Crop Cycles

By Carol Ann Sayle

At seven o’clock on an already-warm, humid, drought-suffering mid-June day, sweat dripped from my face as I leaned on the spading fork and pushed its tines easily into the moist soil. I bent down and flipped its teeth upward—jerking up a dense load of soil, compost, minerals and menacing nut-grass families. The idea was to mix the nutrient additions into the upper inches and extract the nut-grass chains (with roots intact) at the same time, once the soil was moist.

The nut grass won’t stay away for long, of course, but I wanted to give the new transplants an edge for a couple of weeks at least.

I’d cleared the 200-foot bed of most of its other weeds the day before, at the same early hour—using a hoe to scrape the stems from the dry, hard soil but leaving their roots (sheathed in carbon) to decompose in the ground. The tool occasionally snagged the fence and T-posts that wait patiently to offer support to climbing plants. After raking the debris to the footpaths, I sprinkled amendments, ladled bucketfuls of our farm-made compost on the bed, laid and turned on the irrigation lines and then found the appropriately sized twigs to plug the unofficial holes in the tapes. I wanted the bed to be damp a foot down before I attempted to work the additions into the soil, remove the nut grass and plant.

With the bed wet enough for earthworms to get active, I saved my back by alternately forking the bed to perfection and stuffing the baby Sun Gold tomatoes firmly but gently into deep holes. Their roots would be happier living in cool soil, far from the effects of drying winds and burning sun, as the plants would likely be dry-farmed the latter days of their lives with air temperatures that might increase before cooling off eventually.

My mind was mostly on sweat and living through the experience, but also on the fall crops and how these fields would change before October. Gone would be most of the tomatoes, except for, if all goes well, these Sun Gold cherries and other late plantings of hot-season crops like heat-tolerant Bella Rosa tomatoes, green beans, okra, eggplant, cucumbers and squash. These do well enough that they supplement the first kales, turnips and arugula of the cool season and make September and early October bearable—nutritionally and financially. The much-awaited spinach, lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower will come to the farm-stand tables by Thanksgiving, carrots by late December.

Fall is the clear birth of our crop year. The farmland will be quite bare early in the season, except for those last summer veggies and mown-down cover crops. But behind the scenes at the Gause farm greenhouse, much will be going on. Here, Pamela, our Gause farm manager, will be growing and tending thousands of transplants while Larry will be planting winter cover crops and installing a small quantity of vegetable crops to supplement the Austin farm stand’s fare.

This is also the time when I’ll be scrambling to convert over 100 planting beds at the Austin farm from spent crops and the attending ravages of the typically horrid summer to newly formed raised beds amended with minerals and our farm-made compost. As the toddler transplants become ready, my assistants and I will fit the beds with irrigation tape, and plant—day after day.

Soon, the farm will burst alive with robust young plants that will replace the ghosts of summer’s tall heirloom tomatoes. Finally, we’ll be able to see, and wave to, someone working on the other side of the farm as the land swells with the varying colors of the greens and lettuces that are especially beautiful. This will be the best time for us to be outside. Without sweating and worrying about heatstroke, we’ll be able to work all day long, and the fierce cold of winter won’t yet be upon us.

Our crop cycle will once again begin, but before we can blink, winter will arrive and then spring. And eventually, like older generations of any species—humans included—the aged crops of fall will finally relax into the wayside to nourish and make room for summer-bound youngsters that will, in turn, succumb to the fall cleanup. It’s simply the cycle of all life, from beginning to end and beyond. And for us, it all begins in the chill of fall.