Category Archives: organic gardening

Jack and Kathryn

When Samantha and I were young, young in love, younger in body, we moved to Athens, Georgia.  This was in 1994.  I was a senior in college with no sense of direction or purpose.  The only thing in my life that I was certain of at that point was Samantha.

One afternoon Samantha, myself, our good friend, Jeff, and my friend and roommate, Jason, were sitting in our living room.  Jason was planning on moving to Athens to pursue photography at UGA.

“You guys wanna come with me?”

With less than a minute’s deliberation Jeff said, “Okay” and Samantha followed with, “Sure.”

For me, what followed was ninety seconds of pure panic.  I was two quarters away from graduation, pursuing a path I did not love, but doing what I was “supposed to do.”  My brain roiled over my choices.  I could stick with my safe path, stay in Birmingham and finish school, that would mean saying goodbye to Samantha, possibly for just six or eight months–possibly forever.  That was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.  And so, for what may have been the first time in my life, I made a choice that reflected what I wanted to do, rather than what I was expected to do.

I still had to finish the quarter I was in, but over the next few weeks Jason and I closed out our lease on the apartment, we rented a large moving truck and in one weekend moved two apartments and Jeff, who was living at home at the time, to Athens.

Athens, Georgia is a college town.  As such, real estate there is at quite a premium.  It was not easy to find a place where all four of us could live together in town, but by expanding our search we found a place in Crawford, fifteen miles out of Athens.  Crawford is a small rural town nestled in Oglethorpe County, one of the most rural counties in all of Georgia.

It had one stoplight and downtown Crawford consisted of three blocks–a car dealership, City Hall, a bank and the post office.  We rented a large house for a very cheap sum from Clyde and George Maxwell, an elderly couple who lived next door.  I know these names imply a gay couple, however Clyde is the first–and only–woman, I’ve ever met to bear that name.

Crawford in the 90’s was an extremely old and conservative place.  The cemetery behind our house bore stones that dated back to the 1890’s with the names of families still in Crawford.

Besides the Maxwells, we never met these people.  Samantha and I lived in this house for almost a year–the fifteen mile commute quickly proved too long for Jeff and Jason–and besides Clyde and George there was only one other couple we ever exchanged words with, Jack and Kathryn Doubrley.

Like ourselves, Jack and Kathryn clearly stood out in Crawford.  And as mutual anomalies we were quickly drawn to each other.  They lived at the top of our street in a two story, Victorian mansion.  They were my first introduction into the Emersonian ideal of self reliance and two of the coolest people we had ever met.

Jack was every bit the self made man.  He worked nearby as a diesel mechanic and every working aspect of his house bore his unique stamp–electricity was provided by solar panels he installed on the roof, heat from the wood stoves he had restored or installed–including the wood fired cook stove in their kitchen and the one that heated water for their shower.  Both Kathryn’s greenhouse and his shop were of his construction, often made from salvaged materials.  He brought a whole new understanding to what “off the grid” really means, water was the only resource he couldn’t provide himself and he grudgingly paid the city to provide.

In my mind’s eye he’s a giant pirate of a man, though in reality he stands several inches shorter than me–red hair pulled back in a man’s ponytail and a big bushy beard that spills onto his ample chest.  With his red hair and his aptitude for all things mechanical he was the epitome of the Roman god Vulcan, made whole.  It was Jack who first introduced me to working out, his upstairs gym filled one of the house’s spacious bedrooms–graciously donning a leopard printed Speedo instead of maintaining his usual habit of training nude.

Kathryn is every bit the yin to Jack’s yang.  A master gardener, her stamp on their estate was purely organic.  A modern day Demeter, she flowered her land with herbs and ornamentals.  Her greenhouse boasted a substantial tea tree and a fruit bearing avocado she had nurtured from seed.  Kathryn was a seamstress and a weaver and contributed to their household by making clothes for them both and costumes for a local theatre group.

Her greatest gift was in the garden.  Her knowledge and skill in all aspects of plant lore earned her the moniker of The Answer Lady and made her the go-to resource for many a gardener throughout Northeast Georgia.  Early on she introduced us to a salve made from comfrey, olive oil and beeswax.  This recipe Samantha has perpetuated over the years and introduced to the Alabama Waldorf School, where it is known and loved amongst the nursery School and beyond as Samantha’s “Magic Cream.”

We only stayed in Athens for two years.  By the end of that period Samantha was pregnant with Madeline and it seemed more prudent to move back to Birmingham.  Here we could be closer to our families and I could finish college.  Again back on the path of what we should do rather than what we wanted.  Understandable, of course–we were so young and scared, risk and chance were to be avoided at all costs.

We kept in touch with Jack and Kathryn for a few years after we left, once going to spend a weekend with them and once having them come and visit us, but years and distance divided us.  Jack eventually took a job running the maintenance department at the University and we became engrossed in our growing family and all the lessons and challenges to found there.

Even though we haven’t seen each other or spoken in years, Jack and Kathryn stay with us.  Emerson’s Acre would not exist without their influence and scores of school children have had their boo-boos healed with the help of Kathryn’s comfrey salve.



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

One Step Closer

Friday evening Rob came over.  We had made plans previously to fix the collar issues I was having with the goats.

It all came down to this.  They weren’t working.

When we first fitted Honey and Harriet with their collars we had to make modifications.  Goat necks are not the same as dog necks.  Dogs have relatively round necks while a goat’s is much more oval in shape.  This meant that a) the collars were too big and had to be twisted on themselves to take up the slack and b) the electrodes did not make sufficient contact to administer the appropriate “correction.”

With the huglekultur beds finished and spring rapidly on the wane we are ready to plant.  Our only hold up being the necessity of keeping hungry goats at bay.

Rob showed up around six and we promptly commenced the manly ritual of a pre-getting-down-to-business beer.  Once properly fortified with a Guinness (for strength) we gathered our tools and set to work.

The tools in this instance being new collars, fresh batteries for the collars, hoof trimming shears and my newly acquired shepherd’s crook.  I bought the crook from Tractor Supply Company a few weeks ago thinking it would be handy in wrangling the goats.  In truth I did snag Harriet at one point but she quickly twisted free.  For the most part the crook was a hindrance.  A long cane with a hook on one end is not the ideal tool to be carrying through thickets.  It tends to slow you up.

I should remind you that the goats are not overly fond of me.  My windows of opportunity are far too short to set aside any quality time with the goats and so my time with them is largely practical.  I’m the big hairy ape that chases them into corners, grabs them by the horns and subjects them to such horrors as hoof trimming and battery replacement on their collars.

Everyone else who goes into the back either leaves them alone or just brings treats.  I’m such a bastard.

Were it not for Rob I’d probably still be chasing them.

Using sweet feed for bait we first nabbed Honey (she’s the easy catch only having three legs.)  I trimmed her hooves while Robe re-outfitted her with a new collar.  This new design has the electrodes spaced wider so that they make better contact and will administer the “correction” in such a manner the she will actually notice it.  It’s also smaller, so it’s a better fit and has a vinyl outer covering, co it will last longer.

We then spent close to an hour chasing Harriet all around the Back Forty.  Through brush and bramble, from one near nab to the next, this wily ruminant made fools of us.  All the while I could hear Grandpa laughing, “Get that goat, boy!”

I have this ongoing debate with myself over just how smart goats in general, and these two goats in particular, really are.  Having lived with and around animals all my life I have no doubt to their own brand of intelligence.  I have seen pigeons, either smart enough or too lazy to fly a block, drop down from the 22nd Street viaduct and ride the train down to 21st street and then fly up into the rafters.  I’ve seen my cats willingly and purposefully taunt my dog.

But these goats, they’re something else.  Once caught they bleat and cry and wail, but stick their food bowl in front of them and all seems forgotten.  They’ll run through the brush knowing I’m slowed in my ability to follow only to circle back around to the feed bowl where they’re more likely to be caught.  Intelligent or not, Harriet made fools of Rob and I for almost an hour.

Finally, Rob caught her and we were able to change out her collar and trim her hooves.  To hear her carry on you’d think we were trying to eat her on the spot.  Again once we set the food bowl in front of her nose, she shut up and started eating again.

I’m not totally in love with the hoof trimming shears I bought.  They were one of two styles TSC offered and appeared to be the sturdier of the two.  They do the job but they’re not as sharp as I’d like and require a good bit of hand strength.  The first time I trimmed their hooves I used a pair of Chinese kitchen shears.  They’re easy to sharpen and performed beautifully.  They’re cheap enough at the Asian market that I might just buy a pair and dedicate them to this use.

After our labors Rob and I celebrated with another well earned beer.  Samantha was about to grill burgers and the weekend was about to commence.  A good time was had by all, even the goats now that we were done abusing them, and we’re one step closer to planting.


Filed under goats, hugelkultur, organic gardening, organic produce, self reliance, sustainability

Stick to the Plan: Part II

On Saturday I had planned a full court press.

Now that I had the tools in place, once I finished my morning at the gym (the 8 am boot camp, my Tai Chi class and a 10:30 massage client) I was going to go home and tackle the yard.

Bronwyn comes in with Samantha every Saturday morning. Samantha attends my boot camp for her third workout of the week and Bronwyn cleans the gym. I’ve mentioned before her obsession with horses and this job is part of her efforts to raise money for that future steed.

After our gym work, the Beebs (as we like to call her), and I stopped at Hamburger Heaven for our lunch. A burger sans the bun and an order of onion rings for each of us. Despite my best efforts I could not convince her that the staff of Hamburger heaven had given her too many onion rings. Hmpf.

Once home I changed and set to work. First the riding mower to cover the front and those areas of the back not too steep to be gotten. Then the new push mower, adequate for the job but in possession of far too much plastic for my tastes. I had to make three passes in three height settings to get an area that had not been mowed in over three weeks. Once the mowing was finished it was weedeater time and I trimmed all the fence edges and the drainage ditch.

Grandpa always made it clear that it was a man’s responsibility to keep his ditches clean. To rely on the city or county was to invite problems, mainly in water flow, that would affect you or your neighbors. I’ve always looked on this as a discipline in responsibility and have done my best to live up to my grandfather’s example.

Once I finished our yard I loaded up the tractor, the push mower and my weedeater in the truck. The ramps performed their function admirably and I was able to drive the tractor into the bed of the truck with relative ease. (Backing out, however, requires more solid nerves and a great deal of faith.)

Samantha, Bronwyn and I headed to the girl’s school and under the cover of Saturday afternoon set about mowing the grounds. Samantha teaches at and my youngest two daughters, Bronwyn and Thalia, attend the Alabama Waldorf School. My oldest daughter, Madeline, is a graduate and now attends Shades Valley IB (and yes, that is a note of pride you hear.)

Alabama Waldorf School rents space from the Community School which is a part of Birmingham Public Schools which actually rents from another private school, Altamont. The Community School, through the City, provides building custodial services which apparently do not extend to maintenance of the grounds.

These needs are usually met through parent volunteers on regularly scheduled “Playground Work Days.” These are held on Saturdays throughout the school year and since I work at the gym those days can’t make it.

There had been some discussion (of which I was not a part) about providing my riding mower for the next Playground Work Day. It’s at this point that we get to discuss how Dave is maybe not as altruistic as he at first seems.

See, the grass desperately needed cutting. Ours is a small school with a small budget and unkempt grounds reflect poorly on first impressions. Remember what I’ve said before about borrowing tools? How the first rule of borrowing is not to break? I wasn’t willing to risk it. It’s just to awkward.

“Um, Dave, your mower stopped working.”

“What do you mean? It was fine when it left the house.”

“I dunno, I was just using it and it, well, stopped.”

See? Now there’s bad feeling. I’m out a major tool that somebody needs to replace and usually that somebody ends up being me. I mean who wants to buy somebody else a $2,000 tractor?

It’s just easier if I do it myself. I had intended to remain anonymous on this point. Again it just seems easier to blame it on the Easter Bunny, but I got outed, so there you have it. Yes, I did it and I’m not the least bit sorry about it either.

What I am sorry about is Sunday.

Remember the title? Stick to the plan?

Well here was the plan: Work like hell on Saturday and take Sunday off.

Samantha was concerned about how to get the girls outside on Sunday and for us to enjoy a day together without TV or computer screens.

With all the suave assurance of Jim Anderson or Ward Cleaver, I suggested that perhaps Samantha and I just spend the day barbecuing and basking in the warmth and glow of our newly shorn front lawn. The girls would naturally gravitate toward us. All would be happy and we’d avoid any wailing or gnashing of teeth. That was the plan.

I did not, however, stick to it.

Sunday morning I woke and began thinking of my upcoming trip to St. Petersburg in May. The one I had promised to front an airline ticket to a business partner for. The one I had promised to take Samantha along with me. The one for which I hadn’t bought tickets, secured a car or gotten a room. So, Sunday morning before, during and after breakfast I was securing travel plans and making reservations.

Without even realizing it I had slipped into full on work mode.

Next my thoughts turned to the ten sugar snap pea starts that my friend, Mwenja, had left me. They needed to go into the ground. And peas can’t go into the ground without some sort of trellis.

Now, I’m really working.

I’m cutting bamboo from the absentee neighbor’s lot. I’m re-teaching myself how to tie a clove hitch. I’m figuring out how to weave a halfway decent trellis net.

I’m trying to cajole Bronwyn, my best helper, into assisting, her hand skills are amazing for a twelve year old, but she senses without even knowing full well the plan, that I have abandoned it and she’s having none of it.

I’m frustrated, growling like a bear, and grousing that no one appreciates how much work I do or seems willing to even try to match my effort. In short, I am being an asshole.

The kids do end up spending the better part of day outside of their own free will and I do get some help from Bronwyn, but my mood is not where it should be. Somewhere I know I’ve abandoned the plan and I’m not happy with myself, but Ego is in full control and we are accomplishing things!

Once the trellis was complete and Samantha and I picked it up, one of the bamboo poles broke in the middle. I was NOT about to start all over. Bamboo is hollow. I whittled a stick of poplar to fit inside the broken section and then split another bamboo section to use the halves as splints. I put the whole thing together and bound it with electrical tape. It’s not exactly pretty but it does the job and right now that’s okay.

By dinner I realized that I was wiped. I showered after and managed a few hands of “Who Knew?” with Samantha and the kids. Later, in bed, I turned to Samantha and realized that I had just wasted an entire day.

Was it all really necessary? How was the day I had better than the day I planned? Why hadn’t I stuck to the plan? Do I really need to do everything, right now?

The day itself was not a total waste, not if I take these questions to heart, make sure I learn their lessons, share those lessons and maybe try to repeat it too often.

I hope you had a happy Easter.


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

April Fool

So, I’ve been absent for a few weeks and for that I apologize. It is not I assure you from lack of work on the farm, more a shift of writing priorities and spending more time on the Agoge Fitness Systems blog and my gym business.

Since I last posted here I finished editing a book on weight loss, attended a transformational workshop in St. Petersburg, Florida and still manged to keep things moving on the farm. Oh yeah, I also kept my business afloat and trained my clients.

So what’s been happening at the Acre?

The weekend after my last post I had my good friend Bob Maharrey, an experienced arborist, come and help me fell the more troublesome trees on the lot. Which he did with aplomb and grace. In two short hours he helped me drop three of the four intended trees. His schedule was tight and the fourth looked to be well within my skill set, so I sent him off with my blessings and thanks.

I probably should have gotten him to help me with that last tree. Instead with all the confidence of one whose knowledge is just enough to get him in trouble I set into felling this last tree.

I thought it grew straight. Really, I did.

But it was only after I’d made my pie cut that I realized it had a decided slant in the direction I did not want it to fall. (Are you noticing a pattern here with me and felling trees?)

So here I am once again in a total “oh crap” situation wondering how I’m gonna get out of this one. Somehow the situation loses it’s humor when you are both Laurel and Hardy.

“Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

Blessed be the meek, for their ego is not so big they cannot ask for help.

And ask I did.

Luckily my neighbor, Bobby, a landscaper, was working with his guy, Jose. (Yes, there are still Latinos in Alabama.) Jose came over and we finally resolved the situation by getting a rope high enough into the tree that I could pull it in the direction we wanted it to fall as Jose finished the cut.

I spent the rest of the afternoon cutting logs to border our hugelkultur beds and dragging them out of the woods using the brilliant new technology John Paul had introduced me to the previous week. By the end of the day I had everything in place except for one log that was just too big for me to move. Again I called on Jose. He capped his day by helping me pull the log in question down to the garden space and I showed my gratitude with a surreptitious $20 tip.

That Sunday I finished laying out the beds.

The following weekend I had a workshop in St. Petersburg, Florida. You can read all about that here.

Last weekend I drove some 50 miles to Shelby, Alabama for a $5 load of composted horse manure and sawdust. When we got back I was met by my Emerson’s Acre partner, Stephanie McDonald, and her husband, Rob.

Together, with the added muscle of my wife, Samantha, we made short work of a truck load of composted horse poo. In less than two hours we had the entire load moved and two of the four beds filled and ready to go.

I distinctly remember a feeling of disappointment when we were done. We still had an hour or so of daylight and I still had energy. The job just seemed a little too easy.

Fast forward a week.

Yesterday after working at the gym until 11 am I loaded up Bronwyn, Thalia and Bronwyn’s friend, Ella, another girl under 12, and headed back to Shelby. The guy I get the compost from has four horses, one of them a miniature, and the girls were eager to see them.

In my experience the only way to maintain the upper hand with a gaggle of pre-adolescent girls is to beat them to the punch, subdue them with embarrassment as it were. As such we listened to the 90’s grunge station loudly and I sang along, loudly. It worked like a charm.

We stopped at Tractor Supply Company, my new favorite retail store, on the way back. Ella goofed, Thalia laughed, and Bronwyn searched for a halter “small enough to fit the goats.” She abandoned that search when the smallest one she could find was “twenty dollars!” and she found out I was going to make her buy it herself.

I bought a shepherd’s crook, will full intent to make it easier to catch Honey and Harriet, a bag of sweet feed and a new rubber feed bowl.

Once back at the house everyone scattered, as I expected. Resignedly I assigned the girls the task of keeping my water bottle full, stripped off my shirt (doing my best to defeat the farmer’s tan, you know) and set to work.

Rob and Stephanie were off camping this weekend and it didn’t seem right to call anyone else at the last minute.

“Hey Buddy, wanna come over to my place and shovel shit?”

Like any veteran personal trainer I began with the compulsive counting of reps. 25 shovels to the wheelbarrow, 100 yards to the garden bed…I lost track of the trips. I started around three thirty and worked until after seven. The final run was a hard blitz to get finished. A thunder storm was brewing up and I really didn’t want to spend today extracting the remaining mud from the bed of my truck.

Halfway through the chore I was reminded of my love/hate relationship with my boots. They’re a pair of ten year old Red Wings I bought back when I was still in the construction business. A well meaning chiropractor had sent me to an equally well meaning orthopedist. The orthopedist had outfit me with shoe inserts (after all that’s what they do, right?) and recommend that I look into Red Wings for work boots. Out of the near $600 investment the only worthwhile component was the boots. Man, I love those boots.

So much so that three years ago when the soles wore out, rather than replace them I had them resoled. Being a cheap bastard I opted or a local cobbler who was closer and cheaper than the closest Red Wing outfit.

Not knowing any better I let them replace the sole with a lug sole. Mudcatchers. Those soles have caused more heart ache than I care to recount. They trap dirt and mud and then release them the minute I step in the house. No amount of boot scraping or stomping will allow me to grab a glass of water or run to the bathroom without an earful of scolding for tracking dirt in the house.

Once I had moved half of the load I decided to climb up into the bed to make shoveling more effective. Instantly my soles filled up and my traction was reduced to nil.

On my eleventy-billionth trip up the hill I slipped. Falling face first into the hill I struck my left knee and planted the wheelbarrow handles hard into the ground in front of me. I dumped half of my load into my face and suddenly not wearing a shirt lost most of it’s charm.

Quick to recover, lest the goats start to snicker, I brushed myself off and dumped my load.

More and more I began to consider just what my friends might be doing at that moment. In my mind’s eye they were all lazy, shiftless bastards. Probably doing nothing more productive than just “hanging out” and drinking beer. Shameful, I admit, but it’s true. In all honesty I don’t know if I was questioning the sanity of my own actions or trying on a little superiority to motivate me to finish. Either way I still had half a truckload to move and move it I did.

Given the propensity of my boots to clog up and lose traction I stayed out of the truck bed and used a rake to pull the compost closer so I could get at it with the shovel.

On the last load to the garden rain drops began to fall. I had finished filling the garden beds but there was still two or three loads in the truck. It was here I began to negotiate with God.

“Hey God, I’m almost finished. Can you hold out just a few minutes more?”

Lightening flashes.


Scattered rain drops and the occasional lightening flash spurred me to finish. God was holding up but He made it clear He wouldn’t be doing so for long. Samantha pulled up from her grocery trip as I furiously swept the remaining compost out of the truck bed into the wheelbarrow.

Side note: Compost, topsoil, mulch and the like hold moisture. If not effectively removed from the truck bed they can encourage rust and the early degradation of an unlined truck bed.

The good news is that I finished. I dumped the remaining three loads into an unused portion of one of my existing garden beds to be tilled in later. Before doing so I had to hoe up a a whole bunch of weed growth, but I did that too.

Before coming in I harvested a mess of spinach, collards, mustard greens and chard for Samantha to to cook into one of our staple dishes, Beans and Greens and Sausage.

Today, it must be said, I have done nothing. It’s almost three o’clock and besides getting up to eat or make food I have been in this chair pretty much all day, reading and now finishing this blog post. It must also be said that I am sore. My entire posterior chain, from my calves to my shoulders has something to say about yesterday’s work. As a weightlifter I consider those things to be good things, but nonetheless they are also excuses for why I ain’t doing diddly for the rest of the day. That and eliciting groans of discomfort every time I get up.

I hope you’re having a good one, too.


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


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