Newsletter – 11 July, 2013


 The Alleged Farm News – 11 July, 2013

This weeks share: Basil, Beets, Napa Cabbage, Dill, Garlic, Lettuce,           Radicchio, Squash  

Weed control is a multi-year project. Or multi-decade. I have been at it for 19 years, and a brief tour of my farm would indicate I have not come close to finishing the task yet.

To be fair, I did not really work on weed control for the first few years of farming. Which is not to say I did not weed. I certainly did, frequently, desperately, often hopelessly. But weeding and working on real weed control are not generally the same thing. I suppose if you take a fanatical enough approach to weeding and go without sleep between late May and the middle of September, you will eventually get the weeds on your farm under control. But for the most part weeding is just a reaction to the weeds that are already there threatening to engulf the crops. Weeding is basically excavation. Or baling in a leaky boat far from shore. Sure, you probably regret not having taken more steps to prepare for the journey before pushing off. But mostly you are just toiling to stay afloat, hoping you can work hard enough to keep a little ahead of the ever rising flood. 

Weeding does offer real satisfaction. Note that I say offer, not provide, since it can as easily withhold as grant it. But when you stand up at the end of a bed and look back at the newly neat rows of crops standing out against the bare soil you get as clear a view of the results of your labor as possible. And the difference weeding makes not just aesthetically but also physiologically to the crops is quickly evident too. A couple of workers some years ago read about a guy in California who foreswore weeding. He felt that it interfered with the complex ecosystem on his farm. They recommended we give it a try. Perhaps the philosophy appealed to them, but mostly they just did not like weeding. I ignored the suggestion. The results on crops of weed competition (and there are few if any vegetable crops that can actually compete with weeds) are unambiguous. You might preserve a diverse ecosystem and have some grateful bugs, but you won’t have much to pick. 

Vegetable Notes: On three recent nights a deer has gone into our greenhouses and eaten crops. This is just wrong. We are surrounded by hundreds of acres of alfalfa and corn in addition to all of our crops out in the fields. Surely, with all that to feast on, a deer should not risk going into a building for some vegetables. But it clearly did. We are in big trouble when it figures out how to open the cooler door. Fortunately it seems to have been nervous enough not to spend too long inside, thus limiting the damage it could do. It trimmed the tops off a few beets, but left the vast majority of the bed untouched. And then we got in there and did far more damage. Well, if you look at it from the beets’ perspective. We prefer to think of it as harvesting, and I should point out that we left the greens on the beets so that you can enjoy them. They may be a bit big to use in a salad, but they should be excellent steamed. As for the roots, I like them best cold with a good dose of vinegar and salt and some onion. The dill would be nice on them too, as would a little goat cheese and a few toasted pecans. 

I don’t know how deer feel about Napa cabbage. The donkeys don’t seem to like them. But what do donkeys know. Perhaps they would feel differently if they had some shredded and stir fried with garlic and hot pepper, and perhaps a little ground pork or cubes of bacon, and finished with soy sauce and rice vinegar. Or stirred into a spicy chicken soup. Or raw in a salad with some shredded chicken, grated carrot, finely sliced pepper, maybe some apple slices, and a creamy lemon dressing.

Both the deer and the donkeys like radicchio (looks like a small red cabbage), which causes many people to wonder about deer and donkeys. I recognize that bitter greens do not have the most ardent fan club. But aside from being wonderfully good for you (and in this case good looking, too), they can also be wonderfully tasty. You could try shredding the radicchio and mixing it with goat cheese, raisins and a few pecans. The bitterness, creaminess and sweetness combine to make an excellent salad.  

I have learned over the years not to hope for the best. If the weeds get away from us in a bed I till it under. Yes, we lose lose all the work of preparing the bed and growing the seedlings and transplanting them. But if I keep the crop and the weeds, in return for an at best meager harvest one year I will end up with a terrible weed problem in that spot for years to come. A large pigweed or lambs quarters plant can bear as many as 100,000 seeds, and many weeds’ seeds can remain viable for years in the soil.

Sacrificing a weedy crop to avoid a future weed problem is weed control. A kind of last ditch form of weed control. Not the kind you go to conferences to show off about. But still weed control. You are working to reduce not just the number of extant weeds, but also the number of future weeds. In a better organized world you do this before planting the crops by planting cover crops that smother weeds, by making your beds early and tilling off the weeds that sprout (sometimes multiple times) before planting any crops, by using various kinds of mulch to suppress weed growth, by keeping well mowed areas around your fields to stop weed seed blowing in, and by making your soil as fertile as possible so that when you do plant crops they grow vigorously and overwhelm any few weeds that do manage to come up (and no matter what you do, there will always be a few weeds). And with various shallow tillage tools such as flex tine or basket weeders and the right timing you can get most of those weeds long before they cause any problems.

If you create a system using all these methods and keep at it relentlessly you eventually deplete the weed seed bank in your fields and the sources for new seed, and weed control gets easier and easier. Getting rid of the weeds like this before they exist may not provide quite the same sense of accomplishment as weeding. You don’t have quite the same feeling of having earned those pretty rows of crops. But in the long run it makes farming much easier and more productive. 

That is the theory, anyway. I know a couple of farmers who have done a remarkably good job of reducing the weed pressure in their fields. But it just takes on bad weed year to undo much of your control efforts. A year, for instance, when it rains so much the soil is saturated for weeks on end and you cannot till or plant cover crops or cut hay for mulch and your whole weed control system falls apart. And before you know it you are back on your knees weeding and wondering how important sleep really is.