Winter is a wonderful time for reflections as the pace of farming slows down dramatically. Here in CA, I find winter is merging into spring now. My to-do list is ever growing and somewhere in-between sowing spring seeds and planning the beds for summer flowers, I realized I hadn't sat down to write my reflections on my first year flower farming exclusively with a one year old on my back. So here it goes.
Farming is my favorite type of experimentation. There are MANY ways, tips, and tricks that farmers use and methods of farming can all be so uniquely different. I took it upon myself to grow flowers the most ecological way possible. To me, that means, no pesticides or using anything that is not-organic and will harm soil life. Not tilling the soil is another HUGE importance to me. Adding layers upon layers of compost, organic matter, and organic amendments also are important. Farming according to a biodynamic planner... this is something that I would love to learn more about, but basically, I time my farming activities (particularly seeding and transplanting) in accordance with the greater universe. Within these guidelines and bringing my son to the farm 90% of the time, I learned quite a few lessons. Here are some of them:
Your child must always come first, always.
This is something I knew already heading into this endeavor. However, it is much, much easier to know it than to actually practice it. Picture heading to the farm with the agenda to harvest 5 buckets of flowers with your baby in tow. Oh, and it's already 80 degrees out. 5 buckets doesn't sound like much, many of times I needed to harvest more than that, but 5 buckets can translate to 250 - 400 stems of flowers, snipped and stripped of their leaves. You may have HUSTLE on your mind like I have, but your kiddo needs constant attention. As you work, your kiddo is walking over flower beds, crushing newly planted babies to get to you. He starts hanging on you and it's hard for you to move down the row efficiently without him falling over. So, you put him in a carrier on your back. Now you feel like supermom except your back wants to fall off. One bucket picked. Oh now your kiddo needs a snack... See what I'm trying to get you to picture here? Being a mother is HARD. Farming is HARD. Now combine the two and it's easy to see that stress and anxiety levels can rise. This really comes down to a practice of mindfulness. Being fully aware, attentive, and present with not only your needs, but your child's truly takes practice. Luckily, kids give us plenty of opportunities to practice. They always need our love and often our attention too. I found it best to get work done and keep him happy by setting him up with toys or miniature versions of what I use so he can copy me. Including him by asking him to put flower stems in a bucket. Giving him his own mini bucket of flowers to play with, and always checking in letting him know I see him, that he's doing a good job, and that whatever he has is really cool. There have been plenty of days where I couldn't finish the work, because he needed to come home. That is okay. He comes first!
Find support and accept help
This is key. It's easy to feel like you're alone when you're farming alone, but the truth is there is probably other farmers nearby that are feeling the same way. Reach out, network, and connect. It is so good to share your successes, failures, and ideas with other like-minded folks. Similarly, it is necessary to find support if you have a kiddo. I have a hard time asking for anyone other than my partner to babysit because well, I'm determined to do it all, but setting the ego aside and accepting help has been one of the best things for everyone's well being.
Sow seeds in late summer for robust spring plants
Timing, timing, timing. Only so much of farming is using good intuition. The rest, is timing. In order to farm (essentially) year round, I need to plan effectively for spring crops. Spring flowers, otherwise known as cool flowers or hardy annuals, like to grow during the cooler months until they burst with blooms when the temps warm up in spring. If you miss planting them in fall (which is best) you have another opportunity in early spring. This is what I'm going for now. I have two rows of spring annuals that were transplanted by Feb and I'm hoping they perform well before temps rise too high (which in the central valley of CA, comes pretty fast). Lisa Mason Ziegler's book, Cool Flowers, has been indispensable for this type of knowledge.
I need to combat gophers
This was a tough lesson for me to come to terms with. I knew when there were gophers on the farm because of their holes, mounds, and plants they've left dead by snacking on the roots. The two farmers directly next to me were actively trapping them (live) so I didn't think I needed to do anything. After all, we are co-existing so I tried to have compassion for the creatures as they are hungry, too. If any of you have not dealt with gophers before, know that their population increases exponentially each season. My farm is small at 1/4th acre and I grow so much diversity that I never have a ton of one particular crop. It's very easy for them to eat and destroy an entire crop, one that I spent MONTHS to grow and nurture. As they have exploded on my farm wreaking havoc, It is clear to me that I need to take more drastic measures to de-populating them which includes trapping, and I'm not so excited about that.
No-till farming WORKS
The soil I am working with is heavy clay soil. It doesn't drain well and compacts easily. The good thing with clay soil is that it holds a lot of minerals. My efforts are to build up good soil tilth ON TOP of the clay instead of breaking it up. My first season of keeping plant matter on the beds, composting, and mulching with straw yielded me a whopping 2 inches of nice top-soil (sense my sarcasm?). Usually plants roots go down way deeper than 2 inches, so this meant I would be planting into clay. I was still determined not to affect the soil life and structure already in place, so I just transplanted all my babies into the clay. It was a huge leap of faith, and I'm here to tell you it worked. Some plants grew 3-4 feet tall! Others, like marigolds, grew tall and then fell over. I'm not sure if it was just because they were top heavy, or their roots stayed shallow, or a combination, but I know I should plan to stake marigolds this season. I was, overall, extremely pleased. The soil tilth will only get better and better from here on.
These are just a few of my most valuable lessons thus far. There are things I will do differently going into this next season but there are also things that will remain the same because experiments worked! If you're a farmer or farming parent, I would love to hear some of the things you learned! Comments welcomed below.
Thanks for reading.