A.V. Walters

Elmer isn’t just a chicken farmer. Being a farmer requires many skills and those skills translate into other areas. Obviously, since he’s my landlord, he has property management skills. Since he has the farm, and the farm has roads on it, he has road building and maintaining equipment. He has to keep the well in shape, so he has experience with pumps and piping and such. One of the secrets of farming is that you have to know some of everything to get by. It may also be one of the reasons so many farmers are employed, at least part-time, off the farm. They make good employees, because they know so much. Down side is, well, they have a lot of common sense and know how to make do. So don’t be surprised if stuff works fine, but looks a little funny.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that Elmer has some rentals, on and off the farm. He and his farm crew maintain them, especially in the off-season. I haven’t yet figured out when the off-season is for chickens, but from time to time this place is deserted because everyone’s out stringing fence somewhere on the property or for another farmer, or paving a church parking lot or painting a rental somewhere. All that painting uses plenty of paint. Plenty of paint uses up lots of buckets. Empty buckets never go to waste, they just hang around inside or outside of the barn we call Number Four, waiting for their second calling. When Elmer told me to look around for stuff to address the garden/drought issue, I saw piles of buckets. Big piles of buckets, the five gallon kind.

Having lived in the city for decades, I am fully aware of the ups and downs of container gardening. It’s a lot of work, filing the chosen containers with earth and compost, arranging enough drainage, planting, tending, harvesting and then emptying the containers each season. One of the risks is that the container will get too hot and cook the poor plants from the roots up. Planting in the ground provides a home that maintains a moderate temperature. But planting in a traditional open garden environment wastes an enormous amount of water. With row crops, you water the plants and the area all around them. I proposed putting our vegetable garden in buckets, which were themselves in the ground. Elmer and the farm hands smiled that okay, Miss city slicker, knock yourself out kind of smile.

I arrived on the farm as a woman without tools. Not that I’d never had tools, or didn’t know how to use them, but that in my retreat from urban living suddenly a lifetime’s accumulation of shared tools suddenly became a gender specific kind of marital asset. Really, it just wasn’t worth fighting about. Nonetheless, it landed me here more helpless than made me comfortable. One day I asked Elmer if I could borrow a saw. Naturally, he wanted to know what for? When I told him I wanted to cut the bottoms off a bunch of those buckets for the garden, he leaned back and considered it. After what seemed like a very long time he leaned forward and asked, softly, “How many buckets?” Then I knew, whether curious or just in it for sport, Elmer was game for bucket gardening. That was half the battle. Not that there weren’t other queries, why was I cutting off the bottoms? What was the point of the bucket? Was everything going to be in buckets? But I had answers.

The reason I wanted the bottoms cut off was to let the water drain through so the roots wouldn’t rot. The bucket tops stuck up above the garden surface and served as a reservoir for watering. That directed the water straight down, to where the plants roots were. But not everything could go in buckets; corn, for example, has very long roots and needs to be planted bunched up with other corn in order to get proper pollination. But that first year, we put the thirsty guys, tomatoes, eggplants and squash, into the buckets. Elmer told the farm hands to cut me as many buckets as I needed.

The crew watched from the sidelines, behind those same smiles, fully expecting failure. The garden flourished; water usage was minimal. Buckets had other advantages, too: they served as hose curbs; because the watering was directed into the buckets, they kept the unplanted areas dry and thus the weeds down; they kept the West County winds at bay when the seedlings were little and they kept the garden tidy. Elmer was won over. He even gave tours to friends of what he called the best garden the farm had ever had and extolled the advantages of bucket gardening. The farm hands shook their heads, with a bit less of a smile. The only hurdle left–gophers.