Now that we have some time to reflect on the season, we thought it might be helpful to share some of the lessons we learned from our first season of urban market gardening. In no particular order, we give you our lessons learned….likely to grow as we continue to plan.
- Making compost: Don’t get me wrong, we are all about composting. If you’ve been following this blog, you know we have had many composting experiments. This year we tried to scale up the composting operation in an attempt to develop all on-farm inputs. We even had a sweet hook-up on fully masticated compost material from a local juicer. Unfortunately, we were short on space, time and tools to do this job properly and got a nasty-gram from the city saying we had to clean up our mess. It had gone anaerobic and started to smell, attract flies and annoy neighbors. And, since we can purchase compost from Westlake for about $10/yard (our yard trimmings get composted here), we decided to scrap this project for now.
- The stirrup hoe is the best tool: After experimenting with many tools on the farm, we have come to love the stirrup hoe. This is a great tool for weeding that cuts weeds just below the soil.
- The magic power of sand: Our soil is primarily clay and rocks. We picked most of the rocks out as we tilled, planted, weeded….well, every day we were picking out rocks and finally we feel that we have made some significant progress on that front. However, we can’t do much to remove the clay, so we have to amend it. Of course, lots of compost has been added, but we also started adding sand to each bed. This has been a great amendment and helps break up the clay and create a smooth bed for root veggies.
- Start small, dream big: Starting with our small plot and growing as much as we did showed us the possibilities. I’m glad we didn’t try to do more than that in our first year, especially given the time we had to commit…though now we are seeking more land.
- Operate like a business: While the lifestyle of farming could be seen as completely separate from the business world, you have to realize that you are growing a product and conducting transactions with customers in order to support yourself. Taking a business approach to the farm helped us put processes in place that will serve us well as we scale up. This includes developing an accounting system to track customers, revenue and expenses; developing marketing tools and logos; and setting up a business entity for tax purposes.
- 6 inches between rows is not enough: Following the SPIN guides, we spaced our beds about 25″ wide x 30′ long with 6″ between each bed. While this is great for the garden cart, it’s a bit too narrow for walking and poses a challenge when harvesting. At this point, we are committed to this spacing for our existing beds, but moving forward, we will try to shift this towards wider paths to make it easier to navigate between beds. Unfortunately, as urban farmers, space is at a premium.
- You gotta know your product: Selling at a farmers’ market is about more than just conducting transactions. People ask all sorts of questions about the farm and the products. The most frequently asked question is, “Is this organic?” As small farmers growing on an urban lot, we are not at a scale to become officially certified. However, we are fundamentally opposed to using chemicals to grow food that we also eat. Consequently, we do not use any pesticides or herbicides on our farm. The food we grow is straight from seed and grown in soil and compost with the help of sunlight and water.
I’m certain there are many more lessons that we learned this season; this is not a comprehensive list by any means. However, this is a bit of wisdom that we gained in year 1. Many more lessons to learn….and I may add more to this post as we continue planning for next year.