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.

Customer Service is Key

Perhaps because it was our first year, we paid particular attention to our customers. A man in the spring asked for a single 'Sweet 100' tomato plant. I told him I'd bring one the next week. I noticed him the next Saturday, as he was about to leave the market. I called over, "I've got that 'Sweet 100' you asked for." He was surprised and smiled, and then bought other things, too.

Grow Sturdy Varieties

We live just 3 miles from the market, but I never realized how much "shipping and handling" our tomatoes received between picking and market. We picked them, put them in baskets, carried them down our hill, washed them, and set them out to ripen a bit. Then we packed them in boxes, loaded them in the car, unloaded them at the market, and finally displayed them where customers examined and often rolled them around. Whew! The thinner-skinned home garden varieties such as 'Early Girl', 'New Yorker', and 'Oregon Spring' bruised much more easily than I'd anticipated. About a third of the harvest had to be left at home-they were a little too beat up to sell. One firm-skinned variety, 'Ultra Girl', held up very well.

Do the Required Work

I always think I'll stake the tomatoes. My wife, Candelin, always knows that I probably won't. During the winter, I'd envisioned elaborate, well-crafted trellising dotting the hillside, but if a neighbor hadn't donated 20 old cages, all the plants would have sprawled.

We had a wet spring and summer, so I made the superhuman effort to stake the cherry tomatoes and 'Brandywine', but nothing else. Not staking the rest of the tomato plants was a big mistake. About a third of the crop was lost to rot, bruises, and slugs. For staking to happen at our place, I learned that I probably should get stakes and twine ready in December.

Price Has to be Right

The growers with the season's first tomatoes started selling them at around $3.50 per pound at our market. The price was lower when ours came in. To keep costs low, we didn't buy a scale but sold all tomatoes at three for $1 for most of the season. At that price, I usually met my goal of not bringing any home.

One of Us Must be All Business

I liked the market's social aspects: meeting old friends, talking to tourists, sharing gardening talk. Candelin was a bit more interested in the bottom line. We were packing up one day, and a customer, pointing at a few leftover flowers in a bucket, asked, "Are those for sale?" I was about to say, "Go ahead and take 'em," when she jumped in: "How about $2.50?" "Deal," the man said.

One time, I took a break at the end of the day. The tomatoes were almost sold out. Only three large 'Supersteak' tomatoes were left, so I told Candelin: "Two dollars for those." When I returned, the big tomatoes were gone, and I learned that she'd sold them for $2 each! Because of the cloudy summer, tomatoes were late, and people were a bit desperate for the real thing.

Keep it Simple

Don't try to do too much at first. We discovered it was hard to sell both flowers and vegetables. We tried tricky crops like lisianthus, which failed in our unheated "hoop" greenhouse. Most of our celosia fell victim to damping off, and the larkspur and other flowers were late. Statice, even the newer pastel colors, sells better after Labor Day (as garden flowers become scarce, perhaps-- ), but ours bloomed in July. After a few frustrating weeks of selling both blooms and veggies, we decided to stick to veggies and offered only a few bouquets.

Weigh the Costs and the Benefits

Our market space was 7 feet long; a permit to sell there for 26 Saturdays cost $120. Market hours are 8:30 am to 2 pm. We missed about eight or nine weeks, some because of rain, other times because we didn't have enough produce, or the family had other plans. We grossed about $2,700 with a one-week high of $210. We learned that a carpenter's nail pouch full of cold cash feels great. Our expenses for seeds and seed-starting materials were about $1,200. Our goal was to pay our town property taxes of $2,100. With some start-up costs already paid, we'll probably hit that goal next year.

Photography by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association

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