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.
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.
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.
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.