For a long time, I always dreaded Boston’s cold, dreary and sunless winters. In the last three months, I have worked on eight organic farms in Australia’s summer heat. During this time, I’ve come to appreciate the winters I grew up with and know so well. Perhaps my love of growing food has led me to see the benefits of winter, especially while traveling in a country like Australia.
Australia’s landscape is dominated by large Eucalyptus trees, which use up much of the precious rainwater and nutrients that exist in the mostly infertile soil. The Boston area, however, has abundant and diverse deciduous trees, shedding their leaves each fall and creating fertility. These decomposing leaves support a vast ecosystem of fungi, bacteria and insects. Eucalyptus trees also shed their leaves and bark gradually regardless of season, but for a very different reason. Many Eucalypts require fire in order for their seeds to germinate, and because of the built up brush and dead wood the Eucalypts create, Australians are in constant fear that a fire will sweep though the landscape. After a fire, the ash that remains provides fertility for the young seedlings. Unfortunately, the Eucalyptus leaves that don’t get burnt are still useless to the farmer as mulch or compost because they contain a toxin that inhibits the growth of nearby plants. Most trees here are tolerant of fire and grow in infertile, hot and drought-prone conditions. These sporadic conditions can make farming quite difficult and because there are no intense winters, slugs and other pests can be a huge problem.
I believe Boston’s seemingly lifeless winters contribute to vibrant, healthy soils. Laying the land fallow for half the year gives it the rest and rejuvenation it needs for the following season. The rich leaf litter and microbial life provides abundant carbon and nutrients for plants. When I dug a hole into soil in the Australian bushland, I found layer upon layer of clay and rock, with little signs of life or organic matter. I’m continuously surprised anything can even grow in such soil, here on earth’s driest continent. However, in a comparable forest in Boston, if I were to dig the same hole, I would find worms, insects and organic matter.
Perhaps it is the 115 degree summer heat, frequent danger of wild fire, or the copious amounts of poisonous snakes and spiders, but I have come to appreciate the cold, raw winters of Boston and look forward to learning how to farm in greenhouses. So far this trip I have worked on commercial farms from garlic to apples to asparagus. I am currently working on a certified organic vegetable farm in Tasmania, learning as much as I can. I look forward to applying everything I’m learning to HomeHarvest this coming April and making this season’s gardens the most productive yet.