Becoming a market garden

Wowza has it been awhile since I last wrote. I’ve started and stopped many times. The last few months have been a fury of emotions as I come to the tail end (hopefully) of my 2-year existential crisis (What am I doing? Why? Is it enough? Does it matter? And does it align with my evolving values?). Now I’m ready to rock and roll. Let the pendulum swing baby because this life that I want to live is about to take shape.

First things first — what have we been doing on the farm this summer?

Ready for it? Drum roll please….(dum-dum-dum)…we’ve been building a market garden!  Man oh man has it been a lot of work. I’m super pumped to share with you what we’ve done so far, what we’re learning, and why we’re doing it.

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“So…for a friend who’s asking, what is a market garden?”

I’m super glad your “friend” asked because I’m dying to tell you them.

Now, it’s possible that if your “friend” googled “market garden” they may get a slightly different answer, but in a nutshell, this is how I understand the term (remember, I’m learning too). A market garden can vary in size, many being anywhere from an 1/8 of an acre to 7 acres or larger. The crops are typically a variety of veggies (or flowers) and sold direct to consumers through a farmer’s market, farm stand, CSA, and even restaurants.

Apparently more goes into a market garden than meets the eye, which is why we’re a bit behind schedule and why Nick’s tanned and toned bod is looking so good — but I digress. You’ll just have to see it for yourself ;). Anyway, keeping it as brief as possible (sort of), here are the steps, with photos, we’ve taken so far in building our market garden.

Step 1: Preparing the land — tree roots and bulldozers

As you may remember from a previous post, our property isn’t ideal for farming, even on a small scale. It’s heavily wooded and very hilly. So, before we could get started with the garden, we had to cut down about 40 trees, pull the roots and level the ground. Nick cut the trees then once the ground thawed we hired people with big equipment to pull out the roots and start leveling.

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Starting the leveling

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Almost done!

Step 2: Picking rock — dollars and buckets

Oh the amount of rock that had to be picked out of the 1/2 acre dirt pit that would soon become a garden. And it just keeps coming up! Nick got creative and started paying the boys $1 for every 5-gallon bucket they filled with rock (not worth it in my opinion, but the kids took to it like a fly to poop).

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Rock pile from picking rock

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Rock pile from picking rock

Step 3: Testing the soil — calf poop and compost

This is something we should have done prior to buying the property, but alas we didn’t. Live and learn I guess. And that’s what we’re doing — learning by living. We don’t really know what we’re doing. In theory, yes, but in practice it’s a whole different ball game.

The soil test consisted of filling a few containers with dirt and sending them out to get tested by experts. Based on the results we needed to add a dash of this and a dollop of that to create the perfect recipe for growing nutrient rich veggies. So we add crushed limestone and compost to start.

Some day we hope to make our own organic compost, but in the meantime, we’re dependent on others. Turns out compost is hard to find around here — especially the amount we needed to get started (24 yards). In the end we purchased calf poop from a nearby farmer. Zero waste and supporting local. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Step 4: Making the beds — playtime and tractors

Now, this is the step that got Nick all sorts of jacked. He finally got to play with his own big equipment (Ew gross! Not that!), a walk-behind tractor.

For our market garden we’re using a no-till permanent bed system. This is because we have a large amount of clay in our soil which can water log the crops if there’s nowhere for the water to flow. So, using a permanent bed system allows the rainwater to run off the beds in small trenches that runs down into the pond or slowly gets absorbed into the ground. There’s more to it than that, but I usually tune Nick out at that point. It is interesting though — REALLY!

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Nick playing with his big equipment (AKA walk-behind tractor)

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After all the beds were made

Step 5: Covering the beds — weeds and waiting

We’ve decided that it’s important for us to be responsible and respectable stewards of the land and all living things, which is why we’re choosing not to use chemicals, and also why there’s clover all over our yard. For that reason, instead of spraying to kill our weeds, we covered the beds with a black tarp. Without sunlight and with the intense heat, over time, the weeds and grass all die off. We’ve had our garden beds tarped for the last couple of months (minus two beds for test crops). And it appears to be working!

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The garden beds covered in black tarp to kill the weeds and grass underneath

Step 5: Building a greenhouse — sledge hammers and metal posts

This isn’t done yet, but we (Nick) did get the frame of the greenhouse up. And let me tell you, watching Nick work that sledge hammer has done wonders for our marriage. I’m telling you, that I just can’t tell you what that does to me.

Moving on…

We bought the frame of the greenhouse from a friend of a friend. The next steps, so Nick tells me, are to level the inside of the greenhouse, put the ends on, and then cover it all in plastic walls. There’s a few other things that’ll go into it too, like a fan, possibly insulation, etc. The greenhouse will be used in addition to the outdoor garden beds.

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Greenhouse skeleton. This will be used to grow cucumbers and tomatoes.

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Evening close-up of the greenhouse

Step 6: Growing test crops — baby roots and lettuces

We’ve reluctantly come to terms that we won’t get to a point of selling veggies this year. Everything is taking longer and has a bigger learning curve than we anticipated. That being said, we’re using this year as one of learning and are taking the opportunity to grow a few test crops, including carrots, radishes, beets and three different types of greens. They were planted about two weeks ago. Now we wait and watch and learn.

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Seeding the garden beds for our test crops

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Greens mix

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Radishes nearly two weeks in

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Radishes a few days in

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Rows of tomatoes

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Tomato

Step 7: Finding our market — farmers markets and co-ops

Deciding to wait a year to start selling our veggies has allowed us the opportunity and time we need to find our customers, know our competitors, and determine our niche. We’re doing that by traveling to farmers markets, finding co-ops, and talking to people. This is where I get to shine. Nick shines everywhere else.

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I don’t have any pictures of the markets so this raspberry from our apple orchard will have to suffice

As in life, nothing is going quite as expected. Sometimes it’s better or easier and sometimes it’s worse or harder. That’s when we tell each other and ourselves, that this, the painful learning and growing and joy of going after a dream, is the adventure we’re after.

When a pile of junk becomes inspiration

I guess it really is true what they say. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” or in today’s case, it’s another man’s business.

Today, I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting a local kid who brought so much inspiration to me, and I don’t think he has any idea that he did. No, I didn’t ask permission to write about him, so in the off and unlikely chance he comes across this post, I hope he likes it.

Hidden junk

So far on this blog, I’ve only told you about the beauties and wonders of our dream-like property. But now stuff’s about to get real, real fast.

You see, like perhaps most large areas of personal land, it would appear that a portion of ours was used as a personal dump. Somewhat hard to see at first glance, and hidden off behind some trees on the west side of our pond, you’ll find rusty metal galore. Junk for us, treasure for some. Everything from an ancient pontoon, riding lawn mower, multiple push lawn mowers, barrels of some sort, an old metal mattress spring, and a slew of other unidentifiable metal objects. Many of it partially buried from its 60+ years of being there.

Hidden treasure

Today, when I got home from picking up the kids from school, an unidentifiable young person was at our house with a truck and large trailer.

Turns out it was the “kid” Nick told me about a week ago. He met this “kid” at the brush dump while dropping off crap wood from the many trees he cut down for the garden. The “kid” asked Nick if he could have the wood. Nick was like, “you want to come haul thousands of pounds of wood off my property so I don’t have to? YES PLEASE!” And so he came, and with a broken hand, hefted large tree stumps and branches into his mini van. The “kid” made an impression on Nick that day. This was a kid not afraid of hard work.

Today, he made an impression on me. He showed up and started clearing out our dump pile of metal scraps. He was going to recycle it for cash. This is what he did for money. Not a job, neigh, he doesn’t call it that. What I call it is business, and good business. It’s good for the environment, great for our property, and he just made our lives a heck of a lot easier, all at no cost to us.

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The scrap metal loaded up on his trailer. He’s coming back to pick up the rest tomorrow. (Ryker thinks he’s helping.)

Awestruck

There was a brief moment as I was watching this “kid” heft incredibly heavy and sharp rusty objects, without gloves, into his trailer, that I thought, “wow, he works really hard not to have a job.” The thought sounded like judgement, but felt like awe. Here was this junior in high school working his butt off and making good money without getting stuck in the grind of what many jobs offer. Security? Yes. Freedom? No. He told Nick that he makes more money doing this than his brother ever did with “real” jobs. I was, am, impressed.

He saw a unique problem, that likely no one else was solving, and went for it. Now he even has special permission from his school to do pick-ups during the day, and they give him their leftover scraps from their auto shop.

This “kid” at 17 years old knows more about running a successful business and working his butt off than I do, a 35-year old with a masters degree in business. And the clincher of it all, I don’t think he even knows that’s what he’s doing.

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Here he is stopping to pick up some of the wood on his way out. (This is a glimpse of where the garden will be, well, at least part of it. Nick took out about 20+ trees)

Inspired

Although I am always a proponent of learning, no classroom can come close to life experience. This kid taught me more about business in the 15 minutes of chatting with him than my six years of business classes. What he taught me was, like Nike, you just do it. Don’t worry about the perfect business plan, like I have been, finding the right audience first, like I have been, doing all the right marketing, like I’ve been trying to do, but just do it already.

Now, that’s a lot easier said than done. I have 35 years of fear I’m facing, a family I’m supporting, and a lot of self-doubt I’m trying to overcome. But I really want to be like that “kid.”