Monthly Archives: February 2012


This is not the greatest blog post in the world.

This is a tribute.

I was writing earlier today what was summing up to be one of my best posts. I was on fire this morning, writing with wit and candor and, trust me, you would have loved it.

Unfortunately I did something funky with my thumb in the mousepad area of my laptop and it all just disappeared. I tried several things to recover it but, since I couldn’t even access the word processing program, I rebooted and lost it all. It’s too bad, it really was rather good.

So, anyway, I was telling you about my weekend, about having bold and grand plans that were thwarted by pesky facts and how I changed gears, revised my plans and learned a little something about myself.

I had grand plans for the weekend. After work Saturday I borrowed a tiller from Rob and was going to spend the afternoon Saturday and day Sunday breaking new ground and building beds in the newly cleared area of the Back Forty. I was excited too. This was a beast of a tiller and I was sure it was up to the task.

We got it to the house about mid afternoon and after a quick lunch set to driving it up the hill to where we planned the new garden. I gained a new respect for this monster as I wrestled it up the incline but knew once I had it on flat ground it would prove it’s mettle.

I mentioned pesky facts. In my enthusiasm to “get gardening” I neglected to consider the landscape. By that I mean truly consider the landscape. We chose our site because of it’s flatness but we didn’t really consider what flat meant. The growth we removed was scrub, privet, wisteria and briars, none of which was older than ten years. The flat area is a cut into a hillside underneath the powerline service that runs to my neighbor’s house.

What I didn’t consider is that what I was about to till was a mere inch of topsoil over good ole Alabama clay. This was a cut that was bulldozed to facilitate to installation of the powerline and therefore not the rich loamy, forest floor I had assumed it would be.

There is a a single, fundamental rule when borrowing a tool. Don’t break it. Breaking a tool defeats the spendthrift nature of borrowing. In fact, you’d have been better off to just buy yourself the tool rather than borrow it, as it has now become twice as expensive. It’s twice as expensive because you have to both fix or buy the tool and then give it back to the person you borrowed it from. Don’t buy or fix and use, as you run the risk of breaking it again and then where would you be? No, buy what you broke and then buy yourself the industrial version and chalk it all up to experience. Next time maybe you won’t be so stupid.

It was these concepts of economics and friendship I contemplated as I attempted to break ground and not tiller. A cherry red exhaust, coupled with smoking, squealing drive belts finally drove it’s point home and I realised that this was not the earth from which I would draw my family’s rich harvest and bounty this year.

As I mentioned last week (you did read last week’s post didn’t you?) Stephanie and I were going to experiment with one or two hugelkultur beds. I had gotten the idea from Mike at the Backyard Pioneer and with the abundance of rotting logs at my disposal this seemed like a grand experiment.

Faced with breaking the tiller or myself I made one of those defining executive decisions that marks my tenure as titular head of Emerson’s Acre.

Actually, I hemmed and hawed. I paced up and down and wrung my hands and finally called Samantha to help me weigh the decision.

It’s here we get to the “learning about myself” part. Shifting from breaking new ground to building raised beds hugelkultur style is really a “no-brainer.” The raised beds are way easier, and therein lies the rub. See, there’s something macho about running a tiller, especially one of this vintage. Running a tiller like this is equal to wrestling with a grizzly bear, or better yet, plowing with a bull, using the bull’s horns as the plow, while they’re still attached to the bull. I was all set to get the crap beaten out of me and in a weird twelve year old kinda way was looking forward to it, or rather I was looking forward to basking in the glow of masculine accomplishment that would come Sunday evening as I stood victorious over four or five neatly plowed plots ripe for planting. That and Monday morning when I could loudly proclaim how powerfully sore I was from all the hard work I’d done, thereby cementing my superiority in the hierarchy of hard working men and sending all those of weaker constitutions, who spent the weekend watching TV and drinking beer, off to sulk in self loathing.

Instead, here I was Sunday morning ready to bail, to take the easy way out. My battle with myself was really over whether I was making a decision based on prudence or just because I was a wussy. A stupid distinction to be sure and again a “no-brainer” but here I stood wrestling with myself. Thankfully I married well. Gently but firmly she explained what a twit I was being and that I needed to quit messing around and get back to work.

Filled with the resolve that only a wife can provide, I changed gears. I parked the tiller, pulled out the chainsaw and my cutting gear and felled those trees I could without causing undue damage to myself or my neighbors. Well, almost.

I tried to be smart about it. Really, I did. I had marked several small and odd shaped trees for thinning and was starting with a relatively small oak that grew pretty straight. I cleared the ground brush around the tree and severed all ground attachments via wisteria vines. I noted the nearby power line and set my pie cut and back cut so as to assure that it fell parallel with the powerline. What I didn’t know was the amount of canopy wisteria present and how those vines tied my tree to adjacent trees. To my credit the tree did begin to fall in my intended direction but as the aforementioned vines became taut they changed the tree’s trajectory until it was now hanging perpendicular to the power line.

Oh crap.

Again we learn more about this man that is Dave.

Once again, I pace and wring my hands.

Oh crap.

How am I gonna get out of this one?

I said a small prayer to God (pick one) and my dad, asking first and foremost that I don’t hurt myself and then that I solve this dilemma as neatly as possible. As I faced down each of the possible outcomes the one constant was that whatever happened I knew I did not want to have to go next door and explain why Bobby and Annalise had neither power or cable.

That was my biggest fear, not that I’d screw up and knock down a power line, make work for a power crew on a Sunday, and possibly set fire to the Back Forty. No, my biggest fear was that I’d have to go, knock on my neighbor’s door and explain why they wouldn’t be watching Extreme Home Makeover, ESPN or anything else that Sunday afternoon. Summed up my biggest fear was not that I’d be an idiot, it was that I’d look like an idiot.

Somehow I dodged that bullet. I took a length of wisteria vine, a good inch in diameter, and looped it around the base of the trunk just above where it was wedged against the stump. Getting a good grip and checking my footing against the slope I pulled. Slowly I pulled the base of the tree a good ten or fifteen feet away from the stump until the trunk was close enough to horizontal that the weight of the tree broke the vine that held it and it fell, safely, to the ground.

Thank you, Jesus.

Thanks, Pop.

Now my fear was safely averted and while clearly I was an idiot I didn’t look like an idiot and that was what counted. I spent the rest of the day hauling twelve and four foot sections of tree trunk to form the borders of a raised bed. Thankfully, John Paul showed up around 3:00 and we got some serious work done. It’s amazing how much work you can get done with just one more helper. JP had the sense to suggest using tow straps to drag the last two logs which were too heavy for me to move by myself. In fifteen minutes we had doubled my day’s work out put. So much for not looking like an idiot.

By dusk we had two framed beds that were laid out with rotting timber ready to be covered. In the next few weeks we’ll build the remaining two 4×12 beds, lay the wood layer and then cover that with compost and leaf mold. Stephanie found a lead for free composted horse manure not too far from here and the nearby city of Mountain Brook sells leaf mold for $20 a load. I’d like to get a layer of soil six inches over the logs and have it all done by mid-April. I’ll be out two weekends in March but I still think it’s doable.

Yesterday, I spent my workout time finishing some of the tasks I didn’t get to on Sunday. I spread forty pounds of lime and forty pounds of pasture seed for the goats. I forked, hoed and tilled the 2’x16′ herb bed, turned the compost heap and added rails to the goat feeder in yet another attempt to keep them from pooping on their food. We’ll see.



Filed under compost, goats, organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening

Zen and the Art of Truck Maintenance

Man, I did a lot this weekend. That’s not really bragging either more just a statement of fact. As I look back from Monday morning, I’m actually kind of impressed with myself. Not in the, “Oh my god you’re awesome, Dave” kinda way, but more in the, “Hm, good job, Dave” kinda way. Personally, I think that’s a great way to roll into Monday morning.

Meet Monday with a list of accomplishments already under your belt and the week starts off with a momentum that just carries you along nicely. And if I decide sometime midweek that I need a bit of a break, well, I’ve earned it.

So what, you ask, did I do this weekend that explains this smug entry into the week? Like I said, a lot.

I finished up a little early at the gym on Saturday. My usual 11:30 massage appointment decided to go ahead and have her baby four weeks early (Congratulations, Nicole) and she and her tiny family are resting, happy and healthy, at home. Bronwyn finished her cleaning duties at the gym and we headed out for lunch.

After lunch I was planning on running the chainsaw and clearing a few trees I had marked in the Back Forty. Most of these are small oaks, less that a foot in diameter. I wanted to clear out the smaller ones which were crowding the two or three big ones. Those that are straight will be cut into 4 and 12 foot lengths to be used as borders for raised beds.

Unfortunately, I had not anticipated the rain. It settled in while we were eating and made it clear that it wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.

Steph had said earlier that she was planning on coming by to work in the garden and she pulled up shortly after we had gotten home. The back yard was swampy and wet and it was clear we wouldn’t be working in the garden. We resigned ourselves to looking through seed catalogs and planning our future on the calendar.

It’s here that I’ll throw out a plug for my new favorite site, This site offers forecasts 360 days into the future with, according to Mental Floss magazine, a 76% accuracy. Your local weatherman averages around 70%. Armed with the weather predicting skills of Nostradamus we planned out the next few weekends.

Given that this weekend was our last frost and average lows would be in the mid 40s for the next few weeks, with a general warming trend, we decided next weekend we break ground. Steph’s husband Rob, of Pet Stop fame, has a giant tiller. I’m both excited and trepidatious.

The following weekend I’ll be tied up with school functions for both Bronwyn and Madeline. The weekend of the 10th we’ll bring in composted manure to feed the beds. The weekend of the 17th I’ll be in St. Petersburg, Florida for a workshop. By the 24th of March highs will be in the mid 60s and that seems like a good time to start planting. We’ve lots of volunteer tomatoes in the cold frames and I look forward to setting them out.

While planning we checked out an article from Mike at the Backyard Pioneer on hugelkultur. This is a German method of raised bed gardening that involves burying rotten wood under the raised bed. The wood serves as a moisture reservoir as it soaks up and holds moisture, and as it continues to rot it releases valuable nutrients into the soil. There is an abundance of rotting wood in the Back Forty and so we’ve resolved to try this method out with at least one bed.

The rain continued and our kids were busy entertaining themselves, a shopping trip seemed the only reasonable recourse. There is a Tractor Supply Company ten or fifteen miles from the house. I have been meaning to get out there for some time and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

If you don’t have one Tractor Supply Company is like the Walmart of Feed and Seed stores. Living in Birmingham, like I do, a Co-op or an Ag Supply Store is hard to come by. TSC, then, is like a candy store. There’s just so much cool stuff!

Saturday, I bought hoof trimming shears (so I could return the kitchen shears to a more sanitary use), jute twine, string (you can never have too much cordage), two watering wands (on sale for $2.99!), a grease pen for the chainsaw, a 40lb bag of lime and a 40lb bag of a mixed pasture seed. (I want to sow the slopes and non-garden areas with pasture seed to provide additional forage for the goats. The lime is just to ensure everything comes up nice and lush.)

Steph and her kids left around 3:30 or 4:00. The rain continued and it was clear I would not be running a chainsaw anytime soon. I decided to get a jump on my Sunday task of tuning up my truck. The idle had gotten rough lately and I had been tinkering on it all week. I replaced the air and fuel filters during the week and had turned up the idle, but decided a true tune up was in order. I had already bought new plugs, plug wires, distributor cap, and a rotor. After Steph left I set to clearing out a space in the garage I could pull the truck into and work. It was a tight fit. I had to fold the mirrors in to get through the door and there was just enough room for me to sidle out if I needed to.

It’s a good thing I don’t pay myself by the hour to do these kinds of tasks. As a mechanic I am s-l-o-w.

By 10 pm I had swapped out 4 plugs and wires. Most of this was due to inexperience and over caution.

I bought my first car in 1987, when I was 16. It was a 1979 Toyota Corolla. A friend of my mom’s, an early male role model, encouraged me to get a Haynes manual for the car and to learn to do much of my repairs myself. I changed my own oil and brakes, even swapped out the master cylinder, but that was the extent of it. As I got older my time became more valuable to me and I began to rely more and more on mechanics. Well, besides the time thing there was that whole bit about the engines getting much more complicated and seeking professional help just seemed safer.

This weekend I did more work on my truck than I’ve done on any vehicle since I was a teenager. I was a little giddy and nervous at first. At some point I was reminded of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It probably came about as I was reminding my self not to hurry. I frequently find myself hurrying. It seems like I was trying to finish a task, to beat some external clock. There’s a client who will be here in fifteen minutes, three more tasks that need attending to or I’m about to run out of daylight. There’s more work than the time I have allotted and I need to get done.

But you can’t rush certain tasks and changing out the plugs on a 26 year old truck is one of them. I removed and replaced each plug, painfully aware of how disastrous a broken or cross threaded plug would be. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance embodies this no rush approach elegantly. The writing is unhurried and moves at just the pace it needs in order to say what it has to say. It truly is zen. I still have to work at it and that is not so zen. As I worked I took breaks often to survey what I had just done and to assess what and how I was going to do whatever came next. The process was, depsite my anxiety, enjoyable.

By 10 pm I was grateful I had decided to get a jump on things and still had all day Sunday to finish. Samantha and I slept late and I did a little online research while she made breakfast. Confident I was on the right track, I took my coffee and returned to the garage. I began by focusing on the distributor cap and replacing the rotor. In replacing the cap I saw that the ignition coil, which is housed in the cap, was arcing and that the insulation had burned through on one of the wires. I called O’Reilly Auto Parts and made sure they had one. Thirty minutes later I was back in the garage and installing it.

By 3 o’clock Sunday afternoon I was finished and had buttoned everything back up. With not a little trepidation I turned the key in the ignition and Barry fired right up (you know I named my truck Barry White, right?). I took it out for a quick test drive and to bask in my success.

Back at the house I took advantage of the remaining daylight. The goats have been climbing up into their feeder and pooping all over their hay. I ripped some three inch rails and installed them on the long sides to discourage this behavior. We’ll see how well it works.

I then took out the chainsaw (finally!) and tackled one of the trees I’d marked. After felling it I got two 12 foot sections and two 4 foot sections for bed borders. The rest I cut into 16 inch sticks for firewood.

By then the sun was setting and it was time to put my tools away. I came in, showered, cooked flank steaks with sautéed spinach and sautéed mushrooms in butter. After dinner Samantha and I watched a bit of TV together.

Not bad for a weekend. One day, everyday could be like this.


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Filed under firewood, goats, organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening

Covered Feeder

If you’ve been following my sporadic postings you know that the goats, Honey and Harriet, have eaten most, if not all, of the privet and wisteria available to them in the area I brought them back to clear. That means they’ve eaten all that they can reach or all that they’re willing to eat. A goat’s reputation for eating anything is, I’m sad to report, somewhat exaggerated.

This reputation, I think, stems from their willingness to eat things other ruminants won’t. Cows and horses and sheep prefer pasture, grass. Goats will live off pasture but what they really like are the leafy parts of scrubs and vines like privet, wisteria and honeysuckle. They’ll also nibble the bark off certain trees. There are quite a few things in my back lot that they won’t eat. At the moment there are quite a few 8 to 12 foot privet bushes that are bare up to about four feet.

As such, I’ve spent just about every weekend since November cutting down privet and stacking mounds that the goats could forage on. Once I got the area I intend to garden this spring cleared I realized that I was spending far too much of my labor just making sure the goats were fed. I still have ground vines to clear, ground to break, roots to remove and beds to build. If something doesn’t change I’ll never get it done.

My daughter, Bronwyn, rides horses once a week at a local stable. I had been looking into purchasing some bales of hay, but was a bit frustrated by the distance I’d have to travel. We contacted the stable owner and made an arrangement to buy five bales of hay.

Now here’s another things about goats. They won’t eat something that’s been on the ground too long. I think this comes from their complete lack of concern about where they go poop. I’ve often seen them poop and eat at the same time all the while standing on their food. Apparently goat brains are advanced enough to evolve a mechanism to keep them from eating too much of their own poop, but not enough to just stop pooping on their food.

Nonetheless, my brain is more evolved and I set forth to build a covered feeder, something I could set bales of hay on that would keep the hay off the ground and would be covered to keep the rain off as well.

I was excited about the project as I had lots of available lumber that I had scavenged when I was building the cold frames. More so because it was all untreated wood. That meant applying more of my evolved brain skills as I would have to be especially mindful of shedding water and preventing rot. I knew it wouldn’t last for ever but it would be a waste of time if I had to build a new one again next week.

Before we had pressure treated wood. the fine art of carpentry was all about the shedding of water. Construction techniques hinged on protecting seams and orienting unions so that water ran off your construction instead of standing and soaking into the wood and thereby causing rot. The whole reason that we can point to wooden structures, still standing, that are 100 or more years old is because the skill with which they were built and their ability to shed water.

Rest assured, I have no delusions of the potential antiquity of my covered feeder but I would like it to last a year or two.

In the pictures that follow you can see some of the steps I took to build the frame and roof for the goats new feeder. I ran out of daylight the first Sunday I worked on it and had to wait until the following Sunday to finish the roof.

Rafter’s are, by the way, the bane of my existence. I used up several feet of 2×4 getting the rafters “right” and only when I had finished did I realize that the end rafters I’d used to set the ridge board with didn’t match the others. Seeing as I was out of 2×4 at this point I just went with it. Just another “learning opportunity,” right?


Filed under goats, organic gardening, self reliance, sustainability, urban farming, urban gardening