Late winter brings farmers out of the seed catalogs and into seed houses. As greenhouses are heated, potting soil spread into trays, and seeds placed in each cell, excitement mounts for the coming season and all its possibilities. For many farmers, especially new farmers, this is also a time of year when budgeting is crucial—money is going out, but not necessarily coming in yet, and so it’s important to be aware of your seed starting costs and take advantage of ways to keep those costs to a minimum. Here are a few tips that have helped us stay on a budget at Good Heart Farmstead.
Seed House Construction: Building a Versatile Space
If you don’t have a greenhouse and are looking for an economical option for a seed starting space, begin by looking at your existing buildings. Is there a south-facing wall not being utilized? At GHF, we built a seed house off the side of our barn using 18’ hemlock planks and greenhouse plastic. By using an existing wall, one side of your seed house is already complete before you’ve even started building. We also dug out the floor of the seed house so it is a few feet below the floor of the barn. With rocks from an old stone wall on the perimeter of our property, we built a rock wall along the dug-out southern edge of the seed house. The wall is attractive and acts as a passive solar heat source – it absorbs excess heat during the day, then releases it slowly during the cold nights. For more heat, we bought and installed a used wood stove. Our seed house was constructed with the help of many friends – if you are ready to start building but need more hands, organize a work party, invite your friends, and make sure to feed them plenty of good food and drink!
As the seed-starting season waned last year, we transitioned the seed house into a mini-greenhouse for tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. In the fall we used this space to cure our winter squash; it can also be used to hang dry beans and corn that need the last bit of moisture sucked out. Just before the winter took hold, we transplanted kale to over-winter inside. By building a versatile space, you can increase its value in relation to your operation.
Eventually, we’d like to replace the greenhouse plastic with rigid plastic to keep more heat in, and we may someday replace the woodstove with one that doesn’t require as much night-time stoking, but for now they do the job at very low cost.
Taking advantage of bulk buying options for potting soil and compost is another way to stay on budget during seed starting time. Through the NOFA-VT bulk order, Vermont farmers are able to get potting soil at a discounted rate – your local organic farming association may offer something similar. Here in Worcester we are lucky enough to live 20 minutes from the Vermont Compost Company, so we have also saved by picking up yards of potting soil in our own truck; alternatively, we have ordered 20 yards of compost for delivery to our farm. Just like seeds, the more you buy, the better the price break is. Look for similar bulk buying options in your area to help keep costs down.
Another choice to make is whether to go with plastic trays or soil blocks. In our first year we used old plastic trays from High Mowing (when the seed production and trials crews bought new trays and rotated the older ones out, offering them up to employees). While this was the cheapest option at the time, the older trays were already compromised with cracks, and by the end of spring we had weeded out half of them out as they broke on the trip between seedhouse and field. This year we are transitioning to soil blocks, which we like for multiple reasons: plants grown in soil blocks avoid getting root bound, as the presence of oxygen slows root growth once the roots reach the edge of the block; also, after making the initial investment in the soil block makers, we won’t have to buy new plastic trays and pots every few years.
Choose cost-effective varieties
Generally, open-pollinated varieties cost less than hybrids, but before shunning hybrid seed, take note of your methods of sale and your customer base. Are you holding a plant sale? If so, try to get a good feel for what your home garden customers are searching for. Tomatoes are one of the most popular home garden crops, and many gardeners have that rich heirloom flavor foremost in their minds, so stock plenty of tried and true heirlooms that are familiar to customers, such as Brandywine and Pruden’s Purple. If you are growing for production–wholesale, farmers market, or CSA–keep in mind that many hybrids offer higher yields than similar OPs. For example, in our cherry tomato trials, hybrid varieties like Suzanne F1 and Sakura F1 yielded almost twice as many tomatoes as comparable OP varieties, so even though the seed is more expensive, the harvest is much heavier and makes up for the initial cost. In addition, you can grow fewer plants to produce the same yield, saving valuable bed space for other crops.
It’s also important to plan for your climate and disease pressure – as you read through variety descriptions, make note of what varieties are particularly well-suited to cool spring and fall weather vs. summer heat, and which ones can stand up best to the diseases in your area. By matching varieties to your region as best as possible, you will set yourself up for a more successful season.
Happy Growing in 2014!