For the past 10 years, my wife and I have been selling our produce out of a small (4 feet wide, 4 feet deep, and 5 feet high) open-faced vegetable stand which is located on our property next to a public road. The stand contains a variety of produce, priced to sell. It is unmanned, thereby relying on human honesty to pay the asking price. Our efforts have been most rewarding in more ways then just giving us a little extra spending money. We are eating better, have more meaning in life, are healthier, and often have discussions with our customers about “what in the world is going on these days”.
This article, I will share:
- Garden and orchard size and layout.
- We grow what we eat and what sells.
- Steps in seed starting to transplanting to harvesting.
- What it takes to improve the soil each year.
- Challenges, mistakes, and do-overs.
- Why we continue putting up a garden every year
Garden and orchard size and layout:
Located on a westerly 10% downhill grade meant that the vegetable garden needed to be built on raised beds facing North and South. This enabled exposure to the maximum sunlight while allowing for most of the beds to be relatively level. Fifteen beds are 5 ft wide and 60 ft long with a 3 ft walkway between each bed. To keep deer out of the garden, it is enclosed in a 7 ft high fence, 140 ft by 80 ft. To prevent rabbits from getting under the fence, it is buried one foot deep. Not all rows are perfectly level; therefore, some mild terracing is required for growing areas to retain water evenly.
The orchard is located just south of the garden, and contains 31 trees, each 15 ft apart. It is enclosed in a 7 ft high fenced area, 175 ft by 80 ft. Seven dwarf trees were planted in 1998, and 24 were added in 2006. The orchard consists of twenty four apple trees, six pears, and one plum.
Two sources of water are available; one being a 170 foot deep well while the other is water run off from the roof of our home into a 5,000 gallon plastic tank. Just 3 inches of rain falling on the roof will fill an empty tank. The catchment water can be diverted to the garden or to our 24 ft by 16 ft greenhouse.
We grow what we eat and what sells best:
Tomatoes, string beans, and cucumbers are everyone’s favorite. Seventy tomato plants will produce 3,000 pounds during the summer. At $2 per pound, the tomato is the single most profitable item sold. A person who visits the stand once a week might buy three tomatoes, two cucumbers, one Walla Walla onion, a package of string beans, and a bunch of carrots.
Many vegetables we grow have a short life cycle. Included in this list are broccoli, cauliflower, bush beans, peas, lettuce, Walla Walla onions, and beets. When these are ready to harvest you have as short as a week for some or a month for others before they start to spoil. Therefore, to have them producing all summer, they need to be planted on a staggered basis.
The vegetables with a continuous producing long life cycle include those that you plant once and they keep producing. These are tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and Swiss chard.
Potatoes, carrots, garlic, and cabbage will store for a long time before they began to spoil. When its time to put them on the stand for sale, dig them out of the ground or pull them out of your dry cool dark storage.
We also have marion berries and strawberries in our garden that we sell and put away to make jam. The marion berry takes a lot of work, but they are cherished by all and garner a good price. About 80 pounds of marion berries and 50 pounds of strawberries are harvested each year.
Steps in seed starting to transplanting to harvesting:
All of our plants are started from seed we buy or save each year. Being close to the Canadian border means that summer doesn’t get started until July. Most plants don’t go outside until April. However, carrots, dill, potatoes, and peas are started in mid March so that they will be ready to pick when we open the stand in June.
In mid February, tomatoes, peas, and swiss chard seeds are started in small pots and placed under lights and kept next to our wood stove until they are ready to be transferred to our greenhouse. Transfer to the greenhouse usually takes place in March. Once placed in the greenhouse, tomato plants are removed from their crowded little box and put in large individual containers with potting mix. Since tomatoes won’t be put outside until mid May, they need the freedom to grow while in the greenhouse, so they are put in large containers that encourage growth.
In March, beets, cole crops, walla walla, basil, beans, melons, lettuce, and dill are planted in small pots, and either kept in our home, or placed in the greenhouse, if the temperature is warm enough. The only plants that go directly in the dirt outside instead of being started in the greenhouse are potatoes, carrots, dill, and garlic (garlic is planted in October the year before and harvested in July the fallowing year).
To assure that our customers have what they want during the Summer and Fall, we need to stagger some crops. String beans are started beginning in April through June. The first beans started in the greenhouse need to remain in the greenhouse, because if they are transplanted outside, it would be too cold for them to survive. Three plantings of onions are put in the ground early because they do best during the long days; they get started in March and April and transplanted outside in April and May. Cole crops and peas are started in March and another in July. People love home-grown carrots, so we have five plantings beginning in March through July. Nothing tastes better then carrots dug up in winter, but they must be protected from freezing with a layer of compost.
The Fun Begins
The fun finally begins in June when the tomatoes are ripening and we open the stand. The only way for tomatoes to be ready in June is to grow them outside under tented rows or in the greenhouse. Some items, such as strawberries, peas, and asparagus are sold before opening the stand. We simply make a few phone calls to neighbors when the crop is ready, ask how much they want, and inform them when to come by to claim their item.
When Summer ends and tourists have left, the harvest naturally takes a sharp drop. By the end of September the only remaining produce to be picked is fruit and cole crops. Apples produce over 2,000 pounds. Most are put in the apple press which produces over 100 gallons of juice that we sell and several wheel barrels full of pulp which goes to the compost pile. We use some of the pulp to make apple cider vinegar, if our inventory is running low. Where we live, many people have fruit trees, so there are not many customers that need apples.
Six pear trees produce lots of produce. We sell them to folks who make wine or who can them for future use.
The stand is open seven days a week, from 10 AM to 6 PM. We do not man the stand but check it several times each day to restock it and collect the cash. At least twice each day we need to pick more produce because certain items sold out. This gives us very little time to do personal canning, but somehow we manage to fill our shelves with sufficient quantity to last through the following year.
What it takes to improve the soil each year:
Crop rotation is top on the soil improvement list. We don’t grow the same family of crops in the same place until after three years have gone by. So we wait three years to plant onions where we last planted garlic. The same with beets and Swiss chard; or with melons, squash, and cucumbers; or with peas and beans; or tomatoes and potatoes.
Another important soil improvement that will foster growth in your garden is to increase the quantity and the health of micro organisms. This is accomplished by avoiding the use of insecticides, eliminating soil disturbance caused by the use of machines (such as a gas powered cultivator), and most important, adding a generous amount of compost each fall.
To our garden and orchard is added over 25 yards of processed compost, spread three inches deep, each Fall. This practice will eventually increase the height of your beds, requiring you to remove excess dirt from them to another spot. Consequently, the size of your garden will continue to get larger. To prepare for this expansion, be sure your garden enclosure allows for this to happen. In the past 12 years that we’ve been adding compost, its size has increased by 25%.
Challenges, mistakes, and do-overs:
I’ve had a vegetable garden almost every year since 1976 in seven different places. Many times I did something that I later regretted. Here are a few of the more outrageous ones:
- The current garden was built 250 ft downhill from the house to allow for maximum sunlight. Since several trips to the garden are required every day during the season, the walk takes additional time and wears on the body. These extra feet could have been avoided if five evergreen trees had been removed twenty two years ago. The garden would have been brought within 50ft of the house.
- Dwarf trees will become full grown if they are not cut back every year. Sure, you will get more fruit as the tree gets bigger. However, as we age, that ladder you need to get those far to reach apples gets real shaky. I now need to remove at least two feet of the top branches to allow for easier pruning and picking.
- The greenhouse is a convenient twenty feet from the house. However, about 30 fir trees on the north of side of the building are dangerously close. Twenty years ago, cutting those trees would have solved today’s problem. Those trees need to be removed to prevent a storm from having one fall on the greenhouse, or worse yet, a fire from burning it down.
- The original investment in a garden can set one back thousands of dollars. Grading the garden area, building the fence, acquiring top soil, and building raised beds all takes money, which could be saved if you do the work yourself. Since I was still working when the garden was being planned, I did not have the time to build the fence, so I hired out the job for $5,000. Less than 50 yards of top soil was found on my property for the garden, and I needed 150 more yards which cost me another $3,000. On weekends I saved money by building the beds and hauling top soil to be placed in the ground. My advice to others who place a high priority of having a large garden at where they plan to live would be to do research before putting money down. Does the land have a level location for a garden? What is the quality of the top soil? Will the water soil support thirsty vegetables? Do you need a fence to keep out deer and bunnies? What county or city restrictions if any will you need to confront? A well designed garden layout could save you lots of money, time, and effort.
- We live in a small rural community, the kind where most everyone knows most everyone. But when you lead a political battle against the local school to encourage voters to oppose a tax increase, you will now be known as that conservative guy who has road side vegetable stand. How do you stay under the radar to avoid OPSEC now? You don’t. So, since I am now known as that “right wing survivalist” down the road, I might as well make the best of it and continue doing what’s been working for me.
Why we continue putting up a garden every year:
Each year my wife and I ask ourselves why we continue putting up a garden every year. Our “farm” is a small but a very demanding business kept open seven days a week. From March through October, the garden is a priority. Some would think that our Summers are wasted because we are stuck at home during the time of year when most people vacation. In August we began planning for what we will do when the garden is put to bed. Be assured that we never look back with disappointment that our Summer was wasted. Just the opposite. We are always thankful for the wonderful experience we just had.
Okay, here is why we are likely to continue gardening. It is summarized in these three words: health, satisfaction, mission.
We are both retired and getting a little older each year. To stay mentally and physically healthy, we want variety in our daily living and we want to keep moving. The garden is put up and taken down each year with only a shovel, rake, and a wheel barrel. We spread the compost, trim the trees, move dirt to a new section, mend fences, hand water the garden, plant and pick the produce, all by ourselves. Do you suppose that this has something to do with why we remain healthy?
For you who garden, I bet you agree with me that gardening is very satisfying. Just watching nature do its thing is a miracle to behold. Sharing your garden with others is always received with much adoration. Nothing is as good or as healthy as the stuff we grow. What about the money we save by growing our own? The garden we grew last year performed better then the year before. Maybe that’s because we make fewer mistakes each year. What a pleasure it is when someone tells us that our produce is the least expensive and best quality of any other stand that they have visited.
Our garden is the fulfillment of a mission that I now have. Every day, when I meet people who visit the stand I attempt to share my best side to them. That means I show my appreciation to them for visiting our stand. Sometimes they share their political persuasion, thereby giving me the opportunity to discuss current events and learn what we might have in common. Pasted to the side of our stand is a phrase that says: “This garden is Gods work”. That is a statement of belief and frequently opens the door for discussion.
So, if you have already blown your OPSEC, why not focus on your garden and sell produce? You will increase your farming experience, stay in physical and mental shape, make a little money, and most importantly, share your political and religious belief with those who frequent your garden stand. You might as well–everyone knows who your are and you have nothing else to lose.