Sunday, August 21, 2011

A berry good year

Why some garden crops come in well and others don’t remains a mystery to me. Twelve years into gardening now, I feel that I’ve learned nothing, since every year is completely different. The obvious factors are varieties planted and a season’s worth of weather. Aside from that, it’s the same routine in the same ground year after year, with crapshoot results.

This year started with yet another cold, wet spring, but apparently which days that combo hits makes a huge difference. One year, it interfered with pollination so the wild mast crop (nuts and berries) was a disaster, which was reflected in our domestic berry patch. Another year, there was a shortage of bees. This year, the mushy start must have given plants what they needed, especially since hot dry weather soon followed—so dry, I used up both rain barrels in April just from watering the newly planted annuals and vegetables. Usually that doesn’t happen until August.

For the rest of the season, we had more hot and dry than wet, with rain coming just in the nick of time to keep the garden watered. And boy, did it grow! Weak and stunted veggy transplants turned into lush producers. I expect too many tomatoes this year, after a successive years of losing them to disease, pests, and wrong variety/wrong soil mixtures. But the award winner was the berry patch, which produced so extravagantly, we had to buy a stand-alone freezer to accommodate the abundance.

We got a good load of strawberries, too, and blueberries are still coming, though I’ve dropped the ball in getting them picked. This year we focused on keeping pace with the raspberries, and for once caught the entire crop. Briefly, we considered selling the extra, but after doing the math decided not to. The extra cash we might earn would be canceled by purchasing containers suitable for transporting and selling them to the public (we don’t have road frontage so can’t set up a little farmstand), plus fuel for getting back and forth to farmers markets, and paying for vendor space therein. This equation doesn’t factor in our time: 1-2 hours per person per day for 3-4 weeks. As well, it’s one thing to have 30 pounds of berries; it’s another to salvage 10-15 pounds of perfect ones to present to the world, and keeping them undamaged during handling.

That calculating exercise gave me an idea of what farmers must go through, year in and year out, to stay afloat. It also highlighted the different meanings of “assets.” Here we are, afloat in food, for which we spend more than we save in order to grow, and must spend much more in order to generate income from it. What’s wrong with that picture?

What’s right for us is that the rapsberries and blueberries are free. The bushes were planted decades ago by some previous homeowner and thrived from neglect. There’s also an apple tree, normally a scraggly remnant, but this year because of the just-right conditions it set fruit so heavily that I now have an apple problem, because after fruiting things turned so dry that it’s been shedding apples since May, several dozen a day, to the point of making the ground hazardous to walk across. So far I have picked up two wheelbarrows’ worth of apples to compost and a bushel’s worth of keepers. Guess it’s time to learn how to make applesauce, or to bake a slew of apple pies.

At least we now have a freezer to store the extra in, and will be enjoying fresh-grown, pesticide-free fruit all year.

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