Growing Season of 2017

How plants keep us going.

2017 marked a very challenging growing season to say the least. It was wet. Very wet. Rainfalls surpassed record levels. Flooding in Ottawa was commonplace.

Not only was it wet, it was cool and dark. January had some of the fewest sunny days recorded. February wasn't much brighter. May stayed cold right up until the end. June was cool, but comfortable. July started with nearly two weeks of rain. I think we can count the number of sunny days reaching the high twenties on one hand. September continues with cool weather with some pockets of frost already having touched down.

So what does this mean for plants, the garden, and farmers? After all, we're all coupled with the weather far more than the average day-to-day hustle and bustle of city life.

Let's start early. January and February had low light levels. That means plants we started in the greenhouse were weaker and soft. Without the sunlight to stiffen them up, they stretch and their stems aren't as strong as they should be. Plants grew slower. The lack of sun meant more heating demand, too. Overall, greenhouses felt the pinch early on.

April and May continued cool. Plants that should have been outside were waiting inside. Both annuals and perennials continued to grow in the greenhouse, but the lack of extra outdoor space ment some plants had to be cut back. Greenhouses were bursting at the seams, but nobody could safely plant outside. When plants finally got outside at the end of May, high winds day after day really did a number on the already soft plants from the lack of sunlight. Windy weather and softer plant tissue means more evaporation so some plants were dry out from the top down. Plants are tough and do recover, but that stunning early season show wasn't what it should have been.

Farmers at this point were really feeling the pressure. Corn, soy, and other crops were almost a month behind planting. We don't have a long growing season in the first place so it hurts when you take away another month. Our strawberries got in the ground a little late, but our pumpkins and squash and other fall crops were even later. Many of our fresh beans were never planted because it was simply too late to get a good harvest.

June was looking up. More comfortable weather, a little less wind, and some sunshine. Strawberries started to pick up and grow, pumpkins germinated, and flowers started to bloom. It was getting more exciting and we were all optimistic. But there was still a lot of rain to come. The end of June was battered by heavy rain, yet again.

The end of June and early July wasn't good for many farmers. The first round of hail-storms hit June 25th and destroyed the tender fruit and vegetable crops of many farmers. Entire harvests were destroyed. Leaves shredded on the corn setting them back another few weeks. Another volly of hail mid-week wiped out even more fruits, including over 70% of our own berries. Canada Day flooding hit many areas south of the city proper washing away more crops.

Walking through the fields after the hail makes your heart sink. It's bad enough seeing corn reduced to toothpicks and bean leaves pock-marked with holes. Unlike annual crops, strawberries are perennials. We spent all of last summer carefully tending to our plants. In our case, our growing methods are light on herbicides and heavy on hand-cultivating to make stronger plants. All those hours and hours of work all for naught. To rub salt in the wound, there was potential for one of the best crops in years. We counted over 28 berries on a single plant, all of which were wiped out in the span of eight minutes of hail. Leaves were shredded and even the stems were bruised. Leaf canopy was non-existent.

Follow the hail with nearly two weeks of rain, and more problems arise. Fungus and disease thrive in cool moist weather but continued rain prevented any way of keeping those pathogens at bay. The sheer volume of water flooded fields, spread pathogens with great speed, and simply made everything look rather bad. Many farmers with low-lying fields or poor drainage lost many crops from downing. Wide swaths of plantations that were soybeans were reduced to bare ground. Some garlic growers were faced with ideal insect and disease conditions reducing yields to minimal amounts.

There's a saying out there in the plant world: Dry plants make roots. And it's the truth. A plant that always has water doesn't look for water and the roots don't grow. Plants in containers had fewer roots than usual. With less roots to absorb nutrients coupled with the rain washing out most of the nutrients,many plants started to look pale, even those in the fields, despite spring fertilizer. Their food was just washed away like diluted coffee. Some plants started to show a purple tinge, too, which often happens when roots get waterlogged and there's no more oxygen getting into the roots. Purple and yellow. A nice combination for flowers, but not necessarily in this case.

But we growers and farmers see what happens and know what to do. To compensate, we add the extra food the plants need. We refresh that pot of coffee. We try and grow our flowers a little more dry to stimulate those roots. Those too far gone, unfortunately, become compost to be recycled for other plants in the future. Though still cool, things are looking up. Perennials recovered well, strawberries for 2018 are absolutely stunning. Tomato plants in the field are monsters, laden with fruit, albeit somewhat later than normal. Pumpkins aren't especially happy with the cool and wet weather, but most other plants are happy.

So how does all this relate to plants at home in the garden? For the most part, everything the same applies. Planters and hanging baskets that were in the rain are looking pale as all the nutrients were washed out. Brown leaves and flowers after a rain when moulds move in mostly subside after a few days of sun. A little extra fertilizer will perk them up for the fall season. Plants in the ground will have smaller roots than normal since the ground is still very saturated with water, but that shouldn't really present a problem. Again, a little food in the form of compost and manure will do wonders. Fruit trees and many roses took a beating from fungus and leaf spot. At least it won't kill the plant, it will just make them look not so spectacular for this year. Those heat-lovers like hot peppers and watermelons are looking a little upset while cool-season plants like pansies are loving it. Mums are looking great for the fall, poinsettias for Christmas are growing happily in the greenhouse, and 2018 perennials are started already.

Throughout the season, many of us people farming and growing have had a harder time staying in good spirits. From the late planting, to the loses from rain and hail, even to the lack of customers stopping at the road-side stands feeling too chilled to get out of their car for the family BBQ. In the end, though, the optimism of farmers will prevail. We put the year behind us, as always, and look forward to a bright future. I think it's the plants that speak to us and convince us to never give up. It's a trait our plants instill on us that we just can't ignore. So, despite any hardships, any negativity at work, or anything else that brings you down, put down your phone, go back in your garden, tend your plants, feel the soil, and smell the air. Those plants share more with the people who grow them than any of us can really imagine. It makes us keep going and it can do it for you, too.

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