Sunday, March 4, 2012

Calendars and plants and planting

One of the most amazing thing to me about ancient cultures is that many of them devised very accurate calendars, which to most modern people wouldn't seem like a very important thing, but in ancient times, and more recent ones too, the calendar is a very important tool. 

The Mayan calendar broke the year up into 20 "months" of 13 days each, leaving a 5 day unlucky period that they named Uayeb* in each year. They had a very good understanding of the night sky and the celestial mechanics, and their predictions of solar and lunar eclipses is accurate to this day. They'd even calculated the exact length of the year, down to a thousandth of a decimal point -- far more precisely than other civilizations of their day had.

I don't really wonder why they started keeping an accurate calendar, for me, the answer is simple:  Crops.   Or in the case of the Maya, it was probably Corn

When you're going to plant your seeds, you want to do so at the best time for the seed, and with enough time to allow for the eventual harvest; plant too late and your plants won't mature by the time that the season ends.  Plant too soon and you run the risk of poor germination, loss of the plants due to weather (cold, rain, frost) or less-than-ideal conditions for growth. 

At this time of year every farm is looking at the sky, and the ground, and their plans for the year, and at a calendar.   For me, I rely on my past experience, which says that I need to start my tomato and basil plants indoors on the 2nd week of March, which will give them enough time to be good size when the weather is right for transplanting into the greenhouse.   So I'm carefully preparing potting soil and trays and making sure that the heat mats work and that the grow bulbs work after a year of non-use. 

I'm looking carefully at the maturation rates of the vegetables that I'm going to plant this year, and I'm using a paper calendar to write down when I need to start things, and when I need to transplant things.  I do this because I'll never remember all of the details, but with a schedule on a calendar, I only have to look at the day and see what I need to do.  My own personal calendar, but far less precise than the Mayans. 

I'm using some tools that the ancients never had; I use a soil test to make sure that my soil has the appropriate mix of stuff; I usually have to add ground limestone to "sweeten" it.  I have never had to add organic material because I've already added it; the composted manure and fruits and vegetables and wood chips and bedding provide a beautiful soil on which to grow things.  

I use a hoophouse, which allows me to stretch my growing seasons a little on each end; I could, as some do, heat the hoophouse, and provide electric lights and grow all year, but I prefer the seasonality and my hoophouse has other uses during the off season.  In fact, I'm not sure that the hoophouse has an off season; there's something going on in it all year. 

I use a tractor, because tilling the soil is backbreaking work, and I can do in an hour what might take me a week to do by hand.  I think sometimes about what it would take to farm if my tractor went away, and the simple answer is a lot more hands.  There's a reason that farm families were large, and our history is full of examples of group cooperation in agriculture - barn raising, for instance, or corn shucking.   Monotonous work is made more interesting when you mix in the social aspect.

In fact, I think that modern farmers are more isolated than they have ever been in the past; and some farmers list that as the biggest downside to farming -- the isolation.    Maybe we need a matchmaker site for outings to the local community canning kitchen -- if you have one... or a shared chore day.   Most people say that they want to escape the rat race and be out with nature, and that is enjoyable.  But we are social beings, and that interaction makes it so much better.  On my farm I have people contact every day; mostly buyers who come to the farm gate,  but suppliers and employees too, and it makes an interesting mix.  

But I will admit to my antisocial days, when I feel like working with my hands and accomplishing something, and I secretly hope that no one shows up.    Tractor time.  Fencing time.  My time. 

*The Mayans writing isn't anything that is easily translated to ours, and you'll often find that even the names of relatively famous people have many variations in spelling, and pronunciation.  So excuse me if I didn't use the spelling you prefer for this word, ok? 


becky3086 said...

I would love to have a big hoop house like that.
I don't use a calendar. I usually can tell when to plant by what the weather is doing here.
I know when to transplant but how big the seedlings are.
But, of course, I don't have nearly as much stuff to plant or do as you have.

E said...

Johnny's seed starting calender: