Bad seasons have gardeners ready to throw in the trowel

Published on October 16, 2011 by

A lot of people, not just here but across our nation, have gotten caught up in the wave of gardening to create a greater sense of self sufficiency and life quality, Alice Waters, or Barbara Kingsolver style. But, I’ve met a number of people, stopping by Cherry Grove Farm in Newtown, where I garden, or the restaurants that buy my vegetables, who are discouraged in following this new path. They may give up gardening entirely because of the problems created by the horrid weather we have faced over the past three growing seasons, including this one drawing to a close.

One woman said she literally had a “rotten tomato crop” and was hanging up her trowel and hoe, unlikely to try again next year. She had about a dozen tomato plants, and they all died or failed to produce along with whatever else she tried to grow. I said to her, “What about me, with 8,500 tomato plants with fruit that sold for about $400 for a loss of about $2,500, including costs for plants, stakes, string and labor? Am I giving up? No.” You may know I grow vegetables for restaurants and a stand at the farm, where I have been working part or full time since about 1974. I’ve seen many seasons, good, bad or indifferent, come and go.

Yes, the 2011 growing season was another bad one for gardeners and farmers alike, making it three in a row. In baseball terms, we all struck all, like the Yankees and the Red Sox this baseball season, but also like them and their fans, we are not quitting the game, no matter how hard it gets. A good year will come to us, even as it did a couple times lately for the Red Sox, and many times for the Yankees.

In summary, the 2009 season, marked by extreme blight which killed all the tomato plants, had too much rain, about the rainiest season in the history of New England. The 2010 season was about the hottest, driest season on record, but at least we had an abundance of tomatoes, peppers and corn. This past 2011 season, was a weird combo of 2009 and 2010, with hot dry, desert periods alternating with ponding in farm fields and river plain flooding. Both the dry and wet conditions caused plant failures singly and together. We had bad tomato, corn, squash and pumpkin crops. Though broccoli somehow thrived, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts basically failed. Carrots were great but tended to rot in muddy ground while beets mostly remained as plants and failed to bulb. The overall crop was half what it might be in an average season, and the gross income from it was also half or even less for many farmers.

Yes, the tomato blight returned in the heavy rains and hurricane coming up from the South this season. This time the blight was the late kind, not the early one that plagued us in 2009. After the downpours this August, the plants turned black and began to die just as they were produce their main crops. Spraying fungicide would have helped, but we purists, dedicated to organic methods, do not use such chemicals. We took the loss instead.

So, what should we do next season – hang up the hoe or bullheadedly persist and give it another try? What makes me different is that I don’t give up whether it is in love, writing a book or farming. I will persist, using my experience and help from God. I take a hit and move on. The instant condition, one bad day or an awful season, does not move me. I’m going to the gardening World Series, if not the play offs, eventually. I’ll just keep working at it. I’ll begin getting seed catalogs next month, and like spring training, pick out my seeds and have the plants started in March. You might give up based on your experience this year and the past two years. But, when May 2012 arrives, I will start again. Win, lose or draw, I’ll get something out of the upcoming season anyway. Perhaps it will the greatest growing season for us all yet, as I thought in my optimistic, deluded mind this year would be as it unfolded. I don’t care. Gardening is what I do. I get the most out of a season, no matter what challenges the weather brings.

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