How to Determine Hoophouse Density for Tomatoes and Peppers

Courtesy of Adithya Ramachandran, Kaleidoscope Vegetable Gardens, Dundurn SK

When growing tomatoes in a hoophouse, think about how many plants you would grow on the same amount of space outdoors, divide that by 3, and plant only that number in the hoophouse. This is particularly important for tomatoes because they can get HUGE in a hoophouse. I learned that the hard way my first year with high tunnels. Not only does it make it difficult to work in there, but it also increases disease and pest issues, and they compete with one another for water and nutrients. You can improve your yield per square foot by planting fewer plants. This is particularly so if you don’t prune the plants (which I don’t do – too labor-intensive).

Peppers don’t get as crazy as tomatoes, but they also consume a lot of water and are very shallow-rooted, so again there can be competition if they are crowded.

SF photo fb wisdom Adi hoophouse densifty photo


How to Troubleshoot Crop Problems

Courtesy of Lois Thompson, Sprout Consultant, Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds

A SPIN farmer who has gotten off to an impressive start with a microgreens business, Mary Ackley of Little Wild Things City Farm in Washington DC, posted an SOS in the Backyard Riches forum about yellowing micro basil. She has both an indoor and field grown operation, and reported that suddenly two different batches of tray grown micro basil have exhibited yellowing leaves. There is no sign of infectious diseases (fungi or bacteria) or any pests.

SF photo basil micro yellowing

If you can’t get advice from someone who has experienced your exact problem, you may have to troubleshoot crop problems like this one your own. Lois Thompson the sprout consultant at Mumm’s Sprouting Seeds,outlines a 6 step troubleshooting  process which involves reviewing  soil, light, watering and atmosphere to identify changes in any of these condition which would cause a good crop to become a bad one.

>>Starting premise: If 2 kinds of seeds have the same problem, it is likely not the seed.

Assess what has changed from when you were able to grow the leaves green. The change can be subtle.

1. Start with the soil.
– Did you get in a new lot of soil?                                                                                             – Anything new about the soil?                                                                                               –

Yellowing could be a nutrient deficiency in iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc, or nitrogen, due to high or low soil ph.

o if there is an strange pattern to the yellowing, like if the veins on the leaves are green        and the tissue is yellow then it is almost always a nutrient problem.
o Try some kelp fertilizer
o Try some worm castings or compost into the soil

2. Look at the roots.                                                                                                               – –   – Damaged roots, compacted roots, injured roots, poor root growth could lead to nutrient deficiencies showing up in leaves
– Try adding a  soil amendment like mycorrhiza                                                                       – Try adding sugar to the water or the soil try different concentrations

3. Look for moisture stress                                                                                                           – Any new drainage problems?

4. Look at your watering                                                                                                             – Any signs of the crop getting too much or too little water?                                                   – Any change in water temperature?                                                                                         – Call the city to ask if the water has changed? Has salt been added to the water?                –  Any subtle seasonal water changes?

5. Look at your light                                                                                                                   – Has the light changed? Try some extra light. Try additional LED lights

6. Look at air circulation and temperature
– Have there been seasonal changes in temperature?

Farming is never steady state, and disciplined experimentation is a tool of the trade. It’s much easier to deal with SPIN-scale production challenges, and it’s important to note that while indoor production has been extolled as the 21st century solution to feeding the world, controlled climate growing does not mean that the grower is always in control.

Winter Markets Keep the Cash Flowing

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

My operation in zone 3 Canada has been a year round one for many years. Now I’m starting to hear from other SPIN farmers who are usually trading their tillers for a snow blowers about now, that winter markets are booming, and that they, too, plan to keep production going.

For instance, a nursery owner in Minnesota is setting up a room to do 36 10×20 trays indoors under lights, and is planning to provide microgreens to his customers from November to May. He wants to know what kind of yield to project from each 10 x 20 tray, and the pricing he should set.  Here’s what I suggest:

  •  Try doing about 10 trays per week for starters.
  •  Think about adding micro radish to the peas for a salad mix. Very popular. Can also sell them as stand alone greens.
  •  I get about 1/2 lb. of micro radish per tray. About 1 lb. of pea greens.
  •  Stay with SPIN’s mix and match pricing of $3.00 2/$5.00, and unitize accordingly, with the idea of targeting at least $20 of revenue per tray. [Note that in some markets SPIN farmers are reporting they have been able to push SPIN’s pricing benchmark to $4 or 2/$8].  
  •  To see if you can save on costs, try growing without lights initially, just room light.
  •  Add lights, say to a max of 8 hours per day, and observe what it does for your production, and determine whether you need them.
  • Some commercial growers grow pea greens/micros in darkness, to get a yellow looking product, which chefs like.

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There are many ways SPIN farmers can continue to make hay while the snow flies. Here are the SPIN guides that can give you some more ideas on how to keep your cash flow going during the winter months:  Indoor Farming with MicroGreens  Four Season Marketing


Take your farm to the next level – the basement

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
Now that there are some seasoned SPIN farmers out there, I’m seeing lots of plans for taking their operations to the next level. Many involve expanding their land base or investing in season extension. Both are good ideas. But accomplishing them the traditional way – by acquiring more land or investing in complicated structures – makes it harder and more expensive than it needs to be.

A few years ago when I wanted to expand my operation, I headed to the basement. The investment was under $1,000, and included some shelving and lights. Since I am already spending to heat that room, the overhead is just the cost of lights, which is minimal. Bottom line: you don’t need to invest in a new structure, or find space for it.

SPIN photo grow table shoots

Right now in one of my basement grow rooms I have 50 trays of  pea and micro greens, with turn around of less than two weeks. I will also be growing live garlic in containers, starting this week, in another grow room. Bedding plants are scheduled for next month. Other possibilities for indoor grow room production are fresh herbs, something I will try soon.

My basement grow room now adds $10,000+ to my bottom line, and supports a year round operation in zone 3 Canada. Being an urban farmer, I also appreciate its discretion. In my neighborhood, a 50 foot high tunnel in the backyard would not go unnoticed. Using underutilized residential spaces I already have is an easier option.

This type of indoor setup allows you to grow consistent volumes of crops year round, regardless of whether you are having a hot summer, or a cold, hard winter. Being able to provide steady supply locks in restaurant customers. Year round restaurant orders of indoor crops of say, $200 per week, means an extra $10,000 per year, with minimal time and labor. That can pay a lot of bills, making your farmers market and CSA sales even more profitable.

So those wanting to take their SPIN farm to the next level should think about heading to the basement or den or any other underutilized space in their home, and keep their commute time to 0.

Find out how to set up a lucrative micro greens business in your basement in Dig Deeper Guide # 5.

Edible Houseplants are a Good Indoor Crop

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

I am in hard winter here right now, so the only outside work I have is shoveling snow. Believe me, there is no market for that here in Saskatoon. Given that we go to three markets a week, year round, we are having to concoct money making ideas. One new product we have test marketed the last couple of weeks is edible house plants, specifically garlic. We sell them in the containers you see below for $5.00 each.

SPIN photo farm stand display

We plant 5 cloves per container. Three weeks later you have a marketable product. We use indoor grow table/racks for this production. Plants are sold with the idea that you harvest the green garlic, and it will regrow to be harvestable again. Given the low price point, people are willing to give it a try, and they are moving well.
Wally, Zone 3

Indoor Grow Tables Inexpensive Setup for Winter Production

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

You don’t need an expensive greenhouse to keep going through the winter. I use  grow tables in my basement. Advantage: you don’t need to pay to heat it. There is a small cost for lighting, but it’s a fraction of what you can make from this type of setup. I can fit 16 trays per table.

This week Gail and I are ramping up indoor winter greens production. A chef’s event coming up means I have to deal with 30 trays of micro greens. We will lay them out on the table and shelves, and cut before Nov. 8. We’ll be doing a winter salad mix, which will be pea greens and a variety of micro greens. Pea greens might seem a little foreign to many people, but when you make them a part of a salad mix, then it is an easy sell. Micro greens are a luxury item at winter markets, and you can charge luxury prices.

SPIN photo grow table in basement 2

Indoor micro greens production is easy to ramp up

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

Outdoor work has ended here in Saskatoon, and can now focus on indoor micro greens production. The advantage to this type of crop is that it allows you to ramp up production very quickly. Case in point, I got an order from a local chef who works for a large multi-national hotel chain. He has a standing order for bi-weekly deliveries of six .15 lb. bags of micros and one cut tray of pea greens. Micros are $7.50 per bag, and peas are $17.50 per cut tray.

This week he told me he wants 26 bags of micros and four trays of peas for Nov. 8. That’s about a $250 order. Ramping up is easy. That means about 9 trays of micros, which are not a big deal to produce. So I’ll be planting soon for this order.

SPIN photo crop micro greens on scale

Learn how to set up and make money with an indoor micro greens operation in the Indoor Farming with Micro Greens guide in the SPIN-Farming learning series. 

Grow Tables for Shoot Production

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
I’m finding these indoor grow tables to be great for continuous tray-based production.  indoor trays allows for predictable production, especially important for standing orders from  restaurants, since you can’t let them down.  Table is the size of a pool table, 4 ft. by 8 ft. Allows for 16 trays with a two week turn over. Trays go for about $20 on average. I am hearing from chefs this is probably under priced, but I am happy with it. That’s $320, every two weeks. A 30 week marketing period grosses $9,600. So this type of production can add significantly to your bottom line.

This type of production is also much more reliable than soil-based production, though I do that as well.

SPIN photo grow table shoots

SPIN in a Box

Courtesy of James K. , Virtually Green, San Francisco, CA

Over the past few years I’ve done a number of consulting projects for innovative hydroponic systems startups. Hydroponic farming is a high-tech system, high startup cost, high operations and maintenance costs, high energy (even with LED) costs, high skills required, high-risk venture … etcetera. It’s not for the faint of heart or anyone without deep pockets. This one is no different, and in fact appears higher risk than most. It is a high-cost unit with limited volume yields relative to higher footrprint hydroponics operations that only succeed (if they do at all) because they can amortize fairly fixed considerable startup and O&M costs over a high volume of produce yields spread across acres of production. I’d say the odds of freightfarms succeeding are slim to none.

As for SPIN being applicable, I’d say that the post-harvest processing, packaging, pricing and marketing aspects of SPIN, could be applied. I don’t see the transformation of people’s front lawns into container farms. Butt ugly. Neighbors would freak. 🙂 Parking lots on the other hand, maybe, but even there ugly doesn’t play well with the commercial neighbors: you’d have to build a pretty shell around the containers at the very least, which is another big cost.

On the other hand, the concept of a shipping container standard system core for a small farm operation is actually intriguing. Imagine a walk-in cooler, post-harvest processing, and value-add processing (say basil to pesto, or tomatoes-chilies to salsa) unit in a shipping container. Sweet. Drop it in a driveway or backyard. Do perennial trellises and pretty canopies the heck out of it and maybe the neighbors would be OK with it. Maybe.

Lots of ideas out there for new ways to do farming. Most of them bad. Skepticism is a good default perspective for this stuff.

Fast Track Farming

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon, SK
It’s the time of year when I get inundated with URGENT!!! messages from those who are suddenly motivated to begin their farming careers this season. While planning is the hallmark of SPIN-Farming, I can’t resist a challenge. How do you fast track farm startup? Well, you need to know the difference between mission critical and distractions. Distractions are double digging, high tunnels, and designer rain catchment systems. Below is the information I’m requesting of a late starting first year SPIN farmer in
Ottawa ON to get him focused on what is mission critical.

  • What is the current size of land base you plan on putting into production.
  • Is the land ready to plant?
  • Do you have access to water?
  • Do you have/have access to a rototiller?
  • Do you have garden tools and a seeder?
  • Do you live in the city, or on the outskirts?
  • Describe your ” home base.”
  • Do you have post harvest cooling capacity?
  • Can you get potato seed/onion sets/garlic quickly?
  • Where will you be selling? A farmers market?
  • Have you considered restaurant sales for crops such as pea greens/sunflower greens?
  • Have you considered indoor tray production of pea/micro greens?

Note: if you want to get into the game really quickly this season, Quick Greens (Dig Deeper guide 3) and indoor production (Dig Deeper guide 5) explains this type of “fast track” production.

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