The time to plant tomatoes might be a few weeks away, but Paulette Keefer was ready for some unusual advice.
“He said if you plant tomatoes on their side, take off the bottom leaves and tilt the top of the plant up, you’ll get twice as many plants,” she said. “I’ve never heard that before.
Bernie Nuckols, a regular vendor at the McLean Farmers Market on Fridays in Lewinsville Park for years, also advised her to add a little Epsom salt into her plant fertilizer to keep the plants healthy and thriving longer.
“This man’s been most helpful,” Keefer said of Nuckols.
It is little pleasantries and tips like that which lead Keefer to frequent farmers markets over grocery stores during the spring and summer months.
“Farmers markets are more personable,” she said, tomato plants in hand. “It’s just nice. You wouldn’t get that kind of advice or information from a grocery store.”
Keefer was playing tennis in Lewinsville Park Friday morning and decided to check out the market, the first farmers market of the season, which she had not shopped at before.
A 10-year veteran of the McLean market, Nuckols said during the course of the market’s season, which goes until November, some customers will not start to buy tomatoes until his crop arrives.
“This is slow today, but the first market is usually slow until people know you’re here,” he said, adding that cold temperatures and gray skies did not help the sparse patrons on the market’s opening morning.
In addition to tomatoes and plants, Nuckols’ table features honey and beeswax candles he has made himself, including one crucifix candle made from a mold he patented.
“I’m retired, and as long as the good Lord and the doctor work with me, I’ll keep coming here,” he said. “If I get up feeling good in the morning, I’ll come here.”
Across the lot, Valentine Miller and his son, Donovan, had made the long trip from Madison County with freshly baked cakes, cookies, pies and meat raised hormone-free.
“All the cakes and baked goods were baked by my wife and daughters yesterday,” Miller said. They also brought early crops of spinach, lettuce and some homemade jams.
“The beef was raised all-natural, out on the range without any chemicals,” he said.
Donovan, 11, was fighting off yawns while helping patrons; his dad woke him up at 4 a.m. for the trip to McLean. A home-schooled student, he brought his homework with him in case there was a lull in customers.
“I still have my school work, and making change helps me with my math,” he said.
THE MILLERS said their most asked-about item is the multicolored eggs produced by the Airacona chicken, which produces eggs that look like pre-made Easter eggs.
“We also have turkey eggs, but folks always asked about the colorful ones,” Valentine Miller said.
They have made the two-hour drive to McLean for five years, often going to the markets in Vienna, Annandale and Reston in the same week.
“It’s nice to come back,” he said. “It’s a lot of time on the road, but we enjoy meeting people.”
One patron walking by said she enjoyed visiting the Millers and the rest of the vendors at the market because the quality of the food they offer is higher than that found in grocery stores. “You can tell the difference in the taste of fresh food and fresh produce,” she said. “The quality you find here is way above anything you can get in the store.”
Jean Moore, the market master who supervises the commerce in McLean, said patrons like farmers markets because of the interaction with the producers.
“It’s the contact with the farmers and the freshly grown things” that bring people into parking lots and out of grocery store aisles, she said. “It’s very popular … We’ve had a lot of the same vendors for many years. It’s an enjoyable thing to do.”
One of the miracles of the market is Emine Utku’s baklava and other fillo dough delicacies.
“There’s 45 layers of fillo dough in each piece,” she said. “People call me the baklava lady.”
Her table is filled with traditional baklava with walnuts, plus some made with eggplant and spinach, some with raspberries, chocolate and strawberries, and some with black beans.
“It takes all night to make this,” she said. “This is the old-fashioned way to make it. I learned it from my grandma, and I do it the same way she did.”
A resident of Vienna, it is convenient for her to come to the McLean market and gives those who buy from her the chance to get their baklava warm from the oven.
“There’s a magic to making everything fit into such a small square,” she said. “It’s very delicate and fragile. You have to be very quick when you make it because otherwise it will stick together and you can’t fold it right.”
Bill Blevins and Joe Mirilovich had a table filled with floral arrangements, featuring four types of lilacs, bleeding hearts, viburnums, wisteria and other native blooms.
“We plant wildflowers on a small estate,” Blevins said. “In total, we plant about 4,000 square feet, which is about one-tenth of an acre.”
Later in the season, Blevins will supply some produce like tomatoes, zucchini and squash from the same garden, along with Mirilovich’s flowers.
“Joe specializes in roses,” he said. “It’s nice to have a few things no one else has, and no one has roses here.”
Blevins grew up on a farm and said coming to the farmers market was a natural thing to do after he retired and took up farming again.
“When the first Safeways and Grand Union and Giants came into Fairfax County, I sold my tomatoes to them,” he said.
Mirilovich said his fragrant flowers will be at the market every week.
“We have some ever-blooming lilacs, which will bloom in the spring and in the fall and maybe you’ll get a blossom or two in the summer,” he said.
Additionally, he will stock his table with “all kinds of perennials” that were cut “the night before” in order to preserve their freshness for the next morning’s markets.
“We enjoy what we do and hope our customers benefit from Virginia-grown vegetables and fruit, loaded with flavor, grown with care and ready for their table,” he said.
THE FARMERS MARKET In McLean will be open on Fridays from 8:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. through November 18, according to Margie Joyce, program assistant for the farmers markets throughout Fairfax County with Greenspring Gardens.
“This is the first year we’ve had meat, cheeses and farm fresh eggs in years,” Joyce said. “We still have the fresh-cut flower ladies, the people from nurseries, choclatiers and kettle corn sellers. Early in the season we’ll have asparagus, strawberries, budding plants and early annuals,” she said.
All vendors come from a 125-mile radius of Fairfax County, she said, many of whom have been coming to the farmers markets for several years.
“We also sponsor the garden plots at Lewinsville Park and many other parks in the county,” Joyce said, which are 20 feet by 30 feet and available for $45 per year for people to plant and grow flowers or produce.