How are our plants progressing?

Rhubarb Frost Damage - May 2016

My dad has a saying, “I’ve never lost a crop in May yet.” He was born on my family’s original homestead by Brightsand Lake and has probably had a hand in more than 70 crops in his life. He has seen wet and dry; hot and cold; rain and snow; but in all those years he has never stood at the cusp of June knowing he wouldn’t get a crop.

For the Edmonton area this spring has been a one of a kind. Extremely warm temperature in March and April meant that spring came much earlier. Trees around here were cracking bud in late March, and our saskatoons were no exception. Most years I would expect our saskatoons to flower in the last week of May. This year they flowered early. Not just early, really really early. On May 2nd I saw my first flowers. With temperatures that week near 30 C the orchard was soon row after row of white flowery columns. Within a week though the weather made an abrupt change within a span of about 50 hours we went from a high of +29 C to a low of -6 C, and on the morning of May 10th my stomach sank as I walked through the orchard to see ice crystals and frost clinging to the leaves and flowers. Frost damage can be hard to assess right away, as usually the severity can be affected by a number of factors (moisture, previous temperatures), and as a rule of thumb I like to give things a week or so to sort things out before I start making conclusions. So for the last week and a half I pretty much avoided the orchard, but this weekend I knew I needed to follow up and unfortunately (but not unexpectedly) the news wasn’t good. In terms of saskatoon berries we have probably lost 95+% of the crop, and for what might be left it probably won’t be worth picking. In essence we won’t have a crop of saskatoons this year.
Four years ago when I decided growing fruit was something I wanted to do, I did my research and weighed the risks. I went into this experience with open eyes and knew that there was always a risk that an ill timed frost could wipe out our entire crop of saskatoons. I even planned for this eventuality by planting a number other types of fruit that either flower and produce fruit after the risk of frost is gone (raspberries and strawberries) or that have higher tolerance to frost (haskaps and rhubarb). So it came a a bit of a surprise when I began looking around this past weekend I discovered the damage extended beyond my saskatoon orchard. The rhubarb went limp and turned black, the strawberries in the front went from a great stand to almost non existent (all green material was froze off) even the haskaps (the most frost tolerant of them all) had brown and crunched up leaves. My only thought is that the extreme heat and drought we had prior to the frost exacerbated the situation, by making all these plants more stressed and more susceptible to the frost.
So where does this leave us? Well lucky for us not all is lost. The rhubarb (after being cut back to remove the damaged stalks and leaves) and some of our strawberries  are coming back thanks to this weekend’s rain. In the case of the strawberries I have given them a little boost of fertilizer to help get them going even better, while my back patch (which I had planned on taking out of production) seemed to escape much damage from the frost, probably large in part due to the protection of all the weeds growing in the patch (hence why I wanted to take it out of production). It will take a bit of work, but we can bring the patch back and are already looking forward to being able to take people back there to pick and see our experimental vegetable garden patch (which is coming along nicely)!
This may not be the year we hoped for but at the same time it is far from a loss. Like most things in life sometimes our biggest challenges lead to our biggest growth. We will have berries this year, and hopefully for the first time vegetables too. The best part of facing this adversity in May is that we have time to overcome it. As a farm so many things we require for our success are out of our control. In most cases our success is determined less by what we do and do not receive, but more so how we respond to either of those things. We may have been handed some big challenges this spring but we will over come them! Someday there may come a point where I won’t be able to maintain that “I haven’t lost a crop in May” but that won’t be this year. It may not break any records but we will have a crop and we will work hard to make it the best we can!
– Tim


I joked on Facebook recently that I know I have become a farmer because I am complaining about this wonderfully warm weather we have been having lately and saying it is too dry! Our saskatoons seem to be handling the dry weather well – in fact, if anything they seem to be blooming earlier than usual this year. Typically we would expect saskatoons to be ready for picking for the month of August. Based on how early the saskatoon trees bloomed, it appears berries should start appearing mid July to mid August this year! But when conditions are dry, the berries do not get as full and plump and the trees themselves do not grow as tall. Because we planted our 3 year Saskatoon trees 2 years ago, they are still only 5 years old. While they are producing fruit and will be ready for picking, they are not massive trees…yet!

Last year when we planted our strawberries, it was very wet. We initially planned to plant the strawberries in the back – but it was under water! So Tim and our neighbour, Bill, tilled a new piece of land in the front to use for the strawberry patch, thinking we can’t plant the strawberries under water! By the time we got the strawberry plants, the water in the back had mostly dried and we planted the extra strawberries there (the extras after we planted the entire front patch). We planted more strawberries in the front patch, which is on higher land (and thus was drier last year). Last year the front patch grew much better than the back patch. It seemed the back patch had too much moisture.

This year we are experiencing extremely dry weather. The opposite has happened. The strawberry plants in the back patch are doing so much better and blooming so much more than those in the front patch. Remember, blooms turn into fruit – so more blooms means more strawberries! Even though Tim’s degree and background is in agriculture, growing fruit is new to him. Growing plants in general is new to me! So it has been a steep learning curve for us both.

Why don’t we irrigate I asked Tim? Why don’t we just set up a sprinkler with a strong spray and let it go? We have a dugout but it is linked to the same water source as our neighbour’s home water source. If we pump water out of the dugout to irrigate the strawberries, based on how dry it has been and how much water we would need, we run the risk of running them out of water! We need to be mindful of them and be good neighbours! Our next option is to haul water in to irrigate. It will take a lot of loads of water to do that (think 2 loads of water per row based on the size of our water tank – times 30+ rows) – but if we don’t get rain soon, we may have to do just that. Farmers, including us (am I a real farmer now?!?), are at the mercy of the weather. Based on our experiences last year and this year, we are reconsidering how we will plant our next batch of strawberries next year. We are learning so much as we go!

We got a little bit of rain this past weekend but we still need much more. So for now, I am doing rain dances, washing my car and leaving my car windows open, all in hopes of rain!