For Staggered Plantings, Ignore the Spreadsheet

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

Success at any scale of farming requires continuous production of certain crops, such as green beans and onions, leafy greens and radish. Staggered plantings are the way to accomplish that. Some call it succession planting. But don’t confuse this with relay planting. Here’s the difference:

  • Relay planting is the planting of different crops in the same plot, one right after the other, during a single season.
  •  Staggered or succession planting is the planting of the same crop in different plots throughout the season.

Staggered plantings need to be timed properly. To put in a proper stagger, you can’t rely on spread sheet dates. Why? Because of weather variables. Your planned spreadsheet plantings and the reality on the ground frequently diverge. Let’s take spinach. Say you want to have steady production during your cool weather spring. LSF dates are irrelevant. You can plant as soon as you can work the soil.

For me in Zone 3, that is usually the first week of April, when the snow is gone from the ground. Though spinach germinates in cool soil conditions, it can take up to 10 days +. If your spreadsheet calls for another planting a week from your initial planting, do you hit the plots? No, because planting before emergence and development of your initial crop will more than likely mean that your two plantings will coincide and you will be oversupplied when it comes time to harvest. Wait until you get germination, crop emergence, and some development on your initial crop. Then you put in your next staggered planting.

SPIN photo crop production guide spinach 10

Spread sheet planting dates can be useful. But for staggered plantings, conditions on the ground trump planning.



Play Your Crops Like Poker

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

Now that the season is in full swing I’m hearing from beginning SPIN farmers who have their relays in play. One recently wrote:

“For loose leaf lettuces and spinach, I know they will produce for a long while after they are planted as long as you leave at least 1/4 of the plant. Are you saying that we should harvest the entirety of the plant at once and proceed with the next plant in the relay? With spinach and lettuce I know they  will continuously produce, and I just can’t see where it makes sense financially to harvest the lot at once and relay. I’m just trying to look at it from a profit standpoint “

There’s no better way to look at it, and the way to play relays is this. Once a bed is finished being harvested, then it is relayed. The harvesting of the bed may occur over several weeks, or longer, say in the case  of dill. You should make as much income as you can from that bed, and get as many harvests as you can, but when the crop is harvested to “completion”, at that point you relay.

Some crops do  wear out. In my experience, spinach does not produce continuously. I usually takes two cuts, spaced a week or two apart. Then I relay to a different crop.

SPIN photo rototilling a

Another category of crop are those that typically produce for the entire summer and into fall, such as chard and kale. No relay, just perpetual harvest. These are planted in the single crop area of a SPIN farm.

With any system, including SPIN, you always need to be thinking and adapting it to what makes sense to you, and what works for you in your particular situation. With crops, once you get a feel for when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, you’ll be well on your way to a winning season.

How SPIN’s Numbers Add Up

Courtesy of Roxanne C., Philadelphia PA

The advantage of using a system like SPIN-Farming is that it provides benchmarks to guide your business and measure your progress in highly specific terms. Let’s take a look at what comprises SPIN’s benchmarks, and how they all add up.

SPIN’s units of production are:
A bed = 50 sq. ft. (it measures 2 ft. x 25 ft.)
A segment = 1,000 sq. ft. (many backyards can accommodate this size plot, with a typical dimension being  25 ft. x 40 ft.)

SPIN’s revenue benchmarks are:
$100 gross per crop, per bed
$1,300 gross per crop per segment

SPIN’s relay cropping techniques are:
bi-relays in which 2 or more crops are grown in the same bed or segment, per season
intensive relays in which 3 or more crops are grown in the same bed or segment, per season
Relay cropping doubles or triples production and therefore revenue, without expanding the growing space. You can think of it as intensifying your growing space.

Putting these benchmarks into play on a half acre, which is about the size of many suburban backyards, goes something like this.

1 segment = 13 beds and $1,300 gross revenue
a half acre = about 20,000 sq. ft., or 20 segments
20 segments = $26,000 gross revenue

If you intensify the half acre by using relay cropping, you can at least double or triple your revenue, like this:
20 segments in bi-relays (2 crops/season) = $52,000 gross revenue
20 segments in intensive relays (3 crops/season) =$78,000 gross revenue

Since relay cropping is labor intensive, the exercise becomes, how can you intensify your half acre, without incurring labor costs, or keeping them to a minimum? So to make the work load manageable for you and a partner, and occasional help,  you might use your 20,000 sq.ft. to target $55,900, broken down like this:
5 segments in single crop production = $6,500 gross revenue
7 segments in bi-relays = $18,200 gross revenue
8 segments in intensive relays = $31,200 gross revenue

As you can see, the options are many, and the result is a system for generating specific, steady and predictable income throughout the season. But since farming is never steady state, the system is adjustable throughout the season, and from year to year.

Playing with SPIN numbers is not an academic exercise. It’s the basis for your business, production and operational plans. All you need to do is get with the system.

SPIN photo relay tiller plowing under bed

Here is a bed of spinach past its prime being tilled under and readied for the planting of a second crop.  Planting several crops sequentially, one right after the other, in the same bed throughout the season is called relay cropping. It double or triples the revenue you can make from a single plot.