A Best Practice That Isn’t Always

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Beginning urban farmers eager to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability include rainwater harvesting in their startup plans. Once they start implementing, they usually find that what sounds good in theory doesn’t work well in practice.

The first downside is the expense in gear – pipes, tanks, fittings. Second is the quality of the water, which is run-off from the roofs of nearby buildings and paved surfaces. Since this can contain bird droppings and contaminants, testing, filtration and treatment of the water is required. Then, because the water collected sits and becomes stagnant, further treatment is required for algae and mosquitoes. After all the effort and expense they’ve built themselves a water source that’s unpredictable and barely amounts to a drop in the bucket.

Over the years, cities have built elaborate systems to deliver potable water whenever it’s needed. Those farmers who, through necessity or strategy, are starting their businesses surrounded by concrete, should consider access to municipal water an advantage and not try and re-invent the wheel.

There’s gotta be a better way than this!
Yeah, there is.


To Get the Best Seed Price, Make a Call

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Market Garden, Pleasantdale, SK

In niche markets, SPIN farmers can adjust their pricing to cover their seed cost, but you should always try to get your seed costs down as low as possible. That means buying in bulk and shopping around.

Take pea greens. I found that 50 lbs. of peas can vary from $80 to $165, not counting delivery cost. A seed company I have built up a close relationship with over the years offers pea seed at around $80 for 50 .lbs, but this bulk quantity price is not listed publicly.  You have to call or email them. Johnny’s price is  double –  $165 for 50 lbs. The point is, if you don’t see what you need listed on a company’s website or catalog, pick up the phone. Personal contact with a seed supplier can save you money and establish a relationship that will keep on giving.

DDG5 photo 9 DSC00455

Volume is an important consideration when ordering seeds, since buying in bulk quantities reduces the cost. Here is a delivery of 50 lbs. of peas.   


Putting a Lawn Mower to Good Use

Courtesy of Christian K, 3 Crows Farm Cranbrook BC

I use a battery powered lawn mower to even out my harvests of arugula, lettuce and mesclun mix, and spinach. I do my initial harvest with a Farmers Friend Quick Greens cutter, but find that my 2nd, 3rd and maybe 4th cut are much improved if I run the mower over the bed to even out the cuttings and help remove the missed leaves. It takes about 30 seconds, and the next cutting comes in with full leaves and no crusty dried leaves to pick out.

When it’s time to clear the bed, I put on a ‘dethatching’ blade and lower the deck to 2″, and it scalps the bed well enough that there is little debris remaining and I can sometimes just use the Johnny Seeds tilther to prep for the next seeding or transplanting.

The mower is tidy, doesn’t foul the neighbouring beds, is light, quick, gas free, relatively
quiet and way less effort. It’s like a poor man’s power harrow – works with a cheap gas mower too if that’s what you’ve got.

SF photo blog lawn mower power harrow


Stand and Deliver

Courtesy of Roxanne C. Philadelphia, PA 

SPIN farmers have a unique set of fitness gear. It’s designed to make their workouts easier to do, not harder. Like this tool here.

SF photo stand and plant tool David Elias

It’s the Stand and Plant planter. It was invented by a Tennessee farmer who specializes in sweet potatoes. He grows over 18 different varieties, and that means he plants a lot of them.

SPIN farmer David Elias, owner/operator of Hooligan Farm, bought the Stand and Plant planter this year and says he has already earned back its cost. He hasn’t just used it for his sweet potato slips. He’s also used it on his tomato transplants. It works well for peppers too. He spreads a flat of 4 packs down the row where they are to be planted, and then picks up and plants each pack as he works his way down the row. His work rate was about 100 plants in about a half hour. He’d highly recommend it and says you can order it direct from the inventor here.

On behalf of all current and future SPIN farmers, we’d like to thank the Tatorman for inventing the Stand and Plant. Farmers can always be counted on to have each other’s backs.


DIY Portable Sprinklers Get the Job Done

Courtesy of John Greenwood, JNJ Farms, Macomb IL

When it comes to SPIN-Farming irrigation, keep it flexible, cheap, crop-specific and portable. That’s especially important if you are farming multiple yards, like John Greenwood of JNJ Farms in Macomb IL. Here’s how he made his sprinkler system.

I buy a stick in ground Shepherd’s Hook. Then I cut of the hook part. I then take 3/4 inch pvc about 6-7 feet tall and put on 1/2 inch thread adapter and screw in sprinkler head. I hook it to the garden hose at bottom.

The sprinkler head was bought as a kit from Walmart on close out for $ each. I bought 4 kits so I will have extra heads. There are probably better heads available but
these work.

I use these with hydrant and portable water tank with pump. If I wanted to set it up permanently I’d use 1 inch pvc.

SF photo fb DIY irrigation in plot







SPIN Apprenticeship Lesson: Making A Bed with a Rototiller

Courtesy of Bryon, Saskatoon SK

I am now starting to appreciate the phrase repeated by so many experienced farmers about the need to get your hands in the dirt. It has been very exciting these past few days, as I’m being exposed to more aspects of the occupation. The one I want to talk about in particular is operating a rototiller, and how to use it for bed prep.
SF photo Bryon 1
I loved being being able to physically experience what it’s like to implement this basic SPIN concept, preparing a bed. Doing and seeing what’s necessary to divide a segment into beds was really helpful. One thing that Wally stressed to me was that using strings and other cumbersome set ups are simply not worth the time and effort. Extra care must go into the first lines made in bed prep, though, to ensure uniformity.
SF photo Bryon 2
It was great to get a feel for the workings/mobility of a rototiller. We were using a 5hp briggs and Stratton BCS 710 with an 18 inch tiller implement. Wally has recommended I purchase a larger model with 8 hp and variable work speeds. I have done some initial sourcing for a BCS 722 and will hopefully find one locally on my trip to Ontario. I will update the situation on here as details arise.
SF photo Bryon 3
First we went through an area preparation, tilling the leftover vegetation into the ground. Two passes over the area was good. It was done in quite a small area, 250 sq feet so I got practice with tiller mobility.

Next we marked the edge of the far bed by pushing an Earthway seeder without seeds. This was the first line in the area, and it’s worth taking your time to make this one very straight. This initial line acts as the quide for your tiller and therefore determines the rest of your beds.
SF photo Bryon 4

By the fifth bed I felt quite a bit more comfortable and confident with the machine. The beds after being rototilled have a valley in the middle. Wally impressed me with a little trick of using a flipped over garden rake and dragging it lightly across the surface to flatten it.

I am more excited now to find my own rototiller and start putting it to work!

Work Rate Puts “Labor Saving” in Perspective

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

I have never been a big fan of labor saving devices. SPIN-Farming is labor intensive, with many farm tasks being done by hand, so it is certainly wise to find ways to work more efficiently, without having to hire workers. My go-to labor saving device is a rototiller, and the savings are pretty dramatic. It can reduce bed prep from hours to minutes. But it requires gas and maintenance.

DDG1 photo 11

Although the tiller allows for quick work rates, in certain situations a tiller is not possible or even efficient. Prepping beds by hand can certainly seem like a daunting task. Turning over the soil with a spade is a farm technique that has been around forever, and for a reason. The tool required is inexpensive and universally available. It doesn’t need gas and rarely breaks down. It is also quiet, which can be an important consideration in an urban context. So hand digging in certain situations may be the wiser, or only, choice.

This labor saving device has caught the attention of SPIN farmers. It is a greens harvester, and at face value it looks pretty slick.

But for the volume amount being harvested, it looks like overkill. I can harvest 10 lbs. of greens in about five minutes with a knife. I don’t have to expend time and expense lugging around and maintaining a device. I have calculated work rates for all my farming tasks, from watering to plug tray production. Work rate is an important SPIN concept not yet widely applied, and it is useful beyond just evaluating what is truly labor saving, and what is not.

Knowing work rates allows you to schedule your weekly workflow, determine when it’s worthwhile to bring in outside workers, and how to evaluate whether you are getting the most of them. People have joked that I am the only farmer they know who takes a stopwatch into the field with them. But figuring out my work rates has left me lots more time for kicking back and enjoying a beer. I’ve been able to sample a fair number over
25 years.

Learn how you can calculate and use work rates so you have more time to drink beer or whatever else you’d like to do beyond just farming, here.

Newbie SOS: How do I set up my irrigation?

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

SPIN-Farming does not require elaborate or expensive infrastructure, and that includes irrigation. Everything you need to install an above the ground system that stays permanently in place throughout the season, can be purchased at the garden center and hardware store.  The best advice for newbies like this is don’t over-engineer it.

For my  100’x 50′ rented area, there is no city water, but it is beside a creek.  Can I buy a “good one” pump for $200? I read about the manifold/hose setup in the SPIN guide, and think I can use it for soaker hoses.  But if I have 60+ standard beds, is one pump feasible?  But I guess that is what manifold is for, to only use a certain portion of all the hoses at once? Or is my only option spray heads due to size?

A SPIN irrigation setup needs to be flexible. I would set up your garden in areas, with different irrigation systems tailored to what is grown in each. I am not sure what your typical rain fall patterns are, whether you are dry, or get regular rains. Some crops, like onions and potatoes, can be grown without watering, and just rely on rainfall. Also possibly beans and peas.

I would not invest in a lot of hose. If you can get a pump going, I would just set it up to run one or two sprinklers, or even just water with a brush attachment on your garden hose, and water by hand. For some crops, like potatoes and squash, you can just lay a single hose on the ground and just let it run onto the soil. Just need to move the hose around to another spot every once in a while. So I would say start very simple, and try to dryland as many crops as you can. Not all of your garden needs to be watered at once. Only certain beds and areas. Be sure to check the water quality of that creek.

Mod 2 Irrigation 1

Just a simple split valve is a good starting point for an initial irrigation setup.


Mod 2 Irrigation 4

Take water harvesting as far as you can. Sophisticated systems can be put in place, but even primitive techniques can be useful.


SPIN photo Wally watering

Because SPIN farms practice relay cropping, which involves a lot of crop diversity with all crops at different stages of growth, an irrigation system must be flexible. For instance, you might have just relayed 5 beds of spinach to carrots, and you just need to water those 5 beds. There is no point having an overhead system that can water the entire plot, when you just need to water a few beds. Instead, you would just water a few beds using a garden hose and hand held brush attachment.

Newbie SOS: How important are organic seeds?

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

Seed sourcing does not need to produce the anxiety it seems to. My advice is to use reputable suppliers who cater to commercial scale growers, and don’t overthink it. That goes for this question, which I get all the time.

How do you feel about organic seeds? I want to use them but do you bother? 

We use organic seed as much as we can. But we will not pay excessively premium prices for them. Suppliers recommended by SPIN farmers can be found here. If you have not made a seed order yet, then you might have to source locally. If you want onion sets/garlic then you need to act quickly. We just bought 500 lbs. of sets, and cleaned them out of their first shipment. I would suggest an ambitious onion/garlic planting in your first year. Say, 50 lbs. of each.

If a supplier is out of the seed you want, see if you can pre-order and pay over the phone and get 50 lbs. of each reserved from their next shipment. A good relationship with seed suppliers is a good asset to have, so make an extra effort to establish them early in your career.

SPIN photo seed packets Frank Frazier


This is SPIN farmer Frank Frazier’s main 2015 seed order for Mooseview Farm in Brookfield NH . He’ll be testing out 8 new varieties of lettuce for a new salad mix this year. He likes High Mowing Seeds. 


How GMO Literate Are You?

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

It’s that time of year again when SPIN farmers cuddle up to the fires or their computers to browse seed catalogs. It’s also the time social media fire off the question “How do you know if you are buying GMO seeds?”

A better question might be, “How GMO literate are you?” Most new farmers, consumers, and gardeners have a lot of misconceptions about GMO seed, some of it created by seed companies, and we’re not talking Monsanto. Here are two facts for SPIN farmers to consider that can take some of the angst out of their seed buying this year.

First, there are very few SPIN crops that have a GMO version. According to a 2012 report on NPR, these are the crops that are currently GMO:

1. Alfalfa (for animal feed)
2. Corn
3. Canola (a source for oil)
4. Cotton (for oil)
5. Soybeans
6. Papaya
7. Squash
8. Sugar beets (which aren’t eaten directly, but refined into sugar).

GMO versions of tomatoes, potatoes, and rice have been created and approved by government regulators,  but they aren’t commercially available. A SPIN farmer would have to work really hard to get their hands on GMO seed.

Second, organic seed proponents proclaim organic seed as GMO-free, which may imply that non-organic seed is GMO. But non-organic seed is GMO-free also.

There are good reasons to know the source of your seed – we’ve been saying for a while that farmers should have as close a relationship with their seed suppliers as their chefs. And there are good reasons to be aware of the controversy over genetically modified organisms. But when it comes to GMO’s, let’s learn our P’s and Q’s.

SF photo Brenda fireside catalogs


Here’s the seed ordering station for SPIN farmer Brenda Sullivan of Thompson Street Farm in Glastonbury CT.