The Year of Missing Martins
Canadian poet, novelist and environmental activist Margaret Atwood said, “Gardening is not a rational act.” Few tasks are as humbling as gardening. After that leap-of-faith act, when a Human drops seed in soil, then cultivates growing plants and anticipates a successful harvest, many factors may disrupt expected outcomes. Fortunately, when gardeners plan to celebrate plant diversity, even in the face of disaster, rarely is effort totally unrewarded.
Abundant, diverse harvest, 2014
Our first major crop loss was in 2009, when cool, rainy days encouraged early blight that wiped out tomato gardens along the entire east coast. Fifty plants, held upright in wire cages, towered overhead and strained with the effort of supporting heavy green fruit. One day, they were beautiful and the following evening, it looked as if scalding water were poured on them. Leaves withered and browned, sporting dark spots. Lesions appeared on stems and fruit and hopes to fill pantry shelves with homegrown canned tomatoes were dashed.
Although 2009 proved to be a dismal tomato year, beans thrived at Heart & Sole Gardens. My grandmother’s heirloom Mountain White Half-Runners produced bushels of tender snap beans and it was that vegetable we enjoyed eating fresh from the garden, pickling with garlic and dill and canning for winter consumption. The tomato crop of 2010 was a good one, but beets, with low germination from the start, were a no-show. Also, in 2010, a passerby pulled off the nearby highway, pulling a large trailer behind his pickup truck, and drove over the entire row of eggplant seedlings, smashing plants underneath the tires.
2013 flooded tomatoes, but corn thrived
Hopi blue corn, heirloom seed I received at the Ashe County Seed Swap, was a bumper crop in 2013, thriving in warm summer rains, while groundhogs ate every seedling germinated from beautiful blue beans. Groundhogs, also known as my arch-nemeses, destroyed last year’s pumpkin crop and deer frequently eat more sugar snap peas than we do, but after tasting those heirloom treats, Richard says he can’t blame the deer!
Enduring floods, droughts and insect and four-legged pest attacks, Heart & Sole Gardens continues to provide us with delicious fruits and vegetables, although few crops we plant are successful every year. Already, warm temperatures caused asparagus spears to bolt and harvest is over, at least four weeks earlier than any previous year. While each year brings disappointment and joy, 2017 may be our saddest gardening year, even if every crop delivers abundant harvest.
For the past several years, Purple Martins, migratory birds with incredible aerodynamic skills, chose to nest in birdhouse gourds we provide for them and they swoop close to arriving vehicles to welcome visitors. Social creatures, Martins entertain with chatter and song and we delight in watching them catch flying insects, chase predator hawks and teach fledglings to fly. After a winter sojourn in South America, Purple Martins usually arrive at our farm in March and, by mid-July, they leave to begin the return trip. After spotting scouts, birds that arrive before most of the flock to select housing, our gourds remained empty until April 14th, Good Friday.
A traditional planting day for many gardeners, Good Friday is when I plant my grandmother’s beans and a few other seeds. Often, late frost will necessitate replanting Good Friday crops, but this year, beans, lettuce and other greens and even some okra is doing well. A special Good Friday treat was watching Purple Martins peak from gourds, swoop over my head and join forces with a crow to chase a hawk. Three males and two females perched on the pole support for their homes and serenaded me with song and lively chatter. I rejoiced at the Martins’ return, but after being away for a few days, when I returned to Heart & Sole, the Martins were gone.
Usually filled with birds, Martin homes are empty on May 4, 2017
By May 4th, I accepted the absence of Martins for this year, but sorely missed their company while I cut the last spears of asparagus. Suddenly, I heard a loud screech and turned to see a crow in another field. Within a couple of feet from the bird was a black shape. When the crow saw me head his way, he lifted his wings and screeched in my direction, then pecked at the object on the ground.
A crow alerts me to danger?
At first, I thought it could be an injured fledgling, but as I drew nearer, it was apparent this was a snake. The crow, as if satisfied I could handle the situation, hopped into a nearby tree and the snake, coiled into a figure eight, eyed my approach. Since black snakes are beneficial to gardens, eating pests that consume fruits and vegetables, and do not contain poisonous venom, I decided to leave it where it lay. When I walked away to gather garlic scapes, the snake slithered into deep grass
2017 will be the Year of Missing Martins for Heart & Sole, but we fervently hope those birds return next year. While Purple Martins skipped us, it appears crow voices may replace their chatter and, unnerving as he is, is it possible the snake is this year’s welcoming committee? Already, he has twice moved to a grassy hiding place when we arrived at the farm. While his pest control efforts may be appreciated, the snake is certainly no Purple Martin and I hope he keeps his distance from my workspace.
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