A homestead is not complete without a kitchen garden and a homestead business is not complete without a market garden. It is tricky to create a garden that generates 12 months of fresh produce, but learning how to grow food all year—when others aren’t—gives you a tremendous advantage when it comes to attracting new clients and keeping your existing ones. Not only will year-round produce help you stand out at your local market, but it also puts you in a position to offer your seasonal produce to local restaurants and you become more enticing to potential CSA customers—two stable income streams.
It’s Best to Start with Heirloom Seeds
If you are struggling with how to grow food all year long without expensive equipment, your best bet is to start with the right seeds, focus on plants that grow well in your area, find ways to extend both sides of each growing season, become a champion of succession planting, and learn how to save seeds to save money.
A profitable four-season garden begins with the right seeds. Although not suited for large-scale farming productions, heirloom seeds are perfect for market gardens that need to produce enough for the family, local farmers markets, and CSA operations. Heirloom seeds offer several advantages that you should consider.
The first consideration for the profitable homestead is the superior taste and differing shapes and colors that are unavailable in modern cultivars. Growing food all year will not matter if the food you grow does not taste better than the produce available at the grocery store. Nothing—not price, not growing practices, not the buy local movement—will win customers if you do not have a superior product. Not only is the taste better, but harvesting heirloom produce is more conducive to the small market gardener. Instead of having to harvest and sell a bumper crop all at once, most heirloom varieties spread their harvest over a longer period of time. While it is almost impossible to sell 100 pounds of summer squash at a premium price when every other farmer has the same thing, it is possible to sell 100 pounds if you are able to stagger it out.
The second advantage heirloom seeds offer the market gardener is a real money saver. Because heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, with careful garden planning you can save seeds every year for next year’s garden and they will grow true to seed. Saving seeds from your best, most productive plants will ensure over time that your garden produces only the best, and your customers will come to look forward to what you have to offer.
Third, planting heirloom varieties increases the genetic diversity available in our food chain, and safeguards the planet against any disaster that would devastate the small gene pool of plants we are becoming more dependent on.
The seeds you choose are vital, but make sure you are growing plants that thrive in your hardiness zone. With enough time and money, you can probably grow anything anywhere, but that will hold you back in your quest to make your homestead profitable. If you are growing heirloom vegetables, there will be plenty of varieties that will differentiate you from other growers. Your local Department of Agriculture can help you come up with a list of plants that do well in your locality. From there, choose an interesting variety from heirloom seed catalogs.
You have decided on the best produce to grow and you have ordered your seeds. There is no reason you should wait until spring to start your garden. We often think of season-extenders as something to do at the end of the traditional growing season, but there are plenty of ways to get an early start on your vegetable garden.
When Should I Plant Which Seeds?
The easiest way to get a jump on your market garden is to start your seeds indoors. To know when you should start your seeds, you need to know the date of the average last frost in your area and count backward from that date the number of weeks indicated for each crop:
- 12-14 weeks: Start onions, leeks, and chives indoors.
- 8-12 weeks: Start peppers, lettuce, and cabbage-family crops.
- 6-8 weeks: Start your tomatoes and eggplants indoors.
- 2-4 weeks: Start cucumbers, melons, okra, pumpkins, and squash.
If you are prepared to offer cold protection, such as row covers or individual cloches, when you transplant seedlings into the garden, you can start your plants two weeks earlier than indicated. Other options are to start your seeds and nurture your seedlings in a cold frame or a hotbed.
As your seeds are popping indoors, help warm up the soil outdoors. Lay sheets of black plastic over prepared garden beds a few weeks before you want to transplant your seedlings. Soil organisms become active in the warm soil, encouraging good root development. When you are ready to transplant, remove the plastic or cut slits and plant through it. If you decide to plant through the plastic, cover it with mulch during the summer to prevent the soil from overheating and steaming the roots.
Planning a Succession Planting Schedule
Once you get your first crops in the garden bed, it is time to think about your succession planting schedule. Succession planting is a highly effective technique used to maximize harvests. Essentially, you will quickly fill the space left by a harvested crop with a new crop. Stagger plantings at 1-2 week intervals and replace early crops with summer crops, followed quickly by fall and winter crops. If you create a succession planting calendar and stick to it, you can harvest and replant quick-growing crops up to four times a season.
To ensure you have plenty of produce well into the fall and even winter, start with your calendar. From your first frost date, count backward the number of days it takes for your crop to mature and add 15 days since it takes longer for plants to mature in cold weather. That is your planting date. Any vegetable other than root vegetables (they do not transplant well) can be started early indoors. Because you will be planting cool-weather vegetables in summer temperatures, you will need to plan for weather protection for your young plants. That can be as easy as planting these seedlings in the shade of taller, already established plants. Stagger these plantings well into the fall and you will be rewarded with fresh produce in the dead of winter.
Save Money By Saving Seeds
If you plan on saving money by saving seeds, remember to leave the best plants in the garden until their seeds are ready to harvest. It can be helpful to tie a ribbon on these plants so you do not pull them up when you are preparing your beds for new plants.
Seeds like corn, beans, and peas can be harvested when the husks or pods are completely dry. Keep them in a warm and dry place, out of direct sunlight for a couple of weeks before shelling them.
Vegetables that produce seeds inside their fleshy fruit, like cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and squash, can be harvested for seed when the fruit is slightly over-ripe, but before they begin to rot. Seeds from peppers, pumpkins, and squash can easily be removed by hand as soon as you pick it. Let them dry out on a tray before putting them in a glass jar and storing in the fridge. Seeds from vegetables with wet flesh, such as tomatoes, eggplants, and cucumbers are usually fermented before being dried and stored.
Once you have finished your last succession planting in the fall, create a garden calendar for the next year. Start with the notes you took for this year’s garden. Which plants were you most pleased with? What produce did the best at the market and with your CSA customers? If there were any plants you were disappointed in, decide whether or not you want to try them next year. List the seeds you saved from your garden, and note any new plants you would like to try. Mark the last expected frost date in your area and count backward to see when you can start popping your early spring seeds. It’s not as far away as you might think!
Clean up your cold frames and hotbeds to use throughout late winter and early spring. If you are running out of fresh produce in late winter, cold frames are the perfect place to grow micro-greens.
Mulch or plant a cover crop over any beds that are not being used during winter. This will improve the soil and make next year’s market garden even more productive.
When there is absolutely nothing else to be done in the garden, it is time to think about your customers. Update your customer files, send out CSA Sign-Up Reminders, and thank them for their continued support.
Growing a profitable market garden while homesteading can seem impossible, but with good planning, consistent effort, and the right techniques, you and your customers can enjoy fresh produce throughout the year.