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The Farmer Diaries

Aspiring Texas farmer fights the freeze and wins

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Marshall Hinsley, garden
Seedlings go from container to garden. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Hay keeps down the weeds and provides insulation. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Heirloom tomato seedlings await replanting. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Marshall Hinsley prepares for another year of gardening. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Seedlings soak up the early spring sun. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Some Texas farmers are already harvesting kale. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Marshall Hinsley's garden will include a variety of heirloom tomatoes. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Marshall Hinsley, garden
Marshall Hinsley

Editor's Note: This is the first in a new series by Marshall Hinsley, a writer, producer and videographer who's been farming in Waxahachie since 2008.

This is the fifth year of my "Declaration of Food Independence," a personal project to see whether I can eventually walk through the produce section of the grocery store without adding anything to my cart. I plant as much of anything that I may want and hope for a bounty to sell at local markets. Maybe some day my job can be my hobby and my garden can be my job. That’s my goal, the details of which I hope to share here.

Thanks to global warming, the time to plant outdoors in the Dallas area seems to come sooner each year. March 13 is designated as the official annual frost-free date. Prone to taking risks, I started planting my 2013 garden a few days early, betting on a warm season.

I bet. I planted. I lost.

The prep
Planting is the fun part, but you can't plant without prepping your soil first. In past years, I've procrastinated prepping until the day of. But that turns a potentially pleasant day into hard work. This year, I started early: I've been digging, hoeing, weeding and fertilizing (organically, of course) since January.

 What I feared for the most were my tomatoes. They love heat. They shrink at the mere mention of cold.

I also got a jump on the season by starting some seedlings indoors. That’s about the only way to get the heirloom varieties of the fruits and vegetables that grow well here and taste delicious. They went into the ground the first week of March.

The freeze
Then came the fatal early morning hours of March 15 and 16, when temperatures in Waxahachie — outside the heat-island effect from the big city's tectonic plate of concrete and asphalt — dove to 19 degrees Fahrenheit. I had some winter plants already in the ground, including snow peas, borage, potatoes, beets and wheat. (Yep, wheat — just enough so I can say I grow it, and it looks nice too.) I covered them with frost blankets to minimize the damage.

But what I feared for the most were my tomatoes. They were already in the ground and doing nicely when the gloomy weather forecasts began. Tomatoes love heat. They shrink at the mere mention of cold. To give them their best shot against the freeze, I concocted a system that drew from lessons I learned in junior high science class.

I took one-gallon plant containers and stuffed them with newspaper for insulation, then fit one snugly over each plant. Next to each container, I placed grande cups from a Well Known Beverage Purveyor, each filled with water. Water stores and releases huge quantities of heat for its volume, or so said my junior high science teacher. I hoped the water might offer a little extra warmth.

I put a box over the container and the cup of water and topped it all with a brick to weigh it down. The next morning, I surveyed my crop. Of my 17 tomato plants, 15 survived. Success!

In past years, I would go "all natural" and let the freeze kill as it wanted. Isn't that what they did a century ago when everything was organic? But I'm a recent convert to the vertical farming movement's idea of sustainable urban farming centers with temperature-controlled environments. I shoot for earth-kind gardening, using sustainable practices to lengthen the growing season or shield against unpredictable weather.

The future
After this mid-March freeze, I feel confident that planting may continue. This week’s slated plantings include the following:

  • Cucumbers. Two kinds, for pickling and slicing.
  • Cilantro. Plant some every week or two so there's always some ready for outstanding salsa.
  • Lettuce. From transplants started indoors.
  • Carrots. Plant a little every two weeks for a continual harvest.
  • Sweet peppers. Started indoors and now ready for transplanting.
  • Flowers. A few for cut flower sales — feed the soul.

Forecasts for early April show cool temps coming back, so I will lay low on planting the heat lovers: basil, okra, melons.

Honestly, I kind of appreciated the cold snap. It relieved the gnawing feeling that I was lagging behind in my food self-sufficiency attempt. If my planting agenda had been any more forceful or aggressive, I'd have lost even more.

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