Thank goodness I was wrong.  Contrary to my pessimistic predictions in an earlier post, we did get a decent amount of rain in April, so much so that the field I had thought was ready to till in mid-April actually had standing water in it when I went to till it on April 20th.  In light of my previous worries, I didn’t mind having to change my plans.


During April, those ten- or fifteen-centimetre cover crops that I was reluctant to till under grew to be forty, fifty and even ninety centimeters high and more. Now that’s the kind of organic matter I want to put back into the soil!

Here are a few photos showing our cover crop achievements:

As seen from the tractor seat looking back on a swath I mowed on field #5T9 on Saturday. The height of the rye/vetch mix varies greatly across this field, but back there it’s well over a meter high.
A beautiful spring evening, chewing down another rye/vetch mix with the flail mower on the BCS walk behind tractor on field #5T4.
Crimson clover survived the winter and flowered on field #4T2. It’s only thirty centimeters tall or so, but it packs a lot of nitrogen! We probably should have cut it down before it flowered, but they were too pretty to mow (and I didn’t have time).
In North II greenhouse the soil stays wet until May so I let the vetch cover crop keep growing. It got to be a good eighty centimeters tall or more! Vetch is long and stringy, so cutting down that much of it down with the walk-behind tractor and flail mower took several passes and a lot of time and sweat.

Rain also brought a proliferation of tiny slugs. Many times our washtub looked like this after we drained the water used for washing greens or turnips:

Tiny slugs. Hundreds of them.


Even if normal rainfall means a proliferation of slugs, and even if it means having to delay the tilling and planting dates I’d wanted, I’m glad our spring weather turned out more like normal than I thought it would. I like to hope that even if weather patterns shift and change, we can adapt and learn ways that work under the new conditions.  In principle, I like learning, but there’s a challenge: learning takes time and energy. Both tend to be in short supply. I’m grateful that with a return to somewhat normal weather, our normal ways of doing things can still work.

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Last week I accomplished something I’ve been needing to do for a long time.  I fixed our ride-on mower.


It’s a good little garden tractor, not much use for tilling but great for cutting grass in the orchard and on our far-too-many grassy pathways that divide and connect the various fields and greenhouses that make up the farm.  But back in 2017, it suddenly started leaving a wide streak of uncut grass behind it.  Clearly, one of the three rotary blades on the underside of the mower deck wasn’t merely dull, but totally not functioning.

That was not something I had time to deal with.  Last time something like that happened on a different ride-on mower, it was because I’d knocked the blade spindle against a hidden stump and totally broken it.  When we looked under the mower deck, it was clear that even my mechanically genius neighbour couldn’t fix it without replacement parts. Using time I didn’t really have to spare, I hauled it off to a local repair shop, and after months of trying to follow up on it, the only answer I got was that the manufacturer had gone out of business and replacement parts were no longer available.  It now sits in the truck shed waiting for me to finally just give up my last unreasonable hope of repairing it and haul it off to the scrap metal depot.

Given that experience, I left the mower deck for the little red garden tractor sitting in the garage for more than a year.  Almost whenever I walked past it, just glancing at it made me feel weak and tired.  Even though it would have made my work much fast and easier, I got through 2018 without it. I was just too brutally tired most of the year to deal with the headache of finding out that I’d somehow broken it beyond any simple repair.

But after finally getting a decent rest back in January, I’ve been feeling like I have the umf to tackle long-neglected projects, so I flipped the mower deck over one day and took a good look at it.  As I fiddled with the blades and the drive belt, it quickly became clear that the nuts holding two of the three blades had come loose, so that they were spinning freely instead of being driven in such a way as to actually cut grass.  That observation alone couldn’t rule out deeper problems, but it gave me a simple and logical course of action to try: tighten the loose nuts, then put the mower deck back on the tractor and see if it works. For good measure, I decided to sharpen the blades while it was convenient to remove them.

The nuts were all too big for our largest combination wrench, and only one of came off with the larger adjustable wrenches that we have on hand.  So I put some penetrating oil on the remaining two, then went and borrowed the correct size of combination wrenches from my neighbour, in hopes that the longer handles would give me more torque.  

Work in progress

The nuts still didn’t come off right away, but there’s always plenty of other work to do on a farm, so I busied myself with other things and just poked my head in for a couple minutes every day or so to give those stubborn nuts another try and put on some more penetrating oil.

At last one, then the other nut yielded to my persistent pressure.  Blades off, I sharpened them as per a YouTube video, cleaned the grunge off the nuts and put everything back together, correctly tightened.  The mower runs just fine now.  

Nice sharp blades re-installed. The simple pleasures of taking care of farm equipment.

I wonder sometimes if that mower deck is a metaphor for other things I keep on not dealing with in life, the things that seem like they’ll take more time, more resources, more smarts or more umf than I have to offer, when really all that’s needed is to flip it over, take a good look at it, borrow a couple of wrenches from a neighbour, and then be patient while the penetrating oil does its work.

Be that as it may, working on that mower was bittersweet.  I can’t so much as look at that garden tractor without thinking of my neighbour Peter who passed away a bit over a year ago.  Back when that garden tractor was still a defunct “garage queen” with flat tires, he coached me through everything from cleaning the carburetor to replacing the solenoid to checking over the starter motor.  And he wasn’t even in Canada at the time.  We exchanged page-long emails of descriptions and instructions, his side of the correspondence written in his break time after twelve hour days at work as a marine engineer on board a massive fishing vessel.  With his help, I cut my teeth as a farm mechanic on that machine.  Other machine problems that cropped up over the years offered welcome opportunities to learn from him and to hang out with him and hear his stories.

I miss Peter.  Not just his mechanical savvy, but the camaraderie, the banter, the conversations.  While I was working on that mower, there were moments when I felt like I’d see him if I just looked over my shoulder.  When the people you leave behind miss you like that, it means you did something right.

You can read more about Peter’s life in his obituary on Page 3 of the February, 2018 issue of the Metchosin Muse.

I tilled this field last week, but I made sure to take a picture first.

Field #1T6 on March 22, just before we spread fertilizer and tilled it.

I just loved those blocks of colour. It was so interesting how clearly you could see the distinction between the verdant green areas where I planted a rye-vetch mix and the red-purple areas where the weeds were left to grow and red henbit gave us some much-needed winter soil cover.

The funny thing is, the cover crop and the weeds were all about the same height, 15 cm or so. Which raises a question, why bother to plant the cover crop if the weeds will do the same thing for free?

I wondered the same thing on the other side of winter too, back in the fall, when those red-purple weedy areas were themselves a verdant carpet of green.

Red henbit and chickweed, lush green back in October. They look good enough to eat, I think.

But my gut feeling, my eyeball estimate, is that even if they’re the same height, the rye-vetch mix has a bit more bulk to it. That extra biomass, plus the nitrogen fixed by the bacteria in the root nodules of the vetch, counts for something on a farm where cover crops are our primary source of organic matter to feed back to the soil we work. After all, the reason why weeds are so weedy is that they don’t bother much with growing bulk if they can help it. They do what they need to do to produce seeds, seeds and more seeds, unlike our carefully cultivated crops that have been selected to produce heftier plants with bigger, fatter grains — or whatever other trait we’re interested in maximizing.

That’s what you pay for when you buy cover crop seeds: the DNA instructions to grow a big, bulky rye plant, or a nitrogen-rich vetch plant. That, and the fact that when you plant the seed, you get to choose the planting density. With weeds, you don’t get that choice. Nature tends to give you a more patchy distribution than you get by spending the time and money to intervene.

But given the time and money we spent putting in that rye-vetch mix, I didn’t really want to till it in at only 15 cm tall. I wanted to wait till I got what I had last year, a crop nearly waist-high, or knee-high at least in most places.

You can see against the BCS (walk-behind tractor) how tall the rye-vetch cover crop was in early May 2018.
Lush, thick and verdant. This is the kind of cover crop I want to feed the soil I work.

Normally, I don’t need to think about waiting for cover crops to get big. Normally, when they’re only 15 cm tall the soil is still too wet to till, so I’m stuck playing the waiting game while I admire their beautiful growth. Normally, when the soil finally gets dry enough, they’re way too big to just till under, so I flail-mow them first. I might have to till one more time before planting the crop to kill any weeds that start to grow, but there’s usually still plenty of moisture in the soil and so even though the extra tilling isn’t ideal, it’s not too too bad either.

But this year isn’t normal. This year the fields are drying out more than a month ahead of what I’m used to. One field was even a bit too dry when I tilled it a couple weeks ago. I hate tilling the soil when it’s too dry. You’re burning diesel to watch clouds of precious topsoil disappear in the wind behind you. Not only that, but the soil that’s left is either too powdery or too chunky. And good luck getting your cover crops to decompose properly if there isn’t enough moisture around.

I know there’s rain in the forecast, but I’m not willing to bet on much precipitation at this point. I’d rather just accept the trade-off: till in the cover crops when they’re only 15 tall, but catch the chance to do my work before soil moisture levels drop too low.

I never thought I’d hear myself lament an early dry season, but there’s only so much I can do to change our planting schedule, and with many of our outdoor crops being planted in late summer, I’m wondering how I’ll keep the weeds from getting out of hand first in that longer-than-usual time gap between tilling and planting. I hate tilling just to kill weeds, especially when the soil is dry and I’ll just have to watch it blow away in the wind. These past few weeks, I’ve tried planting buckwheat for weed suppression, but I’m not really sure it’s warm enough yet. Even with dry, sunny weather, we could still get a hard frost.

But there is no perfection. Remembering that, and practicing gratitude wherever you can, is part of being sane.

I hope that by front-loading our field prep in these somewhat-less-busy months of March and April will mean that Manic May can be a bit more laid back. I’ve never experienced a spring this dry before, so maybe there’s other benefits (and other costs) that I have yet to discover. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, it’s Sunday and it’s a beautiful sunny day. I found a free inflatable dingy by the roadside, so I think I’ll go take it for a testdrive on the lake while it’s still light. There’s something about being out on the water that makes me feel like I’m away from everything. Getting some relaxation in on a warm, sunny afternoon in March is just another way to make hay while the sun shines.

Even though much of my work is aimed at killing them (or at least thwarting their megalomaniacal reproductive ambitions), I can’t help but admire weeds.

Despite the cold weather we’ve been having, an enterprising dandelion and some brave senecios have already gone to seed. Others are flowering: dandelion, popweed, and red henbit, and the popweed too has seed pods.

The main flush of unplanted blooms is yet to come, but these at least stand to remind me of their power to flourish while others wait for better times, and to give hope of food for bees to come.

Dandelion seed head near the driveway
Some sort of Senecio species also gone to seed out in the field
Another dandelion in bloom, with some seed heads also
Red henbit (or as some call it, dead red nettle) with it’s pink flowers and purple-red upper leaves. The name in Japanese translates to something like “dancing princess.” The paler plants inbetween are chickweed.
The white flowers of what I call “popweed,” along with some more red henbit in flower beside our leeks.

The long-range forecast promises cold for early February, but last week I could hardly tell it was winter.  On Wednesday, most of the day was sunny and we had a high of 14 and a low of 7 degrees Celcius and we spent the day sowing seeds and transplanting chard and garlic chives in the rather warm greenhouse.  Perhaps you can understand why I did a double take when one of the farm workers reminded me that it’s still January.

At this time of year, I’m normally bundled up inside crop planning, slogging through taxes or ploughing through organic certification.  This year, so far I’ve managed to spend only one morning’s worth of work on a slapped-together crop rotation and that’s it.  The rest of the time, I’ve been outdoors.

Because the weather has been so mild, we still have plenty of crops to harvest both inside the greenhouse and out, and with relatively steady temperatures our apples have kept well even without climate-controlled storage.  With all that produce yet to sell, we’ve been spending the better part of four days per week just harvesting or prepping orders for customers.  We even attended an extra week of the Moss Street Market last Saturday, and today we shipped over a thousand dollars worth of produce to our friends at Tama Organic Life in Vancouver.  I can’t remember ever having shipped to them in January before.

And when I’m not harvesting or selling vegetables, I’m tilling.  It’s been so (relatively) dry that the soil in most of our greenhouses is tillable much earlier than normal.  All this extra harvest and early soil prep is giving us a welcome boost to speed us forward into the new season.  That’s a good thing, so what I’m about to say is not a complaint.

Besides needing to find time for farm office work, I have no idea when I’m going to get my equipment maintenance done if this keeps up.  The other night I had a dream that I parked the tractor in the orchard (on a slope, yes, a dumb thing to do) and it started to roll away.  The parking brake was still giving a bit of resistance, so the runaway tractor was slow enough that I could jump on and try to stop it, only to find that there was no steering wheel and the clutch was in the wrong place.  In the dream, I must have been some kind of Jedi, because I managed to mind-control the tractor into turning off the slope and onto the level driveway, where it ground to a halt.

Maybe this is just another version of that recurring dream in which I’m driving a car and my foot can’t reach the brake pedal, but I think it’s also my brain saying: if equipment maintenance doesn’t happen, there could be trouble.

But the winter isn’t over yet, though it feels like it gets shorter every year.  In this season we have fewer people working, so maybe I should be hiring another person for at least a few days to help with harvest so that I can do the office work and machine maintenance, which would, in turn, save the farm money.  I guess that’s something to think about/deal with this week.  Also, our overwintered crops will finish up before long, so there will be less harvesting to do and more time for other things.

But in the meantime, I’m grateful for this beautiful jump-start to the season that we’re getting with all the harvesting and soil prep we’ve been able to do.  And winter hasn’t been all work: I spent a couple weeks in Japan (which I hope to make the subject of an upcoming blog post) and another few weeks visiting friends and family and taking some much-needed rest to recharge for the coming season.

In closing, since I so often write about soil and cover crops, I’ll continue the trend.  One of my joys this winter has been knowing that almost all our unused fields are covered with a healthy blanket of green.  Here’s a snapshot of our rye-vetch mix sow October 10, 2018.

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I wasn’t sorry when the first substantial fall rain came early this year.  It’s been a long, hot, dry summer and it was nice not to have to think about outdoor irrigation anymore after early/mid-September.  But what energizes me is this:

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This is winter rye growing in between rows of broccoli.  This is what success looks like.

Every year, it pains me to see long stretches of uncovered soil in between rows of fall broccoli plants that will be dead by spring anyways.  But the challenge is that until we get rain, I can’t get cover crops to germinate in our bone-dry soil because we don’t have overhead irrigation.  Usually, we don’t get rain early enough and so I’m stuck sowing cover crops later in the fall, which means that they don’t grow enough to provide the kind of substantial soil cover you see here.  Add to that the fact that I usually forget to leave enough space between rows for even our smallest tiller (needed to bury the seeds), and you can see why it’s exciting for me to finally succeed to have our slightly-broader broccoli pathways under a nice green carpet for the winter.

This technique of planting cover crops in the pathways is not without challenges.  If the rye gets big enough, I’ll have to trim it, probably using a line trimmer since the pathways are too narrow for the mowers that we have.  That will probably damage the broccoli leaves a bit and also send bits of chopped up vegetation onto the broccoli heads.  Have you ever tried to pick grass clippings off a broccoli head?  I’m sure you can see why I don’t want to have to do that.  The blade attachment on our brushcutter might do a better job of trimming the rye without making so many small pieces, but if I slip with a spinning saw blade like that it could take a whole broccoli plant out in the blink of an eye.  So far though, no cutting has been necessary, and the main head has already been harvested from most of the broccoli plants.

I managed to interplant green manure with one other crop this year.  Below is our summer snow pea and shelling pea crop, interplanted with oats and crimson clover.

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Bare soil is never ideal for soil health, even in the dry summer.  Living roots foster an ecosystem of soil organisms, and so I was very happy to walk by and see a green carpet instead of bare soil between these rows of peas.  However, you can see that the peas aren’t doing very well.  Is that because the summer weather was so hot and dry (which peas don’t like), or is it because the roots of the oats and clover competed too strongly with the peas?  The only way to know is to try again next year and see what happens.

What surprised me even more than the substantial rain of September 7 – 9 was the long dry, sunny period we’ve had this October.  If the current forecast for showers on the 23rd is correct, we’ll have had a full two weeks of October without rain.

My big goal during this time of year is to get cover crops planted wherever I can, and I usually try to sow a day or so before a rainfall (such as a September 18th sowing followed by September 21st rain for the rye sowed between broccoli shown above).  This long dry spell has meant that I can till whenever I want to bury the cover crop seeds, but I was a bit worried that the lack of rain would mean germination problems.  Few things pain me more than seeing a field with a few scattered, struggling stems of rye and vetch being pounded by the rain all winter.  You might as well not have bothered spending money on seeds because weeds could have done a better job if you hadn’t killed them when you tilled the cover crop seed in.

But even though we haven’t had rain since the light showers of October 9, when I went out one morning a few days ago, I saw one of the fields I sowed October 10 bristling with the first red-tinged spears of rye thrusting up from the soil.  The quiet awe I feel at seeing this is akin to looking up at a night sky full of stars.  This flush of germination speaks power: the power of a seed to push up through the soil, to die to being a seed and to be born as a plant, not just one but thousands strong all rising up to defend the soil, beat back the weeds and then die again to feed the armies of soil organisms that will power the soil ecosystem through next spring and summer.

You only learn by trying, experimenting and sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding.  That’s true of many things in life, but cover crops have been a notable frontier for me to push myself to keep trying even though I feel nervous about getting it wrong.  Looking back over our weather data and the germination results I’ve seen, I realize that these grains are far tougher than I’ve given them credit for.

I had no idea what a weight it would take off my shoulders to get the last of our pre-fall transplanting done.  We transplanted swiss chard and “salad cabbage” in the greenhouse last week (with the help of visiting friends!) and this past week Wednesday we transplanted haku-sai (白菜), otherwise known as Chinese or napa cabbage.  Transplant, partially finished, is shown below.

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I was particularly worried about the haku-sai.  We sowed the seeds in 72-cell trays, which are only about 5 cm deep and 3 cm square at the top, but by the time we got around to transplanting them the seedlings were nearly 10 cm tall and looked way too overgrown for those little cells.  Optimal crop performance happens when plants are able to grow continuously without running into barriers posed by unfavourable temperatures, constrained root space or lack of either water or nutrients.  Cell trays offer at least two of those barriers–lack of space and with lack of space, lack of water and nutrients–to an overgrown seedling.

 

So I was worried that our haku-sai, a valuable fall/winter crop that customers love, would be set back because the seedlings were left to languish in the cell trays too long.  But when we poked the seedlings out of the cell trays, the roots looked just fine!  In fact, if we had planted them earlier, the roots may not have been fully formed, which makes it hard to take the seedlings out of the cell tray without breaking up the little block of potting mix and damaging the roots of the seedling.

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We only recently (as of the last few years) switched to using cell trays, so we’re still getting used to their particular combination of benefits and challenges.  One such challenge is that the ideal window for transplanting is rather narrow.  The seedlings ideally need to be big enough for their roots to hold the potting medium together when you take them out of the cells (we poke them out with a dibbler through the hole in the bottom of the cell), but not so big that the plants get stressed out from not having enough room for their roots.  That window can be only a few days, depending on the growing conditions.

And of course, cell trays equal more plastic.  We do our best to avoid breaking the trays so that we can reuse them multiple times, but it’s hard to be gentle enough with them, especially since the cell trays currently available on the market aren’t actually designed to be durable.

I’m still glad we made the switch, though.  We used to use (and still sometimes do use) either 6 packs or 4″ pots, which require far more potting mix and take up far more of our limited seedling nursery space.  It’s faster, too, to transplant smaller seedlings, and easier to plant them into the plastic mulch that we use for crops like haku-sai that need more warmth and moisture in the soil.  I like the way it feels to poke out all those seedlings out onto a flat tray and then carry them through the field, like a waitress with a tray of appetizers.

All that being said, I often remember what a farmer who spoke at Farmer 2 Farmer one year said about his own refusal to use cell trays: “How would you like it if you had to grow up in a little plastic bottle?”  Maybe someday we’ll find another way.  Maybe someday petroleum products will be scarce enough, or socially unacceptable enough, that we’ll have to find another way whether we want to or not.  But right now cell trays are allowing us to manage our space, time and personal energy in ways that work.

Perhaps this is a bit melodramatic, but getting all those seedlings out of the seedling nursery and into the field has made me feel like a new person.  It’s been a busy and sometimes overwhelming summer.  There’s something about walking past too-old seedlings and not having time to get to them that just makes me feel hopeless.  But now that’s done, and I have time and space of mind to turn to other jobs: getting soil prep done in the greenhouses so we can direct-seed more fall and winter crops, cleaning up weeds that got overgrown in more places than I care to mention, and pruning the mite-infested branches out of our eggplants so that they can (hopefully) continue to produce into the fall.

But what I’m most excited about now is planting cover crops.  After months of hot, dry weather, we’ve finally had a few days of rain, real rain, not just little sprinkles, so the soil has moisture now to germinate rye and vetch and whatever else to help build good soil for next year and years to come.  I’m realizing more and more that that’s really where my heart is in farming.  I love planting and weeding (yes, actually), and even though I sometimes wish someone else could take care of it while I go do field work, it feels good to spend time harvesting, too, but what I love most is taking the big view, looking at a field and asking myself: how can we make the soil better for next year?

Few things were sweeter or more soothing this year than the first taste of watermelon on a hot day. We’ve had a lot of firsts-of-the-season in the last couple weeks: not only the first watermelon, but also the first melons, the first tomatoes, the first eggplants and peppers and the first okra.  Also plums, as you can also see below, have been enjoying their two-week harvest season.

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Perhaps it’s this bearing of fruit that makes this time of year special. We certainly still have plenty of work to do, but it doesn’t wear on me the way the work of May and June does. May and June are all about preparation: tilling soil, transplanting summer crops. So many things need to happen at once to lay the foundation for summer crops, but while we’re doing those things we have no sign as yet of whether we’ll succeed. It’s only now that we have proof: yes, the pepper plants look beautiful (they didn’t the last two years); yes, those yellowish eggplants seedlings are producing just fine; and no, the raccoons are no longer able to break in and raid the watermelons.

Whereas the work of May and June is heavily varied, late July is pleasantly monotonous: when we aren’t harvesting, we’re transplanting fall cabbages. There’s something beautifully mindful yet mindless about cabbage transplanting. Hundreds upon hundreds of seedlings all exactly the same. Over and over again, we dig a double line of holes alternating in a triangle pattern, apply liquid fish fertilizer in each hole, and lay out the little seedlings. Then we make a dent in the wet soil with two fingers, put the seedling in and firm up the soil around it. A final touch of liquid fertilizer around each seedling, then we lay drip tape and cover the row with remay (floating row cover) stretched over wire hoops to form a long white tent that wards off the ravages of wind and insects. Almost always, as we work there is brilliant blue sky overhead, warm sun on our backs and a fresh breeze to cut the heat of the day.

Below, you can see our six-hundred-plus cabbage seedlings as they were earlier this past week. They grew more quickly than we expected, and so we seized the chance to transplant them on Friday, though we ran out of time and haven’t put on the remay yet. We still have three hundred or so broccoli seedlings to go next week, and then kale and kakina seedlings some weeks later, but the process is all the same.

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One step we’ve added to transplanting cabbages (and kale, broccoli, etc.) in recent years is the addition of a dry fertilizer called bokashi to the hole for each seedling. There are several ways to make bokashi, but ours involves rapid composting of wet alfalfa pellets with rice bran. Within a day or so, that mixture heats up to be almost too hot to touch in the centre of the pile. We stir the pile with a shovel or digging fork to aerate the mixture daily until the temperature drops and stabilizes, then sift it and bag it so that it’s ready to use at transplanting time. In the photo below you can see a cross-section of a pile a few days into the process, showing how the fungus that colonizes the pile forms a white layer visible a few centimetres below the surface. When we stir the pile, we break up that layer and it reforms each day for the first several days of composting. Keeping the pile covered with cardboard or something keeps moisture in so that the fungus stays happy.  The whole process takes about 1-2 weeks.

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I won’t say that everything is going smoothly right now. Our greens and turnips, which we grow more or less year-round, have not been germinating well and those that do germinate are growing poorly. Is it the soil, the weather, or a faulty watering system? We still don’t know. We always cover those crops with remay (floating row cover) to keep out the flea beetles. One mistake was using old remay with holes in it. The flea beetles had a heyday inside and yet for us on the outside it was hard to check exactly what was going on under there. Other crops are doing well, so it’s not the end of the world, but the cost of those lost greens and turnips are certainly another tuition payment in the school of experience. The only problem is, we’re not sure yet what the lesson is.

The field I wrote about in my last blog post is tilled and half of it is planted now.  I managed to use a little lawn sprinkler to wet the soil, moving it I-don’t-know-how-many times every four hours until the field was moist enough to till.  It wasn’t an ideal use of well water, but it worked.  You can see the before and after below, June 4 and 28 respectively.

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The soil condition is actually a lot better than I’d expected.  I thought I would get this awful powder and/or what a friend calls “clay-rocks” when I tilled, but we actually got fairly good tilth out of it.  In the picture below you can see the result.

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The remaining challenge is that there’s still a lot of undecomposed grass and kale stalks in the soil. That means that nitrogen from the alfalfa pellets I spread may not be readily available to plants, as the microbes will get first dibs on soil nutrients while they work to break down the carbonaceous grass etc.  That could slow the growth of the kabocha squash we planted there, but kabocha is tough, so maybe they’ll be OK.  The seedling below is a week and a half old, and looks normal to me.

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The more immediate challenge lay in burying the edges of the plastic mulch (for moisture retention and weed control) and of the white floating row cover (aka “remay,” for wind protection until the seedlings get bigger).  I was able to use a rotary plough to dig trenches wherein the edges of the mulch/row cover rest, but we cover soil on the edge of the plastic mulch with a Japnese hoe called a kua, and that task was noticeably more difficult with all that undecomposed grass than it would have been if we’d tilled earlier and had the time and moisture for it to decompose.  But properly burying the edges of the mulch and remay is not negotiable. Get that wrong, and it will all just blow away in the wind.

With the kabocha squash planted, all our summer crops are in the ground.  Now we get to enjoy a bit of a lull before cabbage transplanting we starts, time catch up on mowing and other maintenance tasks.  We stand now at the crown of the year: the summer solstice is just past, and from its peak we look down into the valley of winter as we turn our attention to soil prep and planting for the cooler seasons.  It’s all downhill from here, in a good way.

Happy Canada Day!  I tussle with what it means to say that, knowing even a little of our history with the Indigenous people here, but to me it means recommitting to doing my part to care for this place, one local kabocha squash at a time.

 

Do you remember the post I wrote back in April about waiting for the soil to dry out? Playing the waiting game is something I do every year, but this year – for at least one field – I played and lost. Look at this soil: it’s dried rock solid. See those cracks? The clay contracts as it dries, and when those cracks open up they let air in.  With more air, the soil dries out even more thoroughly and at even deeper levels.

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You can’t till soil like that. Well, you can try, but running a rototiller over soil like that will be completely useless with a walk-behind machine, and on the tractor, it will be more like running a jackhammer than anything. With the higher horsepower of the tractor, you might perhaps be able to crawl along in first gear and pulverize that soil to the point that it looks kind of like crushed rock, but the noisy and very very dusty time you spend doing that will be only the first of your worries. I’ve had the sad experience of trying to transplant into that tilled-too-dry, crushed-rock-like soil. Work takes longer because it’s harder to dig in it, you’re kicking up dust yet stumbling over unwieldy soil clumps, and all the while you’re haunted by the knowledge that for all the time you’re putting into your work, you aren’t going to get the kind of return on investment out of your crop growth that you would have had if you’d just tilled on time.

Why did this happen? The first time I had this experience years ago I could chalk it up to just not knowing. I don’t want to be too hard on myself, but it’s important to ask why these things happen. It’s not that I didn’t check. I did check and kept finding that it wasn’t ready. Then I stopped checking for a while, and came back to what you see in the photo above.

Again, why? For one, we were short-staffed this spring, and I got overwhelmed. I put the blinders on and ignored some things so I could focus on others. Normal behaviour, but undesirable consequences. Then I ran out of fertilizer. In retrospect, I should have just tilled anyways, and then tilled again when the fertilizer came in, but I was trying, ostensively, to be efficient and not till twice. Why did I run out of fertilizer? I’ve been a bit scattered and distracted this spring for my own reasons, so I was late in placing our second order of the season, plus I had assumed I’d get a quicker turnaround from our supplier than what they were able to accomplish.

The third why is why I like plastic. The third why did I let the soil dry out? is this: the soil was bare all winter. It got rained on and compacted, so it took longer to dry out than it should have, and when it did dry out at all, it dried out all at once, making it easy to miss the narrow window in between. That kind of soil compaction and sudden drying doesn’t happen if the ground is covered either with a solid cover crop, or with a nice sheet of plastic.

Organic farmers aren’t supposed to like plastic, right? But I look at it this way: if we buy high-quality, made-in-Canada plastic silage tarp, it can last us a good ten years.  In those ten years, again and again you can pull that silage tarp over a field where the crop finished too late to plant a cover crop, and then walk away while the rain is kept from leaching nutrients out of the soil and while the worms are protected to work away at tilling the soil for you. Come back in the spring more or less at your leisure, and there will be plenty of moisture still in the soil. Till, then cover with the plastic tarp again, and all that natural moisture is locked in by the plastic so that it’s there for you when you go to plant your crop. The weeds don’t grow, so you don’t need to till the soil again to kill them. Now you’ve saved water and treated your soil better, all with a sheet of plastic that you can use for years to come.

Take a look at this. The two photos below are literally two feet or less from each other. One is just outside the plastic tarp, the other is just under it. I don’t know whether you can see it in the photo, but the bumps on the soil in the lower photo are worm castings.

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Does this justify the environmental costs of plastic? I think we’d need a full accounting of all the costs and benefits to figure that out. Admittedly, the plastic will eventually break down too much to be usable and end up as garbage.  Partly for that reason and partly due to financial cost and logistics, I’m not going to go hog-wild with it. In the field you see below, on the left is the too-dry area and on the right is the plastic-covered area. That plastic costed us more than $500.

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It’s too late now to throw a plastic tarp over my too-dry field.  At the time when it would have helped the soil, I couldn’t because we still had kale and other overwintered brassicas there (with plenty of bare soil in the pathways between them). Bit by bit, I’m running a little lawn sprinkler, moving it along at four-hour intervals, to gradually re-wet the soil since we don’t have a large-scale overhead irrigation system here. Is that a good use of irrigation water? I don’t think so, but if I don’t we won’t have anywhere to plant winter squash this year.

Let’s end on a positive note. I lost the waiting game on that field, but I won another game elsewhere: two of the terraces uphill from that field got planted with cover crops for a season-long rest this year. Those are hard-worked fields that haven’t had a break in a decade or more. I feel really good about seeing the curly little vetch seedlings coming up among the rye and oats and clover I sowed there.  The photo below is when they were first coming up a month ago.

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You’re always up some and down some. I choose to remember that.

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As a side note, many thanks to Midland Industrial Covers in Vancouver for helping us source high-quality made-in-Canada silage tarp from AT Films in Edmonton, Alberta.

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