Monday, April 12, 2010

Lessons learned from mud season

Growers anxious to plant in the spring should be aware that the first narrow window of opportunity results when the soil defrosts completely ("unthaws" in the Maine vernacular). This occurs from the top down because of wind and warming temperatures, and from the bottom up as heat from the earth's core exerts its subtle influence. At some point, the entire soil profile is once again porous and able to facilitate drainage of rain and snowmelt. Although somewhat counter-intuitive, years with deep snow cover and little frost result in an early spring, while "open winters" with little snow and frigid temperatures drive the frost deeper into the ground and resulting in a later start.

This initial drying out has often occurred on or around Earth, Day April 22nd in central Maine. The soil may be plowed or tilled for early plantings of spinach, peas, lettuce, and frost hardy transplants. This planting period may last only a few days, before spring rains return to saturate the soil structure once again. Growers whose equipment is in disrepair, or who do not have their seeds in hand, may be forced to wait weeks for their soil to return to this workable state. With this in mind, gardening book authors universally recommend that new gardens be located on "well-drained, sandy loam".

When I first began farming, I was faced with a steep learning curve. I had no personal farming experience, nor had I grown up in a farming family.

"Back to the land" was an appropriate moniker for the first five years of my tenure in Maine, as I struggled to grow the vegetables needed by an extended family living on a hillside farm. As my vegetable growing ambitions grew, I acquired a succession of various obsolete farm tractors and related equipment.

Learning to navigate these relics over the fields proved quite a challenge, and one especially wet spring my farming neighbor and I staged an impromptu mud run.
Neither of us had the maturity, experience, or patience to wait a few more days to begin working our fields. We had bolted together our aging equipment while the last snow flurries fell, filled our greenhouses to overflowing with seedlings planted on an optimistic timetable, and agonized as deep frosts delayed the drainage of our soggy fields. When the sunny skies and warm breezes tempted us beyond endurance, we fuelled our respective mounts in the dooryard and wheeled out to the edge of the fields. I was trying to work some ground near the barn and he was attempting to plow open a field on his land just across the stream.

In the sorry spectacle that followed, plowing progressed only by fits and starts. Mostly there was a series of shrieks, moans, and hollers from the tractors as they floundered in the mud and curses accompanied by the clank of shovels as we dug out the tires and placed rocks and boards to return them to the surface.

Periodically, when shoveling failed, one of us would walk across the stream to ask the other to bring a chain and tow the second tractor out of the mire. As the morning passed, several epic rounds of towing had occurred, but precious little that resembled plowing. Finally, as I shoveled the mud off my boots to begin the walk across the bridge for yet another tow, my heart sank.

There in the distance was my neighbor wearily climbing the bank to the road to summon me. When we met at the bridge over the small stream it was confirmed that both our tractors were now sunk in the mud. Calculating the number of weeks it would require to till our small plots at the rate we were going, we were forced to admit that we were no match for mud season. Over the past three decades I have spent part of every spring preparing the earth to garden. And I have never forgot that early spring, when mud season taught me that there's a time for every purpose under heaven!
Ben Wilcox

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