I get asked on an almost daily basis, “How’s the growing season?” I’m sure the person inquiring wants nothing more than a pleasantry exchanged. Their eyes begin to glaze over as I launch into my (regrettably) usual answer. “It depends on the crop you’re talking about”. Fifty different types of vegetables have almost as many growing requirements. I’ve seen huge differences in success even within varieties of one vegetable. Potatoes, for example: a hot, dry summer will favour one variety over another. The next year, a cold, wet season will help a different variety to flourish. This is precisely why we grow so many different varieties of any given vegetable. It is also why genetic diversity is so important in agriculture. Risk due to changing weather is ameliorated by diversity, not to mention the visual and culinary variety this growing strategy brings.
Summer, this year, has been the toughest test of this strategy in a long time. I would characterize this growing season as schizophrenic, if not downright bipolar (with emphasis on the ‘polar’!). A very dry early summer baked our clay soils, and made germination difficult for small seeds. Fortunately, our transplants (onions, lettuce, brassicas) could find abundant subsurface moisture in the same clay soils, and never looked back. Come July, the rains came and more than made up for their absence. Successive events of two inches of rain in 24 hours have a way of overriding previously mentioned genetic strategies, by simply flooding everything. Fortunately, huge populations of worms feed on our abundant organic matter. Their underground tunnels create drainage channels four feet deep.
Back in January, betting on a cool, wet year, I ordered lots of pea varieties and fava bean seed. Since these are planted in early spring, they had enough moisture to germinate and thrive. Edamame and haricot verts, however, did not like the cool conditions. Bean planting strategy this year more closely resembled the castle-burning-down-and-falling-in-the-swamp sketch from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Every week from late April to September, I’m seeding new salad beds to keep ahead of the weeds, and change the flavour profile of our salad mixes with the seasons. In between, we transplant seedlings (radicchio is the last to go out), weed, and harvest, non-stop. Leafy greens are the first to come off the fields in spring, with rhubarb and its cousin, sorrel. After the first radish gets picked, and we move to our outdoor markets, things come on fast and furious, and summer days melt into one another. Rainy days are spent in the greenhouses, seeding beds with weed-suppressing, honeybee-approved buckwheat and soil-building clover.
While our apiarist, Mike Roth, tends to the workings of his 24 hives on our property, I make sure the bees have as diverse a menu as the crops we grow for people. Our buffer strips for organic certification are sown with leguminous crops that feed the soil, suppress weeds, provide nesting habitat for meadow species such as bobolink, vesper and savannah sparrows, and furnish the bees with abundant blossoms. Sweet clover is one of the best species to use in these roles, and the honey made from it is unsurpassed in flavour. Elsewhere through the farm our various flowering crops, such as squash and edible flowers, attract a wide variety of pollinating insects, from at least five different wild bee species, to butterflies and, if we’re lucky, hummingbird hawk moths.
As I rototill the ever-growing weeds to prepare yet another seed bed, the swallows instantly join me, easily flying circles around my slowly moving tractor. They have learned that there is an easy meal to be had as I flush a cloud of insects out of the weeds. At least four different swallow species will take their bounty back to various nest sites throughout our farm, and feed their fluffy, shovel-mouthed young. This year has been kind to the barn swallows. An abundance of insect food has meant they’ll raise two and perhaps three broods before heading south to Brazil. For us, biodiversity is the main crop we grow, and as I see and hear all the young birds of various species moving about our farm, I know it’s been a good growing season.
Antony John is an organic farmer, painter and avid birdwatcher.