The Corn is up

Here, just south of the 45th Parallel (halfway to the North Pole) in the upper Great Lakes area of Ontario, Canada, the appearance of rows of little green sprouts of sweet corn in the first week of June is enough to make me break out into song and dance. I kid you not.

Corn has been described as a ‘tough crop,’ and so it is. But it’s also fussy: a warm-weather crop that won’t germinate if the soil temperature isn’t warm enough – a minimum of 21 degrees Celsius – and it won’t tolerate frost.

In southern Ontario, May 24 has traditionally been the date for planting such crops, on the assumption there’s no longer a risk of frost. But that’s not always dependable, as the 2021 growing season reminded us, when a hard frost a week after that date did a lot of damage; for example, annual strawberry crops then in pre-fruit flower, were wiped out in many locations, including mine.

Vast quantities of fungicides and other pesticides are used in modern, industrialized agriculture in the production of corn. Some fungicides are used to prevent seed corn from rotting after planting if the soil temperatures are not high enough to bring on germination for too long.

However, some growers, large and small, myself included, choose to use untreated seed. I think it’s fair to say that increases the risk of crop failure if after planting there’s a period of unusually cool weather. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, the weather in recent years has become less predictable, or reliable.

So, on May 17, with the weather and the soil warm, I knew I was to some extent taking a risk planting a few rows of sweet corn. But as a neighbor said, and I agreed, “sometimes you have to take a risk.”

A previous crop of sweet corn in Cathedral Farm garden

About a week later, after a nice rain, I was relieved to see those rows had emerged, and what’s more, showed 90 percent-plus germination. So, I took a deep breath and planted the rest of about 1.3 kilograms (just under three pounds) of seed – one seed, one row at a time, taking about eight hours in total. (Those single-row, push planters don’t work well with corn.)

And then, of course, the weather turned dry, and cool, though sunny. Fortunately, the soil embraced the heat of the sun sufficiently to keep the seed warm enough for germination; and then, a couple of days of much-needed rain was well-timed.

Watering by hand daily from a dug well will keep the garden alive. But there’s nothing like rain to turn it on. This morning is cool, but the whole garden is happy, virtually singing a chorus of relief and new growth as it, and I, look forward to a few days of sunny weather.

I’ll give the soil a chance to absorb the moisture for a day or two before weeding, and then laying down a thick bed of organic straw mulch for the strawberries, potatoes, and tomatoes.

The mulch keeps the clay-loam soil moist and helps avoid the hard-pan problem. It also keeps the potato plants free of potato beetles and helps the tomato plants stay healthy.

Herbs, including lots of basil, as well as the classic, “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” are going to be transplanted into a new raised bed, as soon as the weather warms up a few more degrees.

I am reminded just now of something my grandson Daniel said a few years ago when he was here helping me plant corn. He stopped for a moment, looked over and said in a wonderful way, “you don’t think of anything else when you’re doing this, do you.”

“You’re absolutely right, Daniel,” I said. “There’s lots of great things about gardening; and that’s one of them.

I think of that now because of the terrible things happening in the world, that we surely need to be aware of, try to understand, and do whatever we can to help.

Being alive, trying to appreciate that as much as possible; planting and caring for a hopeful garden; loving and caring for family and friends, and especially for children; being there for a stranger in need; keeping spirits up; taking a moment whenever possible to love yourself, to give yourself a break. Yes, that too … all that and more. We cannot, we must not, lose hope about being alive.

Seeds of hope in troubling times

The garden, May 2018

On a scale of one to ten this perplexing spring so far in Hope Ness and the rest of southern Ontario isn’t much to complain about when Putin’s bombs and missiles are killing thousands of innocent people in Ukraine, destroying the country, and threatening the future of the world

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 of this year, I posted this brief comment on Facebook: “Suddenly, everything else is irrelevant,” without referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the mostly local people who replied understood quite well what it was about. I sensed an unspoken, deep-seated anxiety about the increasingly unstable state of the world, one thing after another piled on in recent years: a persistent global pandemic; an attempted Trump-cult coup in the U.S. that only now are we learning how close it came to succeeding; democracy under threat by extremist, so-called ‘conservative’ movements in other parts of the western world, including Canada; hatred and divisiveness running amok.

And last, but certainly not least, climate change and its effects, being demonstrated, clear and ongoing, by this current spring in the upper Great Lakes area of Ontario and other parts of Canada.

At the time my ‘irrelevant’ comment felt right, and still does, depending on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Just yesterday, April 26, 2022, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov again raised the threat of nuclear war if Ukraine continues to ask for and receive military supplies from the U.S. and other NATO members. Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously made similar statements.

Lavrov said he would not want to see risks of a nuclear confrontation “artificially inflated now, when the risks are rather significant,” he said on Russia state television, as reported by the Associated Press. “The danger is serious. It is real. It should not be underestimated.”

It was an obvious threat, designed to keep the world at bay while the Putin Regime has its brutal way with Ukraine.

The most recent reporting says more than 8 million Ukrainians are now refugees, most of them women and children and old men. In a heartbeat, I would welcome them here at Cathedral Drive farm. And if they want to find some solace by helping in the garden, that would be fine. But no pressure. Sometimes a body needs to sit in the sun for a while, watch the clouds roll by, listen to the birds, go for a walk on the nearby trail, and rest.

Seedlings waiting patiently to go outside, April 27, 2022

Hopefully, there will be an abundance of raspberries, strawberries, and vegetables from the garden by then. No matter where in this area refugees may go, I would be more than happy to gift them, and their hosts, with naturally grown produce from Cathedral Drive Farm. It would be a privilege.

The season is late so far this spring, to say the least. Last night, with the forecast calling for -3 Celsius temperatures I thought it best to bring the seedlings out of the cold frame and into the warm of the house. Now, April 27, early afternoon, the temperature is still struggling to get above freezing. Tonight, the forecast is for a low of -5 C, and -3 tomorrow night. This is not normal for the end of April. Southern Ontario is on the verge of setting a new April record for cold weather. Normally, by now potatoes, peas and other cool-weather crops would be planted; garlic and strawberries, their winter-straw blankets removed, would be flourishing in 10 to 15 Celsius temperatures. Instead, the soil is still too cold and wet to work. Maybe by the end of the week, with warmer though still unseasonably cool days ahead, and sun, precious sun.

Rows of garlic emerging slowly, -1 Celsius, April 27, 2022

Meanwhile, I just received word from a berry nursery in Quebec that their shipments have been delayed because of unprecedented cold, April weather there. I ordered 100 young raspberry plants to start a new, sunny patch in the back garden, and expected to plant them this week starting May 1. “Pas de souci. Je comprend,” I replied.

What’s going on, one might ask?

Climate change, that’s what – climate change that has weakened and disrupted high-altitude Polar Vortex and Jet Stream winds, allowing cold, arctic-air anomalies to dip farther south than what used to be called ‘normal.’ For some reason those anomalies have a particular liking for the Great Lakes region, and once down this way, they like to stick around.

Jet Stream map, environment Canada, April 27, 2022

Yes, colder springs may seem counter-intuitive when global warming is the root cause of climate change. The problem is the polar regions are warming at a greater rate, relatively speaking, than the tropics. And that fact, by the way, has also disrupted the warm-water Gulf Stream, so much that winters in the U.K and other parts of Europe are much more severe in recent years.

Hopefully, some day soon, the world will get the message that something needs to be done.

In the meantime, the best we can do is spread the word, try to do good, be caring and helpful where it’s needed most, and keep planting seeds of hope.

Morning thoughts (3): potatoes and glyphosate don’t mix

Potatoes and glyphosate were on my mind this morning as the dogs and I walked down Cathedral Drive to the touchstone.

That may come as no surprise in the worldwide community of Finding Hope Ness readers well aware of my continuing concerns about the risk vast quantities of weed-killing herbicide containing Glyphosate being sprayed on crops around the world may pose for human health.

And, yes, I have gone on and on about how much I like potatoes often enough, that some might shrug and say, ‘so, what else is new?’ and turn the page, so to speak. But bare with me.

I have taken it for granted that because I don’t use Round-up or any other herbicide containing the active ingredient glyphosate that my potatoes are free of it. But I bow my head. I confess, after all these years it has taken me too long to find out that may not be true.

So, the question now is: what to do? And the answer may be … Well, I won’t go so far as to say ‘life-changing,’ not in a world where ‘life-changing’ events have become an ongoing or sudden reality. Not being able to do the things you love and live to do because of Covid-related travel restrictions or because climate-change-related weather extremes have already destroyed your life’s work – that’s truly life-changing.

As a good friend has often said when something goes wrong, “it’s not the end of the world” if I have to stop growing potatoes. But I love doing it; and I take pride in the way I do it, especially my habit for the past 25 years of mulching the newly emerged plants with good, clean straw. As a result, I’ve never had to spray any kind of insecticide to control the Colorado potato beetle, the major pest of potato crops. Also, I’m old-fashioned when it comes to weed control. I never use herbicide, and nowadays that means products that contain glyphosate, the best known being Round-up. Developed by Monsanto, it was first approved by the U.S. 45 years ago.

Glyphosate has been increasingly controversial in recent years, with the big question being, does it cause cancer or doesn’t it? Several lawsuit cases in the U.S. have answered yes and ordered multi-million-dollar damages. Bayer, the current owner of Monsanto, has set aside billions of dollars to cover similar future judgements. Various regulatory agencies, in Europe for example, disagree on the answer to the fundamental question. A study done for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) from 2015 to 2017, with results published in 2020, concluded levels of glyphosate residue in food product samples taken from retail stores do not pose a health threat, based on Canada’s existing Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). The study gathered 7,955 food samples from Canadian retail stores. of those samples, 3,366, or 46.3 percent, contained a “detectable” amount of glyphosate. And of those, 99.4 percent were within the Canadian MLR limit, while 46 samples were “non-compliant.”

“The high level of compliance (99.4% of samples with the Canadian regulatory limits) and the lack of a health risk for non-compliant samples indicate that, with respect to glyphosates, the food available for sale in Canada is safe,” the study concluded.

This past August Canadian officials decided after a period of public consultation not to go ahead with proposed increases to some MLRs until “at least” next year. Meanwhile, the government will look at enhancing its monitoring of pesticide matters.

Ah, the beautiful potato, fresh from the garden

In the best of all possible words, I would much prefer to consume no glyphosate. None at all, zero, nada.

Which brings me back to the beloved potato, that which my Celtic ancestors largely survived on; which Hope Ness pioneers, I’ve been told, had nothing else to eat except; and which originated in the Andes mountains a very long time ago, thanks to the indigenous people who lived there.

Winter is the time to start planning for next year’s garden crops. Every year I tell myself not to bite off more than I can chew, but rather, focus on the essentials, of which potatoes are one. So, with that in mind, as well as glyphosate, I went looking online for any possible concerns. Overdue, yes, I know.

I was surprised to find potatoes are, if anything, more sensitive to damage from incidental, wind-drift spraying somewhere else than I imagined. In fact, I thought I was far enough away on the Bruce Peninsula in secluded Hope Ness that it wasn’t a problem, despite the prevailing west and southwest summer winds. I assumed too much.

I found several online sources that spoke of the damage even a small amount of such incidental exposure to glyphosate can cause to potato crops. Most troubling was how glyphosate can travel down the parent-plant into the soil, and the daughter root ‘tubers,’ They are the actual potatoes that are marketed either as food, but most worrisome here, as seed potatoes.

“Tubers may have a normal physical appearance but have glyphosate in the seed that can cause a variety of germination problems the following year,” says a current article in Potato News, written by two associate professors at North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota.

I routinely buy seed potatoes from certified growers to plant in the spring. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for the federal Seed Potato Certification Program.

“The objective of the Seed Potato Certification Program is to supply Canadian growers of seed, table stock and processing potatoes with certified seed which is of high varietal integrity and is relatively free of tuber borne diseases,” says a CFIA web page. (my italics)

No offence, dear CFIA, but I think I may have to delve deeper into seed potato suppliers and how they deal with possible glyphosate contamination. As other on-line sources note, ‘organic’ is no guarantee regarding the effect of incidental drift.

I want to be able to say, “no glyphosate residue in potatoes grown at Cathedral Drive Farm.” Hopefully, that will be possible.”

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A rare treat, and a blessing

Just when things were starting to look dark and dreary, I was called to go over to the raspberry batch and receive a rare treat and a blessing: late season raspberries in Hope Ness, Ontario, Canada on September 14. Within a few minutes, with the humming background music of bees doing what they do, I filled a container with a Canadian quart (1.14 litres) of freshly picked raspberries.

I found myself thinking of you again, Wilma, and how you so perfectly chose the perfect place to start this raspberry patch: in full sun most of the day for the growing season, near a roof that made sure it was well watered, and on well-drained ground. It remains a thriving testament to your love of gardening.

The perfect place for Wilma’s raspberry patch

Less than a minute after I picked the last berry the rain came down; heavy, but just long enough to feel refreshing on unusually warm midday, and more. Yes, I choose to believe there was something wonderful, even spiritual about the experience, more than mere coincidence. There was hope in the air. I look out my kitchen window now as I write this, and the sun is shining; the clouds that blessed me, not so much dark, as life-giving have passed over.

It is for such moments that I have come to live. I look back to earlier in the morning and think now that moment began before I was moved to go into the raspberry patch and pick the late-season berries. I was putting in the time with a usual routine, checking email, news headline, YouTube, and Facebook. It asked me, “What’s on your mind, Phil?”

So, I told it, and ‘friends’:

“Sometimes these days I think there isn’t much point in doing anything without meaning and feelings of love. But then I think we, I, must continue to give ourselves the chance to find a way to make that happen. And then I realize that thought in itself is meaningful, and loving.”

I thought it was worth saying, and that some friends might agree. And so it was: enough ‘likes’ within an hour or so to make me pleased I had offered something that touched more than a few people. I do, after all, firmly believe — and often tell others struggling to keep their spirits up — that you never know when life will wonderfully surprise you and lift your spirits. It may be a seemingly little thing, though in that moment it means so much. And so it was for me this morning.

Or it could be something big and even life-changing for the better. What might that be? I suppose a lot depends on who you are, what you want, and believe.

I happen to believe life is a sacred gift and a blessing. I do not want it to end. When my time comes I hope to enter the Great Mystery of the next state-of-being forgiven and at peace, despite the things I have done wrong. And they are legion, or so I fear. But most of all, I hope my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will live their lives in a safe and better world, and in the time I have left, this moment, or the next, I will try to do what I can to help make it that way.

And I hope the same for all who read this post. We are all one human family.

Gardeners, keep an eye on the jet stream

Rows of garlic, their protective, winter blanket of straw removed, will easily survive cool spring days

With the growing popularity of home gardening there must be a lot of people on a steep learning curve trying to come to grips with the apparent uncertainty of the weather.

After all, spring seemed to have arrived early in the Canada-U.S., Great Lakes area with temperatures in the first week of April that were seemingly warm enough to allow for the planting of early hardy, veggie crops like peas, beets, carrots, onion sets, and potatoes.

After years of gardening that should have made me know better, I again found it hard to resist the temptation of eagerness to get started. But I compromised, planting only a couple of rows of early edible pod peas; after all they are called ‘snow peas’ for a reason, I pseudo-rationalized. I also planted a row of onion sets, and two rows of Chieftain red potatoes. The date was April 6. I’ve never planted potatoes that early. Meanwhile, I held off on planting beets, swiss chard, carrots and radishes.

I should have held off entirely, especially the peas. That’s also considering I plant untreated seed; that is, seed not coated with fungicide to keep it from rotting in the ground if the soil temperature is not warm enough for germination. A few more days of warm weather, and the pea seeds and I might have got away with it. There was evidence of germination just getting started. But now, April 18, there’s no sign of little, green pea-plants emerging. I few might survive, but the rows will likely have to be replanted. With temperatures now forecast over the next few days to be below freezing at night here on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, the two rows of seed potatoes buried several inches in their rows should be okay; but just to be sure I’ve covered them with a generous layer of straw. The same goes for the onion sets.

Two rows of seed potatoes planted, covered with straw to help insulate them from the cold. After it warms up the straw can be raked aside and mulched around the plants to prevent potato beetles.

Meanwhile, in the back garden, the numerous fall-planted rows of garlic are looking good. They will be okay without the straw blanket I covered them with for the winter and raked away a couple of weeks ago to give them sun. Garlic, fast becoming a popular crop in southern Ontario, is hardy enough.

I’m not a newcomer on this planet, having lived my ‘three-score years and ten’ and more, but in memory it seems to me the advent of spring, once arrived, was much more reliable than now.

It’s well known that the location of the jet streams, the high altitude winds that circle the globe  in temperature regions, is a major determining factor in weather. In the northern hemisphere, the generally west-blowing jet stream keeps colder temperatures north of us, and warmer, south. As the seasons change with the sun, the jet stream used to move south and north in a fairly stable way. But recent years have seen a growing school of thought that climate change is weakening the jet stream, as the Arctic warms relatively faster than tropical regions. As a result, The jet stream’s pattern has become more erratic with deep dips to the south that sometimes appear to get stuck, or ‘blocked’ over certain areas. I keep a close watch on jet stream maps, and have observed, anecdotally, that often in recent years it has dipped down in large tongues or nodes and lingered for long periods of time south of the Great Lakes. Sometimes, it appears to even fragment and get scattered. Depending on the seasons, all that has resulted in long periods of extreme cold weather in winter, and prolonged cool weather in spring. The spring of 2020 at this time, was similar to what’s happening now: an unusual warm spell in early spring, followed by much colder weather, and then a serious snow event in April. I note snow is in the forecast for this week.

Now, snow in April is not unusual. I well remember driving to work one morning years ago in June with snow coming down. But it’s the sudden, dramatic changes and extremes that now seem new and unusual.

The experts admit evidence of the impact climate change is having on the Jet Stream, and therefore weather, is still inconclusive. They do, after all, have a duty to be precise in reaching their conclusions. Meanwhile, the skeptics can find all kinds of supposed reasons why it’s not happening. I choose to believe climate change is having a destabilizing effect on the jet stream that needs to be taken seriously.

From the point of view of gardening, and farming, I would say you are best advised to keep in mind there is a new norm happening: the weather is becoming more erratic. If it seems too good to be true that warm spring weather has come too early, it more than likely has. And you should take a wait-and-see attitude to planting until the weather warms up to stay. Late April, early May is still a good time to plant cool-weather crops. They won’t do much growing until then anyway.

Above all, keep your eye on the jet stream: where it is, and where it’s expected to go. I recommend a new, interactive ‘global’ jet stream map put online by U.K.-based netweather.tv.

On the flowering of potatoes, the crimes of tyrants, and your comforting voice

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Rows of flowering potato plants, July 1, 2020. Those are staked tomato plants in the foreground.

The humble potato has its moment of floral glory.

Two types of well-sprouted tubers I planted around the first of May have overcome unseasonably cold temperatures through much of that month, then drought in June, and are now looking quite healthy thank you, despite current drought conditions.

Perhaps in defiance, both are showing pretty, blue flowers. Usually that’s a clue to the colour of the potatoes taking shape in the ground. But not in the case of the four rows on the left where a well-known, red-skinned potato with white flesh is growing. Continue reading

The polar vortex challenge: looking on the bright side this gardening season

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A well-mulched, healthy garlic crop in Hope Ness after a difficult winter and cold spring. A good crop in Ontario, Canada for challenging times. Two rows of peas on the left are coming along slowly in the ‘unseasonably’ cool weather. But they are also hardy.

This spring a lot of people decided for various reasons related to Covid 19 to plant a garden and grow their own food. They may have had some past experience, or not, in which case they likely did a certain amount of preparatory research and planning in hopes of a bountiful outcome.

But I suspect no amount of homework prepared them for the realities of this growing season. So far it has, and continues to be a shock, even for this old gardener. It depends where you are to a large extent. That comment reflects my experience here in southern Ontario near the 45th Parallel halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. By this date, nearing the end of the second week of June, seeds and transplants would normally be safely in the ground and growing nicely. Continue reading

Successful gardening in a time of climate change: soil temperature, not the date

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There’s snow peas in there somewhere, under the snow.

What’s with the weather?

Here in southern Ontario, Canada, in The Great Lakes region of North America, as we approach mid-May, to say the weather in ‘unseasonable,’ is to put it mildly.

No sooner is that word out of my fingertips and on the cyber-page than it seems incongruous in the circumstances: it’s anything but mild outside. It’s cold, and wintry cold at that, with sub-zero, night temperatures in the seven-day Environment Canada forecast. Continue reading