Gardening, farming, and Verlyn Klinkenborg

I am going to say it out loud.  I don’t enjoy gardening.

Yesterday, I was ready to say ‘I hate gardening,’ but I slept on it and a new day convinced me that wasn’t really true. There are parts of gardening I don’t mind (seed starting, watering), and one I actively enjoy (harvesting!).

Yesterday, though, I was doing one of the parts I hate. Wheelbarrowing. I’m on record as believing that, in the pantheon of important inventions brought to us by the Chinese, the wheelbarrow just doesn’t rank up there with paper or gunpowder. Or noodles, come to think of it. It is thanks to the wheelbarrow that gardeners everywhere have been spilling large loads of heavy things for over 2000 years.

Yesterday, it was compost. We have a big pile of what used to be pig and chicken poop, combined with kitchen scraps, leaves and straw. It is now part compost, part mostly-broken-down leaves and straw (the poop and the scraps, thankfully, seem to have broken down completely). Wheelbarrow load by wheelbarrow load, I hauled it up to the garden. It really wasn’t any fun.

Although the afternoon I spent wheelbarrowing gave me an excellent workout, I derived none of that sense of satisfaction and one-with-the-earthness that real gardeners report. Instead, I came away with the sense, and not for the first time, that what we do is woefully inefficient, and borders – literally and figuratively – on fruitless.

And now, the morning after, I come across a New York Times piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg, the Times’ house agricultural commentator. Klinkenborg grew up on a farm, and now lives and writes about “The Rural Life” for the Times, on whose editorial board he sits.

Klinkenborg is of the Agrarian Pastoral school. Wendell Berry, but without the dirt under his fingernails. He’s a gentleman commentator; although he lives on a farm, there doesn’t seem to be a livelihood involved.

I think we’re all entitled to an opinion about farming, whether we feed people or not. In fact, I think it’s important that all of us, whether we farm or we don’t, pay attention to the way our food supply works, and have discussions about it in the public space. But I get a little tired of the rose-colored glasses through which some of our commentators look at our country’s agricultural past.

Klinkenborg put those glasses on to take a trip through California’s San Joaquin valley, and lamented that the farming happening there looked so little like the farming of his youth. He brings up a couple of important issues – irrigation and water use are critical to the future, and the present, of California agriculture – but imbeds them in a meditation on mechanization. “Lost in the Geometry of California’s Farms,” he (or his editor) calls the piece, in which he regrets that, “Every human imperfection linked with the word ‘farming’ has been erased. The rows are machined. The earth is molded.” And here are the culprits: “Every tractor, vastly too small a word for the machines in the distance, was raising a dust storm all its own, and there were hundreds of them, up and down the valley.”

Come on, Verlyn! There are lots of things we need to fix about modern agriculture, but straight rows aren’t one of them. Many of the things that have made agriculture efficient have caused problems. Reliance on monocrops and overuse of chemicals are bone fide issues. But machinery? The economies of scale that allow machines to do the work of humans help keep food inexpensive without any real downside.

Any time he wants ‘human imperfection,’ Verlyn Klinkenborg is welcome to come to my house. He’ll find me tipping over my wheelbarrow full of mostly broken down compost, wishing for a tractor. Fortunately, every farmer who takes on the grave responsibility of feeding the world already has one.

28 people are having a conversation about “Gardening, farming, and Verlyn Klinkenborg

  1. Accidental Mick says:

    I agree with you exactly. I am afraid that people who find something noble and satisfying in digging over a plot by hand leave me cold.

    However, sitting on a bench in the sunshine watching other people doing manual labour is one of the most relaxing of pastimes.

    I was doing precisely that – watching a gang of builders laying a concrete base for a small building of some sort.

    Then, around the corner came a man with THE machine. It was the same width as a garden wheelbarrow (it came through an ordinary pedestrian gate) but was a bit longer and the tub on the top was taller so it would carry more. It didn’t have a wheel but tracks on either side and an engine between the tracks. The driver walked behind it holding a steering arm. When he got to where he was going, by flicking switches, he turned the tub sideways and tipped it. Nothing fell over.

    I want one of those machines. I NEED one of those machines and I demand that someone finds me one right now.

  2. We’re trying Square Foot Gardening this year. No rows here. We’ll see how it goes. Frankly, I’m just hoping my attention span lasts the entire summer so our big, new raised beds don’t end up a pile of green with nothing to show for it.

  3. I love my wheelbarrow. With just it and a shovel you can move a mountain … so long as it’s flat (and mountains generally aren’t).
    I do realise it’s just simple physics, but pushing that thing up even a slight incline is infinitely harder.

    If we were still “… Ploughing the earth with the arse-bone of a Giraffe” (as the fictional Shirley Valentine quipped) there wouldn’t be enough to go ’round. But the real reason I bought a rotary hoe is because I’m lazy. I love the look of orderly garden beds, all those wee baby vege’s sprouting in perfect rows. But face it, (unlike for human babies) all that pre-work is dull dull dull and tiresome.

  4. if I say it, and Kevin reads it, I’m almost scared you’ll never talk to me again. But here it comes…

    “gee. with so many of your projects involving moving great masses of mulch. Or compost. Or crushed driveway unicorn dust. YOU’D THINK KEVIN WOULD HAVE GOTTEN A BOBCAT BY NOW”

    • Oh you had to go and say that, didn’t you. You just had to go and say that. Thin ice, Amanda. Thin ice.

  5. I view it as a marathon. The race is long, hot and very tiring, but eventually you get past hitting the wall. After re-hydrating and relaxing enough to get the stiff and sore out, it just doesn’t seem worth it. When you look at the medal or trophy, in this case the harvest, all that crap (literally and figuratively) just seems so worth it. At least i know what I am eating. I view supermarket food as suspect anymore, so I garden, fish, hunt, etc. I still think prayer and meditation are better things to live by than are swearing and medication. Gardening just gives me a little of all: Please God let it rain/not rain. If I let the chickens or dicks in there, will they kill the beetles? Damn rabbits ate the spinach! Where are the aspirins? All in all, it is a great life and I am grateful to be on this side of the grass.

  6. Mick, you never should have told me about that machine. Never.

    Cat — I know the feeling. Attention lapses, and everything goes wild. Good luck with your square feet!

    Kingsley, I suspect your barrowing skills are superior to mine. Either that, or having a property with no flat surfaces makes the difference between loving and loathing one’s wheelbarrow. But, either way, it beats ploughing with the arse-boneo of a giraffe!

    Greg — If our harvests were better, I might have the same feeling about its all being worth it. But those nine squash and two pounds of beans just don’t give me that satisfaction. So why am I doing it, you ask? Good question.

    • Why do we keep doing it? Because there is an essential masochism in gardening, so with many other pursuits. We push ourselves to do tough labor, and then brag about it later over a nice casserole of home grown veg. As human beings we are never so happy as when we can complain about how hard something we have chosen to do was. I live near a highway that cuts through a fairly steep mountain range, and every weekend I see cyclists slowly forcing their bicycles up this mountain highway. And I think that there is no difference between that person who made the choice to spend hours riding up this road (without being under sniper coverage or having a family member held hostage to motivate them) and me carting around heavy loads of soil amendments, digging endless holes, shifting tons of litter from the chicken coop, turning heavy, HEAVY compost, etc.

      I am interested in trying my hand at ploughing with the arse-bone of a giraffe. Does anyone know where one could lay hands on a giraffe skeleton in So Cal?

      • Laura, Kevin saw your comment before I did and read it out loud to me as I peeled some red peppers (acquired from the supermarket) we’d roasted on the remains of last night’s charcoal. I laughed out loud when he got to the part about wanting to try the ploughing.

        All I have to add is that, if you do find the arse-bone, and you do give it a shot, I want an invitation to sit by the side of the garden, with umbrella and cold drink, and watch.

        • Tamar, I will let you know as soon as the giraffe arse-bone is acquired. Probably some time after schlepping another 2 or 3 loads of chicken feed, building another garden bed out of retaining wall blocks, filling said bed with every bit of compost, chicken litter, leaves, lawn clippings, etc. that I can lay my grubby (literally) hands on, painting the living room and sending the 5 roosters who have decided to have 5:30 a.m. crowing competitions to freezer camp. But I will make sure that when I get the bone I will have a nice shady place for you to sit and watch me. Although, if you are anything like me, after watching for a little bit, you will be overcome with the urge to try it yourself. I am thinking of training my big dog to pull the giraffe arse-bone while I push and guide it. There is a risk of Hollie stealing the arse-bone and finding a place in the shade to gnaw on it if it is a nice, fresh bone.

          • If she does, I’ll be watching from under the umbrella. With the cold drink. With absolutely no urge to pitch in. Or, at least, none that can’t be overcome.

  7. In Springtime we wake up our muscles with tasks. We haul thousands of pounds of oysters and the equipment they live in out to sea. We move large mounds of soil, compost, and leaves.
    We bring in yards of mulch. We do not spend our money on a gym membership. We do not spend our time moving metal plates up and down on some machine. Come summer I am quite proud of my “beach bod”.
    I’m a farmer and I work out…side.

  8. At the risk of endangering my tenuous friendship with you, I have to side with Amanda and wonder why you guys don’t have a Bobcat by now (or Kubota or Massey or other some-such make) because having one is really up Kevin’s alley. And having property kind of demands the equipment.

    Or, you could compost in situ and not have to move anything….

    If it helps, I’m totally jealous of what appears to be your amountain of compost. That should balance out that Carver Coarse pretty sublimely, I should think.

  9. Oh…dear…
    with farmers on the decline, aging themselves out of the race, machinery is inevitable. BUT there are many budding farmers growing up in concrete jungles that dont realise there is this way forward for them. We don’t have a tractor on our 8 acres. We farm by hand. By not having a tractor we also employ more people, provide employment and wages to the community whilst also not using harsh methods to till the soil.

    For you at home, a bobcat may be fine. Then I wonder at what you are trying to create. How much do you need to grow? How much to harvest? It is possible to grow your family’s food without the use of machinery…beyond that we’re talking industry. Where do you draw the line?

    Or could it be that you are importing what you should be creating in place. If that compost was built on the beds would you need to barrow it? Are you making the task harder than it needs to be because you are taking in the wisdom of people that aren’t living your life?

    I’ll shut up now. sorry! there is a small tendency in my nature to jump on soapboxes…we could always trade oyster farming tips onsite for onsite farming tips. We’d be more than happy to come and help you harvest oysters as a swap for farming tips. 🙂

    and just so you know who we are, and that i’m not some loser commenter you can find us at Field to Feast, Sydney on facebook. you’ll see our no water garden pics there too. with the driest poorest looking soil ever, and yet we make a living out of it.

  10. I’m all for mechanised labour. I lament the fact that our farm is not quite big enough to warrant buying a small tractor. Believe me, I crunch the numbers every year at tax time, praying that I can justify even a cheap import hydrostatic tractor with a PTO. And possibly a front loader – for scooping and moving – instead of a wheelbarrow.

    I’m still pushing that wheelbarrow, and all I’m driving is a spade. Sigh.

    That is an awesome, quality-looking pile of compost!

  11. Paul a — Kevin would love a Bobcat. Even I would love a Bobcat. But we can’t possibly justify the expense of a Bobcat (DO YOU HEAR THAT KEVIN?). That said, both Kevin and I are overdue for a midlife crisis, so you never know what’s going to show up around here.

    Cath — It’s pretty clear that you’re not a crackpot commenter! And I’m sure I’m doing all kinds of things wrong when it comes to gardening. The only kind of in situ composting I know about is the kind where you chop up tree small tree branches and mulch the garden with them — they save water, prevent weeds, and compost right there. Is there another kind, where you can dump your banana peels and egg shells and coffee grounds right on the garden? This is something I need to know.

    As for farming by hand — I know it does have the virtue of employing people. But machinery is necessary for feeding the world, and I am in favor of it. What we’re doing here is merely dabbling, so whether we use people or machines is neither here nor there.

    Thanks for weighing in. I’m always glad to have real farmers read and contribute.

    Jen — I have a KitchenAid stand mixer that has the table-top equivalent of a PTO. You can attach a grinder or a pasta maker or a sausage stuffer. If the engine were just a little more powerful I’d try a rototiller or (my favorite) a woodsplitter). Used tractors aren’t all that expensive around here. Should I keep my eye out for one for you?

    • I also really want a KitchenAid with grinder/sausage stuffer, almost as much as a tractor. A midlife crisis seems a perfect excuse to let loose and get at least *one* of those things.

      Small, mechanically simple, 2nd hand tractors are as rare as hen’s teeth here – they get exported as soon as they’re sold. Apparently there’s huge market demand for them in eastern Europe.

    • If I don’t have a compost bin going I just dig a hole in the garden, drop in the banana peels and egg shells, and cover it. The worms will take care of the scraps.

    • You certainly can dump banana skins and egg shells straight onto the ground! Since your reply there has been another commenter outlining a system I saw in action in Brisbane many many years ago. Except the brisbane farmers just composted on a bed by adding in whatever they needed to compost and then covered this with large black plastic tarps to do the heating work. The beds were only a foot or so high – but massively huge as this was a proper farm. Once the composting was finished the tarps came off and the bed was planted. They would have beds like this rotating over the years. This system will also work on smaller beds and gardens so long as you have the space to allocate one bed for composting and rotation.

      They also had another natty trick of putting green weeds complete with seeds into a big barrel of water. This water was then drained off from time to time to make a green fertiliser. The green slurry left from the plants went back into the soil. There’s much that can be done onsite. Often it is just having a genius like my husband to join the dots of the activities to make it a feasible process and not build in extra work. Or thinking your way through how you live your day to day and how to bridge that gap to your garden.

  12. Accidental Mick says:

    Tamar and Cath,

    I have read about this but never tried it although that is not to say I never will.

    As you probably know, in years gone by farmers would rotate their crops each year so that the same crop was never in the same plot for 3 or 4 years. They would also leave one field/plot fallow.

    The article I read took this one stage further. The writer did say that all hs beds were the same size and all were raised (about 6 inches high). He didn’t say, I think deliberately, what the dimensions were and if he used a whole bed or just part of one – I think the later.

    Using old pallets nailed together with old carpet tacked onto the inside and another piece of carpet as a blanket on top he created a “hot” compost bin. Starting in the autumn (fall) he dumped all his waste into it (he did say that animal manure helped) . The following autumn he took off the side facing the bed and just raked it out onto the bed as a top dressing. Move the framework to the next bed and start again. Who needs a wheel barrow?

    Apart from the aforementioned one wheel invention of Satan, this method has a distinct advantage over a static compost pile. As you can see from the size of the weeds around a static compost pile, a lot of nutrients are leached into the soil and lost to the poor, hard-working farmer/gardener.

    A couple of points about hot composting. There is no maximum size but you want to be able to fill it in one year. The top layer wont be ready but just shovel that into the new bin. From experience, I think that a minimum of a yard cube is required to generate enough heat to make it work. This sort of home made compost pile does not get hot enough to destroy seeds so try not to put to many grass/weed seeds into it. One could always have a bonfire first.

    Good Luck.

    • This may sound icky, but urine is a wonderful compost heater! Not that we have ever used it…one of our woofers was into permaculture and used it at home for their beds. There are ways to get the piles hot enough, and randomly filling the bin is not necessarily the way to go. However, the compost that comes from randomly filling bins is still great stufff, it just may have seeds that will germinate in the mix.

      We actually just clean our plants straight into their current bed. For example our chard bed: as we pick the good leaves the old leaves are dropped in place. Eventually the plants are not useful anymore. At this point we pull them out and leave them on the top of the soil to decompose. if the plants flowered we find little seedlings emerging which can either be ripped out or grown back in place. There are rules to rotation, and some of those can be broken. We have a little tiller that goes over the bed a few times once everything has been composted, and that rolls all the old into the new. At this point we also add in whatever else we think the bed might need. It works for us and is not too taxing to do every season.

  13. My garden is shrinking down from an acre to about a half acre. I have a wheelbarrow that has a penchant for flat tires. Two Troy-Bilt rototillers, a Horse and a Pony, are ready to go to work at any given moment. Two nice tillers, nice wheelbarrow, lots of spades and buckets, and a half acre garden. What did I use today? None of those. I started the tractor, filled the bucket with compost and drove up back. I love to garden, especially now that I have my ancient tractor named Cranky. I use the bucket, bush hog and 60″ tiller on it all the time. And pffffffffft on straight rows.

  14. Marilyn Baker says:

    Tamar: Have clever Kevin add wheels to the wheelbarrow. Double or triple wheels spaced out up front to keep it from tipping over. We don’t have to wait for the Chinese to improve things.

    Best, Marilyn

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