Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Smokin’ Hot and Mummies—Or, It Could Be Worse

I wish I was here to share the recipe for Texas-style barbecue brisket with black pepper rub that I came across last week. Or to tell you about a cool new archaeological find. But if wishes were horses then we’d all be kings, as the old saying goes.

When it comes to backyard farming, or even life in general, a helpful—maybe even essential—credo may be, “Things Could Always Be Worse.” Take this summer. When our resident chipmunks were hitting our strawberry crop and I spent many hours devising the netting that would finally keep them out (see previous post),  I thought, Now all I have to worry about is Chip getting into our blueberries.

In previous years, Chip and his pals invaded our two blueberry patches, each berry season worse than the last. I’d get under the netting to pick, only to find the pesky critters been there first: half-eaten berries scattered all over the place, decomposing in the summer sun.  This summer, however, Chip seemed to be laying low since I’d thwarted him with the strawberries.

And happily, this year our blueberry crop looked abundant, despite the hard pruning I’d given the shrubs to encourage more upright growth. Earlier this summer, I’d head into our patches to look admiringly at all the healthy fruit set, clusters bursting with swelling white berries, taking on a bluish tinge—the first sign of ripening. Smiling, I pictured the bowls of fresh berries we’d eat, the gallons of berries I’d process for the deep-freeze.

As the days went by, I found a mystery: shrubs that previously had been laden with berries looked…emptier. I’d find berry stems with no berries on them, as if the robins had been gobbling them. But robins are smarter than that—they wait until the berries are blue and sweet, and then start attacking them.

More days passed. Most of my blueberry bushes now held only a middling amount of berries—I’d never seen this before. The fruit seemed to be disappearing before my very eyes. Poking around the shrubs, it was then I saw them: shriveled grayish-white bits on the ground, which once were blueberries.

Blueberries in various stages of "mummification"
I’d seen these tiny white berries before of course—with spray-free blueberries, you’ll find a number of them on every bush. I figured it was nature’s way of preventing the blueberry shrubs from working too hard. But this year, there were way too many to ignore. And many, many berries still on the bush were half-wrinkled, and turning a sickly purple. You’d barely touch them and they’d fall off the stem. Something was definitely wrong.

I’d heard of mummyberry disease—something only other growers get, I said to myself in my Pollyanna way. (The same mindset that got me into trouble with cabbage worms!) After all, I’d faithfully mulched my berries to prevent it—along with the meticulous pruning and watering, my berries got the best of care.

When the numbers of shriveled bits were too alarming to ignore, I made myself Google mummyberry disease. Sure enough, that’s what we had. It’s a fungus—the afflicted berries drop to the ground, looking “mummified.” It gets worse. If you don’t pick up all your little mummies, each one develops into this mushroom-like thingy in the fall and releases like, millions of spores. Thus setting you up for a worse fungal attack next year. Well, if that’s what it took, that’s what I’d do. Every day, I have crawled under the nets and picked up every last one of those little suckers. Fortunately, as blueberry season progresses, the die-off seems to be decreasing. Life—and berry picking—goes on.

At least that’s what I thought until a few days ago. Here in the Foothills, like anywhere else, the weather gods haven’t always been kind: we’ve had windstorms and blizzards and tree-splitting ice storms, along with drought and extreme heat. But last week’s heatwave brought a new twist: smoke.

Up in Canada, in British Columbia, wildfires have burned well over a million acres. Days ago, a summer northeaster wind brought thick smoke from the fires into the entire western side of our state. Here in the Foothills, we’re in Week 2 of the great smoke-out. Meteorologists say air quality is between “marginal and poor.” A thick haze hangs in the still air, and the lovely hills surrounding us are nearly obscured; our iconic mountain has completely disappeared from view. At night, the moon is a bizarre blood-orange color. The landscape feels threatening, almost dystopian.

As a fresh air freak, I feel claustrophobic, having to keep the house windows closed 24/7. Worse is staying indoors all afternoon--being outdoors, the heated smoke makes your throat raw, and creates a bitter taste in your mouth. The undone garden chores are piling up: weeds going unpulled, mulch going unmulched, bushwhacking going unwhacked. And the forecast calls for at least three more smoke-choked days.

So I’ve reached for my Pollyanna-like optimism. Despite our mummyberry problem, I’ve already put up three gallons of blueberries. I caught Chip in the blueberry patch this morning but didn’t see much damage. And while I’ve seen lots of fresh bear scat on our road this week, I haven’t run into any bears. So, yeah—things could definitely be worse.