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Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Perennials

Market Gardener

by George Thabault

We've always had a garden, usually a small one, but this was our first large-scale attempt. We bought the suburban cape-style house for its overgrown 1/2-acre garden, big blackberry patch, and view of the Adirondacks from the top of the hill. We also bought it so our two daughters would have a little more "wildness" than they had living in a 148-unit apartment complex.

We decided to go whole hog. In late summer, we cleared the 2- and 3-inch-diameter sumacs that had invaded the old garden. The nearby dairy farmer plowed and harrowed the garden, and we planted cover crops of annual ryegrass and winter rye. Then it was time to order seed catalogs. We were not only going to have a garden-to-beat-all next season, but we were going to sell plants, produce, flowers, food, and crafts at our town's Saturday farmers' market, too.

Well, we learned some things...

Label Your Plants Carefully

We learned that it is possible to grow 400 tomato plants in a backyard garden and live to tell the tale. Also, it's just about impossible to tire of simple tomato sandwiches: good bread, lettuce, mayo, and a thick slice of sweet, vine-ripened tomato. They even taste good with a cold beer.

We had 400 tomatoes because the names of many that I'd planted to sell washed off their plastic stakes. Because I didn't test the marking pen first, I had to keep and eat all the mystery tomatoes.

Know What Your Customers Want

I didn't realize how urban our little Saturday market was. Most gardeners wanted just a couple of tomato plants: one early and one late, and maybe one cherry. So for several weeks I had unsold six-packs that I ended up having to plant myself.

People want to go home and plant Today! Now! ASAP! I got compliments, not complaints, for offering only well-hardened-off plants. Several customers returned to say it was as if the plants didn't know they'd been moved.

With a little signage, we quickly sold out our stock of 'Brandywine' heirloom tomatoes at $1.50 per plant in a 3 1/2-inch pot. I'd grown about 75 and kicked myself for not growing 400 more. Through the summer, people stopped by to report that their plants were "Blossoming," "Fruiting," and "Getting nice and pink."

'Sweet Million' cherry tomato almost made us a million. Though only 20 of our 400 tomato plants were cherry types, the 'Sweet Million' plants were prolific, and the fruits were tasty. We sold them for $1.75 to $2 per pint. People with children seemed to buy them to snack on as they walked among vendors. Cherry tomatoes were a good project for our daughters, 10 and 7 years old. They picked and sold them and got to keep the cash.

I'm partial to the basic vegetables: fresh greens, sweet carrots, new potatoes, and baby squash. But many customers like the unusual. Veteran growers at the market offered garlic shoots, Asian greens, mesclun mixes, hot peppers, and lots of herbs. We grew some 'Casper' white eggplants, and they always sold out in the first hour. We tried arugula, and it sold reasonably well. On a lark, I brought some catnip starts to the market with a big sign, "Yes, we have catnip plants." People chuckled and bought them all. Lemon basil, a bit slow in germinating for us, sold well after we encouraged people to crush a few leaves under their noses. "Wow, what a smell," some customers said, "Got to have it."

We sold, almost by accident, some red-skinned scallions. They were planted from red onion sets destined to develop large bulbs. But the girls picked them at scallion size. They sold quickly and at a little premium: six for 75 cents (even though peeling a few layers off reveals an ordinary green-and-white scallion.) "I've been coming to the market for 20 years, and I've never seen a red scallion," one woman told us.

Bell peppers grew and sold well, in part because early summer here was cool and wet, and many customers bought our produce because they didn't believe they'd get any peppers from their own gardens. We tried 'Ace', 'Klondike Bell', and others. Hot peppers didn't sell as well.

It's hard to believe, but we didn't grow enough zucchini-only 80 feet of row. We sold out weekly, selling even boat-sized zukes we'd missed harvesting the week before.

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