In farming, no two years are ever similar, with hits, misses, trials and tribulations. You often add a few experiments, delete a few duds, and try to improve infrastructure and efficiency. Nature is fickle however, and like anything in life, things rarely work out as planned, you have to roll with the punches and Mother Earth has a hefty left hook.
This year, we had so many ups and downs I will have to break it into 3 parts: Early spring, Late spring/summer and Fall
Our seasons always start optimistically with the first inkling of spring in early March. This year, we were extremely excited to use our newly constructed propagation room, a large solarium with heated floors, grow lights and ventilation. We invested tons on construction, and more than our usual amount in new seeds, with the intent of going big. We had a line on some recycled potting mix from an indoor commercial operation. I knew using outdoor natural soil for indoor plant starts is a big no-no with the possibility of introducing pests or diseases. I felt confident with my score because it started as certified organic sterilized mix and also sat outside all winter which should have killed any troublemakers and their eggs, plus I had used some before. Most of all it was free, saving me hundreds of dollars in a time that is lean for farmers.
Our lovely solarium also has tropicals, citrus, coffee, figs etc. As soon as the temp rose , the aphids, whose eggs overwintered on these plants, hatched. Problem number one. We quickly tried to control it with insecticidal soap, but couldn’t keep up. With organic methods, you have to work as many angles as possible – you can’t just go out and buy some strong poison and kill everything in one shot. We tried jets of water and vacuuming, but still couldn’t keep up. We became concerned when these little creatures found the tender sprouts of our seed starts. We purchased 3000 lady bugs and let them do the work. They eventually worked but some damage occurred and we had to re-seed a lot. This was early in the game, and we weren’t too upset. We still had plenty of time to recoup our losses.
Fast forward a week or two, and we noticed the seedlings are dying off . We get out the magnifying glass to check for bugs: none. Good. We assumed the plants are damping off, a condition that often occurs in wet, cold soil. We cut back the watering and crank up the heat. This only made the situation worse. Eventually we noticed tiny fruit flies hanging around the plants. Problem number 2. This was perplexing as there was no fruit anywhere and the sprouting vegetation was fine. These plants were dying from the ground up. Oh no! Fungus gnats! These flies are harmless, but their larva were eating the roots faster than they could grow. The damage had been done before we even diagnosed the problem. Those thousands of flies were laying tens of thousands of eggs in the soil. Now what? We called the company that sold us the ladybugs and ordered a bug with a fancy name that eats gnats. We had luck with biological controls (that’s the term when you introduce something natural to control a pest) with the ladybugs vs aphids, so we were confident. We disposed of the trays, re-seeded again and released thousands of these critters all over to deal with the gnats. We didn’t really know yet how these gnats were introduced and assumed they also overwintered on the tropicals in our above freezing solarium. Time was running out on our seeding window, but still felt we could pull it off.
Unfortunately this didn’t work as well as planned. The control pests didn’t multiply as fast as the gnats. The flies kept on hatching which meant the roots were still being eaten.
But where the hell did these bugs come from in the first place? I called the person I got the recycled soil from and asked him if they ever had issues with fungus gnats. He shamefully replied yes, but hadn’t mentioned it at the time, assuming everything would have frozen to death as it sat outside all winter. A quick google search on gnats revealed they have a natural antifreeze in their eggs and larva that can withstand warm winters.
This dilemma kept me up at night: a large part of our farm income – annual flowers, tomatoes, herbs and veggies, was seriously jeopardized. There is no insurance for this type of thing. I scoured the internet for any solution. One was to douse the soil with diluted hydrogen peroxide (suitable for organic standards). This worked a bit, but not totally as it also killed the control pests in the soil. Now I was back to square one and there were still gnats flying around ready to lay more eggs. I tried some other control bugs, but they took a few weeks to hatch! No time to waste! I was frantic.
Next possibility was nematodes – another control bug that lives in the soil. They are expensive, and our seeding budget was getting tighter. I got some leftovers from a friend, but they were out of date. I had no time to rely on something that may not work. Last option? An organic mosquito control for small ponds that apparently works on gnats. This was affordable and I just kept dousing the soil every couple days. It seemed to be working but not after losing thousands of seedlings.
Now that we knew the source of the problem and a had a solution, we had to get some fresh potting mix and re-seed for the 3rd time with whatever seeds we had left.
We were now far behind schedule, but like all farmers we kept ploughing through on a wing and a prayer.
Come back for part 2 (Late spring/summer), in which I will describe how the weather further shit-kicked us.