As I write, it is bulb season and the time of tulips, ranunculus, anemone and daffodils. It is also the season of flowering quince, peach, plum, apricot, pluot and aprium blossoms at market. In the realm of half-hardy overwintering annuals, we are also just a short time away from waves of sweet peas, larkspur, calendula, agrostemma and bachelors’ buttons. Their stunning, if at times commonplace, floral wonder is presently being held back by yet another cold Pacific storm coming out of the Gulf of Alaska. In fact, for most growers in central and northern California, our greenhouses are swelling, if not bursting with the potential bounty of spring. Lush cotyledons, vibrant new true leaves, stocky, stout and lengthening stems, twinning tendrils and the ever expanding, but hidden root world are all on display among the thousands of seedlings waiting to make it outside and into the soil.

Oh, but the soil: cold, wet, waterlogged, saturated, sodden and way too vulnerable to be worked by hand or with tractors. Our friend La Nina has worked her magic and we are seeing storm upon storm late into our typical rain season. We have already had 46″ of rain and there may 5-10″ more in the current ten-day forecast. Usually by mid March, the rains begin to taper and windows of opportunity open to allow the mowing and incorporation of cover crops, primary tillage and the planting of all of the hope and potential contained in the greenhouse. This season, however, it is looking like our first sowings will peak as seedlings languish and wither before we are able to work the soil and get them planted.

Depending on the crop, we might have a little wiggle room and can tide our seedlings over with a little liquid fertility in the form of compost tea or fish plus kelp. Crops like stock, statice, calendula, mignonette and sweet Williams all are reasonably willing to linger in plug trays or flats for a short period of time with little effect on yield and crop quality. However, staples like larkspur, snapdragons and sweet peas, which we often grow as transplants in the spring, have little patience for delays caused by wet soils and our desire to balance production imperatives with the maintenance of long-term soil health. Transplanting these crops, once they are stressed, rarely leads to high quality stems and abundant harvests. Instead, we are likely to see stunted plants, premature flowering, short stems and low yield. Hardly worth the effort or the sacrifice of our precious soil resources.

In an ideal world, perhaps like that found in a hoophouse, high tunnel or greenhouse, we have the ability to manage soil moisture to meet our busy planting, growing, harvesting and crop turnover schedules. However, in the wild world of field-grown cuts, we have to work with what nature and seasonal rain patterns present. Slightly pushing the margins of optimal soil moisture for primary tillage, whether too wet or too dry, may be something you can rationalize every once in a while for a particularly valuable crop. However, repeating this type of choice or pushing the margins too far, can and will undue years of hard work in building the desirable tilth and structure that promotes deep root extension, soil aeration and the rapid infiltration of rainfall and irrigation. Destroying soil aggregates by cultivating dry soil, or creating compaction, hard pans and massive structure by tilling wet soil can be avoided, but requires that we take a longer view than the immediate season, the crops crying out to us from the greenhouse and our need to generate income for the farm. Short-term cash flow is clearly critical to our farms, but again and again we have to balance the here and now with the long term health and productivity of our soils. For growers across the West, this is a cyclical quandary, often with no easy answers, but a quandary that must be faced each year as we transition from the wet to the dry seasons.

Christof Bernau

UCSC Center for Agroecology

Christof Bernau UCSC Center for Agroecology Contact at [email protected]