Becoming a Real Farmer

I’ve had this farmer fantasy in the back of my mind for several years now, but made only pitiful progress in the last few years.  It was so bad, in fact, that Hubby liked to call me Mr. Douglas (from Green Acres, for those of you too young to recognize the name).  Continuing to move forward in spite of my lack of success, I acquired a hen and two chicks last year.  We built a chicken tractor and I made plans to move it throughout my garden area to take advantage of the chickens’ natural tilling, pest removal, and fertilization behaviors.  Needless to say, this didn’t last long as we had made the tractor so heavy (and safe) that it took enormous effort to move.  I call it the Ft. Knox coop.  It was time to move to Plan B.

The chicken tractor moved to its new permanent location.

We moved the new coop/old chicken tractor to a location right beside the existing garden and built a fence around the entire area.  It was odd-shaped because of the nearby dog pen, so the final dimensions were 28′ wide, 30′ on both sides and 40′ in the center.  A dividing fence in the middle and attached to the coop made each space 14′ wide.  This allowed seventeen garden boxes, most 40″x40″.  A chicken wire apron was added around the bottom, 2′ vertically and 1′ horizontally on the outside to prevent digging, and bird netting was zip-tied to the top.

The new enclosed garden was slightly shorter than my previous one.

Each side has its own gate just as the coop has doors on each side.  This arrangement has proven to be very safe and, other than a fox making an attempt to get through the hardware cloth before we had all of the welded wire up, we’ve had no intruders.  The fence has proven itself to be enormously handy for growing winter squash, pole beans, cucumbers, and peas.  The fertility as well has been improved at least 200%.  The chickens keep adding poop and scratching it in, keeping it from being too hot when I plant.  September and March are the times to switch usage.  The east side is sunnier, bummer for the chickens in mid-summer, and the best location for the winter vegetables.  The west has a little more afternoon shade which gives the summer vegetables a welcome break during the hottest parts of our Florida summers.


As you can see, I am Mr. Douglas no more.

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Revisiting the Blog

Computers were a real gift for me years ago. I seemed to have an instinctive understanding of how software programs worked and what they were capable of, allowing me to basically support myself by being good at word processing. Now, though, more than thirty years after my first typing class, I am having to work hard at keeping up with the technology. The latest version of Microsoft Word with its ribbons has passed me by. I still know what it should do, but am stumped as to how to find what I need anymore. Thank goodness for the keyboard shortcuts I learned with my first computer which came without a mouse. Without these, my life would be twice as difficult.

There are still wonderful elements to using a computer. The Internet is a true joy and Google is the big book of answers that I always dreamed of as a child. I can only wish that everything was as easy to figure out as it was when I was young. Blogs in particular give me some trouble. They are a delightful invention, a way to speak your mind to the world at large and share those things that you are interested in with others of a like mindset. Once you’re in the dashboard, though, things get a little trickier. I was frustrated with it and gave up, but have decided to give it another try. Hopefully someone will be out there listening.

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The Pot Method

As I was a new gardener and still learning the rules of what you may and may not do, I came across two interesting pieces of information.  The first was that you can dig up a plant and put it into a pot at any time during the year.  This was important to me because the trying Florida sun can sometimes kill plants pretty quickly.  The second was that it is usually okay to transplant from a pot to the ground at any time during the year.   There were, however, plenty of admonitions against moving a plant from one place to another during the hot months, which for us covers a good portion of the year.  Spring seems very, very short if you want to get a lot done and fall is still just too hot and buggy.

So, my little brain put two and two together and I started experimenting with what eventually became the Pot Method.  If you have a plant that you need to move, dig it up and put it in a pot (fabric strips in the bottom, of course).  Move it to a shady spot, watering daily for a week.  The next week, set the pot in its future home to let it get used to the area, again watering daily.  Occasionally, the spot will be too sunny.  That’s always good to know before you plant it into the ground.  After two weeks, if the plant still looks good, plant it.  I have even moved azaleas in July using this method, even though my mother told me that I would kill the plant, and I’ve not killed anything yet.

This method seems to be essential for us as well with plant we buy at the nursery.  The bark or coir that they use to grow nursery plants does a poor job of holding water in a hot climate.  I transplant it into a bigger pot the day I bring it home, let it sit in the shade for at least a week, and then give it a chance to see how it likes the flowerbed.

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Free-thinking with Fabric

So travel back with me in time to a few years ago.  I’m standing in my yard, pondering the seemingly inexplicable problem of how to keep my plants moist.  I’m been doing a lot of reading about the use of mulches to keep in moisture.  I’ve mentioned that I make braided rugs.  Well, I’m such a cheapskate (and proud of it!) and packrat that I cut up old clothing to make my fabric strips.  I don’t remember the exact moment, but my brain naturally connected the two interests.  Why not make a rug with a hole in the middle to keep the ground moist around the plant?  Fabric does a pretty good job of holding water, right?  So I tried it and called them mulch mats.  They weren’t particularly attractive, so I had to put chopped up leaves or grass over them, but the fabric broke down nicely.

The next natural progression in this experiment was to place some of these cut-up strips where the plant really needed the moisture – at the roots.  This I did with some trepidation.  Would it harm the plant or prevent it from growing properly?  It was with enormous relief when I discovered a few months later that the answer was no.  I was digging up a plant on a particularly parched day and the sand was dry as powder.  Gloriously, though, the fabric underneath the plant was indeed moist and the roots had grown into and around it!  Yippee!  Hooray!  Another tiny nail in drought’s coffin.

This has become a normal part of my planting routine now.  Woody modified an old lawn mower to make me a garden cart.  On this, I keep a large tote containing my soil mixture and my little plastic trashcan filled with fabric strips.  I even fill the bottom of flowerpots with them and what a joy it is to see all the little roots growing around part of an old well-loved but too worn to wear t-shirt.  Most fabrics are broken down in about a year.  I’m not sure exactly what soil organisms are eating the fabric, but I have discovered that termites seem to like strips of old blue jeans.  Yes, termites.  I’ve learned not to get freaked out about them because they are everywhere on our property.  They love the sand.  We build off the ground and have termite shields.  I have nothing to fear from them.

In conclusion, I feel that thinking outside the box has really paid off for me in this particular case.  I’m recycling, the plants are benefitting and the worst case scenario is that I find a button or zipper in the bed in years to come.  Just remember, though, if you try this at home, not to use double-knit.  It is likely to still be there in a hundred years.

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Sand, Sand, Everywhere

While researching what it would take to grow lush, green plants, I discovered that I had a huge problem.  What passes for soil at our house was sand, white beach sand without the salt.  I’ll try to do a quick sum-up for everyone smart enough not to live on a sandhill.

Sand is composed of large particles, large enough to see with the naked eye.  This does make for marvelous drainage, which is a real issue for people with clay soils.  Last March, Florida received eighteen inches of rain in one week’s time.  Those in our county in low-lying areas had their yards turn to muck and lost all of their crops, but my yard soaked it all up and asked for more.  The sand is very deep as well.  When my husband had the septic system put in, they dug down more than eight feet and it was sand all the way.  The downside of this well-drained “soil” is that it doesn’t hold water for very long, so we have to water more frequently.  I read somewhere that if your plants should have an inch of water a week, then it should be two inches a week for sand.

Major challenge number two is that sand has few nutrients.  Of the three basic requirements for good plant growth, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, the first two are usually lacking in sand.  I could get plants to live, provided I supplied them with enough water, but seemed stunted and wouldn’t grow.  In addition, I read that what nutrients there are end up bleached or burned out by the sun.  I’ve also noted that sand tends to shift upward.  For example, the normal recommendation for poor soil is to add organic matter (leaves, etc.).  I try this, but if I have not mulched carefully, when I go back the next year and dig in the same place, the brown color from where I’ve added soil and compost has moved down by several inches.  So, basically the sun has cooked up what’s near the surface and the sand is trying to move the rest downward, leaving the poor plant stationary at the top, starved for nutrients.

A third difficulty is that the white sand is bright.  I’d always heard that tourists got more sunburned on Gulf Coast beaches than elsewhere.  Whether that’s true or not, the reflection off the white sand causes more brightness than you would find near a dark-colored soil.  Therefore, even what passes for shade is a bright shade and causes problems for any plants not able to able to handle this brutal Florida sun.  The only solutions for this problem that I’ve been able to identify are mulching flowerbeds well and trying to grow grass around the beds.

My eventual solution was the beginning of experimentation and my first major break with the plant rules.  Conventional gardening wisdom says to mix a little compost/soil in with your native soil because the roots won’t want to grow out into poor soil and they will circle around, eventually choking themselves and killing the plant.  I did try that, really, but it just wasn’t working for me.  My research led me what would be ideal soil:  soil, compost, peat, leaf mold, manure.  I adapted this and came up with a two parts soil (Suwannee River bought at Ace Hardware), one part Black Kow, and one part mushroom compost.  I don’t mix it in either.  Use the post-hole diggers, dig a large hole, and totally replace the sand.  By the time I’ve planted an entire flower bed, I’ve replaced maybe a third of the sand.  Ideally, I’d dig the entire bed out and replace it all, but that is cost-prohibitive.  Not a perfect solution, but it works because now I have flowers.

St. Joseph's Lily (Amaryllis)

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Bird-o-rama Bonus

Before I wised up about how to garden in the sand, I discovered a great hobby entirely by accident.  Some of the gardeners in my family had also been birdwatchers, but I resisted the call in spite of the binoculars I received one year for Christmas.  Basic birds I knew, like Cardinals and Blue Jays, but my knowledge was limited to much beyond that.  When I moved to Keystone Heights, not realizing the import of living so near to wildlife areas,  I had my new husband set up a simple bird feeder and gave birds no more thought.  One day, shortly thereafter, though, I got a surprise.  I was walking along the back fence and heard a whistle.  It sounded just like a human whistle.  You know the kind that you make to get someone’s attention?  I saw no one around, but heard the whistle again.  It was a black and white bird on the other side of the fence, seeming to say, “Hey!  Look at me!”  I did not know this fellow and spent the next few minutes digging through boxes on a mad hunt for my daughter’s bird identification book. 

The bird in question was a Rufous-sided Towhee, now known as an Eastern Towhee.  Wow!  He certainly caught my attention and I started grabbing the binoculars to take along on my walks.  The marvelous part was the more I looked, the more I saw.  Once migration came, I was seeing about two new birds a weekend and the yard list was born, so I could go back and review what I had seen.  In five years’ time, I have reached 118 birds seen on our property.  I’ve even flirted with keeping a daily list, but after a few months, I gave it up for too much work.  Though I always carry binoculars on trips, I’m almost always disappointed because I never see the number or variety of birds in parks that I can see in my own backyard.

Birding has been a fabulous hobby.  It is absolute magic to stand beneath a tree in the woods and have birds in the branches all around you.  There are moments that I will always treasure.  The day I saw a Pine Warbler and Tufted Titmouse on both ends, fighting for the same caterpillar.  The mixed warbler flock that landed on the ground, fence, and trees around me.  Finding out that Lizard (our Tufted Titmouse with a messed-up voice) is a female because she was eating eggshells.  The Turkey Vulture that seemed to be swooping down to get me as he lifted off from a pine tree.  Great Blue Herons that have literally scared the wits out of me on several occasions.  The time I chased a Blackburnian Warbler all through the woods without getting a good look and then he came to me as I sat in the yard crying.  The strange hissing noise in the woods that turned out to be a Barred Owl being mobbed by smaller birds.

It has had plenty of highs and lows, especially in the beginning.  The thrill of a new bird was a high that could carry me all day.  Familiarity has tamped my enthusiasm somewhat.  I only spend five minutes watching a pair of male Cape May Warblers in the treetop instead of the fifteen minutes that I might have done two years ago.  My interest, however, has remained true.  There is a great comfort in sharing our space with these tiny, beautiful creatures.  They are much like pets that you feed and only watch.  Warblers, with their brilliant coloring and elusive ways, are my favorite and usually well worth the effort to go find them.  The wrens, woodpeckers, cardinals, and towhees that we see every day are known now by sound and activity and no longer require a race for the binoculars, but  I plan to continue feeding them and we’ll keep watching.

This, I think, is my best bird story.  I had often grouched in frustration to Woody (usually after a fruitless chase after something that I could hear but not see) that all new birds should be required to check in with me on arrival.  Little did I realize that this would actually happen and it would be one of the most astonishing bird events of my life.  I’d been studying my birding CD faithfully and had mastered sounds of birds that I was unlikely to ever see.  On this particular afternoon, Woody was doing some repairs on my mom’s house and I could hear them inside talking.  As I sat alone on the porch, I heard a call in the woods.  I said to myself, “That sounds like a Nuthatch.”  Before I had time to call to them, he or she was there.  The Red-breasted Nuthatch landed on a low branch of the tree directly in front of the porch and looked right at me!  I couldn’t tell you if it was calling at that moment or not because time stood still.   As usual, I was the only witness that this fabulous out-of-normal-range bird had been there.  Almost as funny was the time I saw the Painted Bunting, but I’ll save that story for another time.

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So, what is this white stuff?

So I got married, moved to Keystone Heights, and lived happily ever after.  Well, sorta.  The marriage is great, but the gardening left a lot to be desired.  The yard was totally bare except for the giant holes that the dog had wallowed so he could stay cool.  My husband had planted a few plants, some ligustrums in front of the house, also a couple of gardenias and crepe myrtles with some wildflowers in a single flowerbed beside the porch.  But there was little grass and a whole lot of white, bright, hot sand everywhere you looked.  The foreground in the photo below will show you the color.  I grew up in Pensacola and know white sand when I see it.  This place was a beach once upon a time.

It looks like snow, but it's not.

So I looked for some shade and began to plant.  Most of what I planted lived, but grew very slowly and bloomed not at all.  Around this time, my dad passed away and my mom sold her house, which left me the proud owner of many, many plants from her garden, including some from my grandparents and great-grandparents.  They lived – I’m proud of that – but there is a whole world of difference between survive and thrive.  My mom, having been a gardener for most of her life, was full of good advice unfortunately not well suited for the hot, dry environment I’d acquired in my man-land package deal.

So in absolute desperation for some small measure of success, I moved on to phase two which consisted of bought soil and raised beds.  This worked great for a single bed alongside the house, but about the rest of the yard?  We bought topsoil by the truckload, shoveled it out and planted grass seed on the top of it.  There were also a few smelly trips with the back of the truck filled with horse manure.  Having done all my limited experience could suggest, the crop circle was born.  A round bed within a larger circle with walkways in all four directions.  Woody got a deal on some wood edging.  This photo showed the little bit of it that remains.   The beautiful Blue Daze in the picture, I’m sorry to say, did not survive the winter.  It was three years old in this picture and one of the most gorgeous plants on the place.

My first flowerbed in the sand.

For all my efforts in the first two years, though, what I was doing still wasn’t working, but I didn’t sweat it.  So, it was time for phase three, but I had no idea what that would be.  We’d built a small house for my daughter, next to our own.  She lived there for six months, turned eighteen, and left.  My mom, living an hour away with my sister, quickly claimed it for her own.  After a year of visiting on weekends, my sister moved away, my mom moved in with us, and wanted flowerbeds EVERYWHERE!  The heat was on.

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