The Call, Column 54 – If At First You Don’t Succeed

12 11 2016

(August 28, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

I’m just going to say it: my garden really isn’t doing that well this year, and it’s kind of disheartening. It is due to the combination of quite a few factors, not the least of which are this hot, dry weather that is completely not conducive to growing food – something to which I think you can all relate – and that godforsaken family of woodchucks that significantly delayed my planting and reduced my harvest of anything with edible leaves to nearly zero.

But my own shortcomings are just as much to blame. I was so busy looking for a job in the spring, that I didn’t dedicate enough time to starting my seeds appropriately, planting early spring crops, and doing all of the “construction” projects that should have been done at that time, rather than in the middle of the summer (fixing my garden’s paths, installing a drip irrigation system, building a new fence to keep the demons – er, woodchucks – out, and amending the soil with compost). I planted everything late: from very delayed seed-starting, to not planting out my warm season crops (tomatoes, peppers) until mid-to-late June, to not even getting in the pumpkins and winter squash that I had planned. Also, since starting work I haven’t been able to dedicate many full days to working in my garden, something that I had come to rely on in the past, while in school and during summers where I wasn’t working normal full-time hours, to keep it in going.

So why am I telling you this? Because, and correct me if I’m wrong, we all face disappointing events – and sometimes disappointing years – in our urban farming endeavors. In the past, I’ve seen farming called “a series of catastrophies that result in a lifestyle”, and this year has given me a newfound appreciation for that quote. Side note: as I write this, my grandfather has just informed me that he watched the woodchuck go through the expensive, newly-installed fence seemingly as if by magic (I think that rodent is contorting its body to fit through the 2”x4” holes in the fence). Hold on while I apply for my shotgun permit.

Good or bad, that’s just how it is. I’m the last person who wants to accept the fact, but this type of disappointment is what should be expected when we’re trying to interface with a wild, natural, ecological system. Nature has a very different idea of “proper function” than we do. The vegetable gardener finds more value in their neat, well-kept garden of fragile annual plants than in a patch of weeds; Nature, on the other hand, has used trial-and-error over 4.5 billion years, and found that the most efficient way to use that fertile patch of bare Earth, and the rain and sunlight that fall upon it, is quick growing pasture plants like crabgrass (at least, until an old growth forest has established itself). The chicken-keeper grows emotionally attached to particular birds and goes to great lengths to protect their lives from would-be predators, while Nature knows the best way to guarantee the long-term success of a species: thin the herd so only the strongest survive. The water-conscious urban farmer loves the idea of storing fresh, clean rainwater in rain barrels, and even in the topsoil; Nature, on the other hand, abhors sterility, and when it comes to fresh water, her tools of choice are algae, insects, evaporation, and gravity.

I’ve said it before and will say it again: as urban farmers, we are in constant battle with Nature. She is our one and only benefactor (both in urban farming and every other facet of our economy), but she can seem cold, heartless, and stern when we don’t do things her way.

Sometimes, as urban farmers, we fail. And sometimes, we fail big. And sometimes, we fail so big that we start to question why we put ourselves through this every year.

But what I’ve realized, while having the worst year in the 8 years I’ve been gardening, is that failures of specific crops, or specific projects, or even specific years, are not wholesale failures. I haven’t “failed” at urban farming because a woodchuck ate my kale and spinach; I haven’t “failed” at urban farming because I planted the tomatoes too late, and they only just started ripening; I haven’t “failed” at urban farming because I was too busy in the winter and spring to do the projects that should have been done before this summer.

The chickens are still laying eggs. I harvested lots of berries and herbs over the past few months. The garden will still produce squash and tomatoes and peppers and eggplants and potatoes throughout in the coming season.

Urban farming is a learning process. Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, we as a society have collectively rejected the once common knowledge about how to grow, raise, and gather food. Would my great great grandfather have been able to tell me the best time to plant tomatoes? Yep. Would my great grandmother have been able to show me how to make cheese or yogurt from (gasp) unpasteurized milk? You bet. Would any one of my ancestors have warned me that I should erect a fence, out of material with very small openings, BEFORE even starting the garden – or one of the many other methods our species has devised to stop rodents from getting at our food? Absolutely.
But they didn’t. They couldn’t. I, like so many other city-folk-turned-urban-farmer, had to learn these things from books, the internet, farmer friends, and from a woodchuck eating my garden for 7 years before actually doing something about it. My grandparents do have quite a bit of this knowledge (when they choose to share it with me), but even they have gaps in their understanding that expose how distant their childhoods were from a historically normal human upbringing.

Today’s urban farmers are starting almost from scratch, trying in one lifetime to redevelop 10,000 years of agricultural intuition – and 2.6 million years of primate-hunter-gatherer intuition – that it took only 5 generations to lose. We will all make mistakes. There will be bad crops, and bad months, and bad years, but they do not represent actual failure.

The solution is to keep chugging forward, correcting your mistakes and trying not to make new ones. And working towards a resilient system is really a good place to start. Because, yes, Nature sometimes tries to destroy our gardens. But they are part of Nature.

By mulching the soil, incorporating plenty of organic matter, planting perennials whenever possible, and practicing polyculture rather than monoculture – by gardening like Nature does – we use her own strength against her. And rounding those tactics out with some of our own human ingenuity – things like rainwater storage, drip irrigation, and electric fencing – we end up eating more tomatoes than we lose. And that’s a win.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Fall garden to plan.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.