I read somewhere that cabbage years occur when nothing will grow in the garden except cabbages. It’s even worse in Okinawa when they have a tornado year; everything gets torn up above ground so sweet potatoes are all that’s left. Ever the optimists, meteorologists describe our weather lately as “unsettled”, but gardeners translate that into “who knows what will grow?” While some crops just don’t make it there’s always something to eat because backyard gardeners share enviable advantages over commercial growers.
A crop failure doesn’t mean disaster. Weather vagaries don’t bankrupt us because if one crop won’t make it, surely something else will. This spring was a bad one for my lettuce and peas because slugs and sow bugs enjoyed prolonged wet weather, but my parsley and other herbs thrived in those cool, rainy days.
If the weather becomes too hot for greens, tomatoes and peppers keep pounding out the fruit. We can grow a variety of vegetables and fruits, afford to experiment and add more expensive amendments, and use hand tools on our small plots.
We can make the time and effort to adapt vegetables normally suited to different climates to ours and coerce them into productivity. We make tunnels to keep peppers warmer than would otherwise be possible. We can use covers like “Wall ‘O Waters” to plant out heat-loving plants early so they will have time to mature in our short summers. We can lay ice cubes over newly-seeded rows in midsummer to keep them cool and damp so they can germinate in spite of the heat.
All is not lost if an experiment fails because we have other crops to eat. If beetles destroy the potato crop, chances are we’ll still have cabbages. Because we don’t grow much of each crop, our structures need not be large nor expensive. For example, a 25 by four-foot bed satisfies our tomato plants’ needs. A cover to keep out late blight-causing rain needn’t be larger than that nor heavy duty.
Farmers own trucks to haul in materials and to take crops to market; we use bags in car trunks to haul stuff home and baskets to bring the harvest into the kitchen. We don’t need tractors or rototillers; in fact, we’re better off without them. Tractors compact the soil and rototillers bring up googles of weed seeds to the surface. For the obsessive/compulsive among us, a google is 10 to the 100th power. It’s a lot. When I had an allotment garden in Victoria, some of my neighbours used a rototiller in the mistaken belief that it would save them time and effort. My hand-hoed soil required far less weeding during the entire summer. Mere weeks after rototilling, their gardens were covered with the green sheen of weed seedlings that, once they’d been hoed out, merely became replaced with a fresh crop of weed seedlings that had come up with the tiller. These same gardeners’ used overhead sprinklers, ensuring weeds’ continued existence all summer.
Commercial growers don’t have the time to hand dig all their beds, so they have no choice but to use a tiller; then they must use a tractor to keep the weeds down, if they’re organic growers. Conventional growers use herbicides.
But the best advantage for backyard growers is that we can better afford to completely amend our soils because the financial layout for a small plot isn’t nearly so daunting and our labour costs us nothing. Our fully-amended, well-grown crops provide healthier, tastier food that we can harvest and eat within minutes of picking.