After 7 years of farming, I’ve finally got my very own farm! I used to operate on rented land at the Just Food Community Farm, but last Fall I moved to Kemptville where I’ve just put up two heated greenhouses. My new farm name is “Slow Roots Farm”, and I will be focused on developing the plant nursery side of my farm business for at least the first year on this new land.

I’ll be growing over 100 varieties of plants, mainly annual vegetables and herbs, but also some flowers and a few perennials. I’ll tell you about the evolution of my farm business, why I’ve decided to focus primarily on seedlings and how you can grow better seedlings.

While I was in University, I decided to add an environmental studies minor to my engineering degree. It led me to become interested in sustainable agriculture, and so I sought out hands-on experience in that field. I found a plant nursery internship hosted by City Farm School in Concordia University’s rooftop greenhouses and I enrolled with excitement in the Winter of 2016. My two favourite days of the week were the days that I was in the greenhouses, elbow-deep in potting mix, starting seeds, potting up young seedlings, caring for plants, and learning about organic growing methods.

In the Spring of 2016, in the Carlingwood/Mckellar Park area of Ottawa, I found some suburban yards to turn into mini organic farms. I ripped out the sod, applied compost and organic fertilizers, and got to planting. I grew a variety of high-value market gardening crops, such as baby leaf greens and cherry tomatoes. I was surprisingly successful in growing and selling these crops, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that it was not viable at such a tiny scale.

Simply adding more small satellite gardens in the neighbourhood was not a sustainable or economically viable path for me or my business. The logistics of hauling tools, seeds, and harvests all around the neighbourhood was difficult and time consuming. I needed more land, but I wanted it to be consolidated in one location.

Fortunately I met Moe Garahan, executive director of Just Food, early in 2018 at COG OSO’s AGM. Just Food operates a community/incubator farm (JFCF) in Blackburn Hamlet, and I was able to secure a ¼ acre plot of land there (to start), which would allow me to scale up my market garden. JFCF provides new farmers access to shared resources and equipment, such as rototillers, a tractor, vegetable wash area, a walk-in cooler, and more.

In 2020 at JFCF I was the project manager for the greenhouse restoration project, replacing the plastic covering and equipping it with heating, ventilation, and irrigation. For the following two years, I operated a plant nursery in the greenhouse, growing seedlings for my own field production, for other partner farms at the JFCF  and for sale to gardeners across Ottawa at various farmers markets.

Nursery work – sowing seeds in plug trays, and potting up plants – was always my favourite part of growing vegetables, even before I had access to a professional greenhouse. Just imagine my excitement at working with plants wearing a t-shirt in February in a hot and sunny greenhouse!

For two full seasons now, and a third season under way, I’ve been honing the craft that is the plant nursery business. Growing seedlings isn’t all that hard, but I’ve been working hard to make sure that I do it well and get the details right. How should I manage the greenhouse temperatures? Which varieties of veggies will people want, and how many of each? Should I spend the extra money on seeds for hybrid, disease-resistant varieties, or just get the basic open pollinated ones? What’s the best time to start all the seeds of the 100+ varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that I’m growing? How do I set my nursery apart from other garden centres and farmers in the region? As you might imagine, answering all these questions, turning the answers into a business plan, and then executing that plan isn’t exactly simple.

Here are a few tidbits that I hope will be helpful for folks who are looking to improve their nursery production, whether for their own fields and gardens, or for sale. 

Environmental Conditions. Give the plants a comfortable environment. They will grow faster, stronger, and healthier. If they are exposed to rapid temperature fluctuations, very high temps, or very low temps, they will become stressed, won’t grow as well, and could even become more susceptible to disease.

Every type of crop has its own specific temperature preference, but I’ve found the following to work fairly well for all the crops I grow (ranging from arugula to zucchini, and alyssum to zinnias): maintain nighttime temps above 12°C, and daytime temperatures between 18°C and 27°C. Use germination chambers, low tunnels, and divider curtains within the greenhouse to keep young plants between 18-25C without incurring exorbitant heating costs.

For example, in the early season when all your plants/plug trays are in a germination chamber or in a low-tunnel within the greenhouse, you need only heat those smaller areas to the desired temperatures and can get away with heating the rest of the greenhouse very minimally. Use vents, intake fans, and roll-up sides in the greenhouse to provide ventilation and cooling on hot sunny days. These improve air flow, allowing hot air to escape through the top of the greenhouse while cool air flows in through the sides.

This season my greenhouse will be equipped with some automated environmental controls. Heaters will kick in when temperatures get too low, and a roof vent and roll-up sides will open progressively larger as temperatures rise in the greenhouse. I’m looking forward to experimenting with the controls and setpoints to optimize plant health. Maintaining warmer temperatures might actually save some heating cost if plant growth is sped up enough that I could reduce the number of weeks that plants need to spend in the nursery.

Selecting Plant Varieties for the Nursery. I spend a lot of time in the Fall each year scouring seed company websites and catalogs in search of new and improved plant varieties. In addition to having healthier plants, this is one major area in which I know I can beat other nurseries and big box garden centres.

I do my best to select plant varieties that are: a) adapted to our local growing climate, b) that have good disease resistance, and c) that will grow well long after they leave my care. Sometimes that means spending more money on seeds, but I don’t mind doing that if it means my customers will have success in their garden and will come back next year to buy plants from me again.

 Seeding Schedule. Coming up with a good seeding schedule is complicated. There are many factors that influence plant growth and we can only do our best to try to control them. Changing the temperature in the greenhouse/germination chamber will change how long it takes seeds to germinate, and how quickly subsequent seedlings will grow. The type/quality of potting mix and the size of the plug trays or containers that you grow your seedlings in will influence how quickly they will grow, and how long it takes for them to become rootbound, which can stress them out and stunt their growth. 

Momentum, i.e. plant vigour, is much more important than size. That’s why I err on the side of starting seeds a bit later. I prefer my plants to be healthy and growing quickly, rather than large, and stunted or rootbound.

Seedling sales last about two months, starting in early May and ending in late June. A single succession of seedlings would become very rootbound in that time, which is why my strategy is to seed multiple successions of each crop in 1-3 week intervals, similar to how market gardeners and CSA farmers sow their crops to have a steady supply throughout the season.

Why Focus on the Nursery? Nursery work has always been my favourite part of my farm work. Aside from personal preference, I have found several other compelling reasons to focus on the business of operating a plant nursery. Working in the nursery is less physically straining than working in the field, which is particularly helpful if you have a chronic medical condition like I do. You can design your nursery benches to be at whatever height is comfortable for your body. Working in the field often involves crouching, squatting, bending over and a lot of physical strain.

The greenhouse is also a controlled environment, which means you’re not outside working on cold and/or rainy days. The heat can be intense, however, so do not underestimate the amount of ventilation needed to prevent overheating on hot, sunny days. Weed management is another challenging aspect of farming that doesn’t exist in the nursery…no hoes necessary! I have also found that the margins are better on selling plants and seedlings than they are for vegetables. Production times are shorter, so the embedded costs are much lower (e.g. heating, labour, fertilizer, water, etc). With fewer steps, and less variability, it is easier to calculate costs of production.

Looking Ahead. My goals for the coming years are: a) to build more wholesale relationships with garden centres and local farmers, and to b) optimize my existing greenhouse space by using more vertical space (e.g. hanging baskets) and reducing costs. To become more competitive with other garden centres’ suppliers, I will need to invest in equipment to reduce labour costs such as a more automated irrigation system, a vacuum seeder and a monorail hanging cart/trolley system for moving flats around the greenhouses. Of course, continuing to focus on quality, and growing the right mix and quantities of the various crops I offer will be key to my success as well.

Mathew Levinson

Slow Roots Farm

Kemptville, ON

@slowrootsfarm on Instagram

Growing Organic Seedlings