Working the Soil is What Farmers Do

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA 

Farmers get attached to their soil for good reason. No soil, no business. They have to treat it right, and there are lots of groups and movements telling them so. They may be overstating their case, however, if farmers are starting to feel guilty, defensive or ashamed whenever they pick up a shovel or fire up the tiller.

A SPIN farmer in Hawaii recently wrote:

Quick question for ya’ll …

I grow arugula here on Maui as you know. You also know it’s essentially a quick crop to grow. I plant it in sections at different times, so I always have available product for sale. My question is with regards to overtilling. After each harvest, every 6 to 7 weeks, I till the area (depth of 5″ +/- inches, composting old plant into soil) and reseed for the next crop. I’ve been reading about the issues of soil disturbance in doing so, but how is this to be avoided? Mahalo for your thoughts.

Agriculture disturbs the soil, always has and always will. You can’t plant without some type of soil disturbance. If you think rototilling is too harmful to the soil, you can pull the spent plants by hand instead of tilling in. Then you can use a hand tool, such as a three pronged cultivator, to bed prep. Then rake the bed, so it is level. So using hand tools, even on acre-size plots is do-able, if you feel the trade-off in time and effort is worth it.

If the question relates to a decrease in productivity, you should consult with a soil expert. But most often it stems from a philosophical concern. Wally has been cropping some of his backyard plots with a tiller for over 20 years and the soil remains healthy and productive. He loses no sleep over soil disturbance.

If the thought of working the soil disturbs you, you might want to consider a different line of work.

SF photo do not disturb sign

Find out how SPIN farmers keep their soil healthy and productive in the SPIN online support group. Free trial membership comes with the purchase of any SPIN guide.

Raised Beds May Work Against You

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia, PA

When you get serious about production, the first thing to go are those raised beds. Recently SPIN farmer Rex Landings cleared out the last of his.

SF photo Raised beds Rex

When you turn a garden into a business, you start using time and labor saving tools the average gardener does not, like a tiller and a seeder. So you’ll need to consider how well they work with raised beds. They are expensive to build, cumbersome to work, not water efficient, and can dry out quickly in arid climates. They don’t work in every context, for instance, when you are renting a plot without a long term agreement.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is they are permanent. That means you can’t change your layout to grow crops that aren’t suitable for beds or put in very large scale plantings.

Raised beds can have their place, mostly for smaller-sized plots. Some advantages are they warm up earlier, and drain better during periods of heavy rain. The wood frames also can serve as anchors for row covers or low tunnels. But unless the soil you have is contaminated or your site has poor drainage, there’s no good reason to use them. They only limit your design options, and your thinking. If you don’t have to use them to solve problems, raised beds may actually create ones.



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

Reality Check for New Farmers

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

Still high from a full season of farming conferences, and primed by government funded training programs, new farmers are now heading back to the land to pursue their farm dreams. Most often they include a farmstead set amid rolling hills, a lone tractor silhouetted against the sunrise, and many peaceful hours of toil amid fields of plenty. This is what defines traditional farming, and it is what now makes it so challenging as a business. When the thing that makes you is the thing that breaks you, you are in for a tough row to hoe.

Before you strike out to pursue your farm dream, here is a quick reality check:
> the simple life does not come cheap
> you aren’t owed a living just because you choose a certain lifestyle
> the less land you put in production to start, the more success you are likely to have
> the further away you are from your markets, the more dependent you will be on the farm aid industry

For SPIN farmers, the starting point is not creating the perfect lifestyle, but responding to an opportunity where they happen to be. Just ask Wally. His business, Wally’s Urban Market Garden is now celebrating its 25th year. It certainly reflects his ideals and ethics, but he has always let the business drive the farming, rather than the other way around.

If you don’t know how Wally started out, you can read about it here. As he has said, “While the land base and expenses for a sub-acre farm are a fraction of the costs for a  conventional, multi-acre farm, the bottom lines are similar. And counter-intuitive though it seems, a backyard farmer can expect to make the same living as a large-scale farmer, but with less stress and overhead, and with more certainty of success from year to year, because more of the success factors are in a SPIN farmer’s control.

“Had I known about the feasibility of small plot farming when I started my career 20 years ago, I would never have bought large acreage in the country, and would have fulfilled my farming aspirations more easily and with less expense in the city.”

So consider this: when it comes to that farm dream: the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.

SPIN photo Gail and potatoes back forty

With SPIN-Farming, the back forty might be measured in square feet, instead of acres, but the satisfaction that comes from practicing intelligent, dedicated craft and soil -based farming is the same. Plus you make more money with less stress and more control over your operation.

DDG1 photo 13 On Wally’s large farm outside of town he invested in an expensive and elaborate irrigation system that depended on fluctuating river levels. In his backyard plot in the city, his irrigation system is a hose and the water faucet. 

Mod 2 Pest control 3

At Wally’s city-based farm, organic methods are much easier to abide by. With this backyard scale operation most pests can be controlled by hand…

SPIN photo Wally fertilizing

… and soil health is easily managed using local inputs. There is also very little waste. 

DDG6 photo 27 DSC00211

Think before heading for the hills to start your farm. Backyard -based farming offers a number of competitive and business advantages, micro climate and easy access to water and markets among them.

Newbie SOS: Don’t obsess over soil amendments

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

Soil is the number one hang-up I try to get new farmers to ease up a bit on. Sure soil is important, but you don’t need to turn it into a religion. It needs to be understood at a basic gardening level,  respected and treated well. And because you’ll be doing a lot of growing of a lot of different crops throughout the season,  you’ll have lots of chances to learn what works and what doesn’t as you go along.

What do you use to amend soil? I have access to some 8 yr old regularly turned cattle manure probably free if I go get it. I’m getting coffee grounds from local coffee shop, and have been saving eggshells for my compost. But it’s not much volume. What about kelp?

The manure sounds good. Liquid organic fertilizers like kelp, are good to use. My soil amendments are dictated by whatever is locally available for free or at reasonable cost. Contrary to what all the soil doctors tell you, there is no magic potion. Most people over-fertilize. Using SPIN’s bed setup is an advantage because you can spot fertilize throughout the season. At most I spend a few hundred per season on soil amendments.

SPIN photo Wally fertilizing


Here Wally spot fertilizes an area where spinach has just been harvested. The pail contains a mixture of alfalfa pellets, soybean meal, dried molasses, wood ash, bone meal, and blood meal – all ingredients purchased from a local feed store. The soil gets a light dusting, and then this area will be replanted to a different crop.

Mod 2 Soil 1


SPIN farmers compost where they can. Here Gail turns the pile in her own backyard. If you’re using neighbor’s plots, composting may not be possible there. No worries. If you don’t always compost, it is not a sin.