Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)
Once your seedlings are finally in the ground, settled in for a long season of growth, they’re susceptible to attack from all sides and will need reasonable care and protection.
An edible garden or a small farm is an open invitation for critters, pests, and vegetal thugs to crash your delicious, colorful party, and the best bouncers you’ll find will be good fences, solid structures, effective traps and barriers, and your own awareness and understanding of the wild and scheming world outside your garden gates. Remember: You build it, and they will come.
Good fences, of course, make good farms; fences at least 4 feet high, reinforced with welded wire that’s either buried a foot below grade or angled like an apron beneath the soil at 90 degrees to the fence line, are very effective. That said, if there’s a breach somewhere where a bunny or woodchuck can slither through or dig under, or a raccoon can climb over, they will. Deer can jump most fences under 7 feet, so the best deterrent on a 4- to 5-foot fence is to run a perimeter of 14-gauge wire 2 feet above the fenceline supported with angle iron. Also, if you plant your tomatoes and pole beans on the perimeter, this will help fend them off as well, because deer do not like enclosed spaces or those with an obstructed landing area.
Your fruit and vegetables will need protection besides good fencing from critters like birds, bunnies, woodchucks, squirrels, possums, and raccoons: a wild kingdom of plunderers out to undo all of your small-scale agriculture efforts. Woodchucks (also known as groundhogs) and bunnies, in particular, will raid your greens any chance they get, and a patrol of the fence perimeter every few days to look for breaches is a good idea. Any sign of digging means you’ve been found out, and once a woodchuck gets a bead on your kale (they love all things brassica), they can wipe it out in one demented binge.
A Havahart trap seems to work best for us, and when we find an ingress through the fence and into our foodshed (and there’s usually more than one), that’s where the trap goes, unbaited, as a kind of “foyer of regret.” (They get as far as the hat rack and the doors slam shut.) A trap set out with bait like greens and peanut butter might work occasionally, but why walk into a wire tunnel when there’s a whole garden to ravage? (Thinking like a groundhog is a stretch, but worth the effort.) When they tunnel under your fence with cries of “Once more unto the breach!” you’ve got it—and them—covered. Bunnies might need a smaller, more sensitive trap, and they tend to slip through fencing, not underneath it; they also nibble and browse, which I can tolerate, versus the seek-and-destroy habits of woodchucks. If the bunnies begin to plague you, you can run a tighter mesh of chicken wire along the lower perimeter of the welded wire.
When I first moved out of the city, where anything four legged and furry that’s not on a leash is a plague, the site of scurrying woodchucks was startling. I was told they had to be dealt with swiftly and without mercy, otherwise vast, despotic colonies would form beneath the house, turning foundation walls into grottos and electrical wiring into dental floss. So, wanting to prove my ready-for-rural mettle, I baited and trapped and disposed.
Where you draw the line when deciding what to do with the small, unwelcome souls among us is a personal decision. Is a mouse, rat, or vole (warm-blooded mammals all) any less deserving of a full life of scurrying than its exponentially larger cousins? The line drawn is at best arbitrary—a scratch in sand. It seems moral ambiguity is the only certainty. If you’re at your wit’s (and cucurbit’s) end, you can just go after them in a fury, wielding a hoe like Mr. McGregor on a rage of futility against Peter Rabbit.
In the orchard, where the chickens do roam, we need to protect low-hanging fruit from their insatiable appetites with black plastic netting. This 14-foot-wide netting is run across the tops of rows of dwarf fruit trees and is cinched at the bottom with 4-inch strands of 14-gauge wire. Not only does this keep the chickens out, but it also hinders other birds and the orchard’s nimble archenemy: the squirrel. At Stonegate, the number of large, geriatric trees means plenty of soft wood to nest in and heights to scamper safely to. I’ve had gangs of acrobatic squirrels pluck every young pear and apple off my trees and bury them for a frozen dessert come January, and the only defense against them has been netting. This hold true for birds, too, who will dispatch with your cherries and plums in short order if they’re not protected. Like a good cop, your job as a farmer is to serve and protect your vulnerable plantings.
Insects will be your most pernicious enemy when growing organically. Their sheer ravenous numbers are enough to demoralize you, and when you’ve been set upon by a destructive swarm of something or other, you’ll understand why there are entire aisles at the box stores dedicated to their demise. Of course, the presence of insects is a balancing act: Too many bad ones and not enough beneficials will skew things.
When you start out, insects will be a minor annoyance, but as you continue to grow in the same spot, they’ll soon catch on. We knew we’d been found out in our third year of growing, when we finally met The Beetles. The little beasties began to make a loose veil of my seedling eggplant and potato leaves, rendering tender shoots a skeletal gauze of their former selves. This vegetal crusade against all plants in the Solanaceae family (including potato, eggplant, and tomato) is a fright. The spring-loaded horrors have no organic pest control, except for row cover or kaolin clay early in the season, so you stoop and squish, firmly between forefinger and thumb, until the offending speck is no more. When you’re in the process of losing all of your painstakingly grown seedlings to an enemy the size of a pinhead, there’s a kind of macabre, control-freaking pleasure in pinching these lacquer-backed bugs to death between your fingers. (This is what farming can do to you.)
There are effective organic strategies for keeping the most destructive insects in check (see Grow for plant-specific pest control), but most organic pest management—unlike the toxic soup used in chemical farming—is about physical barriers like row cover, pheromone traps, sticky traps, beneficial insects, and insecticidal soaps and oil sprays. At Stonegate, we use row cover religiously, particularly in spring on new plantings, and we also use a kaolin clay product that we spray on fruits and vegetables as an irritant to insects. My apple, pear, and quince get a ghostlike dusting of this microfine clay, and it gunks up the tiny inter-locking membranes of bugs (think of sand between your joints) and, clogged and bothered, they move on. But as with most organic growing, there’s a fair amount of basic, hands-on management. (There’s nothing like a Ball jar full of soapy water and some quick reflexes.)
Occasionally, you’ll have a season where the pests seem as though they’re all reading from the Book of Revelations and come at you in obscene numbers. I’ve been on my property long enough to have witnessed two cycles of 17-year cicadas. These strange creatures, armored and bloody eyed, with a blunt head and cellophane wings, fly about in apocalyptic numbers and wreak havoc on the orchard with their egg-laying wounds. (I have heard my orchard screaming.) The season following a cicada brood always shows some compromise, with berry shrubs and fruit trees having lost productive limbs, but the chickens love the slow-flying protein and scurry about the orchard plucking the cicadas out of midair. There are always winners and losers. The hordes of Japanese beetles that have turned my grapevines to lace, the sawfly larvae that reduced my gooseberries to leafless twigs, and the cucumber and flea beetles that destroy growth without mercy are a loss, but maybe a bit of martyrdom and resignation that—as an organic grower—you can’t control it all is good for something?
Once your tender seedlings have been planted out, freed from the sheltered supervision of grow lights, greenhouses, and coldframes, they’ll be under the open sky, where heavy rains, late frosts, or foot-blistering heat can undo most of your patient care.
With the climate swinging so unpredictably back and forth these days, where extreme weather is becoming the new normal, growing food crops—never mind beautiful ones—is a persistent challenge. When I lived in cities, weather meant little more than deciding which umbrella or scarf to grab. But organic farming demands a far less facile relationship; it prescribes that your view is long, that your measure of success is shaped by allowing forces beyond your control to play out, and that you do what you can to protect your plants. You are constantly considering, and talking about, the wiles of weather, with all of its exasperating uncertainty.
We’ve had weeks at Stonegate, for example, where endless rains and gale-force winds have ripped through the farm with such blustery, sodden force that beds were quickly turned into a slurry of unworkable muck. Newly transplanted seedlings of arugula, bok choy, and mesclun greens have been washed out of their neatly planted rows and sent in a hapless swill toward the Hudson. After rains like these, most often coming just after you’ve planted your spring or fall greens, the garden will lie as saturated as a sponge mop, the soil giving way like pudding underfoot. Seedlings will whimper and drown as their roots can’t breathe, and seeds will just sit there, floating in their hard seed coats, waiting it out.
Farming needs water, of course, but not that much, and not so relentlessly. Sitting on a pretty high aquifer here at Stonegate means that heavy rains tend to percolate up and glaze across the open ground like a tide.
The opposite of too wet is not as bad because you can usually irrigate and water when it gets too hot, but it’s pretty challenging to dehydrate once you’re in the soup. Our farm has sometimes found itself simmering under such unrelenting, record-breaking heat that lawns, which are never watered, go from supple green to scorched earth in a matter of days, and brittle blades of grass pierce the tender soles of children as they scamper across it to find relief in the pool.
These sweltering waves send everything on a bender; hens pant in the heat, their beaks slung open like secateurs; bees splash themselves across hives in cooling desperation; greens secretly conspire to bolt. Even the open blossoms of fruiting vegetables, and the promise they represent, can wither like parchment and drop if the heat is too intense for too long. Then, just when you’re about to surrender and concede to a season of loss, the rain comes; its cool, wet relief seeming almost surreal. At first, it drums on the bone-dry ground, running and pooling on the surface like mercury before the soil opens up to drink in life-giving gasps.
At the other end of the mercury, a hard winter can be a serious threat to chickens and bees, as well as perennials and fruit in the orchard. Chickens can suffer from frostbite and frozen combs. Fruit trees can incur winter damage that will kill buds and inhibit flowering and fruit, or they may flower early only to have their blossoms dispatched by a late frost. They could also bloom and languish on the branch because the bees they depend on for pollination have perished in the deep cold.
One year, my bees rallied valiantly against a brutal, permafrost winter, but it proved too much for them, and they succumbed. Their stores of honey exhausted and their thousandfold wing beats unable to keep the hive at a survival temperature of 94°F (34°C), they died of exposure and starvation. In December, the hive seemed to be humming along. Bees that were terminally exhausted had flown out and curled up in the snow to die, which they’re predisposed to do (I found them scattered like small apostrophes around the hive), and I watched winged undertakers occasionally bringing out their dead near the hive entrance.
All seemed well until mid-January, after a week in the single digits, when the humming and cleaning stopped. When I opened the hive, the honey combs were empty, and I found a tight cluster of lifeless bodies huddled in a sphere around their queen, who seemed to have died on the throne. The bees had needed more protection from the elements, more routine care, and I felt as though I had failed them. Any success in farming is always guarded and qualified, tempered by the humbling reality of caring for living things.
Farming does long for some level of predictability, wanting to be scripted, thought out, and measured. Planning is at its core, and maintenance is the drumbeat. But weather is the big variable. (The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map was redrawn in 2012 to adjust for climate change. Should I be ordering seed for kumquats and Ponderosa lemons?) Partnering with weather, as fickle and unpredictable as it is, is always healthier, for plant and person, than railing against it. Planning for the worst season will always ensure you a better one.
Finally, before you dig too deep and plant too much, step back and make sure you’re not overreaching early on. The anticipation and thrill of growing is sometimes dulled by the burden of maintenance. To plant successfully, a reasonable plan needs to be put in place: What shall I grow? What do I love to eat? What will taste best ripened in my own backyard? What makes economic sense? How much time do I have? Growing food takes commitment and care, so plant what you love and make that love happen in a few beautiful, manageable beds first.