Hope Springs Eternal

There’s a nagging voice in my head as I type this that keeps psyching me out: “You’ve got really big shoes to fill. Can you do it?!” Dave has been a knowledgeable, giving, thoughtful, and steady leader of the ASCFG for so many years through so many roles. Time to hike up my big girl pants and see if I can do half the job he did! I’m incredibly grateful and more than a bit humbled to have this opportunity to lead an organization that has been so influential in my own journey as a flower farmer.

Now what to do with your undivided attention? The power is real, folks!

While working on some wintry clean-up tasks at the farm the other day, I heard a short segment on NPR’s Here & Now about “climate anxiety”, a newly coined term by mental health professionals, which addresses the growing dread churned up by the extreme weather patterns/events that are crossing our continent. The psychologist being interviewed noted that people who are in touch with nature—farmers being one key demographic—are often most affected. The story really hit home with me.

The 2018 growing season was the hardest I have experienced. Hands down. Near-daily torrential rain caused ongoing flooding and kept the fields from ever drying out. Perhaps more problematic, the sun never shone for more than an hour or two at a time all summer long. My farm is on a rocky plateau that has always drained in previous rainy seasons. Last year there was (still is) standing water everywhere. The daily sound of thunder and heavy rain brought angry tears to my eyes over and over again. Crops rotted in the field. Others simply never even bloomed. I know what we experienced in Pennsylvania is just one extreme. I cannot even imagine fighting deadly fires or hurricanes.

But we’re farmers. We don’t give up easily. Instead we learn to adapt and have eternal hope for the next spring. Are we up to this new challenge of extreme seasons? Our strength is in our ever-growing numbers and our willingness to share all that we know.

One of the biggest challenges for many growers in the Northeast last autumn was getting dahlias dug and bulbs planted when the soil was saturated. The previous season I had experimented with leaving about a third of my dahlia tubers in the ground to overwinter. I had lots of tuber stock built up—plenty to spare—so it seemed a risk worth taking. The dahlias were cut back to the ground after the killing frost. I collected vanloads of leaves from my neighborhood and put a six-inch layer of leaves over the beds. Then a heavy, black silage tarp (ordered from Walmart) was pulled across the beds and pinned down with rocks and sand bags. Survival rate? I’d estimate 95% of the overwintered tubers re-sprouted! Success!

That little experiment saved my butt in the fall of 2018. With our fields too saturated to dig, I decided to leave in nearly all our dahlias, save for two varieties I wanted to divide to build up stock. Serendipity would have it that I made an acquaintance recently who works on billboards. He was able to bring me free old billboard tarps (they’re black or gray on the backside so my field does NOT look like a giant advertisement for all the PHL air traffic flying overhead, though maybe that’s a new revenue stream I should explore). In the end, it was still a massive amount of work to gather all those leaves and work with all those heavy tarps in the cold rain. But I’m fairly confident my dahlias will survive and, more importantly, my soil structure will be even better in the spring once the earthworms spend the winter processing all those leaves!

While I’m on the topic of dahlias, we should all be keenly aware of crown gall and leafy gall. These two bacterial diseases are spreading more quickly as a greater number of small farms start selling their tuber stock to others in the farming community. If you haven’t already, familiarize yourself with these two problematic diseases and inspect your stored tubers closely for odd growth. If you had plants that grew like weeds last season but never really flowered, there’s a good chance you have leaf gall! The bacteria, once in your soil, persists for many years, stunting dahlia production considerably. 

I’ve had leafy gall in my field for two seasons now after ordering a batch of (infected) tubers from a small grower in 2016. I didn’t know anything about galls in dahlias back then. I sure do now, and it is proving very tough to control! Any infected tubers must be thrown out. If a tuber looks even remotely “odd”, we pitch it. When we dig and divide tubers, we have to be very careful with washing all our tools and not moving soil around in the field. Gall diseases are a second reason why I’ve decided to start overwintering the majority of my tubers in the ground in an effort to stop the spread of contaminated soil.

If you are among the growers who has decided to sell some of your tuber stock, please be very careful not to send out any tubers that have abnormal growth. When in doubt, pitch it out!

I’d wager the winter issues of The Cut Flower Quarterly are the most thoroughly read. But all the past issues are also available for your winter reading pleasure at ASCFG.org. They’re packed full of info that could make a big difference to your 2019 season. Go read them!

And don’t forget to spend some time on the Facebook group page. What did you do this past season that helped your farm evolve to deal with harsh weather? Share so we can all grow stronger together in 2019!

Jennie Love

Love ‘n Fresh Flowers

Jennie Love is owner of Love ‘n Fresh Flowers. Contact her at [email protected]