Posts Tagged ‘four season gardening’

Wednesday, October 24:

Last year at this time we were in haste to develop the spring which now waters the big barn in all but the longest of cold snaps; this year we are hurrying to finish the water system that will keep the steers frost-free this winter on the monastery pastures.  One of these days, maybe, we will run out of big projects needing completion before snow flies.   Most of today was spent gathering supplies for the tire tank we hope to build this Saturday under the west pasture spring; here the water runs fast enough that we hope, by keeping the water underground before it enters the tank, to keep the flow from freezing.  That would mean being able to run the steers on grass at the monastery all winter, saving the baled hay for the milk cows in the home pasture.

The last few preparations for the winter gardens are gradually being made.  The bed is composted, tilled, and raked for planting next year’s garlic; ashes in buckets wait in the barn for someone to spread them over empty beds to be tilled in the spring.  Hoops and sandbags for the high tunnels are spread on the lawn in various states of incompletion.  Every length of row cover or clean six-mil plastic film that can be found is hunted out and examined for holes.  Only the warm weather of the last few days prevents us putting the first layer of protection on the winter carrots and salad greens.

Next to the river the poplars scarcely admit of the season by the yellow cast of their huge leaves, but on the bluffs above the maples are bare and only the oaks keep their foliage; this is shades of russet and brown, with the occasional deep scarlet of a lover’s rose.  Elsewhere the woods have lost their impenetrability, black boles standing out against a carpet of yellow.  In the ditches sumac, blood-red, flashes like a heliograph when it catches the sun, and now is the time to mark out patches of wild asparagus, clouds of ferny yellow, for spring foraging.  Our family news is like the weather, warm and cold by turns; one son has left us to return to Minnesota with his lovely family, while another proposes bringing home as his wife a woman we have long loved and admired.  We are joyful and sorrowful.

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Wednesday, September 5:

The young cabbages are set out and watered with the hose off the creek.  Constantly running water – free, and not drawn off the aquifer – is a blessing we feel every day.  Eight dozen cabbages and seven hundred row-feet of carrots, mostly Napolis, need lots of water, every day even, water we could not give them from the house well even if we wanted to burn electricity to do it.  We are properly grateful.   In October we will cover the winter vegetables with low hoops and row cover; in November, or December if the cold holds off, we will cover them again with high hoops of welded wire and six-mil poly twenty feet wide, making a high tunnel about five and a half feet tall and almost ten feet wide.

That’s a big tunnel, much bigger than last year’s, and we hope it works.  In a high wind it could be a disaster.

The big pile of waste wood at the foot of the hill, in the curve of North creek we call “the bonfire pit”, has been reduced to a thin layer of cinders edged by a few half-burned lengths of two-by-four.  It went up in flames thirty feet high, lighting the whole valley with tongues that tore loose from the parent fire and expired in showers of sparks.  The alchemists of the Middle Ages who classified all matter as either Earth, Air, Water, or Fire, can’t have been too far wrong;  at the Sow’s Ear fire is employed almost as often as the other three, multiple times a day.  In the kitchen, of course; and under the fifteen-gallon brass kettle out back where we cook swill for the pigs and chickens.  In the oil lanterns we carry down to light the way when we close up the ducks and chickens, and in candle lanterns on the porch for prayers.  In the grill to sear the good red meat that, with potatoes and fresh vegetables, refuels us after a day of hard work.  In the rock oven by the creek for hot dogs and marshmallows; and, as last night, for joy, and to clear the farm of those things, comparatively few, which cannot be recycled and for which we can no longer find a good use.

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Saturday, June 30:

Two-tenths of an inch of rain last night laid the dust temporarily and cancelled our church league softball game.  We sat on the edge of the porch and let the drizzle damp our hair, watching the air currents, never straightforward in our little hollow, tie the treetops in knots.

Belatedly we remembered that we had not given the corn its second hilling; the late planting, in fact, hadn’t been hilled at all.  We hoped the wind wouldn’t knock it over and lodge it; just such a storm last summer had laid out all but the youngest corn in an almost totally supine position.  Not people to know when we are beat, we actually – we blush to admit it – spent all of a very hot morning crawling around in the dirt raising the corn up again and tying it – yes, tying it, every last stalk in about three hundred row-feet of corn – to temporary wire fence we stretched between the rows.  Good heavens, what an expenditure of energy on a very long shot.   Yes, we got corn out of that patch that we probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, but it was a lot of work for only a very little gain; half the stalks bore little or nothing.  We could instead have fed the lodged corn to the pigs and cows and replanted with something else.  It was only July; fall came late that year and some short-season hybrid corn would have had time to make before frost.

We made two five-pound Paysanos last week, but we will not be making more until the hot weather breaks.  A cheese fresh out of the press has to dry at room temperature, usually for several days, and at the present room temperature a new cheese doesn’t dry; it weeps like a mother-of-the-bride.  If allowed to welter in its own whey it will rapidly develop a case of mold spot-measles.  We turn it often and keep a fan on it, but experience tells us that when a biological operation of this sort gets too complicated it is probably best to suspend operations until conditions are more favorable.

We paid the price last week of not having perimeter fence at the monastery in a hot calf-hunt through the high grass and into the steep wooded coulees.  Something, deer probably, had charged through the polywire fence around the steers’ paddock, leaving them at sweet liberty, and by the time we discovered the damage they had disappeared without a trace.  Almost an hour’s searching high and low finally turned them out barely a hundred yards from their starting point, dodging and grazing among the cane brakes behind the big garden.  We are making their paddocks smaller now, to give the deer a smaller target; the price is that we have to move the paddocks more often.

Our experience in the world of business is that many problems are may be susceptible of a single solution – one size fits all – and we have had to adjust our minds to the fact that animals and plants and weather have a way of springing something new on us every time.  Realizing this fact has lowered our tension level a notch or two; now we don’t feel like failures every time we have to alter the management practices around here.

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Wednesday, April 25:

   Although we have been gardening for most of our lives, we are always learning, or trying to learn.  The last couple of years we have been making a study of the books of four-season gardener Eliot Coleman, before whose shrine we have built many a compost heap.  This year the “big” garden, by which we mean the medium-sized garden (the New Building at Oxford was built in the sixteen hundreds, we are told) is being planted to thirty-inch beds with twelve- inch paths between, as per Mr. Coleman’s design.  The onions are planted in three such beds.

We are learning a lot.

First, as to those beds and paths.  The reality, of course, is that raised beds without retaining walls are really just flat “hills”, as we call them in South, that is, long mounds with sloping sides.  The higher the mound, the longer the slope.  In such a case as these we have been building, a twelve inch path becomes a trench some two feet wide from edge to edge with a path at the bottom, and a thirty-inch bed is only two feet across at the top.  Mr. Coleman’s specs are for three rows of onions per bed, with ten inches between rows; three rows, then, occupy about twenty inches across.  So far, so good; the outer rows should lie a safe two inches inside the twenty-four inch flattened top of the bed.

Thus, two weeks ago, we planted our onion seedlings.


1)       Water runs downhill.  When you water the top of a bed, what is there to keep the water on top, where the plants are?

2)      More surface area means more evaporation, hence more water loss.  The plants in the side rows, only inches from the edge of the bed, are losing moisture laterally as well as vertically; dry soil means more stress.

3)      Dry raised beds tend to crumble and cave at the edges, taking with them any young plants which may be trying to root there.

4)      The chickens will always get in, and maybe they eat onions and maybe they don’t.

After two weeks of watering and watching our carefully planted alliums, we find we have about half as many as we set out.  The rest, we can only guess, have fallen prey despite our efforts to situationally-enhanced drought.   Gaps make both short and long spaces between the tiny green shoots, and the crumbling edges of the beds encroach into the rows.  So yesterday we bought a bundle of seedlings to piece out our plantings, and today we set out to right our difficulties.

First of all, we threw out the ten-inch row spacing.  If the plants can be four to six inches apart in the rows, we decided, they won’t take harm if the rows themselves are spaced just as close.  The long gaps in the rows we filled in with seedlings transferred from the broken edge rows.  In the end, each bed has only two rows, for even with the purchased seedlings we came up short; then when all the onions were resettled, we used a garden rake to redefine the sides of the beds, mounding the soil a little so that water drawn in buckets from the culvert on Jeddo’s run stayed on top of the hills long enough to soak in where the plants were and where it was most needed.  Six or seven buckets, each containing about three gallons of water, were poured carefully down the rows, and this evening when we walked down the hill to move the cows’ paddock the onions were sturdy in the damp brown soil.  From now on we will try mounding the soil along the edges of all our beds and crowd the rows a little to keep them away from the dry edges.

All husbandry is ongoing experimentation.  Success is survival.  Failure means something dies and we try again.

We shifted the polywire for the cows’ new paddock, pumped water into the high water hog, and then sat in the clover throwing rocks to the crazy dekker, Scouter, until it grew so cool we went in.  A haze is climbing in the sky up the west draw; we hope it will bring rain before tomorrow.

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Tuesday, September 6:  

The beds that grew onions and tomatoes this summer are dug over and composted.  Two of the beds were sown with carrots in early August, and as the lacy seedlings unfolded, the grasshoppers were there to nibble them off.  Only about a quarter of the carrots escaped; in the spaces where the carrots are no longer, we have sown spinach for fall consumption.  Belatedly, we have added row covers to foil the insect pests.  September is really early for covering the garden, but we are afraid if we don’t protect the small plants they will all be eaten, and they are meant to provide us with our winter carrots.

Today we sowed another six feet of spinach, and an equivalent in buttercrunch lettuce; the weather is perfect, coolish and damp with the wrack from a hurricane spinning out of the Gulf.  We will continue to sow a few feet of salad greens every week until the end of September, and perhaps a little longer.  These will be covered with hoops and row covers, and then again with sheet plastic when the snow comes.  Some of the greens should be ready for harvest in November or December, God willing, and there should be succession of harvest into early spring.   God willing, because no one is more aware than we are of the uncertainties of gardening. There are flats of buttercrunch in the greenhouse, waiting to be big enough to set out in one of the raised beds by the house; covered with stock panel hoops and plastic sheeting, these should be a little better insulated than the low hoops, and we hope will be our insurance in case anything happens to the latter.  If everything does well, there will be a little lettuce to sell this winter.

The cool, damp weather we are having makes it easier for the school age children to hit the books; not that they are overflowing with enthusiasm, but right now ditching in the rain is less attractive than a cup of cocoa and a math lesson.  If we are to have ware ready for our two fall sales, we will have to get the kiln wiring overhauled and get to work in the clay studio.  From raw clay to finished ware is a weeks-long process that can’t be hurried, and demands close attention to timing.  We hurry from one thing to the next; there are few breaks in the work load of a revolutionary, but there is a lot of diversity.

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Friday, September 2:

The first week of the new school year is over for our institutionalized sons, that is, those attending the university.  The rest of us, more dependent upon the seasons for our calendar, are still working outdoors most of the time, trying to knock a few more jobs off the long list before the weather, and a sense of guilt felt only by Mom, chases us in to our school books.

The barn is effectively finished.  The doors – ten by twenty foot panels on tracks — are not hung or even built, and may not be hung before winter, but the loft is closed, the feed and tack room has doors on it, and the pigpen is now housing three forty-pound weanlings.  The barn will function as we need it to this winter, so that project can be reasonably put to rest for the season.

The chicken palace, on the other hand, is not yet battened.  There is some difference of opinion whether the chickens need the cracks in the walls of their lovely home battened or not.  Mom holds that they will lay better this winter if they are protected from the winds which will undoubtedly come in through those cracks if they are not stopped.  The boys, on the other hand, are skeptical, mostly because they are the ones who will have to rip siding and tack up the battens.  In cases of this kind, it is hard to predict the outcome, whether the boys will decide to humor Mom, or find other more important things to do.  If, however, Mom goes out to the barn and starts ripping battens, they will probably take over and finish the job, just to protect the power equipment from her inexperience.

There is still some wood to be split and stacked.  The new woodshed is nearly full of split wood, but we will stack the overage at the south end of the shed on pallets and throw a tarp over it.  No one has wanted to begin the process, however, while S-2 and S-3 were at school and therefore unavailable to make a hand with this tedious job.  Instead, the boys who are still at home have cleaned up around the barns, stacking lumber left over from our various building projects, moving three bins of manure and wood chips, and tightening up the electrical connections in the small tractor.  Presently they are engaged in the long, dirty task of trenching for our spring improvement project.

Following the diagrams left us by our wonderful USDA county agent – don’t knock all of them, this one is like an organic Clark Kent, pop him into a phone booth and he leaps out wearing a cape and mask, an inexhaustible resource for whatever you need to know about sustainable agriculture, pastured chickens, and mob grazing – following, as we say, his diagrams, we are digging about fifty feet of trench diagonally across the hill above the spring from which we water the stock, in order to gather more of the water running below the surface and sequester it in our hlding tanks.  This job would be burdensome in any case, but with the weather having turned hot again, even to attempt to dig this trench wins S-4 and S-5 the silver cup for heroism.  The postal employees have nothing on our sons – not snow, nor rain, nor sleet, nor even a large nest of hostile yellow jackets, can divert these guys from the performance of their duties.

Particularly when the alternatives include Algebra II and ancient mythology.

We, on the other hand.  By night making crib notes from the 1989 edition of Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower, by day we are trying to apply his principles to some of the areas of the garden already vacated by harvest.  The garlic bed was planted to pole beans in late July, and these are tall and lush now, and hopefully will soon begin to blossom.  Bush beans, planted a little earlier in the raised beds, are already supplying the table.  The area previously occupied by onions was composted and planted to winter carrots, and those the grasshoppers have not eaten are about five inches tall.  Only after the fact do we discover that ground to be planted to root crops should not be manured the same year.  Wouldn’t you know.

Doing our homework more timely, we made sure beforehand that the beds we are preparing for winter lettuce and spinach should, in fact, be composted with plenty of our best before the leafy greens are planted.  Braving a nest of hornets rumored to have taken up residence under the seventh, or was it eighth, compost bin, we opened the seventh, or was it eighth, and found dark crumbly stuff under the top layer of undecomposed weed trash and hay.  There was enough to spread thickly on the section of the big garden where we intend to start winter greens and spring onions, and an additional cartload to take up to the raised beds by the house, where we will plant more winter salad stuff.  We have started lettuce seedlings indoors, and will start more as soon as Mom gets it to the top of her list.  These will be set out about the middle of September, covered with spun bonded row cover, and, God willing, grow into our winter salad supply.

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