29. Failure

It had to happen eventually. And it’ll happen again from time to time in this young farming career of mine. Crop failure: it’s a general term for when a planting must be declared unsuccessful. My first one was conceded a couple weeks ago on a bed of sugar snap peas. I planted about 300 or so seeds in the bed during a window of warm weather in mid March. But the snow and cold returned briefly the following week. I did my best to keep the seeds protected with row covers and plastics. But after 14 days, only about 20 of the seeds had come up. And that day, half of those seedlings died. We were standing at a 3% survival rate.

the home base plot as it looks today, April 22

Crop failure can happen for any number of reasons: deer can get in and decimate newly planted lettuce. Insect pests like flea beetles or vine borers can do a lot of damage if left unchecked. Weeds can outpace the vegetables and turn a bed into a total loss. As a backyard gardener, I’m most familiar with weather-related failures: a dry 95° day at a mile high while I’m out for the day fishing at two miles high will surely cause some casualties. And back to back hailstorms in May of 2015 left me with scraggly stems where flourishing heirloom tomatoes had once stood.

My research suggests that the culprit in this specific case is likely fungal. “Damping off” is not particularly well understood, but it happens most often in indoor growing under unheated conditions. High humidity and low temperatures for a prolonged time means seedlings suddenly catch a fungal disease and die right before or after they emerge from the soil. The disease can spread quickly in the right conditions, and it even happens in sterile soil mix sometimes. Seeds that haven’t broken the casing yet simply begin to rot in the soil.

transplanting Buckley head lettuce

I’d never experienced damping off before and though I’d heard about it in conversations and read about it in books, I truthfully was skeptical that it even existed. I often react this way when I don’t understand the mechanism behind a given process. But damping off is real, and now I know for sure.

Admitting crop failure was an interesting experience. It started with a note in my planting log: “...something is very wrong in bed 3.” For a week or so, I kept checking, hoping the other 280 plants would come up. But they didn’t and I had to act. Replanting peas in that bed wasn’t really an option according to the planting schedule because it would affect the timing of other crops planned for that bed for the rest of the year. So I decided to plant some shorter-term salad turnips and kale to stay on schedule. Turnips weren’t going to be on my market table until later in the year, but this planting could be ready for my first day at market if the weather works with me.

our strawberry transplants had a 100% success rate!

As a farmer, it’s all about putting your plants in a position to be successful. If you can do that, nature usually ensures that success will follow. But if you don’t it’s important to recognize when something has gone wrong. Especially for me with my limited land base; I can’t afford for a bed to sit fallow during any part of the growing season. So I made sure to fill the space ASAP.

The other thing I made sure to do is learn from the mistake. I planted four flats of pea starts in the nursery last week to see if I could get a better germination rate under controlled conditions. If so, I’ll try to find a place to put those transplants and salvage this chapter of the pea harvest, albeit a few weeks late.

Some of these farming lessons are painful to learn. But if I call myself a “lifelong learner”, I need to put my big boy pants on and go out there and get an education. I’ve got some suspect onions in bed 10 that may be about to teach me something. So on with the boots, and out I go...

lettuce and basil getting a head start