Field Notes ’16

Hi All,

It’s been tough to find time to write a more comprehensive update about what has happened at the farm during the fall and summer, so given the rainy day and the relative lull of early January, I’ll give it a shot.

This summer was hot and dry. July and August were unrelenting, and the heat remained well into October. These conditions made for a difficult summer of growing, especially when we are growing in an area already stricken by drought. One of the easiest ways to manager heat stress in a plant is to water it from above in the midday heat – a technique you can see in use during the summer if you head south into Chino – but managing heat stress with water is not the most responsible move in southern California.

Luckily we did discover a great summer cover crop for our region – cowpea. Cowpea is a black eyed pea cultivar that does extremely well in the the summer heat, growing a thick enough canopy of foliage to shade out the soil. This helps keep that soil in good condition throughout the summer, losing less water through evaporation. Harvested young, cowpea greens can also be used as a heat tolerant spinach substitute. Other summer successes included our extremely long lived tomato plants, Italian basil that somehow refused to bolt, and the construction of a seasonal shaded nursery area (a project I hope to continue in the late spring).

By next summer, I hope to have installed a permanent shade structure for our nursery area, and a moveable tunnel shade structure to offer some shade to our succeptible summer crops. Though our greenhouse is great this time of year, in the summer our seedlings need cooler temperatures, and though plants like summer squash, eggplants, and bell peppers all enjoy the warm weather, they can all go dormant in the worst of the heat. With the help of shade cloth we can keep starting seedlings throughout the heat, and we may even be able to grow some summer greens!

The heat this fall also proved difficult, keeping us from planting our cool season crops as early as we would like. Much of what we grow during the cool season becomes heat stressed with temperatures over 85 degrees (think lettuce, peas, greens, broccoli, cabbage), and long periods of high heat can ruin the flavor and texture of certain veggies. This meant that intensive cool season planting couldn’t start until well into October. Certain plants, like our broccoli, have much lower yields due to this delay, and the lower levels of sunlight they receive during their growing season. Other plants, like greens, have been unfazed by the shorter days, and have shot up throughout the fall.

I find that I learn the most at the farm from mistakes and failures. Not just my own (though certainly that), but also past mistakes. I’ve learned more about fruit trees by watching our peaches slowly die than in any other time in my life, and though I hope to save a few with some early season care, they stand as a reminder of how not to treat a tree, and how a series of small stressors can ultimately lead to a tree’s demise. It’s not only the peach borers, or only the drought, or only the over-pruning, or only the cytospora – a healthy peach can handle all of these individually – but the combination of all these factors. Borers tend to attack drought stressed trees and cytospora infects the wounds made by the borers and pruning cuts. It makes me think a lot about stress. I’ll get back to you on that.

The more optimistic side of me says it’s all part of the cycle, and we have been planting new trees to replace the old ones as they go out. Some of our peaches are about 15 years old, which is old for a tree that has been bred to produce heavily. We’ve also been planting a ton of new native plants in the newly established grandmother garden and hope to continue to turn the garden into an educational space where people can learn, not only about California native plants, but also their uses by and importance to local tribal communities.

Speaking of cycles, the spring/summer season is already upon us! Early tomato and pepper seedlings have already sprouted up in the greenhouse, and our summer seed order is on its way. We’ll be offering a Spring Planting 101 workshop early in the season for anyone interested in learning more about what to put in the ground.

Peas and Carrots,

Aaron