Indian Summer

It’s mid-October and we are enjoying a long stretch of sun and daytime highs of near 20 celcius – a late “Indian Summer.”

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Beautiful fall colours.

I spent part of last Saturday cleaning-out a couple garden beds to prepare for winter plantings. As the long-effort of my summer gardens came to a close I couldn’t help but reflect on the entire season: It was a lovely but frustrating summer. We suffered through record heat, record drought and weeks under a shroud of forest fire smoke. Part of the reason for so few blog entries is that things just stopped growing. Sure, fruit and flower developed, and sure, I created an automated watering system, and yet, corn barely produced, lettuces bolted, root veggies stopped growing and young fruit trees struggled; establishing any new plants was impossible. Thus, the time in the garden was spent maintaining what looked healthy and was likely to produce.

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When the smoke cleared many plants, like this olive, struggled in the direct sun.

But what a lovely summer it was. I may be exaggerating, but I believe it only rained one day in June, and all summer we only had one week of cloud and showers. If you could avoid the smoke (few of us could), it was the kind of summer you think you remember as a kid – everyday spent at parks and beaches, the ubiquitous smell of sunscreen (and the pain of sunburns), grass-stains, grasshoppers, all culminating (where I am from) with the labour day weekend Saanich Fair. Then, the smell of dust and hay, accompanied by the sight of brown fields, shedding arbutus leaves, and the rustle of dry, brown leaves reminds you that school is but days away. As exhausted as you are, you feel that the long summer is still a few days too short. It was, certainly, one of those years.

Now, basking in the warmth of an “indian summer,” I’m already turning my attention to my winter crops and the spring renewal.

I tore out my tomato and tomatillo garden. The tomatillos were still happy, but no new fruit would develop from this point on. The two tomatillo plants were a huge success. I made several litres of salsa verde (tomatillo, jalapeno, cilantro, lime and salt).

 The tomatoes, however,  were a disaster this year: I had a regular crop of indeterminate varieties, but all of my large determinate varieties were ripening by the end of August. Then, the first week of September brought record cold temperatures and pouring rain. Every single tomato (not exaggerating) split, and most dropped off the plant. For all the effort I put into the tomatoes, it was my least efficient garden. Next spring it will be my beet-family garden: Chard, beets and amaranth. So, my winter cover is fava beans – two varieties. I will either cut them out early to maximize nitrogen fixation, or allow them to fruit and harvest the beans. The chard exists in the garden, so I will see if it over-winters. The beets will be planted early, but the amaranth will wait until late spring. I had a wonderful time growing it. With little effort I got a full crop, and I believe it was planted in late April.

The other garden I cleaned out is the Amaranth, sunflower and black/kidney bean garden.

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This was a show-stopping garden. I’ll plant it along the fence next year.

The beans were harvested a couple months ago and replaced with spinach (which I’ll leave in to see if it grows better now). I have now planted red fife wheat and a kamut wheat, to see which does better. This garden will be raspberries next year, so I can wait until grain harvest or just clear the 6 spots I plan on using for raspberries.

My onion-family garden will not get cleaned out as it will need to overwinter anyways. I have grown onion and leeks in this bed all years, so the timing is wrong, but I’ll see how things look in the spring. In the meantime, I will plant for proper timing and get new onion and garlic in the ground now, for harvest next summer. Most of the garlic was planted this week, in and amongst cabbages and coriander that will need to be pulled by winter. Next year I hope to grow the carrot family amongst the onion family (shallow bulbs vs long tape roots). So carrots, parsley, parsnip, cilantro, and I might put basil in there as well.

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My wife cleaning out the tomato garden and Thor looking for things to eat. 

The cool temperatures, rain and now sun has forced many plants into vigorous growth (most notably the weeds). But, this is extending the growing season for some of my plants, so cleaning out all of the gardens at this time is not necessary. First, my three sisters garden is just now developing ears of flour-corn. I knew from the start this would be late, so I only hope to get enough to seed next year. The squash below was a failure – two pumpkins, still green; two butternut squash (decent size); only one zucchini all year. The scarlet runners I added to fix nitrogen and add a burst of colour did nothing but tangle the plants together.

The lettuce garden produced wonderful carrots and a few radishes. The lettuce was spectacular until they all bolted at once. I left them as weed control, but they will be cleaned out soon.

The late-planted amaranth garden never produced flowers; the buckwheat production was high and the peas – I planted too few – were excellent.

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This buckwheat crop was a success in more than one way.

The blueberry garden is populated with poppies, so I’ll leave it.

The cabbage garden is finished. There is one kale I enjoy, one Brussel stock I harvested and a kohlrabi I will harvest. Otherwise, I’ll cut it all out and I’ll be putting some barley in there to over winter.

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one of the few cabbages I harvested before the dogs ate them

Lastly, the mustard and beet garden: Mustard was harvested with great success – time to make some mustard! – the beats only started growing again with the rain and cooler temperatures. The kohlrabi was slow and the radishes and carrots struggled in that garden.

This is a busy time of year for me – lots of traveling. And yet, I sill have 8 more garden boxes to build, place and fill. If this indian summer can hang on for a few more weeks, hopefully I can get all that work done before the long-dark summer.

One more thing: One trip this month took me to North Carolina for a workshop on Ornamental plant pests and diseases. While there, two extreme weather events were obvious: foremost, Hurricane Michale swept over – which was spectacular. It was, yet another, late season, disastrously-large storm. Second, the Appalachians are normally swarmed with tourists visiting to enjoy the fall colours in the mountains. This year, the trees were green, and some turning brown. The locals said it was an unusually warm and wet summer. It is a time of weather extremes.

Like our hot and dry summer, we are having to cope with widely impacting variations in weather. I spoke earlier about a sunny summer growing up and what I did not mention is: never, once were we under a cloud of forest-fire smoke. And a quick survey of my parents and others of their generation confirms that, at most, you might have seen a brown haze low on the horizon, and maybe only once or twice in the last 50 years.

Ten years ago I remember arguing (typically with older people) about Global Warming. During a cold spell, they would be enticed to comment “hah! And they say the world is getting hotter!” I would step-in and try to explain weather pattern changes due to more energy, but I would never make any ground. What is interesting now, is I never hear those comments. I believe that we can all feel the change.

Part of the reason for me growing food is to learn, because I worry that I will truly need that knowledge within my lifetime. The reason I’m growing grains, legumes and other less spectacular crops is to farm for calories and for compost. Fresh tomatoes are great, but building your soil with compost and having a pantry full of grains, beans and preserves is potentially far more important. Similarly, it was not purely for fun that I am growing lemons, and olives: I am anticipating that the climate trends I’m seeing will continue and our growing conditions will change. So I ask myself: what will a little more heat and a little less water do in my region?

If you’re reading this, and I haven’t lost your interest thus-far, please consider the emerging climate trends in your region. Anticipate the change and need to secure water, or food and take action now.

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