The spring of 2022 was a doozy for us here in the PNW. We are a water-loving people, in general. I love the days of gentle drizzling rain outside while I sit next to the fire flipping through seed catalogs just as much as the next farmer, but this year was particularly challenging.
Long weeks of nonstop rain and cloudy skies made almost everything late to bloom, some things by 2-3 weeks. The slugs and weeds thrived and the battle was constant to keep them all at bay. We were all the way into June before we actually saw the rain taper off and the sun come out. It was a long spring, to say the least. And though things didn’t go exactly according to plan, we had some trials that were great, so I thought I’d share.
In 2020, as an experiment, we low tunneled a few rows of peonies, hoping to push them to bloom for Mother’s Day. We saw some success, and tried again in 2021. Our weather in 2021 was extreme in a different way and we had little to no rain through the spring. So while our peonies did hit for Mother’s Day, the numbers were low and the botrytis in the tunnels was rough.
Fast forward to 2022. Farmer Aaron redesigned the low tunnels to better withstand wind gusts and to make them easier to vent. We got them up at the beginning of February and kept them vented through the next few months. With an early Mother’s Day, we weren’t sure if we could get the timing right, but saw some great success! We were able to harvest and market our local peonies for Mother’s Day to our wholesale customers, offering a product that is highly coveted for the holiday. Because they were the first peonies of the season, we were able to charge a higher stem price, which covered the extra time and labor of continually venting the tunnels and tending to the plants.
A few things about these tunnels. We built them over established rows of peonies, all at least 4-year roots. Aaron selected for varieties that we already knew to be early bloomers, and ones that we had enough volume of to allow for an extended harvest, allowing us to provide the same peonies over a 4-week period. They are built similarly to a caterpillar tunnel, but with fixed ends, providing us with easier access for venting and weeding. Note that keeping the tunnels weeded during the spring is very important to help with air circulation and reduce the occurrence of fungal issues, like botrytis.
Because of the wet spring, the flowers were slow as molasses to start and we were scrambling to get anything to market. Those thin months of May and June were even tighter due to a lack of product to sell. Enter the greens. Farm standards like mint and raspberry were just fine in the rain and were ready to roll long before the summer flowers started, giving us a much-needed bridge to carry us through the lean times.
Scented geranium was as well. Although it is not always totally hardy, we were able to overwinter the majority of our mother plants in ground in one of our field tunnels and start cutting on it almost 6 weeks earlier than we have in the past. We cut back the plants in the fall, mulched them heavily, and used minimal heat from portable propane heaters any time the weather dipped below about 27F. The result was lush, beautiful plants, hardened and ready to cut by mid-May. Almost too lush! These things were beasts and a few sections fell down on themselves as the weight of the plants became too much.
These kinds of small experiments are one of our favorite things here on the farm. Trying new things, stretching the known boundaries, and discovering what works on our individual farms is what farming is all about. I’ve said before that what works on my farm may not work on yours, but if we share these kinds of successes then the sky’s the limit for how far we can go!