Monday, April 23, 2012

Tough Love in the Garden

The miracle of the seed and the soil is not available by affirmation; it is only available by labor.  
~Jim Rohn

It is utterly forbidden to be half-hearted about gardening.  You have got to love your garden whether you like it or not. 
~W.C. Sellar & R.J. Yeatman, Garden Rubbish, 1936

On April 10 around sunset,  I walked out of the garden, secured the fence, and turned around to take one final look. I sighed with relief as I took in the 20 lovely (if not entirely straight or level) planting beds surrounded by hay-covered walking paths. I was exhausted. Beat. Sore. And I hadn't yet planted a single thing.

Just a few weeks after getting settled into our new home last fall, I began working on converting the largest bit of yard on our property into a garden plot. First, I cut and laid over the grass the cardboard boxes that had carried our stuff here from Ohio. Then I asked our neighbor, Tom, to bring in some composted cow manure to put on top of it, and finally, sowed winter rye seeds in the compost to provide a nitrogen-fixing, weed-inhibiting cover crop. Then I let it sit . . . and sit . . . and sit.  As the rye took root, the cardboard decomposed, and the earthworms munched, I perused seed catalogs and dreamed of eating homegrown tomatoes and bush beans.

This February I began to do the real work of preparing the plot for planting. It turned out to be harder than I thought to till the rye, compost and cardboard into the clay soil that lay beneath it. I started out using only my mattock, and had worked about a third of the way through the 1250 square-foot plot by the time my husband, G-P, came out to lecture me on the silliness of rejecting modern conveniences and to insist that we put to work the motorized tiller my twin sister had loaned us. So we finished the plot in style--and boy, was it easier! Little did I know that I had just gotten started.

Gardening is a matter of your enthusiasm holding up until your back gets used to it.   
~Author Unknown

I soon realized that the tiller had just barely scraped the surface of the clay, and that I therefore needed to dig a good bit deeper. So we called Tom again, and one afternoon while the girls and I were at the library, he brought over his tractor and plowed it up. Once again, I'd assumed that this would do the trick. But when we got back, I saw that the plowing had left behind a plethora of small, large and HUGE clumps of clay soil--many of them as hard as rocks. Seriously--they were as hard as rocks. I know all you native North Carolinians out there are laughing. But I was stunned. And beginning to get discouraged.

Back I went, mattock in hand again. It took me another several afternoons of work to get the large clumps and huge clumps broken into smaller clumps and to smooth everything out to some resemblance of level. But it still didn't look anything close to arable.

So we ordered 8 more yards of compost. They hauled it in on a Sunday afternoon. After another week of labor (and some help from G-P and the girls), I had the compost spread and worked in. Thankfully, G-P was kind enough to take charge of deciphering and installing the portable electric fence we'd ordered. After it was in place, the girls and I spent several hours measuring and demarcating the 20 planting beds. (I decided not to make framed raised beds but rather informal ones that I could later shift if I needed to--which, of course, didn't stop G-P from pointing out that gardeners back in Nigeria never measure their beds at all, and the plants grow just fine.) A couple more of afternoons of raking and spreading hay, and they were all ready. It was done. I was finally ready to plant.

If all this sounds as ridiculous to you as it sometimes seemed to me, you might consider this fact--endlessly repeated in nearly all the literature on organic gardening: soil preparation is the most important step to creating a healthy, productive garden.  As Marion Cran put it, "If I want to have a happy garden, I must ally myself with my soil; study and help it to the utmost, untiringly. Always, the soil must come first." Rich organic soil attracts beneficial insects and discourages pests; provides long-term nourishment without the need for expensive (and potentially harmful) fertilizers; and produces vegetables and herbs with higher levels of vitamins and minerals than conventional, chemical-infused farming. (I have to admit that keeping all this in mind was about the only thing that got me through a few of those afternoons.)

After all the soil prep, planting has seemed like a stroll in the park! So far the girls and I have put in (as transplants we grew indoors, or as seeds):
Bell peppers
Bush beans

 Soon to follow in their footsteps will:
Habanero peppers
Bush beans
Cayenne peppers
Pole beans
Several different kinds of flowers

In parenting, I have come to think of true "tough love" not as a kind of love that is hard on the child, but the kind of love that challenges the parent to reach deep inside herself and find those reserves of strength and patience that will allow her to accept and nurture instead of spurn and demean. It is often very tough indeed. And humbling. Perhaps loving our gardens is also an adventure in tough love; goodness knows it is humbling. But (again, like parenting) it is beautifully--and often surprisingly--rewarding, too. Even though the only fruit of our labor we've enjoyed so far is seeing the broccoli plants gain a half-inch in height and the first bits of green poke their heads out of the spinach and lettuce beds, it has already been worth all the work. That's how it is with labors of love.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Summer Camp at Little Bent Creek Farm

Would you like your children to get a chance to feed goats and hens? Collect eggs? Watch young chicks grow? Clean out stalls? Work in a garden? Play in a creek? Taste bread and butter they've made themselves? If so, then consider sending them to our Little Bent Creek Farm Camp this summer. Sponsored by Woodland Discovery and led by professional child educator and camp director Carolyn Walker (see my April 5, 2012 post for more information on Carolyn), the camp will be held from June 11-15 here at Little Bent Creek Farm in Davidson. It is a morning camp and is targeted at 4-10 year olds. You can find more information (on this and other Woodland Discovery camps) as well as registration forms here.

Come out and let us show your kids just how fun farm work can be!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Eggs for Sale!

We finally have enough eggs to offer 2-3 dozen a week for sale. (We hope we'll have many more by this time next year, when the chicks we're expecting in May will be laying.) They are all brown but vary in shade and size. We are selling them for $3/dozen.

Here's a bit of information about the hens who lay our eggs: They all belong to heritage breeds, some of which populated our country's very first small homesteads. They spend most of their days free-ranging throughout our organically run farm (we don't use any herbicides or pesticides--ever). Their diets are supplemented by organic scratch and organic layer feed, both purchased locally. All this means that their eggs are significantly higher in folic acid, protein and Omega-3s than most grocery-store eggs. We have never medicated our chickens for anything, so their eggs don't contain any traces of antibiotics or other icky stuff.

So here's your chance to taste some happy-, healthy-, hippie-hen eggs! If you live somewhere in our vicinity and would like us to hold a dozen (or a half-dozen) for you, just let me know (at

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Healing Our Children, Healing the Earth: Carolyn Walker

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
--from "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," 
by William Wordsworth

There is a childhood epidemic sweeping our country today, infecting millions of our young people and compromising their prospects for the future and the future of the planet itself. It may already be too widespread to stop altogether, but there is reason to hope. For all across the nation, there are increasing numbers of valiant women and men who have committed themselves challenging this threat. The malady is called Nature Deficit Disorder, and one of its heroic enemies lives right here in our community: Carolyn Walker. Founder and director of Woodland Discovery, Carolyn works tirelessly to provide opportunities for children (and often their also-deficient parents) to get outdoors, to learn about the natural world, and to come to love and protect it.

For this second installment in the Sustainability Heroes Series*, I sat down with Carolyn Walker to talk about her work and what energizes her.

LBCF:  What led you to start Woodland Discovery?
Carolyn:  When I finished my education, I was planning on teaching high school business, since that is what I had been trained to do. But after five children, I realized that I really loved working with preschoolers. Around that time, I read somewhere the quotation, "As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines," and I realized that the best way to make an impact on someone's life is to influence them early.

So instead, I began teaching preschool. I spent many years doing that. I loved it; I loved working with the children there. But I kept seeing these kids come in who didn't want to go outside, didn't want to touch dirt, were afraid to try to climb a tree. I was also seeing preschool education becoming more and more academic--placing more emphasis on math and reading (often way too early) and devoting less and less time to play.

I saw parents accepting all this because they were afraid that if they didn't, their children would fall behind. They didn't realize that free play in nature is probably the best foundation for academic success. They didn't realize that the best way to keep kids safe in the long run is not to ban them from climbing trees or wading in water, but to teach them how to decide which risks to take so that they can learn to keep themselves safe without our intervention. I always told my own children and my preschoolers, "Sure, go ahead and climb the tree. But don't climb any higher than you want to fall." Then I would move closer to talk them through the process or catch the occasional misstep.

I actually just learned that insurance companies in Germany are starting to encourage schools to create more dangerous playgrounds. They report that they are tired of paying claims for so many adults who do not have any balance or "risk sense." What studies are beginning to show is that nature play has measurable positive outcomes in physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive ways--for both children and adults.

LBCF:  So what finally led you to start up this business?
Carolyn:  It's a long story. I was at a turning point in my career. I needed more autonomy in my work to do what was best for children, rather than cater to adults. And I wanted to do something that I felt passionate about. I had just finished reading Richard Louv's book (Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder**). I love children; I love being outdoors; I love to be creative; and I love to play. It all fit! And it would fulfill a unique need in our community. I thought that perhaps I could help parents get their children back into the woods. I realized that if they didn't have the time or the resources or a safe environment to let their kids play in nature, I could do that for them.

I spoke with some parents about it, and a lot of them said, "If you get something going, we'll send our kids to you." I first thought about starting a school, but the land purchase didn't work out. So then I decided that maybe I could make Woodland Discovery a mobile thing. I started offering classes at parks and on others' properties--moving from place to place as needed.

[Woodland Discovery now offers classes and camps year-round. My own daughters took a 6-week nature class with "Ms. Carolyn" last fall and had a wonderful experience. You can find their Woodland Discovery's 2012 summer camp schedule at]

LBCF:  Do you have a 5- or 10-year vision for how Woodland Discovery might look in the future?
Carolyn:  It would be wonderful if we could acquire some land of our own. This would allow me to do so much more than I am able to do right now. Before I even thought of providing nature studies, for instance, I thought a lot about playgrounds and how sterile and removed from nature most of them are. I think it would be great if we could have a "natural playground" with real stumps and trees that the kids could climb. We could have a children's garden and an outdoor classroom. It could be a prototype outdoor learning center, where teachers could come for ideas and then work on replicating similar playing and learning spaces where they work.

[Woodland Discovery is looking for a benefactor who could help them purchase a modest property on which to build such a playground and as a base site for their classes and camps.]

LCBF:  You are also on the board of World of Wonder (WOW), a collaboration with Davidson Lands Conservancy (DLC). Can you tell us a little bit about that group as well?
Carolyn:  WOW was the brainchild of Pam Dykstra, President of DLC, who realized that if we wanted people to become committed to conserving land, we needed to help the next generation value it. My contribution was to brainstorm activities that would be family/kid-friendly. So WOW was set up to provide nature education opportunities for children and their families. Our two main methods of educating these groups are through the booth we have at the Davidson Farmer's Market and the nature-education excursions we sponsor (all of which welcome children). We couldn't do any of this without dedicated committee members and volunteers. WOW has been wildly successful--so successful that I think we may see it replicated in other communities. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

[To find more information on these activities and a schedule of upcoming events, visit, or sign up for the weekly WOW e-mail by writing to]


Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, 
What I do you cannot do; but what you do, I cannot do. The needs are great, and none of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things with great love and together we can do something wonderful.
Not many of us could do the work that Carolyn Walker is doing. It is time-consuming, intellectually and socially demanding, frequently messy, and often unnoticed. Yet she--and all the good folks who work with her--are doing something truly wonderful. They are offering to our children and our earth a brighter, healthier future. It is hard to imagine more worthwhile work than that.

This interview series is meant to celebrate people in and around west-central North Carolina who are making valiant efforts to live sustainably and to help others on their own sustainable living journeys. It is my hope that these interviews will be a source of information and inspiration to the readers of this blog.

**If you would like to learn more about Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods, or to become involved in the Child and Nature Network that was established to respond to the challenges presented in the book, visit