Excited spring gardeners and enthusiastic farmers market customers are often one and the same, people simply waiting their turn to get their hands in the soil. Smart farmers know they have two customers in one with these eager folks: the typical produce shopper and the home gardener who grows a bit on the side. This means if you add started plants to your spring repertoire, you can sell them to the same customers who’ll buy your finished produce later in the year.
This fast and easy process takes up only a quarter of the year. The key to a successful started plant season is preparation. In the winter before the spring sales, you’ll need to choose varieties, order seeds, prepare greenhouses and mix soil.
Beth Trigg and Christopher Fielden of Red Wing Farm in Swannanoa, North Carolina, began several years ago starting seeds for their own garden.
“Most seed packs have way more seeds than you need for yourself, so we grew extra plants and gave them to friends and family,” Trigg says. “Over the years, we got better and better at it.”
After continued trial and error, the Red Wing farmers perfected their spring sales down to about 150 heirloom varieties, a handful of interns, a thoughtfully arranged greenhouse and a spacious booth at spring plant festivals. As with any growing, they started from the ground up.
Preparation & Troubleshooting
“Before starting our first seeds in early February, we get the germination greenhouse ready,” Fielden says. “We use two layers of plastic in our 40-by-20-foot high-tunnel where we use a hot water system with repurposed hot water heaters to heat our germination tables.”
The tables are built from recycled pallets topped with a bed of gravel, with barrels of water underneath for thermal mass and to support the weight of the gravel. They open the seed-starting season by getting the two layers of plastic up and filling and turning on the hot water germination heating system.
“Around this time, we also make our first batch of our own potting soil and pot up what we need for the first round of seed starting,” Fielden says.
Mixing their own potting soil, a modified version of Eliot Coleman’s recipe from The New Organic Grower, saves money and helps ensure a quality product. As many farmers will tell you, your crops are only as good as your soil, and more than any other growing plant, germinating seeds will tell you whether your soil is good enough.
“We’ve come to expect [that one or more varieties will have a poor germination rate] so we start a lot of varieties of the plants that sell well,” Fielden says.
Even if a variety or two fail to germinate or struggle to thrive that year, the farmers compensate by starting copious amounts of any single crop.
Tomatoes are a top seller; they’re arguably the most coveted plant start for all home gardeners and the most widely grown home garden crop in the U.S. Each year, Trigg and Fielden grow 36 varieties, anticipating that one or two might not make it to market.
“The nature of the business is that some years we just have a seed failure and we don’t have that variety to sell,” Trigg says. “We just hope that it’s not one of our top sellers, like Genovese Basil or Cherokee Purple.”
Starting & Staying Savvy
Trigg and Fielden are sensible and sentimental about their work, and the balance pays off beautifully. It’s a delicate dance to maximize profits while staying true to your values. The farmers behind Red Wing have built their relationships with customers over time. It shows itself via customer loyalty, the stories they share and the popularity of their plants at local and regional sales.
“We really share our love of these varieties, and our booths at plant sales are full of people sharing stories, gardening tips and enthusiastic reviews of varieties,” Trigg says.
Their customers’ success is their success. They spend time with their customers, offering advice, planting instruction and guidance about which varieties are best for their needs.
“We have positive personal relationships with many, many of our customers, and there is a sense of community among gardeners that is a big part of our business,” Fielden says. “Our hearts are really in it; Beth rarely makes it through a plant sale without crying about some beautiful story of something like a pepper someone’s grandmother grew that they are planting now to carry on her legacy.”
Among the significant changes to Trigg and Fielden’s spring plant booth is size. They’ve expanded their plant tables and designed displays so customers can see plant varieties, read descriptions and choose plants easily. The booth during the April and May plant sales is organized by crop. Plant families—such as nightshades, brassicas and cucurbits as well as flowers and herbs—are grouped together. Each variety has its own row, with several plants in a tray. A laminated, color photo with name and description of each variety tells gardeners what to expect come harvest time.
Back at the farm, the duo has created an internship program that provides the labor they need without the hefty costs. Interns work four hours per week during the seed-starting season and get valuable, hands-on experience. With a few extra hands, everyone wins. And everyone can enjoy the season for what it is.
“We love being in the warm greenhouse with all the luscious green plants when it’s still cold and gray outside,” Trigg says. “We love that the season has a beginning and an end, and that everything happens in about four months, allowing us to focus on our own garden and small farm the rest of the year.”
Heirloom seeds are saved each year and will adapt and adjust to your climate with each passing year you grow them, customizing them to your growing conditions. Try starting some of these vegetables or similar heirlooms from your area.
Lincoln Garden Pea: This lovely little pea has high yields and tightly packed shells and are easy to shell. Its compact bushes are perfect for smaller spaces.
Russian Giant Garlic: This huge variety has brilliant purple marbling and keeps better than most garlic. It’s easy to peel and tastes fantastic when roasted.
Mortgage Lifter Tomato (pictured above): This one-pound pink variety was created in the 1940s by crossing several varieties. The flavor is superb, sweet and delicious, for slicing or cooking.
Atomic Red Carrot: These bright red carrots grow as long as 8 inches,
and their color is a testament to their high content of lycopene, the cancer-
fighting substance. They are great eaten raw and even better cooked to release the lycopene.
Drunken Woman Lettuce: This Italian heirloom has bright green and bronze-fringed leaves that grow wonderfully and taste great.
Jimmy Nardello Pepper: This elongated red pepper looks like a spicy variety, but don’t be fooled by its shape. This is the sweetest snacking pepper around. This incredible prolific variety is deep red when ripe, thin skinned and great for drying.
Choosing Seed Varieties
When choosing your seed varieties, be true to your roots. At Red Wing Farm, Trigg and Fielden have worked for years exclusively with heirloom and open-pollinated plants, varieties suitable for seed saving. It’s a great niche that sets their plant selection apart from what gardeners might find at big-box stores or even local nurseries—a smart choice in a smaller market. Also, more importantly, they are really committed to preserving seed genetics.
Growing heirloom varieties connects the farmers to their customers, who often share stories of saving seeds, growing with their loved ones and honoring family who have passed. But it also plays a part in ensuring that we have food for generations to come.
Their favorite varieties are ones that are well-loved in Appalachia, where they grow and sell, and that grow well in the mountainous, clay soil of western North Carolina. This is a good place for any farmer to start: Grow seeds that thrive where you live.
Also consider that your customers’ needs are different than a farmer’s needs. Your plant customers are probably home gardeners, often with smaller plots or container gardens, lesser quality soil and perhaps less time for gardening. This is especially true for popular crops, such as tomatoes and peppers. Because varieties are region specific, spend time in the fall researching varieties that work well for growers in your area.
Heirlooms are a great choice for all of these reasons. Above all, the varieties you choose should be:
- • appropriate for your region
- • hardy and tolerant
- • easy to grow
- • tasty
“Paul Robeson is a great, juicy, purple type tomato that we love introducing gardeners to,” Trigg says. “We also like finding sweet pepper varieties that work well for our climate; the Italian cone-shaped peppers are a lot easier for home gardeners than the bells. Watermelons and cucumbers sell really well, and even okra and celery have been surprise sleeper hits.”
Choose several varieties each, of best sellers such as tomatoes and herbs, so customers have many choices. With Red Wing Farm’s 36 tomato varieties, every customer can find one or more he or she looks forward to growing.
Growing plants from seeds isn’t just a way to earn more profit in the farming industry. It’s an essential part of life on Earth because humans cultivate the soil. Seeds hold our human history and ensure the health of generations to come. Farmers who start seeds for their customers play their role in their community’s food system.
“We love being part of the long chain of gardeners preserving and passing down treasured varieties, growing food and medicine and beautiful old-fashioned flowers,” Trigg says.
Fielden adds, “We love the excitement and energy of big plant sale events, interacting with all of the gardeners, sharing stories and building community around gardening.”
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Hobby Farms.