Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Research, or Gambling?

Kansas weather at its best...last week, 80 degree afternoons; this week's forecast is for night time temps down in the lower 20's. What's a gardener to do?

It's always a risk, the weather is. And farming...actually just an unregulated form of gambling. But, there is nothing like them for building FAITH...and exercising HOPE...and all other sorts of spiritual blessings. I think it is no accident that my spiritual journey as a Christian started hand-in-hand with my farming adventure.

There have been years that I planted corn seed into rototilled land (before I knew better) that was as dry and powdery as flour...and the sprouts were standing straight and tall in perfect rows just a week or so, with no rain. There have been years of hard freezes after the fruit trees bloomed, yet they bore fruit. Even though one crop might fail, there is always another that thrives. It all balances out. There is always enough...for me, for the insects, for the wild rabbits, for the mulch. God provides for me, and for the bugs and sparrows and rodents, too.

So it was with a sense of adventure and curiousity, rather than panic, that I went out to the garden after my bus-driving shift to see what I could do to protect plants from the cold that's supposed to set in tonight. It's all a big experiment in crop protection.

Some of the cole crop transplants (red cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower) that we put in Sunday and Monday, I covered with sheer curtains I've collected at thrift stores. They act like a "reemay" type row cover but are much more durable, and I think better ventilated. The farm I visited in BC the last two summers used a row cover imported from Europe that was similar in texture, that is supposed to protect the plants from insects without building up so much heat, which the cole crops don't like. So the idea is that not only will the curtains help the plants weather the frost, they will protect the plants from the lovely white butterflies flitting around looking for host plants for their "cabbage worm" babies. I'd rather not spray, even Bt (a microbial pesticidethat targets caterpillars). Expensive, time-consuming, and disruptive to the ecosystem.

Another farm had given me a huge stack of badly hail-damaged sheets of Lexan twinwall greenhouse glazing, some 3' x 8' and some 2'x 8'. I drilled holes in pairs of them and tied them together with heavy string. With the edges held in place by rebar tomato cage stakes (which I won't need for cages for a month or two), they make very nice little greenhouse tents over some of the other cole crops. I also covered some of the mizuna and arugula, and the earliest-planted bed of lettuce, with these recycled covers. I even stuck an indoor-outdoor thermometer that records maximum and minimum temperatures in one of them! The down side of these covers is that rain water won't get to the plants. I'll have to watch and see if the soil gets too dry. But, the plants are very small, and the soil is holding as much water as it can from recent rains. So they should be ok for a week until the weather warms up again.

I didn't cover all of anything...that way I can compare how well various covers worked.

The walking onions that are picture perfect, ready to market, I surrounded with bags of fall leaves to build walls almost as tall as the onions around the bed. Half of that, I put an old sheet over, weighted down with spare T-posts.

Most of these crops I wouldn't worry about freezing at all, except that they are used to 80 degrees! While many plants can withstand very cold temperatures, they need time to adapt. And Kansas weather doesn't always give that.

If the cold weather wins out over my tiny plants, I'll replant most things. I plan to plant more of most of these crops anyhow, and I've saved some of my more expensive seed for the later crops. I try to sow various things at various times, and rarely plant two beds of the same thing at once, so that I'll have a variety of produce over a long span of time. What I learn from these experiements now will be helpful in the fall, when we again face frosty nights.

You can look at it all as gambling. But because learning I can apply to future crops is more important to me than just the crop I produce this year, it's a win-win proposition.

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