Sunday, March 1, 2009

Farming is a dirty business.

Greetings & Salutations,

What a difference a few hours makes, right. Thursday I broke from my winter clothes and donned some shorts. Again, Friday morning I was in shorts, but by noon those clothes were gone and back to the leggings. Then, well I guess we all know what happened next. Ten fluffy inches of snow is what happened next. This was Saturday of course, but man oh man did it snow, and anyone travelling Interstate 40 found out the hard way. The Sunday morning reports were that some motorist had been trapped over night. WOW! Has everyone had enough of Winter yet?

Before the snow started Saturday the Memphis Farmer's Market held their annual vendor meeting with record attendance. The MFM continues to be the place to be on Saturdays, and all farmers, artisans and food vendors are extremely excited about what is shaping up to be the best year yet. I actually believe farmer's markets are recession proof, and I guess this year we will see.

Last year I noticed many gardens sprouting up throughout Northeast Arkansas where in previous years there had been none. It seems gardening is the new hot thing again. Country folks, like my neighbors, garden to cut down on food costs more than anything else, but anyone who has ever turned one spade of soil knows there are many more benefits to growing your own food or flowers than just saving money. Whatever your motivations are I am sure you agree that the more attention you pay to your garden the better your outcome. One thing should especially be noted, and this is something I know people do a lot, and that is over thinking. Gardening is a very simple exercise when done correctly, but all plants require different care, and this is where people get into trouble - your's truly included. Some early disasters I managed to produce include overwatering, underwatering, incorrect spacing (too close together), trying to trellis plants that did not require it and planting tender annuals out too early. Mostly out of ignorance, but some failures should be attibuted to overthinking. There is no better way to learn than thru experience, and often the experiences producing the most learning are ones of failure.

Related to this, everyone should keep in mind that in the mid-south the last average frost date is around April 15th. Now, give or take two weeks of this date and you can either be the first one in your neighborhood or at the market with tomatoes or you can devastate your crops and potential earnings by getting your plants killed. Old timers will attest that no tomatoes should be set to the ground before May 1, and if you plant on two week intervals this will naturally be one of your planting dates. Last year I planted every two weeks thru the middle of July, and just as you can have a late frost in the spring you can have delayed frost in the fall and turn out a decent late October-November crop of tomatoes. You can also have an early frost in the fall, but when weighed out it still makes sense to plant thru July. The reason is because if you have had success throughout the summer and you are looking to have tomatoes as long into the year as possible it doesn't sting as much in the fall to loose a crop as it does in the spring when you are greedy for juicy fruit. You have to remember, however, that daylength is shortening and those large green tomatoes that you are desperately waiting to blush up will take extra days to do so. Also, many stewards use the late plantings of tomatoes to be picked green and stored in the dark to ripen off the vine. When wrapped in newspaper it is common to have tomatoes ripening on Christmas. Of course it should be noted that these fruits will fail to match the flavor of a vine-ripened specimen, but they far and away outdistance what can be found at the grocer.

Also this week I started sub-soiling my fields. Sub-soiling is just what it means - getting down into the lower layers of soil - those layers of clay under the topsoil. What you are doing when you dig down that deep is many things. First, after many years of discing or tilling only the top five or six inches of soil the lower levels get compacted from driving over them, from rain and standing water and from the weight of the top soil. This makes it very difficult for the fine roots of succulent vegetables to penetrate deeper in the soil. When this soil is disrupted and those fine roots are given more discretion in movement they naturally travel further down into the soil in search of moisture during lean times. This is one trick old timers used before irrigation was common - break the soil up deeply and allow the roots to go down, down, down. Then, when it gets dry and hot your plants will be better able to handle the stress. One hundred years ago this method of subsoiling was commonly down with a shovel and a strong back. Today, Friday in fact, it was done on my farm with a one-row implement referred to as a sub-soiler. It amounts to a very heavy duty and thick piece of curved, pointed steel that is set at an angle as to pull itself deeply into the ground - up to two feet. It is mounted onto a hitch with which I affix it to my tractor, and then lowered and raised with hydraulics. It was slow going, but did an excellent job, and as a testament to the amount of earthworms I noticed deep in the ground I can say the fertility of my soil is astounding. I am very excited about this years tomato crops. In fact, the tomato seeds I started in the cold frames 10 days ago are starting to sprout. They are extremely tiny now and it is almost unthinkable that by August they will be 12-15 feet tall. Tomatoes are a vine of course. It is also unthinkable to some that the snow and ice did not kill everything or collapse my structures. Infact both the snow and ice build up acts as an insulater against the outside cold and this morning when I first shoveled the snow away from the door and went in it was 45 degrees. The lettuce bed was grinning back at me, and all the seedlings were chilly but not dead. I actually think raising my starts in the fluctuating cold frame makes them tougher and hardier. Once the sun was at 9-o'clock it was 80 degrees on the inside and everthing was marvelous.

Well, that is about all I am up for at the moment, and I have noticed that Jill has gone adrift herself - out making snow women she said. It is time I pelted her with some snow balls. So, until I blog again you better start getting your hands and back in shape - Spring will be here before you know it.



  1. I saw the article in Sunday's paper and printed my application today. I've always wanted to garden but can't get it together. I am looking forward to this spring and summer and the fresh foods I'll get from your farm. Great website and blog!

  2. Awesome. You guys are doing it right. Hopefully I can get some maters this summer.

  3. Hi Keith and Jill - i was wondering how far down should i prepare soil for herbs? We have lots of worms in the ground that come up after heavy rain, but the soil is clay like - i have been mixing an organic soil mix to the areas I have already planted with a few shrubs and bulbs(which have come up beautifully so far) Anyways - I planned to just beef up the top soil a bit with some organic mulch for my herb garden, but want the herbs to really thrive. any advice would be great.
    hope you are both doing well, Brad has been away almost two weeks for work, Jackson is only slightly driving me bananas and I am feeling very preggo despite being only 15 weeks gone.
    christal harris