Home & Shop Companion #0071
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
There is an old phrase, now little used, that ‘a good farmer makes a poor gardener.’ It is not a phrase I like, but I understand where it comes from and have seen plenty of examples of it in practise. It’s all about time and priorities.
Some time ago, probably half a lifetime ago, I read an essay about how the most productive, and therefore most valuable part of a farm was the kitchen garden. I have a suspicion it was written by Gene Logsdon, the American ‘man of letters’ [according to the fount of all wisdom, Wikipedia], but he was also a man of the soil. If I remember correctly, the point was that a garden can be marvelously productive, the return per acre or square yard being immense, and because you ate the produce which you otherwise would have to buy at the retail price, compared with selling other farm products at a wholesale price, the vegetable garden was doubly beneficial.
For many busy farmers, that is all pie in the sky because the time you might spend in the garden is the same time you are preparing the fields for planting and getting the seed in the ground. If messing about with a spade in your garden is going to interrupt that process, you could lose thousands for the sake of a few hundred from your garden. But there is another aspect to this dichotomy too, it is a way of thinking, thinking big or thinking small, the difference between a big farmer leaving the grass in the field corners as he sweeps past on an enormous tractor, or the smallholder carrying a few forkfuls of half made hay from under the trees so it can dry out as quickly as the rest of the field. Neither is wrong, it is just a different balance between time and space. When it comes to gardening, however, doing something so dreadfully slow can often be a frustration in itself for the ‘real farmer.’ Though I don’t put myself in that category, I do feel the slowness in gardening, and rarely achieve the peaceful state of mind that many gardeners attain by tending their gardening. The reason is that I am often in a hurry.
Before we lived here I had a garden, and that space was my time-out zone. But now I have the horses, they are my time-out activity, except when time is of the essence like when making hay. Nowadays, garden time gets sandwiched in between the field and the workshop. That means the garden often gets done quickly, in fact Liz has often voiced her surprise at how fast things get done. When I am transplanting, for example, the plants get pushed in once and then I reach for the next, unlike many a weekend gardener who will push each plant in three times, look at it, and give it another prod before going to the next one. The result is a productive garden with a good variety of crops, but it is not very tidy, the crops do not come early and most years one crop will be a near failure. But I don’t mind, because within the balance of life that is good enough for me; because it would probably take half as much time again to get my garden productivity from 80 or 90% up to the full hundred. For full time farmers, one of the most viable approaches for those who are too busy in March and April is to plant all the garden in May, when the weather is warm and the plants grow away quickly. It won’t secure early crops, but it might result in 50% productivity which may be quite enough.
Regular readers might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Molly recently, but she has been much on my mind. Back in March she pulled something in her back leg, but with painkillers it got better and after a couple more weeks, she did help Lucy make the potato rows. But that was the last time she has had any harness on, because she did a repeat performance in April, the leg improved again, and then again in May she did it again. This time it seemed to take more out of her, and she was walking sideways for a worrying few days. Each morning, like on earlier occasions, I would get to the field wondering if she had been able to get up after lying down, but every morning she was there standing up, though sometimes she had not reached the gate where she is usually to be found awaiting my arrival. A week or so ago, with her losing condition, I started to wonder whether her time had come, but she seems to have picked up as the weather has got warmer. But I think it unlikely she will see the inside of the collar again, a sad realisation for me, but she still seems to be enjoying life, so is welcome to stay and keep Lucy company.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.