Monday, August 15, 2011

Little kids I’ve yet to have

Blight on the tomatoes

Another two-in-the-morning post. 1:29 am, to be exact. Schafe is under my feet, on the heater. He got a bath today, and some dewormer—maybe he’ll make it through another winter. In other news, we found blight on our tomatoes yesterday, and tore up three of every four plants.

It was heartbreaking. Cliché, perhaps, but I don’t know how else to describe it. I felt nausea, physical pain in my chest, staring at the plants that I’ve cultivated so meticulously for the last three months. Smelling that foliage scent on my fingers, that tomato smell that’s maybe my favorite in the world, that I wish could bottle. Smelling my fingers as I watch the pile of destroyed plants.

I had that much emotion for a first-time garden, one that’s little more than a hobby, probably twelve plants in all. I can’t imagine how a farmer feels, watching his entire crop destroyed, plant after plant, in an irresistible tide. The blight up here, “Late Blight,” is the same stuff that wiped out all of the Irish potatoes in the Great Potato Famine. It’s common only among potatoes and tomatoes, and endemic in the United State mainly in places where there are large commercial potato growers. Large-scale farmers can use fungicides and sprayers to protect their crops, but it’s basically a lost cause for home gardeners, unless tomato plants are meticulously treated with a copper spray every week before onset of the blight. All information based on hearsay, Google, and our local cooperative extension.

The crazy thing? Tonight Food Inc. was the documentary of choice on PBS. I resisted watching it until now—shots of deformed cows unable to walk to the slaughter is something I have a hard time stomaching. And I’m someone who eats burger. Despite the relentless exposure of our system’s ills, the documentary made some optimistic points. The filmmakers actually believe we can make better choices, that we can influence corporations by what we demand, by the choices we make with our dollars.

The danger of pulling back the curtain on our food production is that it can make me feel hopeless, and go to the fridge for another frozen pizza, some more ice cream, or a bowl of chips to forget about the pain. I’m bad about emotional eating—and it’s almost perverse the way I turn to food when I feel bad about food. Even if I know, beyond doubt, that fresh peas with butter taste better than chips. And I can grow them, and maybe even raise my own dairy someday.

It’s not the easy choice. It’s the more honest choice. It means work, and pain, and heartbreak. It takes sweat, and hailstorms, and beetles. And blight.


Anonymous said...

I hope Schafe starts feeling better! I lost my first pet Milhouse when he was ten years old, and it was devastating. Since having my daughter, though, our family has lost three cats over the past few years. Comforting her when she lost her first pet was horrible, the second and third times were good teaching opportunities as she was old enough to understand death, impermanence. Living on a small farm with docile hens that are regarded as pets more than livestock (she and her father eat the eggs, none of us eat meat), I think it is important that she understands the life/death cycle and isn't taught to romanticize it.

Actually, I had meant to reply to your comment about being emotional about your garden. I know exactly how you feel (well, how you described feeling). This is my fourth summer in Saxapahaw and my family has gone from enthusiastic first-time kitchen gardeners to trepidatious sustenance farmers. The roller coaster of emotions - including anger - is never ending. But then I step back and remind myself that in four short years we've gone from seeing our first seeds sprout to having entire patches of self-seeding herbs and vegetables, and the diversity of what we're growing blows my mind. Half of every year I'm so busy preserving and sharing our bounty that it's only when I'm bone-tired that I have the time to notice what's *not* growing. I'm trying to see our fields and orchard and smaller gardens as one large organism; I do the same with my tiny kitchen garden. If the shiso takes over after a heavy rain, or my hens scratch up EVERY SINGLE SEEDLING (which has happened, ugh) I try to see it as a single entity, and coax it back from the brink. And if a crop fails, we cover crop that part of the field and look forward to having healthier soil in six months. {I'm the optimist in our family - my husband gets physically ill whenever we encounter blight or drought, and it breaks my heart to see him take it so hard.}

Melissa said...

I remember Milhouse!! Oh, that's so sad. But more encouraging was your note on the farm. I can see what you mean--considering how much I've done in one single year, I can't conceive of how much would be possible with four years.

I'm recovering from the tomato loss now, especially after canning the vast majority of the green tomatoes. Can you tell me more about the self-seeded herbs? That's the one part of the garden that I don't feel like we've made much progress on this year. Maybe I'll check out your blog and see what you have to say about them.

Anonymous said...

With my self-seeded herbs, I think part of it is that I only buy seeds that have very clear instructions on the back about seed collection; this way I know they aren't some Monsanto-esque hybrid that yields second generation plants that won't flower, or whatever it is they do to alter them so that they won't produce fruit. I do a mix of Seed Savers Exchange and packets from a couple of local seed producers.

Okay, so once I've got my seeds, I pick a couple of different areas that I would like to keep as permanent annual herb patches/beds, and I seed heavily. Every couple of weeks or so for a couple of months. This will prolong the growing season, but also produce enough plants that I can cut what I'll use and have enough plants left that I can let bolt and go straight to seed. Any plants that aren't thriving get pulled and fed to the hens. This year is the first time I let my carrots go completely to seed in one of my beds, and there is already a new crop of carrots that are almost ready to harvest! And a neighbor told me that he's had very good fortune with letting one of his experimental beds of carrots continually self-seed - so fingers crossed. I really need to do a post on this for my blog - I've been lax in doing farm updates. Too busy with my hands in the dirt to type!

Melissa said...

Hmm, seed collection is one thing that I haven't mastered yet. There's a Mother Earth News article I've been meaning to reread on the subject. Buying high quality seeds is a great tip, though--we've had mixed success with our 20-cent Family Dollar seeds, but great success with the $3 a pack Johnny Seeds. Nonetheless, all of the three-year-old Family Dollar radish seeds came up, so maybe there are some seeds that are more resilient than others.

Thanks so much for the tips--I'd love to see a post about it on your blog. (I hunted for an "herb" label, but couldn't find one.) All of these are fantastic tips, especially about planting enough seeds and doing it every couple of weeks. I tend to be scanty with my seed-sowing out of cheapness, and I've seen the results. One last question about the beds: do I need to prepare them as I would for a regular garden row, either a raised bed or one dug down deeply and enriched with manure? I imagine I know the answer--the better I make the soil, the better the crop will be.

Anonymous said...

Herbs are amazingly tolerant and will grow out of almost any soil, but I've found that having heavy topsoil that won't blow or wash away is pretty critical, as most herbs don't root very deep. I always amend my herb soil during the off season and work manure and pureed food scraps in with my hands, mulch it lightly with hay or shredded paper, and let it do it's thing over the winter.

Regarding price/quality of seeds: they aren't always directly related, and I've had great luck with really cheap seeds that Nina grabs off a kiosk or something and sneaks into our cart. One year I had about five or six half-used seed packets with missing labels and I let her grow her own 'winter garden' - I didn't think the seeds were viable at all (mean mommy!). But she ended up growing so much kale and chard that we were thinning it out all winter long, and some of it lasted 18 months! I've had the best luck with viability of collected seeds when they were more pricey - maybe do successive plantings with the cheap seeds, but mark the row with the pricier ones to see if they re-seed themselves?

Melissa said...

Thanks for the advice. Maybe I'll try to put together a little bit of an herb garden when I get back to Maine and amend the soil this fall so I can plant for self-seeding in the spring. I know what you mean about having more chard than you can eat, although I really wish we could grow it all winter!