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Monday, May 20, 2002

Separate but equal treasures

My father's "tiller" was a big machine like the front end of an Allis-Chalmers tractor; it had water-filled tractor-tread wheels that were as tall as I was, and pulled a small but quite real single-moldboard plow. It lasted for two decades.

My own first tiller, bought from a hardware store in 1977, lasted just two years shy of two decades. We practically farmed with these machines, as neither of us seems to know when we have enough ground in cultivation.

My most recent tiller, however, I used for about twenty hours last year, and in its second hour this year, it died of a heart attack -- clunk!! I know the sound of a piston rod giving up the ghost, but I'm old enough to remember that I should be hearing that sound after three or four hundred hours or more, not twenty.

My old chain saw, a 1979 Husky, will still cut wood if I get around to putting a new sprocket on it, and that was my professional work saw in the Oregon woods; it fought the Memorial Day fire in Sweet Home, in '82, I think.

My new saw, on the other hand, one of those black-and-yellow things you can buy in a box at discount stores, lasted two weeks.

I think I see a pattern here, and it's one that encourages me to rethink my original reaction to Wendell Berry's advocacy of horse-drawn equipment and scythes. I thought then that he was being a romantic, too much of a purist, a professor playing at farming with a professor's income to fall back on, but I think now that his views will eventually make the most economic sense.

Not to a salesman, to be sure, but to someone who wants to live in the country, not go there every night to sleep and back into town every morning, mind you, but to live in the country. There comes a time when plunking down good money for gadgets that look like labor-savers but ain't -- because they are going to refuse to do the labor -- begins to look like money spent foolishly.

Pick up a garden magazine and the bright ads rave at you about the labor you will save with this machine or that machine, but in the end, Thoreau was right.

He said: "...I start now on foot, and get there before night....You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there sometime tomorrow...if you are lucky enough to get a job in season."

If you have to work for two days, or, ten, or twenty, to earn a tool and it lasts you two, ten, or twenty days under normal conditions, well, you really ought to have investigated the corresponding hand tool and saved half your time!

Yes, yes, the woman's new tiller is busted and she has taken to philosophizing as she turns over the garden with a hay fork and blisters her soft hands: sour grapes we used to call it, per Aesop and his fox.

But the blisters heal, the hands toughen, the body begins to slim down a bit, and if there's any sunshine to be had, some vitamin D into the bargain. One begins to look like one who one understands work. And no one will smirk at the ineptitude with which you yank, over and over again, at the starter cord of an intractable machine if, instead, you reach into the toolshed for a fork or spade.

Meanwhile I'm beginning to see articles hither and yon about the disproportionate share that tillers, lawnmowers, chainsaws, edgers, and the like have in the despoiling of the air we breathe. Perhaps -- just perhaps -- I'm onto something.

On the other hand, I live where hand-inverted sods resprout at the first hint of rain, which comes almost daily this time of year. So I've taken, as I said last month, to spreading black plastic to kill sods. It's very effective, if kept on for five weeks or more.

Technology shouldn't be regarded as either our savior or our nemesis; the key is to use as much of it as necessary to get done what needs to be done, and no more. Now would be the time to rant about skimobiles and power boating, but I'm going to presume that the gentle reader would regard this as preaching to the converted -- take it as a compliment to your good sense.

As my power tools fail me, one by one, I become more appreciative of my hand tools, and abuse them less and less. I have several hammers, a straight 22 oz., a curved 16 oz., a tack hammer, a ball peen, a masonry hammer, and a couple of sledge/maul monsters. I've become aware that these are not all interchangeable, and discovering why a tool is shaped a particular way pleases me greatly.

My brace-and-bit, plane, bench vise and bench grinder are all over fifty years old and going strong. The grinder is electric, but it's an old electric, sealed, never needs oiling, perfectly balanced. It can heat up an edged tool very quickly, and I've learned to keep a can full of water handy to sizzle things in, so they they won't turn into butter.

As time passes, I use the grinder less frequently, instead locking tools into the vise and leaning over them with a sharp bastard file, knocking the file against the bench from time to time to shed filings. A file takes a little longer, but it won't destroy temper and you can keep a clean eye on the angle of the cut.

I keep five shovels. There's a round-pointed long-handled shovel for digging and ditching, a square-point for scooping up loose material from a flat hard surface, a d-ring-handled tree planting shovel with plates welded to the step for heavy-booted work, a more delicate d-ring shovel with an eighteen inch blade, suitable for bulb work, and a british-spade type thing -- a cheap imitation -- but useful for light sod-cutting and for mixing things in the wheelbarrow.

One finds, after time, the point of balance with which a shovel can be wielded all day without undue fatigue. After more time, one becomes aware of the subtleties, such as when it's time to file the blade, or how one can put more pressure on a handle that has been linseed-oiled in the last year than can be put on one that hasn't. One begins to take the trouble to carry a shovel to the shade when not in use, on discovering that sun damages the handle faster than rain.

Different people have different tool preferences for different techniques.

Beloved carries around a feed sack with a pillow in it, upon which she kneels to work in the garden with her ever-present trowel. I use the bulb spade and a t-handled dibble stick, which I made from the pearwood handles of a defunct pair of grass shears.

She marks her rows and hills with little stakes and yards of string, and sows by hand. I do beds without rows, dropping seeds down a four-foot length of PVC pipe, from a standing position.

She seems to use rakes more than I do, and gets beautiful results where I would simply lose patience. I use hoes more, and have come to appreciate the efficiency of stirrup hoes, which she regards as outlandish things, and I believe she has never touched one. I have three -- but it's not that I'm a collector; they came with the place.

I get a lot of use out of a pair of pruning shears, thirty years old -- a cheap brand, too -- and a heavy duty pair of limb loppers that have outlasted their wooden handles. I drove the tangs into two three-foot-long three-quarter-inch galvanized pipes, and on these iron legs they have walked with me over the land many times.

To draw out the rolls of stock fencing that have languished for fifty years in the blackberry patch, I use a pair of double block pulleys almost a hundred years old, with a two-hundred foot length of rope looped back and forth from block to block, giving me my own strength four times over across a distance of fifty feet. This thing beats a modern "come-along" for speed and distance, if power is not all that's wanted. The rope is new, but that other rope lasted until this year; a mysterious thing of true hemp, soaked in creosote by hands long vanished from the earth. I hated to give it up.

There are two footbridges on the place, as a seasonal creek divides it right down the middle, end to end. Across these we go, summer and winter, with the wheelbarrows. A wheelbarrow is an amazing device that can hardly be improved upon. It will negotiate tiny gaps while carrying hundreds of pounds with ease. We bring straw to the barn three or four bales at a time from the driveway, feeling our way with our feet, unable to see round the vast loads.

A wheelbarrow imposes a stately gait that adds dignity to any laborer's demeanor.

We bought a five-cubic-foot model at the same time as our old tiller, in 1977, for forty dollars. It has done far more hours of work than the tiller did, and looks fair to outlast us.

The other one came with the place.

Well, actually, we didn't know it was here at the time, and the former owner probably didn't either -- it was deep in the blackberries. I dug it out, bound up its wounds with bailing wire, and found a wheel for it. The thing has handmade handles built for a grip wider than mine, and it wobbles a bit as it goes, but it's still a wheelbarrow, and it does honest labor almost daily. Every family should have two wheelbarrows. We pass, sometimes, the Garden Lady and I, like ships in the night, laden with our separate but equal treasures.

Sunday, May 12, 2002

Potting on

The tomatoes didn't pan out. I hovered over them with the mister till they keeled over, no doubt with damping-off. I shall have to go to the garden store and surreptitiously acquire replacements.

I put out peas and then got sick and couldn't cover them during the heavy rains, and they rotted.

I put out corn -- I know, it's early, some people never learn -- and it's been snowing up at the pass all day and hailing and pouring half-frozen rain here, and I'm sick again and didn't go out and cover the corn beds, and now I can hear the seeds drowning even as I write.

Gardeners are a masochistic lot -- or sadistic, depending on whether you consider their feelings or those of their seeds and transplants.

I looked out the window at the already tall grass that would be choking the irises if it hadn't been lodged by the constant wind and rain, and howled, or rather croaked: "my seeds are rotting! My garden is drowning!"

Beloved looked up from her easy chair, smiled beneficently, and replied ever so sweetly. "My garden is in the greenhouse, safe and snug."

It's true; that's where her whole garden is, including the pumpkin patch and the sunflowers, waiting for the real spring, which as anyone around here knows, starts sometime between June 1 and the 4th of July. She can do this because she's mastered the art of repotting.

Even in this weather, the greenhouse, which is nothing more than three sliding glass door panels mounted on frame lumber along the south side of the potting shed, is cozy during the day.

She kneels on her feedsack-pillow, trowel in hand, and repots from two-inch pots to four-inch, from four to eight, as needed, while her garden grows. I always manage to wait too late to do this; eventually I'll unpot a veggie only to find that the roots have grown about sixty feet long, or maybe a mile and a half, winding round-and-round the soil plug like thread on a spool. The effect on the growth of the plant is not unlike that of creating a bonsai tree by removing its taproot. I can produce little teeny tomato plants and little teeny zinnias this way, and probably should enter them in the County Fair -- in the contest about how not to garden.

Take a tip from Beloved and repot early.

She takes up, say, a flat of broccoli, thirty-two of them in two-inch pots, and makes sure she has nearby not two but four (try the math!) unoccupied flats and thirty-two four inch pots. A sack of potting mix rests close by, that has been mixed in a wheelbarrow at the rate of three sacks potting soil to one of steer manure and a bit of powdered limestone, and resting on the soil there is a number ten tomato can, which makes a fine cheap scoop.

She scoops up a canful of mix, slings some into the bottom of the first four-inch pot, turns a broccoli upside down, taps two sides of the two-inch pot, lifts it gently off the soil plug, rights the plant into the four-inch pot, shakes mix in on all four sides, tamps it down a bit for a snug fit (roots abhor two things: air and light) so that the top of the soil meets the root collar of the broccoli and is between 1/4 and 1/2 inch from the top edge of the pot, sets it in the new flat, and on to the next one.

This is much faster and simpler, really than the description, and the rhythm of it all is quite relaxing. I prefer doing this with Mozart or Bach in the background. She's more a Golden Oldies girl, but I've never heard Herman and the Hermits in the greenhouse; only the chuffing of the tomato can hitting the rich brown surface of the mix.

Abner, our White China gander, watches her angrily through the "lights" as she works, and when she reaches for the pots nearest him, tries to nip her through the glass, with a thump that's kind of pleasing to hear if you've ever been bitten by a goose.

The glass is stout enough to resist anything that Abner might contemplate, but there are situations that it was not built for. George, a sheep that lived with us for awhile, made this point very clear by escaping from his pasture one fine day. We got him surrounded, and he retreated into the greenhouse, from whence we thought to lead him on a bit of rope. He had other ideas, and sailed through the double-paned safety glass as if it wasn't there, scattering rainbow shards twenty feet in all directions.

Not a scratch on him, either.

And all this time the greenhouse had faced into the pasture. Made me think long and hard about which animals to put where. (The freezer, for example, turned out to be the best place for George.)

Working in the greenhouse pays dividends, though, in opportunities to watch the critters that we own and some we don't own. I've looked up from potting to see a mallard drake and his mate looking in on me from the goose pen, and I enjoy watching the swallows zipping up under the eaves to their nests not three feet from my head. And beyond, in the yard full of dandelions, there are the goldfinches.

Many people in our area prefer the word "lawn" to "yard" and every year they wallop the dandelions with a herbicide-laced fertilizer. So we're a kind of dandelion island in a sea of miniature golf courses. Goldfinches seem to love dandelion seeds above all else at this time of year, so we get to have all the goldfinches as our guests.

They descend upon the yard in troops of twenty, fifty, a hundred, eating, arguing, making love. A goldfinch will land on the seed stalk of a dandelion, barely bending it, and sweep the head clean of the tiny white parasol seeds in moments, then on to the next one. The males are dazzling, and I find myself moving from window to window to get a view of their plumage from a few feet away, empty pot in one hand, a naked plug of soil with a chard seedling held forgotten in the other.

It's a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon, it really is.


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