Thursday, October 12, 2017

Crops I grew - 2017

It's October and fall is spreading it's colorful hues all around the farm. The hot and humid summer is over and so are the weekly rains. The frost date is still miles away so, up until last week, I was happily planting some cool season crops that could be harvested till end of November. October 5 was the last planting date for the season. Onwards from here, tasks like maintenance, monitoring, harvest, season extension etc take place on a weekly basis. In this post, I will talk about the crops I chose to grow this season, market response and success with each of them.

Spinach: Spinach was one of the first leafy green that I started on a raised bed. Being a cool season crop, spinach does well in spring and produces delicious tasting greens that can be harvested even in deep winters. After the first harvest of spinach in June, all subsequent planting were unsuccessful. I love spinach and I cook spinach quite often. I wanted to take this crop to the market throughout the season.That didn't happen. Spinach is finicky about germination in hot weather. As temperatures soared in June and July, the back bending task of direct seeding spinach by hand on a 40' bed, was an effort gone waste. I also didn't know that spinach needs consistent moisture during seed germination. I missed keeping spinach bed consistently moist on some days which resulted in seed sitting dormant. I kept seeding spinach multiple times in summer with limited success. Each time a crop fails to grow, valuable space and time is lost. After three failed attempts of planting spinach during summer, spinach germinated beautifully in September and October. No back breaking work as I got hold of an old Earthway seeder from my neighbor which made direct seeding a breeze. Spinach is not the easiest crop to grow for beginners. In hot summers, it is hard to keep soil temperature just right for spinach seed to break it's outer seed coat and sprout.
Spinach bed

Cilantro: The smell of this herb is oh-so-good! What's not to love about cilantro. I plan to have this easy to grow herb in my garden year after year. Cilantro grows in most clay soils without much fuss and has negligible pest pressure. The seeds can take some time to germinate but once they do, the plant grows vigorously. A little watering once a week in summer was all I did. I dedicated two 30' beds for cilantro and seeded intensively. I planted it Cilantro in partial shade and it grew well in summer and fall before flowering in early October. Once Cilantro flowers, there is little left to harvest. The delicate cilantro flowers not only add beauty to the garden but are also a magnet for pollinating bees.

Cilantro blooms

Scallions: A member of the allium family, scallions are cold hardy, mild tasting and easy to grow. I started scallions in spring as transplants in seed trays. Scallion take a long time to grow (more than two months) and grow slow. Since they do not form bulbs like a regular onion, it's their green tops that garnishes your meals. Scallions can be harvested over a course of time. I was able to harvest scallion for three weeks without worrying about leaving it in the field. However, once summer hits the peak, scallions became susceptible to thrips and caterpillars which causes holes in the leaves. Proper soil and pest protection measures go a long way in saving onions. Scallion weren't best seller for me in market and so I only took limited quantity of the crop. Additionally, since scallions have a short shelf life, leftovers from market wouldn't store well in my home.  Hence, by end of August, I removed all the scallions as they were growing slowly and looked nutrient deficient.

Basil: I enjoyed planting basil in the field at the start of summer. The smell and taste of the sweet basil leaves is very refreshing. I started basil from seeds and transplanted the seedlings in two 40' beds in the farm. They were off to a good start for four weeks before they succumbed to downy mildew. The constant rains and humid and hot environment favored the spread of downy mildew. Unfortunately, I didn't find any organic measures for prevention of this disease. I tried foliar application of baking soda and neem oil which is supposed to act as natural fungicides but once the disease gets in the plant tissues, none of these measures proved effective. After four weeks in the field, I had to remove all basil plants and trash them in plastic bag. Basil being a Mediterranean plant likes hot and dry as opposed to the humid continental climate of northeast. Greenhouses serve best for basil in this region.


Sweet Peppers: This was one of my favorite summer crops that also gave me a hard time from start to end. Growing sweet peppers and waiting for it to ripen is a waiting game. Peppers need hot and dry season to perform well.The green peppers are the unripe stage of the fruit. The pepper can be eaten when green but would be little more sweet and flavorful when its color changes to orange or red. The change in color in peppers results in formation of sugars inside the fruit which results in sweeter flavors. I chose the 'Odessa Sweet Pepper' variety of pepper due to the good fruiting habit of the plant and short height. The peppers grew fine but took a long time to ripen and change colors. The peppers had thin skin and were good in raw salads. They were equally good cooked. I was able to to harvest peppers for good two months before I became impatient and decided to unearth the plant to make space for other cool season crops. Unless I have a greenhouse, I probably will not grow peppers next season for market.

Peppers ripening
Loads of unripe green peppers

Okra: Okra is quite an unusual crop for northeast. Not many farmers grow it due to less market demand.  For me, it was a personal liking for Okra. Although I planted too few plants, Okra sold well on all market days even with very limited quantity of it that I took.  I didn't know if it would sell well and so didn't want to dedicate space on my small farm for this long season crop. Most folks loved okra but for some, it was the most disliked vegetable. Okra is more popular in the south than in the cold northeast. At the farmer's market, people were pleasantly surprised to find okra being sold. I was the only one selling it. Okra plant grows well with minimum maintenance. Mature okra plants do not succumb to the usual pests, the June Beetles, that bother them the most. Except watering the seedlings, I didn't do much for the plant in the field. The plant is a shrub with thick stems and beautiful flowers and keeps producing well until cold night temperatures slows down the growth.  In early September, anticipating the temperatures will continue dropping, I removed okra plants to make way for root vegetables.

Okra flower
Okra plants


Root Vegetables: Root vegetables are of the favorite vegetables to eat and grow in fall season (besides pumpkins and squash). Turnips and radishes were the two root vegetables that I grew this year in fall. Some root vegetables are daylight sensitive and hence differ in variety according to season. I started turnips followed by radish in late August and September. Both were salad variety that can be eaten raw. Turnips were first planted in the beds that grew other leafy green. The soil was loose, neutral and amended with phosphorous and lime before direct seeding turnips. The turnips grew well just until last ten days before their harvest. The aphids got on the leaves and it stunted the growth of some plants. I harvested most out of the bed before the pests could destroy much of the crop. By that point, the crop was mature and was able to outgrow the pest pressure. Aphids and slugs were major pests of turnips and radishes this year. The underground pests like root maggot and slugs often chew the edible roots and weaken the plant if left unsupervised. The root maggots, which often destroy root crops by feeding on them from under the soil, were less of a problem for me. Thanks to the row cover that protected both radish and turnips from pests for most part of their growth. Regular scouting of fields is a must for a farmer. It is said that if the soil is balanced and the crop's nutrient needs are met, the crops are less succumbed to pests. In an alternate theory, pests do not eat healthy plants.
Turnip harvest

Lettuce: Everywhere on my farm, during the entire season, lettuce spread its glory. I have experimented 7-8 different lettuce varieties this season alone. I transplanted some lettuce varieties, and direct seeded some others. I watered some and left some to burn in the middle of summer. Some lettuce varieties were more loved by slugs and woolly caterpillars than others. Whether it is head lettuce, a leaf lettuce or a romaine lettuce, you could find one of every type in some corner of my farm. At the market too, lettuce sold exceptionally well due to its freshness and quality.  For most part, lettuce grew free of pests. I found the leaf varieties and some blended salad lettuces more pest resistant than others. For example, the loose leaf tango lettuce was grew pest free for an entire month whereas the beautiful Rhazes lettuce was a occasionally eaten by caterpillars. The occasional slugs and caterpillars were scouted and removed manually. With the size of my farm (a third of an acre), some manual processes of pest prevention are easier than hard physical control measures of any kind.


Arugula & Mustard: Arugula and mustard were the two spicy greens that were grown for salads mix. Arugula adds a spicy tone to the salad and complements the milder taste of lettuce leaves. Arugula was also a favorite among customers in the market. I grew mustard more for myself and as an experimental green. It is stronger than arugula in taste and spicier. I cook mustard and spinach together for a wholesome curry. I also add small amounts of mustard leaves to my salad if eating them raw. Market response of mustard was mixed as some folks liked the green and some found it too intense. When using an intense tasting green like mustard, the art is to mix with with milder greens or cook it to lessen the intensity. For the burst of flavor that it offers, a little effort is totally worth it.


Tatsoi: An uncommon asian green that grows well in cool months of the season. Tatsoi, also called asian spinach, forms beautiful rossets upon maturity (before going to flower). I grew it in limited quantity as an auxiliary green for salads and got a good market response. Few people knew that Tatsoi makes a good stir-fry too. Tatsoi is quite easy to grow and germinates well. Tatsoi, like other greens, grows well when protected from pests and grown in cool weather. Tatsoi is cold hardy and takes on light frost.

Amaranth: An experimental green that I grew for the first time this year. Amaranth grows in wild areas in many parts of the world with warm, dry weather. Amaranth is also popular in Greek kitchens as it grown in many parts of the country. Here is northeast, Amaranth grows in summer till the first frost. Amaranth leaves and seeds are both edible. It is very popular as micro-green in salads. I wanted to grow amaranth as a micro-green indoors but after failed attempt at that, I threw the seeds in the field and let it grow. Amaranth grows fast with very little care as long as it keep getting sun. The dark red leaves were truly a sight on the farm. As the plant gets big, the taste of leaves becomes strong. That's when this nutrient rich green is great in cooking as a stir-fry. In market, very few people tried Amaranth in the first few weeks. Later, as more food enthusiasts used it in their kitchens, it became popular. With unique and exotic crops like Amaranth, getting people to adopt it is a challenge. As a grower, I see it as an opportunity to offer something that differentiates me from other growers and getting creative in ways to market the same. If there is however, no market for a crop, there is no point growing and investing in it. I will grow Amaranth once again in limited quantity next year.
Amaranth leaves

Most of the crops I grew this season had short DTM (days to maturity). The ones with longer days to maturity like scallions, okra and sweet peppers were grown to have a continuous harvest in hot months when greens are difficult to grow. Yields from summer crops was lower than expected due to a variety of factors.

Being my first season in commercial production, I fared well. On a farm, I am constantly learning about the plant, soil and myself. Infrastructure management, crop monitoring, pest control, business management and marketing are equally important part of a farm business that requires attention. The season isn't over yet for another month before the start of vacation. A couple of projects are lined up for winter. More on them in later posts.

Happy Gardening

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Experiences selling produce at farmer's market

Starting June 2017, after getting rejections from entering many farmer's market outlets, I finally got to set my 10'x10' booth at a farmer's market looking for new growers with unique things to sell. So when the market manager asked what do you grow commercially, I gave a unique list of vegetables I have never grown (or tasted) before (ding!). After hitting the 'Send' button in response to that email, I got excited and later on, a bit worried.

It wasn't that I have never grown or seen any vegetable growing, I just hadn't grown anything on a commercial scale. I spent an entire year of 2016 growing vegetables for my own consumption on a small garden space. And I had spent part of 2015 interning at a commercial vegetable farm. So I knew I could dig some earth and get the production going.

Getting accepted at the farmer's market happened in March 2017. The paperwork and costs were way more than I expected. By April, I started paying market fees, purchasing liability insurance, purchasing seeds, tents, tables and completing other compliance requirements. The market started in mid June.

The city of Chatham, where the market is, is an upscale town in Morris county, New Jersey. I had never visited Chatham's farmer's market before and had no idea about the traffic there. On my first day as a vendor, I mostly made introductions to a few people who were regulars at the market. My produce consisted of pre-bagged, washed salad mix. That's it. Just one product. Suprisingly, people loved that one product. Salad mix and greens is my main product for farmer's market in spring and summer season. I felt a little bad taking so little to the market and worse when I saw huge produce filled tables of other produce vendors. First day earnings came close to a humble $80. Not much but it was a start.

Farmer's market are direct marketing sales channels. The feedback is instant and there is constant interaction with people in real-time. For buyers, such markets gives a chance to know the farmer directly, something that wholesale outlets and supermarkets do not offer. The produce offered is of superior quality. Moreover, farmer's bring new varieties of produce to the market that is a refreshing change from the usual staples. The people who come to farmer's market are ones who value the produce, have money to pay for that produce and support local farmers.

As a beginning farmer selling produce for the first time, I had no idea about the volume of produce I should take to the market. I quickly learnt that at a farmer's market, I need a lot of produce to be able to satisfy the demand and justify financially the cost of being there. Before coming to the market, I initially thought there is no point in growing a lot of produce when I did not know the demand of my product. I planted what I could on my farm and waited for it to grow which resulted in a lot of produce in a week and nothing the subsequent weeks. Succession planning is something I learnt after taking too little produce for many weeks. Taking too little produce means too less product on the table. It doesn't really draw people to your booth. I now plant something in the field and inside as transplants every week.

The sales of produce in an open farmer's market depends a lot on the weather and time of the season. When the weather is sunny and warm, the lemonade guy at the farmer's market has a long queue of people to serve after 10:30 am till 1:00 pm. Some serious buyers and early birds come during the quite morning hours for their shopping to grab the best products before it's gone. After 10:00 am, the farmer's market becomes a lively place for local folks to meet and greet friends, shop, stroll and enjoy the live music. Good sales happen on such days for most vendors. On days when it rains or people are on vacation, there is less foot traffic and the afternoons are quieter. I am glad a few people have started to know me and visit my booth regularly to talk to me and know about my produce.

Since I am new to selling produce in this market, I hardly had any idea about people's buying choices. And I knew no amount of market research online would reveal that to me. As much as market research is important before a product launch, it doesn't factor in buying choices based on scale (in my context). What people buy from a small farmer with limited offerings and niche, seasonal produce can be different from what they buy from a super market. The only way for me to know what sells and what does not was to take a product to the market and see it's demand. It may sell or it may go to waste. One such unique crop I took to the market without knowing its demand was Amaranth greens. I wanted to grow Amaranth as a microgreen but since that attempt failed, I sow the seeds in the field and let the plant grow. I took the greens to the market to test a new product. I found that a vegetable that people are hesitant to buy something they have not used in kitchens before. However, some food enthusiasts who love experimenting with new things bought the greens to give it a try. Amaranth Greens wasn't necessarily a product in high demand but when people were educated about ways of using it, they were definitely excited to try this new vegetable. I had a similar experience with another southern crop that I took to market - Okra. A lot of people who visited my booth openly told me how much they hate okra (and only okra). I couldn't say much to them. On the other hand, a few folks, who moved from or lived in south or mid-west regions of USA, gladly purchased okra, excited about the availability of this heat loving annual crop in farmer's market. Both these are not my main crops and I take smaller quantities of both to the market.
Amaranth Leaves harvest

Besides a sales channel of one's own product, a farmer's market is also a great place to understand the food choices and spending habits of target demographic. It helps a grower to decide what to grow for market and the seasonal changes demand of produce local to the population. It also gives a grower parameters for pricing their produce and how much sales should they expect from one market should they decide to come year after year.

Lastly, presentation of the booth and produce play a huge role in marketability of the produce.

A well organised, visually appealing display with lots of colors draws people towards it. The effect is subtle. I also observed that having an abundance of produce on the table also makes people stop by your booth. On days when I have just one bag or a small portion of produce left on the table during closing hours, nobody seemed interested in buying even if it was the same produce that got sold in first three hours of the market. In the buyer's mind, it is left-over produce which isn't of top-notch quality. When I go to a supermarket to buy something, most often I, too, tend not to buy something that is just lying on the shelves in smaller quantities. When I sort my harvested produce for market, I take time to package only the best quality crop and discard anything that is bruised, pale or discolored. After all, people pay for quality and freshness at farmer's markets.

In the near future, I would like to expand and diversify my sales channels. Farmer's market, for a small scale farmer like me, proved a good outlet for selling produce directly from farm. Additionally, I get to socialize and talk about food with some very interesting people. The experience is worth the time. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Growing season issues and new projects underway

As a beginning farmer, any new challenge or normal than expected weather is perceived as an issue. The new land on which I am farming this season has started to reveal it's secrets only now. The soil test doesn't do much except tell you the nutrient levels of the soil. The information is helpful but not the only information important to a farmer. On a previously unused land with just grass and weeds, creating productive space for growing food is in itself a challenge with many factors to consider. Laboratory tests do not reveal all those factors. It is you to whom the secrets will be unearthed !

I started this season on a high note after my land was tilled and beds prepared. It was very generous of my neighbor to come with his tractor and do the initial tilling of the land. Without this first step, it would have been hard to remove the grass. April was dry and cool and perfect for direct sowing cool season greens.

As you can see from the picture above, the farm was tilled using a four wheeled tractor with a roto-tiller attachment. It took less than 2 hours for the entire area (a third of an acre) to be tilled. My work started after that.

Removing sod: After the land was tilled, there were huge chunks of sod all over the farm. Removing them by hand was the only option I had at hand. To make things doable, I targeted removing sod for one bed at a time. After the major portion of the sod was removed, I covered the bed with a huge
40'x100' tarp so as to stop weeds from germinating. Removing sod by hand was tough on the body and seemed like taking too much time away from main farm activities. The tarp helped. However, 6 weeks later, the area uncovered by tarp has grass regrowing over it. Plus with all the walking, some area of the field has been compacted again. I could have tilled the land more but it wasn't an option. I did not own a tractor and didn't want to ask the neighbor again to do the hard work. Plus the soil was not ready to be tilled. Shortly after, I purchased a two wheeled tiller for preparing beds and mixing amendments. The two wheeled tiller is a somewhat useful machine. When a certain soil bed is covered under tarp or landscape fabric for a few weeks, the grass underneath dies itself and the soil remains loose. Using a rototiller on such a bed becomes easy. Better yet, sometimes tiller is not needed to loosen the soil under the tarp.

Dealing with soil and it's issues: The kind of problems clay soil will create when wet was not something I had thought about previously.
On the left is a picture of a bed I prepared for sowing spinach. The bed was under black plastic for five weeks.Even under the plastic, the bed was somewhat wet as water percolated under the bed from nearby areas. I uncovered it one day after heavy rains to let it dry. But rains every week never allowed the bed to be dry enough to sow seeds.

Although clay soil holds a lot of nutrients and isn't all bad in itself, when it rains, brace yourself for some work. Clay soils don't drain well. After every rain, a few areas of the field would not drain at all for anything to grow on them. I abandoned some of those areas and let grass grow on it. It would take days for low lying areas of my field to dry. At this time of the growing season, I do not have time to solve problems that require professional help and use of heavy machinery. I do plan to install a french drain of some sort around the field so that the water flow away from the main areas. Since a huge part of the farm outside the current growing area requires drainage to be fixed, it is a project that requires considering multiple long term solutions. Raised bed is the go-to solution for such a soil. Digging trenches by hand on compacted clay soil is hard and not worth at this time. I even rented a trencher from Home Depot one fine evening only to return it the same day (and loose money).
To improve some of the existing soil, I purchased $500 worth of top-soil with some compost in it with the intention of amending all my beds with quality soil. Two months later, half of the top-soil that was not used is growing weeds on it. In another part of my farm, peppers and okra (both heat loving crops) are growing in wet soil. How long will they survive before it dries is a test of time. It may not be clear in the picture but there are two small trenches dug along the sides of the bed of okra to allow some water to drain.

I have also amended some of my beds with horse manure. I got some good quality horse manure just recently. For a few days, I kept thinking if it is okay to use manure from an unknown source in my farm. And then I did. So far, the plants are not harmed and since most of them are under landscape fabric, weeds from horse manure hadn't been an issue. I give myself a brownie point every time I get hold of a useful thing that is low cost.

Weeds: The grass on the other side always looks greener', they say. In my case, that green grass is two feet tall and growing. I had anticipated weeds to be a challenge this first year. My previous years gardening experiences helped me understand this right. Out of the five acres, two acres of adjacent field has not been put to production this first season. As such, grass is growing freely in that area and when sun shines, the seeds spread to the adjacent growing area. I know I had to mow the nearby area soon. I don't own a lawn mower and hence I have to think what could be the best way to have the grass cut economically. Most landscapers are not willing to mow two acres of land with wet areas in between in the peak of busy summer season. I recently purchased a walk behind lawn mower to do some mowing every now and then. I don't like mowing as it takes a lot of time away from important farm work. The plan is to have a compact tractor by end of season.

Rains and wet weather: I love rains. I used to love them more in my past non-farming leasurly life. Now that I have to deal with farm and the soil, the rains don't always give a thrill. The month of May this year has been unusually wet for New Jersey. After already having transplanted peppers and okra in somewhat wet soil, I want to hold back on disturbing the soil when it is wet. Not a wise thing for anyone to disturb or put plants in soil that does not drain or dries well. The 4000 square feet of tarp has helped keep some area of the farm protected by rain and weed free. The issue is I haven't removed the heavy tarp to sow much under it. Every time I think of removing the tarp, the weather shows rains in forecast. The area under the tarp is the only area that is somewhat dry.

Germination of direct seeded crops: Germination has been an issue for me at some point or the other. I hand seed my crops in the field. A seeder would have been good but will delay the purchase for next month of two. Tatsoi and spinach are the two greens with spotty germination. I built a raised bed for tatsoi and it is under row covers most of the times. So is spinach. They both are tender greens and the row cover protects it from birds, mice and pests. I couldn't understand what exactly caused the spotty germination of tatsoi. I am going to continue sowing tatsoi and spinach in another soil beds during the growing season. That said, here is a picture of the first harvest of a handful of tatsoi. It tasted GREAT. Hoping to harvest more of it this season. So far, the pest pressure had been minimal.

Restore farm out buildings: I am blessed with a few buildings on my farm that already exist. I say blessed because without these buildings, I wouldn't have been able to find storage space for most of my farm supplies and equipments. A small missing roof above the shed or squirrels getting inside the storage shed isn't a big deal. I recently completed having an existing horse barn cleaned. Those barns are a lot of space for me to utilize for farm equipment and storage needs. I may convert one of them into a cold storage unit though I don't think they are clean enough for storing vegetables. Restoring some of the buildings is a project this season that I am excited about.

Fixing drainage issues: A landscaper whom I recently contacted about installing some kind of drain pipe to take the water away from my field gave me estimate of more than $6000. The length of drain pipe needed is more than a 100 feet. A lot of water logged low lying areas don't drain well. Unfortunately, they are near the growing area and stagnating water is not a good thing to have. That said, spending a lot of money right away to fix this problem is not in my budget. I am exploring options for fixing drainage issues that are cheaper than the above number. Once the rains stop, I may rent a trencher to dig a trench and throw a drain pipe in it and cover it with dirt.

Fencing: So far 400 feet of fence in already installed. The project is not done yet. The installation was done by hand by two people. One person stretched the fence tight, and the other stapled it to existing wooden fence post. Since the fence is not dug under the ground, it may not do good for those animals that burrow under the ground. So far, it is protecting my farm from deer.

At times, the issues and projects undone make me sleepless. I have committed to a farmer's market for the season and I worry if I will have enough produce to take to the market with all the above challenges. But then, someone has to start somewhere. Had I not started growing anything because of not having optimal growing conditions, I would be hurting my prospects. The best thing is I am not doing it all by myself. And better yet, the first step is already taken. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Starting a commercial scale market garden

It's been a while since I sat down to write a new post. First the good news: I purchased a new house. Here are a few pictures.

My last 5-6 weeks were spent in moving, opening boxes,  having a broken HVAC system fixed and acknowledging the highs and lows of home ownership. Ever noticed how, when one moves to a new place, it takes a while for mind to consume the new and leave the old behind. I have moved thrice in last seven years. Every time I am at a new rental apartment, I look at the blank walls of new place to feel that this is going to be my place of dwelling for a while. Leaving behind a place where you have built memories and moments together with a loved one, is slightly disturbing.

Start small will be my mantra for this year. I will only be utilizing half acre plot to grow my garden. I will also be growing fewer vegetables than what I grew last year.  Growing fewer vegetables will help me focus on production and management of a small set of crops. Each crop family has different nutrient requirement. Providing the right set of growing conditions for few crops is much better than growing a variety of crops on the land, at least for a beginning grower with limited resources.

This year I will be taking my produce to a nearby farmer's market. My reasons for being at a farmer's market are two fold. Firstly, I wanted to meet new people and share my produce with the community. It will also be a way to know how the system works, what is trending in specialty produce and the food choices of people in 2017. Whether or not I will be able to generate sales will be a test of time. I am totally new in direct marketing domain and there are a lot of unknowns in front of me. Unless I do it, I won't know it. Secondly, selling wholesale requires a larger volume of produce consistently that what is required at a farmer's market. I am farming on a new land this year and it will take some time to know what grows and what doesn't. I have yet to think of what to do with the unsold produce that comes back from the market. Any suggestions are welcome.

Experimenting new methods on new land

I will be making a few tweaks in my methods this year. The tweaks come from failures and mistakes of last year.

Seed germination and indoor growing: I started putting seeds indoors since the beginning of March. Spring onion seeds were put in 5 72 cell seed trays. I also switched my seed growing medium to PROMIX (biofungicide+mycorrhizae). So far, the results have been good. It is still early to give a final verdict on this product.
Soil growing medium
Unlike last year, when I put my seedlings in an unheated hoophouse, I am using indoor grow lights in my basement this year.  I made two purchases. One was an Agrobite Fluoroscent Grow light unit and the other was a set of T8 fluoroscent bulbs purchased from Lowe's. The former is a T5 bulbs unit, hence a bit expensive. The later one works fine too, although the output is slightly lower than T5s. I wanted to experiment with different growing lights to see how plants perform under each one. I also purchased an 18' long incandecent rope light to put under my seed trays. The lights provide extra warmth to the seeds growing indoors in my basement. This is most suited for my pepper seedlings (peppers are a heat loving crop). There are a few other changes that I did in watering techniques, seed sowing methods, temperature control and monitoring.

Spring Onions
Happy peppers
Spring Onions under lights

Tillage and land preparation: There are a host of different ways in which soil can be prepared for growing food. It all comes down to resources at hand, scale, time and type of soil. I am on a land that used to be an old horse pasture.  All that is currently growing on the land is grass, some weeds and lots of trees. In order to make turn this land into a productive vegetable garden, I am debating between using no-till seed bed methods versus the conventional tillage. Since I have limited tools and no heavy machines, I am inclined towards no-till raised garden bed for growing most the greens like lettuce, salad greens, spinach and herbs. Raised bed will give me greater control over the soil for tender greens. Weeding will be easy and protecting and covering them using row covers or shade clothes will be easier. As for all other vegetables, raised beds will be cost prohibitive. I am leaning towards asking someone else with machinery to do a  one-time initial tilling. There aren't many people who do this work in my area. I may end of buying a small used roto-tiller for myself along with a few hand tools like a stirrup hoe. No-till techniques are something which I am very interested in experimenting with this year. The less disturbance in soil, the better it builds itself.

Soil Amendments: The pH of soil on my land is around 5.6. Acidic soils are not very ideal for growing most vegetables. To start with, I am looking to source local mushroom compost to add to my soil to build some organic matter. I will have to get the compost tested to see what exactly is the N-P-K ratio is. In absence of knowing the compost source and the facility in which it is produced, it is hard to comment on its quality. I am also trying to find someone who can deliver aged horse manure to my place in bulk. No luck so far. Lime is another important amendment I will be using this year. And to add some more flavor to the soil, bags of used coffee grounds from Starbucks will be mixed in the garden soil.

Farm Infrastructure: The mention of a farm brings up two images in mind - Tractors running on large fields or farmers toiling in the hot sun. Both images are a depiction of economies of scale. On a urban farm which grows specialty produce for specific consumers, production techniques and manpower available determine the investment needed to benefit the bottom line. My major infrastructure investment this year will be a pick-up truck (without which I absolutely cannot move heavy stuff from point A to point B), fence, hand tools, low tunnel tools, irrigation supplies and cold-storage. These are not the only investment though. At some point in the journey, there will also be a few unforeseen (and unpleasant) expenses. When I read and watch other small scale farmers utilizing some amazingly innovative tools and techniques, I most definitely want to have those tools. I do, however, have to hold my horses before making an impulsive purchase.

Know Thy Market: I have worked in corporate America for a while and I realize what it takes to 'Know Thy Customers'. It takes a lot ! Being an introvert, relationship building isn't my natural skill. On top of that, unknowns and fear of failure scare me. Being a farmer's market and meeting new people everyday is a chance to confront those fears and get past it. I will write a separate post at the end of growing season about my experiences at the market.

Crop Planning: One of the most important things in planning a diversified farm is having a plan that guides a grower throughout the season. A plan, in its basic form, involves knowing succession planting of each crop to be grown. It also involves planning the active areas of the field for its relative suitability for each crop. A good plan comes with some experience in growing and managing a field or garden for a few seasons. I have a rough outline of what I will be growing in summer and fall.

The variables and unknowns I have this year are a welcome challenge. When I write some of my thoughts here, it helps me understand what I am dealing with and hopefully to educate and inform anyone reading it. Suggestions and comments are welcome.

Happy Planting.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

How much did my vegetable garden cost - a detailed breakdown

I love numbers. Adding and subtracting them, analyzing them, using them to derive insights or just playing a number's game. As much as I hated mathematics during high school, I love it now. Sudoku is my favorite solitary activity.

My garden budget for the year 2016, the year I first started a vegetable garden, was drafted to keep track of how much was I spending on every trip to Home Depot and shopping at Amazon. My initial estimated budget for garden was $500 for entire season. My garden, as you will see from my expenses below, was far from being 'on budget'. I will elaborate on the reasons. It may help you understand, based on your level of expertise and experience gardening, where some expenses can be avoided.

Over the course of this year, I came across articles on web that talked about 'gardening on a budget'. Some gardeners spent as little as $75 on their garden while harvesting hundreds of pounds of vegetables while others spent $500 in building a bountiful garden to grow produce they eat. Many of the principles discussed in such articles did not apply to me in 2016, when I just started growing food for myself. Being on budget depends on scale and skills. I still read articles and blog posts from where I can gather information on building a commercial garden on budget. However, I take the advice with a grain of salt. As a beginner, you spend some money learning about materials and equipments that work for you. The budget presented here are the costs I incurred. Not everyone will incur the same when they start. The following costs were incurred because I was growing 8-9 different vegetable varieties in garden. Your expenses, if you start small, will be way less than mine's.

First, a look at my (extravagant) garden expenses for 2016.

Materials                                       Cost (US Dollars)
Vermont Seed Company Seeds.............12.15
Baker Creek Heirloom seeds.................14.50
Soil Testing (Rutgers University)..... ....27.00
Cress seeds.............................................2.50
More vegetable seeds.............................19.25
Fish Emulsion.........................................13.00
Echo 16" grass trimmer..........................150.00
Weedblock Fabric...................................39.94
Pre mixed fuel (for trimmer)...................7.97
Spray bottle.............................................3.78
Wood Chips............................................50.00
Galvanized steel wire hoops (25)...........47.56
Hoophouse materials (Home Depot)......55.00
Planting Pots (Single).............................19.00
Garden Labels.........................................6.00
Seed starter trays....................................12.95
Growing trays.........................................16.00
Potting Mix (organic).............................12.00
Pitch fork................................................10.00
Fence posts (20)......................................75.00
Woodsaw + Hammer...............................7.00
Trash bin for food scraps (for composting)....10.00
Water sprayer + clips...............................2.50
Wheelbarrow + Potting Mix+Additional Seed Trays.....78.00
Pot (planting ginger)................................9.00
Leaf Compost 10 yards...........................200.00
Pulverized Lime......................................13.92
Rototiller Rental......................................474.32
Hose Pipe 100 ft + Spray Nozzle.............47.00
Pulverized Lime (more)...........................10.41
Spray Mask...............................................5.47
Agribon Row Cover...................................56.00
Garden stool...............................................75.00
Tomato stakes 20........................................40.66
Raccoon Cage trap.....................................50.00

Total Expenses:  $1833.16

Why did it went so high and where can costs be cut

  • My major expenditure the first year was rototiller rental to turn up the soil and prepare the garden for vegetables. Can it be cut ? Sure, if you own the right equipments or can get land prepapared by a friend. Another way is to practice no-till gardening, prepare raised beds with wood pallets or practice other permaculture methods. Based on my experience, in any way, there will be costs incurred in the beginning. Some people suggest digging garden by hand using broadfork or other tools. It's way too hard to do on hardpan soil that has never been worked before. Moreover, my garden was close to quarter acre. 
  • My second major expenditure was compost and wood chips for the garden. By summer, the weeds were spreading too fast and lack of any kind of weeding tool made it hard to do weeding by hand. I figured covering the rows between vegetable beds with black plastic or spreading woodchips over layers of cardboard would help. It did. Mulching reduced my effort a lot. The best thing, mulching can be done on big or small garden alike. The only problem was I did not have any cheap access to lot of cardboard sheets at once. I found a free source of cardboard sheets on Craigslist and brought whatever I can in my SUV. As for leaf compost, it is a wonderful thing for garden IF YOU CAN GET IT FOR CHEAP or build your own. Lot of horse manure was readily available for free from nearby towns. Bringing it to home was not feasible as I did not have my own pickup truck. Home Depot and other garden supply stores sold compost and manures in 40 pound bags. The quantity of store brought compost or manure was too less for a garden of my size. Additionally, I did not entirely trust the big store brands when it came to superior quality compost. I paid $200 to a garden supply store that delivered 10 yards of leaf compost for me. I did made little bit of my own compost but it wasn't sufficient for entire garden. In future, I would continue to build my own compost or have a truck which can be used to bring animal manure from nearby places. 
  • My third minor expenditure was on some not-so-necessary single planting pots. These pots did look good with it's bright yellow color but could not be used for the purpose I had in mind. They are good if you are gifting potted plants to someone or simply want to keep small pots in kitchen window. I still have them and would find a better use of them for next growing season. 
  • My fourth expenditure item that I did not need in large quantity for my garden size was leaf compost. I ordered 10 yards of leaf compost. I could not use all of it in the vegetable beds. I could have ordered less. Remember that local compost suppliers need you to order compost in bulk for them to deliver. I must say that leaf compost added organic matter to soil and made soil beds loose and workable in addition to being a useful soil amendment. I had not ordered any other fertilizer in bulk except leaf compost. 
  • My fifth minor expense was on purchasing this garden stool. I purchased it thinking it would save my back but since I was doing all the weeding by hand, I still had to bend to weed. It is a great sitting stool but is good for tasks like trimming flowers where you do not have to bend all the way down to do it. Additionally, dragging this stool seemed like a chore. I could have avoided the purchase. 
  • My sixth minor expense was on seeds. The cost of seeds can be cut to a minimum if you are part of a seed exchange group, a community garden or have a good gardener as friend. I ordered organic heirloom varieties of seeds from farms outside my state because I trusted their seed quality over what's available in Walmart, Home Depot or Lowes. If you do order seeds, I would suggested order all your needed seeds at once. You will save on shipping costs. Local garden supply centers, if they grow open pollinated organic seeds, are also a great source for getting seeds. I prefer to grow all of my vegetables and flowers from seed instead of cuttings. I like to learn and understand the entire lifecycle of a plant. Sowing a seed and watching it grow helps me accomplish that. 
All the other expenses were necessary in one or the other way. I should have purchased wheel hoe or something of the sort to tackle weeds in between vegetable beds. When I first started thinking about planning my own vegetable garden, I planted more crops than I could handle and understand. While quarter acre of land doesn't sound like a big land to manage, the varied tasks on different crop families can be a lot of work. For example, weeds were out of control by Sepetember on portions of garden uncovered by mulch. Sweet peppers and melons planted in summer succumbed to the weed pressure. 

Growing a few vegetables in the garden really isn't an expensive task. If you cannot spend much time or money, plant some easy growing crops that do well in your region. Use winter weekends to think and plan that beautiful edible garden. 

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2017. Share your winter garden pictures and feel free to post a comment.