The Farmer Diaries

North Texas farmer reaches seasonal crossroads in summer's final month

North Texas farmer reaches seasonal crossroads in summer's final month

kale thriving in a garden bed
Kale forced into a state of dormancy by the Texas summer heat. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
bumble bee on zinnia
A bumble bee gathers nectar from a zinnia in early August. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
melon vines
Thriving melon vines present a crossroads for a Texas farmer after the melons have been harvested. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
okra
Okra promises a continuing harvest even when all other crops are dying from heat and drought, Photo by Marshall Hinsley
bed of zinnias
A bed of zinnias keeps pollinators fed and souls nourished among the dying crops in late summer. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
kale thriving in a garden bed
bumble bee on zinnia
melon vines
okra
bed of zinnias

By August, summer heat reaches an intensity that either kills crops or drives them into dormancy until cooler weather arrives in autumn. Most of the cucumber vines have shriveled into brown, crispy plant skeletons entwined in their trellises. The tomato plants are a mix of green shoots growing out from deadened branches with only a few remaining fruits to be picked.

Likewise, squash plants that were so bushy and full of green leaves a month ago are now long, bare vines sprawling out in every direction from their roots, with sparse leaves and only an occasional crookneck squash or green zucchini to harvest. 

The final full month of summer is a sort of crossroads for the farmer. Crops planted in spring have yielded about all they're going to. Cool season crops such as kale and collard greens, coddled through summer drought with intense watering and care, have been made less palatable in the heat, bitter and tough.

 The plants that are still hanging on are usually well past their prime; they're taking up space that may serve better for new ones.

The plants that are still hanging on are usually well past their prime; they're taking up space that may serve better for new ones. But, then again, there's hope that rainfall in a few weeks may be all the old plants need for a full revival — in which case they'd be as productive as the fresh crops but sooner, and I could skip a whole new round of preparation.

Yet, I must continue to labor away, sustaining them until they can flourish again in cooler weather. The decision is a difficult one to make.

For me, the hardest decision and the biggest letdown for the season comes from the melons that I planted. Since April, when I sowed the seed and started a daily routine of watering and weeding the melon patch, I've doted on them in anticipation of sweet, juicy melons. I've watched the vines grow larger and greener every day until finally, at the peak of summer, their fruit was ready.

Cantaloupes cascaded in during a two-week stretch that fully satisfied my melon cravings and left plenty to be sold for a small return on the garden investment. It was like the grand finale of a fireworks show: too much to appreciate all at once but enjoyable as its own experience of sensory overload.

Now in the wake of the melon harvest, I'm left with empty vines that are remarkably vivacious from these last three months of extensive care. I've continued watering them in hopes of a second harvest as soon as the heat breaks.

There's no assurance of such a second wave, however, and I'm not sure that the time and resources needed to see them through is warranted. While I tend melon vines, I'm failing to plant a fall crop of squash, cucumbers and carrots.

What's more, I'm losing time on starting seedlings of broccoli, kale, collard greens and Swiss chard, which will need to be sowed in small containers of seed mix now. Then they'll be ready to transplant in the field as soon as the fall rains begins. If I miss out on the seedlings, I will have nothing to harvest through the winter months.

 There's hope that rainfall in a few weeks may be all the old plants need for a full revival — in which case they'd be as productive as the fresh crops but sooner.

Having reached the last 500 gallons of an initial 10,000 gallons of stored rainwater, I decided by the second week of August to let the melon vines go. Sure, they represent a huge investment of time, even my soul. But their purpose has concluded.

I'll collect them and put them in the compost bin in order to recover the minerals in the plant tissue. I'll no longer waste my time on a fleeting hope. For me, summer has ended. All the enthusiasm about the season and anticipation of good things to come is over.

As soon as I came to this conclusion, I was struck with how much this little drama in the garden is a metaphor for life. Farming for me is a part-time venture, a supplement to my livelihood and by no means a major income.

My main line of work as a media freelancer was once a productive source of income and an enjoyable career. But lately it's descended into an unfulfilling job that's yielded for me about all the reward it can; there's nothing more to look forward to.

I've been hanging on to it because of what it once was and not because of what it is now. In so doing, I've certainly missed out on opportunities to advance. I've got to focus my work on what I value if I am ever to be content. I've got to be willing to cut out what has ceased to be worth the time I spend on it.

In other words, I've got to move on; I've got to apply my skills to something more worthwhile and away from a situation that leaves me feeling like an incarcerated brick layer paying his debt to society by building more prison walls.

In my garden metaphor, already I see hope. Okra is in full production while every other crop seems to be drying up. Similarly, I've begun to be involved in new projects with government agencies and nonprofit organizations that help people's lives, even saving lives at times. Such cannot be said for my past projects.

Among my old work and spent endeavors, I'm exploring projects to which I will gladly give my talent, just like how I continue to enjoy tending a few beds of flowers that are standing out among the dead crops like a colorful reward for past drudgery.

These zinnias and hollyhocks are keeping butterflies and bumble bees satisfied and the hummingbirds fed in my garden. They serve for me as a reminder to seek out rewarding pursuits and not toil away at what needs to be let go.