How We Created An Off-Grid Market Garden And Sustainable Business

Have you ever considered creating your own off-grid market garden? Our contributor Ken has put together a guide on how he did it and the challenges he faced along the way. 

When we decided to create a market garden for the purposes of growing fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs and, raising chickens for eggs, we knew we wanted to create an off-grid homestead environment.

By choosing to go off-grid, we decided to not plug into “systems” such as the aging electrical grid, or to the city water system that could be rife with problems and cost prohibitive given our city location.  It also reaffirmed our commitment to create an ecologically sound paradise.

Sure, it sounds very good and romantic, but I must share with you, it was (and continues to be) really hard work.

How we started our off-grid market garden

When we first found our ¼ acre property we researched and found that it had never been developed.  So many of the city’s empty lots have had derelict houses on them that have been torn down, leaving the foundation as well as utilities behind, but our property had never been built on.

market garden location

That was a good and a bad thing. On the good side, there are a lot of hazardous materials that are usually part of the house that end up as the “fill” in the foundation that can leach back into the soil and into our fruits and vegetables.  The challenge is that because there are no utilities, such as water, we couldn’t even use public water as a back up during drought periods.

When we decided to begin developing the property we put two things in place in sequential order, a comfortable shed and then a fence.  We bought the shed rather than building one for time and quality purposes.  That shed was delivered and installed one day and the next day, the fence was installed. Being in the city, we wanted to ensure the safety of the shed and its contents and the fence with a lockable gate has done a great job so far.

We then laid out a plan to best utilize the space for growing not only fresh vegetables, but also fruit in the form of berries as well as hard and soft fruit trees. Below is the layout we chose to begin with.

off grid market garden plan

Solving water issues for the garden

Now the hard work could begin, we needed to put infrastructure in place that would allow us to harvest as much rainwater as we need as well as provide for some electric power to charge tool batteries, run a transfer pump for irrigation as well as have some light available in early spring and late autumn when the days are short and the nights long.

We started off putting gutters on the shed to collect and transfer rainwater to barrels. These were relatively simple to install, ensuring that the gradually direct the water to the downspout and into the splashdown style barrel.

Another structure that we built was specifically for rain catchment.  This angled roof structure uses polycarbonate panels as roof material to direct rainwater to the gutters and down to a large 550-gallon cistern.

With neither one of us being skilled builders or carpenters, we didn’t create a plan for it, just knowing we wanted to sink the foundational wood a little over 18 inches into the ground and then to cut the front pieces a foot or so lower than the back.

From there we framed the structure, ensuring good support for the roofing material and to create a very stable structure.  We then installed the roof panels with deck screws and used silicone caulk over each screw hole to prevent leakage.

Next, we built a foundation and assembled a polycarbonate greenhouse on the site to house seedlings and perhaps in the future, grow micro greens.  This 10’X12’ structure was reasonably easy to assemble and has plenty of space to protect fragile seedlings from cold spring and autumn nights.  The added benefit of this structure is that has built-in rain gutters that channel water to spouts, we connected pond tubing to the spout and fed it into rain barrels.

When we added our wash and pack station to one end of the shed, we wanted it to be covered, so we built a small roof that covered the bench, plus another couple of feet.  With that roof built, we could add rain catchment to it as well.

Finally, from a rain catchment perspective, we got a little creative with our beehives. Inspired by a picture on Pinterest, we built a structure to house our beehives, protect the bees from a bit of the weather and double as another spot to catch rainwater.  We followed the same concept as the cistern housing, with the exception that we used smaller boards for the roof structure and the fact that the wood structure below is raised up off the ground for airflow around the beehives.

All in total, our rain catchment capacity is now 870 gallons.  We plan to swap out a couple of the barrels on one side of the shed with a 350-gallon cistern to be able to collect over 1,000 gallons, which is recommended for a garden of our size and productivity level.

Using off-grid power in our garden

Now that we could catch all the rain we needed to get growing, we turned our attention to having a small bit of electric power at the garden.

In general, we don’t need a lot of power, but there are places where a little electricity is helpful.  We have avoided, thus far, tying the garden to the city electrical grid. We didn’t want a monthly bill and we really would rather produce our own power.

We identified four locations that could use power and have installed solar panel kits at three of the four, we plan to install the fourth before this winter, as well as expanding the capacity of two of the locations.

Neither one of us is an electrician, but fortunately, we found some amazing kits that help us break that knowledge barrier.  Having said that, you should have a basic understanding of electricity and how to handle it safely before you begin.

We are fortunate enough to have a store in our area (it is a national chain) called Harbor Freight Tools.  They offer a 100-watt solar panel kit for a reasonable price.

They also have coupons and specials if you sign up for their mailing list.  We wait until we have a sale and coupon to combine to get these kits for under $150 us dollars. The kit includes the easily assembled panels, frames, cables, 12volt lights, and charge controller.  Sold separately are the battery as well as the power inverter that changes the power from 12 volts to 110 power.

These are really easy to put together and provide 100w for each kit and they can be strung together for higher power output. We put one kit on our shed to power lighting, a small fan and a battery charger for our cordless tools.

We put a second kit at our rain catchment structure to run a small 70w transfer pump; this allows drip and manual irrigation of crops.

The third location is our greenhouse where it powers a larger fan for air circulation.  The two locations that will be completed by this winter is an additional kit at our shed to power an additional transfer pump to help automate the wash and pack process.  In addition, we plan to put a kit at our chicken coop so we can keep the chicken’s water from freezing.

Getting on with the gardening

Once our structural, water and electrical needs were met, we began to focus on raised beds and plants.  Our first plants were trees.

We knew we wanted to have fruit trees on the property and that it would take a couple of years for them to mature enough to bear fruit.  We chose heritage and unusual varieties of apple, plum, and cherry trees. In addition, we selected two types of pear trees that are the cross pollinators for each other (Keifer and Seckel).  We also selected a self-pollinating almond tree to try our hand at growing nuts for sale in future years.

Continuing with fruit, we also wanted berries as part of our product offering so we planted a variety of red raspberry plants, golden raspberries, and blackberries in three large 6’X18’ beds, once mature, these produce a bumper crop of delicious berries we can offer our customers (we manage to sneak some for ourselves while harvesting).  In addition, we built two beds to fill with heritage varieties of blueberries and a relatively new hybrid of pink blueberry (pink lemonade).

Finally, we wanted to experiment with small-batch wine production, probably not for sale right away, but just to experiment with the process.

To facilitate that, we created wired cordon structures with 4”X4” treated lumber and cabling.  Once established, we planted four varieties of wine grape that are suited to our region, we chose Edelweiss, Canadice, Frontenac, and La Cross.  These will take two to three years to produce enough grapes to experiment with wine, we look forward to it!

Chicken farming

I have always loved chickens and was thrilled once I finally got my own at my home garden, so it was no surprise that when establishing a market garden, I would include chickens.  Of course, we wanted to ensure that they had a safe, secure and comfortable environment since this isn’t our primary residence.

We chose a coop kit from Tractor Supply Company that was designed for 18 chickens (we were only going to put 9 chickens in this coop and run so they have plenty of space.  We assembled the kit in a couple of hours, then we applied weatherproofing to the exterior.  We ordered chickens from a regional breeder in November and picked them up the next April.  I wanted a variety of chicken breeds that would, when they mature, lay multiple colored eggs.  These are visually stunning and are very popular with farmer’s market customers.

I selected three easter egger chickens that lay a variety of blue-hued eggs, buff Orpington chickens for their beauty and reliable laying of light brown eggs, Speckled Sussex chickens for their stunning plumage and good medium brown eggs.  Finally, I chose French Copper Blue Maron chickens for their amazing gray feathers and their chocolate brown eggs.

When we decided to go with raised beds, we experimented with making the beds out of treated lumber (berry beds) as well as cedar fence panels (the majority) as well as buying some easy assemble beds to test their functionality and durability. The fence panel beds are easy to put together with a small bit of lumber, a circular saw, and a drill; they work great and have held up well!

Being efficient with space

Because our garden is small, we must use space very efficiently, so we employed some vertical gardening techniques to maximize our growing space.  We build arches between two raised beds to grow peas, beans and winter squash.  In addition, we utilized livestock panels next to small raised beds and connected to our fence to grow winter squash and cucumbers.

While it was a blessing to not have any structure exist on the property prior to our purchase, the native soil was terrible and riddled with rocks and stones, not the best for growing delicate fruits and vegetables.  We employed raised beds for this reason, which necessitated brought in soil.  We ordered a total of 20 cubic yards of an organic soil blend with plenty of organic matter, pulverized stone and sand for drainage.  The beds were filled with this and we could begin growing.

When considering crops, we first wanted to establish our perennial crops first.  To this end, we planted asparagus, perpetual spinach, rhubarb, and sorrel.  These establish after a year or so and will provide marketable vegetables and greens with little work or input from us, when managing even a small farm, having a consistent, reliable crop without work is a major plus!

For the balance of the crops, we wanted to grow heritage varieties of annual vegetables.  There are a myriad of seed & plant companies that are vying for your business.  However, we were very specific about the parameters of picking a seed or plant company to buy from.  We narrowed our vegetable seed suppliers to three; Baker Creek, Botanical Interests and, Renee’s Garden; these met our criteria as non GMO, Organic, Heritage and unusual varieties.

From here it is going back to our original layout and choosing where to plant our annual vegetable plants and beginning the process of starting seeds in our greenhouse, potting them on and then potting them out to their garden space.  Having a layout plan either hand drawn or, like us a computer-generated plan is a good thing.  We print out multiple blank copies for each season to show how we are successively planting the beds throughout the growing season to ensure proper crop rotation.  It is also handy to refer to in subsequent seasons, again for crop rotation purposes and to see how the garden grows and changes.

Another indispensable tool is a garden journal.  In this you should record what you are growing, the weather patterns, how plants are performing, any problems with pests, soil conditions, diseases, etc.  It is easy to forget in the rush of growing and market season what went well and what lessons are to be learned.  From a business perspective, this journal can also help you refine your product offerings, knowing what sells and what doesn’t do so well.

Try it out for yourself

This has been our journey of creating an off grid market garden, there is a long journey ahead of us as the business grows and we complete more projects to improve the sustainability and harness new technologies for heating and power.  The garden is an ever-changing, never-ending source of joy as well as frustration.  We have had crops fail and building experiments not work out they way we planned, but this is how we learn and grow.

Let me know your thoughts on this topic!