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Barefoot Farmer

Barefoot Farmer - Jeff Poppen

The Barefoot Farmer (Jeff Poppen) uses his farm (Long Hungry Creek Farm) as an example in demonstrating good farming principles. The landscape and atmosphere of the 21st century is leaning away from a small farm economy, bucolic scenery, sustainable agriculture and homegrown meals. The health of ourselves and our environment can only be enhanced by a reliance on local small farms for our needs. To learn more about these principle join Jeff Poppen with his weekly column - Barefoot Farmer.

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The World is an Onion PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Poppen   
Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The world is an onion. We peel off layers and shed tears. Something good for us makes us cry. There’s a lot of sadness in the world, but nothing that an onion-filled meal can’t make a little better.

At the first dry spell in March, we are planting onions. Six boxes, with 30 bunches in each, filled up a patch that’s about 1/3 of an acre. The land was composted and rough plowed with a mold board plow last fall. Rebreaking with a harrow behind it was all it needed this spring.

Onion plants are set about six inches apart in rows on our standard 44 inch centers. I sort the bunches and pull out the tiny ones, who will need to grow in a bed before they are set in the field. The others are laid in the furrow and covered up with soil.

Because of their thin leaves, onions require diligent weeding. They don’t shade out competition like a potato or bean plant will. So, before the weeds appear, we hoe out between the plants and keep the middles busted out with the cultivating tractor.

Diversification is the key to a healthy farm. Growing many different kinds of crops and animals follows nature’s way and uses different nutrients and elements. It also spreads the workload evenly throughout the year. We weed onions in April before there is much else out in the garden.

The dry, hot weather didn’t seem to bother the onions. Wet spells before harvest can cause many to start going bad, but they all looked great yesterday as we pulled up eight truck loads.

A little hay was spread out on the barn loft floor and rows of onions were laid out to dry. I want the green tops to turn brown before storage. We either bag them up in onion sacks, or tie them up in bunches to hang up. Sometimes we take the time to braid them, which looks pretty but is time consuming.

Onion sets are simply sown in a furrow and covered up with the tractor. They don’t need much weeding because they come up thick and are marketed early as green onions. We do thin them sometimes to let the remaining ones make bulbs, but these are also marketed directly. Onion sets don’t make as good a storage onion as onion plants, because they are already a year old.

What’s for dinner? Potatoes, and onions. Squash, and onions. Beans, and onions. Italian, Mexican, Chinese, or Southern cusine will all call for onions. So don’t cry about it, keep  peeling those onions, eat well and stay healthy.

Double-Digging PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Poppen   
Tuesday, June 26, 2012

If you love digging in your garden, you’ll have twice as much fun double-digging.

When we dig into the earth, a change n color and texture can be noticed. Somewhere between six inches and a foot deep, the top soil ends and the subsoil begins. Topsoil is darker, looser and where the life is. The subsoil is lighter in color, an heavier in texture and lifeless.

Imagine your garden with eight inches of top soil and all of the plant roots living there. Then imagine it twice as deep. It’s like having a garden twice as big for the roots, and the plants will respond accordingly. Double digging is an old time method of deepening garden soil.

First, a shovelful of soil is removed from one side of the garden bed. It can be out to the side or in a wheelbarrow. We’ll dig until we hit the subsoil.

Now we break up the subsoil with a digging fork and pick. It feels good to open up this tight ground so our roots can penetrate easily. A root can’t get in here, it’s as hard as cement. We want to incorporate air and loosen her up.

Tennessee subsoil is often acidic so a sprinkling of lime will help to encourage root activity. I swing the back of the fork on the clods to further break them up.

The next step is to scoot over and move the adjacent topsoil onto the freshly dug trench. Once it’s over there, pick up the pick again and work up the lower layer. We want to leave the subsoil where it is, but really fluff it up. Roots need oxygen, and by double digging they can utilize twice as much area in the soil. If allowed to, many plants will send the roots down several feet. Think of all the extra nutrients and moisture they can get.

The last trench gets filled with the soil from the first one. The bed will be slightly higher than ground level because of the new air spaces. Don’t walk on it. Squishing it down defeats the purpose. Make the bed narrow enough, five feet or less, to be able to reach easily into the middle.

I was a back yard gardener long ago, and double dug the beds. Now, as a farmer, I employ a tool to break up the hardpan created by plowing. A sub-soiler is a two-foot long

Shank with a shoe on it. it is pulled through the fields, but only when it is dry. Wet clay will smear and seal back up. I usually do it in August, after a crop is removed and before the cover crops are sown.

The first time a bed is double dug will require the most work. Next year it will be easier. Keep the soil loose up to your elbows and you’ll soon be up to your elbows in vegetables.

May Flies for Gardeners PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Poppens   
Tuesday, June 12, 2012

May flies by for gardeners. Between planting summer vegetables and hoeing what’s already growing, there is hardly time to pick a salad. But our tiny plants from early May become thousands of lettuce heads by Memorial Day, and everyone must do their part and eat their greens.

We only hoed them once. Dry weather kept the weeds from sprouting, and good soil management insured plenty of moisture for the lettuce roots. I picture a giant sponge underneath our fields, capable of soaking in the winter and spring rains and slowly releasing water to the crops in the summer. Deciding to not hoe it again has now brought up weeds, but the lettuce has made heads and son this field will be plowed and replanted anyways.

There was plenty of hoeing to do elsewhere. Beans, cucumbers and squash plantings have been hoed and thinned. Soil gets pulled in to help hill crops. Potatoes get hilled with disc hillers on the farmall tractor, and this is also how we make the ridges for sweet potatoes. We’ll use them for the last pass through the corn, too.

Beets, onions and carrots don’t want to be hilled. They would rather have their shoulders coming out of the ground. Swiss Chard, celery and parsley like the soil neither higher or lower, although celery can be blanched by mulching deeply.

I’m trying parsnips again, but planting later than I have before. They germinate slowly and often get lost in spring weeds. Planting them in early May got us a good stand, but they still required a lot of tedious hand work.

Several bushels of butternuts were split, yielding a few pounds of seeds to plant about an acre. They would have been easier to plant if they weren’t so sticky. Next year I’ll  try and get the seeds out and dried a few days before sowing.

We rolled out our groundcloth for melons. A dozen seeds go into each freshly worked hill, and later thinned to two. A local sawmill donated slab wood to hold the cloth down, and will be remembered come harvest.

Second plantings of beans, summer squash and cucumbers separate the melons from the tomato patch. We have a row of dill in the center to break up the tomato jungle soon to form. We dug holes four feet apart and poured a half gallon of water in the hole. Then we take our bare root transplants from the cold frames and lay them in the row, roots in mud and stem in furrow, and rake in dry dirt over them. Just the top six inches bends up out of the ground.

Peppers are planted three feet apart, and eggplants slightly closer. Sweet potatoes are spaced at 16 inches. One person lays a plant down and the partner pushes it in with a stick. The stick has a 16'” wire on it, to mark the spot where the next plant goes. Processes like this allow us to move down the row quickly, with less bending over and less decision making.

Flowers get planted on the edges of the fields or on the ends of the rows. I tike cosmos and sunflowers for a tall border, and zinnias and marigolds for a shorter one. Tithonia, or Mexican Sunflower, makes a great accent for special places with its velvet stems and bright orange blooms. White flowered buckwheat is sown wherever we need a temporary ground cover.

As we enter June, the potatoes are laid by and the garlic is topped and soon to be dug. Most fields are planted, but a pumpkin patch is still in the seed jar. Hoeing and harvesting are the daily chores, along with weekly haying. We are also clearing brush from along the power lines on our farm, something I highly recommend everyone do.

Weather PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Poppens   
Tuesday, May 15, 2012

We talk about the weather often. A recurring spring question for gardeners is, “Has the weather settled?” We want to plant frost tender crops, but we do not know when the last frost will occur. As of May 1st, it is not likely going to frost, but there is still a possibility. About 20 years ago, there was a frost on May 16th. 10 years ago there was one on May 18th. The last frost could, however, be in March.

So, we take our chances. If the seed is cheap and burning a hole in your pocket, go ahead and till the soil deeply and harrow a seedbed. The land needs to be biologically active, mineralized, loose, and weed-free. Before we plant more, all of the spring crops should be hoed and cultivated.

Into the furrows go the alternating rows of beans and cucumbers. These companion plants go in at the same time as a row each of yellow squash, scallop squash, and zucchini. I step on the seed as I drop it, and rake over an inch or so of dry, not cloddy soil. In a few days, I rake directly over the row to destroy weedlings.

As the crops pop up, we rake away from the row. After the true leaves appear, hoeing begins. By planting thickly, thinning is done with the hoe. It is easier to hoe plants than grass and weeds. No weeds are allowed in the garden, period.

Corn is planted a foot apart. Turkeys and crows love to eat the freshly sprouted kernels, leaving a small corn plant on the surface. I have to put up scarecrows. I also dump some corn at the edges of the fields. Birds will eat this rather than dig up the seeds. Pine tar on the seeds definitely defeats the birds, but this method is very messy. Bird life is necessary for the farm, so we have to work with them.

Notice where Johnson grass is and dig it all the way out with a fork. Bermuda grass succumbs to weekly tillage and constant raking of the roots to the surface. It is better to do this a few times and plant later than to plant right into it.

Sow sweet basil and dill into shallow furrows and cover them lightly with fine soil. Zinnias are planted the same way, as is lettuce. Early lettuce seedlings can be transplanted a foot apart into beds to make heads of lettuce.

Winter squashes are planted deeper and get stepped on before they’re covered. They really sprout and take up a lot of space. Shelly beans, like Taylor’s Dwarf Horticulture bean, can go in alternate rows and be harvested before they are overcome with the vine from the squash.

Melons are the only crop we grow on plastic. We get 6 mil, 16 foot wide pieced and cut holes in a diamond pattern 5 or 6 feet apart. 10 or 12 seeds go in each hill and are later thinned to the best 2. Boards weight the plastic down, and it is picked up and stored away right after the harvest, so it will last for several years.

The cold frame is watered, and the tomatoes lifted out. Keeping their roots moist, they are laid down in a furrow and mudded. This means water has been poured into a small hole, making mud, and the bare root of the plant is placed in it. Dry soil is pulled on top. If the plants are long, we lay them down so only the top few inches are above ground. Tomato plants will form roots on the buried stem.

Our last planting is a field of sweet potatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Okra, field peas, and our later plantings of beans, cucumbers, and squash will go in then as well. These get planted every 3 or 4 weeks, so a fresh crop comes in when the earlier ones begin to peter out.

Onions are hoed, potatoes hilled, and all the spring crops are carefully tended. We keep a look out for beetles and cutworms on our newly planted crops. Soil is pulled away from beets, carrots, and onions, but pulled toward potatoes, corn, squash, beans, and cucumbers. After the ground warms up, tomatoes will get a thick mulch of hay.

The tomatoes are more valuable, so I do not gamble with them. Except for a row of early ones, I wait until the 3rd week of May to set them out. If frost threatens, we put a reemay over the rows. Crops planted in mid-May often catch up to the earlier plantings anyway. I try to wait, but it is tempting to get some planting done earlier. You can never tell about the weather, no matter how much we talk about it.

Interesting Characteristic PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jeff Poppens   
Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Human nature has the interesting characteristic of an inevitable ability to overcomplicate simple issues.  For example, I could have just said “people make things too complex.” Working with mother nature is so easy that it baffles our minds. I see this often as I consult with other gardeners.

In an urban backyard, a lady has six raised beds, about two feet tall. The plants could be healthier, and I asked about the soil. “It is pure compost,” she said. It looked like undigested organic matter to me.

“Where did you get the ‘compost’?” I asked. “I bought bags of it at the store,” she replied. I felt it and could tell it did not have life. Further inquiry revealed no soil had been used at all.

At this point I dug a hole nearby. As I suspected from the abundant white clover, her soil was naturally rich bottomland, just compacted. I loosened it up, added a bit of sand and her “compost,” and had something plants would love to grow in. A hole dug further down from the house turned up gorgeous soil.

Composting is both a breaking down process and a building up process. The end result is a stable, humus-clay complex capable of holding nutrients and moisture that are slowly released as plants need them. Mother nature is an expert composter.

When left alone, an appropriate amount of fallen leaves, along with other organic materials, gets mixed with the waste products from animals and lays upon the soil. Carbonic acid forms when it rains and dissolves minerals from the rocks.  This results in a beautiful topsoil.

Much of what clients show me as compost has not broken completely down. Bits of wood chips and leaves will rob nitrogen from the soil to continue their decay. This will cause plants to be yellowish and unhealthy.

The building up process requires microbes. Good compost feels silky and soft, and smells like forest soil. Adding good compost to a new pile insures the presence of these microbes, which can then have families and colonize their new home. They need air, moisture, and a few months to build up a stable humus.

The lady spoken of earlier then showed me her composter. It was a plastic bin that can be turned with a handle, and inside it was her kitchen food scraps. Composting was not happening- no soil, air, water, or microbes. I would be much more simple to dig a trench in her beautiful soil and put the kitchen scraps in it every day and kick a little soil over them.

Mother nature teaches us to slowly decompose organic matter. Let life processes arise out of the death and decay processes. We do not need bags of “compost,” which can contain toxic poultry litter, un-rotted wood chips, and products of uncertain quality. We do not need two-foot tall beds, which will have to be watered a lot, or plastic compost digesters. Let’s enliven our soils with good compost, and not confound things. Keep it simple.

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