Success through failure
With the May long weekend behind us and the weather starting to resemble that familiar southern Ontario summer that we all wait for, I can say with confidence, that learning how to grow food has been a succession of failures. I figured switching gears into the world of agriculture with no previous experience except for the apartment balcony green beans I grew one summer would be hard but now I spend most of my time reminding myself that each failure is me learning. Learning on the job means learning through failure and, as hard as it is for a recovering perfectionist like myself to accept, learning through failure is actually a great thing.
Failure is not a bad word. Like Vulnerability, Failure gets a bad rap. Both words expose our underbelly which is perceived as a weakness and therefore should be hidden from view. But both Failure and Vulnerability should be embraced as great equalizers and opportunities for real growth.
Here are a couple of the newbie farm fails.
Curtis Stone has a fantastic book The Urban Farmer: Growing Food for Profit on Leased or Borrowed Land that I’ve leaned on quite heavily as a general reference tool. Stone details how to convert a grass lot into workable land by smothering the grass with tarps in the fall and tilling the dead grass into the soil the following spring. This method was passive, which I liked and fairly low tech, which I also liked. So early in the winter I spread tarps over a chunk of grass (30ftx100ft) and removed them in the beginning of spring. I hoped to reveal a brown patch of grass ready to be tilled into perfectly healthy soil. To my disappointment, the grass was not only not dead, but was more lush and green than the rest of my giant lawn. If I had been more diligent about keeping the tarps down and restricting the air flow I may have stood a chance of killing the grass, instead of making a grass green house that no one wanted.
Ultimately we converted that small section of grass into workable land with good ol' fashioned digging. The purchase of our house came with a beautiful New Holland tractor. Sean took a couple of hours to dig and flip the grass with the front loader. The next couple afternoons were spent tilling the chunks of grass and spreading $1200 worth of organic matter, code for aged poop, over the plot. In hindsight, I am curious if I should have tilled the organic matter directly into the rows instead of the entire plot, including the pathways where we walk. Considering the price tag, that may have helped stretch our poop investment. On the other hand, the initial investment doesn't seem too terrible if it kick starts our tired, clay based soil into soil that will generate vegetables. Healthy, well taken care of soil is known to produce healthier, more bountiful crops and minimize crop diseases and pests. Creating healthy soil is a goal I intend to work towards while we learn all about this thing called farming. For converting the rest of the acreage we won't be able to purchase such rich poop and instead will explore tilling in cover crops.
After starting green beans and cucumber indoors I began to harden off the transplants. Meaning, taking the time to slowly introduce the seedlings to the more harsh outside world so they don't experience shock. Starting with a couple hours in the shade the first day and slowly working toward a full day and night outside. Whether it was baby brain or just regular person brain, I of course quickly forgot I was hardening off the transplants and I left them outside all night too early. Let's just say we found out which beans and cucumbers were indeed the hardiest. Only about half of them lasted the cool late-May night. Not to brag but I also forgot to continue to harden them off and they sat under fluorescent lights for a couple days.
I read that to avoid shocking seedlings from their warm and cozy life indoors to the rough and rugged world outside they should be transplanted in the morning, the evening or when it is overcast to avoid direct sunlight. That is a tip for the new gardener I promptly ignored because I have no patience. Learning patience is a reoccurring theme I'm noticing the more I delve into growing food. Not having learned it yet, I continued to plant the surviving transplants on a hot, sunny afternoon. To compensate for my impatience I draped a light floating row cover over the plants to shield them from the sun not taking into account the expected rain fall for that evening. The rain weighed the row covers down snapping the tiny stems of our transplants. So we started beans and cucumbers again.
You think you will remember where you plant things but that is only half true. I'm still not sure where I planted endive. I should know in a couple weeks.
When something messes up in the garden, like when my two full trays of habanero pepper plants drop half their leaves and appear terribly weak over night, I find it hard not to take it personally. I see the hole riddled, yellow leaves of my two full rows of potato plants and immediately feel discouraged. As though it were instinct to shut down when something does not go according to plan. Having never spent this much time trying to grow food, I have to remind myself that there is barely a plan to stick to. But it is scary not knowing the answer. And it is scary to commit to something I really want to do with the full knowledge that there is someone more knowledgable, better skilled and with more experience out there doing a better job. Learning through failure is humbling and at first does not appear to pay off, but I can tell my arsenal is already that much fuller.