Most of the growers that I work with are keen to grow more food with less time, in less space, or both. If you can, why not? In this post, I will take you on the journey that our plants follow from seed to table and highlight the infrastructure upgrades that we have made on our property to make this journey less time consuming and more productive.
Let's start with an aerial view of our property to give you a bit of perspective. As you can see, our urban context leaves us with substantial space constraints, but we're compelled to make the best of what we've got. Slowly, we are developing our site to meet our needs and flow smoothly from one task to the next.
The numbers on the aerial photo mark the locations of each gardening upgrade we have made to our yard as listed below. Spaces 1, 2, and 8 are marked on top of our house because they are located in our basement.
Seed Starting Shelves
For this virtual tour today, I'll introduce the spaces in the order they would be used. This is not necessarily the order that they should be constructed. Your context and values will influence which upgrades should be your top priority.
1. Indoor Workspace
A lot of the action begins here. Since we grow in a pretty cold climate, we start a lot of seeds indoors when the weather outside is still well below zero. I really appreciate having a space in our home reserved as a workspace. You can certainly get by making potting mix in your kitchen and doing your transplanting on your dining table, but it is a lot more freeing to sling dirt around in a place where you've got permission to get messy. I also appreciate having this quiet space to make plans and keep records, especially when there are two toddlers running around upstairs. The main items in this workspace are some basic hand tools and soil block makers, a workbench, some shelving, and some bins for potting mix ingredients.
2. Seed Starting Shelves
Our growing capabilities would be seriously handicapped without our indoor seed starting area. I love the control that it gives me both in the ability to grow the highest quality transplants and to do so with the right timing. Right now, we are using two 2 foot by 4 foot shelving units side by side and we have 4 of those shelves set up with grow lights. The lights are turned on and off with a simple electrical timer and two of the shelves also have thermostatically controlled heat mats that allow us to control the temperature for germinating seeds.
3. Nursery Greenhouse
In early April, we can start to transition our indoor seedlings to our nursery greenhouse. Here, they can get more acclimatized to growing outdoors with larger temperature fluctuations, more air flow, and increased light intensity. You may not be able to tell from this photo, but this is not your typical hobby greenhouse that gets up to 40ºC in the sunshine and freezes quickly on cold nights. I wanted a greenhouse with more thermal stability so I borrowed some concepts from pit greenhouse and passive solar greenhouse designs to build this one. You can watch a video tour of this greenhouse and its essential features in the Classroom.
4. High Tunnel
While most of our vegetables have to grow in the harsh conditions of the great outdoors, there are a few lucky crops that we baby a little more by planting in our high tunnel. The tunnel serves to increase the daytime and nighttime temperatures, reduce wind stress, and guard the plants against extreme weather events like hail. Not every crop will show extraordinary benefits from high tunnel conditions, but there are a select few, such as cucumbers and peppers, who have given us twice the yield per square foot in exchange for these cozy conditions. If you are dreaming of building of a similar high tunnel in the future, check out our High Tunnel Cost Breakdown in the Classroom. That post will provide you with a detailed list of parts and suppliers we used for this tunnel as well as additional photos.
5. Tool Shed
This organization of this space contributes significantly to my efficiency so I do my best to keep things orderly. Messes are inevitable in this line of work, but if everything has a place, it can always be put away. That's the key. This area has taken the most time to refine because it has needed to evolve with my tool and equipment selections and it takes a few years to learn which equipment you really want to commit to using and storing. Since storage space is valuable on our small property, tools need to contribute to our productivity or they get the boot. For a full list of tools and equipment, take a walk through our virtual tool shed.
6. Washing Station
This may be the upgrade that has increased my working pleasure the most. It really elevates the whole process of getting food out of the field and into our home. Gone are the days of spraying down produce on our lawn! Our washing station consists of three bays, each with a different purpose. Produce can flow in and out smoothly and I can work comfortably rain or shine. To learn more about the key components here, see the video walkthrough of our washing station in the Classroom.
7. Compost Bins
A few feet away from our washing station sits our compost bin system. Here, microbes convert any organic waste from our vegetable crops back into rich soil that we can return to our garden plots. The mistake most new gardeners make with their compost systems is going too small. Compost piles function best in larger volumes which allow them to build heat, killing a higher percentage of pathogens and weed seeds along the way. This photo was taken on day one when everything was still empty and clean. Six years later, these bins have greyed, but they are still working for us. This season, I plan to build a larger composting system in the middle of our home garden plot to increase our capacity and give us a more convenient drop zone when we are cleaning up the garden.
8. Walk-in Cooler
This walk-in cooler is the final stage for much of our vegetable produce before it makes its way onto our table. Even early on, this cooler ranked quite high on our list of priorities because we knew that our aim was to secure our own year round supply of vegetables. The cooler allows us to keep many storage crops in their raw state and it also increases our work efficiency in the summer because we can harvest fresh crops like lettuce, cabbage, and broccoli in batches and eat them slowly over a few weeks. If you are interested in building a temperature controlled cooler like this to store the fruits of your labour, check out this post in the Classroom where I walk you through the construction process and explain how everything works.
That marks the end of the seed to table journey on our property. I hope you enjoyed the quick tour and found some inspiration here for projects on your own property. If you are feeling at all overwhelmed by this collection, remember that these upgrades have taken years for us to complete, and that's ok. I've learned a lot about our work patterns along the way and that experience has helped to influence the location and design of each element. If I had been able to just snap my fingers and have everything I need magically appear in year one, most things would probably be in the wrong place. Also keep in mind that these upgrades are not all necessary. In Module 3 of the Seed to Table course, we talk about the low road and high road options that growers can incorporate along their seed to table journey. That journey does not need to be the same for every grower. Satisfaction comes when you create a path that works best in your unique context.