That was a Waste of a Month!

Have you ever watched a boxing match and seen a fighter take a first punch then a second one right away? Or a fight scene in a movie where a guy gets punched then kicked in the gut on the way down. That’s kind of how I was feeling on Saturday morning. Well, not that way physically, but mentally.

This has been a very difficult spring to run a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where we grow a basket of produce each week for our members. As is the new normal we seemed to go from winter to summer in one fell swoop and I spent much of the early part of May in full summer heat wave mode. I quickly learned to keep a bottle of water handy to try and keep myself somewhat cool. Those cool, wet days of spring when I would experience frozen fingers while planting peas never happened. Instead it was hot and the rain didn’t come and I so was devoting too much of each day to watering, rather than planting.

First I water an area with watering cans to get the soil at least damp enough to plant, and then I set up all of my drip irrigation systems. This is a big job that I’m mentally prepared for in July, not May.

And the rains did not come.

And my soil got dryer and dryer and on one cloudy day I felt it spit … twice, but no moisture fell from the sky. My rich wonderful ‘soil’ from early in the spring has turned to dust.

In my growing area the Victoria Day long weekend (usually around the 23 – 24th of May) is the traditional date that most people feel comfortable planting most of their stuff. We have usually passed the chance of frost. I know that we will continue to have cool evenings so I’ve learned to only plant peppers and tomatoes in the greenhouses, and I won’t put the sweet potatoes in until June, but traditionally the other plants have been safe.

Last Friday night (May 22) the forecast was for the chance of frost. The ‘risk’ of frost in outlying areas, which usually means me. I’d like to cover everything up with tarps or sheets but I’m growing for 30 members and so it’s just not possible. Plus, everything that is up now is generally pretty frost tolerant. The alliums like garlic and onions are very hardy. Spinach doesn’t mind cool weather. I’ve had radishes handle really cool nights and I thought I’d be fine with the lettuce that was up.

I was wrong. When I got up at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning it was -2°C, or 28°F. The thing I like about using the Celsius scale is that zero degrees Celsius is the point where water freezes. So for garden plants, anything below that is a bad thing.

After 35 years of growing food, 20 years of it fairly intensely, nature proved to me once again that she bats last, and that nothing was safe. Basically everything got nipped. My peas. My radishes. My spinach. My lettuce. Then I noticed many of my onions had been kicked in the teeth. They might still have one stalk standing, but many of their big outer leaves had toppled over.

pea frost damage

Frost-damaged pea shoots

pea patch 2105

My pea patch

And then I looked at my garlic. A big chunk of the patch had taken a huge hit. Every green leaf you see on a garlic stalk represents one layer of skin under the ground enveloping the head. Many of the outside leaves had dropped. A number of whole stalks were now flat. Now that’s weird. Garlic is extremely cold tolerant. I plant it in October and November. Often there will shoots start before the snow covers it. Then as soon as the snow melts in late March and April, it’s away to the races. It’s off! It’s indestructible. If it can handle snow and April frosts, surely a late May frost is going to be a walk in the park for it. Clearly not. We’re just not dealing with weather the way we used to. Clearly it’s broken.

Garlic frost damage

Garlic frost damage

Then as I walked the property I started noticing other things that got hit. All the sumacs got nuked. Sumacs! They are like large dandelions … I can’t stop them from spreading. All the ferns around our front door. You know, ferns, that live in the woods, the things you see in fossils because they’ve survived a ba-zillion years. But not this frost. I have some mid-sized black walnut trees. All their leaves and shoots are dead. This frost clearly eats shoots and leaves.

Sumac trees

Sumac trees

We had an ash tree growing next to the house that I meant to take down years ago because it was too close to the house. Well, in fact, it is up against the house. I don’t have to worry about taking it down. Mother Nature did it for me.

This spring has been a huge challenge. The heat and the lack of moisture have been brutal. But at least I had some stuff started and could now focus on everything else. Only now I can’t. I’m back to square one. I have to replant everything. Prior to the frost at least I felt I had a bit of wind in my sails with some stuff started that I only had to worry about irrigating. Now that months’ worth of work is wasted and I have to plant, everything… NOW. Some it of ‘again’.

I decided to focus on running a CSA because I really feel it’s one of the lowest impact ways one can earn a living. We all have to eat. The more local the better. I also felt it helped me really address the challenges of growing food in a climate change challenged world. That sounds great, until you walk about your fields of what was once soil but now looks like a desert, to look at your recently emerged, formerly healthy green peas that have been turned to brown mush by a freakishly late killing frost.

Some days driving down to Kingston to work in a factory or a warehouse selling stuff looks pretty good.

14 Responses to “That was a Waste of a Month!”

  • Cam, sorry to read the news of the stresses you’ve experienced this spring. We are in northeastern Ontario and we have the polar opposite as you. We too have CSA’s and we have so much rain, snow, frost and general cold that we are 2 weeks behind on planting outside. Irrigation isn’t our problem, it’s how many sand bags do we have to hold down the blankets covering what seedlings we’ve planted. Here’s to hoping that the rest of the summer is going to be good for both of us. Good luck.

  • A. Marie:

    Cam and Michelle, I am so sorry to hear about this. I’m about 2 hours south of you in Upstate NY, and we had the cold snap, but it never got below the mid-30s Fahrenheit. I’m making a donation to the blog as the best way I can think of to show support.

  • Jim:

    That is terrible bad news Cam. I am sorry to hear that. I hope you can soon get back on track again.
    Here in the southern hemisphere we too have crazy weather.
    The week before you got yours we had -3.5C frost and it finished off the remains of all our summer things, even the deciduous trees went black over night without finishing off their autumn colours.
    But my peas continue to grow. I have some which are 2 months old and a metre high and others just a couple of weeks out of the ground and not touched.
    So my question would be….Did you measure your -2C frost or is that from the local weather bureau? They have a tendency here in Australia to “adjust” their readings to get an apparent reading, for reasons only known to them. I always wonder why my local readings which are 30Km away at an airport can be so different. My readings are mercury readings one metre off the ground. We got all our damage done on the Thursday morning while the next day the weather bureau were telling us Friday morning was breaking all the May records. Their “real” reading was -0.9 and adjusted to -4.5C while our reading that day was closer to their real reading of -0.5C.
    I know the Thursday frost caused a lot of terrible burnt foliage smell by the afternoon.
    Just a side note, my hoop house tomatoes survived and still growing well with about 1000 fruit getting ready to harvest.

  • Here in the Puget Sound region the late warm weather last fall kept all the deciduous plants green until a sudden freeze in November when many plants that didn’t harden off took a hit. Virtually no fall color. We then had a mild winter which confused the plants even more and many plants are blooming 2 months early this year! Of course the gardeners are early too, even though the stalk isn’t available. We had a frost in March which was hard on the citrus put out of the greenhouse to make room for new stock.

    I think unpredictability is the new normal.

  • Lorna:

    So sorry to hear about your losses; we’re a bit nervous about the weather as well (we are small-scale market gardeners). We are so dry, dry, dry I feel like I’m in the middle of the dust-bowl. We don’t have irrigation (can’t afford the investment right now) so I hand-water everything–it’s grueling.
    One thing you might want to try to save what you’ve planted (if it’s only mostly dead) or use when you replant is a microbe brew. The microbes will help the plant get established stronger/faster so they can handle Mother Nature’s little temper tantrums a bit better. I add molasses to feed the microbes and either yucca or castile soap as a wetting agent.
    Hang in there! We all need to eat; and most farmers are in the same boat. I have a feeling if the weather doesn’t cooperate soon, we’re all going to be using a lot more of our income to buy food.

  • This has been yet another example of the fact that Mother Nature has the last laugh, only this year it is definitely not funny. So sorry to hear about your situation. We are somewhat similar here but our garlic is OK. We have a lot of young maple and oak trees and all the leaves are black and shriveled. We also have a hardy Kiwi and it too is all black. No fruit this year. For us this is a major inconvenience, for you it must be devastating. Good luck with the replanting. Hope you catch a break.
    Cheers, Melanie

  • Man…..:(
    I’m convinced that the only way to grow food in this new climate is with hoop houses, green houses, etc. Just takes one frost or hail storm and it sucks.

  • ellen:

    OH Cam I am so sorry! I was hoping you had managed with little damage – I had planted almost everything, (Ruth Stout method here too this year) and covered things with a light covering of straw or leaves and it did not help! It hit -6 here! Rows of tomatoes all but gone, as well as cabbage, eggplant,squash, beets and even lettuce was hit. My peas survived as did the stuff up against the house. Just like you all the sumac got hit, a 12″ tree, Mulberry tree, shrubs and yet asparagus that has been hit many times before was untouched. It was VERY FREAKISH and will no doubt only get worse as climate change continues unabated. I think our growing season is going to get shorter and the veggies that will give a good crop will be fewer – we have not managed a good spinach crop in 3 years due to heat.

  • Betty Bennett:

    I haven’t spoken with our CSA farmer, though I know she starts quite a lot in hoop houses. The weird weather has taken out some of the oddest things in our garden (Norwood area). My garlic and onions seem to be fine, but every leaf on our black walnut trees is shriveled and frozen. They will come back but will be delayed. The fruit trees seem OK, but our sumachs are looking pretty sad, too.

  • Although we haven’t had that kind of a freakish thing happen here…yet I have noticed that the CSA’s here have gone to putting everything under plastic hoops. The only thing I planted early (and I did it on purpose as an experiment) were a few russet potatoes. They did get nipped with frost but because the roots had a head start they came back in spades. In fact they are starting to die down and get ready for harvesting. The rest of the spuds went in at the normal time for here. (March) Perhaps you should think about doing something like this: It is a retractable hoop house. I think it could be adapted to work on a regular in ground garden by just putting in rails made with PVC pipe on post. With climate change I think we are all going to have to adapt to a different model of doing things. Especially since nothing seems to be getting done about it. I intend to put these in at my next garden one bed at a time (because of cost) and not here because we want to sell and move in the next year or two.

  • larry:

    That’s interesting Jeff..I thought the plastic bucket idea would work.I was going to suggest going to a garden centre and pick up all the empty black plastic pots people bring in for recycling.

  • Jeff M:

    Sorry for your losses. I lost a few peppers and a tomato plant. I felt badly for that but it aint nothing compared to what happened to you.

    I am mulching with hay this year ,a-la Ruth Stout. I found that the hay when temporarily piled on top of the tender young plants protected them.

    Can you find some old ugly blankets at your local thrift store?

    The other thing I tried was plastic buckets. They dont work.

  • Bad luck Cam, hope things recover. I had also noticed the frost damage to the sumac trees round our way (they are very prolific) and I remember thinking “that’s unusual, I don’t remember seeing that before”

  • Gerrit:

    Eish, Cam, what a disaster. So sorry to hear this bad news.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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