Relays Are DIY

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

As people move into planning mode for the new year, we start getting asked for a list of relay examples. There are some in the SPIN guides, but  the possibilities are endless. What is more useful to know is the thinking behind relays so you can design your own.

The point of relays is to get more production without expanding your land base. If you intensify your production on a lot of your land base,you’ll be able to extend your marketing period and establish cash flow early in the season, before many other vendors have produce available. You’ll also be able to grow later in the season, especially if you are in an urban area and have the micro climate advantage.

I’ve practiced relay cropping on some of my plots for over 25 years, without cover cropping, and have never had a problem with soil depletion. The reason is that I can easily spot fertilize my small plots between plantings. Crop rotation on large acreages has been practiced for generations, and it is important in that context because it’s much harder to keep the soil in good shape as you grow. It is really less of a factor in relay cropping of SPIN-size plots, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to know how to apply crop rotation.

Here is how SPIN farmer Adithya Ramachandran of Kaleidoscope Vegetables Gardens plots it out, with his rule of thumb being not to repeat the same family twice in one year in one bed:

Cool season crop families
Spinach, chard, beets
Brassicas, carrots
Onion and garlic

Warm season crop families

Legume family
Contains both cool-season (peas and broad beans) and warm-season (bush and pole beans) crops.

If you want to skip the nightshades and cucurbits, you can use the middle of your growing season for cool-season crops that can tolerate some heat, such as beets.

In a broad sense, cool season crops can precede warm weather crops, and then you can relay to cool season, like this:
                   cool season crop > warm season crop > cool season crop
For instance,  tomatoes are a big late spring/summer crop. But during the two month period in early spring, you can plant a cool season crop like spinach. So a relay could be:
                 spinach > tomatoes> radish

And remember, relays don’t have to be limited to three crops. If your season permits, you can do four and five member relays. If you live in a year-round growing region, can you do continuous relays? Don’t ask a guy from Canada. You tell me.

SPIN photo seeder a

Selling a Cure for the Winter Blahs

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

Specialty produce is what sets SPIN farmers apart at market, but it requires a well thought-through marketing strategy. Take the potato. A “staple” that can be picked up in any supermarket, it is a low-value crop. I sell purple potatoes which aren’t yet widely available in supermarkets and try to turn it into a high value crop.

Adventurous eaters will try anything, and once they do they are pretty loyal purchasers of exotic crops. But they are a not a very big market. To sell the non-early adopters takes some effort. Since everyone knows what a potato is, it is not as tough a sell as if you were introducing an entirely novel crop like kohlrabi. I start by explaining that purple potatoes go way beyond regular white fleshed ones in their anti-oxidant value. Having a print out of their history, such as their origin in Peru, makes for a good story. What you attempt to do is connect people with the story of a particular produce item. They all have a story, so in essence you become a story teller at market.

Doing research online is a no brainer nowadays, so it is easy to research each of your crops and do printouts you can give to your customers, or do your own. For instance, this link to has lots of intriguing information, even which trendy restaurants are serving them.

While a big consumer focus today is on the health benefits of food, we can’t forget taste. That’s why you need to be cooking with your own produce, so you can give convincing first-hand accounts based on your own experience. You can display photos of your dishes at market.

SF photo purple potatoes blog 3

Visual appeal is something you can really play up, especially during the drab winter months. I cut open the purple potato and display it with other crops. They are a stand magnet and also create upsell opportunities using SPIN’s mix-and-match multiple unit pricing.

SF photo purple potatoes blog

With increased consumer demand, more marketing opportunities and a wider array of crops and varieties to grow, there is no reason to regard winter as an off-season any more.

SF photo purple potatoes blog 1

Tell your customers that instead of going to their doctor or their travel agents, they can come to you for a cure for their winter blahs.

Parsely is a Good Minor Crop

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

Parsley is a good minor crop to consider. I started mine from seed in plug trays and them transplanted to Earthboxes. Containers seems to work well for parsley, so it can be a crop to grow in areas that you can’t otherwise make use of, like patios, paved walkways, deck or unused driveways.

Here are the 10 Earthboxes I have in production this year. They’ll keep me supplied with about 20 bunches of parsley per week, for the rest of the growing season. That’s $50 per week for a relatively small effort.

SPIN Photo Earthbox parsely

First Year SPIN: What Sells Best?

Courtesy of Kevin G. Quarter Branch Farm, Lovettsville, VA
I started my 2 acre farm in the fall of 2009. I have grown most of the crops recommended in the SPIN guides. They have all been very popular at my farmers markets in the DC suburbs. The salads were not as profitable as I had hoped, due to the amount of labor it took to harvest, remove the decayed leaves, and bag. This year I am trying to eliminate the decayed leaves by sowing salad at a reduced density (rows 2.25″ apart, 2 seeds per inch in row) and harvesting at a younger stage (2″ leaf). But I’m not sure why I bother with the salad, since, for me, growing heads of romaine or leaf lettuce is far more profitable, both in terms of labor and area.

These are some of my favorite crops. I have found them to be easily marketable, efficient users of space, and economical to harvest (some might take practice). I sell all these items for $3/head or bunch. (Yes, the full-size lettuce is the same price as the mini-head). I used to do the 2/$5 discount. The math was easy and the transactions were often in easy dollar amounts, but I eventually phased out the discount since most people always buy at least two things anyways. I got tired of offering a 16.6% discount for no reason. Most people didn’t seem to mind.

  • Full-Size Lettuce: I like Jericho plus some leaf types, 10″ x 10″ spacing. $3/each
  • Mini-Head Lettuce: Try Claremont and some oakleaf types too, 6″ x 6″ spacing. I typically sold 100 mini heads per Saturday. $3/ea or 2/$5
  • Carrots: Nelson in spring and Napoli in fall, rows 2.25″ apart, 2″ in row, bunch of 8-12 depending on size. $3/bunch, $4/bunch in winter Sweet turnips: Hakurei, rows 4″ apart, 2-3″ in row, bunch of 10), radishes, 2″ x 2″ spacing. Put out samples and they’ll be hooked. $3/bunch or pint
  • Radishes: 2″ x 2″ spacing. $3/bunch
  • Swiss chard: Bright Lights, transplant 10″ x 10″ apart. $3/bunch
  • Butter chard: Fordhook Giant, direct seed rows 4″ apart, cut when leaves are smaller than 4″.Best-tasting salad green I’ve ever had. $3/ 1/4 lb
  • Fennel: Orion. Last year I tried 10″ x 6″ but these heads were smaller and I only got $2/ea for them. This year I’m trying 18″ x 6″ and targeting $3/ea, which is the same income/square foot, but less labor/sf. Don’t disturb roots or cultivate too deeply or they’ll bolt. If they do, break off the seed stalk to focus energy on bulbing.
  • Celery: Tango, 18″ x 8″. $3/each
  • Shallots: These sell at my local grocery store for $1.20/ea (about the size of plum). Grow as many as you can.
  • Cipollini onions: $3/bunch or pint
  • Scallions: $2/bunch (bunches of 8
  • Bunching leeks: $3/bunch
  • Cucumbers: Diva, 42″ rows, 12″ in row, trellis. $3.50/lb
  • Tomatoes: Big Beef, 42″ rows, 18″ in row, trellis. $3.50/lb
  • Peppers: Ace, 18″ apart.$4/lb

I like to grow varieties that are eye-catching and have superior flavor. I found that it takes a lot of effort to sell uncommon vegetables such as kohlrabi or daikon. But if you know they are profitable, it could be worthwhile to be persistent in trying to develop a market for them. Signs, samples, and recipes really make a difference.

Try to find room to squeeze in some tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, if you can. These are not classic starter SPIN crops but I find they are extremely profitable to pick and, if you trellis them, they are very profitable per square foot also. Don’t let your personal preferences determine what you grow. I don’t like eating radishes but a lot of people do. I typically sell $120 to $200 of radishes at my Saturday market. Besides, I have found that I enjoy eating vegetables much more now that I grow them myself. There must be a relationship between the amount of work that goes into growing a vegetable and how good it tastes. Hopefully you will have a similar experience.

SF photo Kevin Grove plots Quarter Branch Farm