News from Belly Acre Farm

The weather has been too wet lately to get any early crops planted, but Mom and I have managed to resurrect our unspoken power struggle over Belly Acre Farm.

For those who don’t already know, Belly Acre Farm is the name I’ve given to the large garden plot I’ve been working the past couple of years. When I was a boy, my family grew much of our own food on about one acre. The field lay fallow for years after Dad died, and I decided three years ago to plant a smaller section with a few vegetables. I named it Belly Acre Farm in honor of how my brothers and I felt about working that plot when we were kids.

Over the years, I’ve been confined to very small backyard gardens, and I learned to use intensive, organic methods. Those methods let me grow vegetables in smaller spaces without using powered equipment or artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Mom is more old school, using methods developed for large acreage relying on tractors and chemicals. She considers my garden plot too small, too crowded, and under-supplemented. That’s where the power struggle comes in.

The first year of Belly Acre Farm, Mom’s neighbor offered to turn my plot with his small tractor. The land had been unbroken for years, so I gratefully accepted. I hoped he would keep his plow shallow, to minimize the amount of heavy clay subsoil that ended up on top of the nice, humus-rich stuff that’s been building there for years. I planned to use hand tools to plant after the soil was broken. Mom thought that was barbaric. She arranged for me to borrow Uncle Ray’s roto-tiller.

Okay, I thought. The turning plow left some pretty big clods, so the Troy-Bilt will be useful this first year. But once I finish with it, I’ll go back to my hand tools from then on. If I take care of the soil, it won’t need roto-tilling again. Certainly not turning, which would pull up that heavy clay. I bought an old-fashioned push plow with a cultivator and a couple of plows to use in weeding and laying off rows. Mom laughed, but then allowed as how Dad had used one even after he bought his “mule,” a vintage David Bradley two-wheeled tractor.

When the bean beetles attacked, along with Japanese beetles and a few other pests, Mom was clearly scandalized that I wasn’t dousing everything with Sevin. I reminded her that Dad had trouble with bugs even when he used pesticides, just as her neighbors reported they were losing the battle with bugs that season, even with Sevin. I stuck with my insecticidal soap for awhile, but eventually I began to doubt my own convictions. I dug Dad’s old duster out of the basement, went and bought some Sevin, and dusted just about the whole garden, following the instructions as closely as I could, trying to protect the bees.

The bean crop ended right about then. Even later plantings didn’t produce much. The Japanese beetles stayed after the corn, even with multiple applications of Sevin. Luckily, corn doesn’t depend on bees for pollination, so the crop didn’t suffer that much. But the okra, which had just started to bloom, didn’t do much of anything.

Last year Mom couldn’t find anyone with a tractor and free time. I thought I was on the way to organic nirvana. Soon my garden would be fully under my control. I vowed to stick with my hand tools and organic methods, even if it meant driving over to Belly Acre Farm more often to hand-pick the pests.

But fate intervened. My mother-in-law, who thinks I’m even more crazy than my mother does, gave me her old roto-tiller, which had been sitting for years unused in my sister-in-law’s garage. To avoid appearing ungrateful, I spent a fair amount of time and money getting it running again.

It’ll be useful for breaking up the soil before first planting, I told myself, then I’ll go back to sustainable purity. As I blogged last year, I spent much of the season trying to keep that thing running so I could tell my mother-in-law it was “doing fine.” And it was useful in opening up new patches of ground as I expanded the garden over the summer. But by the end of the summer I seriously questioned if it had been worth the effort. With my close- and wide-row planting, I couldn’t use it for anything except for breaking new ground or tilling under old crops. And it runs like it’s powered by a 40-year-old Tecumseh, which is what it is. And, by the way, Tecumseh went out of the small engine business a couple of years ago, so parts are increasingly hard to find.

Except for that concession to gasoline-improved farming, I stuck to my guns. I handpicked potato bugs and bean beetles, and used insecticidal soap on the corn.

My garden’s results were mixed last year, but good enough to convince me I’m on the right track. Even Mom was amazed at the okra crop, and she admits that even her neighbors, who know what they’re doing, had similar results. The weather turned hot and dry about mid-summer, so yields were down on late-maturing crops. Stink bugs, which have apparently been introduced through imported cut flowers and eat a variety of garden vegetables, are pretty much unstoppable even with agricultural chemicals.

I planted a summer yellow squash that is somewhat resistant to the beasties, so we had more squash than many people. Our watermelons produced heavily before the stink bugs overcame the vines late in the season. My zucchini produced so much before succumbing, as did everyone else’s, that we were more relieved than disappointed. My tomatoes were doing well until someone picked the vines clean one night. Stink bugs aren’t the only garden thieves, apparently.

I bought a wheel hoe, an improved push plow design that makes weeding much easier. That is probably the best purchase I’ve made yet. (I don’t do advertising, but I got it from Valley Oak Tools — Even if I had been able to get the tiller running and managed to navigate it through my rows, it would not have been any faster nor easier.

Mom was dismissive.

“It looks like something you’d see them using in Amish country,” was about all she would say.

This year, I started working on her even before I started on the soil.

“You know, the tiller wasn’t running when I put it away last fall,” I threw out as an opening salvo.

“It’s going to have some work done on it, and I can’t figure out what it needs. I’ll need to find somebody who will come and look at it, or else I’ll have to borrow a truck and take it to a shop. And I’m not even sure if you can get parts for that engine.” I laid it on thick.

“It’s probably not even worth all that trouble. I won’t even be able to use it except to break the ground. After that I’ll use the wheel hoe and hand tools.”

Surely she wouldn’t expect me to use the tiller now.

A few days later, she called to tell me that Kerry Clippard had agreed to turn the garden with his Massey-Ferguson, and she was asking around to find somebody who would work on the tiller.

“As long as Kerry is nice enough to do this for us, let’s have him do the whole garden,” she added demurely. Score another point for Mom. It has continued to bother her that I’m working a small section, not what she considers the real garden, the one Dad farmed but said every year he needed to cut down. Never mind that we’ve produced plenty of food over two less-than-perfect years–especially considering I usually do the harvesting by myself. A banner year might swamp us.

As luck would have it, she was away from home when Kerry brought his tractor over, so I met him at Mom’s house. When he asked where the garden was, I stepped off the plot I used last year. Score one for me.

Mom gave me a little grief when she got home.

“Why didn’t you have him do the whole thing?” she asked.

I repeated my argument that the smaller plot is all I can handle, and we got plenty from it last year. I even told her I could hand dig a small plot closer to the house for her to plant her low-acid tomatoes, even though I used the tiller for that last year. Kerry’s tractor wasn’t needed for that, I said.

She let me get away with that, although I can tell she’s still not satisfied. But I have no illusions. Winning one round against my determined mother doesn’t mean victory by any stretch of the imagination.

Kerry planned three passes with three different implements: disks, rippers, and tiller. I haven’t been to Belly Acre since the first pass.

I won’t be too surprised if Mom convinces him to do the whole field when he comes back.

And I figure the next time I visit my mother-in-law, she might have been prompted to ask me how that tiller is doing.



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