I talked about seaweed solution, sun, and soil in the previous article, Start a Backyard Plant Nursery Business, Part 2. Today, I’ll talk about fertilizers and equipment you need to start a backyard plant nursery.
Backyard plant nurseries are one of the few businesses you can start with almost zero outlay. You can start with a few pots (you can find lots for free or cheaply online or in your local paper), some bags of potting mix, and take some cuttings of your own plants. Simply water them with a water hose or watering can, apply some seaweed solution fortnightly, and perhaps a sprinkle of organic fertilizer here and there.
That’s pretty much how we started. We started with cacti, so watering was hardly ever necessary. They thrived in the sun, so no shade cloth or greenhouse needed. As you grow your plant nursery, however, there are a few things that’ll really make your life easier, and also help you increase plant production and profit.
1. Weed Mat
Weed mat is a heavy-duty landscaping fabric that will let water through but keeps weeds out. It makes your life easier by significantly reducing weed growth in your plant pots, and provides a nice, clean base for pots.
We didn’t use weed mat for a start, but you’ll be weeding pots until the end of time! Also, as weeds grow in your pots, they’ll suck up fertilizer, taking it away from the plant it is intended for. They’ll also completely fill the pot with roots, so your plant’s roots get strangled and they are nearly impossible to separate.
2. Plant Nursery Irrigation
A watering hose does the trick but eventually, you’ll want to be able to turn the sprinklers on and leave them to it while you attend to other plant nursery tasks. Irrigation can be as simple as a dome sprinkler, placed in the middle of a group of plants, and moved around to different spots.
Or, it can be more elaborate with drip irrigation in every pot (I do not recommend this if you have 100’s of plants!) or ‘ticker sprinklers’. We used the tickers in the end, mounted on star pickets. Our shade house was around 30m long, and we had 1 row of 8 ticker sprinklers down the middle. This worked well, but you will need to check plants regularly, especially in the corners as the sprinklers don’t reach the corners very well.
You can then install timers as well and set them to water every X amount of days, for X amount of time.
One thing, make sure you have good filtration set up if you’re watering from a dam, as we did. Your sprinklers will clog up very easily. The bigger the sprinklers, the less likely they will block, and the dome sprinklers don’t really block up at all. Unless you have a frog or lizard in the water lines, of course, which happened a few times!
3. Fertilizing a Plant Nursery
I talked about seaweed solution/extract in the previous article, and it is something I consider a necessity in a commercial backyard plant nursery, and in any garden, really. It’s like spinach for Popeye, but for plants. It makes them strong, stress-free, and happy.
Seaweed extract does not have an NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) content. That means that it does not have any form of food for the plant, at all. It has a lot of benefits but feeding plants is not one of them.
For food and growth, you’ll need an actual fertilizer. There are 1000’s of fertilizers available and it can be quite hard to know which one to get. We tried around 25 different ones and for us, the best ones were organic, simple, and cheap. We used Organic Xtra for many years, just a few pellets in each pot. We were able to get this in ton bags for around $350. We used it everywhere, in the plant nursery, in pots, and in gardens.
When we purchase the farm where we started our plant nursery, we didn’t consider soil quality. In fact, we purchased it without knowing we were going to start a plant nursery! As it turned out, the soil was absolutely depleted of pretty much every nutrient, except calcium. The dam was full of iron, which colors sprinklers and plants red.
If we were to buy a farm to start a backyard plant nursery, soil and water quality would be incredibly important. If you're growing gardens in difficult conditions as well, I highly recommend you go with tiered, or peasant-style gardens. I'll touch this subject in the next article, but I wrote a breakdown of these types of gardens in 'How to Grow a Wild Food Forest'.
Where I was going with this, is that we started looking into improving the soil, naturally. Not simply tossing around tons of lime and chemically-produced nitrogen, but really improving the soil. Increasing worm activity, increasing compost rates and organic matter, and working on ‘healing’ the soil and its topsoil. Not just for us, or to make money from the plants, but also for the many lizards, frogs, insects, birds, and other critters that lived with us.
Dan was the forerunner here. He invented a brew-your-own liquid microbe fertilizer blend, with a system to absolutely pour it onto the farm. The brew would bubble for 24 hours, then it was all hands on deck while he fired up the water pump and we’d race around the garden like we were putting out fires around the place. He also set it up so we could switch it over to water the nursery with it.
We saw incredible results with this, combined with layers and layers of mulch. The plants in the plant nursery looked amazing. The gardens started to heal and thrive. Worms started to live in the soil. I’m proud to say we managed to grow some incredible tropical gardens in a soil that was barely soil; just hot, dry gravelly rock.
I’ll share Dan’s microbe blend here, for, in the end, bugs turn the world and I hope you’ll use it to increase your bugs, too.
Liquid Microbe Fertilizer - Dan’s Blend
For a 200l batch:
- 1.5l molasses
- Seaweed extract (Quantity as per the bottle’s instructions)
- 3-4kg of Organic Xtra, Chicken manure pellets, or fresh chicken, cow, or horse manure
- Optional: 250g Guano
- Optional: 50g potash
- Optional: any extra’s you feel like experimenting with; cans of tuna, dog food, other manure, etc.
- Put all the ingredients in a big tank and add water to fill to 200l.
- Use big pond aeration bubblers to create air in the mixture, and let it bubble away for 24 hours. You’ll see a layer of foam forming on the top - this is a good sign of active microbes, and it will smell sweet.
- If you leave it longer than 24 hours, it will start to smell sour and ‘off’ because the mixture turns anaerobic rather than aerobic. Different types of bacteria will need different amounts of oxygen. ‘Aerobic’ means that they need oxygen, and ‘anaerobic’ means they don’t. You can still use it, but you won’t have the aerobic bacteria we love so much, and you won’t see the same results.
- The liquid microbe fertilizer needs to be diluted before you apply it. Dan set up a system with a pump from the dam and a pump to water the plant nursery. The dam pump had a higher flow than the nursery pump, resulting in water pumping into the pod tank faster than it was coming, thus diluting it as it was going on to the plants.
You can make this liquid in small quantities too, just adjust the ingredients accordingly and then dilute it in watering cans.
The main issue with this system is that there is lots of ‘matter’ that won’t go through sprinkling systems. Dan solved this issue by having the pick-up tap on the pod tank up about 15cm, so any debris would sit at the bottom, and the fertilizer was picked up above the bulk of the debris. He also installed coarse sediment filters to protect watering equipment. This is mainly only an issue with sprinklers, it goes through bigger watering hoses fine.
Once the fertilizer was all distributed, we would take the hose off the tap, open the tap, and let it run out while pouring more water in with it. The run-off would go into the gardens via a trench, so no good stuff was lost.
4. Nursery Shade Houses and Greenhouses
Shade was a must for our plant nursery in the end. We couldn’t keep the water up to the plants in full sun, but we are talking hot Queensland (Australia) sun here. We were a tropical plant nursery, and tropical plants love humidity and shelter. If you are growing cacti, you won’t need a shade house. Look at your climate and plants, they’ll show you if shade is beneficial for your nursery, or not.
Greenhouses are important for propagation. Successful propagation depends on steady conditions and enough moisture to sustain the cutting or seed until it can grow its own roots. Some plant varieties will propagate fine outside of a greenhouse, but there are many varieties that simply won’t. You can also have a misting system in this greenhouse so your propagation stock gets nice gentle water, rather than the same full-stream that the rest of the nursery gets.
Having your plants on tables really saves your back. Bending over to tend to plants takes its toll! Having plants raised also keeps weeds out and greatly reduces damage-causing insects and rodents. Initially, we only had our seeds on tables, as we found a lot of rodent-type animals love eating seeds. We lost 1000’s of Strelitzia seeds to, what we think were, mice.
The downside of tables is that pots dry out quicker. That loss of contact with the ground, I think, increases draining and it can be harder to keep the soil nicely moist. Weigh up the costs of tables and the pros and cons, make a decision to suit your needs.
In the next article, I’ll talk about growing plants in mother stock gardens, to use as propagation stock for your backyard plant nursery. The liquid microbe fertilizer is hugely important in your mother stock gardens as well, so keep that in mind as I’ll mainly focus on setting up your mother stock gardens, good plant varieties to grow for propagation, and how to propagate them.
Photos by Dan and Elle Meager, Outdoor Happens
Elle Meager is an Australian homesteader and natural remedy creator in the Pioneer Valley. She promotes vegetarian homesteading principles on her 10-acre farm shared with four horses, three dogs, 11 chickens, cattle, kangaroos, snakes, kookaburras, native bees, eight 100-year old mango trees, over 40 different types of fruit trees, 12 gardens, and two children. Connect with Elle at Outdoor Happens, on Facebook and Pinterest. Read all of Elle’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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