For much of the country, it has been a wild spring. For some, it has been a no spring. In my area we had an unseasonably long, late winter. Snow fell in the 3rd week of April. On April 30th, a few days after I reconfigured our high tunnel for warmer weather, and while I was four hundred some miles away from home, freezing temperatures hit yet again.
Less than 72 hours later, we were in the 80s, and an early summer hasn’t left since. Temperatures that were ten or more degrees below average have given way to temperatures that are ten or so degrees above average for the last forty days. At the same time, our normally semi-rainy spring has been a dry, almost droughty bust.
Well, again, sort of. In the 40 days period since May 1st, we had a 23 day stretch with no rain, then three days of solid rain, followed by 12 days of no rain, then three days of torrential downpours. The humidity is so high
This has caused all sorts of crop issues - planting issues, disease and pest pressure, unfavorable conditions for crop development, and so much else. How does a grower deal with such a difficult spring? Let’s look at what we and a few other farmers have done.
Water - Plan ahead
I really wish all us farmer’s lived in the Shire, that mythical land in the Lord of the Rings where the rains are always just right. Unfortunately, most of the US is no Shire and rain is a fickle friend for us farmers. Because of this, planning ahead can make all the difference in dealing with the wanton nature of rain. Remember, you can’t grow without water. Plants prefer both not too much and not too little, unless you happen to be growing rice or a few other specialty crops!
Depending on what you are growing, design can make a big difference to dealing with overly wet conditions. Raised beds are especially useful for early season crops that may face excessive moisture coming out of winter. Such beds keep new plantings above the main soil line, protecting their developing root systems from drowning. They also dry out well against heavy rains.
This drying action is one of the main drawbacks to raised beds or raised rows. So, some sort of irrigation is a must. But even if you are growing at ground level, with a spring like the one that we have had, irrigation is still required. Also, it is another sometimes overlooked cost to consider. We have rarely had to irrigate in past springs, but this year are looking at not just a significant loss on a number of crops, but a big electric bill from the additional well use this spring has required.
Perhaps I will come back and talk about irrigation more in some additional articles, as it is a big topic, with a great deal of issues and options to consider. But, it all comes down to this - plants need water! The younger, newer the plant, the more it needs consistent soil moisture levels and thus water to succeed if you are not getting rain. So whatever you do, make sure you have a plan in place to get your plantings water. Nothing else will work without it.
Saving a crop - low tech approaches
It has been a bruiser of a year for brassicas and many other cool season crops in our area. From what I have heard or read from other growers, many have had difficulty with their cabbages, broccoli, and similar crops not just in my state but in many places across the country. Some gave up on them completely, but after looking at our weather forecast, and seeing a slight moderating few weeks ahead, we decided to see if we could save the plantings by using some ow tech tools at our disposal.
We pulled out some old floating row cover and started single and double layering the broccoli especially. Because of the weather, we first applied Bt, since some of the plants had clear pest damage, and you don’t want to trap a bunch of pests beneath row cover where predators and other beneficial insects will most likely never find and stop them!
Before we row covered the broccoli, we had zero head formation and relatively weak leaf structure. Within five days, the plants looked noticeably improved. After ten days, we now have excellent heads forming and it appears that this bed will end up avoiding becoming a total bust.
Row cover and other simple tools can help save a crop from wild weather. It can work for a small to moderate size plantings, but once you reach a quarter or more of an acre, may become difficult to use efficiently, unless you have developed systems to deploy it at that scale. As an aside, if you are using floating row cover for pest control, then you may avoid the extra labor and cost by leaving it in place if the weather turns unseasonably warm early.
Also note, trying to save a planting can create unforeseen issues. For instance, these beds are usually empty by now, so by seeking to save these plantings, we are pushing back other things on the schedule. Only you can decide if it is worth the extra labor, possible materials, and delays to subsequent crops to save another one.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
Another important tactic is to avoid over committing to any one crop or any one variety, especially in areas with uncertain spring weather. The more flexibility and diversity you have plant and crop wise, the more likely you are to have (and find) winning combinations to deal with weird spring weather.
Another way to avoid an “all or nothing” approach to spring is by employing staggered and succession plantings. As friend of mine has a motto - “if nothing dies, you didn’t plant early enough.” I add to this, “and if everything dies, you didn’t plan well enough!”
For many crops, we will do some extra trays of starts as a cheap form of insurance to repopulate a bed that gets beaten by the weather. We will also every few weeks start or plant replacement stock for many crops that are quick bearing - radishes, summer squash, bush beans, and a few others. This both reduces labor early season while hedging our bets with such an unpredictable climate for getting crops going.
Protected Space is Priceless
Uncertain weather can make field growing awfully difficult. This is why many growers have mowed to growing in “protected spaces” - greenhouses, high tunnels, and similar setups.
It is hard to explain just how productive and less “pain in the butt” a well designed and maintained protected space can be for a farm. As I mentioned in an earlier article, our roughly 2000 square foot high tunnel is as financially productive as around 8,000 or more square feet of field space. With the weather so wild this spring, the difference may end up being even more dramatic. If you don’t have a the time, funds, or something else prevents building a high tunnel, you can create mini-protected spaces such as caterpillar tunnels, or low tunnels.
Since most things are already controlled or somewhat to completely automated in a high tunnel - water, ventilation, and the like - the extremes of various weather conditions, especially moisture and temperature - are mitigated.
When in doubt, pull it out or cut it out
A few growers have taken aggressive actions to save growing spaces from an unproductive spring, moving them straight over into summer production. So, plantings that are struggling, pest or disease infested, or otherwise unproductive or problematic are getting pulled ASAP. The farms are moving straight into summer plantings and skipping many common spring crops. They know this will create an early season loss, but their forecast and other factors make it clear that it is time to cut losses and move on to more productive options.
For instance, a fair bit of our bed space that was set aside for field lettuces, carrots, and similar crops is instead going into sweet potatoes, melons, or other warm season options. Our normal field planting dates for these had temperatures touching the 90s already. Instead of trying to fight poor germination, high humidity, and other issues that the weather would most likely create for such crop choices, we and others are working with instead of against it.
At the end of the day, realize some years are great and some aren’t
Farming is a long haul game. Some years are great for growers, some are not. Part of your financial planning and pricing needs to reflect this reality. Some years you may have excess hay, some you may have poor hay. Some you may perfect conditions for your vegetables, but poor for your orchards. Or maybe nature will work with you and give you good for both. Diversity and careful planning is the key!
So make sure that your planning includes how to balance the good with the bad!
How is your growing season going so far?