For the Birds

By Carol Ann Sayle 
Illustration by Jenna Noel

In Central Texas, September is a major planting month. It starts off, unfortunately, as hot as summer, and often as dry—conditions that make it tough to start crops of vegetables that love cooler temperatures. We hope for the miracle rains that might purge our ground of summer’s inevitable sodium buildup—and resulting rise in pH—and keep our soil intact so that it doesn't leave the farm as dust. We also hope that the days don’t bring unwanted visitors of the nonhuman kind.

Last September, we sowed seeds to fill eight 200-foot-long rows with various colors of beets and chards. With irrigation, the seeds germinated and sprouts arose. The next day, the little plants were gone without a trace—every last one of them.

We used the rest of our seeds to plant again, and waited days for new sprouts to emerge. They surfaced and, yet again, the following day they were but a memory. We ordered more seeds, planted again, and this time we monitored them each and every day. Larry would call from our Milam County farm. “What's happening with the beets today?” he’d ask. I'd give him the report: the beets were near germination, then germinated and finally—precariously—stems began emerging from the soil. Then, poof! Gone.

Completely mystified, we’d nixed the idea of cutworms doing in the wee plants. Even in our worst years we’d not had that many cutworms! And even if we’d had a cutworm plague, they simply don’t move fast enough to take out, so quickly, so completely, that many little plants. Slightly suspicious of fire ants, we put out fire ant bait. Perhaps the ants had marched away with the plants, as they’d once done with thousands of salad mix lettuce seeds—replanting them slapdash, wherever they saw fit.

But on one hot Sunday afternoon, while out for our almost hourly inspection, we discovered the culprits: approximately 300 sparrows. The birds, thirsty and hungry from the horrible drought, were lined up along all the rows—as if dining at a “pitch ‘til you win” buffet—eating every single little stem and its two tiny leaves. Relieved to finally know the freeloaders, we replanted the empty areas and covered the beds with a lightweight polyester row cover. The restaurant was now closed, and our crop went on to become a great one—even if a little tardy.

Fall planting takes perseverance, some rain and a good attitude. On the positive side, fall is the first season to us—our chance to start from scratch again—and we are optimistic and energetic! We turn under the cover crops, amend the soil with minerals, apply freshly made compost (from the community’s leaves and our Poo de Poulet), plant transplants and sow seeds. Planning the crop layout is simpler because most of the land is bare, giving us room for everything we want to plant.

Last year, in the throes of the drought, September’s efforts were still worth it, if mainly for the sparrows. Instead of winning the stuffed animal at a carnival’s pitch-and-win, the birds themselves became the stuffed offering—winning our coveted prize of beets and chard. This year, however, we’re not paying their entrance fee to the carnival. Since the drought persists, we’ll plant nothing unless we cover it, and we'll be looking forward to winning the prize ourselves: November and December's abundance in the farm stand.