Weed Control


Small horehound seedlings are easily grubbed out, unlike the mature plants.

If you’re a gardener, rancher or farmer, you are in the business of weed control. I can’t remember who said it, but there’s a quote out there, something along the lines of “If a weed has managed to escape me until them, I let it grow and enjoy it.” Oy, vey! A strategy like that can be the death knell of a garden, especially if you’re dealing with something that reseeds itself, or with perennial weeds. Since most weeds fit in one or the other category, weed control should be at the top of your gardening list.
One of the ways you can tell weeds from domesticated plants is that they typically produce LOTS more seeds. We’re talking on the order of a thousand to one, here. Not to mention, the seed pods readily release said seeds practically the instant they’re ripe. If there is one single rule in weed control, it is don’t let them go to seed! Even if you can’t control them in some other way, at least cut the plants back to prevent them setting seeds. The second rule is don’t let perennial weeds get a foothold. To that end, here are the basic strategies:
Know Your Weeds
If you know what weed you’re dealing with, you’ll know what kind of growing conditions it likes, how it spreads and whether there are certain methods that make control easier. For example, weeds, like vegetables and flowers, tend to prefer a particular kind of soil. They have differing water requirements. Star thistle and horehound don’t grow well in wet areas – if you can water them heavily, they’ll die out. Sedge, on the other hand, likes wet feet. Drain it and it dies. Crabgrass prefers low-calcium soil – add calcium, it’s easier to manage. Get a good weed book and carry it to the garden with you. Look for one that shows the plant in all stages of growth, from seedling to seedheads.
Don’t Till
Many weed seeds are viable for decades. If you till or plow, you will turn up seeds that germinate because of the increased light. Perennial weeds are often spread by tilling, because the little chopped up bits of roots each become a new plant – bindweed and Bermuda grass are a classic examples.
Practice Vigilance
You can’t turn your back on a weed. You need to be out there looking for them Every. Single. Day. This goes back to the first precept – you need to know what they look like in the seedling stage.
Start Early
When it comes to weeds, the early bird has a definite advantage. The younger and smaller they are, the easier it is to dig them up or hoe them out. We’re talking a few days to a week here.
Dig Them Up
Small seedlings are easily dug, pulled or hoed. Larger weeds can be eradicated at later stages – although it takes more effort – if you make sure to dig up the whole root mass.
Chop Them Off
With perennial plants, constant trimming with a hoe (or by clipping in a pasture) can exhaust the roots and kill the plants. Some weeds will just respond by growing lower to the ground, so don’t assume mowing is the be-all and end-all.
Smother Them
I’ve talked about barrier methods before. For annual weeds, a loose mulch like compost usually works fine. For perennial weeds, I like cardboard two or three layers thick with loose mulch on top. Watch the perimeter – the weeds will travel to the edge and come up there.
Eat Them
Lots of weeds are edible and quite nutritious: purslane, miner’s lettuce, dandelions, stinging nettle (good for soup – don’t make a salad!), chickweed, amaranth (pigweed), cattails, lamb’s quarters. Even if you don’t like them, your animals (especially chickens) will. A chicken tractor can be very useful in this respect; in the garden, make it a small one and just keep moving it along the bed. The chickens will conduct a search and destroy method quite nicely. After the chickens are done, you can plant or set in transplants (give it a few weeks for the chicken poop to mellow or it will burn your plants).
In closing, let me add that when it comes to weed control, you should take the Churchill approach – never give in. Never give in. Never,never, never, never. In illustration of that principle, I am reminded of what Gene Logsdon said about one of this uncles, a lifelong farmer. When advancing age and debility began to slow him down, he shortened a hoe handle and his wife drove him through his fields in a golf cart (this was before the days of ATVs). Uncle would lean out of the passenger seat and whack out the weeds as they passed (probably chortling all the while). Too bad that technique won’t work in a garden…

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Farm Finances


Rasing pigs is a twofer – a couple for your freezer and the rest to sell as weaners.

How to understand farm finances: There’s an old joke about the farmer who won a $10 million lottery. When asked what he was going to do with the money, he said he thought he’d go pay a few bills. “But what about the rest?” his questioner wanted to know. The farmer shrugged. “They’ll just have to wait,” he answered.
The fact is, farming is not a way to get rich. Even the ranchers and farmers out there who are rich often got that way because they had money and bought a ranch or because they had the advantage of something like oil wells on the place. The other exceptions are the folks whose ancestors were able to build up fortunes over the course of many years – for example, the King Ranch in Texas. That’s not to say they didn’t work hard for their money. But Joe and Jill Average should not expect to go into agriculture and make a fortune.
Interestingly enough, it’s the people who do it small who are more likely to master the art of farm finances. I’m not talking about the urban farmers who grow microgreens on less than an acre – that’s a big garden, not a farm. The Amish generally have farms in the 40- to 80-acre range. Their goal is not to make money, but to have a farm that can be managed by one family and raise most, if not all, of the food for that family and their animals. Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastapol is only seven acres (and only three of that is under cultivation), yet Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser make a living and pay several full-time employees.

It’s hard to find grass-fed lamb – this can be a good niche market.

Many years ago, Gene Logsdon and Booker T. Whatley laid out the basic rules for making a living farming. Both knew whereof they spoke. Logsdon had a 30-acre farm in Ohio, while Whatley was an internationally known horticulturist from Tuskegee Institute who was raised on a farm in Alabama and spent years teaching people how to better manage small farms. Logsdon supplemented his farm income with writing. Whatley advocated running a pick-your-own operation, commenting that customers would thus do most of the harvesting work. Both wrote books about farming – The Contrary Farmer (Logsdon; he also wrote a bunch of others) and How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres (Whatley; this was back in the 70s, when $100,000 was big money – and that was net income). Here are their precepts:
1. Don’t go into debt to buy your farm or equipment.
2. Don’t buy more land than you can handle.
3. Identify your market, preferably before you buy the farm.
4. Diversify; odds are you’ll always have something to sell.
5. Aim for a year-round income stream (see #4).
6. Sell direct.
7. Always lay money aside for the lean times.
I would add a few to the list:
1. If you are married or otherwise partnered, make sure your spouse is on board.
2. Make sure you have a good source of water, preferably one that doesn’t require electricity to pump, especially if you live in the West. All the indications are that water is going to become critically important with the changing climate.
3. Have a fall-back skill or skills that allow you to earn some hard cash in another or a related field. This can literally save the farm.
4. Learn to be frugal, to coggle and to make good use of your junk pile.

Selling seedlings – especially heirlooms that are ready in your microclimate when garden stores don’t have any – can be a good source of spring income.

The last piece of advice I would give you is to adjust your definition of success. Odds are you are not going to drive a fancy car or have the latest and greatest electronic goodies in your home. You’re likely to buy your clothing at a secondhand store (especially the stuff you wear around the ranch). You’ll also eat well, sleep soundly at night, spend quality time with your partner and kids, and find endless entertainment in your animals and the natural world.

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Perfect Pie Crust


Anyone who knows me knows that I am not much for the pursuit of perfection. “Good enough” is closer to my style. When it came to pie crust, however, good enough all too often devolved into cuss words not fit for a family blog.
My stepmother is a champion pie baker. Born in 1927, she is pretty much of the cooking by eye school. My mother-in-law was of the same stripe. When you’re trying to learn to make pie crust, cooks like that are not much help. My own mother, who was an excellent cook, was not what I would call a premier pie crust maker. After many years of not exactly failures but results that were – ah, let’s just say not what I was striving for – I decided that pie crust just wasn’t my thing. I consoled myself with the knowledge that I made excellent cakes.
The thing about pie dough is that you are combining ingredients that play well together only in certain circumstances. The three major ingredients – flour, fat and water – must be mixed in Goldilocks fashion with lots of factors just right. The fat must be properly coated with flour. Rather than clumps of fat, you actually need a paste of flour and fat. Too much water makes pie crust tough because it activates the gluten. Like biscuits, pies need a light touch. Finally, practice makes better pies. Since I only made about four pies a year, I obviously didn’t get much practice.
Then I ran across the Cook’s Illustrated folks. They had taken pity on cooks like me and come up with what they called foolproof pie dough. Turns out the real key to perfect piecrust for occasional bakers like me can be summed up in two words: booze and temperature. Vodka is about 60% water and 40% ethanol. Replacing half the water in a pie crust recipe with vodka changes the amount of total water (not liquid, just water). That means a moist dough but less gluten activation. Keeping everything cold makes the flour and fat mix better and increases flakiness.

The recipe below is the basic one from Cook’s Illustrated; the keep-it-cold techniques are mine.
Perfect Pie Dough
2 ½ cups flour
1 tsp salt
2 Tbs sugar
12 Tbs cold unsalted butter, cut in ¼ inch slices
½ cup cold lard, cut into 4 pieces
¼ cup cold vodka
¼ cup ice water (meaning put lots of ice cubes in your water and let it sit at least 10 minutes)
All of your ingredients should be as cold as possible. I normally keep my flour in the refrigerator. If I’m making pie in the summer or any time the weather is hot, I mix 1 ½ cups flour, the salt and sugar and put them in the freezer overnight. I freeze the additional 1 cup or flour in a zip-lock bag. I pour the vodka into a cup or glass and put it in the freezer the night before. I measure the lard and put it on a plate in four roughly equal dollops; the plate also goes in the freezer. Leave ingredients in the freezer until literally just before you’re ready to add them.
To make the dough, process the flour/salt/sugar mix until combined (two or three pulses). Cut the butter as quickly as possible so it stays cold. Add butter and shortening to the flour, process until it looks like cottage cheese. Scrape bowl and redistribute dough evenly. Add remaining flour, process until evenly distributed (4-6 quick pulses). Empty into medium bowl, sprinkle with vodka and water. Mix with rubber spatula until dough is lightly tacky and sticks together. Divide evenly, flatten into two 4 inch disks, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days. The dough can also be frozen for at least 6 months.
To use the dough:
If frozen, thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Otherwise, take it out of the refrigerator and gently roll out into a 12- to 13-inch circle between two pieces of wax paper. You should not need to add any flour, but if you do, make it the merest dusting. Try to roll it about 1/8-inch thick and as evenly as possible. Better too thick than uneven. Remove one piece of wax paper and place the pie pan on top of the dough. Gently lift and flip the dough. Remove the wax paper. If you’re making a two-crust pie, now’s the time to add the filling, roll the edges under and crimp or flute.
The sides of a one-crust pie tend to collapse in the hot oven. You can solve that problem by making the edge thicker and taller. A braided edge works and is fancy, but this method is faster and attractive as well. Don’t trim the crust edges. Roll out the equivalent of ½ of the above pie crust recipe and cut it into curved strips about two or three inches long. Dampen the edge of the pie crust and lay the strips on top. Meld them together with the untrimmed crust by squeezing between fingers and thumb; crimp the edges. Now your pie crust sticks up about an inch above the pan. When it shrinks, it will be just a little bit higher than the pie edge. Put the pie crust back in the refrigerator for at least an hour or in the freezer for 20 minutes (no more!)
To bake blind, line the crust with heavy duty foil and dump in dry beans, pie weights or pennies (my preference). Bake at 375° until the crust is firm and just starting to color – about 25 minutes; add filling and continue according to the recipe. To fully bake the pie shell, remove the foil and weights at the 25-minute mark. Prick the crust all over and bake until it’s golden brown.

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