It is great Springsteen song, but it is also what our farm and Huntingdon County turn into by mid-July. The combination of warm to hot air, abundant precipitation and long days fuels the exponential growth of our crops and plant life that is almost overwhelming to our eyes and senses. A week ago I went to visit my dear 94-year-old mother in Virginia for four days and when I got back and did my requisite tour around the farm I was amazed at how much everything had grown. The tomatoes had leapt to the tops of their cages, needing some guidance to grow in the right direction. The peppers had doubled in size, starting to look like their adult selves. The pinto beans were twining up their fence trellis and the buckwheat groundcover planted between the rows had smothered the ground and grown six inches. The zukes, winter squash and pumpkins sent their vines running like halfbacks for the goal line. This week some old friends rolled in from Colorado and the first thing they said to us was, “Man, is it ever lush and green around here!” How about it, lush and green really sums it up.
We farmers and gardeners are so tuned into our plants that we literally watch them grow. From seed to seedling the anticipation is waiting for them to sprout. Some seeds can sprout in cool soils like our spring spinach, beets, carrots, and peas while others like the tomatoes, beans, and peppers need much warmer soils to germinate. We often have a hard time trying to get a fall spinach crop in because it has such poor germination. Even a string of cool September nights aren’t enough to make it sprout. But if it does, we know it will overwinter and give us our earliest greens in the spring. The tomatoes and peppers have to be started on heating mats to get them up and running and once in the ground they hardly grow if the June air is too cool. But come July the growth explosion begins. Hot days, warmer nights and lots of rain make for the perfect storm for cell division.
Of course the weeds have adapted to these conditions better than our crops. Don’t turn your back on a red-rooted pigweed, lamb’s quarters or gallant soldier, among others, or you will regret it. Weeds grow much faster than our domesticated edibles and produce a vast quantity of seeds that will stay in the soil for years to come. Awakened by a little soil disturbance, they germinate and are the first ones out the gates to cover the surface of your garden. They have evolved to grow fast any time, but in July they grow like they are on steroids. Our goal is to keep them at bay because we can never eradicate them once they are in our soil. Mulch, cover crops, hand pulling, and tilling are defenses but it is an ongoing battle. A note in their favor is that many of them are edible, they hold the soil and prevent erosion, and their roots draw up nutrients and minerals from deeper down in the soil. A good cover like buckwheat does the same thing and prevents the weed germination with its dense shade cover. Mulch smothers the ground too and adds organic fertility to the soil. And some people like to weed gardens. You can get a real Zen thing going and lose yourself, immune to the rest of the world. Listen to the sounds of nature and the birds, or to Jungleland by Bruce on your earbuds, and let the hours melt by.
As drought and fires rage across our western states, we should be thankful for this jungleland that we live in. The four inches of rain that we got last week and the heat and humidity are a bit much, but the plants love it, our air is clear, and our eyes are dazzled with every shade of green. Soon we’ll be eating fresh sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, fat peppers and local peaches. Our only regret is that our summer is half over, but those cooler fall days look pretty good when it is 90 degrees in the shade. On those days the siren call of wool sweaters on cool mornings brings its own joyful anticipation to those of us who work with sheep and wool, as well as vegetables.
James Pingry is the Hemmabäst side of the Hemmabäst-Sylvan Sun Farm Co-Op. He is one of the founders of the Huntingdon Farmers’ Market.