“Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs about the lilting house and happy as the grass was green.” — Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill
I have always enjoyed these lines from Dylan Thomas. Although I am not young anymore, retiring from work lifted the weight of worry and concern, which left me feeling young and easy again.
Having a good working career was very rewarding, but retiring from work was exciting, knowing that a new chapter in life was beginning.
“What am I going to do with myself?” That was my first question. My second was probably more important: “What am I going to do to keep from driving my wife crazy?” The one thing we all know is that playing golf is not enough. So I turned to what I like to call farming. I joined a hunt club on Bluff Road with no intention of hunting but rather to have some land in the country not too far from home where I could try my hand at raising different things.
I also rescued a border terrier to keep me company at the farm. His name is Dylan the Wonder Dog because he really is the best dog in the world. We go everywhere together. Most places that we frequent like Lowe’s Home Improvement, Wells Fargo, and Goodyear know him by name and are glad to see him. I also have more time to see my grandchildren and have them help me plant and pick.
My first farming venture was to plant an orchard. I ordered nine apple trees, seven peach trees, five pear trees, and four plum trees as well as six blueberry bushes and 10 blackberry bushes. I then set to work hand digging 41 holes in the ground with a shovel and posthole digger plus five rows of trenches with a pickax for the irrigation lines. If you do this by hand, you will find that you won’t need to go to the gym, and when you finish you will have had lots of exercise and something to show for your hard work.
I don’t know why I need to feel accomplishment every day, but it is a good feeling to have when you think about the day’s progress while driving home. We all have our little idiosyncrasies, and one of mine is being obsessive compulsive. Farming is great for this problem. I find myself planting every tomato plant exactly 3 feet apart, every row exactly 4 feet apart, every fruit tree exactly 15 feet apart, and every new supporting post in the restored barn exactly straight up and down and 10 feet apart. If you do not have this problem you may not understand, but I have fun getting everything just right. When you are doing it by yourself out at the farm with only your wonder dog watching you, no one is aware of how crazy you are.
This whole process is a series of very small successes. After getting everything in the ground, I wait until spring and pray for my first leaf bud to pop out. As each tree begins to leaf out, I continue to enjoy more small successes. Failures are there also as I have killed one peach tree by putting too much dirt over the roots, and a big windstorm broke one of the apple trees off at the ground, but both have been replaced and they are all doing well. The peaches and apples have started producing fruit as well as the blackberries and blueberries, so I have enjoyed more small successes. But beware, fruit trees require a lot of work — mowing around them, watering, fertilizing, spraying, pruning, and figuring out when and how much to do of each. I did not fully know what I was getting into. I feel that I now have a tiger by the tail.
The next farming venture was a garden. I went to the Horse and Garden on the Sumter Highway to buy fertilizers and began trying on wide brim straw hats from a rack by the checkout counter. I asked the sales clerk how one of the hats looked on me, and she said that it made me look like a farmer. I could not buy it fast enough. We talk about people wearing a lot of different hats when they have a lot of talents, but I found that I have to change hats for each activity. I wore my farmer’s hat to play golf a couple of times but realized that everyone was kindly trying to let me know to leave that hat at the farm. I think that hats identify us more than any other article of clothing. This reminds me of an old saying from Texas that describes some as being “all hat and no cattle.”
My first year I tried tomatoes, watermelons, cantaloupe, pumpkins, sweet corn, sunflowers, and zinnias, but the biggest success was growing weeds. By the end of the summer, it was hard to find the garden for all of the weeds. I did have a lot of beautiful sunflowers and zinnias for cut flowers that made very nice arrangements. It’s pretty easy to give away a 5-gallon bucket full of cut flowers in my neighborhood. Everything else came along with some success. I grew very large tomato plants because of fertilizer applications but not too many tomatoes — too much nitrogen.
It was fun eating home-grown watermelon and cantaloupe, but of course the best is fresh home-grown tomato sandwiches and sweet corn for supper with a cold beer or a glass of cold milk. What could be better? How is it that store-bought tomatoes can be so bad? What can they do to a tomato to make it look like a tomato but not taste like anything worth eating? I happen to like my sandwiches with a good layer of fresh tomatoes, a slice of Swiss cheese, avocado, and bacon. Don’t forget the mayonnaise, salt, and plenty of cracked pepper.
My next farming project was shiitake mushrooms. You cut red oak logs into 3-foot lengths, drill holes in the logs, and tap in wooden pegs impregnated with mushroom spores. Stack the logs in a very shaded area out of the wind and wait about nine to 12 months. Then, much to your surprise, you check on your logs and find them loaded with fresh shiitake mushrooms about the size of small pancakes. Pinch off the mushrooms at the base of the stem, and you are ready for an incredible meal. Brush off any debris, slice the mushrooms into slivers, and saute in butter, salt, and pepper. Add the meat from a cooked chicken, stir together, and serve over orzo. It is really one of the best meals I have ever had — could I be a little partial having raised the mushrooms?
The shiitakes were so much fun I ordered 1,000 plugs of lion’s mane mushroom spores. They are done the same way as the shiitakes but tapped into holes drilled into sweet gum logs. Lion’s mane mushrooms are very funky looking and supposedly taste like lobster and crabmeat. These mushrooms are thought to be especially neurotrophic (good for your brain). As I am now 70 years old, I hope that they will hurry up and start producing while there is still time. I am expecting them this fall.
My garden is in its second year, and I have learned two secrets for better success. Most important is chicken litter. I was lucky to have a patient who has large chicken houses and therefore a lot of chicken litter. I got a trailer full of litter this past fall, brought it to the garden, held my nose, and got to work spreading it on a large area and covering it with hay. The litter needs to sit for five to six months or it will be too strong for your plants. I then plowed it in and planted my tomatoes, zinnias, and sunflowers. I had half of my tomato plants, about 25, in the chicken litter area and half in regular soil. The difference was amazing. In the litter area, all of my plants were double in size, and the tomatoes were both double in number and double in size. The flowers were also much more prolific. It might be a problem in town for any neighbor downwind, but the chicken litter really works.
The other thing that I tried this year with great success is using black plastic instead of black garden cloth. Garden cloth lets water through but allows weeds to grow up between the mesh, which then makes the weeds hard to pull up. I cut slits in the plastic where each plant was planted and then covered the whole area in hay so that the plastic did not absorb the sun and make the garden too hot. Water found its way through the slits in the plastic so that the plants did quite well and had very few weeds.
Raising plants from seed provides a lot of gardening pleasure. I started mine in an upstairs bathroom with grow lights (they have a reddish glow out of the window all night — I have been waiting for the marijuana police to knock on my door), moving the plants to a small greenhouse at the farm in early spring and then into the ground around Easter. Watching the plants grow and mature to produce excellent fruits, vegetables, and flowers is incredibly rewarding. When the tomatoes and sweet corn are ready to pick, you also find yourself to be very popular with friends kindly offering to help you harvest. Hopefully they will remember to also offer to help next year with the planting.
Raising fruits and vegetables has a real learning curve, and small worries go along with small successes. How to plant properly, how much to water, what kind of fertilizer to use and how much and when to use it, and when to prune. Oh, it’s hard to prune off limbs that you have worked so hard to grow, but pruning is important to make the trees or plants produce.
Two other projects at the farm have been fun and productive in a more mechanical sense: building bluebird houses and restoring a small barn. I have 21 bluebird houses around the Forest Lake golf course and six at the farm. I figured that the golf course would have fewer snakes. Twenty-seven boxes with five eggs per box and two nestings each season leads to at least 200 bluebird babies each year. They stay in the area all year, so it’s fun to think that some of the ones that I see came from boxes that I built.
The small barn at the farm was on its way to falling down, so restoring it has been quite a fun project. It has been interesting to see the building materials of old were true 2 x 4 boards nailed together with tenpenny nails. They really don’t build things like they used to. Even though the barn was built with such good materials, the roof has leaked for years, causing lots of rotten wood. With sledgehammer and crowbar in hand, I have been tearing out old wood and putting in new. The good thing about a project like this is that I have the rest of my life to get it done.
Are any of these endeavors of earth-shattering importance? Of course not. The beauty of retirement is leaving those big worrisome jobs behind and being happy and satisfied with the smaller, more enjoyable pursuits, knowing that even though they are not that important, they do give you a lot of pleasure and sense of accomplishment. Would I go back in time and return to work if I found a genie in a bottle and had one wish? Not for anything in the world.