Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Entwife learns the hard way

Some people have a green thumb. Whatever they plant, grows. Whatever they grow, they harvest. It's amazing.

I'm not one of those people. Whatever I plant, often dies. Whatever I manage to grow, often gets damaged or destroyed before I can harvest. It's frustrating to have a black thumb.

So the fact that my garden is enjoying a modicum of success this year is nothing short of a miracle, but (as you all know) it's only a miracle because of all the sheer hard work we've put into it. I'm enjoying this miraculous garden so much that my husband affectionately calls me the Entwife whenever he finds me weeding or watering. (If you've read Tolkien you'll understand the reference. By one definition: "Like the males they looked after the growing things of Middle-earth, but Entwives preferred smaller plant life such as small trees, grasses, fruit trees, flowers, and vegetables, while males tended the larger trees.")

But my gardening proclivities have not resulted in total success. Take my beans, for example. I planted about 700 beans of four different types (green, pinto, black, and navy). The green beans are doing fine. So are the pinto beans.

But what's wrong with the navy and black beans? If they sprout -- and that's a big IF -- they are stunted. Why? I have no idea. Doesn't look like I'll get many navy or black beans this year.

Along with corn, beans are one of the most critical survival foods any gardener can grow, so it disturbs me that these plants are struggling. It also makes me realize that 700 bean plants, should we need to depend on them for our physical survival, are nowhere near enough to feed a family of four for a year, much less feed anyone else who may need help.

I'm having similar difficulties with the melons. Granted melons (watermelon, cantaloup, etc.) aren't "survival" foods, but they sure would be nice to have. The watermelon plants that have survived so far are still very small and may not produce melons before the frost hits. And yesterday one of the small plants just up, withered, and died. Why? I have no idea.

One thing's for sure: A survival garden -- a garden for true survival -- is going to have to be a lot more intense and a lot bigger than we originally thought. I've done some mental exercises about how much we would have to grow in the garden if we were entirely dependent on it for our existence -- and it's gonna have to be huge.

Our other "survival foods" are the livestock, and even there we can make mistakes.

For example, we have our bull Samson in the bull pen, and our cow Shadow with him for company. Shadow lost her calf in early May -- the first calf loss we've ever had in 14 years of raising livestock -- so she's the logical choice to be Samson's penmate for the time being.

Samson and Shadow have a large water tank. Last week we noticed it was getting dirty, so Don and I dumped it and scrubbed it out, then refilled it to the top. Then we had that horrible heat wave that blasted the west. We made sure all the water tanks were kept full since water, as you can imagine, is critical at all times, but especially during these hot spells.

Yet, oddly, the water tank in the bull pen remained brim-full. For two days, we didn't have to refill it at all. How strange.

On the third day I noticed that Shadow, who is usually sleek and lovely, was suddenly looking scrawny and ill. And I mean she was looking emaciated. She was off her food too. What was up? Was she out of water? I checked the stock tank and saw that it was... brim-full. Shadow hovered around the tank but didn't drink. How weird.

I went into the house and explained the situation to Don. "I wonder if the tank is too close to the electric fence?" I mused.

The thought of these two animals being totally without water during that heat wave galvanized us into instant action. We dashed out to the barn, Don yanked the plug on the hot wires, and we called Shadow over to the water tank. She lowered her nose into the water and drank and drank and drank and drank...

Turns out when we put the water tank back in place after scrubbing it out, it was indeed touching the bottom-most hot wire, which stood out a little further than other upper two. Every time the animals tried to drink, they got an electrical shock.

To say that Don and I felt horrible for causing our animals to suffer without water is a massive understatement. These animals are entrusted to our care and we failed in our responsibility for their livelihood. But it also underscores that we're only human and can make mistakes that could have -- had we not noticed the problem when we did -- caused the unnecessary deaths of two fine animals.

Such is life on a farm.

But these issues got me to thinking about the future of our country. We are a nation that is so separated from our food sources that perhaps as many as 99% of people would starve to death standing in a field of ripe wheat next to a cow. Most people have no idea, no idea at all, what it takes to grow or raise food. Early in our marriage, Don and I decided we didn't want to be among that 99%, and so we embarked on a (so far) two-decade long journey to become food self-sufficient.

We're still learning. And still making mistakes. But here's the thing -- if the bleep were to suddenly hit the fan, we may be able to make it, between the garden, the livestock, and the chickens. I say may, but it would be brutal full-time work for the whole family. Such was life through much of human history.

But what about the other 99% of this country who not only are entirely ignorant of what it takes to raise fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, grain, and other necessities -- but don't have the space to raise food even if they wanted to?

And far too often, those who want to connect to their food source think that all it takes to grow a garden is to plant a few seeds and wait a couple of weeks and they'll have enough food to last all year. After all, how hard can it be?

It frightens me to realize how utterly depending our nation is on modern growing techniques, modern transportation systems, and modern food distribution networks. Can you imagine the chaos and suffering should these systems fail?

I have no solution to this crisis-in-the-making... except to continue my self-taught lessons on gardening.

And to urge the cultivation of a LOT more Entwives.


  1. I did a running study on the number of bean plants needed per person per year. Of course it will vary greatly with the location and yield but the average for my neck of the woods was 1400 plants per person.

    I deleted that post after this last election due to privacy issues and with all the stuff we been seeing lately I believe I was right to do so.

    I should go back and re-write those posts with the incriminating pictures and such removed though.

    You might try pole beans as in my research they produced more per plant and overall took much less space and weeding time once you had some good trellis acquired and set up.

    1. You're right --- I planted pole beans for the first time this year and I really like them.

      Bending over to pick bush green beans in hot, mosquito-laden humidity is back breaking.

      I really love how the pole beans fill out the arbors so prettily and I don't have to bend over to pick. I didn't realize I'd have more beans per plant to boot. Thanks for the tip!

      Just Me

  2. All too many also don't realize how dependent we are on the weather conditions. In Central Texas we had a hail storm in early May. Our potatoes and onions were close to maturity (planted at the end of January) which was lucky as they were sheared off by the hail. We harvested them and stored them very carefully to prevent rotting. Luckily they are okay. Our tomatoes were so badly damaged that they are doing very little even now. Cucumbers were destroyed as were the green beans and okra. All were replanted, but it was too late in the season here; they haven't produced much of anything. Strangely enough the zucchini, which looked battered, has rebounded with the best crop that we have had in years. At any rate we would be starving if we were dependent on the garden. Normally that is where our late spring and summer food comes from--this year it comes from the grocery.

  3. Our cow has been prone to mastitis, so in order to ensure she's milked out fully, I've left her tied for a little bit so the calf can finish my poor milking job without getting kicked. I felt pretty awful when I went out one evening to lock up the calf, and realized I'd left the cow tied, nowhere near suitable pasture or water, all day.

  4. It is way more work and effort than most people realize. We have 10 chickens now, 1 too old to lay eggs now and probably too tough to eat, she was promoted to pet status awhile back! One big old fat rooster who will be in the pot eventually, the other 8 are 7 hens and 1 rooster, with the hens being almost ready to lay, started as pullets this spring. We also have a small herd of meat goats with two pregnant and ready to kid soon, and then 4 hogs with 15 piglets. To me the animals are easier than the garden, but it can vary. We haven't had cattle in awhile but plan to again soon. My garden is smaller this year than the last three years due to some changes that took longer than expected. Squash is looking good, ditto with peppers, the fruit trees are coming along, but the deer have done a number on tomatoes and I can't figure out what the heck is going on with the cukes, as I've been successful with them in the past, and so it goes. I recommend growing some tree collards though, this is my first year with them and like my asparagus, they are one of the few high yielding perennials, I'm feeling pretty optimistic about them. Garden = errors and try, try again!! :)

  5. "Entwife." Heh. You guys are cool.

    Intentionally avoiding the larger point of your post, I want to address manure. I've noticed--or perhaps erroneously assumed--that when you drag manure from your barns, you don't differentiate between old, composted manure, and fresh, "hot" manure. This distinction is critical in usimg manure as fertilizer. I say this as a culprit for the "Chernobyl" section of our garden, in which I tilled bags of "Walmart" manure last year. Even after a winter of snow and rain that half of the garden grew beans exactly like your sad examples: they sprouted well, grew for a week, and stopped. They matured to produce a few blooms which matured to stunted but tasty beans. My point is that even with relatively mild equine/bivine manure, you must compost it before using it as fertilizer. Cicken and rabbit poop is even more potent when hot.

    I admire your persistence and inquiring minds. Hang in there. I enjoy your blog stories every day.

    1. I don't think compost is the issue since most of our compost has been rotting for three years. However we did use up most of the good stuff, so I wonder. It's a thought.

      - Patrice

    2. While many types are manure cannot be used without throughly composting rabbit manure is not a hot manure. I use this regularly without composting. Besides meat it's one of the main reasons we keep rabbits. It's very hot in central NC and it's an ordeal to keep the rabbits cool in the summer, but the manure is worth the work of shuffling frozen bottles daily since it does not require composting and doesn't grow strange weeds that you don't want.

    3. I agree with Anon 7/10 8:54
      I use my rabbit's "berries" on my garden with much success. My tomatoes went crazy this year but, my chickens went crazy with them and ate them all up! Dang chickens! They free range, but now I'm questioning that as they don't have a problem flying over the garden fence. They are great for bugs, but when they are all gone, the veggies get eaten. =/

  6. Thank goodness you figured out why those two cows were looking so bad! You figured it out in time! My Gosh, I was hanging on every word in that story, hoping the worst wouldn't happen.

    Unwittingly, (I think?) you've made an interesting correlation in this post: The utter dependence of those cows on your benevolence positioned against the utter dependence of 99% of people on convenience.

    Just Me

    1. Gardening has been hobby for me for some time. I've had good results when living in Indiana and Tennessee. Since moving to Florida it's been a frustration. Try it in sand, even with compost, cow manure, "garden soil" etc. the results have been disappointing. I'm constantly watering, and fertilizing, then there's either too much sun, or it's too hot, etc. I get healthy plants but, the fruit is small. Then the bugs arrive. I've about given up on the idea of having a good season, let alone the possibility of 2. I'm now exploring "acquaponics". That's a garden without soil, and is being used in 3rd world countries to feed the people. The idea is to pump water from a large fish tank up to a 2nd tank holding garden plants. The fish water fertilized the plants. This is the real deal. As the fish grow, you can eat them or sell them; the plants grow faster in the tank than in the garden. You can do this on a small scale inside or in season outside. In Idaho the winters are too cold, the fish would die and the pumps won't circulate. Best thing though NO WEEDS to pull.

    2. Don't know if you saw this when it was originally posted, but you might like it. I sure do!

      A. McSp

  7. I totally agree w/you. I have a couple of 'friends' at work that have bought the seed vaults but neither of them have ever even attempted gardening. I think it would be at lest 2 years before they even had a bloo, if they ever produced at at all.

    You can't blame yourselves for the oversight on the water situation. You can clap yourselves on the back for being diligent & seeing a problem before it escalated. Good for you!

    B-T-W ... I can't grow beans or peas for sh***. I just put them in the ground & hope they are adding nitrogen for future 'tests'.

    Thank you so much for sharing your successes & 'almost' failures. It really helps all of us learn.

  8. You have certainly inspired me. My two little postage stamp sized gardens are chock full of plants this year. Whether I will harvest anything from them remains to be seen. But in years past I have let the weeds take over or stopped watering because it is too hot out or whatever. This year I am trying to garden like our food depended on it, even though the amounts are small. I am trying to learn.

    I also took my kids 2 different days to a you-pick-it fruit/veggie farm. We picked our own strawberries, blueberries and cherries and have our freezer filled with frozen fruit (yeah, canned might be better but one has to start somewhere). I told my kids, ages 12, 9 and 4, that part of this was learning to work and understanding how much work it takes to produce food. All we were doing was picking, but it gives them an idea.

    So thank you for your garden updates and blogging. We are learning along with you. Eileen from Iowa

  9. Of course, you also end up with this kind of nonsense:

  10. hi. you might try replanting those tires with the types of beans that did well and try again next year with the others.
    there is a publication which i think is called 'unusual fruits' from, i think, u of rhode island. it covers some of the siberian plants which i now see in some catalogs. considering your climate you might consider them.
    i have read that some field peas, which we have in the south, are more proteinous than other types of beans but i don't know if the growing days will fit idaho weather.

    as far as distance from food sources--i was at church camp a few years ago and looked in the cooler. apple juice from china!!
    meanwhile i had noticed that the apple orchards round about had been let to go wild one by one. shame! these areas are famous for apples and many are named for places here.
    deb harvey

  11. Very eye opening. We've had the same ups and downs as far as the garden is concerned. When I added in the amount needed to grow for the following 1-2 years seed it really set me back. We've been adding gardening space each year but by these numbers I'll need to double up next year. Oh, the cattle! Thank goodness you are so attentive! What a loss that would have been!

  12. I agree that it does take a large garden to feed a family. Many go into gardening and keeping livestock thinking it will cost them less to produce their own, but most often that's not the case. If you factor in the work and time involved it's much more expensive to "grow your own". I spent the entire day canning tomatoes and thankfully have many more canning days ahead. That doesn't include the time I spent starting the seedlings, planting, weeding, watering... Becoming more self-sufficient is certainly the driving force for me, but it's also something enjoy. Your point that most folks wouldn't be able to feed their own family is spot on.

    I haven't had much success with melons either. My green beans have also been beyond slow going this year, but I believe it's weather related. We've had a rainy spring/summer so far and beans don't generally like it wet. They are looking much better now and have actually started producing. I agree with the previous poster that it might just be a case of finding the right bean for your area.

  13. It could be the chemtrails. Certain things won't grow well anymore because of what is being sprayed.

  14. I am in San Jose, CA and we have a small yard filled with wine barrels for raised gardens. I can't believe how well our bush green beans are doing. I have a ton of cucumbers too. The tomatoes are starting to ripen and we have harvested all the blueberries and boysenberries. I got about 4 pints of blueberries and 6 quarts of boysenberries. We have an apricot tree that was loaded with fruit and it all got ruined by a late rain. The nectarine tree is loaded and they seem to be fine. We get most of the apples from a neighbors tree and I make a ton of apple sauce and a few pies every year. All that to say, fruit trees are amazing and vegetables are a lot of work to grow, especially from seed. We can't live off of green beans, cucumbers and apple sauce but it is better than nothing!

    I am so glad you figured out the water problem. I would have been horrified, too. I'm surprised they weren't mooing their displeasure (but I know next to nothing about cows).

  15. I have a question. I just wrote a long comment after choosing "comment as: Google". When I pushed "publish" the computer sent me to Google to sign in. I signed in and my comment was gone. I (petulantly) don't want to rewrite my whole comment. If anyone knows what I am doing wrong, I would appreciate some help. Obviously, I am doing things in the wrong order or leaving an unknown step out. So frustrating!

  16. Hey Patrice, I had to come back as your choice of using the term "Entwife" made me dust off some old college days Tolkien musings.

    There is a theory out there that Tolkien based many of his characters etc. off of other academics and sometimes historical writers. He even mentions doing so sometimes in his notes and letters. The Ents, some have surmised were a conglomerate of other professors and academics Tolkien admired but the Entwives were, interestingly enough sometimes thought to be the wives of these academics that were embracing feminism and therefore wandered off or split.

    At one point Treebeard talks about them being orderly and not wishing to talk to the trees and plants but wanting those same plants to understand them and follow directions. The Entwives tried to control things while the Ents let things take their natural course.

    Eventually the split caused the end of Treelings etc. etc. and it is thought to be another prophesy of his for what is happening to the West today.

    Just had to throw that out there.

  17. I agree, so many people think they will just start growing a garden if things get bad. How the heck will they get that done without the proper tools? We have a sod buster tiller that goes on a tractor for the spring and fall tilling, as well as a small "normal" tiller for between rows. Fighting weeds is still a huge job, and we had the ultimate bed to start with!

    I have to think that storing at least two years of seeds is an absolute must. Mother Nature certainly can destroy all your hard work and diligent preparations in one hail storm. I cannot imagine all the work I have put into putting food aside and growing a garden, and then watching a storm decimate my garden, knowing I will be unable to recover from that. Let's hope things never get that bad. Not only will we be fighting bugs and animals to stay alive, but you know those city people won't think twice about stripping the fruits of our labors from those gardens!

    Going out to water my garden right now!!!

  18. I finally gave up on trying to grow cantaloupes after many failures. I just buy the darn things at the farmers market. I dig a trench in my garden area and fill it with vegetable/fruit scraps and cover it back over as I fill it. This year I had some volunteer plants come up that were obviously vining type plants - cucumbers, squash, or gourds was my guess. I decided to just let them grow to see what I got. The fruit has gotten plenty big enough now to identify - it's cantaloupes! Obviously some of the seeds from my farmers market fruit have sprouted and really taken off - I'm cautiously optomistic that I may actually have cantaloupes from my own garden this year! If so, you can bet I'll be saving seed for next year!

    Thanks so much for your wonderful blog! I enjoy every post and have learned SO much! You are wonderful for sharing!

  19. I gave up on the dry Western air and moved to the upper Midwest. Water actually falls from the sky on a regular basis and seems to stick around!
    My rather large garden consists of straw bales for the delicate stuff and the 3 sisters approach for the corn, vines and beans. All is well except for the beans. replanted a couple of times with different types but very few made it. seems I could not put enough water on them to get them up and growing. Delicate things they are. the peas in the straw are fine and 4' tall now.
    The corn is 6' and tasseling now and the 10 types of squash, pumpkins and cucumbers are flowering and seem to grow feet a day. With both I made mounds of mixed topsoil and cow manure and as soon as the plants were up a foot or so mulched with pure dairy manure that seemed to be well composted. The manure holds the water very well. and as it's composted, doesn't suck up nitrogen like fresh straw does.
    My guess it you haven't been able to get enough water to the vines or nitrogen.
    A couple of weeks ago we got 9" of rain in 3 days. I thought that would be very bad for the plants but everything just exploded with life - except the beans.

  20. Patrice -
    Hard work, loss & frustration in the garden is a part of Adam's curse - no way around it.
    A fungicide spray may help the damping off of the beans & melons, as will moving some of the straw away from the base of the plants so that air circulates freely. Heavy mulch is a breeding ground for both types of major fungi that tend to trouble backyards gardens.

    Also melons need lots a warmth & loamy soil with some sand. Short season locations may have better luck by direct sowing & growing melons in a hot bed and uncover them during the day.

    I noticed that you didn't sift or screen the rotted manure & bedding coming from the barn. Compost is used to amend soil and barn compost in no way replaces soil.
    You might have better garden luck if you do that before you mix it into the soil.When the soil is too compact it will suffocate and stress young plants and leave them susceptible to a host of ills.

  21. Often times I hear that if the SHTF that we will just be back to the the 1800s.
    THe problem is that inthe 1800s people were on the "cutting edge" of technology (forthe time), whereas people today (for the most part) cannot even identify that technology. I'm afraid that the learning curve will be VERY steep.
    JW M

  22. Couple of thoughts: have your soil tested. Second, could it be due to some toxins in the tires?

  23. I always thought of my self as a pretty good gardener , and was going to give advice,,, but I read the answers here and now I think the reason I am a good gardener is because I live in southern Michigan LOL.!! That said I have used fresh HOT chicken manure on the garden and had no problemm, but some years certain things just will not grow , but it wil be different things th next year, people scramble to blame seeds fertilizer etc. But paying attention to plants and animals I see an abundance some years and lack in others.I think this is going to be a learning over time trying different ideas but some years I just cannot grow a bean to save my life, some years they over take the garden. We have had red clover and daisys on our 17 acres at differnt times in 20 years this year we hve daisys all over after not seeing any in about 6 years , same thing with the clover in other years. This may be part o f what you see happening which is easier to see over the years. Karen

  24. I grow basil, parsley, rosemary, chives, mint, and tomatoes. If a SHTF situation takes place I guess I'll have to eat that for the rest of my life.

  25. I guess I am one that has been blessed with a green thumb. But at the moment I am glad that we have plastic/rubber water troughs since I can see accidentally electrifying the water as something we could possibly do by oversight. Glad you caught it!