On Sunday, Dean launched our newest experiment in soil amendment: hugelkultur. The execution is simple: create a trench, fill it with a combination of tree thinnings (or other bulky, carbon-rich materials) and compost, then cover it back up with the topsoil removed from the trench. Result: a raised bed. Comespring, plant into the tops of the mounds. If the mix of materials below has been done right, the pace of root growth from the plants above and decomposition below combines to fuel plant growth for seasons to come. Effectively, we'll be composting in place, realizing all of the benefits we already know and love -- increased organic matter, improved water retention and drainage, enhanced microbial activity. (An added bonus: the wood you see in these trenches came from trees we thinned several years ago; dropping the logs in the trenches allowed for some much-needed farm tidying.) In a few weeks, we'll place the new greenhouse over these trenches.
What does all this have to do with the weather? Dean had a plow -- not the snowplow, but the middle-buster -- on the back of the Jeep on January 29. He was using it to dig trenches. Just the surface of the soil was frozen; below, it was neither slippery nor sodden. We're happy to have a head start on soil preparation for a site that will be planted to myriad varieties of such Mediterranean crops as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and savory herbs. But we're starting to wonder about the orchard.
Apples, in particular, require a period of dormancy before the buds begin to swell in anticipation of spring pollination. It looks like we'll just squeak by with the number of chilling hours our trees require. What's looking increasingly unlikely, however, is the possibility that the buds would remain dormant until early May, after the hazard of killing frosts has passed. This past month's warm temperatures have coaxed trees throughout the Finger Lakes into behaving as though it's late March or even April -- yet two more months remain in which temperatures will almost certainly plunge to the depths at which tender blossoms blacken and the promise of fruit fades.
Farmers have a way of grumbling about the weather -- too hot, too cold, too sunny, too cloudy, too dry, too wet. But perhaps more than the moaning over extremes, it's coping with uncertainty that threatens to wear us down. At Tree Gate, we've determined to build resilience and redundancy into our farm design. We can't do anything to stave off the prospect of an apple crop lost to freakishly high January temperatures, but we can continue expanding the variety of perennial crops we've planted in hopes that some exhibit greater resilience in the face of changing weather patterns. We're taking the same approach to the farm's income streams. Annual vegetables fare poorly in a wet fall, for example, but the pigs and fruit trees don't seem to mind. You don't see many Muck boots or Carhartt jackets in the casinos of Atlantic City, because we've got all the gambling we need right here on the farm. Every season's weather is like another spin of the Roulette Wheel.