4 Planting Strategies for a Successful CSA

Deciding in advance on what to include each week in addition to calculating how much to plant and when are components ensuring every CSA member gets a bountiful basket.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Andy Roberts/Flickr

When it comes to marketing produce, the community-supported agriculture model is among the most reliable for vegetable growers. Getting a big burst of cash up front lets farmers budget for the season, buy the necessary tools or seeds and plant knowing exactly how much they’ll need.

That last point, however, can be tricky. Knowing when and how much to plant can be among the more difficult parts of running a CSA. So today I lay out the strategies we use on our farm to ensure we have enough for our CSA and that each week is bountiful. Some of this takes experience (and by experience, I mean failures) and a general knowledge of your growing seasons. Let’s start with the basics.

1. Plan Contents of Weekly Shares

The first step to ensuring you have a bountiful share of food for your CSA members every week—a share being a single delivery or basket of food—is to plan your weeks in advance. Decide on a number of items. We usually shoot for seven per basket, but that can fluctuate depending on the produce. Go month by month, and week by week, and choose items that you could reasonably fit into those shares. For instance, if your shares start in May, as ours do, we do not expect to have tomatoes in basket No. 1. We expect lettuce, kale, arugula, spinach, an herb such as parsley, green garlic, green onions and radishes (and strawberries, we hope). This is a sharp contrast to summer, when a basket will probably contain tomatoes, peppers, hot peppers, cured garlic, corn, eggplant, zucchini and so on. Set reasonable goals here.

Go week by week, determine what you would like to have as well as what you can have, given the season. Then, plan to plant those items early enough so they will be ready around the times you want. In the early spring, add at least 10 days to the “days to maturity” listed on seed packet. Also, plan at least one extra item in the basket in case something fails or takes longer than expected.

2. Spread Out Unusual Items

An easy way to quickly overwhelm your CSA members is to give them too many unusual items right away or at the same time. Kohlrabi is great, and you should include it, but not with radicchio, radishes and turnip greens. Space out those more bizarre foods so you don’t put too much pressure on the members to experiment with foods they might never have tried.

3. Calculate How Much to Plant

There are some general rules for how much of each plant to put in the ground, but some of it will take experience. I recommend taking notes every year so you can figure out how much you need to grow of each item. Chances are, you will not be perfect in year one. Notably, without knowing your share sizes, it would be impossible for me to give you exact plantings, but there are some guidelines I can give you.

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Planting some items will be obvious—calculate how many heads of broccoli you want to give, and grow 10 percent more to account for loss. Same goes for any single-cut items such as cabbage.

  • Crops such as carrots and turnips can be a little trickier, but if you put time into growing your carrots correctly—that is, in loose, fertile soil with good spacing and water—you can estimate your yields with fair accuracy. Usually, with a good stand of carrots, we estimate one big bunch of carrots or turnips per row foot, though we almost always have extra—especially with radishes and turnips. (The weight of these bunches will depend on the variety of crop and maturity.)
  • For leafy, multi-pick greens such as chard or kale, I suggest three or four plants per person for medium to large weekly bunches. So I would plant at least four plants per member per week. Minimum.
  • Sweet corn is fickle. You get only two ears per stock, and you probably want to give no less than four ears per share.
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes are included in almost every basket. Yields of potatoes can vary greatly by variety and growing conditions, so read up on your crop and plant accordingly. You probably should have enough for two pounds per basket. Also plan a few weeks of new potatoes to get through until the bulk of the potatoes are ready.
  • Onions and garlic are also included in almost every basket, so plan for two bulbs of onions at least and one bulb of garlic per basket. In the early spring you can do green onions and green garlic and garlic scapes before those crops are mature.
  • For herbs, shoot for at least one herb per week—basil, cilantro, dill and parsley should be your workhorses here, though people also love sage, thyme, rosemary and so on. Plant a variety, and plant in successions.
  • Fruiting plants such as tomatoes differ depending on whether you grow them in a greenhouse or in the field; whether they are grafted; whether they are hybrids; and so on. In the field we usually grow four ungraded tomato plants per customer, but we’d need only one or less per customer in an intensive greenhouse situation. Peppers and eggplant I usually grow two plants per CSA member. Again, these are my numbers and helpful to our share sizes, but these numbers might need to be upped to be safe if this is your first year growing.

4. Grow Extra

Lastly, if this is your first CSA, just grow more than you think you’ll need to stay on the safe side. Yes, it’s unfortunate to waste, but as long as you are taking notes and learning, that excess produce can simply go back into the garden via the compost and you can try again next year. For me, it is always better to have too much than not enough. Plus, you can always sell extra at market or to restaurants.

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