From the Farm: A jump start on each season is crucial
January 23, 2017
Perhaps the most influential factor in gardening, farming and our food system is season. Food moves around our country and around the world based on the seasons.
Eating seasonally harmonizes our body's digestion with the present moment. We also tend to eat more locally sourced foods when we eat in season and this leads to a more sustainable food web. In our temperate climate, we all know winter is cold, spring brings a flush of new growth, summer ripens fruit and fall is when things start winding down and traditionally a lot of food is put up to be saved. Each season brings an array of foods.
On our farm, we consider late winter to be the beginning of a new growing season, as it is this time of year that we must start our work to ensure a good productive harvest later. By late winter I mean late January. Of course, Tahoe is still very cold and buried in snow at that time, but where we farm the situation is a bit different. The great wilderness explorer of early California, John Muir, who, by the way, was a California farmer who grew peaches and other crops near Vacaville, use to say that springtime in California begins each year with the first fall rains.
This may seem ridiculous if you live in the Tahoe region, but in most of the state his perspective proves true. For example, here in the foothills just south of Placerville and all across the valley, the first rains sort of magically turn the dry, summer baked earth into a new garden of life. Grass seed germinates everywhere, the forest floor becomes alive, giving off a rich sent of living soil, and many species of flowers and shrubs sprout and begin their growth. The general dry, yellowy brown surface of summer begins to turn green, despite it only being fall.
On our small farm, the first rain rejuvenates our vegetable crops as well. Tomato vines begin shooting out new growth, leafy greens and lettuce give off a new energy of relaxation, and the strawberries flush a new wave of blossoms.
When this happens, as a farmer, I also experience a strong sense of relief-free water everywhere. It is a great feeling when you know that your whole garden is happy! It's like when you finish something you've been working on with complete satisfaction. Yes, these first rains bring the beginning of the fall season, but what Muir was pointing out is they simultaneously bring the beginning of spring, sprouting energy.
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Ultimately, although a lot of grasses, flowers and other plants begin their growth with these early rains, they end up establishing themselves just enough to look green, and then they hunker down through winter temperatures and short days, awaiting true spring. Because the foothills, valley and coast range don't get much snow, new green growth colors the landscape through winter.
The crops we grow on our small farm eventually give in, little by little, to the harsh frosts of late fall and early winter. The day length shortens and growth for most food crops comes to a halt.
During winter, our farm and most of the landscape, although green, stands pretty still-for a little while.
In the Tahoe region, of course the snow and freezing temperatures bring the garden of earth to a rest point more definitively. The ground is frozen or covered with snow. Spring doesn't come until a seasonal thaw begins.
At our farm, however, we have no real thawing out. Shortly after the winter solstice, we begin to notice the days slowly getting longer. Since we get so much rain and a lot of blue sky days, the early grass and growth that Muir was referring to begins to grow more rapidly. Frost comes and goes in waves and the soil begins to warm in between storms. Daffodils begin to bloom by February, and believe it or not we start thousands of tomato, eggplant and pepper plants in our greenhouses by mid February. Because leafy greens and lettuce are hardier and go in the ground earlier we actually have thousands of kale, chard, broccoli, lettuce and other crops going by late January.
Though it is possible to have some crops in production during our winter months of December, January and February, we have learned to let this time of year pass and instead focus our energy on starting the next season early to get the most out of the awesome abundant energy of spring.
On the back of a seed packet you will usually notice a "days to maturity" number. For kale this number is usually around 60 days, for tomatoes it'll be closer to 80 days. What's important, however, is that this number reflects how many days it will take for your crops to mature from the time you set a healthy transplant into the soil, assuming the plant will have the perfect amount of water and nutrients, as well as the right temperatures and day length to ensure quick, steady growth. Roots such as carrots and radishes do not get transplanted so the "days to maturity" estimation for these sorts of crops are from the time you put the seed in the ground.
This is why we start our transplants so early and also why we put crops in the ground as early as is sensible. This helps to ensure that our farm will have an abundance of kale, chard, lettuce, parsley, spinach, carrots, radishes, broccoli and more during the spring season, when customers assume these crops should be ready, and similarly so that we will have summer crops such as zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and more during the summer season.
This makes sense of course and also makes for happy customers. Basically, it's crucial to get a jump start on each season to get the most out of the next. At Mama Earth Farm our success is based on getting started early and planting many rotations of the same crops as the year progresses.
Ben Woods is an organic farmer who owns and operates Mama Earth Farm in Somerset, California, just south of Placerville. His farm offers a local weekly produce box, attends local farmer's markets, and sells to a couple of local grocery stores. Mama Earth Farm sells produce from April to November. More information can be found at http://www.mamaearthfarm.com. Contact Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org