Even if it had given us nothing else, twelve years of farming has been a learning experience. It’s no matter that John was an avid weekend gardener for almost 20 years prior to discarding his corporate hat for a big, floppy straw one – learning to grow vegetables on a large enough scale to make a living at it has been in many ways like starting from scratch.

Take our dog-eared copy of the Travis County Planting Guide as an example. John picked it up brand new probably back in 1980 when he rented his first community garden plot, and somehow it survived packing and unpacking through three moves, all the way until ultimately ending up here at our little farm. Amazing, really, considering the myriad things lost or discarded along the way. It’s a testament to the perceived importance of that single sheet of paper. Eliot Coleman’s “The New Organic Grower” was John’s gardening bible; the Travis County Planting Guide its bookmark.

Not long after we’d gotten the farm going, however, the planting guide lost its luster. We realized – quickly – that not all is created equal in Travis County (or any county, for that matter) and one shouldn’t rely on some generalized list as a be-all, end-all guide. In order to farm successfully, one must instead learn one’s own unique microclimate.

Then one needs to learn a few tricks.

It took only a couple early spring freezes for us to discover the wonders of row cover. Over the years we’ve amassed enough to protect most everything we have growing at any particular time…though occasionally the covers do fall a few feet short,

leaving the plants at the far end of the bed either stunted or dead. (Notice at the bottom of the photo where the row cover ended.)

Because we get so much colder than the surrounding areas, one of the lessons we’ve learned – the hard way – is that even so-called “cold weather crops” benefit from added protection on really frigid nights.

The happy watermelon radishes in the tub on the left were in the protected part of the row, the sad radishes on the right were exposed to the elements. (Don’t cry for the sad ones, though – the delicious roots were divvied up amongst all of us farm workers and devoured with much glee.)

As of a few years ago we added tall, plastic-covered hoop houses to our freeze protection repertoire.

Oh how we love them. Our current ones protected the final succession of peppers and eggplant, until two nights at 17 degrees were finally too much for those summer crops to bear.

Yet in the hoop house that previously encapsulated the last row of eggplant (of which only crumbs hint at the plants that were cut at the base and dragged away), there remain two outer rows, planted in beets.

It’s a second attempt at the beets. These beds were originally seeded back in late August and germinated beautifully, when this hoop house was still merely a gleam in Farmer John’s eye. We were excited about them…until tropical storm Hermine flooded part of the farm. Almost all of the beet seedlings perished, and if one were to rely on the advice of the Travis County Planting Guide, it would have been too late to replant with any hope of harvesting mature beets before the holidays.

Farmer John replanted anyway and we immediately began work on getting the hoop house constructed over the beds. John theorized that the added heat of the hoop house would encourage rapid growth, despite the season’s colder weather and shorter days.

The Travis County Planting Guide would surely scoff at such a foolhardy idea.

Turns out, however, Farmer John was right. Dana and Vicky spent much of the morning filling wheelbarrows with these lovely mature beets.

Soon our twelfth year on the farm will come to an end. I can’t wait to find out what we’ll learn during year thirteen.

* * *

Only two more Jollyville Road markets before we close down for the season! Hope you can make it by the stand this Wednesday for:

Beets (of course!) – both golden beets and purple beets; Butterhead, Romaine, Red Leaf and Green Leaf lettuces; bags of arugula; baby Asian mustard greens; escarole; bulk sweet white turnips; green onions; fennel; purple cabbage; crinkly Savoy cabbage; Dinosaur kale and Curly kale; bunches of chard; bunches of Brussels greens; cilantro; “new” red potatoes; the last heads of broccoli; some bags of broccoli side shoots; and whatever else might be ready for pickin’!

Jo Dwyer
Angel Valley Organic Farm
Farm stands:
Saturdays 9:00-1:00 in Jonestown on FM 1431 at the blinking yellow light; and
Wednesdays 10:00-2:00 in NW Austin at the Asian American Center, 11713 Jollyville Road (1-1/2 blocks north of the intersection of Jollyville and Duval)