Eliot Coleman on cultivation

After writing about cultivating earlier today, I sat down for a few minutes and read the chapter in Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower called “Weeds.” Maybe I had read this before; in any case, Coleman makes the same point:

Physical control, principally cultivation, is the weed-control method of choice here. Not only do I emphasize cultivation, but cultivation done with hand tools. First, let me stress that this is not the same old drudgery that farm children have always shirked. The tools I recommend have been designed specifically for the job and make it quick and efficient work.

A further emphasis in this system involves more than just the design and operation of the tool—it includes the approach taken by the weeder. Weed control is often considered the most onerous of tasks, and the reasons are obvious. Not only the tools, but also the timing is often a drawback. Too many growers consider hoeing to be a treatment for weeds, and thus they start too late. Hoeing should be understood as a means of prevention. In other words: Don’t weed, cultivate.

Cultivation is the shallow stirring of the surface soil in order to cut off small weeds and prevent the appearance of new ones. Weeding takes place after the weeds are already established. Cultivation deals with weeds before they become a problem. Weeding deals with the problem after it has occurred. When weeds are allowed to grow large and coarse, the task becomes much more difficult. But weeds should not be allowed to become so large. THey should be dealt with just after they germinate. Small weeds are easy to control, and the work yields the greatest return for the least amount of effort. As well, small weeds have not yet begun to compete with the crop plants. Large wees are competition for both the crops and the grower.

Our Coleman-designed hoes are finally on the way, and I’m looking forward to finding out just how much better they are than the traditional hoe I’m currently using.


There’s a lot to like about the ground that we’ve set aside for our garden; it is fertile, and it has just the right south-facing slope. But there’s one thing not to like about it—the ground is very rocky. Every time we till we chase after the tiller filling our buckets with rocks. And when it rains, the soil in the beds settles enough to reveal how very many rocks are still left to deal with.

The bad news is that it is a big problem. The good news is that it’s fixable, given enough time and diligence. We continue to slowly improve the situation by picking the rocks out when we till or cultivate. And we’re going to try to deal with it more directly by making a pass over the ground with a sieve. I had Chris build a 3’x3′ box that is eight inches tall, and then a 3’x3′ frame to which we attached wire mesh with 1/2″ openings. I plan to use it on a plot of land in 15-puzzle fashion: dig out the dirt from the first 3’x3′ section and set it aside, put the box in the hole and the wire mesh frame atop the box, then shovel the next 3’x3′ section of dirt onto the wire mesh and sift out the rocks. Then repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

I don’t know if this approach will work. Even if it does, it will require long hours of tedious labor, and there will be times when I’ll be wondering if there isn’t some sort of machine that could make quick work of it. But I’ll try to keep in mind that chapter of Farmer Boy where Almanzo and his father settle in to three long weeks of threshing the year’s wheat by hand. Almanzo knows that hiring a threshing machine would make the job quick and easy, and asks his pa why he doesn’t do so. Pa Wilder replies that the threshing machine renders the straw useless, while hand-threshing preserves it. And besides, what exactly would they do with the time they saved, except spend it in idleness?

Provided that I have the time and strength, what better thing could I do with it than improve our garden soil?


We’ve just had our first taste of Kentucky spring rains, extended and surprisingly heavy. Jerome tells us to never let a window of sunny dry weather pass by, since it is quite possible for rainy weather to settle in for a stretch of ten or twelve days. This last rain was nothing like that, just four or five days long all told, but there really were short windows where we were checking the ground every couple of hours to see if we could till or plant before the next wave came.

Yesterday was cold and cloudy after a couple of days of steady rain; there was no possibility of tilling, so we went for the concrete blocks. Late in the afternoon I thought it might be possible to do a bit of weeding and cultivation, so I took the hoe out and worked for about 45 minutes. There were plenty of weeds trying to get established, but I found that it worked best to focus less on weeding and more on cultivating the soil around the plants. In his book on organic farming Jerome argues that the most important thing is to allow the roots of the plants to breath, and so one of the best things you can do is cultivate right after a rain—it breaks up the crust that has formed on the ground at a time when the soil is very workable. So I focused on stirring up the ground around all the plants, which just incidentally uprooted all the weeds in the ground I worked. Seemed to work better than thinking about whether or not to mess with a particular weed, and lazily deciding to skip some of them.

A common thing to do is to till the paths between the raised beds in order to keep them weeded, but our paths are about twelve inches wide and our tiller needs maybe 30 inches, so that’s out. One option would be to get a small tiller for that job, but after thinking about it and doing some research I decided to buy a wheel hoe. They aren’t cheap, but cultivating is such an important job that I don’t want us to fall behind in it just because I was put off by the price of a quality tool. Eliot Coleman is a big fan of wheel hoes, and other folks who use them have said it is the single most used tool on their farm.


There is an old tobacco barn on our property, next to the garden area. It isn’t in the best of shape—much of the metal roof is gone, some wood rot in critical places—but it is still upright. Since we arrived I’ve asked various locals for their opinions about whether we should try to salvage it, and got a range of opinions, none of them based on a thorough evaluation. Most of them thought it would be best to tear it down.

A couple of months ago, after one of the huge windstorms, a fellow came by offering to tear down the barn and clear the area for nothing more than the materials he would get out of it. I asked my neighbor Mr. Goodin if he thought that was a fair deal, and he said he didn’t think I’d find anything better, so I told him to go ahead. A couple of days later some guys came by in a pickup truck and began to tear siding from the barn. A few hours later another neighbor came by and told me that the guys working on the barn were crooks, that he had accepted the same offer from them, only to have them strip the siding (which they were selling to some restaurant in town for decor) and leave him to deal with the skeleton himself.

I went down to the barn, told them what the neighbor had told me, and asked them to stop work on my barn until they had made things right with my neighbor. They grumbled and left—and came back the next day. I wasn’t there, so Debbie had to go down and tell them to leave and not come back until they had squared things with my neighbor. That was the last we saw of them.

Just this week Jerome and I were looking at the barn, and he told me that he thought it was perfectly salvageable, for maybe a couple of thousand dollars of labor and materials. Another friend from church, Nathan Dunlap, does that sort of construction and will be over in a few days to figure out the details.

The “foundation” of the barn is the most problematic, being some large beams propped up on piles of rocks, with the beams having partly rotted away. Jerome told me that the solution was to prop up the barn, cut away the rotted wood, pour a concrete footer, then stack concrete blocks on the footer to form the base of the wall. He also told me that someone was in the process of razing an old lumberyard in Liberty, and the debris was available for the taking, including a lot of used concrete blocks.

Wednesday morning Chris and I took the pickup into Liberty and went to the lumberyard. There were lots of concrete blocks around, though not all that many were easily salvageable; many had been shattered when the walls were knocked down, and many more were in large mortared-together sections. Still, we did fill a truck with about forty-five blocks in good shape.

The hardest part was that we couldn’t get the truck very close to the site, due to all the nails on the ground, and so had to carry the blocks individually forty or fifty feet. After we got that load back home and unloaded next to the barn, whatever unused muscles had been called into service were telling me that one load was enough for the day. And, muscles or not, there were enough other things to get done around the house that we couldn’t afford another couple of hours for another trip. In fact there’s no time for the rest of the week. We may go back on Monday, not so much for more concrete blocks but to see if we can get a load of bricks from the office building they were in the process of tearing down.

Was it worth a trip to town, a couple of hours, and some heavy lifting to get forty-five concrete blocks? Not too long ago I would have done a cost-effectiveness analysis and decided that my time was too valuable for such a thing—easier to buy new. But now I’m glad to find this kind of “paying” work, work which pays by saving me the need to generate the cash to hand to someone in exchange for building materials.

The job would have gone a little more quickly except that as we were finishing up, a fellow drove up, got out of his truck, and started looking around. I introduced myself and Chris; his name was Ralph, and he had worked at the lumberyard many years ago. Although he looked to be in his mid-60s, he turned out to be 83 years old, and had a lot of stuff to say once he found that I was a willing and respectful listener. He talked for about twenty minutes, and I listened and learned quite a bit about how things used to be around Liberty in the 30s and 40s.

Chick delivery

We ordered our first batch of chicks, some broilers and some layers, from Murray McMurray hatchery. The hatchery mails them so that, barring unforeseen problems, they will arrive on a particular Monday. Debbie called the Post Office in Columbia on Friday to tell them; they told her that their mail shipment arrived at 5:45am, and that if they arrived they would call around 6am so we could come pick them up.

At 5am Monday I’m up so I can shower and dress in plenty of time for their phone call. 6am goes by, then 6:30am. Around 7am it occurs to me—Columbia runs on Central Time, while we run on Eastern Time. Finally at 7:30am they call, and I’m on my way. Twenty minutes later I’m at the back door of the post office, discovering that the doorbell doesn’t work and then pounding until someone hears me. Inside there are very nice, very busy folks, one of whom hands me a small, peeping box and wishes me luck. The box is two-sided; I open each side, checking first the broilers and then the layers, making sure they’re all still alive. They are.

Back home the chicks go into the improvised brooding area. During last week’s test setup we decided that the basement was just too cold, so we moved it to the upstairs bedroom which is used as a sewing room. The area is divided into two parts, keeping the broilers separate so that we can control the amount of food the broilers eat. One layer suffers from curly-toe syndrome, so we put it in a little ‘hospital’ section and I picked up some beef liver and brewers’ yeast to provide a riboflavin boost. The chick only cared to walk around in the liver, not eat it, but the brewers’ yeast seems to be doing something—initially it was walking on its ankle, now it is walking on its knuckles.

Even after just two days, the broilers are significantly larger (and lazier) than the layers. I suppose that is the idea, but it still seems weird. Since we’re more about growing chickens to eat rather than to sell, we’ll be thinking carefully about how and even if such engineered creatures fit into our overall plan.

Good food

Tonight we had a great dinner, not only because it tasted great but because it was a foreshadowing of things to come. The centerpiece was a rump roast, coated with a dry spice rub and then cooked at 170 degrees for eight hours—very tender, very juicy, very tasty. The gravy was made from pan drippings, red wine, and lemon juice. That was accompanied by baked sweet potatoes and a sauteed mixture of spinach and kale.

The meal foreshadowed a meal not long from now when all those ingredients will be home-grown. The rump roast was from the cow that the Ellises fattened up and had slaughtered for us. The sweet potatoes were from the supermarket, but we’ll be planting our own in a couple of weeks. The butter on the sweet potatoes was store bought, but we’ve made butter before and will do so again. The spinach and kale were from Jerome, but we’ve already got kale growing in our garden. The milk we washed it down with was from the Ellises, but we’re already trying to figure out where the shed will go where our own Jersey will one day be milked and kept. And no doubt that Jersey will produce a calf that will one day provide us with a rump roast.

Speaking of good food, a friend is sending us some kefir grains so that we can try our hand at making our own. We were told that not everyone likes the taste of kefir, so when we were at Good Foods last night I bought a quart of vanilla flavored kefir for us to try out. I poured myself a short glass before bed, and thought it tasted just like a thick liquid yogurt—nothing weird about it, and in fact the tang was somehow more refreshing and had a cleaner finish than yogurt. I liked it enough to have a little more. Then at breakfast I told the crew that I had bought the bottle and recommended that they all try some, but I wouldn’t tell them whether I liked it or not. They each poured a little bit into their glass, eyed it suspiciously, sniffed at it, and gave it a tentative sip. They decided they liked it too, and the bottle was empty in short order.