septic tanks and tomatoes

Friday, March 22:

Thirty minutes before the farm science students were due to arrive yesterday the phone rang to say that the truck would be here to pump the septic tank simultaneously with their arrival.

This never happened when we lived in town.

The ones who arrived early got in before the fat red pumper truck was squatting like a toad completely across the narrow dirt ramp we call our lane.  The remaining two students called in like a space shuttle paging mission control to report an operational malfunction.  When the situation was explained to them they opted to park at the foot of the hill until the tank-pumping operations were completed.  Not that it really smelled that bad.

Our work that day centered principally around the little bulls in the white barn, their care and housing and feeding, but we detoured through the greenhouse to take a look at the tomato seedlings started two weeks ago.  At first I thought we were seeing damping-off, a fungal condition that attacks seedlings at ground level, causing them to topple over like felled trees; maybe a third of the tomato seedlings, which we had sprouted in a warm corner of the kitchen and then moved to the greenhouse so they would get more sun, were supine on the black peat moss.   But closer examination showed that the little stems had folded at various heights above the level of the soil.  It was the translucent appearance of the pale green stems and dark green seed leaves that gave us the definitive clue.

The greenhouse warms up on even the coldest day, soaking up what sunshine there is and storing it in the river rock floor, but the last few nights temperatures have dropped well below freezing and the cold had seeped in.  Frost sensitive summer annuals like tomatoes can survive chilly nights, but they will freeze when the thermometer dips below thirty-two, and that’s what had happened to these.  Blast!  We had enjoined upon the children the importance of keeping the greenhouse door closed.  This was their fault.

Okay, in justice let’s admit that we know better than to expect ten and eight and five years to remember to shut doors every time.  Anyway, maybe they had closed the door and things had frozen anyway.  Anyway, the dogs had cornered a little calico cat on the west side of the greenhouse and in her panic she had catapulted herself through the window behind the door.  It was a small window but it was just possible that the breach was enough to let the temperatures drop too far.

Shucks, it would have been nice, just for a moment, to have someone to blame.

Well, for a mercy half of the baby tomatoes were still alive.  We took the wooden box with its small tubs of soilless starting mix and tiny plants into the cellar to warm gradually, and chalked one up on the Near Miss column.

M. called today, his place is bigger than ours and he’s been working in the ag community longer; it was melancholy solace to hear that one of his first-calf heifers just a week from calving had gotten herself head-down in a tight spot in a ravine and died trying to get out again.  We are very far from wishing evil on our fellow stockmen but there is something reassuring about the fact that other people lose animals too.  It takes a long time to become comfortable with the fact that in interactions with nature success is not defined by a text-book outcome; rather, it is determined by the simple fact of being still in business.

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