Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in the garden: Bounty despite the blight

A Year-in-Review

What a year for gardeners in Western North Carolina. A cool spring with late frosts in May delayed planting; heavy summer rains barely let up for even a day so leaves on our plants could never dry out; late blight and other diseases persisted in the wet weather; an early winter with mid-October freezes ended summer crop harvests earlier than usual; and scurrying animals—probably preparing for the early winter—gnawed on fall crops that they usually pass up for more enticing clover outside of the garden.

Yet, even with all the challenges, I was overcome by the bounty from the garden. As you can see from these photos of the M R Gardens 2013 harvest, I was in no short supply of blueberries, peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, squash, cucumbers, greens, beets, turnips, parsnips, carrots, cabbage, okra and even Mountain Magic tomatoes (a blight resistant variety).

I froze the tomatoes whole, packing my freezer full with several gallon-sized bags, and am still unthawing them bit-by-bit to add them to soups and stir-fries. I canned 20 pints of cucumbers, using up a 2-week harvest from just two plants. I put up enough tomatillo salsa jars to give away for Christmas gifts and still have enough for my kitchen to last through next summer. I made several batches of green tomato chutney so I could perfect the recipe, a new favorite addition to my plate.

My garden coach clients whom I taught the no-till method had just as much success as I did. This year reminded me of a few of the many advantages of the beds I build. Heavy rains can soak deep into the loose, uncompacted soil so that it doesn't overload the plants with water. The layers of organic matter that I spread months before the start of the season decompose to form a rich, fertile bed, which I simply loosen with a fork rather than till. Beds that I have maintained in this manner for several years are now an intact ecosystem of beneficial microbes that work in synergy to control disease.

This year also reminded me how important it is for more of us to take part in the growing of our own food, even if it's just a small amount. Field-scale farms aren't easy to run in a year that weather is uncooperative, which seems to be the norm rather than the exception lately. Farms that have rows and rows of the same crop in large fields make machinery the only practical way to prep the beds, and healthy soil tilth becomes difficult to maintain, especially in wet years. While gardeners can rejoice that one crop did well and not worry so much about the variety that did not, large-scale farm operators, especially if they're not diversified, do not have that luxury. One crop failure can mean an entire year's failure.

The small-scale grower also has the luxury of chalking up uncooperative weather as learning lessons. Even though I am building a business around gardening, I embrace the challenges. Every year since I started selling plants, Mother Nature has taught me something new. The first spring was super windy, the second was unusually hot, and the third was cool. Each year I needed to adjust my growing system to be able to work with what was given to me. I'd much rather be figuring this out when I'm selling 400 plants than when I'm marketing 4,000. So I consider the challenges gifts. A lesson in the nursery becomes a good lesson in life—when life delivers harsh winds, simply adjust your sail.

In stating the benefits of small-scale growing, I'm not at all trying to contribute to the tendency of farmers and gardeners to put themselves into two separate boxes. (My friends who are not as immersed in the agricultural arena as I am are surprised to find out that there's sometimes tension between these two groups). While substantial differences certainly exist between the operations of small-scale versus large-scale farms, I like to concentrate on the fact that all people who work the land have commonalities. As I've said before, all types of growers are important as we transition our agricultural system to a sustainable one, especially as healthy diets become more of the norm in our culture.

My point here is simply—why reserve the joy of growing food for a select few? Not only is it more responsible for the longevity of society for more of us to be involved, but also we all can gain from the quality of life and the learning lessons that are inherit with gardens. With the help of a garden coach, the transition from being a beginner grower to an accomplished grower can be more fun than frustrating. 
Who knows all that 2014 will bring, but I can just about guarantee that there will be challenges and it won't always be smooth sailing. But that won't stop me from gardening, and I hope it won't stop you. On the contrary, we can appreciate how the garden molds us into strong, tenacious people, capable of being flexible and nimble in even the harshest of weather.