Saturday, March 31, 2007

All in good time

The soils workshop starts at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow. It's an hour and 15 minutes away, so that means leaving at 7:45. Except I have to gas up the borrowed economy car (40 mpg vs. 10 in the truck), so make that 7:30. Except that at the last minute a car-pooler appeared, so make that 7:15 to pick her up. Plus chores, 1/2 hour, so 6:45. Plus breakfast and shower, so 6:15. And then it's raining tonight and I'll have to start the siphon on the tarped barn AGAIN... so the alarm gets set for 5:30. That's WAY early, for me. I'm a night owl. The myth about farmers getting up at the crack of dawn is just that, a myth, in my case. At least until summer heat sets in, and only the morning hours are bearable in terms of heat.

So tonight's entry will be short.

Spring is living up to its name here & now, things leaping out of the ground at unbelieveable speed. Everything is blooming at once...daffodils, tulips, flowering shrubs, trees.....

With last night's heavy rains, the ground is littered with flower petals as I drive the bus around town. White under the ornamental pear trees. Coral orange under the flowering quince hedge. Bright lavender under the redbud. Pink under the flowering crabapple. And then freshly-sprung, unmown lawns of the greenest green with patches of intensely yellow dandelions. It's as if the entire world were a rainbow!

Today, for the first time, I saw a number of honey bees working the redbud tree outside the livingroom window. This is reassuring; with the fruit trees blooming so early this year, and more and more ailments and parasites reducing honeybee populations, I was concerned about pollination.

My "Sweetheart" apricot bloomed a couple weeks ago, and has dropped all its petals. It usually bears heavily, but I've only tasted one apricot from it over the years. That one was picked up from the ground half-eaten...the squirrels always beat me to the fruit. Thisyear I'm thinking of resorting to drastic measures like electric fencing, to protect some of the fruit. The "Stella" self-pollinating sweet cherry is nearing the end of its bloom, and the "Montmorency" pie cherry is just barely beginning to flower. The expensive pear trees I planted in the yard have a few blossoms; they've been slow to bear. But the little seedling pear that just appeared from nowhere in the wilderness area is covered in blossoms! I'm excited to see what fruit it will bear. The two surviving apples (Liberty and Pristine, both resistant to Cedar-Apple Rust) will be blooming soon, too. The grapes, mulberries, and Carpathian walnut are all slower, just beginning to shown swelling buds. The Brown Turkey hardy figs are still snuggled under their heavy winter mulch of leaves, but soon it will be time to uncover them.

It's exciting to see these trees mature and bear fruit, after so many years of waiting. There is something especially sweet about a cherry from a tree I planted. Watching them helps me be more patient with my own growth, and the growth of the farm. Slow is not bad, slow is required for some of the very best things in life to reach their fullness. Slow is worth the wait.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

New arrivals

Arrived home last night to find that Skipper had just lambed, two nice big, lively "black" boys. Actually, I still haven't figured out what color they are! The "blue" pattern colored Lincoln Longwool heritage gives them an up-side-down chevron of white hairs across the face, and white "tear ducts" (actually a different sort of gland, below the eyes). Otherwise they look black at first glance, but the wool underneath is slightly lighter, typical of the Suffolk "fading gene" but darker than a typical Suffolk, and the under wool seems to be more silvery than creamy white as it is in a Suffolk. But then they have some CVM (California Variegated Mutant, a rare American colored breed) blood, too, and that breed actually can get darker during its first year. The only thing I can say with any assurance is that they will grow up to have black legs and hooves!

I'm surprised that there were only two, because Skipper has spent the last 3 weeks looking like she was carrying 3 or even 4 lambs, she was that huge. But, that's how it is with sheep--like with humans, every pregnancy is different, and you just can't tell until they're born (state-of-the-art technology notwithstanding).

Newborn lambs are so amazing to watch...within minutes, they are struggling to their feet and wobbling towards the udder for their first drink. They remind me of sawhorses when they are born--their sides are as flat as a 2x4 board! During the first couple days they sort of "inflate"--they don't get bigger, just fatter and rounder. Then when they are round, they start GROWING! Within a couple weeks, they are nibbling hay and grain.

There are some amusing milestones in a lamb's early life. One is when they learn to jump and caper. This happens when they are just a couple days old. I watched one once. It was just standing looking off into space, and suddenly its hind end just jumped. The lamb looked very surprised! A moment later, its front end jumped--and again the lamb looked surprised, as if these motions had happened without any foreknowledge or volition on the part of the lamb. A minute later, the hind end jumped again, and I could practically see the light bulb go on over the lamb's head. Suddenly it realized it could CHOOSE to jump. It gave a testing sort of jump...and then started jumping all over the pen, uncoordinated at first but rapidly getting the hang of it.

I've also watched lambs learning to chew cud for the first time. They are several weeks old when this happens. As newborns, when they are just drinking milk, they don't run their food through the whole rumen cycle. But when they start eating solid food, the rumen develops, and their bodies transition to the complex digestive system of ruminants. This involves wolfing down their food almost whole, fermenting it in a special part of their stomach and then regugitating it for a good thorough second chewing while they are just standing or laying around, relaxing. It appears to be a very contemplative occupation. But the very first time a lamb brings up a cud, it has the most amazed expression on its face, as though it TOTALLY wasn't expecting that to happen. Like, the lamb was just lying there and suddenly its mouth was full of something! What a shock! Sometimes the cud just goes flying right out of the lamb's mouth!

Now, just 16 more ewes to lamb.... Currently, there are 15 lambs "on the ground" from 7 ewes. With 9 more adult ewes to "lamb out" (probably mostly twins and triplets), and 7 ewe lambs who will probably have singles, we could end up with a total of nearly 40 lambs this season! That's a lot of lovely, lively lambikins leaping lightly and lounging lazily and looking ludicrous as they learn lots of lamb lore!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sun Screen

It was warm and humid at the beginning of my shift driving the bus this afternoon. A passenger in a spaghetti-strap top asked, "Aren't you hot in those long sleeves?"

When I began farming, which was also when I began my spiritual journey as a Christian, I wore shorts and T-shirts when it was hot. Or sleeveless dresses. And sandals.

Over time, not for reasons of religious restrictions or modesty, I've come to wear long pants and long sleeve shirts with buttoned collars, 365 days a year. And close-toed shoes, when shoes are appropriate. And a broad-brimmed sun hat.

Long sleeves and pants protect my arms and legs from: flailing chicken feet, thorny raspberry bushes, joyful dog paws, biting mosquitos, scratchy weeds, itchy hay, poking tree branches, rough bark, splintery boards, sharp fence wire, unexpected rain, windblown debris, climbing cat claws.....

But the most important reason for long sleeves in the summer is to avoid exposure to UV prevent sunburn. Sunscreen always makes me feel yucky and sticky and hotter than I would feel without it. I don't like the smell, and for the number of hours I spend outside I'd have to apply it several times a day...adding up to quite a bit of time, energy, and money.

Preventing sunburn is important to me, because it's likely that I'll live to a ripe old age. There are a lot of uncertainties, healthwise, that I can't predict and can't prevent. But certainly I can do my part to prevent having to deal with skin cancer somewhere along the way.

I wear my clothing somewhat loose, so it shades me from the sun even if it does hold in a little more heat than less complete covering might. The cooling benefit of the shade is significant, especially from the sun hat. Loose clothing also gives me freedom of movement. I'm mindful, however, that clothing that is too loose can be a hazard, catching on things, or a nuisance, whipping around in the wind.

Natural fibers are cooler than synthetics, so I expect that my long-sleeved polyester uniform shirt will be a bit warmer than I'd like this summer. Cotton and linen are much cooler, and the past couple summers I've been testing a theory I heard in my travels, that mosquitos won't bite through silk (nothing conclusive, but it does seem to help).

So it's really only a coincidence that my attire appears to governed by reasons of conservative Christian modesty....

Nevertheless, I find that the accidental modesty that comes from my chosen way of dressing is not without its blessings. I prefer that people notice me first as a person, not as a physique. I want to be remembered for my kindness, my good nature, my insights....

Monday, March 26, 2007

Post Script

P.S. for yesterday's entry: A reader writes, "And here I installed (and removed) about 75 feet of garden fencing using standard t-posts and never had a clue that there were tools that could help make that job easier. You have managed to make them sound like *very scary* tools however. How does the post driver work? Is it some sort of percussion driver?

The post pounder is basically a steel pipe about 18" - 24" long, large enough in diameter to fit around a T post. One end is capped, and partially filled with ballast of some sort. Fancy ones have 2 loop handles on the sides of the pipe; I've seen homemade ones without handles. Very simple, no moving parts, nothing to wear out.

A friend came by today to plant four persimmon trees, children of trees he rescued from land no longer in his family. When it came time to drive T-posts to mark and support the young trees, he asked for something to drive them with, expecting a sledge hammer. He was very impressed with the post pounder. Of course, when my light, rock-less soil is wet from spring rains, you can drive a post with a 2 x 4!

Maybe we should all be more "scared" of tools. So many folks blithely pick up hammers and smash the dickens out of their thumbs...then there's my personal nemesis, the utility knife, so eager to create the opportunity for scar tissue on unsuspecting fingers! And the THAT'S a scary tool...esp. when combined with the cell phone! According to last week's Safety Meeting at work, driving while talking on the cell phone is more dangerous than driving drunk.

Isn't it funny how familiarity breeds recklessness, and unfamiliarity begets fear? The post pounder is actually safer than a sledge hammer, because it's more controlled and there's much less chance of missing the post.

Living for many years without health insurance has given me a deep appreciation for my body, and a healthy respect for tools or activities that could compromise the function of this body. Probably if more people respected tools more, more people would be able to afford health insurance!

Several years ago, some friends were helping erect a shed on my farm. At one point, a dilemma arose over how to work on a particular awkward part. Someone suggested a rather risky approach. Someone else replied, "Sure! Why not? We all have health insurance!" I was stunned at their willingness to risk life and limb simply because insurance (i.e., everyone else) would pay for the consequences of their lapse of judgement.

I take safety seriously. It's a spiritual matter, to me--respect for my body and for the mysterious Higher Power who gives it life from one moment to the next. I feel a great sense of responsibility for taking good care of this wonderful gift. So when I talk about a tool, I'm likely to include warnings and safety precautions.

Because I care. And because you don't have to learn the hard way, like I did. You can learn from my experience, if I share it and if you pay attention.

That's one of my reasons for writing this blog.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Simple Things in Life

At first glance, there's not much to learn about standard steel T-posts. Simple. Standard. Utilitarian. Versatile.

As I was installing several of them today, to support fences for pea vines in the garden, I realized that actually, I've learned a lot about T-posts over the years, almost entirely from personal experience and reading catalogs.

They come in different colors, sizes, styles, and lengths. Auctions are a good place to nearly pay new prices for rusty, slightly bent, non-standard posts that won't fit standard post tools.

Away from the farm, I've realized that not everyone is aware that there is a simple tool, called a "post pounder", for driving the posts. Don't drive a post without one! This tool like the posts, does not come with instructions. If it did, and I were writing them, they would include: Use proper safety equipment (gloves, hearing protection, safety goggles. Of course I don't, for just a couple posts....) Do not allow pounder to strike body parts! Do not accidentally lift pounder entirely off the top of the post or it might fall on your head (the contrasting paint job on the tops of the posts is there as a warning to let you know when you're about to do that)! To get the pounder on the post, position the bottom of the post where you want it, hold the bottom inplace while leaning the top of the post down to shoulder level to place the pounder on, then raise post to vertical position again. This is especially important for short people or tall posts. To do the most pounding with the least wear and tear on your hands, lift the pounder, then THROW it down on top of the post, letting go entirely as it nears the striking point. To drive posts to an even height along a row, I use my body as a measuring device...chin, shoulder, armpit. The top of the handle on the pounder should be the top of the post, so you can measure post height without removing the pounder.

There is also a tool for removing posts. It is worth its weight in gold. A mechanical "truck jack" will work, and you can get a special attachment for gripping the posts, but it will always be more cumbersome and frustrating than the right tool. Both tools will pinch your finger badly. Wear gloves and be careful.

Check the post for vertical orientation frequently, from all sides. Wearing heavy boots, you can brace a toe against the flange to keep the post from twisting as you drive it.

The pounder is designed to eliminate the need for a friend to hold the post vertical while you drive it. If a friend insists on holding the post, be sure their hands are well below the level of the pounder, their body including head is well away from the post, and they are wearing proper protective equipment. If you really insist on them wearing full protective equipment, they will probably find something else to do. This is the safest way they can help.

Posts should be pounded in far enough that the flange is completely below the soil surface. Otherwise they attract toes, lawn mowers, ropes, etc. On the other hand, posts left set in the ground for long periods of time near trees may be impossible to remove because roots will grow over the flange. It takes a big hole to dig out a T-post.

The orientation of the knobby side of the post is important in some situations, to keep attachments (string, wire, clips, etc.) from slipping up or down the post. For other installations, nestling a panel into the side of the T might be important (keeps sharp panel ends safe). The orientation of the flange (across the direction of force on the post) is important in other situations. Think about it before you drive the post.

For all posts in the garden or other areas frequently used by people, I put soft white plastic safety caps on the top of the posts. Not only does it prevent scrapes, it makes the posts more visible especially at night. It's important to remove these before using a post pounder on the post, otherwise the pounder will destroy the safety cap.

My pea fences are 3' tall recycled woven wire fencing, the style called "Sheep Fence" which has vertical wires every 12". Each end is wired to a stout stick. The stick is then tied top and bottom to a T post at each end of the row, with additional posts mid-row if needed. For storage, I roll them up and tie them. They are not beautiful...they are crooked and rusty. But they are effective, and very cheap (a friend gave me the wire when she took down a fence her sheep had messed up). You can easily reach through them to get the peas on the other side of the row. They can be used for other vining vegetables such as cucumbers and pole beans.

Wiring on the sticks uses another great, little-known tool available at farm stores. It's a 4" long metal rod, flattened at one end, with a couple holes just the size of fence wire in the flattened part. You stick the tail end of the wire in a hole, snug it up to the wire you're twisting around, and start twisting the tool around the stationary wire. Easy, fast, and neat! Your fingers will thank you for investing in this elegant little tool.

They are also cheap and easily lost, so go ahead and get a couple to start with. That way you can finish your wire-twisting project without another trip to the farm store...because once you use one, you may not want to do wire projects without it!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hen on the mend

When I did my "late check" of the animals last night after work, I found one of the hens limp and flopping around on the henhouse floor. She really looked like a goner...and the other hens seemed to agree, because one of them came over and pecked her. What to do, at 10:00 at night?

One learns to take these things in stride, after a few hundred dollars in vet bills for things that turn out to be "nothing" or livestock that ends up dying no matter what heroic efforts are made. Unexpected livestock health situations aren't crises for me any more, just opportunities for problem-solving. Panic and worry certainly won't solve them. Calling the vet probably won't make much difference, either, with a sick chicken.

Through my diverse livestock health issue experiences over the years, I've found that the main thing the vet usually does is prescribe "supportive care"...the animal equivalent of "get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, take 2 aspirin, and call me in the morning." So that's always my first step when an animal looks like it doesn't feel well. It certainly seemed like the best approach at 10:00 on a Friday night. Calling the vet at that hour wouldn't make me any friends, and having him out to the farm at that hour on a weekend would cost a month's worth of chicken feed.

So I fixed up a nice isolation pen for the hen on the floor of the currently-out-of-service washhouse, where there was plenty of fresh air but predators couldn't get near the cage and she wouldn't be rained on. I lined the floor of the cage with hay, and put in feed, water, and a lovely salad of fresh grass, clover and dandelion greens from the lawn. I put the hen in...she flopped and sprawled and looked like she was really on death's doorstep.

And I went to bed.

This morning, she was strutting around the cage as if nothing had happened. She even laid an egg today.

Tomorrow I'll put her back in with the other hens, and watch to be sure they aren't attacking her or something. Probably it will always be a mystery what the problem was. But all's well that ends well...and she seems to be well.

Planting by the Moon

People often ask if I plant by the moon, and I usually say, "no".

Tonight, though, I did. Well, not exactly in the traditional manner. I went out with my headlamp after work this evening, and planted two garden beds partially by headlamp, partially by the light of a quarter moon peeping through hazy clouds.

I am always too far behind (or think I am) to worry about planting things in their "proper" moon phase. And often the weather plus availability of free time makes it really hard to schedule a task such as planting according to the lunar calendar. I figure the most important thing is to just get stuff in the ground.

Tonight I planted garlic. Garlic should be planted in the fall in Kansas, but that didn't happen for a variety of reasons, including that I didn't get the seed garlic until quite late in the fall. A local grower sold me a number of named varieties that she grows...mostly ones I've never heard of and know nothing about.

Now I know which ones store best over the winter when stuffed in a paper bag inside a plastic bag, and thrown on a shelf in the cool entry way. So the "plus" side for my late planting is that the varieties are pre-screened for storage qualities. Silver Rose and Spanish Roja both weathered the abuse quite well. So did another variety, except the name rotted off the paper bag. The elephant garlic (actually a member of the leek family, not a true garlic at all) did the best in these particular storage conditions.

I chose to plant garlic today mainly because with last night's rain it was really too wet to plant anything that required working the soil for a seedbed. My no-till garlic planting method:

1. Choose a roughly mulched bed that is relatively weed-free.

2. Run a marking string along one side of the bed.

3. Align the planting board perpendicular to the string, across the width of the bed. This planting board is a scrap of rigid plastic (Lexan twin-wall greenhouse glazing), 3' x 5". One edge has 4 evenly spaced arrows, the other 3 arrows centered between the arrows on the other edge. This simple home-made tool makes it easy to plant things exactly 8" apart in all directions.

4. At each arrow, push aside the mulch to have a 3" diameter bare spot.

5. At each bare spot, use my favorite 4" kitchen paring knife to "stir" the soil (this particular knife, shaped like a mini chef knife, is also a first-rate paint scraper...quality tools pay for themselves over and over!).

6. Push a clove of garlic, root end down, into each "stirred" spot.

7. Push the dirt over the planted garlic.

8. Move the board so that the next set of holes will be equidistant from the previous set.

9. Repeat.

There are two reasons for doing steps 4 through 7 assembly-line fashion, rather than completing all steps in sequence for each hole. One is that I can get interrupted and figure out where I left off easily. Another is that I'm not tempted to try to do any of the other steps with the knife in my hand!

Why doesn't the garlic need a nice deep bed worked up all nice and loose? The garlic springing up thickly from bulbs that were missed in last year's harvest tells me it doesn't! Also, if I'd dug the bed when planting at the usual time in the fall, the bed would be in exactly its current condition why do the extra work? The most important thing with garlic (or any vegetable) is weed control: getting it mulched right away. The beds I planted are between this season's future tomato beds, so I'll soon sheet-mulch the entire block, mulching heavier over the tomato beds and light enough on the garlic that it can grow through.

What would interrupt me while planting garlic at 10:30 at night? Why, training the dog at the same time! Spring planting is always a "refresher training" time for the dogs for garden manners, after they've been allowed to roam free on the beds all winter. Now they have to learn to stay on the paths. I'm teaching Luna to lie down and stay where I put my clipboard on the path...a test of focus for both of us. If I start daydreaming and forget that she's supposed to be "staying", she knows instantly, and is gone in a heartbeat. Or, if a neighbor dog barks, she forgets her "job." As I work, I try to verbally reward, remind, and reinforce the command frequently: "Good clipboard, Luna! Good stay!".

Mostly, though, at age 2 1/2 she is starting to settle into adulthood, and obeys well...until a car backfires in the distance. Then suddenly she's in the lap that doesn't exist while I'm crouched over the planting board. The Border Collies are both terribly gun shy.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Intro to the "Barn"

The other day a casual acquaintance happened to say, "Let me know if you want a hand sometime," and I was quick-witted enough (and, finally, organized enough) to reply, "Great, how about Thursday at 9:00?"

So this morning she came, and we spent a little time just wandering around, talking, finishing up chores and looking at several projects that we could work on. Then some more visitors came, and we were back to step 1: Look at the lambs awhile/talk/wander around. Which was fun, but delayed our start.

During the night's rain, about 50 gallons of water had collected in a pool in the tarp that serves as a temporary roof over the end of the "barn". That translates to about 400 lbs. hanging 6' above the ground, supported mainly by baling twine...and the tarp. Don't know the bursting strength of the tarp, don't really want to have to know....

For those who haven't been to the farm, I should explain the barn. Conceptually, it's a lot like a hoop-style greenhouse with walls, built of salvaged arches from a quonset hut and (prior to the summer I started my sabbatical, when a storm collapsed the cover and the arch that had previously collapsed and been replaced with plastic pipe) covered with recycled greenhouse plastic. The plastic was never replaced during my absence, and now that the weather's warmer it's a project I really need to tackle.

The really big on-going issue with the barn has been water ponding on the roof. It starts with a shallow pool, which catches a little water...the weight of the water pulls any slack out of the plastic/tarp, which can hold more water. The weight of the additional water manages to pull in more slack, which holds more water, which pulls in more slack....until it stops raining, the water is drained, or something collapses. I know several Lawrence Sustainability Network (LSN) members who are interested in catchment systems for rainwater, but trust me, this is NOT a good design no matter how effective it appears at times!

Re-engineering the purlins that help align the arches is the real solution, and I think I've got a plan, but it will take some preparation. Meanwhile, I've developed a very efficient way of starting a siphon to empty these ponds when they occur. So, just in case you ever need to start a siphon on a large scale:

I have two garden hoses, connected together with 2 "y" fittings, one attached to the other. One hose end is connected to the hydrant, the other is placed in the bottom of the aerial pond.

Step 1: Both unconnected branches of the "y" fittings are CLOSED, and the other branches of the "y" fittings are open. I turn on the hydrant, and water runs into the pond. I listen for the air bubbles to stop, then I know that the hose is full of water.

Step 2: I open the valve on the "y" fitting closest to the pond. This lets water come, my helper said something that reminded me to put a barrel under the hose and catch the rainwater for use later, which is how I know there was about 50 gallons.

Step 3: I close the valve on the "y" fitting closest to the hydrant. This shuts off the water flow from the hydrant, and then the water coming from the unconnected, open "y" fitting closest to the pond is the rainwater from the pond.

We made some good progress on the overall barn repairs, clearing saplings and stored materials away from the north side of the barn to have working space; replacing the missing arch with plastic pipe; and measuring and refolding the piece of recycled greenhouse plastic that a friend gave me to use as a cover, so that it is ready to "pull". There's a little more prep work, a little more clearing away of stuff, a few more structural repairs, and then soon the barn will have a new temporary roof. The plan is that the temporary roof will give me protected workspace so that I can do further improvements by halogen light after work, or on rainy days.

After my helper left, I planted two more garden beds: one of spinach, and one of tat soi (an Asian green that's good in salads or stir-fry) and salad turnips. This is one of the few times I've ever found that my soil was wet enough to clump on the tire of the Wheel Hoe, and even not responding well to the 7-Row Furrower. But I managed, and I know I haven't done much harm to the soil because my method disturbs it so little. The intersting, inexplicable thing was that only the second bed was in this wet condition...the first bed, right next to it, was in perfect condition. I'm baffled. I raked off the next bed and left it uncovered for the night, to plant in the morning. Normally I would not leave a bed uncovered, but if it's as wet as the second bed today was, I want it to dry out a bit. And maybe I'll have time to do it AND another bed in the morning.

And...the first lettuce and peas are up! looked and sounded like the grackles were eating every last oat seed. NOT a quiet day at the farm, with so many grackles around!

And...the mosquitos are out!

Blind Sight is 20-20

One of my greatest joys in the spring is visitors--old friends, as well as new ones, dropping by to see the baby lambs! The other day, Beth B. came over from Kansas City with her little family to check out the farm for a web article on my colorful eggs. You can find her article on the site as well as the

This morning, a long-time friend brought several children, including her blind son, to visit. I especially love having him visit...seeing the farm "through his eyes" always makes me so much more aware of the amazing details, myself. In addition to seeing (and touching the wooly, wrinkly folds of skin on the backs of their necks, and listening to the sound of the flock's scampering hooves on soft ground) the lambs, we tasted edible spring greens sprouting on the farm...dandelion, onion...and chewed on the base of tender grass shoots. Would I have taken the time to taste new grass if it hadn't been for him?

Each visitor or visiting group helps me see the farm anew. It's a good thing, usually. Of course it's music to my ears when someone comments on how good it looks, or how much progress I've made since they were last here. So often I can only see the things that I HAVEN"T done yet. But it's also good, when someone calls and asks for directions, to look around and try to see what they will notice. What will their first impressions be? So often I become "blind" to things that I just don't want (or know how) to deal with, or that don't seem important or "productive" to deal with.

When things fall, I've trained myself not to react automatically. Often, it really IS more important to continue what I'm doing than to interrupt myself to clean up a spill or pick something up. Once gravity has put something on the ground (a handful of rags used to clean and dry a newborn lamb, for instance), it's pretty much in a stable state...fallen things are generally very patient and will just stay where they land until I "get a round tuit"and pick them up. But then I tend to become"blind" to them. "I'll pick it up next time," but next time my hands are full again, or I'm in a hurry, or again trying not to interrupt myself. When I look around through a visitor's eyes, those rags stick out like a sore thumb, making the place look cluttered and unkempt. So I'm slowly training myself to the new habit of going back and finishing things, and to look at the farm through new eyes, often.

Also, sometimes I'm aware of safety hazards, but don't always take the time to fix them when it's just me here...I just remember to step around them. Inviting others makes me accountable. A couple weeks ago, I leaned some metal roofing against the side of the brooder house pen, to block Border Collie Luna's view of the chickens when she is in her pen. (She has been spending far too much time obsessing about chickens, so I'm forcing partial withdrawal.) To keep the metal in place, quickly, I had pushed some bags of autumn leaves up against it. Grass was starting to die under the bags, and grow long around them. Plus the top corners of metal were leaning out into the path. Knowing that folks were coming to visit helped me make the time to "properly" secure the metal to the fence with baling twine.

Got to go put a load of laundry in, so I guess I better go out to the lambing pen, do a last "lamb check" for the evening, and pick up those rags on my way to the basement....

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Grow where you're planted

"So, you just throw the oats out onto the top of the dead grass and that's it? Why do other farmers spend so much time out in the fields with tractors turning their soil and discing, then?

.... started cleaning out the round garden bed for lettuce and onions. I'm not sure just throwing out the lettuce seed on top of the weeds would work....."

Reading assignment: Daniel Quinn My Ishmael, chapter entitled "Tunes and Dancers"; Edward H. Faulkner Plowman's Folly (published in 1943 and certainly long out of print, but worth tracking down).


Why, indeed, do farmers plow and harrow? How often in ALL aspects of our work and lives, we just do things the way they've "always" been done, forgetting that "always" can't have been "forever" because tractors and discs are, after all, pretty modern inventions. OK, so the plow's been around a lot longer...but still, the moldboard plow that turns the soil over, rather than the ancient bent-stick affair that just sort of scratched the surface, isn't exactly prehistorical.

And then, because we are DOING them, we look for ways to do them "better, faster, easier, deeper, bigger..." which allegedly leads to "progress"...i.e., $$$$ in the pocket of someone who wasn't involved in the production process before. It's considered lazy to look for ways to NOT do things...not to mention bad for the economy, i.e., anti-American.

The farmer is locked into paying for the tractor (and maybe the land, of course the seeds & other inputs) so he HAS to maximize the output of his land, and minimize the risk. I have nothing to lose on seeding oats this way except the cost of the seed, if that flock of grackles this morning was very thorough (we did get a good steady rain this afternoon, surely enough to knock the oats down through the weeds where they will be more vulnerable to rodents but will also contact the moist soil and germinate.) So I can take a greater risk.

Through family and peers, the farmer has learned to like to plow, to base his self-esteem on his plowing ability and the appearance of his fields. I bet it WOULD be fun to drive a tractor and plow up ground in nice straight rows...but I would be thinking about all those disorganized ant hills, mangled worms, compaction, organic matter buried where it can't decompose as naturally as it would on the surface.

A middle ground would be to drill the oats into the untouched soil using a "no-till drill". But that's a very specialized tool...most farmers don't own one; there are various agencies that will loan or rent them. The farmer has a plow and disc already, for his corn and beans which are more risky planted this way.

Also, I'm not worried about a weed-free stand to harvest for grain, though if it does well I might try harvesting some to "play" with...or for seed for next year. Oat hulls are harder than wheat hulls to remove from the grain, so probably not really useful for home cooking.

It probably WAS necessary to turn the sod under to farm the virgin prairie here--the grasses grew 8-10 feet tall, and the sod was so tough it was cut into building blocks for homes. But then it became "how things are done" and "what we have equipment for", and never questioned.

But the harvested oat field, if left unplanted, will naturally sprout up again in oats from seed that falls to the ground during harvest...same with just about any crop. Same as lettuce in an area on my farm that was planted by an acquaintance and then abandoned. It was many years before lettuce stopped growing on that piece of land every spring...actually, I'll be looking for it this year. It gets harder to find because that plot has been overtaken by saplings and dense brome grass.

Last year I had some lettuce seeds get wet, and several days later I found the soggy packages of seeds with tiny white sprouts. Too fragile and clumpy-wet to plant by my normal methods, I didn't have time to prepare a bed, they were in imminent danger of drying out and dying. I raked the mulch off an old bed, leaving some clusters of sprouting weeds, and scattered the seeds as evenly as I could. I strew a light covering of hay over them. "If I don't plant them, they certainly won't grow."

I think every seed grew! I had more cut-and-come-again mixed leaf lettuce than I could market from that bed! It was a little annoying to harvest, because the rough hay mulch would end up in the cut greens and I had to sort it out...and different areas grew faster than others depending on how dense the plants were. Some was so dense that it rotted or was vulnerable to insects; I could have thinned it to solve that but didn't have time.

So you could simply plant through the weeds, if they are dead weeds, and expect a crop. If they are green, sprouting annual weeds, you could just hoe them down to give the lettuce a bit of a head start. If they are dense perennials...well, probably some serious bed preparation is needed.

Whether the garden would meet your aesthetic standards...maybe not. Whether it would be more work to thin and harvest than neat rows...maybe. But it would almost certainly grow.

Of course, with a seed crop like oats, the odds are a bit better because the plant's instinct is to reproduce itself no matter what. With greens, in stressful conditions (not enough water or nutrients, or too crowded), the plants may bolt to seed prematurely. Spinach, especially, is prone to bolt if the soil is too acid.

The plants don't read the seed packets. They don't know they're suppose to be planted in a finely-prepared seedbed, in nice straight rows, at a certain spacing. They don't know the exact numbers of N-P-K or pH they are supposed to have. Their wisdom is: grow where you're planted. Just do what you can with what you've got.

And I guess that's what I'm doing, since I'm lacking the money it would take to buy a tractor and plow and enough ground to make the money....

Plants really are pretty smart, when you stop and think about it.

A Graceful Decay

I pass each location on my bus route about 7 times a day, 5 days a week.

For more than a week now, I have been enchanted by a quiet, slow drama of nature. At the base of a particular pin oak tree, in a quiet shady neighborhood, I noticed a dead oppossum one day...probably roadkill. Around the bloated, bulging carcase, the first buds of some spring bulbs were beginning to open into pale blue bell-shaped flowers on short stalks.

Each day, the flowers are a little taller, showier, and more profuse. And each day the oppossum is a little flatter and more nestled among the growing grass and flowers. Today, I barely noticed it among the lovely clump of flowers.

Through past experience with dead animals, I can imagine the distinct smell I would smell if I were not far away in the bus. I know that if I were to take a stick and lift the carcase a bit from the ground, there would be a busy community of insects and other small creatures underneath, hastening to dismantle the carcase and recycle it. I know that in a week or two, if left undisturbed, there will be only some tufts of fur and some bones left to mark the oppossum's tranformation into spring flowers, lawn, insects, oak tree. The grass will begin to grow through the skeleton. The fur will be carried off to line some little bird's nest. Gradually the bones will leach their minerals back into the soil.

In the words of Julien of Norwich, "And all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well."

Through this graceful decay, many things will be well: The oppossum will be resurrected as an oak tree, as squirrels feeding from the oak; as grass, as rabbits feeding from the grass; as flowers, as children being delighted by the flowers; as a nest, as baby birds thriving in the nest. What a legacy for a humble, primitive creature like an oppossum!

It's a reminder to me that my own life affects the lives of those around me, and that influence ripples out far and wide to people I've never met. Hopefully my own legacy will be as life-giving as that of the oppossum.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sowing Oats

Another day of planning one thing, doing others. Several egg and lamb customers/farm visitors this morning, then moved some furniture (A real mattress at last, after sleeping on camping pads since I moved back to the farm in Nov.).

Finally, late in the afternoon, I got out to do some "real" farm work. Since rain is predicted for the coming week, and my understanding is that the oats should have been in by now, I decided to sow the oats I bought the other day.

Pinwheel Farm's garden/sheep pen/barnyard area encompasses about 2 1/2 acres, divided from the pasture to the north by the "Willow Row". It's bounded by neighbors' fields on the east (popcorn and potatoes) and west (horse pasture surrounded by trees), and adjoins my back yard and the poultry areas on the south. This square of land is bordered by very wide fenced lanes on all but the north side, and divided into "quadrants" by 16' wide lanes.

The northeast quadrant was tilled by the tenants last spring, but only a small portion was gardened. So it grew a lush growth of annual warm-season grasses: crab grass (which sheep love) and goose grass (which sheep don't like, and lawn mowers choke on). It wasn't grazed, however...just left fallow, since there were tomatoes at one end. So the entire quadrant (108' x 130') is naturally and completely mulched with dry grass. I'm hoping that this area, sown to oats this spring, will provide some forage for the sheep, since the main pasture will be out of service for renovation for a few years.

I have hand-crank broadcast seeders, but for this job decided to do it simply by hand. I fill a bucket full of the oats, and tuck my right arm through the bucket handle. I step forward slowly while dipping my left hand into the grain, scooping it with slightly spread fingers. As I continue forward, my hand arches out wide to my left, trailing kernals that make the faintest pattering hiss, like raindrops, as they fall on the dry grass. But there is still grain in my hand as it reaches its leftmost limit. So it swings out broadly to my right, gently flinging the rest of the grain in a broad arch in that direction. It's a slow, leisurely, rhythmic motion. Very relaxed, and relaxing. "One cannot sow seeds with a clenched fist" reads a prominent mural in town. It's true.

I repeat this gesture many, many times, thinking of the countless generations of farmers before me who have sown their fields this way. The large, smooth oats in their sleek hulls are pleasant to handle, and they flow through my hands in graceful arching showers of grain as I spread them. It was a fine sabbath meditation. I considered the parable of the sower...the seed falling on different surfaces, and how it fared. Some of these oats will doubtless be eaten by the mice and voles that I know are tunneling under the dry grass...although scat shows that the fox has been hunting supper here, and I've seen Ambrosius the cat working the field. Some of the oats will be found by birds. But some will grow, especially if we get rain this week.

While sowing along the fence under the willows, I see several fine large dandelion plants. A pocketful of deep green leaves, young enough to be just barely bitter, follow me back to the house. After chores, after cleaning and rearranging the contents of the galvanized shed where I keep feed and tools, after washing eggs...I walk back out to the garden by headlamp to dig the first clump of "walking onions". Back in the kitchen, I fry some bits of bacon (deliciously hand crafted at the meat processing plant where I take my sheep), saute the onions in the grease, and just barely wilt the dandelion greens. A few drops of red wine vinegar complete the dish. A true sign of spring.

The apricot tree is starting to bloom, and there are a few early daffodils. The violet leaves are rapidly pushing out of the earth; that will be another favorite spring treat in a few weeks. Here and there, I see tiny lambsquarter very favorite leafy green. On the down side, the Japanese Hop Vine ("vegetable barbed wire") is germinating profusely and rapidly in areas where the tenants allowed it to run rampant last year. The garden is mainly so well mulched from last year that I'm not seeing much chickweed...disappointing, but perhaps it will appear later. I am not the one who orders the germination of the seeds in the mellow earth.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


I set out this morning to drive across town and pick up some cabinets that were being thrown away, which I plan to use in renovating the on-farm retail area and the barn.

But first I had to drive out the other way to the feed store to get sheep mineral and oats before they closed for the weekend. On the way there (cell phones are a blessing!) a neighbor called about some used electric fencing she had for sale, which we'd talked about a long time ago and then played phone tag for a week more recently. "Strike while the iron's hot", so I said I'd stop by on the way back from the feed store.

In addition to the fencing, there were several other turned out to be a "garage sale by appointment." It took longer than expected, and the truck was pretty full, so I thought I'd swing by home, unload, and then go get the cabinets before work....

Around the corner, some folks were cleaning out their garage and there were some really great things in the trash pile on the street. We chatted for a minute, and I gained a coat tree, a kitchen table with 2 matching chairs, and some other useful odds and ends for refurnishing in my house after the sabbatical (I sold most of my household things when I left the farm in August 2004). She said, "That's a good ironing board, it just needs a cover, and a brand new stadium seat cushion..."; I replied "I don't have time to go to games or iron things" and she laughed. "I don't either, that's why they're in the trash pile!"

As I drove by another house, I noticed a long-time neighbor working on his car, so I pulled in his driveway for a few minutes to talk about the hay feeders we made a deal on last fall, but I hadn't ever been able to pick up due to not having a truck until just a few weeks ago. Then, by the way, I asked him about the new folks with four large dogs (potential threat to the sheep; I like to get to know the dogs and the people in the neighborhood before there's a problem) in his rental property, and he asked what I knew about the county inspector asking about another neighbor's dumping activities.

I unloaded the furniture at the front of the house, drove around to the shed and unloaded the farm stuff, and barely had time to make it to work. Fortunately, I've learned to prepare all my work stuff--uniform, required items, and snacks--first thing in the morning, in case I end up in a rush later.

Tonight after work, I decided I'd finally get around to painting the east bedroom, after eating a bit of supper.

While fixing supper I did a quick pass at cleaning the refrigerator, since I needed to go check all the livestock anyhow and there were a couple things to take to the chickens. Then I thought how nice it would be to eat supper on the new table instead of the old card table, so I brought it in and spent some time scrubbing off the paints spills. It turned out looking really nice, and just the right size. Along the way I also brought the nice new coat tree in and took out the rough-hewn one it replaced. The house is starting to feel like a home again.

Then as I cleaned up after supper I realized I needed to wash eggs, and also repackage the ones that were getting close to out dated so that I could donate them to a local meal program. So I did that.

And then there was just about enough time left to check email and write this.

The cabinets should be there tomorrow, and the room will get painted eventually. In God's time, not mine, as He daily strews my path with unexpected gifts and opportunities. Tomorrow will probably be similar: many plans, and much accomplished, but the accomplishments not necessarily related to the plans. Many of my days pass in this manner. I've grown comfortable with this mode of doing things, though I know it would drive some folks nuts. I've learned though years of experience to have faith in this process: that eventually, in their right time, the things that need to be done, will get done.

It's like the faith needed to trust that there really are roots growing from the seeds I planted earlier this week, even though I can't see the sprouts yet.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Occupied Territory

A reader characterized my life as "busy...but fulfilling."

Sometimes fulfilling, sometimes frustrating. Sometimes it brings a lot of wonderful people across my path, but at the same time it can keep me more isolated than I want to be. But, yes, on the whole, I love it...the sabbatical taught me that, as well as teaching me that this way of life is a CHOICE, not something I have to do. I can be content with other ways of living, too. If I have to.

It fulfills fills me full. It occupies me. Farming IS my chosen occupation...and pre-occupation, too! That's a word that takes me interesting places...the occupation of farming keeps me occupied; does that mean it lives in me, as in "Dear Occupant"? Thinking of an occupied house brings to mind "haunted"...or "possessed"! As much as I possess and occupy the farm, it occupies and possesses me.

One of my reasons for taking the sabbatical was to discern whether this way of life, this occupation, was truly a choice--or simply a treadmill I'd gotten caught up in somehow, and couldn't get off. My answer came two summers ago in south central British Columbia. I went to Sorrento, a vibrant little community on the Trans-Canada Highway, to be a full-time summer volunteer at Sorrento Centre, an Anglican Conference and Retreat Centre on beautiful Shuswap Lake, nestled among scenic forested mountains. I was assigned to the kitchen staff 5 days a week.

During the first week, I learned that there was a small Farmer's market in town on Saturday mornings. I couldn't resist...I walked over to see how it compared to our Downtown Lawrence Farmer's Market. E-Z-Up canopies, piles of fresh veggies, strolling shoppers stopping to visit with friends, dogs of every description....Not so many booths, a few more crafts, but overall a similar atmosphere on a smaller scale. It felt like home.

But how strange it was to be on the other side of the market tables! I stopped and visited with various vendors when they weren't serving customers, putting the conversation on "pause" with practiced ease as customers came and went. One woman running a large vegetable booth alone was especially friendly...and busy. I just sort of automatically handed a plastic bag to one customer while she was taking money from another...and thus began another informal volunteer position for me.

I showed up every Saturday at Sue's booth to help open plastic bags, answer customers' questions, ring up sales, tear down the booth. Weeks later, I realized I had not even eaten a single one of vegetables I was selling! I wasn't doing it for income, and I wasn't doing it for food, I was doing it because I simply enjoyed helping customers carry away bags full of beautiful, fresh vegetables. That's when I knew I would pick up the trowel again on my return to Kansas.

Eventually I ended up spending most of my weekends on Sue's farm, engaged in a variety of tasks like cleaning jewel-like garlic and onions (the one thing in all of Canada that triggered my allergies), sorting mountains of beets, handweeding endless rows of lush vegetables while surrounded by stunning mountain vistas on all sides. I even travelled back there again last summer to work some more, while enjoying the cool summer evenings and freedom from allergies. (Can I get there again this summer? Hmmm....)

Sorrento's Zone 5 climate allows a similar range of products to what we grow here in Kansas, minus the okra and sweet potatoes. But the garden season is only half as long as ours, because it's so far north. I feasted my eyes on the endless rows of beautiful vegetables growing to their full potential in a way I seldom achieve...something to strive for. I also brought back many ideas for improving how I harvest, handle, and store vegetables here at Pinwheel Farm.

It will take awhile to put it all together here at the farm again, after such a long absence. But it will certainly keep me occupied....

Friday, March 16, 2007

Little Lessons, Part 1

Little lessons that have to be learned over and over:
  • A row of tomato transplants is not planted until the cages are in place and they have been secured so that the wind won't topple them when they are filled with heavy vines.
  • A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
  • "Forever" is often only a few minutes or hours.
  • Just one more [page, potatochip, tomato cage].....
Yes, it's much too early to plant tomatoes outdoors in Kansas. For my tomato cycle, it's even early for planting the transplants (a task I gratefully relinquish to my mother in Manhattan, KS, who has a greenhouse.) This reflection came from the more seasonally-appropriate task of cleaning last year's tomato cages.

I grow large-vined indeterminate tomato varieties: Jet Star, San Marzano, Yellow Pear, Beefsteak, various heirloom varieties. My standard cages are about 2' in diameter, 5' tall, made of concrete reinforcing wire. I am always amused by the little 3' tall, 12' diameter ones they sell at the hardware store...on Pinwheel Farm, I call those "pepper cages", and they're often a bit small for the peppers. Things really grow here, even though I don't irrigate or till the land or any of the other things a gardener is "supposed" to do.

When I put the cages on at planting time, the cages seem ludicrously over-sized, the 10' spacing between rows seems ridiculously wide. Pulling the vines off in the early spring is a good reminder that this year's vines will, eventually, outgrow the cages. The most vigorous varieties have been known to grow up the 5' cage, drape 5' down to the ground, trail 3' across to the next row of cages, and grow up that 5' cage! (After that season of tunneling between the 5'-spaced rows, I went to 10' spacing and plant the bed in between with some early-maturing crop like potaotes or lettuce.)

Cleaning the cages means pulling off all the dead vines, both the tomatoe vines and the morning glory vines. It's an engaging but slow and reflective task. But with somewhere on the order of 100 cages, each densly cloaked in dead vines, it's easy to think it will take "forever"...or at least hours and hours. When WILL I find the time? I need to get it done so that I can plant potatoes under the mulch left from last year's tomatoes, saving a lot of time. One of the benefits of brome hay is that a well-applied mulch can last a couple years.

Cleaning cages doesn't require much visibility, so after an evening meeting tonight, as I strolled out for a late check on the sheep, I thought, "I'll just clean one cage. That will get me started." Then I did another. Then I was getting in the groove with it, so I finished that row (10 cages). Then I realized if I did the next row, I'd have all the cages from that area of the garden done. Then I thought I'd do that partial row in the next area...well, maybe the next row, too...and then yet another. And suddenly, more than half of the cages have been cleaned, in an hour or so by flashlight (I use a headlamp so that both hands are free).

Cleaning the cages is a good way to prepare myself for planting tomatoes. Two of the rows last year were fully"planted"--in other words, the cages were in place and tied down. The other rows, alas, I never completed that essential final step. The cages were tumbled about, despite a volunteer's efforts to prop them in position with sticks. So I had to untangle the cages from the sticks, as well as pulling off the vines. How simple to prevent all the extra work that went into the propping, and now the cleanup. I simply run a piece of baling twine (new from the roll I purchased several years ago) from the top of the T-post at one end of the bed, along the outside of the cages on one side, tighten it around the T-post at the other end, and run it along the other side of the cages, and tie it securely to the original post. Simple, and amazingly effective. The tied rows are still perfectly in place. THIS is the year I will get all cages tied...(I hope).

At least I had gotten cages on all of them. In some years, I've failed even that. Tomato plants will effectively reproduce themselves while sprawled on the ground, but the harvest goes mainly to the slugs, bugs, and mice. Caging (or some form of support) is essential...the earlier, the better.

It's possible to put a cage on a plant that's a month or more old, esp. if you have a friend help. YOU (because you wouldn't ask it of a friend, lest they no longer claim friendship) embrace the tomato plant, surrendering your entire suit of clothes and epidermis to the pungent sticky staining of tomato sap, applied by each stem and leaf. Then your friend carefully lowers the cage over the plant, trying not to impale you with the rusty spikes of wire (why you have a FRIEND do this). When your arms get in the way of the cage, you begin reaching through the openings in the cage and lifting the plant gently into the cage, until the spikes can be firmly set in the, not your foot. Did I mention that tetanus shots are an essential prerequisite to farming and gardening?

As I KNOW, despite (because of?) my past frequent failure of DOING, putting the cage on the same day the transplants go in the ground is vital, even though the tiny plants look silly in such giant cages. This season, I resolve to cage every plant as it is planted, and to tie down each row before I plant the next....

In just 1 1/2 hour, I accomplished a large part of the seemingly insurmountable task. But, now I'm sure it will take me FOREVER to move all those cages to this year's tomato area.....

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Planting Peas

This morning I got up fairly early, and had the whole morning free to work in the garden, so I planted a bed of peas and onions...and barely made it to my bus-driving job on time.

But planting peas shouldn't take all morning!

Well, first I did chores...after my own breakfast. Yes, I know the farmer is supposed to see to the animals' needs first, but this farmer isn't generally really awake until she's eaten. And I don't do chores well while I'm groggy. And, not the least, once I start chores I somehow end up moving from one thing to the next and forgetting to eat breakfast at all, with dire consequences later in the day. For me, breakfast is the foundation of the day; I make it a solid one with scrambled eggs from the hens, bacon from the meat processing plant where I take lambs in the fall, bread from a local bakery, real butter, and jam my mom made from strawberries my nephew grew.

"Doing chores" today ended up including moving a bunch of fence panels and gates around to give the group of late-bred ewes access to new big round bales of brome hay and alfalfa hay. I've found that 6-rail pipe gates, the inexpensive ones, make the best feeders I've found for big round bales. With several lengths on hand, I can conform them to the size of the bale (or two bales side by side). The ewes were so happy to have the new bales.

But it took awhile. It's not hard work, just many little details like finding, cutting, pulling off, coiling up and tying up all the baling twine from each bale. This is essential because I've realized that baling twine is one of the most dangerous things on the farm, for people, animals, and machines. If left loose, it seems to reach out and ensnare things when least expected. Moments is all it takes for a stray piece of baling twine to throw a person flat on their face, strangle an animal or amputate its leg, kill a lawnmower. Few things test my temper more than trying to disentangle a tool I need RIGHT NOW from a snarl of uncontrolled baling twine that got thrown into the same bucket. One of the fundamental principles of working on Pinwheel Farm is: Baling twine shall not be left uncontrolled under any circumstances.

And it is eternal. Fence panels secured to T-posts with baling twine (as a fiber artist, my farm is tied together with baling twine rather than wired together with baling wire or taped together with duct tape.) at least 6 or 7 years ago are still secure, while the wire connections of my earliest fences have long since failed. And that twine has been exposed to the ravages of UV all those years! So it's important not to leave even a small piece around, to be buried in mulch and later unearthed by a rototiller (hours of cutting and pulling out twine from the tines) or animal.

But standing out in the northwest quadrant of the garden, where I've been feeding the sheep hay on fallow land, in the bright morning sun, methodically pulling and coiling twine, was, in fact a pleasure. It gave me time to really look at the willow row--200' of hybrid willows I planted as mere pencil-thin rooted cuttings 11 years ago, the first spring of owning the farm ground. I ball-park their height now at more than 40', because they are more than 4 times the height of the Torii that Ross built for his wedding to Jeanne, which is about 10' tall and stands across the central farm lane where it passes through the Willow Row, marking the transition between garden and pasture. This morning I noticed that the willows were just beginning to unfurl tender new yellow-green leaves from the buds on the slender twigs. After today's 80-degree afternoon, the leaves are probably an inch long by now!

Then a first-time-this-season bird song caught my attention, and I turned to see a flash of blue in the silver maples, bursting in to vibrant red bloom, to the west: A bluebird! Hopefully I'll get around to getting the birdhouses set out that have been in the barn for a number of years now.

And so it went, until there was only about 1 1/2 hour left to plant peas.

Preparing the bed for peas was much the same as for lettuce, except I had to root out the rotten stems of last fall's chard. I could have covered that chard after the frost knocked it down; I'd be watching it push up succulent new leaves right now. But instead, I just watched it. With no cover whatsoever, it survived surprisingly late into the winter. Now I know how much...or perhaps I should say, how cover it next year to preserve it. This is important, because covering things too much can be as bad as not covering them at all, if rot or mice ruin them.

After pulling the 7-Row Furrower through the bed, I skipped the middle row (a support fence will go there), and planted a row of peas (these were Dwarf Grey Sugar) on the row to each side of the middle. I pushed one pea into the bottom of the furrow every 2 inches or so. I have a seeder that would plant these two rows in minutes, but it always takes more time to set up and adjust than seems worthwhile for just two short rows. And the results from the seeder are inevitably uneven. With hand seeding, I won't have to thin out double-planted spots, and won't have skips in the rows.

In the outer two rows on each side, I plant onion sets...small white bulbs bought from the neighborhood garden store, Pine's. Mostly, these will grow green onions that will be harvested before the peas mature. Some, where the natural cycles governing bulbing vs. bolting to seed have not been unduly interrupted, will be left to mature into white cooking onions. When pushing the onion sets into the furrows, I check carefully to see that the root end of the set is "down". The leaves will find their way to the open air even if the bulb is upside down, and the plant will grow, but the white portion of the onionwill be a loop--awkward in Farmer's Market bunches!

When the onions are harvested, and the peas are nearly finished, I'll transplant basil plants into the outer rows, and pull up the peas when they're done. I've learned the hard way not to leave pea fences in place down the middle of the basil: birds perch there, and leave their mark on the basil below.

To finish the bed, I carefully drag the back of the rake over the rows to cover the sets and seeds with soil. Then I walk everything in. Yes! I WALK on my garden bed! Since I've only worked up the top 2" of soil, I don't sink in or adversely compact the bed. My footprints are at most 1/4" deep. My weight firms the soil around the chunky peas seeds so they can absorb the moisture they need to germinate.

Finally, a heavier mulch for this bed than for the lettuce yesterday. Pea shoots are strong, and can push through a surprisingly heavy hay mulch...a mulch heavy enough to block most annual weeds. The onions, too, will have no trouble sprouting through the mulch.

Only about another 118 beds to plant....

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

We planted lettuce today....

I very often use "we" instead of "me", and people ask, "Who is 'WE'?"

"WE" is me and God. It's me and the Border Collies (Luna, LIE DOWN RIGHT THERE, you've blown most of the circuits in your brain already today from staring at the chickens! Take a break!). It's the people from my sort-of-recent past who contributed to the farm in some manner while they were living or regularly visiting here. It's the people from my distant past who, in so many ways, shared their skills and enthusiasm for gardening/farming/sustainable living/etc. with me. It's the visitors and volunteers who come for a few minutes or hours...both those from the past, and those who will come in the future.

It's also wider than that. It's the people who supply the essential ingredients of the farm...hay, feed, seeds, equipment, supplies, services, etc. It's Raymond the hay guy, Premier 1 Supplies, Perry Milling, Dr. LaRosh the vet, M&M Office Supplies, Rich Johnson Automotive.

But really, more than all the people put together, "WE" is me and the other beings with whom I share the farm. It's the mosquitos, and the goldfish in the stock tanks that eat their larvae, and the bats and purple martins that eat the adults. It's the billions (trillions? more?) of ants, and the dragonflies and swallows and gulls that eat them when they fly up to mate in August. It's the fungi and bacteria, the nematodes, the earthworms, and other soil-dwellers (mustn't forget the moles) that work ceaselessly to refine the structure of this wonderful soil. It's all the arthropods, taking their places throughout the food chain: isopods, insects, arachnids, centipedes. It's the mammals, both wild and domestic: mice, rabbits, sheep, skunks, foxes, coyotes, dogs. It's the plants, from tiny chickweed to huge cottonwoods, from delicate seedlings to death-defying Johnsongrass (bare rhizomes left to bake in the sun in a bucket for 4 months last summer still began to grow again when the fall rains came). "WE" is all of God's creation that lives in and around the place I call Pinwheel Farm. Day by day, I seek to listen more humbly to the wisdom of the rest of this "WE". I'm hardly the boss, or leader, or owner of any of this..."steward" or "servant" better describes my relationship with this Community of Life.

"WE" is also an invitation, a wide-open door. You are part of "WE". You can write your own job description for your position in "WE". You can express your membership in many ways, through sending me encouraging messages, through physical involvement at the farm, through participating in our food chain by eating our vegetables, eggs, and meat.

Anyhow, WE planted lettuce today, Border Collies in the lane, sheep patiently waiting for the pulled weeds to be thrown over the fence.

I can tell by the sound that my neighbor is working in his garden far across the street. All he hears is his tiller... using only hand tools, I hear him, the neighbor kids, the sheep, the new pair of white geese, the blackbirds (blackbirds!) in the distant wetland, a dump truck dumping fill dirt in the floodplain, the fire trucks going out from Station 1 bound for another wreck at Midland Junction, I suspect.... I stop and call the Zoning office about the filling; I stop and say a prayer for the people involved in the wreck, and their families and the emergency workers.

I've noticed that folks with rototillers tend to till more than they can plant at one time, "while they have the tiller running". So the surface dries out amazingly fast, all fluffed up like that...and if it rains before they can plant, then they have to till again because it compacts. I prepare one bed at a time, seed it, mulch it, then start another. The soil is bare to the sun less than an hour, so little moisture is lost. I never water the newly seeded beds. I rarely turn the soil--in this fine sandy silt loam, that's like punching down the loaf of bread right before you bake it. I want all the carefully engineered worm and ant tunnels to be preserved, to provide vital aeration and drainage.

So I rake last year's brome hay mulch to one side. Then I place the stakes and strings that outline the bed. I go over the bed with the Valley Oak Wheel Hoe--an 8" wide slender blade that slices under the soil surface. The motion reminds me of vaccuming a carpet--forward and back, active but not terribly strenuous. With the right soil moisture (and my magic soil is nearly always right), the soil above the cut naturally crumbles into a nice seedbed. If I'm adding lime (the only amendment I regularly use; essential for spinach and other greens in this soil), I sprinkle it on top, then mix it in with an ancient "Ro-Ho" cultivator. Then I rake the bed as smooth and level as I can, ready for the "7-Row Furrower." This wonderful tool was invented by my friend Melissa, who took a heavy 4 x 4, 3' long (my standard bed width) and put 7 evenly-spaced wooden pegs in, at an angle. An eye bolt at each end holds a loop of baling twine. I place it carefully at one end of the bed, pegs angled towards the other end of the bed. I straddle the bed, one foot on each side, about 4' away from the furrower, and hold the twine loops. Gently, carefully, I pull it along the soil surface, skootching my feet along the bed edge. Soon there are 7 perfect, even furrows the length of the bed.

For the first lettuce bed, I mark off 4 sections, and thinly sprinkle a different lettuce seed in each furrow of each section. First Black-seeded Simpson. Then Ruby Red. Then Green Salad Bowl. Then Red Salad Bowl. Alphabetical, so I can remember to write them down in the right order. Alternating colors, so I can tell them apart at the transition points. These are the cheap seed, bulk seed from the neighborhood family-owned garden store nearby...just in case there's a spell of bad weather yet to come. This is the "risky" bed. A little later I'll plant the valuable varieties ordered from Johnny's Select Seed, heirlooms from a friend, etc.

Finishing the bed is just as important as preparing it. First, I gently drag the back of the garden rake the length of the bed, brushing the tops of the ridges into the furrows, over the seed. I do this carefully so as not to disturb the seed in the furrows. I like to see the sprouts come up in nice, straight rows, and the rows are far easier to weed and mulch than broadcast. Then I tamp the soil over the seeds with the rake held vertically, quick little taps of the tine backs on the ground. Up one side, down the other, then the middle. This ensures good soil-to-seed contact--how the seeds get their moisture to germinate. And why I don't till the soil deeply--fluffed up, the soil loses its ability to hold and "wick" water. Last, I spread a "germination mulch" on the bed. Today, that was just a loose, light scattering of the previous year's hay mulch. Sometimes, it's crumbled autumn leaves, or dried grass clippings. The purpose is to shade the soil surface and keep it moist, while allowing the young plants through. It also discourages the cat from digging and birds from foraging. Then a heavier mulch is added between the rows as the seedlings grow. I've learned that no, I won't get around to mulching the path later, so I do that right away, too.

Then hopefully I clean the tools before the dirt dries and sticks to them. Any dirt left on a tool holds moisture onto the metal, and it will quickly rust, shortening the life of the tool and making it harder to use. When I first started Pinwheel Farm, my neighbor Frank, then in his late 70s, taught me to use an old burlap sack to brush off the tools. His ancient shovel gleamed like stainless steel, polished by years of use and care. A smooth, sharp tool makes the work much easier. I am still learning to practice this discipline, a particularly (for me) difficult form of meditation....

From start to finish, it took about an hour to completely plant this 23' x 3' bed of lettuce, which will be harvested "cut and come again", 1 side (3 or 4 rows) of the bed each week so a 2-week rotation. Other crops planted this way include arugula, spinach, mizuna, tatsoi, bokchoi, kale, endive, turnips, radishes, carrots, cilantro, etc.

It's a good feeling to have the first bed of lettuce planted. But the Border Collies could care less.

Today is the day....

Some mornings I just wake up with a feeling "Today is the day I should ______." That's how I became a professional bus driver. Tonight I sat down at the computer and realized it was time to start a blog. Yes, Dad! Thanks, Terry! And all you who enjoy it can thank my way-to-busy life for bringing me to this monumental technological step!

Of course, the real reason for starting the blog today, and not last week, is that the Northern Chorus Frogs ("spring peepers") have just begun to sing their spring songs from the wetlands just past the farm boundaries. "It's time! It's time!" they always seem to be saying to me. A time of new beginnings, increased busy-ness, and always, in all dimensions, tremendous growth and insights. A time of never-enough-time, yet of stopping a hundred times a day to marvel at a crocus spreading its petals in the lawn (it suddenly appeared one spring, the only crocus on the farm, and returns faithfully each year...where it came from is an on-going mystery), seeds sprouting, night crawlers mating, twin lambs staggering to their feet moments after being born....

This spring is special. This is my first spring of being fully a part of the farm again since I left in August, 2004, for a sabbatical of more than 2 years. It's been 2+ years of amazing spiritual pilgrimage, wonderful connections with people across the U.S. and Canada, relaxation, introspection, learning, growth, creativity, and even play (who, me?). It was a great good thing to take a sabbatical: I hereby renew and make public my commitment to make this Old Testament mandate an integral part of my life/business plans. And now it is a great good thing to be back, to once again take my humble place amidst the Community of Life* that I call "Pinwheel Farm." I can feel that community welcome me. And I look upon that community with fresh eyes, seeing it as if for the first time, in a way I never actually saw it the first time because I was too confuddled and befused to know what I was seeing. This time I KNOW...and absence has, indeed, made the heart grow fonder.

This blog is my gift to each of you. Through it, I hope you will know that as I work, I am thinking of you all, and sharing with you the little daily treasures of this life I love.

*As I refer to various themes, contexts, quotes, etc. in my entries, I'll footnote them for the eventual compilation of the Pinwheel Farm Reading list. First (after the Bible): Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael", "My Ishmael", "The Story of B" and "Providence". These books have profoundly shaped my understanding of my relationship with the human and natural communities that are the context for Pinwheel Farm. You'll be hearing from them again....