Sunday, December 12, 2010

July 30, 2010 – The Long Drought

July 30, 2010 – The Long Drought
Still winter down South, but the temperature has risen several degrees. Like summer, I have been waking up earlier and earlier. Sometimes it’s too early (like now, it’s 2:00 am) that I can’t go work in the garden. It’s good, actually, I can update my journals.
I have been very busy the last few weeks. The long period without rain left my new vegetable garden requiring, every day, more and more hours of dedication (hours spend watering my plants with a hose!)
Last year, I told you about my heartbreak: failed gardening attempts due to total technical ignorance – no soil preparation, no mulching, no proper sowing, no spacing between plants, no nothing. I only spread some seeds expecting that it would turn into a lush garden. It did at certain point, as I was lucky with the rainy season and later, with lower temperatures averaging 18⁰ to 23⁰C. But I had to battle against pests and diseases, having even seen a grub swallowing my seedling from its roots. A friend, then, told me about working the soil with compost. “Silly me, you probably know about it” – she wrote me in an email. Yes, I kind of knew, but I didn’t really believe it. I just saw the soil moist and inviting for planting. Later, I got a man who works here temporarily as a “cold meal” to help me to haul and spread the chicken manure. I almost intoxicated my whole family with the ammonia released by a ton of it. I actually saw a fume thick as a smoke to come out of the compost pile. Needless to say that the compost didn’t turn out right, but I used it anyway, messy as fresh big animal feces, or sometimes, dry and hard as a rock. No “nice aroma of fresh forest soil, lightly moist, uniformily colored, without any trace of former elements” type of thing.
As you may know, I got a partnership with an Organic Horticulture Program. I have the land and they have the instructor. Hard thing is to get enough students interested in the course. I had to beg people that attend all courses to join this one. Most courses are short term – just a few days (4 to 8). But the Horticulture is a eight-month long program, and it requires perseverance. We started with 20 people, and we are down to 10. As I tell people “country with such a school drop out like ours, no wonder that people will drop out a program like this”. Free courses with free meals, and with a certificate at the end, are one of the things in life that we can’t ignore. I finish Beekeeping program totally able to start the activity if I wanted. I can imagine how much this course could cost in the US. Or even in Brazil, taken at private schools.
Anyway, I chose the location below our orchard to be the new vegetable garden. I was tired of slopy looking one that I had in the orchard. I can’t complain as I harvested beautiful oak leaf lettuce, brocolli, carrots and several other veggies last year. But I became ambitions and wanted a professional looking, neat plots. I wanted a nursery greenhouse so bad that I thought that even if the program got canceled (for number of drop outs), I would be happy to be a place where the seedlings sowed in trays could survive. It never did before, as the place where I used to leave them were too windy.
Talking about being windy, I found out that the new location I choose is too windy as well. It is one of the highest part of the farm. It was the closest one to my house, with easy access, near the water, with the uncultivated plot of land. Perfect, but full of defects. We planted tall grass as a wind breaker, which helps, but it didn’t solve the problem. I can’t complain of my luck, but not only the location was windy, this year we had no winter and no rain, essencial for horticulture in the tropics. I was left with scorching sun, drying wind, and … lack of manure!!!!
This year, my second attempt to grow seedlings succeded (the first attempt didn’t. The trays got ready before the nursery. It was a disaster. I lost about 10 trays, that means thousand of seedlings. Another heartbreak and extra work later on.) With the proper substract used in trays for seedlings, the transplanting was a breeze, even though we transplanted in the hottest day of the month, with the hardest wind of all times. Incredible to believe, but the little plants survived! I credit the technology of tray sowing. I never want to sow on the soil again. Most seedlings turn out irregular, get roots damaged, and the crop is actually bad. The loss could reach 100% in this system. The only good thing of sowing on the soil for later transplanting is that the soil keeps the moisture longer than in trays. I confess that I lost some seedlings in the nursery for delaying watering. I forgot to tell that the nursery is a rustic construction of six stakes, covered with plastic and surrounded by a net that allows breathing. It’s 8m X 4m. The textbook doesn’t show it, but I had to add plastic from ground up a meter high to stop the wind.
My complain here is about the place I chose to be my garden. I didn’t know it would be that windy, that hot, and that dry. To make matter worse, the instructor didn’t suggest me to place a netting to stop the sun. And he was not peremptory about the irrigation system.
I worked hard for the whole month after the students and the instructor that come one weekend a month. I transplanted a big plot, I built support for tomatoes, I made new trays of seedlings, I planted “trap veggies” to attract insects to later control them, I sprayed with biofertilizer and neem extract/oil. Above all, I watered, watered, watered. I felt proud to display the green carpet to my classmates. But the first thing my instructor said was “it should be looking better! The lettuces didn’t grow.” Yes, it was too windy and sunny. It went several hours without water, drying the top layers of the soil. But another unforgiving mistake that my instructor made was not to require more manure. We simply used green manure (a beneficial seed cocktail that is grew up to flowering and then cut to serve as a ground cover and a fertilizer) and scampy amounts of cow manure (that one that I had to beg my neighbor for). I was mad as I live on a property that has leased chicken batteries and plenty of manure to be bought.
I was lucky last year that the plot I had chosen was protected by the wind, had mild summery winter, lots of moisture and chicken manure. I harvested commercial size vegetables. I was so proud of myself. I thought that this year, with “professional looking” raised beds, neatly planted seedlings, and extra help, it would be successful.
Of my new plot, I had to harvest all the lettuce that was extra “crispy”, most of arugula that was deep green, not to say that they were small in size. I needed to sell as fast as possible for a meager R$1,00 a bunch. I went to my daughter’s school with a flier that said “Organic Veggies: grown in full sun: more vitamins and more fibers”. I had to announce my veggies in an apologetic way. My greens were tasty, nevertheless. I delivered them last Friday. I am now afraid to face all the school teachers today, Monday. I have to keep telling them that though leaves are actually a characteristic of being “organic”. Or I have to convince myself of it.
I am specially disappointed as I visited two vegetable farms in a last few days (reality check, or reality shock). They had giant sized lettuce heads, soft and mild tasting. Nothing pungent like my greens. Remember, organic veggies have personality. Another detail that was left behind was that the need of special seeds. Those expensive ones. While I pay 50 cents for an envelope, the hybrid types (lab seeds) may cost over fifty times more (but the veggies grow equally 50 times more). Once once, I lavished R$20,00 for a hybrid salad cabbage. This was a must, as regular cabbages weighs a ton a head and taste bitter, chewy, and though. Oh, I could sell them as “organic”, I forgot. Jokes apart, I am worried about my reputation as a good vegetable farmer. I don’t want to be known as a “though greens farmer”. I want to be knowns as a top quality organic farmer.
But looking back, I have made great progress since I adventured myself in the field, just a year and a half of my first gardening attempt. The problem is that organic farmers go ambitious too. I started wanting a nursery, I now want a net covered plot and an automatic irrigation system. Not to say, the expensive seeds. I am afraid that pretty soon I am becoming like any other commercial farmer that uses chemical in our salads.
In truth, some crops don’t need any chemical at all. Chicken manure alone can do much for leafy greens. Some doesn’t even use mulching. I have paid for loading coffee bean shell. Instead, I could have invested in chicken manure. The two farmers I visit often don’t use chemical in most salad greens, except for wintery greens such as Chinese cabbage. But I am sure they load sunshade plants (tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers) with it. Most consumers don’t know that salad greens take little or no chemical. In that sense, I have no merit of selling organic greens. I know, though, that organic doesn’t mean solely the absence of chemical, it’s the whole system. My big challenge lies in growing the sunshades. I have started with four varieties of tomatoes. I think it is adamant that I succeed in tomato crop, as we eat it in great amount, and in Brazil, sunshades suffer from chemical abuse.
In spite of small sized vegetables, from my old plot, I have harvested iceberg lettuce, which is a lot greener and crispier that pale colored, tasteless American counterpart. The leaves are not tightly formed as a cabbage head, but rather, they are loose, making a very refreshing salad to eat. I harvested great tasting regular lettuce, three different varieties of wild chicories (not wild at all. But I haven’t found a right translation yet, as I had never seen this veggie being sold in the US), six brocolli heads, some good sized carrots, collard greens, one fennel bulb, New Zealand spinach, a few red radishes, and purple collar white radish. The last tastes like a wild root, that I may not even transplant new seedlings. I need to change the variety, that means, to buy the expensive kind, a more palatable one. I even harvested a handfull of black beans that I added to our bean and pork stew yesterday.
The new plot has Grand Rapids and Oak Leaf lettuces, arugula, brocolli, cauliflower, cabbage, collard greens, mustard greens, Chinese cabbage, Swiss chard, scallions, parsley, cilantro, red radish, tomatoes, beets, cucumber, eggplant, purple collar white radish, wild chicory. I have sowed green beans, snow peas, carrots, and still to transplant yellow and purple onions, celery, leeks, more lettuce (Veneranda, purple and Romaine), purple chicory, hot peppers, bell peppers, lemon cucumber.
Besides the two locations, I also have other edibles planted around the house: prickly chayotte, purple meat yam, Chinese chives, barely alive squash vines.
The drought is so severe that ranges desert humidity levels, so said the TV news. I can’t water all I have scattered around the farm. Things that I care less go dry, such as squash. August is here, and I can’t predict when to sow other things such as okra. I may sow it on my front garden that I can easily water. So I can eat okra (or maybe sell) way before others.
Commonly ignored vegetables such as chayotte or squash are now expensive. The temp laborers that work on coffee harvest fight for crocked ones that I put out for sale. I had a great idea of watering the squash vines, which is unheard of. But I am expecting to have a good harvest sometime soon in spite of the drought.

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