On February 2, Punxatawny Phil forecasted an early spring when he emerged from his humble groundhog hole and took his morning constitutional. As luck would have it, the world’s foremost woodchuck did not see his shadow. Now, I’m not superstitious, but I think there might be something to his prediction. Last Thursday I saw a butterfly on the east side of the house. He emerged from his pupa stage early, fooled by unseasonable temperatures and plenty of sunlight. Two days ago, the musky smell of thawing ground filled the air while the last bits of ice and snow slid off the roof.
Even though the skiing may soon deteriorate, the prospect of an early spring is encouraging. In the greenhouse, seedlings await transplant while five-week-old chicks hunger for fresh pasture. But an early spring has its drawbacks. If we go through another growing season like last year’s, water resources will be in short supply. This year’s snowpack is currently below average, and early warmth will cause it to run off more quickly. If irrigation water runs short in Idaho, farmers could suffer losses like Midwestern farmers did last summer. It’s still too early to tell whether we’ll have a drought this summer, but in these parts, it’s prudent to expect the worst. Fortunately, there are steps we can all take this summer to better conserve our water resources.
If rain doesn’t fall and irrigation water doesn’t flow, we must preserve the moisture already present in the soil. The high clay content in our soil holds more water than rocky, sandy, or even silty soil, but turns to hard-pan with prolonged drought. To avoid hard-pan and hold even more moisture, organic matter (OM) is essential. Unlike the clay particles in our soil, OM acts like a sponge with exceptionally reactive surfaces. Crop residues, animal manure, and even hoed-down weeds are all types of OM that have this sponge-like character, once broken down. Just be sure to watch out for too much decomposition in the garden which may rob plants of essential nutrients and inhibit germination.
Our favorite way to increase OM is to add compost. Unlike raw plant materials, compost adds readily available nutrients, directly enhances soil structure, and feeds valuable soil organisms, especially earthworms. Earthworms integrate OM and develop channels for water to flow deep into the soil. If you have it, compost loaded with worms is the ultimate soil amendment.
Whenever soil is exposed to the air, it is vulnerable. At the same time, exposure allows the soil to “breathe.” In other words, soil must be covered enough to limit wind and water erosion, desiccation, and weed colonization, but not so covered that it inhibits gas exchange. To find a balance between too much exposed soil and too little, we will experiment with a variety of mulching methods this season. The first method is to lay down straw mulch in between raised beds and among perennials. This will protect the soil from heavy rains (and our feet) while holding moisture beneath it. The other method is to plant “living mulches.” These include plants like clover and vetch, which provide excellent ground cover and fix nitrogen. “Living mulches” are planted in between crops and left to winterkill after the crop has been harvested. The following spring, the remains of these mulches can be left as regular mulch or incorporated into the soil to build more OM.
As the “living mulch” concept suggests, one should allow plants to do most of the water conservation work. This summer, we hope to develop, divide, and propagate perennial plants to create diverse polycultures. Perennials generally develop more expansive root systems than annuals and often provide better soil cover. Many, like comfrey, clover, and lupine accumulate nutrients in the soil while adding large amounts of OM. Others leave behind channels (much like worms do) that funnel water deep into the soil. Through experiments with new species and varieties of edible, ornamental, and biologically beneficial perennials, we hope to create areas that are self-sustaining with very little rainfall.
Some perennials are ecologically beneficial and provide food. Fruits like apples, raspberries, and strawberries get plenty of attention, but currants, serviceberries, gooseberries, and thimbleberries are delicious and more drought-resistant. With a little bit of practice, an enterprising gardener can divide and graft these bushes to develop a lively berry patch. There is also a wide range of perennial vegetables that do not get all the hype they deserve. Nettle, sunchoke, rhubarb, lovage, horseradish and many others are well-suited for this climate and add unique character to home cooking.
Of all the perennials already living on the farm, the most important group is the grasses. Grass maintains balanced soil cover, provides habitat for beneficial insects and birds, serves as pasture for our chickens and pigs, and, you guessed it, increases soil OM. Along with the neighboring forests, the grasses on the property are the cornerstone of the farm ecosystem.
If last week’s warm weather is any indication, growers should be prepared for a hot summer. If you are a home gardener, start building organic matter in your garden by composting food scraps and any other plant materials you can get your hands on. While you’re at it, find a handful of earthworms to mix in. For the long term, try to establish an array of perennials and slow-growers like apple trees and fruit bushes. Once everything starts popping up, feel free to add some mulch (living or non-) to protect your soil. Your efforts will reduce water use and allow the garden to thrive, even if the rains don’t come.
This week's sun has brought new life to Snowdrift Farm. In the glass greenhouse, carrots, spinach, arugula, and tat soi germinated and put on their first true leaves. Onion seedlings are emerging from their flats, stretching out their crooked necks. Basil starts needed some coaxing with heat coils, but now reach for light with their developing cotyledons. Meanwhile, the sound of chirping chicks permeates the air as if spring had already arrived.
Over at the plastic hoop house, kale from last fall is holding strong. These resilient Brassicas were sown last October along with pea shoots, spinach and Swiss chard. Each of these crops germinated and put on its first leaves before winter truly settled in. Over the course of the winter, mice and voles devastated everything but the kale and a little spinach, but the weather had little effect. By enduring cold at such a young stage, the plants were able to acclimate to the harsh winter conditions that dipped well below zero during a January cold snap. Now that they have made it through the darkest part of the winter, they are taking off as light becomes available.
Along with successes, we have had some challenges. The greenhouse in early February is not warm enough for most seeds to germinate, so it took nearly a month for some of them to emerge. Carrots require temperatures above freezing to germinate, but they may take up to 50 days if the soil temperature is around 40°, which ours was. Optimally, the soil temp for carrots should be around 85°. Spinach has similar preferences but can tolerate colder conditions. It may only take about a week for spinach seeds to germinate at 50-60°. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until a streak of sunny days, beginning last week and continuing into this week, that our crops really began to take off. If you are unsure what your own plants require, seed packets usually explain temperature requirements for a specific crop. The New Seed-Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel is another great resource.
Stove rack with seedlings
The glass greenhouse is an excellent way to start seedlings and grow early season crops, but not everybody has access to one. Another option available to the home gardener is to start crops in the house. Our greenhouse is still too cold to start our tomatoes and peppers, so we decided to put the wood stove and refrigerator to good use. The top of the fridge is one of the warmer spots in the cabin while the wood stove stays warm (but not hot) for hours. In an effort to avoid melting our trays on the stove, we constructed a small rack out of 2”x lumber that fits up to six flats. You may consider building a similar rack depending on the heat source in your house. Once seedlings have emerged, trays will go back in the greenhouse.
Though the first week of March is early to start tomato and pepper plants in this climate, we intend to plant most of them in the glass house after our first flush of greens stops producing. We will start another batch later this month for plantings elsewhere. If you plan to grow at least a portion of your tomato plants outside in “wall-of-waters,” low tunnels, or an unheated greenhouse, it is important to start them roughly 6-8 weeks before the last frost. In Teton Valley, planting around the beginning of April is a safe bet.
Our stock of canned goods and root cellar veggies is running low, but budding rows of green plants bring new energy to the farm. With the spring equinox fast approaching, the excitement of the farm season is already upon us.