Photo by Becky Walker
In response to your article “Home Isolation” (June/July 2020), we’ve been following all of the directives during this unprecedented pandemic. To be honest, we’ve been pretty happy to just stay home and spend time outside on our 20 acres. If there’s anything good about this historic situation, it’s that it occurred during a time of year when the weather is warm and the daylight hours are longer.
We saw the article by Amy Andrychowicz in the April/May 2020 issue, “Make Your Garden Grow Up with a DIY Obelisk.” Since we aren’t currently going out and about to places like the lumberyard, we adapted her directions to make garden obelisks from cedar on our property. We have them in place to use with our cucumbers and miniature cantaloupe. We can’t wait to see how it works out!
We hope all of us can use this time of isolation as an opportunity to inspire new ways of living that are better for humankind and the Earth we all share.
New Bloomfield, Missouri
Moving Through Grief
In response to your article, “Roots Reconnected” (February/March 2020), I, too, lost someone I loved. My daughter was taken from us much too soon, and it has caused me to reevaluate my life. For years, I’ve dreamed of life in the country with enough land to grow what my family needs and what feeds my soul.
This summer, everything changed. My daughter lost her fight with cancer, and I had to pick up the pieces of my life. After months of sadness, guilt, despair, and tears, I finally decided on a change. A property caught my eye with enough acreage to give me space to plant, and to keep my hens and maybe goats. It felt right, so I put in an offer. Within a month, I owned my own little piece of country.
It will be several months before I can move into my farmhouse, though planning for that time keeps me going each day. I sometimes worry that my daughter would feel I betrayed her by leaving so soon after she passed; but deep down, I know she would want what makes me happy. No matter where I am, she will always be a part of me. So I, like you, will be planting again this year. For me, it will be a new place with new challenges, and the rhythm of planting, harvesting, and preserving will help soothe the rough edges of my soul.
Thank you for sharing your story and inspiring me to write. I have found writing out my feelings often helps me acknowledge how they affect me. I hope writing about yours gives you the same peace of mind.
Finding Hope in the Garden
I always look forward to reading Hank Will’s work in MOTHER EARTH NEWS; it is where I start every issue.
In the latest issue, you asked readers to share their experiences (“Home Isolation,” June/July 2020). I’m sharing something I wrote about gardening in a pandemic.
After a few weeks of staying at home, I found that my garden felt much more important this year. I felt the need to write something hopeful about our times, and, for me, where I found hope was in my garden.
In the 1960s, I planted my first garden with my mom when I was 12. We planted in our backyard, and it wasn’t much of a garden. The soil was sandy, and everything that grew was stunted and had yellow leaves.
In my late 20s and early 30s, I gardened with friends. We always started with high hopes and big dreams that were eventually overshadowed by tall weeds. Gradually, I learned about soil, compost, mulch, companion planting, and crop rotation. Gardening can be much more complicated than one might think.
With gardening, you have different but connected variables: soil pH, nitrogen levels, when to plant, whether to direct-sow or plant seedlings, how much water to use — and don’t overwater. And you need to weed, a nonstop activity that starts before you even put a seed in the ground. All these bits and pieces go into making a successful garden. Gardens can also be pretty forgiving. Plants want to grow; things want to live. Even the least attentive gardener can get a handful of radishes and a few tomatoes.
I’ve learned something new every year over the five decades I’ve been gardening. But this year is different. This year, in the pandemic, I’m finding that gardening feels more urgent and important. It’s something I have some control over. It’s a place to focus energy, a way to look to the future with hope. Every garden is a leap of faith. Faith that the seeds will turn into plants, plants that will grow and mature into food, that the temperatures will be right, that there will be enough rain, that the insects won’t eat everything. Gardens are fickle things, and I can deal with the usual ups and downs of soil, water, and temperature. Those are familiar, and I need a familiar routine now.
This spring, I find that my garden is better prepared than it has been in many years. The raised beds have a fresh dose of compost, the composted horse manure is ready to go, and the entire garden is starting weed-free for the first time in 30 years. I have a forest of little plants growing in my dining room on a lighted table. In my home office, I have a box of seed packets I ordered in January. This past winter, I went through the seed box over and over again, taking out the seed packets and thinking about the garden-to-be. I planned what to plant, when to plant, and where in my garden to plant. I’ve made two, three, or 10 plans for my garden. It won’t be settled until the day of planting.
This year, the garden feels more necessary to me. I need to see that there’s still some normalcy to life, that, at least in my garden, the old rules still apply. It appears that I’m not alone in my urge to garden. One of my seed companies emailed me that it was suspending orders for at least two weeks while catching up with a backlog, the first time in 40 years this had happened. Another seed company sent a similar email; it was processing orders as fast as it could. My local garden shop ran out of seed potatoes, and this is the first time that’s ever happened.
I’m expanding my garden this year, opening up two new beds, thinking that food might become an issue. I’m planting for my wife and myself, for friends who don’t have gardens or who can’t garden, and for our local food bank. There are so many people out of work who’ll be struggling to feed their families. I’m planting for all of us.
More importantly, I’m planting because it feeds my soul. With the thousands who have died and the many more deaths to come, planting and growing food has taken on a new meaning. Humans have been gardening for thousands of years; my garden feels connected to those gardens. Like countless gardeners before me, I’m watching the weather, waiting for the ground to warm, and preparing the soil with the simple tools of shovel and hoe.
This year, a garden is a reminder of our place in the world. We nurture the little plants, and they in turn nurture us in both body and soul as we understand how to live in this pandemic. The little plants poking their way through to the soil’s surface are a reminder to keep going. With each seed that becomes a plant, life is affirmed.
After working in the garden, I look at my dirty hands and think of all of the gardeners before me. They worked in good times and bad, and through horrific events, even pandemics. Here I am today in their shadow, working in my own little garden. This year, I’ll tend my garden and find hope. I’ll take heart as plants mature and become food that will sustain me and others. It’s life-affirming to see the cycle of plants and know that we are part of that cycle. Connecting with the life of plants makes it easier to face the unknown.
My garden is a declaration: I’m here, and I’m not going to surrender. The smell of freshly turned soil, the sight of bright-green leaves poking their way through the dark earth, give me hope.
Building Little Bitty Boats
Fifteen years ago, while thumbing through some old magazines in a secondhand store, I came across your March/April 1989 issue with its article on building a convertible clamshell-style dinghy/car-top carrier. I thought it was a good idea, so I bought the magazine for $1, took it home, and forgot about it.
Photos by Dee Stafford
I retired a couple of years ago after being a carpenter for 40 years, and I came across the article that had intrigued me so many years ago. Since that day, I’ve built six of these “Happy Clam” boats.
I kept the hull as described in the article, but made some adjustments in the seat. I moved the seat to the center, which slides over the two bulkheads to make it a great one-person fishing boat. This boat is comfortable rowing forward or backward.
Photo by Dee Stafford
We call these boats “Little Bitty Boats,” or LBBs for short, named by a friend who accompanied me out on the Pacific Ocean in one of them. His first time in one of these boats, he said, “Dude, we’re not small people, and these are little bitty boats.”
To date, I’ve built 12 boats: one 12-foot skiff, two catamarans (one 12-foot and one 16-foot), one 16-foot bass boat, one 12-foot jon boat, one 16-foot punt, and six LBBs. I use the leftover plywood to make oars, which my talented wife decorates with nautical and beach scenes using wood-burning tools.
Cave Junction, Oregon
We’ve been growing organically at this location for 44 years, and we’ve been reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS since the beginning. I, too, remember those paper magazines.
We make our own compost and grow tomatoes, peppers, string beans, sugar snap peas, lettuce, kale, broccoli, and cucumbers. We don’t use pesticides or chemicals, and we really don’t have many bugs.
I have two compost bins for cold compost; I fill them for a year, they sit for a year, and then I sift the compost.
Our four raised beds are 3 by 10 feet and 16 inches high. I surrounded the entire area with plastic fencing to keep out the feral cats, raccoons, and opossum. I think it’s kept the squirrels out too, although that could be the work of the cats.
Thank you for the wonderful 50 years of MOTHER EARTH NEWS; we look forward to more.
Columbia, South Carolina
Gathering Up Swarms
Photo by Adobe Stock/Paloma Ayala
I’ve been sheltering in place, except for catching six swarms of bees in the past two weeks. It’s a nice way to add to my existing hives.
Walnut Hill, Illinois
Painting to Keep Busy
Hank, thank you for the invitation to let you know how I’m faring during this time of isolation (“Home Isolation,” June/July 2020). First, I’d like to say how grateful I am that I moved last summer from Washington to live with my daughter in Fort Collins, Colorado. I really would’ve been isolated there, confined by myself.
To keep busy, I spent the past three months working on this watercolor (below), 3 by 2 feet, of a tree that grows in our city park. I thought it looked like it was dancing.
I’ve subscribed to MOTHER EARTH NEWS since it began, I think, with a lapse of a few years; I enjoy reading about organic farms and wish I could have another. My only contribution now to farming organically is saving eggshells for the garden and using grass for mulch. My dream is to have a vacation on a farm where everything is grown the right way and that houses chickens and a goat or two.
You’re living an enviable life, and it’s wonderful you’re able to semiretire to enjoy it all.
Fort Collins, Colorado
The Best Magazine
I’ve been reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS for more than 30 years and still find it to be the best magazine I read!
Myrtle Beach, Florida
Reusing Outdoor Carpet
My blackberry canes were often so long and heavy with fruit that they bent over on the ground. Hence, the berries were often in the dirt or mud from irrigation.
I laid remnants of outdoor carpet on either side of the row, using drip line staples to hold the pieces in place.
Now, my berries are clean, there are no weeds, and my knees have a nice cushion when I’m picking. I’ve had it down for four years now, and it still looks new.
Reconnecting with the Land
Your article “Roots Reconnected” (February/March 2020) touched my heart.
In my 75 years, I’ve walked many paths along the way to where I am today. Some people pushed their idea that our Mother Earth was a resource to be used for their greed or progress. I had to get grounded and connected, as you said. I had to give myself permission to be what I always knew I was.
I have been blessed in so many ways. After a rough patch, I ended up with a little land, and the bison I take care of have educated me on what being human is all about. I could take credit for using the brain God gave me for more than holding my ears apart, but, in truth, I’ve done things that made no sense at the time, though later they turned out to fit in the big picture that is my life.
I’ve tried to grow corn, though we do have a problem with the squirrels that are part of the community here at The Back Forty Bison Ranch.
I wanted to share one day’s experience of watching the bison herd. The spring calves started the dance (running), and they stayed at it until the whole herd was following at a dead run. Of course, it wasn’t long before they were overtaken. I was all by myself watching this race develop, and as the little red one gained the lead, leaving total confusion behind, I laughed out loud, one of those from the belly. Thanks for sharing, Hank.
Back Forty Bison Ranch
Joy in the Endeavor
I totally agree with your philosophy about the pleasures of doing things yourself (“Home Isolation,” June/July 2020).
My niece asked me to make her a set of wind chimes for her wedding in August. Never having made them, I did some extensive research, found some great websites, and am now making not one set, but 18. I started by looking up favorite songs and playing the notes using my computer’s GarageBand app. Then, using Lee Hite’s website Say it With Chimes, I figured out the corresponding lengths of pipe material used for each note, cut the pipe, filed the edges, drilled the holes, designed the sails, cut out the hangers and clappers, painted, and assembled them! It was a joy, albeit an intimidating one at first.
I wish you well in your many endeavors.
Vegetables and Weeds
In the June/July 2020 issue, in the excellent article on organic weed control, Jean-Martin Fortier wrote, “The idea that it’s possible to grow beautiful vegetables in harmony with weeds is simply untrue” (“Organic Weed Control,” MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR supplement). The statement may be true for farming, but I simply cannot agree that the same is true for gardening.
Our Boy Scout gardens regularly featured 24-inch-plus prairie grass. Using drip irrigation, we limited the water and fertilizer to a narrow space for the vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers). In a fairly small area, we grew from 40,000 vegetables initially to 65,000 in our third year. We did try flame weeding (down to bare ground) our second year, but the prairie grasses quickly refilled the area from the sides.
A classic example was a grape tomato plant in a 5-foot cage that grew up to the top, back down to the ground, and out 2 to 3 inches. It produced like mad, but in the center of the cage, extending at least a foot above the edge, was Johnson grass!
After receiving an offer from Northeast Texas Community College in Mount Pleasant, we moved the garden to the school’s prairie grasses a few miles away.
Weeds were regularly 24-inches-plus tall, but again, they didn’t hamper vegetable (okra plus the above three) production. We often had to move weeds aside to see the tomatoes. As before, we used drip irrigation and fertilizer.
I really appreciated the article, and hope my minor disagreement doesn’t offend.
David K. Wall
Mount Pleasant, Texas