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Zen Farming

February 9, 2011

Another freeze, another day where I keep myself locked indoors either at my overpriced apartment or at the local coffee house, in this case it’s the local coffee house, I needed some air.  Much as I’d love to do some work today and brave the elements, with those 20 mph wind gusts that make you realize just how naked your face is, I made an executive decision and decided that there really isn’t much I can do on a day like this.  I probably shouldn’t so much as touch the seedlings right now, and moving the transplants outdoors to water them would be a very bad idea.  The only task that really comes to mind is moving those clumps of grass away from the lower end of the field, very stubborn clumps of grass that refused to let go of the soil they were attached to, which can only really be effectively removed with a pitchfork AFTER you’ve thoroughly pulverized the ground with the rototiller, which has been done already at least.  I’ll let them remain for the time being, especially since they’re doing such a swell job of shielding the ground from the elements.

The last freeze, as you may recall, destroyed all of my work.  What it didn’t do though is harm the below ground portions of the plants.  An autopsy (me pulling a seedling out of the ground) revealed that while the fragile leaves were utterly destroyed, the root system showed no injury whatsoever.  Even so, the damage above ground was so severe that recovery was unrealistic, so I started over.

Still, keeping this in mind, I got to work immediately after the freeze and began seeding Sunday, after I had tilled the ground Saturday and completely revised the planting plans to accommodate some new ideas.  The seedlings that germinated just before the last killer freeze had actually endured a very brief and mild freeze before hand, and still showed pleasant results…some of them.  The lettuce, swiss chard, radishes, spinach, they all showed excellent germination, while the beets and carrots were a disappointment, despite the carrots being F1 hybrids and possessing “hybrid vigor”.  Keeping this in mind, only certain varieties were seeded before the freeze, and they were seeded with the intention of them NOT germinating in the middle of the freeze, so some of them were seeded late.  The theory was, as long as they were under the ground, shielded from the harsh cold and chilling winds, they would do alright.  I’ll see soon enough if my theory is correct.  If not, so be it, I’ll plant more, and at least I didn’t plant any carrots or beets yet.

I have a good feeling that what I’m demonstrating here is agreeable with Wendell Berry’s requirement that farmers know the land well.  The vast majority of farms, by the grace of psuedo-science and techno-wizardy, now look very much like the farm down the road, and the farm further down the road, and the other farm located even further down the road.  Locally adapted livestock breeds, plant varieties and, more importantly, regionally-specific knowledge, have been supplanted with a one-size-fits-all agriculture.  It’s a bad idea whenever you tell the farm with the flat open property and the farm with the hilly property to both plant row crops.  The steeper the grade on a piece of ground, the more likely erosion will occur, and the more necessary it becomes to keep something perennial on that ground to prevent your livelihood’s foundation from literally eroding away.  If you have hilly land, you should plant an orchard, or leave the grass there and graze livestock on it.

Likewise, I am beginning to learn myself what works and what doesn’t, a lesson that no land-grant college can ever effectively teach to it’s students, and indeed very few farmers save for the masters can effectively communicate this lesson to their apprentices.  The most effective way to learn this lesson is to learn it yourself with the assistance of Nature/the natural forces (the non-spiritual politically correct term?).  Taking nature’s lessons to heart, I have reseeded some of my crops with extra confidence knowing that I am more aware of this land and it’s place than I was before.

Speaking of seeding, on the past few occasions I’ve been using a mechanical plate seeder to plant the crops.  It’s a fast and moderately effective device, yet it’s one weakness is that it spits out seeds like a machine gun.  This is bad for two reasons, the first being that when it comes time to thin the crop I’ll be stuck out there for hours, and the second reason being the fact that it’s very much a waste to spend so much money on seed and have to throw away the majority of it whenever it germinates.  We don’t have a precision planter, so I’ve taken to seeding some crops by hand.

It’s a surprisingly spiritual exercise, I’ve found out.  The first thing I realized is that it’s very humbling to have to get on your hands and knees and move at such a slow pace, planting a few seeds at a time.  It takes a fairly long while, yet the time seems to fly after a while as your thoughts drift while conducting the monotonous exercise.  Before too long, I realized that this was actually a very effective form of meditation, a way to anchor myself and let my thoughts drift away in the sea of time.  Finally, before too long, I realized that there was a spiritual component to what I was doing.  I felt as though, subconsciously, I wasn’t merely planting seeds but also engaged in silent prayer as I knelt down to the ground and rhythmically slid my hand over the dirt to cover the seeds before patting down the location where they had been buried, as if giving them some final blessing before moving on.  Despite how tedious this exercise is, I imagine I’ll keep doing it even after a more precise seeder can be purchased.

Little else comes to mind now, other than a discussion about bluebonnet season with Jason and Gary, Jason’s father-in-law.  Brenham’s tourism industry seems to derive from it’s strong association with being the bluebonnet capital of Texas/The World (where the hell are you going to find bluebonnets in China?), and boy howdy does it get a lot of traffic.  Apparently Hwy 105 is loaded with tourists distracted by the sight of these blue flowers, to the point where many of them commit amazingly idiotic actions like make u-turns on the highway, crash into the car in front of them, trespass on another person’s property, and ram right through a barbed wire fence into someone’s pasture.

By the time those bluebonnets bloom, I’m going to make those little flowers old news.  Folks won’t know what to think when they discover that rainbow of vegetables.

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