large dahlia garden at Two Pony Gardens

Morning Mug Series: Two Pony Gardens

Before most people are awake, there are those who are up brewing coffee and thriving. Those who seize the day and do something unique with their mornings. In this series, we’ll be introducing you to some of these people, what their mornings look like, and what motivates them. We recently visited Two Pony Gardens and joined Lisa Ringer (matriarch, founder, master gardener) and Katherine Price (ag consultant, soil specialist, farm manager) for their morning chores at the farm. Read on to be inspired by these wonderful women and learn about all the things that go on at Two Pony Gardens, from pizza to dahlias to horses and everything in between.

Good morning! Thanks for letting us join you both this morning!

Lisa Ringer: I’m just going to blindly go through chores while we talk!

Katherine Price: And I’ll give the play-by-play. She has to get the buckets of feed ready for the supplements for the hay we feed. One of our ponies, Aku, is 30 years old which is basically ancient for a horse. He has almost no teeth left, so he has to get pelletized timothy hay that we soak in water. It’s basically like oatmeal, or a breakfast muesli for him. In the morning she makes up all four buckets that she feeds throughout the day so they’re ready to go. Lisa’s animals are probably the most spoiled farm animals that exist.

Perfect, that’s how it should be!  

KP: I don’t know anyone else who feeds horses 3 times a day. But he’s 30 and has no signs of slowing down. These horses typically live to be 25 to 28.

Caring for plants and animals is a lot of work, tell us more about the morning routine around here. What time do you get started?

KP: The earliest Lisa and I see each other is normally 8 am. People have this idea farmers all get up at 4:30am, or 6am or whenever the sun comes up. I have no idea when that is because I’m not out there! But we also do a lot of farming by headlamp in the evenings. Lisa was out in the dahlia garden with her headlamp last night till about midnight. I think she was making bouquets till later than that. We do a CSA with The Foundry Home Goods – the pickup is today and I’m on delivery at 10 or 10:30. This month we are delivering eggs, bouquets of dahlias, and tomatoes, all to The Foundry. Here, I’ll show you the dahlias in the walk-in cooler. Oh just kidding, she just cut them and did not bunch them yet. 

Is this when they start blooming?

KP: They’ve been in bloom for a month but they’re peak right now. They look amazing!! We had a garden club come yesterday and ooh and ah over them so we didn’t cut that top garden super heavy. We have another dahlia field down by the greenhouse that’s more our production field versus our demonstration garden.

How many dahlias do you grow each year and what do you do with the blooms?

KP: Hundreds. It’s mostly been for The Foundry market, and at our events we sell bouquets. Any other season we also sell them at self-serve farm stand at the end of the driveway, but we just didn’t have a good enough season to keep them stocked. Everything that could go wrong did, from the growing medium, to weather, to pests, to herbicide drift from a neighbor, and tomatoes can’t tolerate that so it’s been a challenging summer to say the least. Farming is notoriously difficult though, so we are plugging along.

Is everything here organic?

KP: Yes, but we are not certified because we’re not at a scale where it would financially make sense to pay for the certification. I believe our standards go even further than the standards required for certification as well. Alright, you got a bucket?

Let’s go! Oh look, they’re waiting!

LR: These are the two ponies, Harriet and Aku, and then I have four Shire horses and these two, Pete and Max, have been visiting all summer because I use them a lot. I keep them about 5 min away, but it’s so much easier to have them here. They’re really great horses, they do actually work! They plow, they log, and they haul ice, and I ride. I don’t ride Max though. They’re the English cousins to the Scottish Clydesdales. Everyone’s familiar with Clydesdales.

I assume feeding these guys is the first task of the day because they wouldn’t let you have it any other way?

KP: They stare across at us.

LR: They really do, they stare through the kitchen window, but they’re pretty patient with me because I always have to have a cup of coffee first. And then they get their oats. Aku here, the cream-colored guy is a Norwegian Fjord horse. As you heard he’s 30 and his teeth are flat. He can’t chew hay anymore so he sucks on it and spits it out, so I have to feed him this mush 4 times a day, which is reconstituted hay pellets. But Harriet likes to eat all the time, so she gets too fat so I have to keep them separate, and he stays out all day long. We’re going to go feed him now. His mane has a traditional Norwegian cut, it’s kind of flopped over because I need to trim it. I’ve always had Norwegian Fjords and I had a team of them, and then I kind of switched over to the big guys!

They’re ready to eat! That haircut makes him look like a young punk teenage horse instead of an old guy.

LR: The fact that he’s 30 is amazing, normally my others have died at about 25 so I’m grateful for every little moment I have with him!

What time do these guys wake up?

LR: Oh I don’t know, I’m a night owl and so they’re awake a lot when I am, but they sleep, they nap, and they stare at me… (laughs)

This feels like a lot to do in the morning, do you ever wake up and feel like, “I don’t want to do this today”?

LR: No – it’s not quite like milking cows but you just have to do it! And I really love it. I wake up in the morning and see those 4 white faces at the shutters, and I don’t know, I just really love taking care of animals.

What about a cold January negative 20 mornings, what does that look like?

LR: They’re tough, they’re Norwegian. All my horses are tough. I used to ride hunters and jumpers and you know, fancy horses that are in the barn all the time, and I vowed I’d never do that to horses. I tried to find the farthest possible thing from thoroughbreds back in the 80s and it was this. And they’re tough! In the really wet, 20 or 30 degrees and raining I do put blankets or rain slickers on them, but they do better without because they can regulate their own temp really well. Now that it’s fall I don’t mow here anymore, because Aku grazes the meadows, and he actually goes down behind the garden now and looks for grass down there too, but he doesn’t go anywhere. Sometimes I worry about traffic, but I just yell his name and he comes trotting back up to me like a dog.

What’s the kitty’s name?

LR: That’s Rocket. We have to fill Harriet’s water too, then normally I try and clean the pens in the morning but we’ll forego that one while you’re here.

So there’s a pizza event day tomorrow and Sunday. Does that impact what you do on the farm?

LR: Not me, I’m retiring! 

KP: She’s out of town for pizza weekends now!  So for pizza events we do reservations, roughly 20-25 reservations a day spread out between noon and the last seating that’s from 5-7. You get two hours, and a certain number of cars full of humans – so it’s not a per-person charge. I bet we get 75 or so people. We make about 80 pizzas a day. We get 10 event dates a year but we’re working on being able to do more, we bought a food truck to use as a supplemental support kitchen facility. We pop up big tents over the oven here, that’s where the cooking and prep happens, but there are reservation spots all over the farm. There are 3 spots out in the front yard where each get a picnic table, Sumac Hill is another spot, and there’s room for more cars to park at that spot. In the meadow, there’s room for one car. There’s a good range of prices, so if you don’t want to spend a bunch of money to come out you don’t have to.

What’s been the favorite pizza topping this summer?

KP: Seasonal ones… last weekend’s pizza was sweet corn, tomato sauce, cotija cheese and lime sour cream, with or without prosciutto. This weekend will be sausage and fall herb pizza. We’ll be doing 2 more weekends in October and that will be it for the season, reservations go on sale 2 weeks before the event.

Oh, what do we have here? Good morning, chickens!

LR: They used to be free range but the health department said no for the pizza events, and they also used to dig up all the dahlias so now they’re in prison.

Well, it’s a pretty nice prison!

KP: We had about 40 and it’s getting thinned out, because we have raccoons and coyotes. Look at these broody ladies! So many broody ladies.

LR: Every now and again I splurge and feed them mealworm frenzy. Look, they know! They love it. They’re not morning chickens either, we used to get up to two dozen eggs in the mornings and now we get maybe a dozen.

Where do the eggs end up?

KP: A lot go to the CSA, and we eat a lot of eggs – Lisa makes a really delicious flan. The favorite breakfast around here is eggs, toast and bacon, and if it’s tomato season then it’s bagels, cream cheese and tomatoes. 

LR: We have a couple more chickens up this way. It’s so great to have to walk through the garden to get to the chickens because I get all my garden chores done, and it’s so beautiful. Oh, here are the geese. This is Peeps the goose. I imprinted a couple and they’d follow me around.

How do you go about imprinting with them? 

LR: Well I used to have about 10 of them and they were so mean, so I finally got rid of all my geese and kept just one, you can only imprint with one. That was Arthur, who is buried in the corner of the garden, he’d follow me all over and it was really sweet. He got run over by a car. Then I had Ezra who got really mean and people were afraid to get out of their cars, but a coyote got him. This is Ezra’s sister that I gave to someone else to imprint, he had him for a while but then didn’t want a goose anymore so we got Ezra back with 3 hens and this is their little clique.

Back to the flowers. Why dahlias and when did you start growing them?

LR: I was a landscape gardener in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Then we moved up here and I thought, I want to try my hand at growing something myself and farming. So one of my clients had dahlias in her garden, I have the original dahlia here that’s about 50 years old I can show you. I’ll show you the original. Hers were always this bubblegum pink, it was the only variety she had and I didn’t know where to find them. So we started growing them, and selling them as cut flowers, then they started to get really trendy so it was perfect timing. I’ve been growing them for 20 years now. These are particularly tall because they’re in an enclosed area and they reach for the sun, but I kinda like it. They take a lot of time staking them up, they’re kind of a labor of love. They’re tubers like potatoes, so you have to plant in the spring and dig them up in the fall. We dig up every plant in the fall and store them in a room in the basement that’s insulated but has a window I can open a little bit, and I have a big thermometer to check because they like to be at about 45 degrees. I have to close the window if it’s way below zero so they don’t freeze, they’re really tender.

How do you store them? As is, or in dirt?

LR: We dig them up, I hose them off, and there are 5 or 6 per plant of these tuber-looking things like potatoes. Then we cut them up and put them in freezer bags with a handful of sawdust, and cinnamon for bacteria and fungus. We try to keep the temp really constant. If it goes 55 to 40 and back up, they’ll form condensation in the bag and rot. I get about 90% survival rate though. They do reproduce themselves, with a lot of work. Then we start them in spring in the greenhouse in 6-inch pots and sell them at our spring sale, so that’s a great market and they’re pre-started which is great. Nurseries do sell dahlias now but you don’t see them often, and these are all pretty special varieties.

KP: You wouldn’t want to grow them in Minnesota without pre-starting them because you wouldn’t get blooms.

LR: They’re late summer to early fall bloomers, so everything else peters out and then all of a sudden, “Ta da! The dahlias are here!” And I love that they’re so wacky. That white one over there, and the yellow next to it, those are some of my original tubers from 20 years ago. And that big pink one, and that burgundy one. This year they are particularly healthy, I don’t know why, maybe because they somehow know everything else was rough for us and we were suffering! (laughs) And they actually don’t have a smell, I feel like if they had a fragrance they wouldn’t be as spectacular.

KP: That’s because the plants that evolved with a smell did it to attract pollinators, but dahlias did it with how they look.

LR: She’s so smart! Oh here’s the original dahlia – for me. It’s called a Gerrie Hoek. I gardened for this older woman back in the 70s and this is all she had in the back of her border and it was pink, and blue and white, classic old garden style. And then, we’ve just experimented. It’s a great cut flower too.

It’s so intricate and impressive. Is a black dahlia an actual thing?

LR: Well see these dark ones back here? That one is called Holly Hills Black Beauty. The dahlia closest to blue, which is really purple, but there aren’t blue dahlias. This would be great for a wedding.  I love this one over here too, this one is called a water lily dahlia. That bubble gum pink one is a water lily too. Then there are these spiky ones that are called semi-cactus… and these little pink ball ones look like pompoms. They’re all so unique.

If you could describe your perfect morning from the moment you open your eyes, what would it be?

LR: Well, it IS kind of just what we’ve done! I love to go out and see the horses staring at me with their ears forward, I walk down and throw them some hay, then I walk through the garden to feed the chickens, and this time of year it’s just wonderful to just kind of do chores, as opposed to January where you drag yourself out of bed. Okay, now what I have to do is bundle all those bouquets I made last night at one in the morning for The Foundry for the CSA. It’s fun to cut the dahlias and make bouquets, it is a short season though, it’s peak right now. And there are just tons of little maintenance chores all day long. 

When did Katherine start working here?

LR: She’s been here for about 7 years. My daughter has a shop in Minneapolis called The Foundry Home Goods and she was their first employee. She worked there for several years, and then 7 years ago I needed help! She’s so great with organizing things and orchestrating things, and I love where her mind is about agriculture, it’s really inspiring for me. She’s interested in small grain production, which I am too. We actually have a couple little fields that we use the horses to plow. My hobby is plowing, which is about the antithesis of what Katherine is about which is no till! But you have to plow and prep soil for grain production. We are really interested in this Kernza grain which is the only other perennial grain besides wild rice, we have a couple little fields where we want to experiment with Kernza. Katherine’s involved with some really interesting groups that are supportive of small grain production. For these farmers it’s acres, but for us it’s a quarter acre. I still think its super important for small grain production, and we are going to experiment with some varieties we could use for our pizza dough. Here’s Katherine.

(Katherine is starting a fire in the pizza ovens to roast tomatoes for tomato sauce. )

Did you come up with a recipe for pizza sauce out here?

KP: Well we kinda make a different sauce for every pizza, depending on what type of pizza it is. Last week was tomatoes, a lot of peppers, and spices for the pizza with cotija cheese and lime sour cream. This one will be more oregano and Italian spice heavy, more of a traditional pizza sauce. I did make one last year out of just one kind of tomato, a French tomato called Jaune Flamme, and it was just tomatoes, salt and pepper, and it was the best sauce ever. Joy Summers at the Star Tribune wrote about it which was exciting for me.

Thinking about mornings and coffee, do you ever make a breakfast pizza and what would you put on it?

KP: I LOVE breakfast pizza. We have done an egg-topped pizza before but not for a long time. Eggs, chives, bacon for sure, probably hollandaise. Egg topped pizzas can be hard to get into the oven, you have to make more of a crust on your dough than we normally do, otherwise it kind of slides off.

What is magical for you, Katherine, about being on the farm in the morning?

KP: Um, I just love that there’s a clear mission. You have to get up, you have to feed the animals, you have to get moving. You can’t not. Animals are depending on you and that is motivating, because I like a slow start. I sat on my computer for an hour and a half this morning because I don’t like to get out of bed. So then I’ll be productive from bed. On a farm, your work is never done, but it’s very satisfying to see projects completed. For instance, to bring in a dozen eggs that are 10 times better for you than what you can buy at the grocery store, and know you aren’t contributing to food miles. I’ve been drinking from the fire hose in terms of the agricultural food systems problems since I started working here. Knowing I’m making a living finding solutions to our food systems problems versus just consuming within all the existing problems feels good. I live here seasonally, and in the next year or two I’m transitioning from being an employee of Two Pony, to Two Pony being more of a client. I’ll be sort of taking the business plan we have developed here and helping other landowners monetize their land and do events and agritourism stuff, so I’ll be doing this at a few other farms next summer as well as staying on here.

Did you organically come into this path?

KP: From my degree in advertising, yeah. (laughs) I think saying yes to the job at The Foundry was this step in the path to me becoming a farmer and honestly, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Nothing else would feel as important to me now as this does, now that I have just learned everything I could – about the capacity of the soil to sequester carbon and make everyone healthier, and the top 3 killers of Americans could all be solved if we just ate better food, and we could highly mitigate climate change catastrophe if we stopped plowing up hundreds of thousands of acres every year twice a year. So many things could be bettered by farming better. 

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