Crowder’s Mountain by moonlight

I went on my first solo backpacking trip Wednesday night. I was trying out my new lightweight tarp that I made from a kit (see if you’re interested). Because I’m not confident in my sewing abilities, I decided to go on a short overnighter to nearby Crowder’s Mountain State Park.

The good news is that the camping trail is only one mile long. The bad news is there’s no water available, so you have to carry every drop yourself, including enough to drown your campfire. One mishap complicated that mission. After carrying in about a gallon of water, I lost about a quart into my pack as I was setting up camp. Note to self: don’t use a hydration system with a too-efficient quick release valve as a water carrier. I had to scrimp on water but had enough left to get by.

I also tried out a new ultra-light alcohol stove, also homemade. It’s the Super Cat, made from an empty cat food can–hence the name. (You can find instructions on the Web, if you want your own.) It may become my regular camping stove–very light, simple, easy to light, pretty much foolproof. The firewood provided by the park was a little green, so I generated more smoke than heat from it after I burned up the dry kindling I gathered. I ended up cooking dinner over the excess kindling, then watching the barely scorched logs go out within a couple of hours. I used the Super Cat for breakfast.

Going camping on a weeknight in October meant I pretty much had the forest to myself, except for the critters. I heard more owls than I knew could co-exist, plus some assorted creatures I never did identify. One sounded like a squeaky wheel. Another sounded exactly like someone blowing too hard on a plastic recorder.

The tarp performed very well. The night was cool (upper 40s) and I was in a summer-weight sleeping bag (actually under it, as advised by Ray Jardine, the developer of my tarp kit), but I slept snugly and comfortably–well, if sleeping on a hard-packed sand and clay tent pad can ever be called comfortable. Next trip I’ll try stealth camping so I can choose a softer campsite.

One nice thing about a tarp is you can see out on pretty much all sides, so I was able to enjoy the sights at my leisure. The night was very clear, the moon a little more than half-full. In the resulting light the campground (which by day is a fairly usual Piedmont forest) was about the most beautiful place I’ve seen–brilliant silvery moonlight illuminated patches of trees, understory bushes, and autumn leaves, both fallen and falling. I could easily walk around without a flashlight.

One continuing theme for my future camping will be to reduce the weight I carry as much as possible. This trip I carried a pack that weighed 22 lbs. before I added the water. It felt pretty good until I packed in the water, which added about 10 lbs. I was glad the hike in was only a mile, especially since the first half is all uphill. Walking out the next morning was much more fun, with almost all the food and water gone.



Belly Aching comes home

It’s been a tough year at Belly Acre Farm. Weather was a challenge early, with a warm winter interrupted by a late freeze in the spring. That was followed by cool weather for awhile, so it was easy to postpone replanting the freeze-damaged crops in anticipation of yet another cold snap.
Then there was the hail storm that blew over half the corn and, as Uncle Ray put it, made chow-chow of my bumper tomato, pepper, and cucumber crop. The cucumbers and peppers recovered, as did some of the tomatoes, but I didn’t harvest a single Brandywine tomato this year.
Part of the problems after that were my own doing. Just as the green beans started putting on beans, I went off to Edisto Island for a week. By the time I got back to the garden, the bean beetles had destroyed the plants, so we got just one small picking of white half-runners. We got a few bush beans later on, but the only beans that did well were the Kentucky Wonder pole beans, which turned out tough and stringy. (So much so that even Mom—who always insists she loves KW and insists that I plant them even though I’ve never done well with them– agreed I should take them off my planting list for next year.)
Some strange affliction struck the watermelons. The vines turned brown and died before any melons grew large enough to eat. Even the few personal-sized ice box melons I did salvage tasted nothing like the ones we enjoyed so much last year.
In addition to all the challenges, we entered a sort of sophomore slump as consumers. I’ve often joked that I would be a hero in my family if I ever figured out how to grow pizza and Chinese take-out. This year I began to feel that those were the only crops that would be worth growing.
Even with reduced yields, I found myself carrying home the harvest only to return it to the compost pile weeks later after it had languished unused at home. I started whining that I was raising labor-intensive compost rather than food.
In short, Belly Acre Farm was living up to its name. I spent more time belly aching than enjoying the fruits of my labors. I wondered whether it was worthwhile to plant anything else.
And then it came time to harvest the sweet potatoes and peanuts. The sweet potatoes—the first I’ve tried to grow– were far superior to what we have had before from any source. They varied in size, but a couple were almost as big as footballs, though still tender and sweet.
Out of two 100 square foot beds, I harvested about 1 ½ bushels of raw peanuts. Again, this was my first peanut crop, but the peanuts are large and flavorful. We’re still drying them so we can roast some in the shells—if the green peanut aficionados don’t eat the whole crop first.
A few weeks ago I set out some fall greens: collards, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, etc., and planted some radishes and garlic. It looks as if the late corn may yield one more harvest of sweet corn, and the pepper plants are hanging full of sweet and hot peppers. I’m getting excited again about the garden and have been looking through the seed catalogs to plan next spring’s planting.
In other words, I’ve been reminded what every gardener has to learn: No garden is ever perfect, but with persistence and patience, complete failures are rare.

Stay away from those taters!

I dug the first potatoes of the year this week, and I need to add one more tip to the list I wrote earlier.

After the plants get to any size, weed the patch by hand.

I’ve learned and relearned this lesson ever since I started Belly Acre Farm, each time thinking I’ve figured out how to weed the potato patch with my wheel hoe.

With a wheel hoe, you can weed right next to your crops. Or, with root crops like potatoes, even closer.

As the picture shows, I haven’t quite got that figured out.

Actually, these are all from the same potato plant on the corner of the patch. Most of the others will be fine, because the potatoes grew so thickly that they shaded out most weeds and I wasn’t tempted to venture into the patch. This plant started dying back before some of the others, and I assumed it wouldn’t have many potatoes. And of course I wanted to run the wheel hoe down the path between beds every now and then.

Oh, well, lesson learned–for the third year in a row.

The seeds won’t know the difference

When I helped my Dad in our family garden back in the 1950’s and 60’s, agriculture was pretty simple. There were only a few differing ideas about how to grow vegetables, and most people we knew gardened about the same. The times were changing, so the camps basically fell into the traditional and the scientific. A few folks farmed the way their grandfathers had, in what today would be considered organic farming, or nearly so; most had switched to chemical fertilizers and pest controls. Most people saved seeds from reliable open-pollinated standbys, although hybrids were gaining popularity. My Grandpa Nelson Shelton at first refused to buy hybrid seeds—he saw hybrids as a plot by the seed companies to force everyone to buy seed every year. But when he saw the results other farmers got from some of those hybrid seeds, he grudgingly bought a few selections to supplement his saved seeds.

In retrospect, Grandpa Nelson may have been right. Indeed, much of the gardening advice I see in the media today seems to be aimed at getting consumers to buy as much as possible. Now, I have nothing against hybrid seeds, and in fact plant a few myself. But for the most part I plant open-pollinated seeds, many of which I save from year to year.

The advice gardeners get today can be bewildering, especially to someone starting out. It starts with how to start—buy this system or that system. Don’t trust your soil—you’ll be better off if you build a raised bed (using our proven, if expensive, raised bed kit), fill it with bags of special potting soil, install a drip watering system to ensure your plants are constantly watered, etc.

If a beginning backyard gardener follows this advice, he or she will harvest some mighty expensive vegetables, and will have learned very little.

Having gardened in a variety of conditions in four different southern states, I have come to realize the wisdom of something my father often said about the relatively few fads that people touted when he was gardening: “the seeds won’t know the difference.”

Now, of course, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. If your new garden spot is rock-hard clay, you can’t just chip out a hole and throw some seeds in. But you don’t need to pretend your soil is irrelevant, either. The truth is, a plant has fairly basic needs, and if you meet those, it will grow happily. There’s nothing magical about the soil mix your garden center sells by the bag.

For a new garden bed, I recommend getting a soil test. In most states, the Cooperative Extension service offers soil tests for a very low fee. In North Carolina, they are free.

Based on the results of the soil test, choose the appropriate soil amendments. You’ll save money and frustration if you have that soil test to guide your purchases. When I tested the soil at Belly Acre Farm, for example, I found nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus levels were all good, probably because a neighbor had planted crimson clover on the fallow garden years before, and it reseeded itself every year. As a result, I’ve concentrated on adding organic matter and a little lime to balance the pH. Had I followed the current recommendations in the media, I would have spent hundreds or even thousands of dollars bringing in soil that was higher in organic matter but in other regards not as good as the existing soil.

By contrast, the small plot behind my house that I nicknamed The Brickyard, was deficient in nitrogen. And it had almost no organic matter. In the first few years, I tried adding the prescribed bagged potting mixes on top of the existing soil as advised, but the soil didn’t get a whole lot better. The major change was that the neighborhood cats found a wonderful outdoor litter box where I was trying to grow lettuce and snow peas. Only after I scooped off the cat-contaminated layer and double dug the beds did the soil start to improve. (The cats find it less attractive, too.)

My other bit of advice: Don’t worry too much about the raised bed approach that seems to be the current magic bullet for most popular media. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it, and it has some advantages. Raised beds reputedly warm faster in the spring, but I’ve noticed they also dry out a lot faster in the summer heat. If you have some real physical limitations that make it difficult to get down on ground level, a relatively high bed can help. So does using long-handled tools, and they cost less than one of those fancy raised beds.

And a final minor point: I’ve read a lot the past couple of years about skipping the seed rack and buying “ready to plant” seedlings from the home center. It is true that buying seedlings (or “bedding plants” as we old-timers call them) can give you a head start, especially with plants that are difficult to grow from seed. But this isn’t a magic bullet, either. Nowadays most bedding plants come from a single giant nursery company, and every year they seem to have problems with one crop or the other. And of course they ship those problems all over the region they serve. If you are concerned about biodiversity and even your own likelihood of success, you might not want to have all your seeds in one greenhouse, to paraphrase the old saying.

The plain fact is this: select plants that you want to grow, get good quality seeds or bedding plants, give them adequate sun, water, and decent soil, and they’ll grow. Protect against pests and disease, and they’ll yield a good harvest. Beyond that, as Dad would say, “they won’t know the difference.”

Good Friday for planting

It being past Easter, any of the old-timers you run into are bound to ask you, “Did you get your garden planted?”

They mean, of course, did you spend Good Friday planting all your summer vegetables? With only a few occasional exceptions, like potatoes going in earlier, or beans going in later, the normal practice around these parts was to plant your vegetables on Good Friday.

My Dad was not particularly superstitious—he laughed at an uncle who planted by the phase of the moon—but he never missed a Good Friday planting that I can recall.

“Anything you plant on Good Friday will come up in three days,” he would tell me as I helped him drop seeds into a new furrow.

“Really?” I would ask, gullible every year of my early childhood.

“Yes,” he would answer with a hint of humor in his face. “As long as it’s something that comes up in three days.”

Completing the ritual recitation of the ancient superstition, he would add, “And anything you plant on Rotten Saturday will rot in the ground and never grow.”

“Really?” I would repeat.

“No, the seeds won’t know the difference,” he would reply. That’s why he would have us working in the garden on both days while some of our neighbors would do other things on Saturday. I think he would have planted on Easter in some years if our garden had been shielded from the road and the view of fellow Baptists.

And, sure enough, as far as I can recall, the crops planted on Rotten Saturday did about the same as those planted on Good Friday.

This year has been one to test the old planting practices. Our winter was extremely mild, so much so that I was able to grow greens, onions, and garlic right through the cold months without fear of freezing. Yet our spring has had some very late frost, so that I had to scurry around covering cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers two weeks after our average last frost date.

Luckily, I waited to plant corn and beans until well after Easter, so they were not subject to the late freezes.

Well, I hope not. A week ago, I planted my first corn and beans. Our last (I hope) frost was Tuesday, just three days later. Fortunately, Good Friday was a couple of weeks ago, so the seeds did not sprout in those three days and thus were resting comfortably underground.

I hope that, as Dad used to say, they didn’t know the difference.

Scion of Charlemagne

Our families have had an on-again, off-again interest in genealogy over the years. Lately it’s been on-again in the Sheltons, my mother’s side of the extended family tree. From what I’ve learned lately, it might be time to stop shaking that tree. Dad always said if you shake your family tree hard enough, a horse thief is likely to fall out.

We’ve known little about our ancestry on the Shelton side, except for the direct line that included people my mother could remember. We were told Grandma Estie’s people were Shipmans from the mountains, having come over from Ireland with the other Scotch-Irish settlers. Mom’s brother Ray says we are descended from the Indians who sold Manhattan for a handful of beads. On Grandpa Nelson’s side, we knew even less. We thought that the Sheltons had been in this part of North Carolina for a long time, but that’s about all we knew.

A few years ago we were given copies of an unpublished book written by Z.F. Shelton, a distant relative from Montgomery, Alabama. The book is in the form of a typewritten manuscript, dated 1962, and traces the Sheltons back more or less to Adam.

Now, to get our lineage back that far, brother Z.F. takes a few liberties, including skipping lightly over several chasms of Biblical “begets,” as well as several undocumented generations since the Fall of Rome. He pretty well assumes that we are of noble birth, having been descended from Charlemagne, at least, and a number of nobles since then who carried the name “de Shelton.”

It was from Z.F. that we learned of the family story that our North Carolina progenitor, Spencer Shelton, was carried on horseback as an infant from Virginia to Lincoln County to be raised by “relatives already living in the area.”

From Spencer Shelton, Z.F. draws a straight line back to the pioneer Sheltons of the late 1600s and thence across the Atlantic to the old country and Shelton manor. It seems the traditional first names of the family were historical vestiges of our family’s relations. My grandfather, Nelson Shelton, was named, indirectly, for our old cousin, Admiral Nelson. All the Spencer Sheltons were so named because we are related to the noble Spencers (yes, Princess Diana’s family).

Having grown up assuming we are of far humbler stock, we found these revelations striking. But, as they say, that knowledge and $4 will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. So we congratulated ourselves and put the information aside.

A few weeks ago, Joyce and I visited the Henry Houser house, just outside the Kings Mountain National Battleground Park. It was built in the early 1800s and is open only twice a year, so we went down to take a look. A table set up in the yard featured a team of local genealogists with some notebooks of information they had compiled. I struck up a conversation with one of the women, who knows a lot of the old families in the area. She frequently helps families establish histories to support applications for membership in the DAR.

I mentioned the Sheltons. Yes, she knew the family, having recently helped a DAR applicant who had roots in that family.

“Did you know,” she asked, “that DNA tests done on the Sheltons in Virginia show no relationship whatsoever to the Sheltons in England?”

I did not know. But it makes sense. I’ve always wondered why so many people of noble birth came to the New World, while almost nobody I know was descended from a peasant. If we take things at face value, the noble class reproduced like bunnies, while the peasant class died out generations ago through attrition.

But think about it. It’s 1750 or so. You’re across the world from anyone who knows you, there’s almost no communication with the old country, and your prospects suddenly depend on your own ability to impress a new community with your worth. Now, are you an escaped peasant hoping for a fresh start, or a nobleman’s son whose valuables were somehow lost in transit?

I thought so. Me, too.

Biodiversity at home

Biodiversity at home

As the summer growing season winds down, I’m continuing to nurse along some summer crops at Belly Acre Farm. Okra is still very productive, and we’re still eating green beans and field peas – although as the deer get hungrier and bolder, I’m losing more peas than I’m picking. My tomato plants are putting on a last gasp, producing as many tomatoes as they did at peak season, but smaller, with a more intense, acidic flavor. The sharper flavor may be because my deer are also discovering the tomatoes, so I tend to pick the fruit before it ripens completely. We dug our first sweet potatoes last week, with more to be dug over the next few weeks.

The garden is also entering the fall growing season. I’m planting more different fall and winter vegetables than ever—a number of salad greens, radishes, beets, broccoli, potatoes, garlic, and onions. These last three won’t be harvested until next spring or summer, but I’m putting them in the ground now.

Even though I’m planting more in the fall this year, I do have less to do in the garden, so I’ve used the extra time to update my plant inventory. More properly, I’m creating a plant inventory. Being an English major, I’ve kept my garden records as narrative journal entries, illustrated with quickly sketched diagrams to show where things are planted. Finding when I planted something and how it performed requires re-reading my textual notes for almost the whole year.

That changed after Joyce and I attended the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia. We caught part of a seminar on managing a home garden/mini-farm given by Cindy Conner. (Her website is She showed a simple timeline style chart of her garden beds done as Excel spreadsheets. It was one of several “well, duh” moments I had during the festival.

I had already decided to convert my open field to a series of defined beds, so the timeline charts seemed a natural progression. Each bed will be tracked on its own section of the spreadsheet, with each crop listed under the bed where it grows, and a timeline showing when it was planted, when it started producing, and when it was finished and removed.

In the process of developing my spreadsheet, I went back through my notes from this year and listed out all the different crops I’ve grown.

I was amazed when I saw that my little garden has been home to 67 different crops since March!

I haven’t planted anything exotic (well, maybe mache would strike many as exotic), but I have grown several varieties of several common vegetables – five varieties of green beans, four kinds of corn, two different potatoes, three different watermelons, for instance. I’ve also tried to keep every section of the garden planted for the whole growing season.

And I’m putting more emphasis on extending the growing season with my fall crops. The mache, along with kale and other greens, are supposed to survive our typical winter weather so we can eat fresh food all winter.

I’m not sure I’ll keep growing this many different varieties in future years, but I’ve already identified several things I want to add, and we enjoy the differences between the different green beans, tomatoes, and potatoes. So next year’s list probably won’t be any shorter.