Starting a Market Garden: Some Tips for the New Grower

Money grows in your garden! If you like getting your hands dirty, at some point you've probably thought about starting a market garden. It is a great business, and can be very satisfying.

It can also be frustrating and exhausting. The difference is in how you approach it. Here's a few things I've learned about gardening for a living that will help point you in the right direction.

Man, I LOVE my market garden!

Figure out 'how much' before 'how'. What are your reasons for starting a market garden? Do you want to create a second part-time income? Do you want to give up a job you don't like? Do you just like gardening and think that getting paid for it would be great? Do you NEED an income and other prospects look poor?

There's no wrong answer here, but you need to understand your goals and your limitations before you can develop a plan to get there.

If you are an absolute beginner, it's unlikely you will make a full-time living from market gardening the first year. I don't know anyone didn't 'grow' into this business over time. It is possible to make an extra $5,000 or $10,000 in your beginning year, if you follow a good plan.

Now figure out your market. Small growers don't have the luxury of growing stuff they can't sell; in fact it's better to sell it before its grown, by employing a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model or something similar.

Or start by recruiting a few friends and neighbours and offer to be their gardener, in exchange for some help with start-up costs; they will get a share of the veggies from the garden. Starting a market garden this way limits your risk.

Only grow what the market wants. The point of starting a market garden is to fill a need; so the corollary of only growing what you can sell is to make sure you know what your market wants! ASK you customers what they want you to grow for them, visit local markets and see what the 'hot sellers' are.

DO NOT bet the farm on some exotic item that 'you are sure' will be hot seller because nobody else is growing it. If nobody else is growing it, the most likely reason is there's no local market!

Acquire Skills Before Stuff

Invest in learning, not hardware. You most likely don't need to buy a tractor, or a manure spreader, or a bed shaper to get started. Rent or borrow equipment or hire out the heavy work. Your goal (at a minimum) is make sure your income from your first-year market garden will cover your expenses. Keep expenses down any way you can.

So spend your time and money in learning how to be a better grower, buy some books, take a small business management course, visit local growers and farmer's markets.

Take notes and pictures. Make note of what works and what doesn't as your garden year progresses. In particular keep track of things like germination rates and yields of particular cultivars, which varieties do well in heat, or cold, or wet, or drought. Do some experimenting with cultural practices like inter-planting and companion planting, and see which ones are worth the effort.

You need to keep notes because you will NOT remember the thousand-and-one details of your garden when it comes time to answer the question "how does my garden grow"? We no longer grow some crops because they turned out to be more trouble than they were worth.

If you are starting a market garden, remember 'plan' is a verb

Business success is not an accident. Successful businesses have a handle on planning, marketing and management before they open their doors. You need to do the same.

This means setting goals for sales and income, figuring out how you will sell your goodies, and how and by whom the garden work will get done.

You need a marketing plan, and a cash-flow budget, and a garden plan and schedule to guide your activities. This is what separates the home garden from the successful market garden.

Evaluate after your first season. Did you really make money this first season? Can you account for all monies in and out? Do you know what worked and what didn't and why? Do you have a plan to do better next season? And (most important) did you love the work?

Starting a market garden is not for everybody; there's no shame in giving it a good try and then deciding its not for you (I've left at least three 'careers' I didn't love.) But if you love it, you can make a good living.

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