and also discover some new plants they haven’t tried yet.”

Morley’s biggest advice when customers take her plants home is to lavish a little attention on them each day, as she has for the previous weeks and months. Giving them a drink of water and adjusting their position in the sunlight takes just a moment but makes for a much happier plant than one that’s accidentally neglected for a stretch of days.

Her other advice is to have clear-eyed expectations about the New England growing climate. Most varieties Couch Brook Farm grows are inherently well-adapted to the region, but some garden favorites are on the edge of their climatic preference.

“I love hot peppers,” Morley said, “and I grow and sell them, but you can’t plant until it’s plenty warm, and you may not get that many. And tomatoes don’t like nights below even 50 degrees. They’ll just get stunted — it’s not how they like it yet.”

The art and science of growing plants is certainly complicated. Even for Morley, who’s been growing for many decades, there is always more to learn. But everyone has to start somewhere, and the sweet rush of a homegrown cherry tomato bursting on your tongue is as good an incentive as any to give it a shot.

“Taking care of plants becomes easier the more you do it,” she said. “You learn which plants like things which way, and what to expect. It’s just a matter of observation over the years. That makes you a better grower.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To find more local farms near you with seeds and plants for garden season, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.

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