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Thursday, May 31, 2018

May showers - managing farm in rainy months

As the month of May is coming to an end, I am reflecting on the transition from spring to summer as it happened on my farm this month. If we could rename the month of May as month of ZEUS (god of thunder and lighting in Greek mythology), it won't be an exaggeration. Most of this month, it has rained every week , sometimes twice in a week. I have spent a few morning just watching the pouring rain by my living room window when outside farm work came to a halt.


As spring transitions to summer, the month of May is usually rainy.  This entire month I worked on muddy paths and saturated soil that delayed summer plantings. Overall, since I am on clay soil, water drains slowly and it takes days after rains before I could go in the field to plant anything. The early start of the season this year in March enabled me to have 20 seed beds already planted before the onset of heavy rains. They grew slowly due to cold April snow showers but picked up as the season warmed. The challenge in such a month is how to have plants in ground while not disturbing the soil structure. 

The answer is in preparing the beds early on and raising them slightly above the ground level.  Making raised beds manually with a shovel is a time consuming process that slows other aspects of crop production a lot. I do make an attempt to raise some beds especially for low growing crops (like greens) but the task doesn't always fit into the plan. Additionally, it order to make a raised bed, one either has to have externally sourced soil or compost or lift the edges of the existing soil to make the beds raised. When it is wet and soggy, lifting the damp soil by shovel is not feasible. All you life is lumps of water saturated soil. Not only it makes the clay soil hard to work with, the extra effort of disturbing wet soil makes the entire effort not worthwhile.  One has to wait for soil to dry partially, if not completely. Ideally, a well draining soil should dry fast. Since my farm is far from ideal, after rains, the planting areas on the lower end of the slope get water logged and remain wet longer. And, when the rain is really heavy,  some seed beds simply drown. Not all areas of the field are water logged due to the shape of the slope. The planting area higher up on the slope is workable and dries somewhat faster. At times, I have planted seeds by hand is partially dry soil and layered it with a layer of compost. This works just fine in my context for crops like lettuce, cress and other greens. I prepare the seed bed for planting by removing the weeds with a hoe and leveling with a rake before sowing seeds. Seeders don't work very well on wet soil. If it rains heavily again after seeding, there is a risk of seeds not rotting in water. I had recently lost half a bed of spring radishes because the bed was oddly shaped, not raised and the seeds drowned in water. 💔

I have so far not taken a hard and fast approach to growing in permanent raised beds. It takes a lot of manual work to raise a bed with native soil. Even hauling compost or other externally sourced soil in each seed bed takes considerable time. For my pre-existing beds (that I made last year), I do not always raise them and it still makes an easy planting effort. For new beds that are on a lower slope on the farm, I raise a few beds at a time. I use a shovel to move soil from both sides of the bed and thereby raising it a few inches. I also haul 4-5 wheelbarrow full of compost in each of the raised beds. No wonder bed preparation happens to be a very labor intensive task on my farm and takes a lot of time. With this manual approach, I am able to do only 2-3 beds in a day (besides other field work). In the long run, the addition of compost and soil amendments helps immensely in the health of the soil. On beds that are not raised and are severely compressed, I do one pass with my two-wheeled walk behind tiller to loosen the soil, put compost and level it with a rake. Hauling compost from one place on to the beds is done on raised as well as simple ground level beds.  I do not put lumber around my raised beds as it is an extra effort which I see no benefit to the plant growing in it. And lumbar is expensive to source for me.  Having nicely defined beds held together with wooden supports does make the field look clean and the higher level prevents water logging issues. 

I take a few different approaches to deal with the drainage issues on my soil. At times, I cover planting areas under black tarps. Not only does it suppress weeds and grass, it also prevents water seeping to the ground. Tarp is not a magic bullet in that the area underneath it will the totally dry when you take them off. Secondly, I make the seed beds bit higher than ground level with added compost on top. That gives 2"-3" of height and saves the beds from totally drowning during a heavy downpour. Compost also ensures more organic matter in soil which helps soil attain an optimum level of tilth. Thirdly, I mulch the pathways with straw or wood chips. The most important advantage of this is that the soil near the bed remains walkable and doesn't sink when walked upon. Moreover, the mulch adds organic matter to the soil over time. I do not put wood chips or straw on my seed beds as I need clean seed beds for planting. The mulch takes a long time to break but it does a beautiful job of preventing bare ground. Lastly, I make sure I do not walk on the seed beds or compress them more after they are built. In that regard, once my beds are made, I do not use my tiller to turn over the soil when preparing a bed for next planting. The approaches are incorporated on only parts of the farm at any given time. 

A few approaches of building soil that I do not take right now but are beneficial for the farm health are: 

  • incorporating low growing living mulch between beds to prevent soil erosion
  • building drainage tiles in water logged areas to direct water away from the field
  • putting a thick layer of mulch on all beds at all times
  • keeping unused ground covered with green manure before planting

So why hadn't I take the above steps on my farm ? It's because they do not fit into the production plan currently. Since I do not have external help, I have to choose the tasks that are most needed at a given time to have the farm up and running. The critical infrastructure tasks always take a priority and my husband's time gets consumed in them. I also do not have proper equipment and needed machinery to do many of the tasks that can benefit in the long term. So I chose where to put my effort judiciously. In the future, I do plan to implement above mentioned approaches of building soil comprehensively on the farm. 

Is there anything good about the rains ? Plenty, if your crops and field don't drown. Without me watering the plants at all, the rains spurred the growth of the plants and germinated the seeds in the ground. There is no water plants love more than rain water. The rain water is free from salts and harsh chemicals, is soft and is of the right pH for the plants. Plants grow better in rain water. For this reason, rain water catchment is practiced by many farms where water shortage is imminent.

Rain touched crops

Since nature does not tolerate bare ground, with all the rains, weeds germinated as fast as the crops and my lush green farm is part crop and part weeds. The slugs also came looking for greens as soon as they can find their favorite food. Rain and slugs go together. The slimy little creature eats lettuce leaves in early morning and night. Since there are trees and vegetation around the farm and the soil remains wet for a long time in May,it creates an ideal conditions for them to thrive.  
The rain is one weather event that affects farmers across the world, most often in a season. One part of the world may complain about heavy rains while another may be waiting for a drop of rain to hit the ground. The availability of produce to consumers, prices of the agriculture commodity and profits made on the farm during growing season are profoundly affected by rains. The ancient cultures worshiped the god of rains realizing how this important event affects the well-being of their community. 

Happy Gardening..rain or shine