July 3, 2012

Of Corn, Cowpeas, & Lawnmowers

Knee high by the 4th of July?

Trucker's Favorite field corn on the 4th of July

I heard that saying when I was a kid and thought it was some sort of rule farmers had to follow. ;) Looks pretty good, doesn't it? Confession; that's an after shot. Let me show you a "before."

Corn field before mowing
Corn field after mowing

This is our second year to grow field corn. Last year the weeds got absolutely out of control. I finally went in there with the lawnmower so I could get to the pole beans I had planted with it. This year I decided to take steps to try to keep it under control, i.e. to work smarter, not harder.

We have about half an acre designated for growing grain. (Master plan here). This is not just for us, but for animal feeds as well, because this is one of the goals we are working toward. One third of that half acre is still in the wheat we let go to seed. One third is corn, and the other third I planted in rows of cowpeas.

Traditional farming would use a farm tractor to both prepare the ground and then later cultivate between the rows to keep the weeds from getting too much of a head start. Trouble is, we don't have a farm tractor. Anything decent is way out of our price range, so we've had to make due with what we've got: a garden tiller and a gasoline push lawnmower.

Dan tilled the area for corn, which I've planted in sections, 4 rows at a time. That should be enough to ensure pollination, while making it easier for both planting and the harvest. I spaced the rows a lawnmower width apart.

In the middle third, I planted cowpeas

Ozark Razorback cowpeas harvested last year

We got a little smarter when it came time to plant the cowpeas and I asked Dan to only till the rows.

rows tilled for planting cowpeas
Ground tilled in rows and ready for planting. 

In between the rows of cowpeas I believe some wheat is coming up from shattered seed. Wheat plus weeds.

Cowpeas after mowing in between the rows

Almost looks like we know what we're doing, doesn't it. We could have made the rows closer together, because it takes at least two passes with the lawnmower to cut it. I'm considering letting the wheat grow once the cowpeas are established; an experiment with intercropping.

Neighbors on both sides and across the street all have farm tractors. I imagine I look a bit odd too them and get a chuckle out of that. I reflect too, on something I have found curious from comments on my blog. That is the tendency of a few, to assume that when one talks about homesteading, agrarianism, or the simple life, that one intends to totally abandon modern life in an attempt to return to some sort of primitive, backwards existence. For these folks, it appears to be "all or nothing." They cannot fathom a life that utilizes the best of both worlds.

Homesteaders get what I'm talking about. They understand that it isn't technology that is being rejected, but rather the complete and total dependency on it; the infatuation with it and inability to live without it. The simple life is not about doing nothing; it's about slowing down and being part of the basic process of living. It's not about acquiring the latest stuff, it's about acquiring a sense of purpose and freedom.

For the most part the corn looks pretty good. There are problems I will have to address however.

Problems with shade and soil fertility.

The growth rate difference is partly due to being planted at different times. The sparse soil though, is under a big pecan tree. Shade is one factor, but soil fertility is a bigger problem I think. That is something we must address.

As you can see, this is very much a live-&-learn experience with a lot of making-do thrown in for good measure. While I won't expect everything to be a "success," I know each year we will do a little better as we work toward our goal.


Theresa said...

Leigh, used tractors are almost as high here as new ones. Few can afford right now to buy new, so the value in used has held steady and then some. I know I enjoy
our little tractor, probably not many steps up from a riding mower but just enough for our needs mostly.
Although, pushing manure and doing some scraping yesterday I did wish for something just a bit more powerful. But Bob's size is perfect for getting into tight spaces, like stalls and between trees and in snow he usually can't be beat for getting feed up to the all the kids in winter.

Izzy said...

I agree, it is definately a live and learn experience. We use technology too, and improvise. I think those that don't understand it, frankly are afraid of the work involved, or going outside of their own "box".

Jason said...

Hi, like you I am new to this within the last 5 years. Here is what I do. I volunteer to unload the food pantry truck every Tuesday which takes about 1 hr. I use the cardboard boxed from there to line between rows and between plants on rows. No Weeds at all. You can ask your local grocer for boxes. I used to get mine from the produces guys who are always very nice. In the fall and at the first sign of spring everyone puts leaves in bags to be picked up. I collect those and cover the boxes. It is not unsightly and this takes care of moisture retention. One note: you need to dig the soil where you put the seeds in. This is key for the roots to get a good start. If you just jam the seeds in they will be stunted. THis seems like a lot of work but it is not. The next year - no plowing. Just keep adding card board and leaves as needed - which is not as much as the first year. Voila- instant lasagna garden = less work. I am a lazy man.

Carolyn said...

Great idea with your little mower. If we ever get around to planting a large patch in rows I'm definitely going to have to remember to space the rows according to our push mower. Thanks for the idea.

Leigh said...

Theresa, it's a shame about those tractors. The cheapest we could find was in the $2000 to $3000 range but they either didn't work altogether or just barely. Dan's finally figured out that a small one would do fine for us too. Maybe someday.

Izzy, I think you're right and I think folks fear things that are different because they don't want to be "wrong." Me, I just as soon live and let live. After all, different people doing different things is what makes the world an interesting place.

Jason, that's what I do in my vegetable garden, use cardboard and newspaper as mulch. I'm only one person though, so my veggie garden is the only place I can manage time for that, and barely! The grain field has to be left more to the whims of nature. And my lawnmower. :)

Carolyn, it's definitely working better. It's still work, but at least I'll be able to get to my crops!

Unknown said...

I so enjoy your posts. You are living our dream:) I wish you the best growing season ever. I'm up to 12 chickens and 3 big gardens on 2 1/2 acres...I have LOTS to learn. Thank you for sharing so much.

trump said...

Even without a tractor well done, and I bet that corn will be tasting great. Richard

Sunnybrook Farm said...

I have heard that native americans used to plant pumpkin and squash in the corn along with pole beans. I tried this but had problems with morning glories that had infested the area but the pumpkins gave good ground cover. I have used a mower, let the dust fly!

Anonymous said...

I was just reading "Surviving Off-Grid" by Michael Bunker and he devotes a whole chapter (almost) to the all or nothing mentality. I love your idea of leaving enough room between the rows to mow. Brilliant!

Leigh said...

Julie, we all have a lot to learn, LOL. Nice to share the journey with others of like mind.

Richard, I can't wait to find out!

Sunnybrook, I tried the same thing last year and had the same problem. Morning glories absolutely took over. My other pet peeve weeds are sand burs and deadly nightshade. I figure if I can keep these three under control with the lawnmower, I'll have won a small battle. :)

Stephanie, Michael Bunker has a lot of good things to say. For a lot of us, I'm guessing that something seems "right" because it's the only way we've seen it done. This has been the first year we've tried to address our problems by thinking outside the box!

Bernadine said...

Looks like you'll have a great corn harvest. Mowing between the rows looks and sounds good to me. You'd have to grow a lot of corn to break even on the cost of a tractor. I read one of your readers comments about the cardboard boxes and leaves. That sounds good too but in the meantime, Happy Mowing! I'm learning a lot from your blog.

Farmer Barb said...

I know what you mean. My neighbors think that my plan is to clothe my children in animal skins or sackcloth that I spin from flax I grew and retted in the field.

My rejection comes from wanting to get the number of individuals between us and our food down to one, maybe two. I want to be able to shake their hands. Keeping an awareness of what food looks like at the beginning and at the end is key to appreciating the gift of life. By taking the time to do things ourselves, we grant ourselves the opportunity to bring life back to our food.

Woolly Bits said...

I never thought "simple life" would be sit back and do nothing! on the contrary, simple life to me involves far more work and less free time - it's just that the work is for myself (or my family) directly and not to work for someone else - and that I can decide on the work and ultimately my life's quality! I don't think it is possible to live totally self-sustained in every aspect, because one or two people would never have the time to do all that's necessary by themselves. we have to try and find a way to do those things that are most important to us, and if that means buying a small tractor - that sounds very reasonable to me! alternatively - couldn't you borrow a tractor from the neighbours for the very large jobs, maybe in exchange for something else?

Renee Nefe said...

Ya gotta use what ya have and not worry about others. I personally think your farm is looking awesome and I bet the neighbors are really thinking "now why didn't I think of that?"

sista said...

I use the lasagna method with cardboard and straw also but I am not farming acres of fields either. Tilling with a tractor or tiller is probably the only real way to get it done. Like you I can't seem to not experiment in my garden. Most of the time this results in not getting a great crop but I learn a lot. It looks like I am going to get a ton of potatoes and peas this year. I didn't plant corn because it just wasn't worth it in a smaller garden. I will be watching and learning from you.

Unknown said...

You clever girl! One day when I progress from being a backyard gardener to planting up larger pieces of land I'm going to steal this idea from you ;)

DFW said...


I am so happy to have found your site, as well as Izzy's, Jane's, Mamma Pea's, Sandy's, Dani's ... I could go on forever.

One of my plans is to do just what you are doing and plant 1/2 acre for wheat & grains. Weeds are going to be abig problem for us as well. This post is very helpful.

Thank you .... DFW

Unknown said...

Being an urban homesteader I have done the lasgana method, works great, however, on a large scale not sure. I know a lot of organic farmers use some kind of row crop between, to enrich the soil and keep weeds down. That varies by region too. I think you have to find the combination that worls for you, as far as "all of nothing". I had fantasized about someday getting a small rural place and a small draft horse for plowing, etc. When you add up the vet care, feed, work, etc., would it be cost-effective to just buying a small riding lawnmower/tractor combo? Probably not price-wise, but the freedom from gas and esthetics is a different conversation...

Leigh said...

Bernadine, I hope so! A lot will depend on the rainfall, because it's more than we can water. The cardboard boxes and leaves work great, but this is a larger scale than is feasible for that. :)

Barb, well put. Very well put.

Bettina, I agree that true self-sufficiency is beyond our grasp. It's one of those goals though, that gives us a high standard. Two of our neighbors will be happy to do it for hire. The neighbor across the street is happy just to do it. He tilled this field the first time. It gets hard to coordinate on somebody else's time, plus we want to figure out how to do this with what we've got. There's just a sense of freedom in that.

Renee, I'm not sure if they're thinking that, LOL, but I know they're watching. :)

Sista, I use cardboard and leaves in my veggie garden. This is way beyond that in scope. Seems eventually we'll find a way that works for us, with plants that want to grow here. Plus it's a whole lot of fun to bake cornbread made from your own corn. :)

Tanya, thanks! The idea is there for the taking. :) I certainly get plenty of good ideas from all of you.

DFW, isn't the internet great? And like minded blogs are my most valuable resource! It's true weeds are a huge problem, but I'm reading from folks like Sepp Holzer and Neal Kinsey, that eventually it gets better. It just takes some work and time to get there.

Nancy, I think you're right about the scale of the lasagna method. Intercropping now, is definitely something I'm interested in trying. My concern is the morning glories, blackberries, and wiregrass that engulf everything. Still, I think it's something I can manage one of these days. At least I hope so.

Dan would love to have a horse and plow! But with only 5 acres, we figure it would take all the land we've got just to sustain the horse, LOL. One thing about a farm tractor, is the possibility of switching it from fossil fuel to a wood gasifier. We have plenty of wood, especially pine, so that's a doable idea for us.

Sue said...

I have a friend who was in the market for a small tractor, but the pricing was such that it finally made more sense to get a bigger one.

I am glad that I have finally (knock wood) eradicated my nightshade. It used to pop up all over the place, and I'd yank it as soon as I saw it. The napweed, on the other hand is taking over. At least the beasties can eat it.

Grish said...

I hope you realize that I'm "borrowing" the mowing idea now. Lol

Mama Pea said...

Many years ago there was a magazine called "Backwoods Journal" which had many articles pertaining to the homesteading type of life. No matter how hard we tried to explain our way of life to a good friend of ours, he thought we were crazy and whenever he saw a copy of the magazine in our house, he always referred to it as "Backwards Journal."

Grish said...

I've never just tried living off the land but we either grow or trade for about 60-70% of our food.

Our dirt challenged friends do respond to the words 'grass fed', 'organic' and 'free range' but that's about it.

Leigh said...

Sue, I wonder if your nightshade is the same variety as ours. Mine, the roots are tenacious and won't pull out! It's true though, if it isn't that, it's something else.

Grish, glad you like it! It's true that some folks have absolutely no interest in how their food is grown. I think at least, they'd make a connection to how the majority eats and the major health problems they get. But maybe not.

Mama Pea, too funny. You wonder though, why folks even care.

CaliforniaGrammy said...

After enjoying our first corn on the cob for the season, purchased from the local grocery store, we just have to bite the dust and grow some ourselves. We certainly now have the space to do it, it's just getting ourselves into gear to till the soil and plant it (next year of course). Because there's just nothing better than fresh-picked corn!

Thanks for the "kick in the butt" we needed to get started!

Thistle Cove Farm said...

Heck, life is a live and learn experience. Each year is a new chance to learn something new. Or, in my case, each day -lol-.

Norma from Misty Haven Alpacas said...

We are learning, too! And I just learned about this newspaper/cardboard box trick here.

Leigh said...

Janice, good for you for taking the time to properly prepare things for your corn! Makes a big difference in the harvest, I think.

Sandra, that is so true. I hope I never, ever, think that I've finally "arrived."

Norma, cardboard works great!