Friday, February 27, 2015

Small, Micro and Cottage Business Ideas

Almost everything you want to do requires some type of monetary input. If you are working for an hourly wage, you do not have much if any control over how much money you make. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people try to use a fixed income as a bargaining strategy, but unless someone owns their own business or is paid commission everyone is on a fixed income. At my regular job I am only allowed to get 40 hours a week, that is a fixed income. What I make may not be as tight as others, but it is also not as flexible as some.

What do you need to get out of debt? Build an emergency fund? Do something a little extra around the home? Just become more self reliant? You need to either cut expenses or earn more money. Say you have cut your expenses as far as you can, how can you earn more money if you are paid an hourly wage enter the small or micro business. When your sole source of income is a corporation you are at the mercy of someone else who most of the time has never met you. Having a small business can give you some security and a sense of fulfillment. So how do you start a small business or what business should you start?

What is a Small, Micro, and Cottage business?

Small Business. 

A small business is actually much larger than I thought, but varies by industry. For the purpose of our discussion a small business is one that has less than 500 employees but more than 5. Individually owned (no stockholders). For profit and not dominant in their field.

Micro Business. 

A micro business is less than 5 employees normally manned by family and friends usually on a part-time basis. Micro businesses are typically ran out of a home or outbuilding on an individual's property. The average micro business requires no or little start-up capital, usually less than $35,000. Micro businesses can be either service or product based.

Cottage Business.

A Cottage Business is one that is operated from home with typically no more than 2 employees. Cottage businesses tend to be part-time in nature, but do not have to be. The focus is normally on manufacturing or production. Service type businesses are not included in the cottage business model. Knitting, sewing, honey, soaps or other body care products, and things like that tend to dominate. Most things produced in a cottage business tend to be labor intensive. 

Personal inventory

Now that we have a good understanding of the types of smaller businesses, we will dive into what you will need to look at to decide what business you/we should build for ourselves. We have to take an honest look at ourselves to decide what business we might do well in. 

What are your/our skills and talents?

In order to make anything a profitable business, you must lean on your strengths.  If you are really good at knitting, cooking, or sewing these may be things you could look at offering as a business. Homemade items tend to bring a premium from those who care about such things, but the items have to be quality. If you are good at teaching, you might find that teaching others the skills that you are good at may make you more money than making things and selling them.

What do you enjoy?

It doesn't really matter how good you are at something, if you don't enjoy it, you will not stick with it. As an example I do not like mowing the yard. Mowing the yard is my idea of absolutely nothing left to do. There are some people who truly enjoy mowing the yard. Now, I love being outside and doing a variety of things, but riding back and forth just watching grass fly is not fun for me. If I were going to start a new business, I would not start a lawn care business. I might start a landscaping business and subcontract out the mowing part, but I do not want to have to spend several days a week mowing.

What tools do you have now?

If you are wanting to start a business and not go into any debt in the process, you will have to use what you have on hand now. If you are really good at construction or repair and you have some basic tools, this is something that you could start anytime you wanted. If you are thinking about going into lawn care and you only have a push mower, you could start your business, but the operations of the business would be greatly restricted by your equipment. The equipment you have will help you determine either what business you wish to start or how soon you could start your business.

Local Laws

Okay, this one is a biggie. You will have to talk to someone at your local courthouse to determine what laws will apply to your new business idea. There are some cities that are very anti small/micro business. There have been cities that have shut down bake sales for local nonprofit organizations because they did not purchase the proper permits. Police have shut down children's lemonade stands. Officials have confiscated and/or destroyed garden produce because licenses were not in order all under the guise of trying to make sure people are safe. Um okay. 

Common Law Issues

If you are a good cook and enjoy doing so you might want to start a business where you cook for those who are physically impaired. You may find that it is illegal for you to cook meals in your home and take them to your customers, but perfectly legal for them to hire you to cook those meals in their home. 

In certain cities and communities you may learn that in order to be paid to cut someone's grass you have to attend a class and be certified as a lawn care technician. There is a community not far from where I live in which that is the case, oh and the class is $300.00 a year. If you are just wanting to make a little side money that alone could knock that idea out. Ask questions, learn as much as you can or you could face fines. You may learn that you live in an area where everything is regulated. I hope not, but it does happen.

Location, Location, Location

This is just a fact of life. Where you live determines some of the types of businesses that you can start. The higher the population density and socioeconomic scale your area is the easier it will be to start a micro or cottage business. I am not saying that if you are very rural you cannot start a business. What I am saying is the more rural you are might determine some businesses unfeasible and will mean that you may have to work harder to create a market or that you will have to deal with distribution on a larger scale that someone who is suburban or urban.

Pet sitting or baby sitting businesses tend to do well in suburban environments. If you were to try to start a pet sitting business in a very rural area, it could quickly turn into a temporary farm hand business. Nothing wrong with doing  temporary farm hand work if that is what you like, but the business will change based on where you are.

Low or No Cost Business Ideas

We are going to talk about as many low or no cost business ideas as I can come up with. For the purpose of this discussion a low start up cost business is one that can be started for less than $500. This price will include all initial capitol equipment, advertising, and if necessary licences. Since I am including licences this list will vary greatly based on your local government's greed.

Pet Sitting

Pet sitting can be a great micro business. Pet sitting tend to have the least regulations and can be advertised with word of mouth fairly easily. Initial start up cost very small if any. Of course you have to like animals and you have to be willing to welcome small pets into your home. Things to consider:
  • Get to know the animal. The last thing you want is to agree to keep a dog or cat in your home only to find out that the animal is not friendly or even worse the animal is a biter. Being bitten by a small dog hurts. It hurts bad. If you have children you will need to know if the animal likes children.
  • The animal's veterinary information. If something were to happen you will need to know where to take the animal.
  • If the animal has to go to the vet who will pay? It is really bad to get paid $10.00 a day (or whatever) only to have the animal get sick and you wind up owing hundreds of dollars of veterinary expenses.
  • The animal's health history. If a pet requires medicine or has allergies, you need to know. 
  • Contracts. Sorry but if you are going to do much pet sitting you will need a good contract. This will detail how long the pet will be with you, the payment terms, what to do in case the pet needs medical attention, what you will do with the pet if it is abandoned, and a lot more. You can have an attorney draw up a contract for you or you can create your own Here. If you only pet sit for family and friends you may not need this, but trust me. I have had a pet left with me and had to find it another home.
  • Do a little extra. If you really want to make a name for yourself pet sitting, do something a little extra. It could be something as simple as brushing out the pet or even bathing the pet. Taking the extra step will really get your customers talking. 

Baby Sitting

What was once only thought of as a part-time job for teenage girls has turned into a business in many areas of the country. Like pet sitting word of mouth is your best advertisement and there is very little start-up costs. Things that need to be considered are: Will you be keeping the children in your home or the home of the parents? How late will the parents be out? What do they expect you to do while you are taking care of their children? You must have contact information and know any allergies the children have. Being certified in CPR is a big plus.

Like pet sitting, do a little extra. If keeping the children in their home this could be washing the dishes after you have feed the children or just cleaning up the living room a little. This will leave a lasting impact.

House Cleaning

You will need a fairly affluent market in order for this to be feasible. As people's schedules continue to fill with all kinds of things many are finding less and less times to do things at home. I have known several people who hired individuals to clean their homes. This does not require much to get started, just an attention to detail and a little bit of OCD. Most times you will be using supplies that are provided by the homeowner. The only extra things you will need are the specialty cleaning items that you must have.

Garden or Farm Produce

I have never produced so many chicken eggs that I couldn't sell them all, but I have produced so much squash that I couldn't give it away. With farm produce you have to be smart. If everyone with a garden produces something in your area, you are not going to make a lot of money producing that item. Squash and zucchini are good examples, not everyone likes them and those that do can grow them fairly easily. These produce in such abundance that if you have three plants you will be trying to get rid of squash and zucchini. 

Anything having to do with animals can do well as a small business. Eggs at least around here are a very easy sell. Raising chickens for meat has also done really well locally. Selling hogs, beef cattle, raw milk, quail, you name it, can do really well. There can be a start-up cost but it doesn't have to be high. If you have the room this can be an idea for you. Remember to check local laws. Here in Alabama if you sell raw milk it must be labeled Not For Human Consumption.

Economies of Scale. With many businesses you will run into something called economies of scale. What economies of scale means is that as you produce more of an item or type of item, the cost of production for each additional item goes down. Why is this the case? Once you have your capital investments done you do not have to do that again. Your fixed costs are set.


If you are a decent carpenter or good at repairs you probably already have your tools. This type of small business can be as big or as small as you like. In many areas basic repairs are not regulated. If you can do basic plumbing and/or basic electrical you could be in good. Plumbing and electrical tend to be more regulated than basic carpentry.


If you excel at a skill that others would like to learn, teaching can be an awesome side business. Crafting makes for easily started classes. Knitting, sewing, cooking, and several more do well. I have taught several classes over the years. I have taught basic dog obedience, tracking, competition obedience, foraging, and am now teaching basic preparedness courses. Teach something you are passionate about.

Homemade Items

I am continually astounded by the growing interest in homemade beauty care and homemade cleaning products. I know several people who are making a nice side income making lip balms and beauty care products. This is something that my wife and I are going to do this summer. Not to sell, we just want to move away from all of the chemicals. 

Medium Level Initial Investment

All of these can still be a micro business, but can be scaled up or down dependent on the demand. For us medium level initial investment means over $500. These can still be a small family operation.


If you have the skill, this is a great business, especially if you have a mobile welding unit. Welding is a skill that if you do well you can be in high demand. I have personally paid someone to weld for me because I did not have the equipment.

Elite Services

In the past I have owned and operated two businesses that could be called elite services. What do I mean by elite services? Services that are only used on special occasions that would be considered a luxury. A limousine service would fall into this category but would have a very high initial investment.

Dove Releases. You may have seen one of these. They normally occur at either weddings or funerals. White "doves" are released either from a cage or a basket. They fly around, look real pretty an then go home. Here is a little secret. The white doves that are released at these ceremonies are actually white homing pigeons. Pigeons breed like rats so it is easy to expand your release business. I started out with 3 pairs and by the time I sold the birds I had 20 and some of the birds that were released didn't make it home. Make sure that you purchase birds that are less than 6 months old. If you purchase birds much older than that as soon as you let them out of their loft they will go to their previous home and the owner can keep them or sell them again. Sorry I don't have any photos of my old business, but I can tell you I have been out of this business for about 12 years and I got a call the other day asking if I still did releases.

You can learn more about purchasing white homing pigeons at The American White Dove Release Association.  I used the old Department of War training guide you can find that HERE.   Oh, by the way. Do not do a release on opening day of dove season. Very few will make it home. Trust me I know.

Carriage Service. This one can be a fairly large initial investment, but if you hustle can make some good money. I purchased my carriages from Robert's Carriages in Canada. At the time they were very affordable and delivered right to my farm. I charged $300 for two hours for a wedding and did things like proms, festivals and parades. Not only did this provide me a good income while I was going to school, I was able to sell the business when I was ready to get out of the business. I was able to find some old photos of the carriage service.

Here are my words of warning on a carriage service. 
  • Have a good contract. I have had to stand in the rain for hours waiting on a wedding to end, that by the way ended late, very late. Oh and I got a $1.00 tip
  • Presentation is everything. If you are not good at decorating learn. Some wedding parties will want to decorate themselves, have something in the contract about additional non riding hours.
  • Have a cancellation policy.
  • Require a deposit
  • Decide where you will offer your services. When I was running the carriage service, I covered all of North Alabama. At one time I had to have business licenses in 6 cities all in the same year. Research is key.

Final Thoughts

If this a complete list? Oh no. This list could go on forever. Figure out what people want or need and be able to give it to them. Your creativity and drive will help ensure your success. Just because you run into roadblocks does not mean your business is a bad idea.

Proverbs 16:3 Commit your work to the Lord, and you plans will be established.

Do your math well. The last thing you want to do is price your goods or services too high or too low. Both will run you out of business. One by wearing you out and the other by rusting you out. Either way you are still out.

Don't be afraid to reach out to others who are doing the same thing in different areas. Thanks to the internet we have networking abilities that have never been seen before. There is always someone who will be willing to answer your question.

Being your own boss at least part of the time is one more way we can all....

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Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Art of Haggling: An Introduction

The Art of Haggling: An Introduction

Through out all of history haggling has been an everyday part of trade, that is until very recently. In the US and other industrial countries the act of haggling has all but disappeared. Why do you think this is the case? Can it be brought back? Should it? Can it be an effective tool in the modern world? How is it done? Can someone learn how to haggle? We are going to go through all of these.

What Is Haggling?

Haggling is the negotiation process between a buyer and seller or their representatives over the terms of a purchase normally price. The process of haggling can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours depending on the size of the purchase. The goal of haggling is to reach a mutually acceptable price for an item. In many Asian cultures the negotiations over a large purchase can take several days and is considered a social event, which may include the buyer and seller eating or having tea or coffee together.

In many cultures haggling is not only expected, but if it does not occur can be considered insulting. Asian, Middle Eastern, and even South American cultures expect to haggle over price. If you do not do so you will be cheated.

Currently the only areas that it is generally accepted that haggling will occur in the US is while trying to purchase an automobile, furniture, or a home. Some people enjoy the back and forward of the negotiation process, others see it as almost a confrontation.

In the States asking about price means very little, but in some cultures asking about a price indicates intent to purchase and should not be done so lightly.

End Result of Transactions

Stephen Covey in his book the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talks about negotiations. The possible results of trade are win/win, win/lose, lose/win, and lose/lose. We will cover these in reverse order. 

Lose/lose is when the end result of negotiations leaves both the buyer and seller unsatisfied. How does this happen? This can only happen when neither the buyer or the seller have given themselves the option to walk away from a transaction. Both the buyer and the seller need the transaction to occur, but cannot come to a mutually agreeable outcome. The transaction takes place because both the buyer and the seller see no other option, but neither is happy in the end.

Lose/win is when the buyer has been taken advantage of and knows it. The seller has won and has done a disservice to not only that customer, but to themselves. The seller may think that they have optimized their profit, and they have on that one transaction, but many times their reputation will be damaged.

Win/lose is when the buyer has taken advantage of a seller. They know the seller is desperate and has used that knowledge to pay an unreasonably low price for a product or service. The buyer has achieved a great deal, but at the expense of someone else. I have had this happen to me as a seller. It is not a good situation to be in and I refused to do business with that buyer in the future. 

Win/win is when both parties reach a mutually agreeable price and/or terms for a transaction. Both parties are satisfied with the outcome and will gladly do business with each other again. This should be the goal of all transactions. This is where balance has occurred. 

How to Haggle.

Haggling is a skill that requires development. You are most likely not going to do very well the first time you try. There are some things you should keep in mind when you are negotiating price.

What the Item is Worth to You

When you look at an item decide what you are willing to pay. This can be a set amount or a range. If it a range have in mind what would be a great deal and what would be just acceptable. There may be times when you will want to pay more for an item than the asking price. These situations are rare, but when they do occur the seller has either undervalued an item or do not know it's worth. Sometimes your integrity makes you pay more than what is asked. Again this situation is very rare.

Most times the seller will have priced the Item at a comfortable price for them and will have a little bit of "wiggle room".  Some sellers in the US may be offended that you try to haggle, if that is the case just walk away and remember that the next time you have opportunity to trade with that individual, but still have a price in mind that you are willing to pay. All transactions should be a win/win.

What you Think is a Fair Price

I know that many people think this heading and the one above are the same, but they are not. There are a lot of things that I think are a fair price, but they are not worth that much to me. As an example I will use a television. I have seen really nice televisions on sell for around $200. These sets are decent quality and are comparatively a very good deal. For someone who watches a lot of television, these advertised prices could be a "door buster". For me however, they are nothing more than an interesting side note. The only time I watch television is if someone else in the family has it on and the program is something that I find interesting. I could do completely without a television at all. There have been times that my family was watching something that I didn't care to watch. I just stayed in the family room and wrote or worked on something else. I am not the target market.

Tools for Haggling

The Low Ball

When a person low balls they make an offer for an item or service that is on the low side of fair. If a person is asking $100 dollars for an item, I might make an offer ranging from $35 to $55. If the person is asking $100 and I know it is worth much more I may not use a low ball offer. It is times like these that a person may be offended by a really low offer. Remember, your offer should be on the low side of fair, not below fair.

The low ball offer is a starting point for negotiations. In normal situations this will cause a counter offer and the game is on.

Condition of the Item

If there are scratches, dents, or dings, these can be pointed out as a reason that the price should be lower. I have looked at an automobile before that upon close inspection had been wrecked. It wasn't bad, but it was enough that it had to be repaired. The seller claimed to not know that it had been wrecked and I believe that they did not know. I showed them the evidence of the repair and was able to negotiate a better price. Even the condition of packaging can be used to negotiate price.


It really doesn't matter if you like the current economic system or not; "Cash Talks". Especially when dealing with small merchants. Lots of people and small companies no longer take checks. Accepting credit cards can get expensive. I have operated a small business and know how quickly the fees can add up. When I was taking credit and debit cards for transactions there was a per swipe fee which at the time was $0.27 per transaction and a percentage charged for each time someone used a card. The percentages ranged from 1.67% to 2.55%. These add up quickly. 

Even when dealing with an individual, if you have cash in hand and do not have to come back and pay them later, this will garner you a better price. No worrying if the check will clear.


If you are having difficulty coming to a mutually agreeable price look around and see if there might be something else that you would like that the seller doesn't value as highly as you. By combining two or even more items together the seller gets more money, but you just might get a better deal. 

Example: You value a cast iron wash pot at $60, the seller values it at $105. You see a corn sheller that you value at $90, the seller only values it at $30. You are offering $150 for two things that the seller only values at $135. That seller is going to let you have them and both of you will be happy with the transaction. That my friends is a win/win.

Buying in Bulk

If you are looking at a peck basket of tomatoes, don't think you will be able to haggle much unless the seller has over 100 pounds that need to be sold. But if you are buying in bulk say 10 pounds or more, you will have a good chance at getting a better price per pound. This is true of anything. I remember one time my dad was looking at buying an old pickup truck to fix up to sell. The man had three of the same model. I do not remember the starting price, but by the time it was said and done we had purchased all three for a little less than twice what he was expecting to pay for one. We took the three trucks and made two. We didn't have to go looking for parts. Once we were done, we sold what was left of the third truck as scrap metal. 

Other Opportunities

If a seller has what they know to be a unique item that they believe is in high demand, it is very unlikely that you will get them to budge on price. If there are several other items that have the same function for sale in the area you have another tool. "Old Joe has another model and he is only asking this much for his."

Be Willing to Walk Away

If you cannot come to an agreement, just walk away. Remember the goal is a win/win ending. It may be that after a day or two the seller will come down a little more on price or you may realize that the item is worth more to you than you thought. Even if neither one of these things occur, you should be able to shake hands and part with a good conscience.

Where to Haggle?

It is pretty much understood that haggling is expected for big ticket items. No one even thinks twice about about trying to get a better price on automobiles. I know I keep coming back to that, but that is really the mainstay of haggling in the United States. But what about haggling on antiques? Small appliances? Camping or survival gear? Yup, I do it as much as I can.

Places where haggling is expected or at least not uncommon include trading with individuals, yard sales, flea markets, and to some extent farmer's markets. Haggling at flea markets is very common. Anywhere there is a significant Latino population you will notice the increased frequency of haggling. I really like that.

Have you ever thought of haggling at a big box retailer? I do it all the time. I have successfully negotiated a better price on items from Wal Mart, K Mart, Lowe's, and Tractor Supply. There are some tricks to it though. When trying to negotiate a better price with large retailers, you must be able to give a reason they can no longer expect to receive full retail for that item. Items that have damaged packaging, that have been returned, that are slightly damaged but still usable for their intended purpose, discontinued, and clearance items are all on the table. 

My wife and I were in Wal Mart the other day when I saw this percolator. I have wanted one for a while. I told her that I wanted to find the manager and see if I could get it for a lot less. We were on a tight schedule so I was unable to make the deal happen. Little did I realize that my wife went back the next day. She found the manager and was able to purchase the percolator for $5.00. She saved over $9.00 including tax just by asking. This was her first attempt at trying to get a better price and she was successful. I am very proud of her. She had previously always been nervous about asking, now she is addicted.

For most larger retailers department managers, assistant store managers, and store managers can give you a better price most of the sales floor people do not have that power. Seek them out the management and just ask. The worst they can do is say no.

Get out there and do a little haggling you may find out like my wife did that you really enjoy it. Doing this will help

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Seed Starting: Indoors and Out

bottom right photo courtesy of Angela with

Last week we talked about choosing the type of garden that might be best for your situation. After you have determined what type of garden you intend to plant the next step is choosing the plant and seed varieties that will do best with your choice and whether to start seeds, buy transplants, or sowing seeds directly in the ground.

Transplants whether started at home or purchased from a retailer give you some benefits. First doing this can extend your growing season or at a minimum make harvest time sooner. The plants are older when they are planted into the ground, raised bed, or container. If you live where there is a longer growing season, starting seeds can make it possible to have two crops in a single season. Starting seeds yourself can save you a lot of money.

Starting Seeds Inside

When starting seeds inside you will need containers, growing medium, and a source of light. Depending on your set up seeds can be started three weeks or even earlier indoors. Soil or growing medium should be kept damp not wet and should be checked on daily.

Source of Light

In the northern hemisphere the source of light could be a south facing window or a grow light. With a south facing window the plants, once sprouted should be turned every day. The plants will grow toward the light, not turning them will make the plants unstable once they are moved outside. When using a grow light you can get as basic or as fancy as you want. The longer the plants stay indoors to more sophisticated the grow light needs to be. Below are some examples of different settings.

Seed Starting Containers

If you are container gardening this might not be a big deal. If you are gardening in raised beds or in the ground, using the wrong type of container can place unneeded stress on your young plants. There are lots of products out there for starting seeds. I personally like the containers that are made of all natural fibers that can be torn and planted right in the ground with the plant. You will need to choose the appropriate size container for what you are growing. These are one option and are the size container I like to use for squash, zuchinni, and things like that Plantation FS110 Seed Starter Pots (10 Pot, 5 Strips Per Pack, 50 Total).

Seed Starting Medium

Your seed starting medium should not be your garden soil. Most suggest that a sterile medium be used for seed starting. This reduces that chances of having harmful molds or bacteria attacking your young plants and gives them a jump on life. I like the peat pellets as well as organic starting medium. Most of these you can pick up at your local garden center or you can purchase them here. 

Seed Sowing

We live in agricultural zone 7b. That means that our average last frost date is around April 1st and our average first frost is the end of October. For spring planting I normally plant red potatoes, and other cool loving or cold tolerant crops the middle of February. I always direct sow these type plants.

Other plants that I always direct sow are things like corn, beans, peas, okra, carrots, and onions. Okra can be transplanted, but it takes several plants to harvest enough regularly to eat. I prefer direct sow for anything that requires several plants to provide a usable harvest.

Okra is a warm weather crop and should not be planted until all chance of frost has passed and the ground temperatures have reached 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Nighttime temperatures or ground temperatures should always be taken into consideration when planting any seed. Most seed packets have suggested planting dates on the back.

If you will be gardening in containers and you have room you can start all of your seeds indoors. After the weather has warmed up they can be moved outdoors in the containers in which they will continue to grow. 

Hardening off plants

All plants that are started indoors will have to be hardened off. At first I thought hardening off of plants was only to get the plants used to the temperature extremes. This is only part of the reason. Hardening off plants gives them the time to adjust to the intensity of the sunlight. Even if you have started your seeds in a sun room, the intensity of the sunlight is filtered at least a little by the glass. The process of hardening should take between several days and two weeks.

Steps to Harden off Plants

1. Short times outside. Plants should be in a sheltered location that is protected from wind, heavy rain, and direct sunlight. Leave in this location for 1 to 3 hours then take back inside. Each day gradually increase the amount of time the plants are outside.
2. Expose to direct sunlight. After about three days you can set your plants in direct sunlight. While growing inside, the light these plants experience is filtered by glass. Even regular glass takes a little of the intensity out of sunlight.
3. Slowly Extend time between watering.  While sprouting seeds you want the soil to always be moist (not wet). The plant will not have that luxury once it is outside. Never allow the plant to wilt. Last year my seedlings were a couple of weeks old and I got caught up in a project and forgot to water them. In just a day or two I lost some of my seedlings. 
4. Watch the Temperature. Even on a beautiful day your plants could be damaged if it is too cool. Bring warm weather veggies in when the temperature goes below 55 degrees Fahrenheit (this is my general rule, some plants would benefit from being brought in at warmer temps). Cold tolerant plants should be brought in when the temp drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. 
5. Transplant. After all of the above steps and the temperatures are consistently above the minimum temperature for that particular plant they can be transplanted or moved outside for the season. 

Note of interest: All peppers are perennial as long as their climate needs are met. If you are growing peppers in containers and have the room to move them indoors during the winter they will continue to produce for years to come. 

Seed Selection

GMO (Genetically Modified Organism)  

As of the time of this post GMO seeds are not available to the backyard gardener for purchase, so don't worry about purchasing GMO. GMO and hybrid are not the same thing in any stretch of the definition. GMO are only available to commercial farmers. Even if they were available to the backyard gardener would you really want to spray Roundup all over your yard? 

I have my own thoughts on GMO, but I will reserve them for now.

Hybrid Seeds

A hybrid is the crossbreeding or cross pollination of two known species or varieties. For example the crossing a horse and a donkey produces a mule as an offspring. The same is true of plants. Crossing two genetically different, but similar plants or animals produces hybrid vigor. 

hybrid vigor noun
Increased vigor or other superior qualities arising from the crossbreeding of genetically different plants or animals. Also called heterosis.
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

het•er•o•sis (ˌhɛt əˈroʊ sɪs)  noun
the increase in growth, size, yield, or other characters in hybrids over those of the parents.

[1910–15; < Late Greek hetérōsis an alteration. See hetero-, -osis]Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

If we wanted to create a new variety of tomato we might take a purple Cherokee and an heirloom grape tomato and cross pollinate. We might be trying to create a mid sized, very prolific new variety. A portion of the seeds would be planted and grown out to see what would actually be produced.  If the end result were desirable, we would continue with the cross and might even market the end result. 

The mule offspring is sterile. This is not true of plant crossings but close. If you were to save seeds from a hybrid variety and plant them, very few if any would produce a plant like the parent. Most will have undesirable characteristics. The hybrid vigor only works for one generation.

Heirloom or Open Pollinated Seeds

There is some confusion when it comes to heirloom and open pollinated seeds. I am going to try to clear that up. All heirloom seeds are open pollinated, but not all open pollinated seeds are heirloom. Here is what I mean. Open pollinated plants are pollinated by wind, insects, or other naturally occurring ways. 

Many tomatoes and peppers have what is called a perfect flower. That means that each flower has both male and female parts. Squash do not have perfect flowers. Squash have male and female flowers, without the intervention of insects no squash would grow unless we hand pollinate each female bloom with the pollen from a male bloom. 

Heirloom seeds have a proven history. They are pollinated by natural methods, but in addition to that they have generations of someone growing them, saving the seeds and passing them on to someone else. If you have someone local who has grown and saved seed for several years these seeds can produce better than any even of the same variety because the seeds have adapted to your climate. 

Lots of seed companies have jumped on the heirloom band wagon. Burpee and other large companies offer a limited range of heirloom and open pollinated seeds. I personally like to buy seeds from a reputable small company. I really like White Harvest Seed Company, a family owned company that I have spoken to the owner and the tech guy. A small company means that if you have issues, you have someone you can contact that actually cares about making sure you are happy with your order. 

Direct Sow

Direct sow can occur once your soil reaches germination temperatures. These temperatures vary depending on type of plant. I normally will not plant okra until mid to late April. Beans I will plant as early as mid March and English Peas can be planted in January here in zone 7b. Times will change depending on which agricultural zone you are located. 

 plant hardiness zones

Soaking Seeds

Most seeds benefit from soaking before planting. Soaking of seeds puts moisture into the seed and speeds up the process of germination. Some will even soak seeds in hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is slightly acidic and it is thought that doing this helps to simulate what a seed would go through if it was eaten by an animal and passed through the digestive system whole. Some seeds do better this way, but I will be honest I do not like soaking in chemicals.

How to soak seeds? Everything except okra, I soak for at most 4 hours in warm water. Okra I run hot tap water, as hot as comes out of the faucet and let soak overnight. I did a test several years ago and the okra seeds that were soaked sprouted over a week sooner than seeds that were not soaked.

Once soaked it is time to plant. I hope all of your plants do well this year. If you need the reference be sure and check out Garden Design: What Should You Build and Compost The Low Down.

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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Garden Design: What Should you Build

Special Thanks to,,
and for allowing me to use their photos for this header.

It is that mystical, magical time of year again. It is time to start thinking about planning your garden and starting seeds. Over the past couple of years I have had several questions about both of these topics. I am going to try to cover as many of these questions as possible.

What should I consider when planting any type of garden?

There are some things that should be considered first. The answer to these questions will determine where the garden should be placed, what type of garden you should consider, and what type of plants will do well in your area and your situation.

Garden Considerations

  • Solar Aspect Solar aspect is a fancy way of saying "Where is the sun shining?". If you are just starting out, you might be interested to know that there are long day onions and short day onions. Long day onions are grown further north than I (if you are in the northern hemisphere). The further north you are the more hours of daylight you receive in the summer. Some things require full sun like tomatoes and okra, others can deal with and may even benefit from some shade like greens.

    To learn your solar aspect all you have to do is stand outside at different times of year and look at your shadow. In the winter your shadow will be the longest because due to the tilt of the earth the sun appears further south in the northern hemisphere or vise versa. You do not want to plant tomatoes in the shadow of your home.
  • Soil Type If you have a heavy clay or a extremely sandy soil you might want to consider container or raised bed gardening. Heavy clay can be difficult for roots to break through as well as it can slow the absorption of moisture, once the moisture has been absorbed this type of soil can become soaked and not allow for the dispersal of excess moisture. Pooling may result. This can drown your plants.

    In extremely sandy soil, what moisture you do get doesn't stick around long. The moisture just drains right out. Soil that drains too quickly tends to be lacking in nutrients. The nutrients simply leech out as the water passes through. Very sandy soil tends to lack organic matter.

    Both of the above soil types can be made better, but it can be a long and arduous task. Funny thing is both soil types can be improved with the exact same prescription, compost. Compost can thicken up a sandy soil and break up a clay based soil. Compost is your friend.

    A Loam based soil tends to be the best starting point. It is not too heavy as to impede root growth and contains enough organic matter to provide nutrients to the plants. Testing can still be done to determine the soil pH and amendments can be made to improve the soils "friendliness" to plants. Again, compost can help balance soil pH. Sometimes however, you may just have to choose plants that will do well in the soil you have.
  • Rainfall Amount There is nothing you can do about the amount of water that falls from the sky, but knowing how much annual precipitation occurs in your area will help you plan. Water catchment will be covered in a later post. Containers dry out quicker than raised beds or in ground gardens. No matter which type of garden you choose, water is important.

What type of garden should I have?

There are three different types of garden and several variations of each. There is the raised garden bed, container gardening, and the in ground garden. The considerations as to garden types depend on soil type, money you have to invest, what type of dwelling you have, and physical ability. We will start at the bottom and work our way up. As we go you can actually stack these types.

Apartment or Condo Gardens (Container Gardening)

If you live in an apartment or one of those condos that only have the postage stamp sized yard, you are limited on what you can do. Even if you have a small yard, many times you are not allowed to do anything that actually changes the space. In this situation container gardening may be the answer for you. 

Container gardening has some limits. Plants with a large root system or plants that require several in order to have enough production to be worthwhile are not real high on the list. Corn, beans, peas, okra, and things like that don't do real well in containers in general. There are varieties of beans and peas that can grow well and produce well in containers, but unless you have a bunch of containers,  I just do not see it as being worthwhile.  

Most root crops do quite well in containers. Beets, onions, garlic, carrots, radishes, and the like can do great in containers. You must consider the depth of the container and the length of the root crop that you intend to grow. I have seen a friend of mine plant Danver carrots in a shallow container and as they grew the pushed the top of the carrot out of the ground. What should have been the pointy end was blunt. Many carrot varieties'  roots are around 8 inches long, others can be as long as 11 inches. Make sure to select a variety that fits your container. Spacing must be considered with things like onions. If planted too close together you could get some really odd shaped onions.

Tomatoes and peppers do quite well in containers, there are even patio varieties that do not require as large containers. These patio varieties are hybrids. Hybrids are not the same as GMO. A hybrid is selectively cross pollinated to create a plant with the desired characteristics. This cross pollination is normally done in a greenhouse. GMO plants are products of a laboratory first, then are tested in a greenhouse or field. I am not opposed to hybrids, but I do not support GMO. Do your research on specific varieties. 

Herbs are great for containers. If you use a lot of herbs and consider the price you pay for many herbs they can also be the most cost effective thing you can grow. Chives, basil, cilantro, parsley, you name it, most herbs can do great in small containers. There are several companies that actually offer a windowsill herb garden. I selected the one with the best reviews to add a link to below. 

A word about potato towers. There are two different types of potato towers, one is made from wood and the other is made from chicken or dog wire. I tried the one made of wood. If you have been doing any research on this at all I am sure you have seen photos of potato towers, possibly with titles like "Harvest Up To 25 lbs. of Potatoes From Two Square Feet". I tried it and in theory it worked. Here are the drawbacks that I found of the wood design. The wire design may be better.
  1. You need a lot of materials. When you plant a potato tower the seed potatoes go at the bottom and you cover them with a layer of soil. When the plant gets to about 6 inches high you add a layer of soil and a set of sides. Each time you add a layer of soil and sides the potato plant will put on another layer of fruit. If you do not have the addition material on hand or you do not get them in a timely manner, you might as well have planted them in the ground.
  2. You need really light growing medium. Your growing medium is whatever the plant is supposed to grow in. Some soils are heavier than others.Heavy soils are not good for this type of tower. I used soil and our soil is a little on the heavy side. I did add layers as I mentioned, but every time I added a layer the lower levels compacted just a little. The upper levels produced nice sized potatoes, the lower levels produced small potatoes because the plants had a hard time pushing the soil out of the way for the tubers to get larger. It may have done better if I had used straw or compost or a mixture of both.
  3. You are never done with the tower until you harvest. With everything else that we have going on around here it was difficult for me to take time to make sure that all of the additions were done in a timely manner. I work a full time job, plus try to homestead, plus try to write as much as I can, plus I am active in our church, plus, plus, plus. I am not whining, I am just stating that this method requires more time than I had thought.
  4. If I try a potato tower again It will be the wire type. With the wire type all of your investment in supplies is up front. There is no additional input that is required that is not required by the rest of the garden. Watering and fertilizing are really it. 
If you have a small backyard like some of the nicer townhouse apartments you could do this, but check your rules because this will not be movable. 

Containers can be store bought or homemade. The easiest homemade containers are out of wood, but if you have talent or time containers can be made out of concrete or even clay. It is not difficult to build long shallow containers for most of what you are growing. A box can be made with a 1 X 12 cut into pieces. If you use spruce or pine they will last a couple of years and there are no chemicals to worry about. I would not use treated lumber for these containers. 

If you shop around you can sometimes get really good deals on what is called grower's pots. They are not pretty, they are just the plain black plastic pots. When the growing season is done you can just empty the soil out of them and stack them nicely.  If you take care of these pots you can use them for several years.

Very Small Yard

Containers are still an option, but if you have the room you might want to step up your production a bit. A raised bed could be the answer. There are as many ways to build a raised bed as there are gardening enthusiasts. I am just going to give the basics here. There are lots of resources available.  

There are several benefits of raised beds. Since you are creating your growing area, soil conditions are negated. Raised beds can be built up for those who have mobility issues and they can be placed wherever you want them. Once built raised beds only require maintenance. They can be moved, but it takes a lot of effort.

There is really only one drawback to a raised bed and that is the cost, but the cost can be a one time investment. Be sure you build it where and how you want it.

Here are the basics of building a raised bed:

Step 1. Lay down a double layer of cardboard. This acts as a weed barrier and does well at this job. Cardboard can be obtained from many places. I personally know that home improvement stores will save boxes for people if they ask in advance.

Step 2. Build frames. Frames can be built with treated lumber or even cross ties. If using cross ties make sure they are old. New cross ties will leech creosote during the summer. I would not want this anywhere near my veggies. If you are going to use cross ties I would suggest you put a heavy mil (mil is the thickness) plastic against the frames and back fill soil. I still wouldn't plant anything really close to the edges. If you are buying the materials I would avoid the cross ties. The new treated lumber is treated with copper and not arsenic like it was in the old days. I do not have a problem building with new treated lumber.

Step 3. Fill the bed. If you have a place close where you can buy a truckload of topsoil mixed with compost this is best. If necessary you can purchase topsoil and Black Cow composted manure and mix them well. Top soil and retail compost is one of those situations where you get what you pay for. I have bought compost that was mostly sand while trying to save a few dollars. Locally sourced compost and topsoil is best.

Step 4. Plant. Sow your seeds or transplant your plants. All of your smaller plants should be to the south and the plants should get taller as you move north in the bed. You do not have to have traditional rows. In fact in a raised bed I discourage them. Plant things as closely together as they can be. Things can be planted much closer together than suggested on the seed packets. Onions for example (depending on variety) can be planted as close as 6 inches apart. If you have ever read square foot gardening, I suggest 1/2 again wider than they suggest. I have tried their plan as presented and believe that in my area, the plantings are too dense. In your area the square foot gardening densities might work.

A Larger Property

A larger property allows for a lot of flexibility. I am not necessarily talking about a really big piece of land. Even a half acre can be considered a larger property when it comes to gardening. You can still use both of the above types of gardens, but you can also have an in ground garden. This is the traditional garden style. 

In a traditional garden you can do rows if you want, however this is beginning to fall out of grace. I have begun to plant things in squares and learning about companion planting. Some plants do better when grown in conjunction with unrelated plants. Tomatoes and carrots do well together. Any legume will help corn grow, but don't plant pole beans or peas in sweet corn. They can actually strangle the corn. 

In ground gardening is the least expensive, but it requires a lot of work. Weeding is a constant chore. But it is worth the effort. I really enjoy working in the dirt, seeing the plants grow and harvesting food for my family. I am planning on using a combination of container gardening and in ground gardening at my home.

Check back next week for a post on seed starting.

If you would like more information on compost you can check out our previous post.

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Affiliate Link Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for links, endorsements, testimonials, or recommendations for any products mentioned on this blog. Any time you use one of our links for Amazon, if you purchase something The Rural Economist receives a small commission and it doesn't cost you any more. Even if you do not purchase the items I list. In this way you will help support us trying to teach people about self reliance and homesteading. Thanks for your consideration.