Where to start and how to organise your plot
Carol, Carol’s Garden
The two main limiting factors for most of us are space and time. Money comes into it, but usually the cost is a function of space or time. So our planning will focus on these two factors
1. Space - How you make best use of the space you have, to grow the crops that your customers want to buy
2. Time (and energy!) - How to spend your time & energy in the most productive way, to reduce waste and to keep your health and sanity!
If you're starting from scratch with a bare field or plot, then you're lucky! Most people develop their sites gradually and have to work around existing features. So we will assume that you already have a layout of some kind. Its easy to accept inconvenient routes or time-wasting habits without really looking at the effort and time that you might be wasting, as well as the plants that are in the wrong place. We will cover plot planning in a bit more detail later, but autumn is the perfect time to identify problems, time wasters and lost opportunities.
Its important to realise that there is no ideal plot layout - you need the techniques to work out your own, for the way you work and for your customers.
Saving Time and energy
You will hear us referring to lean systems quite a lot, or Japanese ‘just in time’ management. These are highly developed management systems for big manufacturing industries, but we can learn from them too, for our small businesses. Much of it requires you to take a step back and look critically at the way you work, to identify the good practices as well as inefficiencies in the way you work. We do make constant adjustments and adapt circumstances, so we forget they're there. The amazingly successful British Cycling Team used a principle of ‘marginal gains’ - making small changes to make small gains all add up, especially if you do those activities lots and lots of times.
Paula had a long standing fence through the middle of her plot, from when some of it had sheep on. There was a single gate in the middle, so every time she needed to go from one half to the other, she had to go through this single gate. It had always been there, so she adapted to it. When she looked properly at the extra time it took, (often carrying buckets or plants), she decided to take the fence out, saving lots of time and energy.
Look rationally at the layout of your site. Especially in terms of how you are travelling round and where you are spending time walking up and down the plot. Walking is good for you, but uses lots of time and energy! The more you grow and the more often you walk these routes, the more the few extra steps start to matter.
Getting yourself organised
Being efficient and having Lean Systems is all about being organised. This is not rocket science. Its really about having places for things, keeping stocks, thinking ahead - all those things that busy parents cope with all the time, but we don't apply to our businesses!
We can usually adapt to things ourselves - you might remember where you left the rake if you're the only person using it. But as your business grows and you start to have other people helping you - whether this is your partner, children, volunteers or staff - all these casual habits come to the surface and can become big time wasters. Nothing was more frustrating to me than walking round 2 acres looking for the rake that someone had left out, always under time pressure.
So start to record how your time is spent, and especially where you've wasted it. Recording this when it happens, and you're tired and frustrated, gets it out of your system. I have a whiteboard in the shed and everyone is encouraged to write down anything that has made them feel like they are wasting their time. It can make for slightly uncomfortable reading, but as its public, we tone it down a bit. Then in Autumn, we go through it and decide what we can do to reduce the chance of it happening again. This can be as simple as having a rule to collect up all tools at the end of the day and put them back in the shed. Every day, no exceptions. Or growing fewer cosmos because you spend too long deadheading them. Or getting staking done early before everything falls over and you're trying to struggle with a load of wet, flat cornflowers.
Start a log of learning points through the year - whether in a notebook, on your phone or, in my case, a whiteboard in the shed. Any occasion when you realise you've wasted time, done an unproductive job, spent ages deadheading, or chucked good flowers on the compost, make a note. Then, when you are feeling more constructive and have some time, work out what you need to do to reduce the chance of that happening again. If you have helpers of any kind, encourage them to contribute (if you dare!)
Look too at your stocks of materials - compost, string, floristry sundries. and whether you can have a method of managing stocks. Just in the way people managed their larders when shops weren't open all the time! Holding too much stock can be expensive and you risk items going out of date or perishing. Holding too little means you've got to go out to buy replacements more often, or pay delivery, or risk wasting time because you've run out. There isn't a correct way, but you need to develop a system that works for you. I order horticultural supplies once or twice a year, in spring & sometimes autumn too. That way I get fresh compost and everything I need, and can get free delivery. I try not to have to ‘top up’ during the year.
Start a list of time wasters! Try not to be too hard on yourself (or others!) but when you're frustrated because you've spend ages doing a ‘quick’ job or whatever
Are any of the following irritating time wasters for you?
Leaky buckets going back in the stack again
Tools not where they should be
No clean plant labels
Losing plants to pests
Having to cut 5 more stems at the end of the day
Running out of materials
Looking back over the past season
Autumn is a great time to review what you have grown and the way you have used your space and time through the year, while its still quite fresh in your mind, and to collect info to work on in winter.
Review your physical plot and your space
Here are a few techniques for understanding how you use your space and time, and identifying ways to improve:
Identify space which is entirely unproductive or under producing. Can you reduce it or completely change it? eg paths are unproductive space, but you need some. can you make them smaller, or will that compromise access? What little odd shaped beds are you not using properly?
Does this space need to be maintained? Can you reduce the time and money required to do this eg mowing paths? Can you get rid of the grass, or are you prepared to pay the price for nice green, non-plastic paths?
Put simply, the way to make the most of your space is to make as much of it as productive as possible, and to be growing the right things at the right time in the right quantities. Easy?! Its all about identifying waste - wasted time, bed space, flowers, money. Once you know where this is happening, you can start to address it.
Complete the End of Season Space Review Worksheet - keep it to use when we look at plot planning in more detail in Module 3
Review what you have grown this season and what you could change
It’s a good idea to regularly review what you've grown - walk round your plot and write down/photograph/video: What you've grown, the quantities, varieties, colours
Note especially how many of each variety you want next year, and how much bed space they will need.
What were you short of - colours, shapes?
What was unhappy in its spot - too dry, too shady, too sunny? Could you move it somewhere else?
Which beds did you visit most often - ie your best/most favourite flowers?
Which spaces are not earning their keep?
Complete the End of Season Crop Review Worksheet:
Planning for winter
We will cover planting plans later, but you might still need to do a plan for autumn planting now. Just do it - how much space each crop needs, how long will it be there, what will you replace it with. It doesn't need to be fancy, here is my polytunnel plan for winter: I use post-it labels so I can juggle them round until I've got everything right - nothing too tall for the space, or crowding neighbours, early crops coming out in beds that I need to replant in May etc. Making sure compost, irrigation, supports, membrane are in all the right places.
Sometimes, something as simple as a paper plan with post it notes, can really help you when planning - this is my working autumn Polytunnel plan. Sketched layout with permanent and last years crops on, all the crops on post-it notes, so I can juggle them round until I’m happy - the right amount of space for each, best sunny/shadier/damper beds for each, clearing and replanting times worked out, not planting in the same beds as last year. I don’t use the same plan every year because i’m changing the balance and the mix every year. So a sketched plan is fine. It works, and I can easily adjust it if I need to.
The Biggest Surprise
Picking! No-one realises how long it takes to pick flowers. This is the single biggest job of most growers week, and is usually condensed into just 1 or 2 days. When you are only picking small quantities, it seems ok, but as you grow, it becomes the most challenging thing to organise. You can’t pick too early, you have to consider the weather, you might be juggling lots of different orders. There is loads of scope to improve your efficiency and reduce the time you spend on this. Now is a great time to look at this and plan to improve your methods for next year.
• If you're carrying buckets, get a trolley. If you're already pulling a trolley, upgrade to a machine of some kind - I have a mower/tractor & trailer, Paula has a quad bike.How far are you carrying flowers? As you get bigger, distances get further. Think about frequency of picking and volumes of flowers/foliage.
I have dahlias nearest to the shed because they produce a lot of buckets of flowers that I have to carry back to the workshop.
Crops that have a very short picking season can be furthest away eg peonies, spring flowering shrubs.
Try grouping plants by season eg. summer perennials together, all evergreen foliage together, spring shrubs together and maybe near the biennials...There are so many variables in planting plans, but this is another to consider.
• When you’re writing your picking lists, order them by location - pick in one area before another. I print picking sheets from a main spreadsheet and in the heat of this summer when we had a short space of time to pick masses of flowers, I even started sorting the list by a location code the night before, to speed us up.
• Moving between crops is the biggest time waster, if you have 2 orders for the same flowers, ensure they are all picked at the same time.
• Have a system for buckets - we have clean ones only in the workshop, ready to use, all used ones go out by the washing area, ready to wash. If anyone has a spare few minutes, they can just wash any buckets there, they know they need washing.