The Farmer Diaries

Why a little pessimism is good for a thriving garden

Why a little pessimism is good for a thriving garden

Tomatoes ripening on a dying plant
Tomatoes ripening on the vine of a dying tomato plant. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Water gushes out from a broken drip irrigation system
Water gushes out from broken drip irrigation lines and onto the pathways on North Texas farm. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
A spider in her web between tomato plants
A nocturnal spider sits in a massive web stretched between tomato plants in two different raised beds. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Tomatoes ripening on a dying plant
Water gushes out from a broken drip irrigation system
A spider in her web between tomato plants

As the end of June nears, I couldn't be more satisfied with the way my crops are shaping up. But I'm also learning that a touch of pessimism may be a requirement for success in farming.

My cantaloupe plants are vining out like sea monsters. My squash is robust — not a single casualty to pests or drought so far. I'm even harvesting okra sooner this year than in the past.

This appearance of success has diminished my innate tendency to worry. But a wise farmer operates under the assumption that something is going wrong in the garden. How could it not? There's no way for exotic plants from all parts of the world to grow in one climate at the same time of year, exposed to all sorts of pests, without some form of failure lurking in the midst of it all.

For example, I realized that I overestimated our recent rainfall. Rather than my soil being moist and fertile, it's so dry that it has become hydrophobic, a condition in which the soil actually repels water.

A wise farmer operates under the assumption that something is going wrong in the garden.

Texas' heavy clay soils are prone to hydrophobia. Usually clay soils are dependable sponges of water, trapping moisture when rain is abundant and releasing it when rainfall ceases for the summer. But the state's persistent drought has changed that. Even heavy rains now do little more than wet the surface of the soil; the water pools up and runs off to the nearest creek or watershed, leaving the soil deep down as dry as it was before the rain.

Once soil has become hydrophobic, rainfall needs to be a slow drizzle that lasts for more than an hour to get down deep into the soil near the plant's roots — the sort of rainfall we rarely see anymore outside of winter. To supplement that rainfall, we have to drip water into hydrophobic soil slowly, no faster than a gallon per hour.

To that end, I've been hand-watering certain beds and crops with my stored rainwater. But I skipped my tomatoes, mistakenly assuming that the mulch was keeping them in good shape. This week I realized my mistake when I began to see a sudden change in the tomatoes: They started turning yellow one day, then brown the next, with their leaves becoming crispy.

Clueless that my soil was anything but perfect, I initially assumed that a fungal disease called fusarium wilt was to blame. The humid weather we've been having is a perfect environment for the disease, and every year it has claimed a few of my tomato plants. Presuming this was another fungal attack, I sprayed the leaves with a solution of water and neem oil, an organic fungal control made with oil from neem trees.

Several days later, the symptoms persisted. That's when I stuck my finger into the soil at the root zone of the tomatoes and found that the soil was as dry as cornmeal. I hadn't even suspected it.

Fire up the drip
Plants can endure a little strain and pop back to being healthy if their ailment is caught in time. But when plants are stressed for a long time, they'll die no matter what. Worried that my tomatoes were reaching the point of no return, I set out immediately to take corrective action.

 "Having a green thumb" is less about how well a farmer grows a crop and more about how well a farmer predicts problems and gets them under control.

My first move was to start up my drip irrigation system, set in place among my raised beds. Drip irrigation is a thorough way to water the garden, but you can go through a thousand gallons in two hours. I wait as long as possible to start using it because it depletes my rainwater storage quickly. I need to pace my use of the water so that it will last through the summer until the rainfall begins again in autumn.

But now there was no more time to delay. I attached all the hoses from the irrigation system to a pump at the base of a 1,500-gallon rain tank and turned on the power. Immediately, I heard air escaping from the long lines of hoses and dripping nozzles; this was normal. But then a few seconds later, I heard the sound of gushing water from just about everywhere. This was not normal.

Apparently, late spring freezes did more than kill a couple of unprotected plants. Throughout the system, connectors and valves had been cracked from ice having formed in them. They were now no longer able to withstand the water pressure.

Water that should have been dripping lightly onto the plants was pouring out into the pathways instead. The drip irrigation system was dead — another problem that caught me completely unaware.

My only option was to hand-water all the tomato plants, one by one. This required a long hose with a hand sprinkler attachment, with the water trickling slowly so that the moisture could penetrate the soil and get down to the roots. I started the process at dinnertime and finished at midnight, seven hours later.

Most of my time spent watering was after dark, so I had to be careful not to wet the foliage of the tomatoes or else they would indeed be exposed to fungal disease.

Despite the urgency of this unplanned addition to my agenda, I wasn't unhappy with my open-air task. Ever since I worked at Six Flags over Texas on the Runaway Mine Train as a teen, I've always preferred working outside, regardless of the time or weather conditions. As night fell, a bright waxing moon obscured slightly by clouds helped illuminated the pathways so that I could easily walk through narrow pathways between the bushy plants.

It was difficult, though, navigating around the huge spider webs that reached across pathways and even spanned between trees. The light-brown spiders that occupy the webs are about the size of a grape and cast their webs only at night, just as the sun sets.

In the past, they made my skin crawl when I walked into their nets and felt their soft bodies bounce off of my face. Now I’ve become habituated to them, and they’re almost cute to me — hundreds of coworkers keeping my pests in check. I avoid them now not because they spook me but because I don’t want to disturb their work.

Though I spent seven hours watering that night, that still gave the plants only enough water to keep them from dying until I could return in the light of day. The next day, I watered them more thoroughly. At least half of the plants appear to be able to recover, but I think that there will be casualties.

Honestly, it's not only my plants that wilt easily; so does my tenacity when I face obstacles. It's easy for dead plants and broken equipment to make me feel that I need to abandon farming and get an office job somewhere, concluding that I’m just no good at this.

But this time, my setback reminded me of something said by Mr. Bachelor, my seventh-grade science teacher at T.C. Wilemon Junior High and former member of the Air Force: "Pilots don't fly planes; pilots simply control their fall." The saying recasts the task at hand for pilots and reminds them that all planes hit the ground, one way or the other.

Likewise, all gardens fail. If they make it through summer drought and pests or the occasional storm, they still die off in the first freeze of November. Success or "having a green thumb" is less about how well a farmer grows a crop and more about how well a farmer predicts problems and gets them under control.

Having problems is not the problem. Failing to control the problems is the problem. This difference in perspective is subtle, but for me, it’s a difference that keeps me from giving up my aspirations of farming when I make a costly mistake.