The Redneck’s Garden

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It’s with a bit of self-debasement that I’ve ruefully dubbed this year’s garden “the Redneck’s Garden.” Having been born and raised in the backwoods of Maine, rarely venturing farther than Augusta─forever in jeans, boots and flannel─arriving at parties with my trusted PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon beer) and preferring a campfire with friends to the crowded club─I am quite nearly the epitome of “redneck”. At the same time though, I consider the title a term of endearment. Rednecks are renown for their resourcefulness and I pride myself in possessing that self-same trait.

I have no idea how long we will have to live at 26 Goodine’s Way. Paul and I both agree that together we want the dream that I have for Runamuk: the open meadows and pastures of bee-forage against the backdrop of the forest with the western Maine mountains on the horizon. The saving grace of our current location is the low-overhead. I have the feeling that if I continue to focus as I have been─on keeping expenses low and growing my income from farming─eventually (maybe even in the not too distant future lol) the stars will align and my time will come. I’ve more than doubled my income from farming every year for the last 3, and I’m expecting that pattern to continue.

It seems plausible that eventually my gross income from farming will be high enough that some financial institution somewhere would find property investment a feasible option for Runamuk, right? Unless someone comes along sooner to offer some alternative arrangement (lease-to-own or owner-financing in exchange for the peace of mind in knowing that their cherished piece of farmland will be protected forever under my stewardship. Hey…a girl can dream can’t she?) I have no choice but to keep working on it: giving up is not an option.

the redneck's garden

This photo effectively sums up the state of the garden here at Runamuk. Sand, saplings, and raspberry bushes everywhere.

Meanwhile, I still have a very real need to grow food in order to feed my family and I’m back to a first-year garden─again. The property at our temporary digs was heavily cut over a few years back and already the forest is reclaiming that which was lost: raspberry and blackberry canes abound, young saplings spring up 2 and 3 inches thick seemingly overnight, and the brush is so dense one can scarcely hack a path through it. Such is the nature of the Maine forest that man is forever at odds with the landscape.

There are ways to work with nature though, we have learned. Take a look at Ben Falk’s “The Resilient Farm & Homestead” or Mark Shepherd’s “Restoration Agriculture“. There is a trend toward learning to work with the forces in play around us that is inspiring beginning farmers like Paul and I, who want not to ransack the earth for all of it’s valuables, but to build systems that produce intergenerational value.

stock tank irrigation

We fill this tank with water from an unused well and drip-irrigate the garden with it.

We have super sandy soil here, which is new to me. In my 20 years gardening I’ve worked with heavy clay soil, really nice loamy soil, and now this─literally dune sand. We’re adding lots of manure to every bed and using mulch on top to help retain moisture. Irrigation was a priority so Paul replaced the pump in the well that we and 2 other households on this family commune use. Now we can have the old pump to put into an unused well here to water the garden with. He also uses it to fill my stock-tank, which then feeds the irrigation in the sandy garden.

Last fall when we set up the hoop-coop and fencing it was with the intention of moving the birds in the spring so that we could utilize the space as garden space. Once the snow was gone Paul prepped my older mini hoop-coop and slapped a fence up around it for night-time protection; we moved the birds over and now they free-range during the day, eating greens and insects and keeping the tick population at bay around the homestead. That change gave us a well-fenced growing area and freed the hoop-coop up to become space for growing food─along with some on-site manure.

hugelkultur raised bedsAdapting the hugelkultur method, Paul dug 4 beds 3-foot by 12-feet each and lay logs and wood pieces in the trench. Living in the woods and generating our winter heat from firewood, we naturally have plenty of logs on hand. These ones had been neglected for a year or more and so were already beginning to rot and made ideal candidates for these hugelkultur gardens. Paul even used logs to frame the beds and then filled them back in with sand that had been heavily amended with well-composted manure. Then he mulched them.

Note: For more information on hugelkultur check out this article: The Many Benefits of Hugelkultur from Permaculture.co

tilling the sandThere are only a couple of patches of ground within our fenced garden area that were open enough for quick and dirty garden installation. Like the rest of this property the raspberry canes are thick, and debris from the cutting that was done litters the ground in the form of sticks, branches and stumps. In order to make full use of the space we’ll have to work hard to clear away the raspberries and saplings. A couple of goats would make short work of it, however I am not a goat farmer and I cannot justify the expenses associated with goat ownership at this time. Remember, I’m intentionally keeping my expenses to a minimum so that I can generate more of a profit from my farming endeavors. So Paul dutifully tilled the open patches of ground, stopping every few minutes because the roots of many raspberry plants had wrapped around the blades of the machine. When he was finished I laid out the beds, amended the sand with manure, planted and mulched-heavily.

It’s a small and somewhat haphazard garden compared to some I’ve had in the past; maybe 1500 square feet, while the largest garden I’ve managed was about a quarter of an acre. I am definitely disappointed not to have the growing space I’ve become accustomed to. Not only is it a hit to my food budget, but to my farming income as well. These last couple of years have been difficult for the apiary with no honey available to sell and not yet enough hives to think about selling bees. I sell beeswax products all year long, but I see a lull in sales after Christmas that lingers til the time the farmers’ market starts up again in May. The sales of seedlings, annual vegetables, herbs and cut flowers supported Runamuk in a significant way; to have lost that part of my business is definitely a blow.

At the same time though, I know from experience that the smaller gardens tend to be tidier and surprisingly productive as a result of that tidiness. A smaller garden also frees up my time for Runamuk and my many other projects: like raising Queens for the first time ever, or the Kid’s Club program I’ve instituted at the Madison Farmers’ Market, or even a day out with my own kids─imagine that!

redneck raised bed_w lettuce

Winter density and Cherokee are 2 of my favorite lettuce varieties!

onion transplants in the redneck garden

Staple crops like onions, potatoes, and squashes make up the majority of our garden this year.

squash beds_before and after agribon

I love squash and it’s a crucial storage crop for my family. I decided to give these plants a head start under agribon this year, to allow them to gain in size before the onslaught of the squash beetles hits us.

You might be surprised at how much food you can grow in a small space too. So far this spring I’ve planted onions, lettuce, mizuna and pak choi (which both turned out to be a trap crop for flea beetles), potatoes, bush and pole bean varieties, radishes and turnips, and just this past week I sowed 3 beds of squashes and transplanted 14 tomato plants. I hadn’t planned on doing pumpkins for lack of space (I really only want a couple of pie pumpkins for the holiday season), but when a couple of stray seeds in the composting chicken manure popped up I decided pumpkins wanted to grow there and put in some Winter Luxury and Cinnamon Girl seeds.

With such sandy soil I should be able to grow some stellar root-crops, so beets and carrots are on my list of crops to get in, and I have peppers and cucumbers still to put in the ground too. My goal is to have it all done by the Summer Solstice.

Making time to finish shoveling the winter chicken litter out of the former hoop-coop is another story, lol. With the chickens living elsewhere, the plan is to use this structure now as a hoop-house for overwintering greens and for early spring food production next year. Thankfully I have a few weeks before planting for the fall begins, which buys me the time I need to clean out the poop and prep the space for growing.

It’s been very difficult for me to invest time and energy into the soil knowing that we won’t be here forever, but wherever we are we gotta eat. I want to feed my kids real food (for more about my commitment to real food, check out this post I wrote about My Real Food Challenge) and at 14 and 10 the appetites on those boys are only growing! The garden is crucial for my family’s livelihood, health and well-being. Using the resources we have on hand like any good redneck, Paul and I have managed to eek a garden out of this brush-and-bramble piece of earth. It may be the redneck’s garden, but it allows us to grow our own food so that we can eat fresh and nutritious, organically-grown produce that we can feel good about. For that I’m grateful.

Look for upcoming posts about fall-crops and sowing for overwintering! Stay tuned folks!

Share your thoughts, comments or questions!