The Business Of Farming: Five Big Lessons From My First Two Years As A Market Grower

Sometimes I am surprised by how much I have in common with my readers. I love engaging with you all through social media and hearing the questions you bring to in-person events. One of the most common questions I heard from you this year was, “How can I leave my day job and become a farmer too?” I don’t have a good answer for this yet. I worked in the technology industry for fourteen years in order to prepare myself financially for farm life. It was a long, difficult journey for me and it’s not accessible to everyone. I and many others are working on clearing a better path for you and for the next generation. The world needs you, your community needs you, and the earth needs you! We all need farmers and land stewards, and if this is your calling, I will do all I can to help you get there. One way I feel I can help right now is to share my own mistakes, triumphs, and lessons from my first two years as a market grower. Here I have distilled all that life experience into one smooth blog post with five great tips to help you start your farm business right!

Lesson #1: Dive In Deep

In my first year as a market grower, I had it in mind to dip my toe into the well and test the water. In some ways, this was smart. I didn’t spend more than my (small) operating budget, I didn’t invest in huge quantities of supplies that didn’t work out, and I didn’t generate significant waste by producing larger quantities of perishable products than the market could consume. However, I also didn’t bring enough products or enough kinds of products to the market to cover my costs of being there. Sit down with your calculator and figure out all your costs of vending at a market. Add in your desired revenue and divide that total by the cost of producing your main product. That will give you an idea of how much you need to produce and sell. If that’s a high number, you may need to consider offering more than one kind of product to reach your goal.

Lesson #2: Diversify

In that first year, I specialized in microgreens. I also brought tomatoes and fresh leafy greens from my garden when I could, but I hadn’t yet expanded my garden to a large enough size to reliably meet demand for garden produce. I’ve grown microgreens for my own family for years so I felt proficient in that type of growing, and they seemed like a relatively accessible candidate to scale up as a market crop. However, there wasn’t enough demand for microgreens at my market to break even on that product alone. Many people stopped by my booth to chat, and they told me that they’d love to buy something from me to support my farm, but sadly they don’t like to eat microgreens. Others really enjoyed the microgreens, and came back every week to replenish their stash. Still, on a really good day at my local market, I can earn a maximum of about $60 in revenue from my microgreens. Keep in mind, that isn’t my profit. I still have to pay for seeds, potting soil, packaging, etc to produce that product, and to produce all the boxes of microgreens that I produce but can’t sell. I also have to pay vendor fees and farmers market insurance. This experience taught me that I would need to offer a wider variety of products the next year if I hoped to succeed as a market grower.

Lesson #3: Prepare To Be Flexible

I first saw myself strictly as a food vendor. So between year one and year two, when I envisioned diversification, I was only considering new kinds of produce to offer. I thought about offering prepared foods, but that turned out to be more difficult than I realized due to health codes, licensing, commercial kitchen rental fees, and other red tape. So in my second year, I went all-in on expanding my garden. I invested months of work, thousands of dollars, and all my hopes on this one project. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed. By June I realized my new garden location had not been suitably prepared, and my investment would not pay off this year. I would still have my microgreens, I would have a goodly amount of kale and collard greens from my raised beds, and I would have a small amount of fresh herbs. The great and diverse bounty of vegetables I had envisioned, however, would not come to pass.

The metaphorical wind blew hard. It was my choice to bend with this wind, or allow it to break me. I chose to bend. Diversification was needed, and it was too late to retry vegetables for the year. I needed to consider what value-added products I could offer to my community. I wasn’t prepared with the proper licenses and other resources that are needed to begin selling prepared food items, so I decided to call in my artistic skills and begin creating handmade art and craft items from things I have available on my farm. This was a very natural pivot for me, because I’ve actually been an artist longer than I’ve been a farmer or even a gardener. However, even if you aren’t an artist, there is probably some type of craft you are drawn to and can become skilled at making. I’ve had great success with this effort so far, and I hope for even greater success on this path next year, when I will be able to show up at the first market day well prepared and ready in a way that only a winter’s incubation can provide. I would encourage you to think about backups for your backups well in advance of your first market season, so that if your primary strategy is thwarted, you’ll be ready to roll with it.

Lesson #4: Hit The Ground Running

The beginning of the farmers market season is much more profitable than the rest of it. In spring, the whole community is excited that the weather is finally warm and the market is finally open again, and they show up in large numbers eager to support their local producers and artisans. This part of the season is great for everyone including craft vendors and baked goods vendors, but it’s especially good for produce vendors. Since most other produce vendors won’t have their veggies ready until later in the season, anything you can bring early is likely to sell well. I sell many times more bunches of kale, microgreens, and fresh herbs on the first three market days than I sell later in the summer. Do everything you can to be ready before the market starts so that your success in these early days will be great enough to sustain you through the hot days and the rainy days to come when none but the most dedicated and loyal customers visit the market.

Lesson #5: Strategize and Prioritize

I can see how it would be very easy to burn out in this business. I work more hours than I have ever worked before, and for less money. Especially this year, when my business strategy was to try everything, find out what works and what doesn’t, and forge a path towards success, I was spread very thin and not only did I not have time to enjoy my own garden and my life, but there were days when I didn’t have time to eat meals, didn’t sleep enough, and didn’t have clean clothes to wear because I hadn’t had time to wash any. I’ve been through this phase twice before, when I started my first business in 2008 (Reflected Spectrum Photography), and another time when I was renovating an investment house (which currently helps generate income for me while I build this farm). I think it’s a necessary phase to pass through when starting up a new business, at least for me. Nobody wants to linger in this phase- or worse, to remain in it permanently. It’s important to strategize and to prioritize the things that are most important to you. Make a vision board or even just a list of your real goals for your life, and keep checking in with them. Make sure you’re still on track towards the life you really want. For me, this means time to work with my land, healthy food and products for myself and my community, and enough income to fund my ecological restoration projects and educational outreach efforts. Notice how I didn’t say “all the money in the world”, “one million followers”, or “corporate ad sponsors”. Those are not the kind of goals I am talking about. What do you want your life to be? I’m building a life around my values. That is my priority and my ultimate goal. Everything I do needs to be in service of my path towards those goals.

This year, one of the things I tried was adding a second market day every week. I loved my second market, located in a neighboring town called Bargersville. The timing seemed perfect, with Franklin Market on Saturday mornings and Bargersville Market every Wednesday evening. I really loved being part of that second market! It has a beautifully chill vibe, the people are totally lovable, and they have an amazing band that shows up every single week to play all my favorite 60s era songs. I learned lots of great tips for success from talking to the other vendors there, and many of them generously shared their extra products with me after our market hours ended. However, I found that doing two markets every single week took up about four full work days every week. I was too busy doing markets to keep up with my land management chores or to tend my own garden. I hope to remain a part of both markets in some capacity going forward, but now I realize that I can’t do two markets every single week. I started an Event Calendar so that my customers can easily find out where I will be and when, even when my schedule isn’t the same every single week.

Conclusion

I hope this article helps somebody experience greater and faster success with their new farm business. Local food farmers and producers are extremely valuable and extremely needed. It’s a hard business, but a rewarding one. Through my first two years as a market grower, other farmers have aided me, collaborated with me, mentored me, and supported me. The other vendors at my markets are not my competition, they are my coworkers, allies, and friends. I hope that by sharing my experiences here, I can extend some of the kindness I have received to beginning farmers wherever they may be. Best of luck, I’m rooting for you!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Preparing For The First Frost

It’s a beautiful warm day in the neighborhood, but frost is in the forecast. Good preparations before a frost can do much to ease the transition between the growing season and the dormant season. If you have the resources and the drive, you can even extend your growing season for up to three more months! Here are a few of the preparations I am working on today.

#1: Harvest Remaining Summer Bounty

If you’re dedicated, you can cover your tomato plants to give them a few more weeks. But in my experience, it’s not worth it. During these waning autumn days, my tomato plants don’t grow, bloom, or ripen fruit with enough vigor to make all that covering worthwhile. Instead, I prefer to pick all my tomatoes, peppers, and other heat-loving fruits before the frost arrives. Unripe fruits can often be ripened indoors inside of a paper bag, or pickled unripe.

#2: Disconnect Your Water Lines

If you run hoses or drip irrigation from your house to your garden, disconnect the hose from the spigot at the house prior to frost. If there’s water trapped in your hose and it freezes hard, that ice can cause damage to your valve, spigot, or even to your home water pipes. It’s also a good idea to open all the shutoff valves and remove any water wands or blockers that you may have attached to your hoses farther down the line. Pressurized, trapped water that freezes and expands may damage your tubing or watering instruments.

#3: Protect Glass & Ceramic Vessels

Do you have a glass rain gauge, ceramic bird bath, or terracotta planter? These types of items aren’t very rugged against freezing temperatures. Empty any glass or ceramic vessel that currently contains water. If it’s a small item, consider bringing it indoors for winter. Any potted plants in terracotta or ceramic vessels should also be brought indoors during freezing temperatures to prevent cracking.

#4: Bring Sensitive Potted Plants Indoors

Potted plants experience winter more harshly than plants that are planted in the ground. The temperature underground is much more even and more protected than the air temperature. So while a plant that is marginally hardy in your growing zone might have a fighting chance if planted in the ground, a potted plant will have a much lower likelihood of surviving winter temperatures because the roots of the potted plant will experience winter temperatures equivalent to a climate that is one full zone colder. I let my hardiest potted plants experience winter outdoors along the south facing brick wall of my home, bringing them indoors only during “arctic blast” or other extreme cold weather fronts. But I bring most of my potted plants indoors for any frosty weather.

#5: Cover Herbs and Hardy Greens

You may be able to extend your harvest of certain herbs such as mint, oregano, sage, and rosemary by covering them during frosts. Experience will tell you which plants truly need cover in your area, and when. Certain vegetables such as kale can also survive through the winter months with the right covering techniques.

For Further Reading:

A Spark of Encouragement

Although my new garden expansion hasn’t been as successful this year as I hoped it would be, my two-year-old garden shines. Every day it greets me with a new lovely surprise. Some of you may remember my herb-loving snake friend from last year. She raised two littles in the garden last summer, and this year they have returned. She has grown to twice her previous size, shed her skin (I kept it), and this splendid little team has deftly handled my once-insurmountable vole problem. No more tunnels in the garden, no more root crops destroyed, no more seedlings uprooted! I want to throw a parade in her honor.

Garter Snake in the Herb Spiral
This is a photo from last year. She hasn’t allowed an updated portrait.

In my entire gardening career, I have never successfully grown eggplants. I have tried almost every single year at every single garden. This year is the year! My plants are loaded with beautiful striped heirloom Antigua Eggplants. I don’t expect I’ll harvest enough to sell at the market because I didn’t do a market-sized planting, but it’s enough to impart some much-needed encouragement, and hopefully a good seed crop so I can grow these again next summer.

Antigua Eggplant, Heirloom Eggplant Ripening
Antigua Eggplant, heirloom variety

Another plant I’ve always struggled to grow is winter squash. Squash Bugs seem to follow me wherever I go, and they win every single battle. This year I’m seeing much better success in the cucurbits I’ve planted, even the ones growing in the boggy soil of the new garden expansion. But by far the winner is this butternut squash, that I did not even plant, but which sprang up from the compost pile as if by magic. My most fervent wish this year was for a bountiful squash harvest. Squashes like the butternut make up the basis of my diet during the winter, and organic squash can be quite costly at the supermarket. The garden must have heard me, because just look at this beauty! Yet another good reason to tend a compost pile.

Volunteer Butternut Squash

My next joyful surprise came by way of a friend. Earlier this spring, she offered to share some yellow turmeric roots that she had grown in her garden. I previously dabbled a little bit in growing turmeric and ginger with mild success, but I hadn’t received a substantial harvest. Buoyed by the sight of her abundant turmeric treasure, I planted the starts she gave me. So far, it’s a roaring success. The plants have already outgrown two pots, and one of them blossomed last week. Check out this beautiful bloom! Turmeric is considered a medicinal plant due to the chemical component curcumin, but I feel like this flower is a different kind of medicine for the soul.

Lastly but not leastly, I have grown an absolute jungle of Thai Red Roselle Hibiscus! The fleshy red calyces can be made into delicious tangy beverages and jams. Most of these are second generation plants, grown from seed I saved from my 5 plants last year. I also planted some from a different seed source to compare, but there was no observable difference in the plants.

**Note that not every species of hibiscus is edible. The type discussed here is Hibiscus sabdariffa.

I hope you’re finding your own sparks of encouragement this summer!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

The Season Of Getting Real

This is my third summer living life as a full-time farmer and gardener. In that time, the seasons have begun to take on on new meanings for me. Autumn is the season when I rest and regroup after the harvest is in and the market season has ended. Winter is the season of dreams, when I organize my seeds and plan for the new season. Spring is the season of hope and faith, when I plant my seeds and imagine their harvests. But summer? Summer is the season of the reality check.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed right now by too many zucchini or too many weeds or too many bugs or too many plants that didn’t work out, give yourself a moment of peace and a deep breath. You are not alone. There is something precious in this moment, this experience, this lesson. If your garden didn’t thrive this year, that doesn’t mean your effort was wasted. Maybe you learned something new about your garden, or about yourself, that will help you go farther next time. The compost and mulches you applied will improve the soil and bless your next-year garden with a huge head start, and any weeds that grew tall will photosynthesize abundantly and contribute unseen benefits to the great web of life.

In contrast to the modern trend of broadcasting our shiniest moments, I believe it’s more important than ever to share our struggles. So many people feel alone with their setbacks in the face of the ever-growing feed of other people’s triumphs. More often than not, the messy hard work that went into producing the dazzling success we admire doesn’t make the editor’s cut. To me, that messy hard work is the most beautiful part. It’s the part that means you’re learning. It means the garden is growing you.

Whether you’re harvesting bushels of ripe tomatoes this summer or a sticky mess of hard lessons, take a moment to reflect upon your experiences so far. Write notes about it, and revisit your own writings from time to time, so you can continue to learn and grow and evolve. The lessons of summer are ripe for the picking.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Growth and Constraints on the Farm

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

Masanobu Fukuoka, “The One-Straw Revolution”

As I write this, I find myself in July. The sky is dark, the air is thick with humidity, and the clouds have spent days flirting with rain without releasing any meaningful amount of water. Where have the months gone? I’ve been working in a daze since January, on a quest for growth. I spent my entire annual operating farm budget by May. Growth takes money as well as time, it turns out. Returns on my investment are still in dreams rather than in reality, but the dream persists, and so do I.

It is my deeply held belief that constraints are a healthy and necessary part of life. If I had unlimited resources, I wouldn’t be motivated to tap into my creativity for new ideas and solutions. If I never failed at anything, I would never learn to adapt. Life is constantly challenging us and in rising to meet these challenges, we become more of ourselves, approaching that which we were always meant to be.

four straw bales fit into the prius hatchback

Last year, my biggest constraint was garden space. I couldn’t grow enough produce to keep my market stand full. Some days I sold out, and some days the produce I brought to market was not the type people wanted to buy that day. I took notes. Bringing more types of items to the market seemed to be the key to success. So as soon as last year’s market season ended, I went to work expanding my garden. I nearly tripled my growing area. I built new fences and shoveled compost and topsoil and wood chips. I hauled many prius-loads of straw (the prius seats four bales of straw per load). No, I don’t need a truck. I do need to find a more local source of straw.

I raised enough plants from seed in my guest bedroom to fill all this space and more. I planted them all. I got really strong. I’ve never done crossfit, but from what I’ve seen, I think it must be inspired by farm life.

The spring rains came. And they stayed. I had purchased 200 new trees to add to my floodplain, and I never got to plant them because that land never drained. My new garden space, although not in the floodplain and on the same high level with my established and thriving garden, appears to suffer from a high water table. My 152 tomato plants, 158 pepper plants, and assorted other lovingly grown-from-seed plants all wilted. Every day I visited them, told them I loved them, and begged them to live. I did whatever I could for them.

June arrived, and it was dry! Every day I tested the soil in my new garden with a moisture meter. Does it need water yet? Still no. The meter continued to read “very wet” for weeks after the last rain. Finally, the moisture meter produced “average” water readings. The plants began to recover! A few plants had already perished, but the vast majority rallied, and are now looking green and growing again. The crop, if any, will be late. Late crops are not worth much money. People are excited to buy the first ripe tomato in July, but by September they’ve had their fill. Timing is everything, almost.

All this trouble with the water table will be resolved by next year’s planting. I’ll bring in more topsoil, more compost, more wood chips. The garden beds will grow taller, and plants will have more distance from the groundwater. We will reach equilibrium. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. Meanwhile, I still have all the vegetables I can produce in my established garden. I have huge coolers full of kale and collard greens and microgreens and fresh herbs at every market. And I am resourceful.

Sometimes, it takes a friend to remind you of who you are. My friends reminded me that I am more than just one thing. Included in that collection of things I am are an artist and a craftsperson. I’ve always loved making things. In preschool, my favorite toy was wood, nails, and a hammer. (Yes, they used to let children play with real nails and hammers at preschool!) Throughout my school years I was an active participant in 4-H, and I tried nearly every craft project in the catalog. In 2008, I started my first business, and it was photography. Eureka, the farm stand doesn’t have to be limited to only vegetables! The universe provided me with a huge burst of creative energy, and I started bringing my creations to market. I made tie dye textiles and beeswax candles and matted art prints. Jewelry and candlesticks are currently in the works. I’m having so much fun with this and you, my dear community, have been very supportive of this effort. Thank you. It will be a year before I can try again for that first July tomato, but a new candle can be ready in 24 hours.

The kale is always turning over a new leaf, and here comes the rain.

Blue curly Scotch kale growing in a raised garden bed

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

10 Essential Winter Chores for the Farmer and Gardener

Winter may be the “off-season”, but I find I’ve been working long hours anyway. Maybe not as many hours as in summer, when every chore seems an urgent matter of pure survival. Winter work has more of a squirrel feeling. It’s a kind of preparation for the busy time when I know I will have no more free minutes to learn new skills, prepare new ground, or build new structures. Winter sculpts the bones for the growing season.

1. Winter is a time for building projects

construction projects

My hens are in desperate need of a new coop. It’s not so much that their current coop is bad, it’s just that it’s in the wrong place and too big to move. The new coop is smaller, more agile, and best of all- built in a nice shady place where the girls can chill out, instead of over the sunniest spot in the garden.

2. Winter is a time for preparing new gardens

new market garden

I’ve been busy preparing a large chunk of my back field for expanded vegetable production. There’s more work yet to do, but the foundation has been laid for a promising harvest.

3. Winter is a time to cut and stack wood

Trees die and they fall down. Limbs break during storms. Sometimes when this happens in the right place, I leave the logs on the ground so they can provide habitat for wild creatures. But all too often they fall on the driveway, on the garden, or another inconvenient place. These logs need to be cut, stacked, and put away to dry. We don’t have a wood stove in our home yet, but we hope to add one in the future. Meanwhile, we enjoy using some of the wood for bonfires and craft projects.

4. Winter is a time to prepare for next year’s market stand.

tomato crates

From the dry and boring work of insurance policy comparison to the more fun and creative design projects, I would never have time to work on these things during market season. I am especially excited about these custom tomato crates that I designed and built for multipurpose use. They’re sturdy enough to take into the field at picking time, shallow enough to hold exactly one layer of tomatoes (no bruising), they stack neatly for easy transport, and they’re pretty enough to use as a part of the display in the booth.

5. Winter is a time to grow.

seedling nursery

I’ll fill and refill this indoor seedling nursery multiple times during the winter, as the earliest crops are planted outside and the later crops begin to grow into their space. I’m growing vegetables for the market garden, new test crops to evaluate for the future, and all kinds of herbs and native plants. This work starts in December or January, when I load up my refrigerator with trays of seeds for cold stratification, and continues until June when the last crops are planted outside.

6. Winter is a time to lay the foundation.

bean trellis

In this new edible landscaping garden, I not only built a strong foundation at the soil level with local compost, reclaimed cardboard (as a biodegradable weed blocker), and free local wood chips. I also built a vertical foundation for vining plants using naturally fallen branches gathered from the tree line. That means less wood for me to chop and stack, more opportunities to grow beautiful food (like scarlet runner beans), and less waste and consumerism all around.

7. Winter is a time for tradition.

three rutgers

My grandpa always grew Rutgers tomatoes in his garden, and these incredibly delicious heirloom tomatoes inspired me to become a gardener myself, and influenced my path as an open pollinated vegetable grower. The Rutgers tomato was introduced in 1934, as a joint effort between Rutgers University and Campbell Soup. It was a favorite tomato variety in victory gardens and large tomato farms alike, and was widely grown for many years. This heirloom variety fell out of favor somewhere along the way, displaced by newer hybrids. Seeds called Rutgers are still available, though they aren’t all the same. I am growing plants from a variety of sources this year, hoping to find some that taste just like my grandpa’s. If nature cooperates with my plans, I hope to grow enough Rutgers tomatoes for the farmer’s market this coming summer.

8. Winter is a time for reflection.

I keep a detailed garden journal where I record my inputs, work efforts, harvests, weather, and observations. Winter is a good time to review what worked and what didn’t, which varieties are worth scaling up for the market, which varieties won’t be planted here again, and which varieties may deserve another try in a different part of the garden. Notes are absolutely essential for a gardener or farmer, especially one with her hand in so many different pies.

9. Winter is a time to learn new skills.

stack of books

I read stacks on stacks of books. Winter is a great time to wrap up in a warm blanket and learn new things. But not all learning comes from books, and it’s important to remember that we can also learn from our friends, neighbors, and relatives by helping each other out. Offer to help a friend inspect a bee hive, work together to can tomatoes, weed the bean patch, or pick walnuts. You’ll learn something local and new while strengthening relationships and building community. I helped a friend with a controlled burn this winter, and it was very educational as well as incandescent fun.

10. Winter is a time to train.

Don’t forget to maintain your physical fitness over winter. Get outside and take a walk as often as you can. Practice yoga, strength training, or your favorite sport. I know from personal experience that if I begin the gardening or farming season out of shape, I’m likely to end it in injury. Taking good care of your mind and body over winter is a sound investment.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

January’s Harvest

It may surprise you to learn that the garden is still alive. A selection of cold hardy crops have been riding the weather like waves, wilting during the cold and dry periods only to perk up and shine after each warm rain. I haven’t been able to bring myself to harvest, preferring to savor the visual feast of green vitality deep into winter. But the forecast for tomorrow holds a frigid low of 8° F, and I doubt there will be many plants left standing after that weather passes through. Ah well. I was going to eat them eventually, and a fresh feast is especially welcome on a cold, windy night like tonight.

What’s for dinner? Clockwise from Top-left corner: Parsley, Mixed Salad Greens, Ruby Red Swiss Chard, Chioggia Beet, French Breakfast Radish, Malaga Radish, Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch Kale.

A note about planning for a winter harvest: I did plant a specific fall garden (though I got a late start with it). The radishes and mixed salad greens (mesclun) came from that fall planting. The kale was planted in early spring, the chard followed in early summer. They have produced abundantly across the seasons, harvested carefully using the “cut and come again” method. This means that rather than chopping down the whole plant to harvest, I repeatedly snip off the oldest individual leaves throughout the season, always leaving several healthy young leaves on the plants to keep the plant alive and growing. As for the parsley and beets, they were also spring planted. They became shaded by other plants, which slowed their growth and prevented a summer harvest. Once those taller plants were out of the picture, these little lurkers filled in the newly available space.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

The Promise of the New Year

Last night we bid farewell to 2021. It was an intense year for me, packed tightly with highs and lows. I built a garden, I tried my hand at market growing. I read many books, I studied, I wrote. I re-launched my photography business. I stayed home, I traveled, I met new friends, I reunited with old ones. I lost a loved one to cancer. I’ve lived through days filled with uncontainable joy and gratitude and days that flattened me. I haven’t made as much progress towards my goals as I wanted to make, but I have made significant, measurable progress towards those goals. This morning I woke up with the urge to start the new year with hope, with purpose, and with new life. I spent the day planting seeds.

It’s too early in the season to start most of the garden plants that might readily come to mind. If I started my tomato seeds this early, they’d take over my house by the time the last frost has come and gone. But there are certain kinds of seeds that benefit from an extra early start. Many native plants and medicinal herbs retain their own sense of the seasons, and must experience winter before they will consent to sprout. It’s called cold stratification, and it usually takes about two months. Certain other plants may grow very slowly from seed, even though they don’t need cold stratification. This category includes perennial herbs such as sage. I’m starting those seeds now as well.

Seeds planted in tiny soil blocks.  Twenty individual cubes of soil, each with a single seed resting on top, arranged to form a larger rectangle resembling a baked brownie.

My current preferred method for cold stratification when growing transplants is to plant the seeds that need it in tiny cubes of freestanding compacted potting soil called soil blocks. In this configuration, about 240 seeds can be started in a single growing tray, which I then cover with parchment paper and slide neatly onto a shelf in my refrigerator. There it will chill for about two months, with an occasional re-moistening now and again. In March, I’ll transfer them to my regular grow light setup and finish germinating them alongside the familiar tomatoes and marigolds.

One full tray of planted soil blocks, ready to load into the refrigerator! Note: I’ve labeled these with post-it notes, but only because I couldn’t find my label of choice (sharpie on masking tape). These will be replaced with something more sticky and more water resistant ASAP. There are few things more frustrating for a grower than raising a bunch of beautiful and healthy plants that you can’t identify because the label failed.
a day's work of seed planting
An honest day’s work! That little device in the bottom-left is the soil block making tool.

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“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

Compost Safety and Leguminous Rhythms

It’s November in Indiana, and I’m raising little bean plants in my guest room. They’re not an early start for next spring’s garden, but a test of some new compost. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t make enough compost this year to nourish the major garden expansion I’m working on, so I purchased a truckload of locally made compost from a nearby lawn and garden supply shop to supplement what I did make.

Other people’s compost is a little bit suspect these days due to the emergence of a new class of herbicides which persist in soil, in plant material, and in animal manure for up to five years after application. These herbicides are sometimes used on conventionally grown grain crops and grazing pastures, so they can wind up in your organic garden through compost, straw, hay, grass clippings, or manure.

Not only do I try to avoid ingesting herbicides as a personal health preference, and not only do I endeavor to manage my farm organically for myriad reasons, but the whole point of herbicides is to kill plants, so nobody wants them in their garden harming their flowers and veggies for the next several years.

Since these chemicals have such a long active life, sometimes persistent herbicides can contaminate a batch of compost by accident if somebody fed their horse something that once grew in a field that was once sprayed and then the manure from that horse is composted, or if contaminated straw or hay was added directly to the compost pile. It’s difficult if not impossible to verify all the inputs all the way to their origin if you’re a business or a municipality who takes in other people’s compostables and makes large quantities of black gold for a whole community. The best way I’ve found to make sure that not-homemade compost is safe is to test it before spreading it on the garden.

Ergo, I have six pots of Phaseolus vulgaris in my guest room right now, and we’re learning a lot about each other. Most interestingly, I learned that they “sleep” every night. They actually fold up their leaves into a relaxed-looking posture and spend the night that way before stretching out for the sun again the next morning. This botanical process is called nyctinasty. According to Wikipedia, “Nyctinastic movements are associated with diurnal light and temperature changes and controlled by the circadian clock.” Not all plants have nyctinastic movements, but some plants do, including beans. I plan to research more about nyctinasty, but I couldn’t wait to share these photos and observations with you all. See below for more info.

So far, all my beans look vigorous and healthy, and all signs point to safe, excellent compost. I’ll know for sure in another week, and then I can proceed with my garden expansion at full speed.

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor

The November Garden

Jack Frost arrived later than usual this year, but he’s been persistently nipping at the garden for about a week now. The green tomatoes that didn’t have time to ripen on the vine are beginning to blush indoors on my window sill. The final pepper harvest is pickled, sauced, and dried for a steady supply of winter warmth, and the last of the tender herbs are hanging to dry on my kitchen herb clothesline. But while the aforementioned warm season plants are giving back to the compost pile, many hardy crops are still alive and thriving in the garden.

I habitually prolong my harvest of spring-planted hardy vegetables like carrots, kale, beets, chard, kohlrabi, and collard greens well into the winter, but this is the first year I specifically planted a fall garden. Although It has been an overall success, I’ve learned a few things that will impact the way I grow next year’s fall garden.

Firstly, I planted it too late. I planted seeds in the second week of August, which according to all the charts should have been about the right time. However, I wish I had planted 2-4 weeks earlier. Many garden plants can survive freezing temperatures, but plants don’t grow very much during these months. Having live plants in the garden at this time of year is more of a way to keep vegetables fresh by staggering the harvest rather than to actively grow new vegetables, so it’s ideal if the plants have already reached a good size before the sun fades and the temperature drops. As you can see in the photo below, my August-planted fall garden crops are still baby sized.

The second lesson I learned about the fall garden is that autumn is called “fall” for a reason. Dry leaves are falling all over everywhere, on everything. It’s tedious to hand-pick the dry tree leaves out of these baby greens in the garden beds. I think next autumn I’ll try covering my pint-sized plants with floating row cover material. In addition to protecting the plants from temperature swings, this should keep the falling leaves out of my salad greens.

What worked well? I have three extra beds full of delicious baby salad greens, herbs, and radishes that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, had I not planted a fall garden. Space wasn’t wasted, because I re-planted these gardens in the same spaces as my summer-harvested potatoes, garlic, and shallots. Soil that would have been bare at this time of year is kept aerated by plant roots and protected from erosion. Although my first try may not have been perfectly executed, this project is still a big win.

Landis Winter Lettuce, baby sized, in the November Garden

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider sending some love my way! You can help further this cause of Earth-positive agriculture by commenting on this blog, sharing this article with your friends, following me on social media, and interacting with my posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss me a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi, or make a purchase from my online shop. Thank you for reading.
“Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” -Garrison Keillor