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Crop Insurance in a Dry Year

August 12, 2015

This past year has been one for the record books weather-wise here in the Pacific Northwest.  A game changer on many fronts.  Not so much in a bad way, I think a better description would be …uh, challenging.  New things here on a larger scale have been drip irrigation in one of the outside gardens in addition to the greenhouse.  A win-win on all fronts. I’m pretty serious about growing our food, not just the meat aspect but the potatoes too.  With a warmer summer, we can expect wins and losses that are different that what we normally experience.  I’ve seen a gap in pollination in some cucurbits due to 100°F days but we’ve been enjoying melons much earlier due to those same 100°F days.  In western Oregon we always experience a Mediterranean-like summer, we are used to three months of dry weather with no rain, but as I look around at the trees, I see it’s not the summer dry that is hurting us its the winter and then spring prolonged dry spells that are making the difference.  The big fir trees are wilting, not noticeable to the eye, but each day as a I drive to the cows, I have to drive through these trees, limbs that barely brushed the cab two weeks ago are now wiping across the windshield midpoint.  That’s at least six inches, that’s noticeable.  They’ll be fine, but it’s telling, we are in a moderate drought. (Changed to severe drought as of August, 13, 2015.)

Sugar Sprint Snap peas

Sugar Sprint Snap peas

A life saver this season has been transplants.  Most folks think of starting seeds in the early spring and planting their gardens and then they’re done. But transplanting more crops this year instead of direct seeding has made a true difference in what will be our fall, winter and into spring food supply.

Cascade Ruby-Gold transplanted May 30th, 2015

Cascade Ruby-Gold transplanted May 30th, 2015

Successful transplants come from having a system whether it be flats and corresponding inserts that fit those flats, to soil blocking and everything in between.  I have no experience with soil blocking, so I’ll write about what I know, production type flats and inserts.  I like them, mostly because of the uniformity.  That’s important to me.  I have X amount of space to start my plants, uniform size flats allow me to plan better for our food needs.  Where you can get creative with flats and inserts is the cell size in the inserts.  I use 200, and 48 cell packs the most.  I also have 128 and 72 and I don’t seem to use those as much if at all.  I must say too that if you’re worried about having extra plastic lying around, I’ve had some of those cell inserts for 20 years.  Of course, I store them in the dark when not in use, and I handle them carefully.  I want them to last.

There are challenges to seed starting whether it be in the spring or in the summer.  Sort of the same, but not really.  In the spring you are hoping for light and warmth, and in the summer you are hiding from those things.  I learned a long time ago, to start my first starts in the unheated greenhouse without lights.  I tried lights, but what happened was I had plants ready too early to be planted when the real conditions were not right.  Too cold, too wet, too early.  I also experienced damping off in some of the weak plants.  Now I cool my heels and wait impatiently, no lights, but I do provide bottom heat.  What this forced patience yields are hardy plants that are not leggy and starved for heat and light too soon, but ready for the rigors of the vegetable garden.  It’s also nice too, because I am no longer chasing the sunny window and moving flats, the flats stay put.  Also the mess of potting soil etc, stays in the greenhouse where it belongs, and miraculously the damping off disappeared too when the plants were healthier.

Sugar Sprint peas July 27, 2015

Sugar Sprint peas July 27, 2015

Once the hot weather hits, I move my transplant starting efforts to outside the greenhouse on the north end.  The end wall provides enough shade so the heat doesn’t cook the seeds, and once germination has taken place there is still enough light to grow good seedlings.

Fall brassicas waiting for the heat to abate.

Fall brassicas waiting for the heat to abate.

While I normally transplant all brassicas and greens, this year I have transplanted crops that I have never needed to transplant before or at least not during the summer.  Extras on the transplant list this year were more successions of cucumbers, summer squash, kohlrabi, and recently peas.  Normally in July I start direct seeding these crops for another succession.  But in reality starting the transplants was much easier.  Our heat in June and July was hot, hot, hot.  Keeping the soil wet enough and cool enough for seeds isn’t that easy especially when these succession crops are fill-ins.  Lettuce bolts, you pull that out, fill in the gap…without irrigation everywhere that would mean hand watering a spot here, and oh yeah, over there too.  With flats of transplants, I find them easy to take care of.  Rather than the same amount of plantings scattered over two gardens, the flats are right where I have to walk past on the way to many other tasks.  It’s easy to turn the hose on when it’s right there, not so easy to get that same hose out to the garden for twelve broccoli plants.  Or remember to do that after a day of hay hauling.

Peas ready for planting.

Peas ready for planting.

I still love to direct seed, and some crops don’t tolerate transplanting, but I have to say expanding my summer transplant list in this drought year has been a life saver for the garden and this gardener.


29 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2015 3:39 pm

    Wonderful to have you back, although I am following you on Instagram (highly recommend it to all that want to get their daily fix of your wisdom). Have done transplants for years due to spring bug challenges and late summer heat here in NorCal. How do you get your little plugs out of your trays safely?

    • August 12, 2015 4:39 pm

      Terry, thank you! I was losing my ability to type with all that infernal texting! So I thought a blog post would be in order. The secret is to wait until a gentle pull will do the trick, too soon and you risk breaking the plant off, and too late you risk plants getting rootbound.

  2. christinalfrutiger permalink
    August 12, 2015 3:53 pm

    Where is Jane’s baby?? Is she too waiting for this dry, warm spell to move on before she delivers so she doesn’t have to water it as much? 🙂

    • August 12, 2015 4:36 pm

      Christina, that bun is still in the oven, me Nervous Nellie, was hoping that she might, maybe, could possibly freshen in August due to several artificial insemination dates, but not to be, she’s going to make me wait until the end of September. I am not minding the vacation though, this heat is getting me down, adding milking would have put me over the edge I fear.

  3. Barb in CA permalink
    August 12, 2015 4:58 pm

    Over the years you’ve always said the only real constant is change. Just when you get things into a groove, something comes along that forces you to adapt. Thanks once again for sharing the zigs and the zags with us. I would never have guessed transplants at this point in the year were actually less work and more successful. I have learned so much from you!

    • August 12, 2015 6:08 pm

      Barb, thanks for that! I have lots of failed direct seeded projects this summer, just too hot and too dry for too long.

  4. August 12, 2015 5:56 pm

    This heat and drought has been insane. Our neighbors are saying it’s the worst they’ve seen in 40 years, and are starting to worry about their well. Our garden was tough to get in with a two-year old, anyway, and, except for zucchini and whatever beans and beets we harvest, will be largely a bust. (The deer have been topping our tomatoes, raspberries and strawberries…we need a fence).

    How are your pastures doing? Are you doing anything differently with grazing, rest periods or anything else? Most of our Highlands moved to leased ground in April, but we kept three heifers home while the bull was with the big girls, and our home pastures are fried beyond recognition. We don’t irrigate, and with a drier than normal fall and winter predicted for Western WA, I’m nervous about whether it will recover. I’m wondering about being the bullet and either spreading some chicken manure in the spring or running a chicken tractor or two through to increase fertility.

    • August 12, 2015 6:07 pm

      Amy, so good to hear from you! This heat has been awful! I’m hoping to do a post on our pastures as well, I’ve got the photos, I just need to put it together. This summer is one for the books for sure!

  5. August 12, 2015 6:09 pm

    More great advice. Not using lights for the transplants is a stroke of genius (and please let me think that because the alternative is that I wasn’t smart enough to figure out the leggy problem myself!).
    I’ve noticed a lot of established trees and shrubs that never needed watering during the summer have really suffered this year, but you make a very astute observation – it was due to last winter and spring. You are a pretty smart cookie MOH 😏

    • August 12, 2015 7:16 pm

      La Femme Farmer, all hard won wisdom by making the mistake first for sure. I’ve tried it all, I would hate to think about our food security without a unheated greenhouse, it makes all the difference. Season extension is the name of the game. I think the plant that I have been noticing the most stress on the last few years is Indian Plum Oemlaria cerasiformis, what used to be green for months is now loosing leaves earlier and earlier and the larger trees suck up the available moisture.

  6. Bee permalink
    August 12, 2015 6:10 pm

    Welcome back, Nita! I don’t have Instagram (you have to have a cell phone to sign up for it, and cell phones don’t work up here). I like old cans (about 14 oz) for seed starting. I can get 25 to a tray, and they last forever. The other nice thing is that if I have to delay transplanting in our highly changeable springs, they offer some growing room. They’re also really easy to get out: tap around the sides of the can, tap the bottom and turn it upside down. I haven’t found anything I can’t transplant with this method; what do you have trouble with, Nita?

    • August 12, 2015 6:58 pm

      Bee, you don’t have to have a cell phone to see Instagram, just to post, follow or comment. I looked at Instagram accounts for several years before I ever got a cell phone. You can view any account that isn’t private on your computer.

      What I find is that the bigger the size of the container the more you have to fertilize it as you wait for the plant to fill it, it still dries out and needs watering and you can leach a lot of nutrients out. The biggie for us is the uniformity, my daughter sells transplants, and say something like broccoli should be planted long before it ever gets to the 14 ounce can stage. It works for us, it may not for others, I kind buck against the thought that production at any stage is a bad thing. Efficiency is my goal. I can start 200 tomato plants in one of those inserts, what she has orders for and what we want, as soon as they germinate and show true leaves they can move off the heat and I can start another plant in succession. It’s all savings on one end or the other. Things I have are flats and inserts from market days, what I don’t have are cans, cottage cheese containers, or solo cups. It makes sense to use those things if you have them though. I don’t have trouble transplanting anything that I can think of? Or did I misunderstand that last question? And all the fussing about roots and such, good heavens, a little disturbance is a good thing. I used to propagate and sell dwarf conifer cuttings, and to prepare them for the next part of their journey was a good root pruning. If a baby tree can take it, certainly a weed like a tomato can.

      • Bee permalink
        August 12, 2015 7:48 pm

        I can use Instagram with the computer, but when I’ve tried to sign up for it so I can comment, it says I have to sign up with a cell phone to download the app. Maybe I’d better get my techie daughter to look it over for me…
        You had said in your post that some plants don’t tolerate transplanting — that’s what i was asking about, because I haven’t found anything that won’t tolerate it. I’ve even transplanted tomatoes in gallon pots; as long as I keep the root ball together and water it in well, they just chug right along.

        • August 12, 2015 9:24 pm

          Bee, yes, to post, follow or comment you do need a phone, but viewing is what I was talking about. I meant things like carrots, parsnips, cilantro etc, the really should be direct seeded.

  7. August 12, 2015 11:16 pm

    No ‘moderate drought’ this is ugly weather – I called it out as bad as early as March – too dry. The bees may suffer – usually dry is good for bees, but what will these NW hives know and do with teh nectar dearth taht’s about to hit them? The blackberires were a tad early but other later flowering things are months early. They usually stcok-up on things like flowering English Ivy in September – this year it’s finished two weeks ago.

    Late nest bumblebees and lots of beetles are still working the pollination of your plants, they don’t have to gather winter stores.

    Let me know your pollination rates for late season crps this year

    and thanks for the lovely posts

  8. August 13, 2015 12:53 am

    I still haven´t gotten our kitchen garden started, which given our drought is actally OK because there was no way to water other than hauling.

    Another request for a pasture post. We have a long neglected, now compacted and abused half acre that hasn´t seen rain since May. Until today, woot! I´m wondering if we should try to get some compost or manure or something spread on it and then find someone to turn over the whole thing and reseed, or just reseed, or what to do.

    Thank you!

    • August 13, 2015 4:54 am

      Coco, hauling water is no fun 😦

      As for the half acre, you probably have seed there just waiting for release or feeding, just add compost or manure, and mow if you don’t have stock to graze. Leave the mowings that’s grass food, carbon right there. Turning and reseeding just sets you back a number of years, unless you want to kill the pasture for a garden spot, then turn it and disturb, otherwise just start building your soil from the top, you will be rewarded with a good pasture.

      • August 14, 2015 12:39 am

        Thank you! Now to source manure. Farmers here seem to use slurry. It´s always something.

  9. Regina Pishion permalink
    August 13, 2015 4:16 pm

    I found this a little brief on details, but interesting on the subject of dry farming.

  10. Karen R permalink
    August 16, 2015 12:47 pm

    I’ve observed a noticeable decline in bees (and butterflies) and the lack of pollination. My fear was neighbors were spraying what ever it is they spray, which could still be part of the problem, but most likely heat is the culprit. Too much rain in the spring and early summer gave host to the worst fungal disease I’ve experienced. Then the spigot was abruptly turned off. Like you, we’ve gotten a good melon harvest (so said my husband this morning as he munched on his cantaloupe). We all seem to be in the same boat and, in some ways, I’m glad others have had similar experiences this year as it lends itself to group discussion and problem solving. Thanks MOH for making that possible and taking the time to share your solutions.

  11. CassieOz permalink
    August 16, 2015 10:22 pm

    Well the climatologists told us we were in for a warm, dry winter due to a developing El Nino and it’s been the coldest and wettest for many years (so hay stocks diminishing fast)! After losing last year completely, I’m keen to get ahead of the spring plan and have started the tomatoes and peppers on the heat mat even though i wont be able to plant them out until mid November at the earliest. Greens are another matter and will be starting them and the onions and leeks next week. DH has to ‘renovate’the drip irrigation in two parts of the veg patch before i can put the early peas in in late September. Sooo glad to be back in the garden and to hear from you again. Looking forward to the pasture update and Jane’s xalf 🙂

  12. August 17, 2015 2:43 pm

    Sometime in all that copious spare time of yours (ha), would you consider a post on dryland gardening? I’d like to try it next year.

    • August 18, 2015 4:50 am

      NM, you know, any summer before this one a lot of my summer garden blog posts are specifically about dryland gardening. Type dust mulch in the search bar, and it should give you some posts dealing with dryland.

  13. August 18, 2015 2:23 pm

    Ah. Thank you! Off to read and learn!

  14. A.A. permalink
    August 30, 2015 3:43 am

    Hi Nita!

    A quick question, do you know of any resources on fermenting meat? How to do a whole sheep’s worth of meat for instance? All I’ve found recommend adding some curing nitrates, which I can’t take myself. I suppose I could just bag the cuts well for flies’ sake and leave them in the basement at fridge temps to cook for a month, but you’d think there were some recipes or instructions around?

    Great post by the way 🙂 Been a very cold summer here, the only warm spell were two weeks in August, 20-25 C temperatures and sun from down South, ended a week ago. Most crops have been from two weeks to a month late, garlic still isn’t quite blooming!


    • August 30, 2015 7:15 am

      AA, wow! I don’t. I’ve only seen the recipes with the curing salt. Can you dry it like jerky instead? Of course, that wouldn’t be dinner fare, but it sure is tasty.

      Sorry about the cold summer 😦

  15. A.A. permalink
    September 11, 2015 2:07 am

    Hi again Nita and sorry to bother you 🙂

    I’m trying to save rutabaga seeds and it looks like someone’s getting to the pods before I do. The pods look good while green, but start to wither before they mature and turn out empty or with some dirt left inside. Seems to me someone gets in there and eats the seeds up. Happened with kale also two summers back as well as this year. Any ideas? Harvest the stalks while green, bring indoors to dry quickly and see later how’s germination?

    Many thanks and a good harvests to you 🙂

    • September 12, 2015 3:48 pm

      AA, some kind of little weevil I think,not exactly sure, but I think they get in during bloom time and then eat their way out. At this point try bringing them in and drying down and see what happens.

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