Today we planted cucumbers and summer squash while waiting for the first rain in I-don’t-remember-when. May has been full of tribulations on the farm, and it feels fitting that the rain clouds are gathering over our parched field on this last day of the month. I welcome them as harbingers of change.
I have mentioned previously that the learning is endless on a farm, especially for first generation growers like us. At times is seems that the learning curve is pitched backward, and we are rock climbing our way up the cliff face of our profession. This Spring the lessons have focused on plant pests. They have been painful lessons, and ones that don’t always have immediate solutions.
It started the first week of May when we began to notice freshly planted lettuce seedlings mysteriously falling over and dying in the night. By the time we realized the extent of our Cutworm problem, we had lost a significant amount of our Spring greens planting. LESSON No 1: These nocturnal grubs are indiscriminate, munching through the stem of anything they find (essentially cutting down the plant – an act for which they are named). They spend their days lying just below the soil at the base of the plant and attempting to drag each leaf underground with them. Very creepy stuff. Short of crawling down every row of plants we have, scuffling the dirt to find the grub, and squishing it, there is not much to be done about cutworms. Don’t get me wrong, the sweet retribution found in their demise is not lost on me. But no one on this farm has that kind of time. And so we wait for the cycle to pass, seeding and reseeding replacement plants to go in once these voracious little beasts (to put it gently) have moved on.
Next up were less intense, but still alarming infestations of cabbage root maggots, and leaf miner. The maggots are as gross as you’d expect, and enjoy worming their way into the roots of any plant in the cabbage family. Our bok choi was their victim, but it seems to have stopped at that, thankfully. And the leaf miner has left its mark on the beet and spinach plantings, though their damage seems also to be limited. We have heard from farming friends that have suffered huge losses from these miners, so we are lucky they’ve gone easy on us.
The winter after our first season farming, back in 2011, was the fourth warmest winter on record in the U.S. Jonathan and I went to the beach on New Years day since we hadn’t gotten there all summer. It was 60 degrees. As a result, the next season many farms were overrun with rampant plant diseases like tomato Late Blight that arrived very, very early. LESSON No. 2: It takes the freezing temperatures of a typical New England winter to cleanse the fields of diseases and pests for a healthy next season. When that doesn’t happen, it can be a real gamble growing vegetables.
So you might imagine our glee at the impressively low and persistent temperatures this winter. Last February was the coldest February on record in CT! OK, perhaps glee is a strong word; we were as tired as you were of shoveling out the driveway and the path to the chicken coop. But the silver lining of such an epic winter was that the pests and disease pressure in our field would be low this season. LESSON No. 3: Snow is an excellent insulator. If I remember correctly, we had a rather snowless early winter, and then a few feet came down overnight in late January and it just never stopped after that. As my 80-year-old neighbor told me recently, with that much snow covering it, the ground is kept from freezing deeply because it has its own heat rising from the center of the earth, and the snow on top holding that heat in like a big blanket. And therein lie our Spring woes. The insect eggs and larvae were nestled in the relatively warm dirt under the snow, waiting for our lettuces all winter long. Sigh.
The rain is pouring down outside the window now, and I am even closer to June than when I started writing this post. As we finished up our morning’s transplanting, we were only finding a few cutworms here and there as we went – we squished them. Their numbers seem to be diminishing, and the remaining plants are soldiering on as we patch in the holes beside them. The summer crops (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc) are greening up and will appreciate this rain. I must remind myself regularly that to farm is to let yourself be carried along by nature. No amount of chagrin, frustration, or regret will make that lettuce plant stand back up, and its loss leaves even less time for hand-wringing . Just keep planting.