Mail Call: September/October 2013

In the September/October 2013 edition of Mail Call, one reader shares an insightful experience building a low maintenance vegetable garden, readers sound off about articles in our July/August issue, and more.


Poor soil and garden-bounty marauders inspired Dan to create something with a little more structure.

Photo By Dan Dreifuerst

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Low-Maintenance Vegetable Garden

The 2012 gardening season was terrible for us. The deer and rabbits ate most everything that came up, and the weeds took over. Our soil here in southeastern Wisconsin is clayish and bakes to almost concrete when dry. For this season, I had to change things up, and thought it might be useful to give other folks some ideas for their own gardens.

I built a new garden 14 feet wide by 50 feet long and went with 50-foot-length soaker hoses. I used 36-inch-wide landscape fabric between the four rows with a 6-inch-wide planting opening, which determined the 14-foot width.

This garden is for my larger warm-weather vegetables. I have my cool-weather garden with narrow rows in separate raised beds. You can use different fabric widths to suit your needs.

I used a middle buster or furrower with my tractor to open up a trench to place the good composted material, and raked the clay soil away from the furrow. This poorer soil eventually ended up under the landscape fabric between the planted rows. If you don’t have a furrower, you can dig the poor soil out by hand with a shovel. You want to end up with a flat garden area. My strips of good composted soil are about 14 inches wide, the same width as my tiller.

I then put 36-inch-wide strips of landscape fabric down and placed wood chips over the fabric, leaving 6 inches between the strips for planting. Soaker hoses went down the length of all four rows, and I connected them at one end with a four-way manifold. My four-way has a shutoff at each port. I made wire hooks in the shape of a “J” to pin the soaker hoses in a straight line down the rows.

We have deer and rabbit problems, so I constructed a 4-foot-high fence around the entire garden with a gate on one end. I added a rope at the 7-foot-high level so deer would not think about jumping in. At the ends, I made the fencing removable so I could till the rows in spring. To do that, I’ll rake the wood chips back a little and fold back the fabric to do the tilling.

It was quite a bit of work building the initial garden, but it should be easy to maintain for many years. This is a good lower-cost solution to replacing all of the poor soil in the garden. I intend to add a little compost to the rows each spring. It is summer here now, and it is a joy to be able to walk in the garden after a heavy rain to do the light weeding, or harvest without getting my shoes full of mud.

Dan Dreifuerst
St. Cloud, Wisconsin

Birds Feed the Dogs

I just wanted to share these pictures of our coop here in Weare, New Hampshire. Last year, my husband, Don, built me this chicken coop. I own and operate Mrs. Beasley’s Dog Treats LLC, and use eggs in my dog treats. Purchasing eggs every week at the farmers’ markets was getting expensive, so we decided to raise our own chickens for the fresh organic eggs. Lots of work, but well worth it! We have 13 chickens, and they supply us with about a dozen eggs a day. Thanks for publishing such a good magazine!

Maydene Koppel
Mrs. Beasley’s Dog Treats LLC
via email

Live Baby Animal Cam

I wanted to thank everyone at the GRIT magazine website for posting the live baby animal video feed! As a soon-to-be graduating university senior with an extremely stressful finals week schedule last spring, I found it comforting to hop on the Internet and watch the chicks being themselves. Man, those little ones are good stress relief. It was a great idea to post this feed, and I hope you can continue. You guys do a great job, and I love the magazine.

Candice Andreason
Eugene, Oregon

Thanks, Candice. Taking a few minutes to watch some baby poultry hatchlings is indeed great for the spirit. – Editors

Scrapple and Grits

Reading the article on Red Floriani Flint corn (“Make Floriani Red Flint a Homestead Staple,” in the July/August issue), I found the paragraphs on scrapple and wanted to add my two cents’ worth. I was raised at the tail end of the Great Depression in western Kansas. We lived on a five-acre farm on the edge of town. My family had a strong, strong German heritage, so we raised, bartered or made almost everything we ate or wore.

Getting back to scrapple, one winter my father got a job working with a man who slaughtered animals on the farm. This wouldn’t be allowed today, like a lot of things people did back then. My father was paid $1 for each animal that they slaughtered, plus we got the head. This was our meat that winter. My father would bone out the head and then cut it into pieces, and my mother would boil it until there was no meat left on the bone. She would then boil the broth until it was reduced, add cornmeal, and boil it until it was done. Then she would pour the cornmeal mixture into loaf pans and set them in the window to firm up. In the winter, we fried it for breakfast. Yes, it was good.

Now, speaking of grits. Grits are grits, and cornmeal is cornmeal. Cornmeal is ground corn, and grits used to come in two forms: The most popular and the best grits were made with flake hominy, while the other form of grits was made with hominy that was allowed to dry before grinding. These were boiled grits and served with butter, salt and pepper. I will be glad to write to anyone who would like to know more about that era.

Ralph Douglass

Delivering GRIT in Georgia

I just wanted to write and say that when I was 10 and in the fifth grade back in 1957, my dad helped me get a paper route in Warner Robins, Georgia. I sold and delivered the Grit paper, which at the time was about the size of a regular newspaper, but not as thick. On Friday afternoon, when Dad got home, he would take me to pick up the papers. We’d then go home, where he and Mother would help me roll them up for delivery on Saturday morning.

If it rained, he would drive me around in our 1949 Mercury four-door that had backward back doors.

For some reason, I have thought about this a few times in the past couple of years. The Grit was a big part of my life then. It still is now that I’m grown, but in a different way. With things and times being the way they are today, sitting here writing and reminiscing about the past, I realize that the publication has always been a positive influence on my life. I didn’t live in rural America; I lived in town. But back then we knew our neighbors, people at church, store owners, and teachers at the schools. I was young, and I didn’t know that we didn’t have much, because our friends and family didn’t have much. Then again, maybe we did. Yep, maybe we did. Thanks for the great memories.

Wayne McKinnon
Navarre, Florida

Former delivery folks of all ages, shapes and sizes helped usher this publication through an important era in its history, Wayne, and we are sincerely grateful for that. We feel fortunate to be lucky enough to watch over it for a short period of time moving forward! Thanks so much for the kind words and for sharing your story. – Editors

Learning Young

I read your story about the chicken who raised the ducklings (“Duck, Duck, Chicken?” in the July/August Mail Call). Very nice indeed! It brought back memories of an experience years ago. We moved to the country, and my wife, Beth, bought some chicks. We housed the chicks in the basement until it was warm enough for them to go outside. Once the chicken yard was complete, Beth also added six ducks to the pen. I constructed a pond for the ducks to swim in and the other critters to drink from.

Next, Beth came home with two young African geese. They went in with the ducks and seemed right at home. A few days later, my wife went out to the chicken yard and found one of the geese floating in the pond, drowned. The next day, she heard a commotion and went to check. She found the ducks holding the other goose under water, trying to drown it, too. The goose was saved with a little CPR and a heat lamp. Once we put him back in the pen, the ducks left him alone.

Our goose grew so large, we finally had to find him a new home with more room. We gave him to a friend who had a large pond with both ducks and geese. That goose spent the rest of his days swimming across the pond, not allowing the geese to get anywhere near the ducks. He protected them as if they were his own. Imprinting is a strange thing, isn’t it?!

Jerry Nohr
Limington, Maine

Don’t blame him, Jerry and Beth; a near death experience like that would shape our perception of those quacks as well! – Editors 

Lazy-Man’s Wine

When I saw “Homemade Wine” on the front cover of the July/August issue, I thought, Oh, boy, someone is finally printing my old “Lazy-Man’s Wine Recipe”!

Was I wrong! Although the article was interesting as to how to use up excess fruit, it surely cannot touch the ease with which one can produce a good table wine. Back sometime in the 1970s, I was in a convenience store where I saw a sheet of thin cardboard shaped like a gallon milk jug — those opaque plastic jugs in which most people purchase their milk. Attached to the cardboard was a packet of wine yeast and a recipe.

One would take a thoroughly washed milk jug and add a thawed 12-ounce can of frozen Concord grape juice, using lukewarm water to rinse out the can. You then mixed the yeast with a small amount of warm water to dissolve and activate the yeast, and added it to the mix. Next came 2 cups of regular white table sugar with enough lukewarm water to dissolve it into the mix. Finally, you filled the jug up to the shoulder and shook it up to thoroughly mix the contents while holding one hand over the opening. The next step was to affix a heavy balloon, such as we used to buy for children’s parties, to the top of the jug (blow the balloon up and let the air out first so that it will inflate easier), and put a heavy rubber band on it to prevent it from slipping off. Put the jug in a reasonably warm place, 65 to 70 degrees, and wait the 30 or so days as per the recipe. As the yeast works on the sugars, the balloon will inflate, and after the alcohol is produced, the gases will “go back into” the wine. When the balloon is completely deflated, the wine is ready to be consumed.

This wine tends to be cloudy and overly sweet, so I did quite a bit of experimentation. What I came up with was to use Red Star yeast instead of wine yeast because it’s cheaper and more easily obtained. I use 1 1/2 to 2 packets, or if you buy it in the jar, 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons, and I cut the sugar to 1 1/2 cups. I also switched from plastic milk jugs to glass jugs because the neck is longer and it is easier to attach the balloon. Plus, you can see that it is clean! The heavy party balloons are very difficult to find these days, so one will have to improvise. Anyway, in this case the end product clarifies itself and turns out as a semi-sweet dry port, which is excellent with spaghetti or other pastas.

Keep up the great writing. I really look forward to each issue!

Jim Howe Jr.
Rutledge, Alabama