Home & Shop Companion #0066
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
It has rained most of today, probably half an inch, which is nearly as much as we got in the whole of April, but there was the cheer of a rainbow when I went to check on the horses this evening. Spring this year is coming slowly; it has nearly dropped to freezing most nights this week, and overall, this was the frostiest April since 1922, and nearly the driest too. Based on the experience of recent years when we have had dry and warm springs, rather than waiting until June and July which should be hot and dry, I decided to fallow two patches between the vegetables straight away. So far that seems to have been the right decision, but the cold and dry has been less good for the plants. Grass growth is slow, so many farmers are still feeding sheep and cattle, while spring sown cereals are so late that they may not have time to mature and even if they do, the yield will likely be much reduced.
The only new crops visible in my vegetable garden are the broad beans and some cabbages I planted out ten days ago. The cabbages are in a single row down the centre of the brassica bed, so I can plant kale, broccoli or sprouts in a row either side, and then the early cabbage will be harvested before the bigger plants get too big and start to shade them. The cabbages are sheltering under a fine net which protects them against butterflies, but at this time of year it is there to keep the pigeons off, but it also provides a bit of shelter and I expect the temperature under there is probably a degree or two higher. For years, I used to use fleece to heat the beds, even before anything was planted out, and to keep the plants growing quickly and bring forward the harvest of some early crops, but as the fleece has disintegrated, I am less inclined to replace it. Now we have the greenhouse I can start more plants off inside and transplant them, so the protection outside is less important, but if I was growing commercially it would be different; having some crops ready to harvest a week or two early can be valuable but growing for our own consumption the advantage is much less.
My reluctance to use fleece is really about plastic. In the greenhouse I have some plants growing in rigid plastic modules which came with the second-hand greenhouse and are lasting well, but other plants are in cells made of thin plastic and small plastic plant pots, usually from plants we have bought, and they are falling apart, so despite reusing whatever I can, every year there are broken plastic things to throw away. There is a lot of awareness about plastic in the environment nowadays, but my reluctance to avoid it is not a new thing; thirty five years ago I was already making a concerted and fairly successful effort to avoid it, but looking through our recycling bin and the thin plastic that goes in the landfill bin, I am sure we get through many times the amount of plastic as back then. Some of it is our own fault, but some of it is very difficult to avoid. The peas, meanwhile, are germinating in the cardboard centres from toilet paper, something I tried last year. I like how they worked, the quick-growing pea roots soon reaching the bottom of the tube and suffering little setback when planted out, tube and all, into the soil.
Years ago, as a plastic free alternative, I bought a small soil blocker which makes 4 blocks at a time, but after buying it I found out that the blocking mix needed to contain peat, so I didn’t try it. As far as I am concerned, the best thing to do with peat is to leave it alone, not to farm it, not to burn it, not to mine it for horticulture and not to dry it out, but keep it wet and let it gather all the carbon it can. Recently I discovered some people use a mix using coir instead of peat for their soil blocks, although that must be transported halfway round the world to get here. Another system which looks very cool, but I haven’t seen it in real life, is the Japanese paper pot system, that look like a smaller version of the paper divisions they use to keep peaches from bruising, each little plant growing in one of the cells. The difference from the peach separators is that the honeycomb of paper pot cells can be loaded onto a hand-drawn transplanter, and the whole tray unravels to leave a row of paper pots planted in the ground. Depending on the crop, different honeycombs can be used for different plant spacings, the whole package being an amazing time saver for the small-scale vegetable grower.
Whether anyone has used this system behind horses I don’t know, perhaps horses walk too fast, but maybe a SFJ reader has tried it. Certainly, it wouldn’t have worked with Lucy yesterday, when for the first time this year, I took the Pioneer single row cultivator between the rows of onions. The onions are now a couple of inches tall and the weeds at the seed leaf stage with a thread-like root, the ideal time to tackle them. But it was a relatively fast Lucy I had to contend with, even after she had pulled the spring tine cultivator through the fallow patches and harrowed down the potato rows.
It’s a thing you often hear, that a horse is great for row crop work on small farms. Part of the reasoning comes from an understanding that the low-powered horse is not suitable, not quick enough for ‘real farming,’ but on a small scale, perhaps part time, for growing a few acres of vegetables, horses are OK, perhaps pretty effective if you are an enthusiast.
There are some truths lurking inside that short paragraph, but I don’t like it. I don’t like it because it comes from the wrong place; there are already too many assumptions based on a conventional mindset, too many generalisations, too little horse sense. It is tempting when talking about working horses, and writing about them, [indeed I am guilty of this myself] to give the impression that this is easy, that you can just go out and do all this stuff – ‘we just went to the field and we did this and had a jolly nice time, no sweat, no big deal.’ The confusing thing is that it may be true, for you, for me, yesterday, with those horses, but is not very helpful for a would-be teamster who hopes to grow ten acres of vegetables next year with green horses and no experience. What the happy little story misses out is the time when the horse was not used to flapping harness, when it struggled to come to terms with being fastened to another horse and pulling an implement, and how it learned over minutes and months to overcome those fears. Equally important, it overlooks the time and effort we have invested in knowing what to do in those situations.
If you want to know what a horse can do, I prefer to start with looking at what it is good at, perhaps best at, and that is walking fairly long distances with the minimum of turns, where it is guided, not continually corrected or stopped. Work two or more horses together and they will be happier, and if you do that for three hours in the morning, the same after lunch and repeat most days of the week, that is where horses are at their best, where they learn acceptance and contentment in their work. For young horses that are learning the job, this is also the ideal scenario, but once you move away from that situation, take them off the land and put them on a hard road, or on short work, really hard pulls or irregular work, and their natural advantages diminish. That doesn’t mean they can’t cope, or even excel at other things, hard work over short distances like logging, or short work in a market garden where they are always turning and having to walk precisely, it just means it is harder for them, harder for you, and some horses are more suitable than others. Molly, for example, is really the type of horse for row work; laid back, steady in movement, always has been, whereas Lucy wants to move, to see the world from a yard away. She is not a bad horse, she is happy pulling stuff, responsive, and has learnt to stand, but had she worked long days, she probably would be easier to keep slow and straight, but part-time, small-scale does not equate with full days in harness.
So if you want to do vegetables, you need to look for a Molly!
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.