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Century Oaks Farm

Trench Rows

Phil NicholsWhile contemplating my first garden, on our newly minted homestead, those many years ago—I remember wondering just what I might be able to grow in this dry, sandy, rock infested section of ground that we now called home.

I had been a devotee of the Rodale Press for many years prior to our move to Missouri and knew that I’d need a soil test to figure out how to go about amending our poor thin soil. Question was—where the heck do you go to get a soil test. Back in that day, before computers took over the world, you had ask around to find things out. Well I did and discovered that you could get a soil sample bag and box at the University of Missouri extension office located in the Courthouse about 18 miles west of us. So I trucked on over one afternoon and introduced myself to the extension agent. Sure enough a kit was available.

First you filled out the paperwork telling the extension folks what your intended use for the ground was—row crops, hay, truck garden etc... Then had to dig out a number of divots from different sites in the garden, mix them together, pour them into the plastic bag, seal it, put the whole thing in the box and mail the concoction off to the University Ag Dept. where it would be tested.

digging trench rows

Some weeks later a letter arrived from Mizzou. I expected to see a formula for pounds of lime, fertilizer and other amendments necessary to put my garden to rights. I was somewhat taken aback by the words at the head of the analysis “Devoid of organic matter.”  i.e. this dirt was so poor it would hardly grown a decent crop of weeds. Groan!

Thus started over 35 years of poop scooping in neighbor’s barns, intensive mulching with whatever I could come by and lots of trial and error discovering what would grow and what wouldn’t.

Last year, I purchased some very pricey heirloom Bradford watermelon seeds from a group of Bradford descendants down in Georgia who are attempting to bring back this legendary delight. Watermelon is purported to grow well in sandy ground so I thought I’d give it a try. My intent being to harvest enough seeds to plant an entire melon patch this year. But that’s a story for a later edition.

tiller in garden

Several reviews, critical of the germination and success of the Bradford seeds I’d purchased, convinced me to heed carefully the advice of the new generation of Bradfords who have been successfully growing the melons for a number of years. One of the instructions was to dig a hole in the top of the raised circle I hoed up and fill it with good composted manure. The melons did well in this atmosphere and a light bulb went on in my head.

Around the middle of March I was finally able to get into this year’s garden with the near-new Troy Super Pony I’d picked up at an auction a year or three back (its “counter-turning” rear tines make it the best tiller I’ve ever laid hands on for fighting rocks.  Front tine tillers beat you to death in our rocky ground and when the “forward-turning” rear tines of Super Pony’s giant cousin the Horse dig into a big rock it will drag you from one end of the garden to the other before you can let go.)

My melon experience last season had given me an idea. Once I’d raked out the area and run a string line I employed the edge of my hoe to make a shallow straight row; then came the fun part—hoeing out a 66’ long x 6” deep x the width of my hoe trench.


Late last fall and into the winter I’d pick up ten bags of compost or manure whenever I caught it on sale. I hitched up my old garden wagon (the one the tree fell on) to my ancient repurposed craftsman garden mower/tractor and hauled half a dozen bags from my stash down to the garden.

The task would have been easier if I’d put a tarp over the perforated plastic bags when I stored them and kept the contents dry. Alas, it is said here in the hills—PO folks gots PO ways.

At any rate I got the soupy glop spread out into the trench and raked a light cap of native soil back over it. Once again using the corner of my hoe I made a shallow planting trench and went to work.

I’ll keep you posted on the results. And stay tuned for chapter III of Let’s Talk Income

Let's Talk Income: Chapter Two

Phil NicholsAt the end of Chapter One it was Sat. evening, I had already paid out $312.72 in just a few days time and was facing the deflating prospect of having to shell out more once I managed to get a large, not so round, rear tire off of my tractor and into town for repairs.

Bright and early the next morning I went out to do battle with the tire. My old 8n Ford was in the shed and there wasn’t much room to work so I decided to see if I could at least partially inflate the tire and move the rig outside. With the aid of pliers to hold the valve stem that was trying desperately to disappear into the rim I managed to get a little air in. There was a risk that nearly flat tire would come off the rim and might be damaged but I took the chance and succeeded in moving the old rig out to a level stretch of ground.

There was one minor glitch. Like most nearsighted folks I tend to have to take my glasses off when working close. I’d set mine on the metal tractor seat while I fought with the air compressor. When I jumped up absentmindedly and plopped down into the seat there was a sickening crunch. Things were going from bad to worse. It was Sunday and I’d need my eyeball covers to be able to drive to work the next day. My first thought was that I’d have to drive the 55 miles into Springfield to find a seven-day-a-week eye glass center. Our local Walmart had one that opened at noon on Sunday but I was pretty sure that there wouldn’t be an optometrist on duty. I’d just bought new lenses a month or so before (gratefully they hadn’t been scratched when I landed on them) and thought it might be worth a shot to see if the Walmart folks could fit them to a new set of frames once they opened.

tire with tire iron

In the meantime I’d deal with the tire. The first order of business before jacking up the tractor was to break the lug nuts loose. One tug on my speed wrench assured me that brawn would not be enough to do the job. Soooooooooo, I employed a trick that I’ve developed during many years of working by my lonesome. Using a heavy duty lug wrench I placed a jack stand on one end and the other on a lug nut. Very carefully (this is the part where my lovely wife took her leave to go to the house) deploying my 215+ on the perpendicular arms of the wrench I was able to break loose the frozen lug nuts. The beauty of using a jack stand is that you can raise and lower it as you work your way around he tire. Due to the possibility of seriously barked shins, I’d strongly suggest to the uninitiated that a cheater bar placed over one of the perpendicular arms of the wrench is a better choice than my gymnastics routine. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to block up a couple of tires and put the rig in neutral to prevent any chance of the tractor rolling. If you have lots of money an impact wrench is an even better idea.

tire bar

My new hydraulic jack didn’t have a high enough profile to reach the bottom of the rear axle, which sets 21” off the ground, so I scrounged up some dunnage to sit it on, raised the tire off the ground and dismounted it; now how to get it into the back of the pickup. The rear tires weigh around 200lbs and I’m not the spring chicken I was thirty or forty years ago. Employing another trick I’ve learned through the years—I slid my friend the rock bar through the center of the rim, placed the point on the tailgate and used the bar to lever the tire up into the truck.

That done we headed into town to see about my glasses. A very nice lady at Walmart was able to trim my lenses to fit a set of their frames and I was back in business once again—though $68.37 poorer.

The tally was now up to $381.09 and still rising. Stay tuned for Chapter Three








Let's Talk Income: Chapter One

Phil NicholsOut here in the hinterland, when the temps drop below 20ºF or so, we leave a steady cold water drip at the kitchen sink (it puts some extra wear and tear on the well pump, and the electric bill goes up, but moving water in pipes tends not to freeze, and once you’ve suffered frozen pipes, you never want to do it again). The first week in March was unseasonably cold here, and we still had a steady stream running.

A year or two back we had wood laminate installed in the living room and kitchen. I noticed that some of the seams were rising up in front of the sink cabinets (moisture and laminate are definitely not compatible) and decided to do a recon under the sink; thus started two very ugly weeks.

I had noticed that when you turned the kitchen sink spout just right, water occasionally spurted out at its base but filed it away as low priority. What wasn’t apparent was that while the water was dripping, a steady leak had developed on the backside and was seeping through and soaking the area underneath the sink — not to mention running out from under the cabinet to ruin part of our flooring.

Assuming that the O-ring/s at the base of the spout had gone bad, I pulled it, but the problem turned out to be a cracked plastic fitting that no one carries. So... a new faucet set was procured for the paltry sum of $58.24. Did I mention that on most days I hate plumbing — especially replacing sink faucets.

The hot water side had a good flexible hose connector running from valve to the underside of the faucet, but the cold water side had an old spliced-together plastic one. I went ahead and sprung for a new flexible hose for $9.20.

I’ll skip the standing on my head under the sink — explicative deleted — fight to the death part.

Job is complete, time to move on to the next thing. NOT!

In the course of taking off and putting back on the good hose, it developed a leak that would not quit. Back to the lumber yard to shell out another $9.20. Finally the new faucets are installed and no leaks. Don’t want to think about repairing the floor.

It was my plan to load up my trailer the weekend following the faucet debacle and drive into Springfield to pick up lumber for the new enclosed run for the old chicken house. Of course when I went out to check hoses Friday evening I discovered that a tire had gone flat during the winter months and it sat that way so long that dry rot set in. I got out a new hydraulic jack that I’d purchased some months ago but hadn’t used yet. Sigh. The blame thing had leaked out its oil and was useless. There was no hope of finding the receipt and getting warranty after all this time, so off to town we went in search of another jack. $64.99 later, I was back home separating wheel from trailer. It was getting late, and I didn’t think that I could get to the tire shop before they closed but drove into town anyway and left it with a note.

Bright and early Saturday morning I went in to retrieve the tire, only to discover that the shop didn’t have a new replacement. A scramble around town produced a usable tire for $75.09, plus another $7.00 to have it mounted. Remounted the wheel, hitched up the trailer and drove down to Lowe's in Springfield for the load of lumber. $89 later and I had the treated lumber that I needed (but the budget didn’t allow for the untreated lumber that day.)


By the time we got back and a bit of work was completed on the enclosure, it was getting late in the afternoon, so I headed for the house. I decided to stop and check on my old Ford tractor on the way and see if she was ready to start plowing the garden. Groan. One of the rear tires had also gone flat; I hauled my compressor from the old shop to the tractor shed only to discover that the tube was shot.


We’ll pick this up in Chapter Two.

Ozark Top Soil

Phil NicholsWhen we first mentioned our plan to relocate from Nebraska to the Missouri Ozarks, back in 1982, I can still hear our neighbor Jay—who had lived in rural Missouri as a youth—telling me how he hated picking up rocks. Being a strong-willed, strong-backed thirty-something I laughed off his reservations.

That was 37 long arduous years ago.

It didn’t take long after I set up housekeeping on our new homestead (wife and daughter remained in Nebraska while the strong young man worked to pull things together) before I began to understand Jay’s aversion to native stone. Clearing space for a garden, digging water lines, putting in fence posts, and every other task involving the ground required a fight to the death with rocks. I soon became familiar with an Ozark homesteader’s tool-of-choice—the steel rock bar. And I began to amass piles and piles of sandstone, native to our slice of country; old-timers hereabouts refer to them as Ozark top soil.

In our travels through the Ozarks, as we searched for a suitable homestead, I always admired the rock homes and buildings we chanced upon. Being a carpenter/builder by trade I made a decision early on to designate the stones that I was unearthing, for some useful purpose.

Using stone from our garden plot, my first project was a slip-formed (clamp on movable form) chicken house. My second was a cold frame. Both saw many years of service. Then in 2006 work took my wife and me away from home. For ten years we managed a private community in the central Ozarks, only occasionally making it back home for a day or two at a time. During our absence the chicken house and cold frame deteriorated badly due to weather and lack of maintenance.

When we retired back to the farm in 2016, my first chore was to find our old overgrown garden plot; it had laid fallow well over the biblical seven years. I swear, after over twenty years of constant use you’d think that nary a rock could have survived, but our ground serves up an entirely new crop every Spring.

It was my intention to tend to the old cold frame once the garden was made ship shape, but a season came and went before ever I found the time to work on it. After clearing away all of the old rotten wood, I installed new treated lumber sills, rehung the old repurposed heavy duty aluminum door that I’d salvaged so many years ago and filled the bed with a good compost and manure mix.

cold frame 

I planted lettuce and dwarf kale last October. The kale has been slow to come on but now that we’re approaching March it is starting to fill out nicely. The lettuce on the other hand has been doing very well—providing us with messes of fresh greens throughout the winter. While temperatures have frequently been at zero, none of the planting, housed in its snug environment, has succumbed to winter kill.

cold frame open

As time permits, I’ve also been cleaning up the old hen house and working on a new fenced-in run. My wife Barbara loves collecting cackleberries and taking care of her ladies.

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