A tale of nematodes and a bonus on our plates
Over the next weeks, we will be blessed with two unexpected guest stars – the cauliflower and some broccoli! Their tale this year is a nice one, for it originates with an attempt to find a solution to an altogether different problem and concludes with a very happy answer to a problem we thought we were never going to solve.
And thus it goes:
The cauliflower and broccoli are cousins, members of the wintery brassicae family. True, there are countries where winter prevails most of the year, and the brassicaes flourish accordingly, but in our warm Mid-Eastern land their season is very short. We try to stretch it as long as possible, which is why they are planted beneath shade nets as early as August, when winter is a faraway wish. Try as we may, we never succeeded in stretching their yield all the way to the other end of the season.
Year after year we attempted to grow them in April and May, with minimal luck. The yields were small and the vegetables sad… The cauliflower was a dreary purple and the broccoli turned up brown. Their message to us was clear: hey, we did our jobs over the cool season. Leave us alone already so we can rest!
So we did. Though we were itching to try again. Our friends Eyal and Einat from the Shorashim farm, excellent organic farmers who grow their crops in the “Ayanot” Youth Village by the sea, were able to grow cauliflower and broccoli all the way to June, thanks to the moderating effect of the ocean-side climate. And we wanted what they had! But after a few years, we had to give up. Realizing the great significance of each area’s microclimate, we understood that we needed to focus our efforts on yields that work well in our farm, and avoid what apparently does not suit our microclimate. So for some years now, the cauliflower and broccoli have ended their term at the end of March, and we pine away for them till the next winter blows in.
This year was not going to be any different. Until in one of our cultivation tunnels (growth structures covered with plastic in the wintertime and a shade net in summer,) we encountered a pesky nematode problem in our cucumber beds. On the surface, we saw cucumber bushes whose development had halted till they finally dried up and wilted, but the real battle scene was taking place underground upon the roots of the plants.
The nematode is in fact a huge and varied field in the kingdom of organisms. Humankind knows of over 28,000 types of nematodes out of an estimated one million species, most of which are yet unknown. The nematodes are microscopic threadlike worms (Nematoidea is Greek for threadlike) which live in the earth and water (in the ocean, sweet water and in intestines of animals and people). Many of the nematode species are in fact beneficial, such as carnivorous nematodes nourished by pest’s larva and eggs. Also, the tiny nematode motions in the earth contribute to its texture and help spread mycelium and other beneficial bacteria.
Within the nematode species known to man, there are some 16,000 parasites. The ones which head straight for our field are, of course, the vegetarian parasite nematodes. They reside within the earth and they have a proboscis/thin vessel which they insert into the roots of the plant. This is how they cling to the plant and nourish off its cells, damaging the absorption of its water, food and fertilizer. In addition, they are liable to bring about diseases and viruses which penetrate the wound created by the nematode, eventually killing the plant.
Conventional treatment of nematodes is by highly toxic pest control. In the past, it was methyl bromide, which is no longer used due to its high level of toxicity, and others were developed instead. Organic agriculture tries various solutions such as planting nematode-resistant varieties, using solar disinfection prior to planting (sometimes adding chicken fertilizer, which contains nitrogen that assists in fighting the nematodes) and biologic pest control using bacterium (baciluus firmus) that damages the nematodes. But the vegetarian critters, which reproduce rapidly and are never happy to leave, remain the worst pests.
And this is where the Brassicaceae’s come into the picture. Members of this family are able to cleanse the earth and purify it of diseases and fungi. It’s still unclear exactly how this process, termed “biological disinfection” or “biofumigation” occurs, but apparently when the green content of the Brassicaceae decomposes inside the earth with the help of enzymes, some volatile matter is released that is poisonous to pathogens and reduces them. In order to enjoy these advantages, you can combine the Brassicaceae in your seeding rounds and upon harvest, plow them under the earth, growing them as green-manure cover crops (i.e., without harvesting, but rather stuffing the whole plant into the soil) or even use the remains of plants that grew in a different bed and were plowed into the earth, in order to cleanse the earth before growing an exceptionally vulnerable crop.
This is a process that occurs naturally, as part of the amazing ability of nature to unbalance the balanced and stabilize conditions. It’s no wonder that we see mustard bushes taking over every available piece of earth. They must be in charge of cleaning, purifying and restoring the earth with its powers and living forces. As farmers, we know we do not work the way nature does. Farming is forever an artificial act forced upon the earth, and yet, as organic farmers we try to learn as much as we can from nature in how to tone down the extreme and restore some balance.
Which is why, after we encountered the cucumber-in-the- tunnel nematode problem, we decided to grow broccoli and cauliflower in the now-vacated soil. We didn’t expect to harvest them. They were there only because these were the only plants available in the gardening nursery (our emergency order consisted of 1,000 cauliflowers and 200 broccoli), and we wanted them to cleanse the earth in preparation for upcoming crops.
Okay, we admit, perhaps we were kindling a tiny spark of rebellion that still wished to attempt to grow these kind vegetables at the end of spring, hoping maybe in the tunnel they would succeed thanks to its protected, cleaner environment as well as the sunshade (which we put up at the beginning of March, when the heatwaves made their surprise appearance). So we planted the total cauliflower and broccoli order, watered them, and waited patiently.
Lo and behold, our emergency crops, the cauliflower and broccoli, grew from day to day and turned into beautiful bushes. We smiled inside, but were careful not to verbalize too much… But when tiny scalps began emerging, developing into baby cauliflowers and broccoli, our smiles expanded. And when the babies eventually turned into pretty heads in white or green, springy and fresh, we finally broke into our happy dance at the thought of placing them in your boxes at the end of spring, just before Lag B’omer. Joy!
So give the small bouquets of white and green in your boxes a hearty round of applause and thanks as they restore balance and inspire faith. Their leaves and stems will be chopped finely and inserted into the tunnel soil, patching up the balance and creating harmony within the earth. And as they deliciously decorate your plates, we hope they bring to your homes peace and tranquility, happiness, balance, and the potential of surprising and unexpected solutions to the seemingly impossible.
Wishing you a good week, full of pleasant surprises and the happiness of growth,
Alon, Bat Ami, Dror, Yochai and the Chubeza team
WHAT’S JOINING THE CAULIFLOWER & BROCCOLI IN THIS WEEK’S BOXES?
Monday: Swiss chard/kale, fennel/kohlrabi, lettuce, cucumbers, leeks, tomatoes, parsley root/celery stalk, cauliflower/broccoli, zucchini, beets, cilantro/parsley/dill.
Large box, in addition: Carrots, onions, potatoes.
Wednesday: Swiss chard, lettuce, cucumbers, leeks, tomatoes, parsley root/celery stalk, zucchini, beets, cilantro/parsley/dill, potatoes/cabbage, onions.
Large box, in addition: Carrots/fennel/kohlrabi, kale, cauliflower.