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We Wanted a Farm

We Wanted a Farm

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by Maurice G. Kains

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In his classic Five Acres and Independence, Maurice G. Kains offered advice about going back to the land and living off privately raised stock and produce. In this engaging and informative memoir, he relates his family's experiences in realizing a dream of establishing and maintaining their own small farm.


In his classic Five Acres and Independence, Maurice G. Kains offered advice about going back to the land and living off privately raised stock and produce. In this engaging and informative memoir, he relates his family's experiences in realizing a dream of establishing and maintaining their own small farm.

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Dover Publications
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We Wanted a Farm

By Maurice G. Kains

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-31637-6


We Meet, Marry and Don Our Overalls

We wanted a farm. The desire didn't strike us suddenly. Our case was not akin to that of a woman who sees a new style of dress and feels that she must have it at once! No; the idea had been long latent in our minds, like life in a ginseng seed, which takes eighteen months to make up its mind to sprout and become a plant.

Neither Jean, my wife, nor I was farm bred, though, having grown up, respectively, in two Canadian villages, we had been "exposed" to farming. Seemingly, however, we were immune, for farming hadn't "taken" with either of us. Our stars of destiny, we thought, led us to business life; but maybe it was through business environment, to ourselves. However, the germs of rural life had been planted in us and needed only propinquity or what scientists term "optimum" conditions, the most favorable combination, of circumstances, to result in germination.

We were in different departments of a New York publishing house and so might not have met, had not her superior asked me to give her dictation while he went to Florida to determine why his remote control truck farm was slipping its gears and deflating his city mind as well as his wallet.

Her estimate of me prior to this period, she has since declared, is that I was a cold-blooded vertebrate or even a semi-animated icicle, because I didn't associate with the other employees. Though it may not now seem possible, the fact is that I was bashful.

But one day, when dictation was over, she endeavored to discover if I could smile. She asked: "Mr. Kains, do you know what noise annoys an oyster ?" This query embarrassed me because, cudgel my brain as I would to recall my fragmentary knowledge of invertebrate zoölogy—the science of spineless creatures, oysters, clams, lobsters, crabs, and like gentry—I had to admit that I didn't know, whereupon she imparted this valuable information:

"Any noise annoys an oyster; but a noisy noise annoys an oyster most!"

Though that information was confidentially imparted to me thirty-five years ago, I have always remembered it because it broke the ice and I actually smiled; nay, I even laughed—so she still declares.

Well, not long after that, each of us discovered that the other loved nature, so when we had a holiday, weather permitting, we went on a "shoe-box picnic"—never at a beach, always in places that could be reached by street car and where there was farming activity of some kind—vegetable, fruit or flower growing of some kind, poultry raising, dairy farming or the like. Every favorable Saturday afternoon found us in some semi-wild place where we could study nature together. Our favorite spots were The Palisades of the Hudson and George Washington Park, that "little gem of purest ray serene," since destroyed, except in our memories, by the George Washington Bridge and the Henry Hudson Parkway.

Of course, you've guessed it; the inevitable happened, as it always has a way of doing! We married; she gave up her bachelor apartment and, being by instinct and desire a home-maker, converted my "cliff-dwelling" into a home and started mothering my two young sons and me.

It was not long before we began to express longings to exchange this city mode of existence for farming, urban dirt and noise for country loam and bird song, pavements for fields and woods, for the boys' sake as well as our own.

Upon taking stock of ourselves we were almost startled to discover that we "knew a lot" about rural life; for hadn't Jean once helped weed a garden, feed the hens, gather the eggs, and even milk a cow in her father's village home; and hadn't I spent three whole weeks one summer at Uncle Archie's farm and sat on the rump of a sway-back horse (to avoid being split in two on his backbone!) while Cousin Alf cultivated turnips, and hadn't I helped to stack straw at threshing time at Cousin Johnnie's and taken prizes at the county fair with apples, pears, and other fruits grown on my relatives' trees?

Upon mature reflection, however, we agreed that the direct step from office to farm, with even this plethoric fund of experience, was too sudden and risky to take, so we decided to do it by easy stages, first to rent a house and lot in a suburb and after two or three years either to return to the city or buy a place.

Among factors that helped us arrive at this decision were such as high apartment rent, with only twelve little slips of paper to show for each year's outlay; desire for ownership; mutual interest in nature; and the knowledge that acquaintances who had gone to live in the suburbs were enjoying their new type of living. Not the least potent of these factors was the influence that really ripe fruit and superior varieties of vegetables grown by some friends of ours had upon us when we visited them. We felt that we might be able to do as well; so to a suburb we went, in search of a property within our means.

We were, as we thought, exceptionally fortunate to find, on our very first trip, a 50 by 150 foot lot with a nearly finished house which we could rent for the same money as we were paying for our "five-room-and-bath" apartment in New York; so we paid the first month's rent that day, and moved in a month later, even though the kitchen and the living room had no floor! We "lived" upstairs—the three of us, for the older boy got a job and stayed in the city—and for the first week cooked our breakfasts in the fireplace, got our lunches in the city and went to a restaurant for our dinners.


A Garden in the Snow

Some time before we rented our first suburban place we had visited our friends at Upper Montclair, New Jersey, and been delighted with the lettuce, which was different from the usual market type and much fresher.

I inquired, "Where did you buy this lettuce? It isn't like any we get in New York. I'd like to take some home."

"We didn't buy it. We grew it ourselves," replied our hostess, proudly.

"No spoofing!" I exclaimed. "Why, the ground is frozen stiff. You can't grow anything outdoors and you haven't a greenhouse."

"True!" she gleefully exclaimed. "The ground is frozen and we have no greenhouse. But we do have a garden full of early vegetables!"

"No kidding! Where?"

"Outside the kitchen door; come and see."

Sure enough! There it was, "as large as life and twice as natural," beside the kitchen steps. In it were not only lettuce plants, but piquant peppergrass and equally tangy mustard, luscious ruby-red radishes, lacy-leaved parsley, chives, and succulent Prizetaker scallions which our hostess grew from seed because she couldn't buy "sets" of this variety in any of the garden supply stores.

The location of the little "garden" was ideal because it faced the south, was defended on the north by the house and on the northwest by a neighbor's house, both of which buildings shut off the cold winds from these directions without lessening the supply of sunlight. It was also ideal because so convenient to the kitchen door. Still further, a faucet and a short hose made watering as convenient as one could wish.

When I first saw this little winter garden, it was wearing an "overcoat" to keep out the frost; that is, a temporary frame extended all around it about six inches away and the space between the inner and outer frames was packed with strawy manure.

In most of the above points this coldframe was like scores of others used by suburban amateur gardeners. What made it distinctive, however, was the way it was ventilated. At the center, and nailed erect to each side, was a piece of one-inch board about six inches wide and about four feet long. Nailed to the tops of these standards was a third piece of board extending about forty inches above and across the bed.

Near the center of the horizontal cross-piece were placed two pulleys, through each of which a woven rope passed to the outer frame piece of each sash and extended to another pulley near the top of the vertical part of the frame. By tying, testing, and experimentally re-tying loops in the ropes, a pull on the free ends would raise one sash or both, as desired. The loops in the ropes were caught in hooks fastened to the frames to hold the sash open as much or as little as desired. This enabled our hostess to ventilate the bed or close it quickly with rifling effort as compared with raising and adjusting the two sashes individually by hand.

The results obtained by this little coldframe garden so pleased us that, when we had our first place, Stanley and I built one somewhat similar. The chief difference between the two is that ours was put together with bolts, so we could take it apart easily for storage; also it was placed with its back "bang up against the house," in front of the south cellar window, which was made to swing inward and upward, and in this position to be held up by a hook. By keeping the window open we had the relatively warm air from the cellar enter the little greenhouse. In this way our coldframe was somewhat superior to that of our hostess.

We bought two "standard" (three by six foot) sashes direct from a specialist greenhouse supply company because we knew they would be constructed accurately, strongly, and of better material than we could secure locally.

We waited to build the frame until after the sashes were delivered, because we could thus do the fitting conveniently and accurately. To make the frame we followed our host's plan, thus:

We used twelve-foot, two-inch cypress plank (the "wood eternal") because of its durability under wet conditions. Three of the planks we cut in half, one of the cut pieces diagonally, and ripped another down the middle. One of the full-width pieces we used for the front; one wide and one narrow piece, cleated together, for the back; one wide and one diagonal piece, cleated, for each side. This gave us a frame six feet square, eighteen inches high behind; twelve inches high in front with a six-inch slope toward the sun.

We ripped the remaining six-inch-wide piece down the middle and cut the resulting strips so as to get two pieces one foot long and two eighteen inches long. These were bolted at the corners inside the frame, to serve as posts.

To increase the "life" of the frame, we painted all the parts, piece by piece, before fastening them together, because every part should be protected from dampness, to ward off decay. The best paint to use for this purpose is a heavy asphaltum.

After the construction was complete, we replaced the worthless "dirt" inside with the best soil we could get and enriched this with ground bone and pulverized sheep manure.

Besides the crops that our friends grew, we started vegetable and flower plants for transplanting to the garden, and in one year or another also used the frame to grow extra early cucumbers, melons, or tomatoes that need protection against frost in spring.

Starting in September, we used the frame not only for growing the same vegetables as already mentioned for spring use, but also for pansies, violets, English daisies, and a few other hardy plants for winter flowers. We employed it, also, for ripening immature tomato fruits we gathered just before an early autumn frost, protecting squashes from frost and rain while their rinds were hardening, and storing flower plants over winter, after other plants had been removed.


Mastering Clay Soil

Many years before we rented our first suburban home, the whole area had been robbed of its fertility and humus by continuous hay and grain growing, with little or no attempt to replace the elements carried away in the crops. The result was that the soil, originally a heavy clay loam, had degenerated into merely a heavy clay, which, when wet, became semi-fluid like liquid glue, but in the sun baked as hard as the landlady's heart.

As if this were not an unpropitious enough handicap to place on a would-be gardener, the contractor who had dug the wall foundations and the cellar had spread the excavated, heavier clay on the surface and thus buried what masqueraded as soil—as well as the builder's debris.

Fortunately, in my boyhood I had observed how my father had overcome just such conditions in one place he had rented for several years, so I put the following methods in practice as soon as possible after we had "settled."

Contrary to common belief, and as we proved, clay soil is a great asset in gardening! When well managed, it will grow to perfection a wide range of vegetables and fruits. Naturally, it is rich in plant food, but this must be "unlocked"; otherwise plants cannot make maximum use of it. The unlocking processes are so simple and the advantages of applying them so great that everybody who has such a soil should employ them.

We found that even more, perhaps, than with other soils, drainage in such a case is essential because it not only removes excess water, but also makes the soil "earlier" and "warmer," through reversing the cooling process due to evaporation.

As this soil was already well drained, we did four things to unlock and to make the plant food it contained available and the soil itself workable. Though we began them in the fall, these operations may be started at any time of year, as the following paragraphs will indicate. I recalled my father's dictum: "At no time dig, plow, hoe, rake, cultivate or otherwise handle a clay soil when it is wet. If you do, it will puddle and bake almost certainly and make conditions worse than before."

I started improvements in the autumn. Also at the close of each season I plowed the ground but did not rake or harrow it. I left the furrows just as they were upturned. Alternate freezing and thawing during the winter broke the clods apart.

During the winter I scattered sifted coal ashes to the depth of an inch on the bare ground or on the snow. The ash particles wedged themselves between the lumps and thus loosened up the clay.

In spring, after breaking the clods, I scattered lime (about a pound to ten square feet) on the surface and raked it in. Also I used wood ashes saved from the fire-place as a substitute for lime. These materials act chemically and physically to break the clods apart and thus favor the entrance of water and air.

In spring I applied liberal dressings of finely divided vegetable matter, such as peat moss, buckwheat hulls, shredded corn stover or leaf mold—any or all!—to supplement a goodly dressing of general commercial fertilizer, and was careful to mix these materials thoroughly with the surface soil by raking them in.

During the summer I used liberal mulches of these same materials between the rows and around the plants to check evaporation and lessen trouble with weeds. When these were turned under by digging or plowing, they added to the humus in the soil.

I often supplemented these methods by green manuring and cover cropping, which add vegetable matter to the soil at trifling cost. The former I sowed at any time the ground was to be bare for a month or longer; seed for the latter I scattered among the plants such as tomato, melon, and sweet corn that were nearing maturity from midsummer forward. Buckwheat and crimson clover I sowed in July; rye and winter (or hairy) vetch during August or September. These crops do not interfere with the other crops still growing.

Whether or not these green manures or cover crops are killed by frost is immaterial, because they improve the texture and water-holding capacity of the soil after being turned under. I was always prompt in digging or plowing those that did live over winter while they were only four to six inches high; otherwise the work would not only have been difficult, but they might not have decayed as quickly as they should. One result of allowing the plants to become larger than this would be the drying effect of the straw; another, the consumption of nitrogenous compounds in the straw by bacteria, thus cheating the later-sown or planted plants of some of their just share of plant food.


The Teamster

"Plug" Smith, the contracting teamster of the neighborhood, had promised to send me three loads of manure. After characteristic delays and promises, they finally arrived during my absence and were spread upon the garden. Had I been at home when the shipment arrived, it would not have been thrown upon my place, for it was the most heterogeneous assortment of diverse and sundry miscellany that ever masqueraded as manure.


Excerpted from We Wanted a Farm by Maurice G. Kains. Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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