Archives for posts with tag: dry farming

Good Enough Gardening

A.V. Walters–

Now, a good gardener would have done things differently. A good gardener would have had the soil tested and would have amended accordingly. This year, I’m going to have to be a good-enough gardener. The plants went into their buckets in a flurry of enthusiasm, an unexpected last chance to see things growing, and enjoy them on my dinner plate through the season. What can I say; it’s a done deal.

I’ve heard that the soil here is alkaline. (And the water is hard.) I suppose you could say that this little bucket-garden is a test plot. We’ll just have to see how things go. I fully expect to test the soil on our property, next year, and amend accordingly. So far, we’ve been pretty lucky. We planted in a good spot, which I picked for the southern exposure. What I didn’t figure on was wind. Wow. Like Two Rock, this place has wind, and then some, to spare. (The wheels are turning and I’m thinking… a good spot for wind power.) My little southern exposure turned out to be perfect, because the house also offers the garden some shelter from the wind.

I’m not joking about the wind. It’s a beautiful day, so I hung out the laundry. It hangs horizontal. By the time I finished pinning up the first load, the first things up were already dry. Whipping in the breeze, even the towels dry soft and everything comes up lint free. There has to be another way to harness that energy for good.

Today was watering day for our little garden, too. In Two Rock I was able to satisfy watering by topping off the buckets, twice, once a week. In Two Rock, there was no rain during the growing season. But, there was more clay to the soil, and that helped to hold the moisture

Here, it is largely sand. Even with Michigan’s regular rainfall, I think I may have to water a little more frequently—especially with these winds. The plants, in the ground for about a week now, look healthy and have started to take off. Everything has sprouted a round of new leaves, and the peppers and tomatoes have started to flower. I was surprised at how little they suffered from transplant shock. I’m looking forward to the results of our experimental garden.

With today’s gardening finished, I decided to take advantage of the wind and do “extra” laundry. You know, the stuff you don’t usually do—the throw rugs and some blankets, even my winter coat and the winter’s down clothing. They’ll easily be dry by evening. I’m letting the wind do the rest of my day’s chores, and I’ll get the credit.

Garden Surprise

Michigan Meets the Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

Another Bucket Garden

A.V. Walters–

I had resigned myself to not having a garden this year. There’s just too much going on. We have building to do—and that has to take the lead. In Empire, we had a late spring, and nowhere to start seeds. Now that we’ve moved, well, it’s a little late. Michigan has a shorter season—and, unlike Two Rock, it’s not forgiving on the harvest end. Besides, in a rural setting like this, a garden needs infrastructure. I don’t have time for infrastructure.

A garden, especially a vegetable garden, is an artificial environment. Its inhabitants have needs. In Michigan, they have some basic needs that exceed my Californian framework. Here, we have garden predators. And not just the usual gopher hazards (though we have those, which, like in Two Rock, we can solve with buckets.) Here, we have deer. Worse yet, the place is crawling with bunnies. That means we need a really tall fence (six feet or better) and it has to extend underground. Bunnies are not deterred unless you prevent them from burrowing under the fence. With their Bambi faces and cute eyes, these critters’ benign outward appearance hides a darker garden reality

Moreover, we don’t yet have water on the property. I’m no fool. I read French Dirt. Never plant a garden until you have a sure water supply. Our well is not yet in. No well, no water. No water, no garden. It’s as simple as that

Still, Monday I ran into town and stopped at my favorite grocer, Oryana (a local co-op). I was doomed, even before I stepped inside. There, at the entrance, were racks and racks of organic vegie starts. At good prices, too! Some of them even knew my name! I have no discipline—I quickly snagged a bunch and headed home. On the way I rationalized my decision. I could plant them just outside the window of our little, basement apartment. After all, my planting buckets are sitting idle. The landlady’s dogs, though pests in many other ways, allegedly keep the yard clear of deer and bunnies. (We’ll see.) Surely the landlady would enjoy fresh produce through the summer, too.

It won’t be a big garden—only twenty buckets. Eight tomatoes, five peppers (can’t find decent hot peppers in Michigan), an eggplant assortment, cucumbers, zucchini, crookneck, and a cantaloupe. We’ll skip the leafy things—I just picked through what was left at Oryana’s. It’s just a tad late in the season, but I’m happy to have something to grow.

I was sheepish on my arrival home. After all, we’d had the garden discussion. Rick knew something was up immediately. He laughed when I admitted to my impulse purchase. But, of course, he helped me dig-in the buckets.

Marshmallows or Popcorn

A.V. Walters–

marshpop

Surprisingly, it turns out that Rick is making the California to Michigan transition better than I am. I still have a foot in each world. I’m still on political and activist email lists for California and Sonoma County. I still check the weather for Two Rock.

I have an off-beat sense of humor. Sometimes it gets me into trouble. Sometimes it reveals an underlying sense of order that is just a little out-of-step with the “regular” world.

This was never more clear than, a decade or so ago, when I received a telephone call from my sister, whose home had just burned to the ground. (“Defective dryer wiring.”) She was near hysterical.

“It’s gone, everything…(sobbing)…”

“Everybody get out okay?”

“Yeah, we weren’t home—Bill was at the neighbors, when they saw the smoke…”

“Pets out, too?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s left… like, how high are the walls?

She broke down again, “Nothing. Nothing’s more than waist high. Just smoldering embers. (Sobbing) What am I going to do?”

Here, perhaps I should have paused to think. But I didn’t.

“I dunno. Got any marshmallows?”

Needless to say, it wasn’t well received.

From this, I’ve developed my theory of Marshmallows or Popcorn. It seems to me that any disaster has radiating circles of impact. If it’s your disaster, it’s Marshmallows. You are close enough to feel the heat; you’re the one feeling the loss. Someone else’s is Popcorn—you’re role is, essentially, an observer. It seems we humans make a spectator sport of disasters. Rick calls it the Rubbernecking Rule—you know, how you just can’t help but slow down and look at an accident. You read an obituary—and check the age. You hear that someone has cancer and the first thing you ask is, “Did he smoke?” It’s a way to handle loss that isn’t yours. Intellectualize. Engage from a safe distance. The psyche wants to understand and, at the same time, dissociate from the loss. That’s Popcorn. The news cycle essentially feeds on our addiction to Popcorn.

I read that there are very strong indications of an intense El Nino cycle, brewing in the Pacific. Ocean temperatures are significantly elevated. In any normal cycle, this could lead to drought conditions in California. Right now, though, California has already seen a number of abnormally dry years. Rick and I were discussing it, the double whammy of ocean warming and El Nino, and whether that fell into an underlying climate-change warming pattern.

Generally they report California’s water status in terms of snow-pack and reservoir levels. We know, though, that that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s a short-sighted measurement that doesn’t reflect the impact on the environment, or what happens in rural areas, where folks and farmers rely on well-water. For them, annual rainfall is critical to recharge the aquifers. I thought about our lives in Two Rock and our life and friends back on the farm.

“What will we do with yet another year of drought?”

Rick looked over at me, “What do you mean, we?” He grinned. “I live in Michigan.”

So, we do the math: Time + Distance = Popcorn.

 

 

The Orphan Garden

Good Enough

A.V. Walters

The garden this year is an orphan garden. Though we planted it, and we care for it, it’s not really ours. We didn’t do our usual big production garden. We cheated and used older seeds (some of which never did germinate.) We transplanted volunteers and moved things around—so much so that now I’m not sure what’s what. Then, late in the game, one of the farm tenants dropped off two orphan tomatoes—of course, root bound, and those went in, too.

Still, watering and weeding it has been a pleasure. It’s that quiet, steady, work that inspires why I garden in the first place.

There’s a chicken in the garden this year—it happens sometimes that a chicken escapes the barn and sets up housekeeping in some corner. Usually nobody goes looking for them and they forage and do pretty well. This one likes snails. If I see that shiny, post-slime evidence of a snail on one of the plants, I root around in the bucket and find the culprit. I’ve been giving the snails to the chicken, and now she follows me around the garden. Somewhere over there, there are eggs, but I’m not looking.

The tomatoes (even the stragglers) are doing well and have baby green tomatoes hiding in a lacework of yellow flowers. The peppers are in bloom and the various squashes are all growing gangbusters. I just wish I knew what they were. I know there are pumpkins, zucchini, acorn, delicatta (my favorite), butternut and maybe crookneck squashes. I’m uncertain about the rest. The cucumbers (3 lemon and one regular) are filling out and reaching up for the sun. I think there’s a French melon plant in there, but only time will tell.

Unfortunately our hot spells have made the spinach bolt. We’re eating it up quick, before it gets too bitter.  We’ve also had some of the basil, and some early sprigs of cilantro. The radishes are almost ready, though they’ve been beset by bugs, we’ll still eat them. Even if this is all it is, it is good enough.

We didn’t plant this garden with the intention of a harvest. We may never satisfy our curiosity about just what’s in those buckets. We know we’ll be moving, but we don’t know when (or exactly where, for that matter.) We’re packing and checking our plans, Plan A, Plan B and Plan C (even Plan C.5!) We’re selling things that don’t need to go with us. And we’re waiting. The waiting is the worst. We have business to finish here, and we’re not in charge of how quickly that will roll along.

In the meantime, there are emus and chickens to feed and gardens to tend…

 

The Last Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s hot in the valley. And dry. This has been on odd year. We had heavy rains in November and December—with an absolute deluge the first week of January. And that was it. Winter is our rainy season, but this year, it wasn’t. After that, we had a few light rains and one storm in the spring. The local farmers are nervous. Over all, the state isn’t experiencing water shortages. There was a heavy snow-pack early this year, so the reservoirs are full, but those that depend on local, well water may be pumping dust by the end of summer.

The past two weeks they’ve been cutting hay. Sometimes, especially here, where we can have drenching fogs, the farmers can get two cuttings, in the spring. Last year it was cool and very foggy—so, we saw three hay harvests. This year, they’ve cut the first time, and it’s dry and yellow underneath. One cut is all they might harvest this year. That means when the summer heat hits, and all the grass goes, (first to gold, then to brown) they’ll be using up the limited hay supply for the dairy and beef herds.

Like I said, the reservoirs are full. Water managers around the state got their snow-pack early so there’s no hew and cry over it being a drought year. In an odd twist of fate, the cities have water, but reservoirs that supply them don’t help the farmers. And, they don’t recharge local aquifers on which the rural areas rely for well water.

Changes in our lives have us wondering how long we’ll be here. I’ve loved Two Rock, and it’s been good to me. But it’s time to move on to build a different future. (Maybe somewhere where there’s water!) So I wasn’t sure this year whether I should put in a garden.

I have been in charge of the farm garden for going on seven years. If we plant it—and have to leave—would someone step up, and care for it? This year was to be a banner year. Over the past few years, the main garden has been shaded by a line of trees Elmer planted to stop erosion from the dairy next door. If ever there was evidence that livestock can damage the land—the field next door is a clear example. The land drops two feet at the edge of our garden—right at the fence. The cows line up and watch me while I garden, and because of the drop we’re nearly at eye level as I bend to dig or weed. It’s a little weird. In any event, late last season Rick spent a couple of weekends pruning and topping that line of trees. This year the garden finally enjoys as much sun as it did when I first arrived.

Early in the spring I asked Elmer how he felt about putting in a farm garden. He hemmed and hawed and finally said we should. We discussed the dry winter and I said that this year we were ready with the drip irrigation. (Rick set it up last year and it was a huge relief in the workload.) I told Elmer I’d get to the garden once he’d plowed. Usually he plows in April, and then again in the first week of May. That digs under any weed seeds that might flourish in the fresh, loose soil. This year he didn’t plow. And, I waited.

Finally, I figured he’d changed his mind. He did plow what we call the “orchard garden,” where he and his girlfriend plant their personal stuff, but he didn’t plow either the main garden or the long garden by the chicken barn. I saw that he’d plowed and tomatoes appeared by the orchard a couple of weeks ago. In the meantime, spring has rolled to summer. It’s hot and digging is getting difficult. With all this dryness, we are getting an early start on the hardpan layer in the soil. It’s a curse and a blessing, that hardpan. If you wait too long to put the garden in, the digging is near to impossible. But that same hardened layer keeps the soils underneath moist. If you water smart—you can do a garden with very little input. That’s the theory behind our bucket gardens. (See https://two-rock-chronicles.com/2012/07/04/the-proper-planting-of-buckets/)

Getting Ready

Getting Ready

Without a word, Elmer plowed Friday night. Late. I woke up Saturday and realized that I needed to put in a garden. I’d already become accustomed to the idea of no garden, so this is an adjustment. The plow didn’t go deep enough to deal with the hardpan, so digging-in the buckets is a lot of work. If you don’t loosen the soil under the buckets, the roots won’t get beneath the hardpan into the moist earth below. So today I dug in enough buckets (and gopher-shielded rings and corn rings) for a modest garden. It’ll host eight tomato plants, half dozen peppers, four cucumbers, some zucchini and yellow crook-neck squash, a couple of winter squashes, beans, some lettuce, spinach and herbs, and corn. That’s enough for the farm tenants, since most don’t cook much and fewer avail themselves of the garden. I’ll plant with seeds and some starts, this week. I’m not planting the long garden this year.

Digging-in

Digging-in

 

 

Gopher proof rings

Gopher proof rings

 

I don’t know if we’ll be here for harvest. (But, we should be able to enjoy some of the early offerings.) With the drip system, the garden will trickle along, with or without Rick and me. It’ll be like a ghost garden. If that’s the case, I can only hope my farm neighbors will enjoy the harvest. (Assuming someone will water it, said The Little Red Hen.)

Ready for plants

Ready for plants

The Proper Planting of Buckets

A.V. Walters

Recently, I’ve come across some not-so-clear-on-the-concept plantings, and so, perhaps, we need some clarification on the bucket farm issue.

As usual, if one first defines the objectives, and communicates (and here I may have failed), the implementation will be more successful.

So, the objectives of Bucket Planting are:

1)   The bucket directs watering directly to the root zone and thus saves water;

2)   If the plant is placed low in the bucket, the top unused area (3”- 6”) serves as a reservoir for watering;

3)   Properly planted (see above), the bucket serves as a wind shield for seedlings;

4)   The top of the exposed bucket serves as a hose curb to protect the plants;

5)   By watering only into the bucket, you keep the area (walkway and unplanted areas) weed free (Since even weeds need water–granted in areas that get ample summer rainfall this is less helpful, but it will still reduce your weeding chores.);

6)   Most weeding is limited to the interior of the bucket, and once your plants are established, they’ll shade that area, further minimizing weeds and reducing water losses;

7)   And finally, properly prepared buckets prevent gophers from eating your plants!

Of course, there are limitations. Buckets can’t protect truly long-rooted plants, whose roots navigate through the bucket’s bottom holes and beyond—but they do buy them time to get established. That way they’re more likely to survive if they get nibbled on.

Here are some basic guidelines to proper bucketification:

I prefer the black, semi-pliable nursery buckets. They last for several seasons, and they don’t get all brittle in the sunshine. Plus, most people just throw them away when they bring their nursery plants home. Sometimes you can get them free from recycling (and even neighbors, “Hey, I got a bunch of them!”) They’re pliable and drill out nicely. A bucket must have enough drainage. If you use just the holes that come with it, your vegetables will have “wet feet” and they’ll suffer rot or fungal problems. We drill three-quarter inch holes (using a sharp “spade” bit) every couple of inches, or so, across the bottom and a row or two around the bottom of the sides. (That’s an editorial ‘we,’ as I am not in the drilling department.) Our hole size is specific to the size of gophers, larger holes can be used if you don’t share this risk. (Indeed, for things gophers don’t like, we sometimes use bottomless buckets, which are much easier to pull out at the end of the season.)

When you ‘set-in’ a bucket, dig a hole as close as possible to the size of the bucket (up to its ‘shoulders’ so you leave a lip above the ground surface—2”- 3”.) Loosen the dirt in the area below the bucket, so the migrating roots don’t hit a solid barrier of compacted earth. Place the bucket in the hole and fill in around it, packing the dirt firmly. Now, refill the bucket, leaving the 3”- 6” inch area, I mentioned before (depending on the level of compaction) at the top of the bucket. You need at least three inches to be a decent reservoir. At the time you refill the bucket, this is a good opportunity to add any amendment. We use well-composted chicken manure because, well, we’re on a chicken farm.

When you plant a bucket, (especially if you’re using starts) make sure you’re not filling in your reservoir area. Take out some of the soil, if necessary. (Your start may look lost, deep in the bucket, but that also helps protect it from the wind—and we’ve got a fair amount of that, here.) If using starts, as with any other transplant, remember to loosen the root ball! I recently had to re-plant some peppers that had been put in too high by a neighbor and discovered that, though the soil in the bucket appeared properly damp, she’d set the whole start in as a root-bound block, and little of the moisture was getting in to the roots through that block.

When watering, especially initially, use a soft, slow watering method. The bucket contains the water’s energy, and if you’re not careful you can erode all around your poor baby vegies! And yes, this is a good opportunity for even more water savings, if you use drip irrigation.

These simple steps should ensure buckets of success.

Farm Surprises

A.V. Walters

You just never know around here—something’s always up. We water the gardens by hand. I don’t mind, it’s a bucket by bucket meditation. We’ve got a couple of good watering wands—with off/on switches—that let you shut the flow between buckets. This saves water and minimizes spillover, which cuts down on weeds. I water each section twice a week, on different days for the three gardens. It takes me four to five hours each week. Usually, I get up early and try to get the watering done before the regular work day, and before the sun is high. I admit, after such a dry winter, the buckets look like little islands of green on a moonscape. The ground is very dry this summer.

Aside from the heightened fire risk, the dry doesn’t affect our garden operation. We are already operating on water conservation mode with the buckets. Elmer is concerned that, before the summer is out, we’ll be trucking water in, but he hasn’t said anything about cutting back in the garden.

That leads to the first farm surprise. About a month ago (while I was still down and out with the cold from hell) one of our pastures was plowed and planted! Not a big pasture, but it was usually occupied by 3 rams who have the thankless job of “servicing” the ewes. As I’ve said before, this is not a dirt farm, but the farm foreman convinced Elmer to let him put in a cash crop of pumpkins, zucchini, crookneck and cucumbers. Whatever possessed him to put in a field crop in the driest year in a decade is beyond me. (And, these crops are water suckers.) Don, the foreman, is conscientious, though; he set up the field with drip irrigation. At least we won’t be wasting water. I don’t know what kind of a deal he worked out with Elmer—we are all sharecroppers in one way or another.

Because of my head-cold, Don’s crop got a head start on my garden. His vegies, looking much more like a farm operation than my silly bucket brigade, are a half-foot taller than mine. Don has always had a quiet respect for my garden over the years, but now, with victory in sight, he’s ribbing me. He pulled up next to me while I was watering yesterday and asked how my midget garden was doing. I smiled and told him we had a long season and I intended to take full advantage of it. It’s a good thing, he said, because his corn is tasseling and chest high. Mine, of course, was only just transplanted from starts and is all of a strapping five inches. Okay, I know I got a late start. But, Don has to be nice to me—I have the tomatoes.

Don is giving me flack about why I don’t use drip irrigation. He sees all this hand watering as sheer insanity. Sure, it would be easier. And, for a cash crop it makes perfect sense. However, it’s a significant investment for the gizmos and tubing and a lot of work to install. I remind myself from time to time that I am a tenant here. I am a gardener, not a farmer. In five years, I’ve never had an offer of help for such a high-end investment of time and money. But for twenty bucks, I got this lovely switchable watering wand. And so I drag the hose behind me. I’m not complaining. I don’t begrudge one minute I spend in the garden. (Except for those two moments this summer, so far, when I stupidly went into the garden barefoot, and both times ended up getting stung by the wasps.)

It was the dragging hose that led to the discovery of the second farm surprise. We are not kidding when we call one of the gardens “the long garden.” It’s over 160 feet long and about 15 feet wide. There’s a hose spigot at one end. At the other end, across the lane there’s a hose spigot at a tenant’s house. I can use that. I have a 75 foot hose, which I don’t mind pulling along behind me. But I do object to having to undo the hose and haul the whole thing 160 feet to the next spigot. Rick suggested that we plumb in another spigot, halfway down the long garden, and then my hose will essentially cover the entire garden without having to move it. We consulted with Elmer, who said it was fine, just get the materials from Number Four.

Rick looked around, no pipe. He checked out the far reaches, behind the chicken barns, still no luck. Then he looked in, under and around Number 7 only to find oversized pipe and—pigs! Yes, surprise, surprise. There are now 4 pigs in a pen in the shaded area, under the far end of Number 7. Who knew? It turns out that one of the tenants approached Elmer about keeping a couple of pigs. The tenant works in a fancy high-end grocery store and brings home the gourmet, ‘unused’ produce—so essentially the pigs eat pretty well, and for free. Elmer said it was okay, but he’d buy two baby pigs, too (so we have four.) The tenant does the feeding and slopping and mucking, and at the end of the season they each get two grown up pigs. It’s a sweet deal, all the way around. I told you we were all sharecroppers in one way or another. Elmer gets his summer vegies from our garden (plus a load of winter squash) and we get to have a garden that exceeds any tenant’s dreams. Like I said, it’s a sweet deal all the way around.

So the surprises are pumpkins and pigs. But these things are supposed to come in threes, aren’t they? There’ll be one more surprise. Last year some wise guy (and we’re betting it was Don. “Who, me?”), planted carving pumpkins in the winter squash buckets.  So this year, somebody’s going to plant strange and exotic squash in his pumpkin patch. (“Who, us”?) It’ll be awhile until he figures it out. But, I can wait.

 

 

 

Hard Pan

A.V. Walters

The blessing and curse in this area of Sonoma County, is the ubiquitous, clay layer in the soil. There’s a reason that there’s an Adobe Road in Petaluma. During the rainy season it’s not a problem but starting around June, about six inches down, we get a really hard, clay layer. You plant early here, or not at all. (Oh, I suppose you could use dynamite and break up the soil, and get a handle on the gophers, in one step.) The good news is, that once the garden is in, that subsurface clay layer locks the moisture down in the root zone—making for lovely gardening conditions. No rain in the summer means very little weeding. Since we plant in buckets, we water into the well of the bucket and don’t waste any water where there aren’t vegetables. The soil otherwise is lush and fertile.

Since we will be away for the early part of May, Rick and I started early yesterday, digging in some of the buckets. It’s still too cool at night to put our starts in but daytime temperatures soared into the eighties, for a blistering day of digging (It takes extra planning to be sure you’ll be digging on the hottest days.)  I’ve been worried about the soil. All winter I’ve been commenting about how little rain fell this season. We need it to recharge the soils—and the supply for well water. And, if yesterday was any indication, we’re in for a very dry summer. Already the clay layer has started to harden—in May! We dug in about fifty buckets, about half of what we’ll do for the season. Usually we wouldn’t see these conditions for another four or five weeks. It makes for slower going, because the buckets go in deeper than that hard clay and because you need to break through it, or you risk having a “perched” layer, where any water you add follows the clay shelf and doesn’t sink down into the root zone. We dig in each bucket with a shovel-full or two of Elmer’s finest, eight-year-old manure.

It’s a community garden, sometimes in The Little Red Hen, sense. Though everyone this year is excited about the garden, only one neighbor stepped up to the plate with a shovel, yesterday. I guess we must have looked pretty rough—sweating up a storm with our grunting and digging—not exactly an ad for Fun with Gardening. At least we didn’t need to pull out the adze.

I’m particularly fond of “The Claw” for this kind of work. Yep, The Claw, (As seen on TV!) I used to scoff at those ads, but my nephew set me straight. It was years ago, during a time when I was disabled from a car accident. My nephew was visiting and had been directed by his mother to help me put in the garden. He asked me where my Claw was. Eh? What’s that?

He went on to say that his mum couldn’t garden without it. He turned up his nose at my trusty spade and garden fork. So, off he went to the hardware store to get The Claw. I was dubious. Then I watched, and tried, and became a convert. It’s the perfect tool for breaking down through our cursed, clay layer. Real men scoff at it, it looks like a girl-tool. But when push comes to dig, I noticed that even they reach for The Claw.

So, it’ll be a dry summer in the garden. Thank god for buckets. I noticed how strange my priorities have become when our new neighbor offered some really lovely, black buckets to the cause. I was almost drooling. Testing the waters I inveigled, “You know, we’ll have to drill holes in these for drainage?”

“Sure, do whatever. I was going to take them to the recycling-center, anyway.”

Nirvana! Lovely, choice buckets, heavy-duty, wide, but not too deep (think grueling, clay layer, here) perfect for winter squash or cooking-pumpkins. (This ain’t no Jack-O-Lantern garden!) You know you’ve gone a little batty when you covet someone’s used, nursery buckets. What a garden-gal won’t do…. Rick drilled them (adding additional, drainage holes—large enough for fast drainage but still too small for a gopher!) and we had them in the ground within an hour. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Now, we’re ready for whatever weather comes our way.

Tomato-land is ready to go into its new digs, in the long garden. This is our warmest, sunniest garden and I’m expecting great results this year. Today I’ll sterilize the tomato cages and get them in. We have the super-sturdy, delux, 42-inch tomato cages. That part of the garden always looks impressive. Elmer likes a tidy garden. I accommodate by planting with plenty of space between the tomato buckets. I’ve done square-foot gardening with great results, but here we have room to spare, so we spread out some. We put in twenty-two tomato buckets, (plus six in our back yard for those troublesome Romas.) Hopefully, this year we’ll keep the tomatoes plants to less than thirty. (I know, I’ve said that before.)

Bucket Farm

A. V. Walters

Let me just say at the outset that this is not a dirt farm. It’s about livestock. And gone are the days when the average farm had a big garden that provided the fresh food and canned goods for the family. Farmers get their groceries from Costco now, like the rest of us. More often these days, family farms run on such a thin margin that one or both of the resident farmers have to work off-farm jobs to support the lifestyle. At the end of the day, there just isn’t enough in them leftover to keep a garden, too. And so it goes, the almost audible last sighs of rural living.

Today’s farms, by necessity, are specialty operations. This one is a chicken farm. We produce eggs. We have some sheep, too. Elmer, the good-enough farmer who owns this place would prefer that I call it a ranch. But somehow in my mind a ranch is a big spread with cattle, and, well, maybe cowboys. I just can’t see it as a ranch, and every time he says it, I picture our farmhands out lassoing chickens.

I’m no farmer. I’m merely an urban transplant—a tenant who occupies the old original farmhouse from the turn of the last century. From my vantage here at the top of the hill, I witness most of the goings on around this place.

We’re out in west county, which were we one county over, would bring connotations of Birkenstocks, solar panels, gourmet cheese and oysters. Here though, it’s a proud lot of hard-scrabble ranchers and dairymen, land-rich and sometimes cash-poor. The area is peopled with second and third generation cattle, sheep and chicken farmers. At least so far, we’ve been spared the headlong rush that’s infected most of our county–to cover every slope with upscale vineyards. Our microclimate here is, thankfully, too cool for that.

Elmer, used to have a garden. But his wife passed away and with her went the warmth of the homemaking arts and the tradition of canning. When I arrived he was still planting every year, but all too frequently the vegetables hung neglected on the vines.

One of the attractions of the farm when I first applied as a tenant here was the promise of a community garden. Elmer had let the garden go, its decline symbolic of his losses.  He almost decided to let it go entirely, but I would have nothing of that; I didn’t relocate to this country setting to buy my tomatoes by the case at Grocery Outlet.  So I took charge of the farm’s community garden.

I’m a vegetable gardener from way back. Even when I lived in Oakland my postage stamp-sized backyard was a lush cornucopia of the season. There, limited space pushed me into French Intensive and Square Foot gardening. I had a library of back issues of Organic Gardening and every February I’d thumb through them to plan the year’s approach. Several years ago I suffered some reversals in my life so I repaired to the country to lick my wounds and reconnect with the me of me. Gardening was one link to who I’d always been and I needed the challenge of the community garden. And it was a challenge. Accustomed to tiny quarters, I was daunted by the expanse of it. Though, thankfully that first year it was just the one garden. Now there are actually three gardens on the farm, combined they are just over a tenth of an acre. My first spring I was given what we now call the main garden, an equilateral triangle of dirt of about 800 square feet. Oh, and there was a catch, water.

That winter’s scant rains had Elmer nervous. When he turned the garden over to me he was already worried that our wells would run dry before the rains started up again in October. We have the usual Northern California seasons—no rain from May until Halloween. Elmer said that the three water priorities on the farm, in order, were—chickens, tenants and only then, watering. So, in my assignment, the largest garden I’d ever dug and the prospect of drought, I had to be creative.

There was one more mother-of-invention factor. I was broke. Sure, I could afford seeds, and a few starts, but otherwise I couldn’t count on drip irrigation or any other fancy water-saving gimmicks. I had to figure a way to minimize my watering footprint. Typical of most farmers, Elmer rarely throws anything away and nothing goes to waste. The older barns are full of, well, stuff. We joke about it now, but that first year Elmer just waved in the direction of a barn we call Number Four, and said I’d find stuff in there that might help. And that’s how we came to buckets.