Home & Shop Companion #0019
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
At the end of my last letter I said I was going to try and take it easy for a week, but I’ve only been moderately successful. With growing, with farming, and with life, it is often better to get on with things now to make life easier later, following the old proverb, ‘a stitch in time, saves nine.’
That phrase is certainly relevant to growing plants and tackling weeds. In the field the potatoes are now through, they emerged only a few days after I had harrowed down the ridges with the saddle back harrows, just in time, and a week later I went back with the ridging plough and ridged them up again. Then this week I hoed by hand along the tops to cut through the thistles. I don’t usually do any hoeing or hand weeding in the potatoes, but thistles aren’t much fun when lifting potatoes, and I definitely don’t want them to go to seed. I used Lucy to row up the ridges, though if I had an acre or more, I would have used both horses. Since she was going well, once the potatoes were done, I got out my Pioneer single row cultivator and went between the onion rows. I prefer to use Molly when cultivating the vegetables for the first time because she walks better; once she knows where to go, that’s where she goes, whereas Lucy will quite happily step sideways into another row or on top of the plants. Nonetheless, hoeing the onions went well, even with the narrow rows, which on the narrowest setting only left an inch on either side of the cultivator. When I came to the other vegetables I had to stop a few times in the first row because the small plants were difficult to see, but once that row was done, I could at least see where I had been before, but I must admit that we did wipe out several carefully nurtured beetroot plants. In this situation it is easy to see why some people choose to cultivate with one person driving the horse and another steering the cultivator. If you are primarily a grower of relatively high value crops for human consumption and come to horses later, you probably want to make sure you don’t knock out any precious plants, so you do the job with two, which in a market garden also gives more people a change from hand work. But if you are principally a horse user, you want to get the horse going right, and if you are growing swedes for animal feed for example, a few hoed out plants is a price worth paying for a horse to learn his job. It depends on your priorities, I suppose, whether you make the decision for the short term or are brave enough to work towards an easier future.
The Pioneer cultivator is my only brand-new horse drawn tool, replacing an old implement which was falling apart. If Pioneer or anyone else had started to make a similar tool earlier, I should have made the change sooner as the ongoing repairs to the old machine took almost as much time as the cultivating. So it was a delight to have a tool that worked straight out of the box, and I like the fact that the centre of gravity is low, though sometimes I wonder whether it would be improved by being longer. The only modification I have made is the addition of L-shaped shovels on each side, so you can see the edge of where you are cutting and get nearer the plants, which saves time hand hoeing later.
During the hot weather I hoed all the vegetables but held back from sowing carrots until rain was forecast, sowing two rows of carrots into the dust. For the small amount I grow, I make a drill with the push hoe as I did with the other vegetables, then, with a mix of the tiny seed and dry sand, let it run out of my hand as I walk, bent over, down the rows. To cover the seed, I use two tines on the wheeled hoe to push soil over the seed, followed by a loop of chain dragging behind to flatten the surface. This year, because of the small dry clods, I also stamped on the row with my feet to give the seed more contact with the soil, and then waited for the rain.
The vegetable garden at home is now in summer mode, with the greenhouse staging empty, now that the French beans and replacement brassica seedlings are planted out, and the basil and cucumber are planted into the greenhouse soil. With the squash plants I am trying something different this year. Usually they take their place in the ‘heavy feeder’ bed along with potatoes and zucchini, but because I have planted some tomatoes outside this year, there is less space, so the squashes have gone in the furrows between the early potatoes. Whether the potatoes will provide too much competition, I don’t know, but they will only be there for a week or two before we start to eat them, and the squashes will then have the run of the place.
The big difference this year between the field and garden has been water. In the garden we have piped water, and although in desperation I have watered the rows of root vegetables in the field by hand, until this week that is about all the water they have had. May this year was a record breaker, being both the driest on record and the sunniest of any month on record. Although a record is by its nature a one-time event, this spring [March, April and May] has also had the most sunshine on record, following the wettest February ever, and in the Artic, temperatures in May have been as high as they have been here.
As inconvenient as it is on a farm, the forecasters say that no single bit of weather can be attributed to climate change, but they have long predicted more frequent and more severe weather events, just like we are starting to experience now. Their destructive potential is no surprise; about twenty years ago I remember a politician saying we needed to start planning to alleviate the future effects of climate change, but perversely, he completely dismissed the possibility of changing practises, habits and policies to reduce the problem!
A stitch in time? You’ve got to be joking!
But maybe, just maybe, the things we have learnt to re-value since lockdown – our families, clean air, the nurses and care workers, the neighbours who do our shopping, and most importantly, our connection with the natural world – may mean that we start sewing those overdue stitches, to mend communities torn apart, to reconnect wildlife habits, to link farmers with consumers, integrate business with the needs of society, rebuild depleted soils, and to confidently expect and demand that power acts with responsibility, intelligence and compassion. But as that short-sighted dogma-stricken politician demonstrated, it won’t happen if we use the same mindset that caused the problems in the first place.
Stay safe and keeping looking ahead,
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.