The exhilarating, devastating, uplifting, disastrous thing about farming is that it’s all a gamble. You can hedge your bets with irrigation, row covers, fertilizers and care, but in the end it’s a roll of the dice with Mama. Most of the time, it’s awesome; I follow my established routine to prep, plant and maintain a given crop, magic happens, and I have vegetables to sell. Inevitably though, there are times when I gamble on the wrong bet, or bet too heavily when I shouldn’t have. This can be discouraging enough to sit down and make me want to cry. Farming can be hard to separate oneself from; it’s often really tough to take a step back and not get overwhelmed. The ol’ one foot in front of the other is crucial during tough times, otherwise the mountain of work will weigh me down. I love the challenge, but it’s more enjoyable when things are going my way. This spring was unusually (or perhaps more usually nowadays…) warm, setting me up for the classic hot-crop-frost-date gamble.
As long as I can remember, I’ve been taught that our last frost date is the end of May, and that we don’t plant out our hot crops until the first of June. My natural tendency is to challenge the accepted wisdom to see how well it holds water (or keeps the cold off), so we’ve experimented with a variety of season extension devices in order to allow us to push the envelope. This year has been so warm that the tomatoes were stretching in their one gallon pots and demanding final placement with unruly vines trying to intertwine by the end of April. We planted out all of them in the first week of May, everything growing like full summer swing. We took the hoops off of the summer squash by the middle of May because they were so big that they were straining at the covers. We planted out basil and cukes under row covers the same week and packed in the vast majority of the row covers, prepared to call it summer. Then the forecast started showing a cooling trend, which I more or less ignored at first. By the 17th of May they were predicting near freezing temperatures for the 21st-23rd. As it got closer and closer, the predicted lows dropped, with first frost, then freeze warnings issued. We began to scramble, pulling out the tubs of Remay and Agribon (floating row covers) and the PVC hoops, metal wickets and wire hoops that we use to support the covers. We had tremendous help, and we used every scrap of cover we had. We managed to cover 200 squash, 300 tomatoes, the row of cukes, and double cover the row of basil. We got the predicted cold, with sleet showers on Tuesday night freezing a hard ice layer over everything Wednesday morning. Our gamble paid off; we lost three tomato plants which couldn’t quite fit under the cover but everything else is thriving.
It looks to be a cool and rainy Memorial Day so we’ve elected to leave the covers on until high pressure returns and it warms up. This will likely keep us under cover until June 1st, right in line with tradition. With the strange weather we see these days, we hope that tradition still holds and we’ve seen the last of the real cold for the season.