Every September now we go through the same process, and it’s a dance really with our controlling partner leading.
The season of renewal. And it’s always exciting. Winter slowly draws to a close. Our (self) enforced season of rest ends, and not before time.
Here in Australia, for some reason, we say spring begins on September 1st. I’ve heard the oft told story that that day was chosen as it marked the date when the soldiers of the Rum Corp could change from their winter uniforms into more comfortable summer garb. Typical really, a ‘governing’ body believing it can dictate to nature when she can do something.
Of course, in the arguably more cultured northern hemisphere, the change in seasons is marked as nature determines, with the solstices and equinoxes, that delineate the movement of the Earth around the Sun. Their endemic flora enhances the change from winter to spring as their deciduous landscape grows it’s new cloth for the warmer seasons ahead.
Here’s the thing, though, despite the physical attribute of Spring commencing at the equinox, each year it’s different. This year has been the harshest winter of the six we’ve experienced – very dry and hence the coldest for some time, and for us farmers that’s not necessarily measured in low day time or even overnight minimums, but more in the number of frost events through the season. Thankfully Near River’s aspect limits the number and severity of frosts, none the less they do have an impact.
Here in our valley the last frost date is reliably August 20th, which means that it’s very unlikely that we’ll have a frost after that date. This is the most important date in our vegetable growing year, followed by the second most important being the first frost date. You see, it’s this date that determines when we start raising our spring and summer seeds, either directly in the soil in our production beds, or in the seedling containers in the poly-house.
It is then the dance really begins, at first a regal waltz, between us coaxing our tiny baby plants from the protection of their seed enclosures out into the world, and the all powerful supplier of warmth and moisture, Mother Nature. All the while we are aware that even though the last two, three or five years have been like this, an unseasonal late frost can wipe our babies out and set our plans for the season back by a month or more.
So far we’ve been lucky. Each of the year’s we’ve been here, we’ve had no frosts later than August 20. We commence our planting two weeks before this date, planting our seeds into seedling trays and pots – zucchinis, tomatoes and basil. Then in the first week of September the year’s pumpkin plot is prepared and armed with ash saved from a winter full of fires, we plant out a few hundred pumpkin mounds. Around the same time, the first beds of beans are sown, and we keep sowing butter beans each fortnight right through the summer. We don’t sow the climbing beans in succession as they generally bear over a longer time, and there are only so many climbing trellises we can install.
The first few seasons we were here we were so keen (and naive!) attempting to grow what seemed like everything. Of course this meant that some crops worked really well, others were okay, and others failed. It was at this time that we spent some time with the area’s most respected certified organic vegetable farmers Lochie and Jan Hollis. As we roamed around their property Lochie urged us rather firmly to narrow our range. “The best thing to do is to grow what you like to eat. Getting out of bed every morning to farm is hard enough, so you might as well make it for something that you like”. Wise words indeed.
Gradually as the days grow longer, all our babies keep growing seemingly at a similar pace. After four weeks in the seedling poly-house, the zucchini and basil are planted out, followed by the tomatoes. These all get row cover protection for the first couple of weeks in the field, which looks just like thin white shade cloth that we stretch over hoops to provide protection from the cooler air at night, and also from harsh sunlight during the day.
By now the salad greens, lettuces and soft herbs have been sown directly into their beds are reaching for the sun. Most of these we grow year round, but it’s always the spring and autumn crops that seem to taste the sweetest.
Then in what seems like the blink of an eye, whoosh, everything takes off, and all that preparation and care starts to reward you. It’s exciting, and chaotic, and you’re never really certain how it’s going to turn out, and you’re reminded again why you love doing this so much. The waltz becomes a foxtrot then a charleston and it’s like you don’t even have time to breath. Even though the days are longer, there is rarely enough time to do all that needs to be done.
Really though, it’s not us that do that much at all. The real wonder is in what we are given to work with. We take a seed, some so tiny they can hardly be seen, place them in the soil, care for and tend them, let them capture that solar energy and turn it into sugars and carbohydrates by mixing with whatever they need to pull from the soil, and like just like magic, hey presto, here’s a sweet lettuce, or sumptuous tomato. We as a culture have been doing this for millennia.
What we do grow here at Near River is all sweet and sumptuous and vibrant and full of vitality. Nothing is forced. Our traditional field grown uncertified organic practices can be seen and tasted in everything we produce. Even our pumpkins are sweet and taste full of flavour. Real food. It’s that simple.
The season continues. Succession plantings of beans, and all the greens occur every fourteen days. A later planting of zucchinis and cherry tomatoes go in too. The main activities though are usually weeding and watering, and of course harvesting the bounty that nature provides. And no matter what we do to aid and abet our controlling partner, she always has the last say. What joy!
This is the sixth post in a series about our journey to Near River, how our ethical pasture raised traditional field grown small holding enterprise has come to look like it does, and what we’ve learnt along the way.
Here are the previous posts, and yes, I’m an 80s music tragic.