I grew up on a family farm in the Midwest where at one time or another apple orchards, field crops, cows, pigs and chickens were raised. I assisted my parents in nearly all these endeavors and in the process drove several different farm machines. This experience caused me to feel significant confidence in my gardening skill. However, I subsequently realized that I really only learned how to do farm work as instructed by my parents rather than actually learning how to farm. I am surprised sometimes at things I know that others don’t, but at other times I am forced to realize how much I did not learn as well. This article illustrates the need to make your mistakes at gardening now when food is available at the store before you must rely on your ability to grow it yourself.
I did not take over the farm from my parents. Family farms were no longer profitable at that time. Instead, I earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry, taught briefly at the university level and, among other things, worked in research and development for a pharmaceutical company. During these years my farming experience consisted of backyard gardening in the suburbs. After retiring I moved to a ten-acre plot near a city in the inland northwest where I am now a gentleman farmer. Since I do not now need to make a living by farming I can attempt to grow my own food using hand tools as much as possible. I find this limitation produces at least one insurmountable problem. I must use machines to prepare a seed bed big enough for anything but a very tiny garden.
The first learning experience came from the soil. My father’s farm had been primarily sandy soil, but my current plot is heavy clay. My father regarded clay highly because it held water better than sand, but I did not know its disadvantages were also significant.
Sandy soil can be tilled almost any time except during the winter. Clay is quite different. It gets really soggy in the spring because of the winter snow and rains. Attempting to till it in this condition may cause your tractor to become mired and stuck. Furthermore, tilling at this time produces round balls of clay that dry out on the outside to become hard but remain sticky internally for a long time. Trying to plant in a field of clay balls is exceedingly frustrating. Your planter can’t consistently plant at the correct depth and cover the seed because of this uneven surface.
On the other hand waiting too long allows clay to dry too much and become hard—perhaps too hard to till. Furthermore, the low places in the field where drainage occurs do not dry out as soon as the rest of the field so you must not only learn the characteristics of clay but also of your individual field. This knowledge is not difficult to learn, but his takes judgment that usually comes from a few mistakes. Mistakes are not nice if your life depends on instant success.
My first garden was tilled late because of the issues involved with moving into the house. That plus the fact that it was an unusually dry year made tilling with a rented rototiller nearly impossible. Planting was like using a pick axe, and almost nothing grew well. This first year’s garden suffered from an additional problem. My current land was once farmed but for about 20 years had been left to grass and weeds. Consequently, it was a hostile environment with lots of competing weeds. One such competitor is Canada thistle, a noxious weed which I am required by law to combat. I do this by walking the field each year with herbicide in a backpack sprayer. This thistle can convert your field into a very prickly and undesirable place.
For the usual garden plants and for dry field beans, peas and lentils my clay usually becomes tillable in the spring before it is absolutely too late, but I wish it reached this tillable status earlier. Wheat is different. I try to plant winter wheat in the previous fall so it will be already growing during the soggy springtime. This, however, depends on the fall rains. If they don’t come soon enough in the previous fall then planting winter wheat can be less useful. Planting spring wheat instead is a backup plan, but it supposedly does not yield as well; and it requires dealing with the soggy spring issues.
Once planting is done then the advantage of clay can take over. It retains water better than sand so irrigation is less necessary.
Soil improvement is probably necessary regardless of your soil. For clay this means organic matter—lots of it. Manure is not always available, and I have no convenient way to haul it. I have found a source of very nice dark compost which I have used. It is excellent, but my soil could use much more than I can manage. For a plot that has just been converted from untilled weeds some sort of improvement is especially necessary. Green manure such as new immature barley or rye produces foliage that can be tilled into the new soil, but this necessitates planting it which is a problem I will explain below. After a year or two of use my plots are easier to till and plant.
I have no hope of planting enough crop to live on without a tractor and tiller. Rototillers will handle a vegetable garden but a quarter-acre or half-acre for wheat or dry legumes is really too much for them. Hiring someone with equipment to till my small plot can be difficult and inconvenient for them.
So I now have a 15 horsepower diesel tractor. I purposely chose an older tractor because it does not have all the electronics of the current ones, but this has necessitated spending for repairs although it has still cost less than a new tractor. However, I have also learned that four-wheel drive tractors are not usually necessary for field work. If four-wheel drive is needed then the field is too soggy to be tilled anyway. Two-wheel drive is sufficient for my field work, and would have allowed me to buy a bigger tractor and tiller for the same money. This would probably have been fine although four-wheel drive does make turning easier when using a front loader and gives better traction when snow plowing in the winter. Since my tractor can handle only a small load in its front loader without dangerously unbalancing the rear wheels it would have been wiser not to insist on four-wheel drive. In a truly WTSHTF time plowing snow in the winter might be a bad idea anyway.
I have a tiller that came with the tractor and a mower/bush hog purchased separately. The bush hog is useful in mowing the tall grass and weeds in the late summer. It beautifies the place which also decreases wildfire risk during fire season. In WTSHTF times perhaps this also would be neglected so I could remain as inconspicuous as possible and to conserve precious diesel fuel.
Planting has been done by hand or by using tools pushed by hand.
Making a small trench with a hoe followed by dropping seeds at desired spacing and covering the trench with my feet works for most garden plants such as green beans, green peas, squash, onions, beets, sweet corn and lettuce. Carrots are planted so shallow that they can be covered by sprinkling dirt over them. This process was used for a couple years with some success for the vegetable garden, but for large plots of grain or legumes it is impractical.
Then I obtained an Earthway planter which is pushed by hand. This was horrible to push in a new field because my tiller does not completely break up the sod the first year. Soft soil would make things easier, but this takes a year or two of cultivation to develop. This planter has plates that catch the seed from a seed chamber during the beginning of their revolution around a spindle and then drop the seed into a tube for planting during the end of their revolution. Each plate has its own sized holes, and it is intended that a plate can be found that works for the size and shape of whatever seed you have. This works for most more or less round garden seeds and speeds up the process considerably. Planting long and narrow seeds like oats or wheat is much more difficult. Using slick electrical tape to alter the size and/or shape of the holes in its plates has made it barely usable for these grain seeds after struggling.
I now have a Hoss planter which is not as hard to push as the Earthway but still is not easy when working in new soil. It also has plates with holes through which the seeds must fit. It also is not intended for grain planting, but I have managed to plant wheat with it although it requires frequent attention to remove plugs. Because it is easier to push I now prefer it even though it is still quite a workout. Round seeds like peas present much less problem when using these plates.
Broadcasting wheat or oats has not been satisfactory for me. The birds snatch some of the seed. Furthermore, seed needs to be planted at more or less the proper depth so it must be covered after broadcasting. It is best if the covering dirt is pressed down onto the seed somewhat firmly. I have not devised a satisfactory way to produce these conditions by hand so my yields from broadcasting have been poor. That was the impetus to buy the Earthway and Hoss planters.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)