Yesterday I went to the pantry to get a jar of dill pickles, and then I remembered. My cucumbers were a total crop failure this year, so the shelf that's usually green with pickles holds only six jars – the one batch I made from cucumbers I bought at the farmers market. The crop failure didn't seem like a big deal during summer's garden-crazy days, but the half-empty pickle shelf took me aback. How did that happen? How did I manage to lose a crop as common as cucumbers after decades of experience with it?
Perhaps you're asking yourself similar questions about some crop that should have been a sure thing, yet failed miserably this past season. Hindsight being crystal clear, I see that I could have done things differently, but I'm also puzzled over the way the black cloud of crop failure seems to hover over my garden, ruining a different crop each year in some unexpected way. Certainly gardening is a gamble, which is part of the fun, and stick with it because successes always far outnumber crop failures in a well-kept veggie garden.
Some of the things that go wrong early on in the season can be remedied right away, or you can write them off as no-shows and move on with something else. When wind dashes a tray of seedlings to the ground you can usually start over. Years ago I learned not to sow a whole packet of seeds at once, because there will be gaps to fill with stand-by seeds. When it comes to matters of germination, it is always wise to expect the best and be prepared for the worst.
The best laid plans do go astray in the garden, mostly due to the weather. Hail that hits as spring is turning to summer can devastate a garden in a matter of minutes, or you can watch your plants become more depressed every day when subjected to relentless rain or scorching heat. Considering the odd directions the weather can take, it amazes me how some crops emerge from the pack to thrive under adversity. For example, though my cucumbers failed because they got continuous rain in adolescence, when they needed sun, the French beans and peppers produced bumper crops under the same conditions.
Going With the Flow
This is where things get strange, because I cannot remember a year in which a crop failure was not accompanied by the unusual success of a similar crop. Case in point: In 2012 we harvested only a few winter squash because our new puppies dug up the plants just as they began to bloom, and it was too late to start replacements.
Meanwhile, a friend had given me a handful of tattered, half-dead sweet potato slips, which I planted as an afterthought. Those sweet potatoes produced much better than they should have, and so we had sweet potatoes to store for winter in place of the winter squash. It was a great year for carrots, too. With one of our staple crops, winter squash, off the menu, was the Goddess of Orange Vegetables looking after me?
This has happened with other crop failures, for example in 2011, when root-eating voles ate the first seed potatoes I planted, and then the second, and meanwhile the parsnips and bulb fennel got huge, and later in the season every swede seed that hit the ground popped up happy and ready to grow.
I could go on with more examples, but the lesson the garden seems to be teaching is to stay flexible and go with the flow, and to persist in planting and expecting good outcomes. I will need to buy a few pickles this year, but near the empty space in the pantry I found a tidy little batch of pickled green beans I made in July, when I knew the cukes were a scratch. That's all I needed to restore my bruised homegrown virtue, so my optimism is back in bud and plans for next year are beginning to bubble. Some things about gardening never fail.
By Barbara Pleasant