Country Living Series

Friday, July 10, 2015

When your plow is a pencil...

I saw an interesting quote yesterday, by Dwight D. Eisenhower:

"Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field."

Holy cow, truer words were never said. No one, but no one, who has never tried to grow or raise food can understand the complexities, setbacks, experience, intelligence, or sheer good luck required to succeed. Nobody.


I've warned in the past about making the dangerous assumption that homesteading is easy (and therefore easily accomplished in a post-bleep world). But remember, if the bleep hits, we can’t just mosey down to Home Depot and buy pre-grown hybrid tomato plants. We’d darn well better have a supply of heirloom seeds (preserved from the season before), a place to plant them, the knowledge of how to cultivate them, the fencing to protect them, the water to keep them alive, the understanding and experience of how to harvest and preserve them, and the ability to save seeds for the next year.

And unless you’re blessed with perfect soil, a lack of weeds, and a temperate and forgiving climate, a garden doesn’t just ... grow. It must be worked. You must amend the soil, control the weeds, and manage the pests. It's why we were forced by circumstances to garden in tires rather than the ground (sometimes I think we should have called our place Murphy’s Farm, where if something can go wrong, it will).


I have concerns that those unfamiliar with the intricacies of gardening (and the quantities necessary to keep a family in food for an entire year) will come to the erroneous conclusion that planting a windowsill herb box will solve all their food security woes. Or worse, because their windowsill herb box is blooming luxuriantly, they conclude that they’re natural and superb gardeners. After all, how hard can it be?

An armchair expert is the smartest guy in the room, the guy who tells everyone else how to do something. His pencil is his plow. But remember, it’s a whole lot easier to talk about doing something than to actually do it.


This year, we're struggling to learn about beekeeping and we're grateful we can rely on experts more knowledgeable than us (as well as the availability of new queens or pre-built hives or other luxuries). We'd rather have our failures now, while we still have a fall-back, instead of waiting until things go south.

That's why I urge people to do the same thing regarding homesteading, preparedness, or any other venture. Makes your mistakes now, and learn from them. It's the best education in the world.


Plus you get strawberries.

41 comments:

  1. Thanks for the gardening photo. I now have captured one of my wife's Birthday T shirt gifts.

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  2. I have a saying I am very fond of: "Confidence is that feeling you have before you fully comprehend the problem."

    It's true.

    It is also true that I've been held back for most of my life from trying ANYTHING unless I can prove that I have a 100% chance of success because I know that it is probably more difficult and more involved than it looks.

    Most of the things I have learned to do, from building a bookshelf (boy, that first one was embarrassing!!!) to piecing a quilt (that first one looked worse than the 9-patch sampler Laura Ingalls Wilder made when she was 3) to patching a pair of pants (that first patch fell right out) to raising a garden (the first one grew a few tomatoes, some peppers, and lots and lots and lots and lots of witchgrass-- and I grew up in a gardening family, God alone knows what would have happened if I'd been a complete flatfoot) HAD to start with "How hard can it be??"

    Or they wouldn't have started at all.

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  3. Patrice, oh so true...

    Like Grandma used to say, 'Everything is easy when you don't know what you are talking about.'

    Montana Guy

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  4. Oh my goodness, is this post ever true!

    I tried this past February/March to tap our maple trees, gather sap, and boil it down into maple syrup. Let's just say it was a learning experience that ended in several lumps of burned maple taffy rather than a nice container of syrup. But now I've learned a thing or two for next year...

    However, I always try to be encouraging to people who are just thinking about starting out. If you tell them too much about the difficulties, they'll be too discouraged to even try. So I tell people, "Hey, just put in a little 5X5-foot bed of some basic stuff to give it a try! Some herbs, a few tomatoes, maybe a row of strawberries. Anyone can do that!" Once people get started, they'll often keep expanding on their own, but just getting going can be daunting. So we want to balance encouragement with the warnings about the challenges! ^_^

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  5. Well said. At my age I don't need tractor tires for a garden but a series of waist high, dirt filled tables so I don't have to bend my knees.

    Huggs..

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    1. Consider straw bale gardening. My first year I did it "by the book", learned a lot and now do my own version.
      Like I always say folks that think they are going to take their bucket of seeds and plant a garden in grid down will be in for a big surprise! There is no magic wand or "easy" garden! It will be 100 times more difficult in a grid down.

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    2. Check out Keyhole garden. 30 inches high, compost bin in center of garden, less watering, less weeding, luxuriant growth, high productivity. Did I say no bending?
      Jim

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  6. That's a money quote for sure. But do we still use pencils? Maybe it should be updated to something like "It's easy to Tweet about farming...."

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  7. I literally bust out laughing when I read that Eisenhower quote!

    (I also always laugh when I hear "fitness" gurus try to tell us that gardening doesn't qualify as exercise...Oh yeah? Well, follow me around for a day and tell me that.)

    Mother Nature really does stack the deck against you when you try to grow a garden. You are so right - nobody who has never grown a garden has ANY idea of what it takes.

    And look how far you've come with your garden! Wow.

    Just Me

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  8. This is a very timely post for me. I've actually started my own blog yesterday that addresses this very sentiment. I'm smart enough not to fall into the trap of the armchair, but up to this point my philosophy of prepping has been simply to store food and hide in a hole. I started the blog with the purpose of taking baby steps through various skills I have only ready about. I'm starting small, with composting, then cheese making, indoor container gardening. I'm working on finding a pasture to rent within walking distance to get chickens and maybe rabbits and goats. Time to stop reading and just do.

    Renee (Redoubt)

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    1. What's your blog url?

      - Patrice

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    2. http://redoubtrenee.blogspot.com/

      I've actually been in contact with the owners of a property within bike riding distance who might rent me some pasture for small livestock! Super excited!

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  9. Planted a new variety of green beans this year along with the tried and true. They were just gettin ready to produce and even though we have a 5 strand 8,000 volt fence sometin got in and ate about half to the ground. Goes to show you never know. Had to spend the afternoon on barn roof with 22 waiting. 6 woodchucks in field none headed toward garden. Finally I saw brown movement in beans, it was a rabbit. He musta jumped fence at one point and decided to stay. Needless to say he didn't stay long...

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    1. Grrrrrr! I feel your frustration.

      Just Me

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  10. We have weeds and rocks in our large garden. After 3 years, we finally built some raised beds, and I'm also trying tire gardening for the first time. We still planted corn and some tomatoes the regular way, but put down black plastic and cardboard to kill the weeds. So far so good - we're getting lots of veggies. Can't wait to see what potatoes we get from the tire gardens. We plan to add more raised beds/tires each year.
    Kay

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  11. Every year it is something new and different. We have come to take for granted that "food" always appears, with no appreciation of how it it gets there.

    And cutworms are of the Devil.

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  12. Even if you are a master gardener in one area of the country, you'll have to learn a whole new set of skills when you move from wet to dry or cold to warm, and vice versa.

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  13. Patrice (or anyone else) have you tried to grow Amaranth? I live a little south of you and was curious how well it did in Idaho, I just stumbled across this grain a couple of days ago and thought it make a good emergency crop or maybe even to feed to the animals. I've seen some short season strains and at 700 calories per cup of seed, I figured I would give it a try. It looks fairly easy to harvest as compared to wheat. If anyone has experience with it, I would appreciate their opinion.

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  14. I have a plaque in my kitchen that reads "The sun rises everywhere but the crops only grow where the Farmer worked hard." Amen to that! One thing I've learned after 7 year of gardening is that what works really well one year will bomb the next! Last summer, I was overrun with marvelous tomatoes so I canned a LOT of them. This year, a lousy crop. So, I can/preserve more than I think I need when I'm blessed with an extra good crop----it might just be the Lord is providing us with what I won't be able to produce next season!

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    1. That is a excellent sentiment. I think I will remember that for when I am tired of canning.

      Ouida Gabriel

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  15. My windowsill herb garden is *not* thriving. I just want some chives dammit! *cry*. Don't get me started on my failed cookies and pie. Keep on trying I guess.

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    1. Precisely. Figure out what you did wrong and get back on the metaphoric horse.

      Every time I move, and therefore get a new stove, I have to learn to bake all over again. The last over didn't hold heat well-- everything had to be cooked hotter or longer than the recipe called for. This one runs hot-- cookies and cakes and bread and such all have to be cooked shorter or 5-10 degrees cooler than the recipe calls for (and the cooking time decreases with each round of a batch-- so if I want to make 12 dozen cookies, the first round goes 8 minutes, the second round about 6, and the last round goes about 5). Had to learn that.

      Pie crust is fidgety. The amount of water you need to add to get a crust that won't stick and tear or flake apart changes with the weather. Also make it easy on yourself-- I don't think they make them any more (certainly I haven't seen one at a retail store), but my grandmother has this thing called a pie sheet. It is a piece of HDPE plastic with various diameters stamped on it so you know how big to roll out your crust. After you've rolled it out, you pick up the whole sheet and flip it over on the pie pan. BOOM-- perfect.

      I am scouting thrift stores for one of my own (though it would thrill my little soul if Grandma just happened to decide to leave me hers when she departs for The Place Where Pies Leap Into The Pan).

      In the mean time, you can find an old cotton pillowcase, rip out the end seam and one side seam, wash it well, iron it well, and fold it up and put it into a drawer for basically the same purpose. It's a pain getting all that residue out of the cotton (flour it well and soak it in dish soap) but it works.

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    2. They still make the pie sheet! We have one but we use it more for homemade tortillas! It is wonderful!

      Ouida Gabriel

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  16. Have gardened for about 55 years and have always had relatively good results. My neighbor never grew more than a couple of tomatoes. She, however, can grow pineapples from the cut off top of a pineapple plant and mine just rot in the pot. She's even given me the pineapple top ready to plant - I get the same result. Just goes to show you the unseen variables that can make or break a garden or gardener for that matter.

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    1. Great anecdotal evidence of the vagaries of gardening!

      Just me

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  17. This is from memory so the details are fogy.
    During the depression the government tried farming as a way to provide jobs. They took a bunch of people, a bunch of land and said "Now grow stuff". The"farmers" we provided everything and I believe they all failed. The government even provided "real farmers" to help. The people they used even wanted to be a part of it so it isn't like a bunch of unemployed iron workers were sent off to be farmers.

    I have tried to search for info on that program but haven't been able to track it down but it makes sense to me.

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  18. That saying also applies to raising children, lol.

    I'm thanking God this morning for the first rain since 22 May 2015. We moved from elevation 5350 Wyoming to elevation 2300 Idaho in hopes of having more water and a longer growing season. Our place in Wyoming looks like Ireland right now and we are parched here in Idaho. Truly praying the rain continues for several days, as the "extreme" fire risk has me a little nervous. That coupled with living on the reservation where the fireworks were legal was a true exercise for my heart the week of the 4th.
    Planted 24 tomatoes, all started indoors, repotted twice, and hardened off before putting into the garden we made in what was once a tree farm nursery greenhouse (we have no cover, nor will we have one after I checked the price) that has several inches of gravel. Getting dirt has been an adventure, as all we have here is poor quality clay. We have two fertilizer machines, also known as horses, but their produce will not be matured until next year. Baby steps.
    Anyway, I planted two dozen tomatoes, heirloom beefsteak, Cherokee purples and some seed from my brother's garden (also heirloom only) tomatoes I canned back in 2010. I have small plants loaded with tomatoes, some large plants with very few tomatoes and some plants that are dying. My worst crop ever, but from my best plants, I will save the seed and try again next year.
    I've had my own garden, with a gap of a few years, since 1982. It is hard work (except for two places I lived in MO that grew tomatoes, beans, watermelon and corn if I just dropped the seed--God was blessing me in my extreme poverty I think). It takes a few seasons to get the soil amended right and to learn how to care for the plants. Preserving the harvest is another learning curve.
    As SwampWoman wrote, you have to learn a new set of skills when you move, and that is quite evident. I'm doing battle with voles that come through my fence, birds and some small insect, perhaps ants that are tasting all my strawberries. On a good note, I've just about trained my three young Black Jersey Giants to come to me by feeding them sampled strawberries. In case of fire, I would to be able to catch Abraham, Henry and Jack, even if I can't catch all of the dozen Jersey hens. I feel the need to put my failures into some sort of positive light. When I now head into the garden, the boys come running, lol.
    Pots of strawberries, a row of green beans and perhaps some lettuces and potatoes in big pots are all a very basic beginning but will not sustain anyone. However, if done with heirloom seed, the gardener will be acclimating their seed and learning about the seed preservation, except for the potatoes, which we were able to do this year but only because of the earlier spring planting ability in Idaho.
    I know people who have had their precious heirloom seeds for years and never planted one of them but are puzzled when told the best way to "save" their seed is by planting them.
    sidetracksusie

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    1. Raising kids, ROFL!!!! We sure never would have had any if we hadn't jumped right in with "How hard can it be?!"

      After the first one, I felt a little more confident. Well, having another one is sort of like moving three climate zones and planting a garden-- you have to learn all over again. After two, I though we were doing well and feeling pretty seasoned. "How hard can it be?!"

      Well, a 7-year-old and a sweet-natured hyperactive toddler is a completely different ballgame from an 8-year-old, a hyperactive toddler, and a hyperactive infant who turns out to be colicky, demanding, blindingly intelligent, and possessed of a domineering nature.

      It was touch-and-go there for about 3 or 4 years. There was a time when I could barely find time to weed the garden, couldn't visit friends or have anyone who hadn't raised stair-step ADHD kids over, had padlocks on my fridge and cabinets (baby locks were a toy, not a deterrent), kept the door deadbolted, and couldn't have kitchen chairs (getting rid of them slowed their climbing down enough to give me time to catch them, but didn't stop it-- when she was 16 months old my middle daughter could walk up a straight wall with any kind of leverage at all). I seriously contemplated solving the bathroom exigencies by going in for Depends!!!!

      By the time they were 4 and 2, my confidence was shot. I was a nervous wreck, and had thoughts of putting them up for adoption because I must, obviously, be an incompetent mother. I got out of bed every morning and told myself, "Come on, MC, how hard can it be?!" We tried again. We got through another day. One more day.

      And then we found out I was pregnant. **GULP!!** People I love and respect advised, make that practically demanded, that I get an abortion. Not happening.

      "How hard can it be?!" More like, "How much worse can it get?!"

      One day at a time. One screw-up at a time. One lesson at a time. As I type, the kids are 13, 8, 6, and 3. Oldest Daughter is a fine, responsible very young adult. My hyperactive stair-step babies are still challenging, but they're good kids. I have kitchen chairs again. They've gone from being little kids I couldn't turn my back on to being medium kids that I can leave alone in a room without anything worse than an argument breaking out. They're bright and active and respectful and thoughtful and helpful and fun (even if Middle Daughter definitely DOES NOT have a future as a submissive wife). The unplanned baby is a big, sweet, beautiful toddler who is climbing on and off my lap guessing the names of letters as I type.

      I'm exhausted at the end of the day. My hands are full... of good things. I'm back to thinking of myself as a pretty seasoned mother, in the same vein as a battered old cast-iron skillet.

      I'm glad the baby-having days are done, but if the Lord dropped a couple more kids into my lap, well, "How hard can it be?!"

      In self-reliance as perhaps in starting a family, the key is to start. In terms of self-reliance, NOW. While you have the luxury of allowing yourself to make mistakes.

      Speaking of mistakes, my lifesaving parenting maxim these days is, "Nobody gets it perfect every waking moment of every day for 18 years straight. Give it your best, and don't be afraid to learn."

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    2. I have to be honest, I was horrified at the abortion comment. I would immediately know which people were not my friends by that statement.

      That said, I cried at your words. Parenting is hard. My 3rd was like your 3rd. I have been known to tell people if I would have stopped having babies after my second daughter, I would think I was the greatest parent alive! My 3rd child was very similar to yours. Not to mention I had Fibromyalgia during this time but didnt know there was a name for it. We now have 6 children, whom I adore! We would have had more if my life wasnt in danger during the last pregnancy. You are right. The days are long, tiring but so rewarding! I wouldnt change anything.

      Ouida Gabriel

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    3. Dear MC and Ouida Gabriel,
      Thank you for sharing your stories. Parenting is the most difficult job many of us are ever handed. It is also the most rewarding.
      I didn't think my sicky yet "easiest baby in the world" would have a chance as an adult. He's a fine man, the sole breadwinner, married with three beautiful daughters.
      I remember after my paternal grandmother died, going through her bible and finding a clipping tucked in with my father's name written across it. He is one of nine children, retired CSM US Army in the engineers, who never cracked a book in college in the engineering program according to his former roommate. The clipping was about "the poor little slow boy". My dad! A gifted athlete and student! Some children bloom late and some have smaller yet more fragrant blooms.
      God loves them all and trusts us to do our best with them. I love to think of Our Father as the Master Gardener, pruning us, watering us, caring tenderly for us, while we attempt to do the same for our children. There were days I thought my garden was full of thorns, lol.
      Thank you again for sharing. Parenting always looks so easy to the childless.
      sidetracksusie

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    4. "I love to think of Our Father as the Master Gardener, pruning us, watering us, caring tenderly for us, while we attempt to do the same for our children. There were days I thought my garden was full of thorns, lol."

      This is so beautifully written!

      Ouida Gabriel

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  19. I started growing a garden (or attempting to) in 2008 and have done so every year since. I have yet to have a really "successful" year. One thing may do well and that is about it. If it is not a soil issue, then it is lack of rain or pests. It seems like it is a constant battle to keep it going. I do enjoy it, but it is definitely a lot harder than people think. I have a new found respect for farmers!

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    1. Check out Keyhole garden. It is the newest technique here in Texas. Very successful. See www. keyholefarm.com

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  20. Amen! We battle creatures from below ground, from the air, and the four legged critters. We have over 200 years combined experience at gardening, and we figure we lose between 20 and 80 percent in any given year to poor seed, poor weather, and those wonderful creatures mother nature throws our way. We have deer to eat our tomato plants, who ever heard of that ??? Fox that have a sweet tooth, and there goes the cantaloupe and watermelons. Birds and squirrels for the fruit and nut trees. Gophers eating our okra from below, ever seen your okra stalks getting shorter every day, not taller? No rain, high heat, or cool weather and rains by the barrel not the bucket full. Getting up with the sun, and going to bed long after dark. My heart goes out to the pencil pushers, and my prayers are with everyone else that truly tries to provide for their families using blood, sweat, and prayers. No one sees the farmer cry, she saves that for her pillow when no one else can see.

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  21. I have tried and tried - on and off over nearly 25 years. The drift from crop dusting within a mile or so has often destroyed anything I have tried to plant. This year most are in containers and instead of running the containers into the garage every time I happen to hear a small airplane coming over I put grocery baggies over them. So far a couple of flowers and the two tomatoes are damaged. Until the new method of "wheat dry down" starts (spraying it with Roundup) I think my stuff will survive.

    Good thing an in law aunt has two gardens (one has a lot of my stuff in it) and my MIL always has stuff to share or I would be sprayed out of existence......Scary, huh....... Natokadn

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  22. Raising your own food is painfully simple in theory. In practice it takes lots of work, and knowledge. I have come to the conclusion that I couldn't grow weeds. I have planted a garden every year for the past 7 years none of my plants have survived (except one pepper plant but it didn't bear fruit) and I have done everything "by the book." My wife on the other hand can grow anything with the least amount of effort. I on the other hand am pretty good at hunting and trapping, my wife on the other hand will will literally yell "No, run deer run." And then be upset with me because there is no meat. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.

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    1. You are correct. My 16 year old wanted a garden this year. She has taught me a lot just in the last few months! I had no clue about the roles bumblebees play or hand pollenating! It has been slow going but she has kept at it. It has been hard too, I thought more gardeners would offer thier advice but most shrug thier shoulders when I ask questions. Maybe our extra wet Spring has everyone discouraged. Either way, my daughter has been reading something on gardening on most days. She will figure it out!

      Ouida Gabriel

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    2. Have her research keyhole gardening

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  23. Hmmmm nature can be "dificult " here in TX we have had a years rain by the end of june , my garden turned yellow as it slowly drowned , I am in sand and it still drowned , then to top it off we had a hail storm , it took out the roof all the soft fruit , barked one of my peach trees , beans , peas and potatoes all destroyed ,and washed out the remander, a general disaster ,the late resowing means I am picking green beans and BEP in 95 + degree heat , I just hope the fall garden is bountifull . mother nature can be fickle !

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  24. Well, my garden this year is in one word meh. In less than two months, we have had over 32" of rain. Potatoes rotted so did the onions. Everything else is just hanging on by it's shallow root system. You just never know what is going to happen.

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  25. Conversation at hardware store yesterday:

    Checkout clerk: So... it looks like you have a deer problem.

    Customer: Nope, took care of the deer last week. Now I'm battling the rabbits.

    Critters 2 Montana Guy 0

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