The Yellow Barn

Country Turns of Phrase

Heyday- really hay season

Given that I’ve long been a writer and interested in language, it’s little wonder that when we moved to the country I was struck by how many turns of phrase originate from rural living and in turn intrigued or amused at the context of their origins. According to, the expression “turn of phrase” itself was first used in 1779 by Benjamin Franklin referencing how words could be “turned”, like wood on a lathe, in order to craft their unique meaning.  Following are some of the phrases that have struck me along with an abbreviated Merriam Webster (or comparable) reference and their corresponding country context. As for me, I’ll take the country any day but keep my mind open to many perspectives as I listen and learn.


Merriam Webster states “a period of prosperity or vigor” while those of us in the country know that it is more of a season than a day. We struggle to find the right stretch of dry weather long enough to cut, wind-row, bale and haul in the season’s yield. Often, unexpected rainfall (a shower or a deluge) will foil one or more of these steps and lessen the quality of the hay or ruin it entirely. Of course, you also have to account for some of your machinery breaking down in the process. It’s tricky business and an art more than a science; some might say it’s mostly luck. We all agree, though, when the hay is baled and put up for the season, it’s time to celebrate!

Tough Row to Hoe indicates this to mean a “large, challenging task” while for those gardeners among us, this expression conjures rocks, roots and dirt clods situated along the line you choose for establishing a planting row. Such terrain humbles us and can be infuriating not to mention physically draining and daunting.

Going to Town

When you live deep in the country, often on gravel roads, sometimes off the grid, mostly off the land and definitely off the beaten path, days can stretch on when you don’t get in the car to go anywhere. Everything you need is right there on your property, in your pantry or root cellar, in your meat locker or library. Country living tends to be more self-sufficient than urban life so actually venturing off the homestead and into town gets to be a big deal. There’s always an important motive for your trip so you rise to the occasion and as James Rogers in his “Dictonary of Cliches” (Ballantine Books) would say, you go with gusto.

Growing Like a Weed

Merriam Webster indicates “growing very quickly” for this turn of phrase. Again, for those who garden, our experience of the growing behavior of weeds is quite a phenomenon. Weeds can double overnight and their growth is exponential the larger they get. Weeds can grow in the most prohibitive places and under the most impossible conditions. Drought? No problem. Clay? Not an issue. Drowning rain? No trouble. Weeds exhibit extraordinary tolerance, vigor and adaptability in their growth. It seems all we need do is turn our backs and weeds flourish.  We can only dream that our prize plants would grow so well.

A Breath of Fresh Air

  Part of the reason people choose to live in the country is for the air quality; most rural people spend a lot of time outside and enjoy the fresh air and quiet of the country. Fresh air is a vital component to living on the land. Urbanites, on the other hand, use this phrase to mean that something or someone is refreshing, new, different or exciting (Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, Cambridge University Press), as if it is a rarity or anomaly. Once again, the rift between urban and rural is crystal clear.

Top Notch

 My boyfriend and a neighbor were recently using a farm jack to repair a tractor fender. They wrangled the jack every which way, raised the front end loader bucket and lowered it and repositioned the jack in hopes of getting enough torque to repair the spot. Each time, they’d crank the jack all the way up and try to crank it back down, but they were at the top notch, the most leverage, the best they could do. Where the Oxford dictionary claims top notch to be the best quality, first-class or excellent, in the country, the top notch is often a physical point with implications on the working function of the apparatus which houses the notches. It’s true that you often can’t go any higher, but in the practical world, that is not always a good thing!

From the Ground Up

When people talk about their ground in the country, they are referring to their land or their soil, even the terrain of their homesteads. If you are building from the ground up in a rural setting, you may be starting with soil improvements, you may have to deal with earthmoving, in any case with very foundational components including dirt.  City dwellers have a more sanitized meaning for this turn of phrase. Their ground is often paved and infrastructure further along, so they are working with the building blocks of, say, growing a business. Frames of reference vary wildly between the more feral nature of country folk and a more domesticated urban understanding.

The next time you are listening to someone speak, stop to listen more keenly and note the underlying foundations of various turns of phrase. You’ll be surprised at the breadth of experience we draw on in our day-to-day language and how indicative it is of our roots and perspectives.

Backaches & Blisters: Ingredients For Improving Poor Garden Soil

Starting with clay 

Not every gardener starts off with the gift of good soil; some of us have to grow our garden from the ground up before we even venture into planting. If you are dealing with clay soil like we were, prepare yourself for a tedious process of amendments and backaches as you augment the clay to make it friable and root-friendly. 

Fear not for you will be richly rewarded for your efforts and surprised at the resilience of plants.

In 2011, my boyfriend spent a day plowing up the plot of field that would become our garden. He leveled and heaped and smoothed and repeated for hours, establishing a 30’x70’ plot.

The site suited us being close to the house and barn. We felt the presence of former stewards of the land upon finding a pristine spearhead that had likely been long buried by the Osage Indians who hunted in our Buck Hollow here in Osage County. 

In order to enjoy any yield, though, our garden would definitely need fencing to deter the deer, raccoons, turtles, rabbits, ground hogs, possum and the occasional armadillo who frequented the field and couldn’t read a “Keep Out” sign if we posted one.

First Attempts and Suffocating Clay

I’d started a number of vegetables from seed in the abandoned south-facing chicken coop but couldn’t imagine subjecting these fragile little babies to the virtually solid clay in our newly-established garden.

Driving PVC to create planting holes

The first gardening season was humbling as we sunk PVC pipe into the clay ground with a post hole driver to create a “plug” in which to place my starts, tucking them in with a handful of potting soil mix and wishing the plants well.

Next year would be better, we vowed. That first year, we placed all of our grass clippings on the garden as mulch to minimize weeds and add organic matter to enhance the clay. This was a modest effort considering we had a push mower and bagger at the time!

Clay holds nutrients but is so compacted that the roots can suffocate for lack of oxygen. It also gets waterlogged or makes impenetrable hardpan surfaces. Mid-Missouri is prone to downpour rains which make for rough growing of plant starts. Larger plants can absorb more water, but still suffer from the pummeling.

It was astonishing that we had any yield at all that first year, but plants can be amazingly resilient. Every bite we enjoyed was appreciated as we schemed on what actions to take next to improve our “lot”.

Amending the Soil

As the end of hay season came around our first gardening year, we set aside several round bales to tear apart and cover the soil once the growing season ended. Once spread and broken down some, we burned the hay and left the charcoal to incorporate.

Biochar is an ancient amendment that is said to date back to pre-Colombian Amazonians. Bob made some of that by burning small twigs in a 20-gallon drum within a 50-gallon drum and we incorporated that as it is believed to help hold organic matter in soil.

The following spring, we got serious and enlisted a neighbor to deliver several truckloads of cow manure. Unfortunately, they came with rocks varying in size from rototiller-tine- breaking to bucket and wheelbarrow loads picked to be picked out by hand for many years to come.

We maintained a compost pile and incorporated that as well as wood ash from the stove. The wood ash can have significant effects on the pH level in the soil, so keep that in mind.

Adding river sand

Next we ordered a truckload of river sand. This was most critical to the break-up of the clay and to maintain ongoing aeration in the soil. We spread the load by hand and rototilled it all in, overjoyed by the change in color and texture of the ground. Despite the hard work, I wish we’d incorporated 2 truckloads!

The soil was finally a browner tone, smelled like earth instead of ceramics and was friable to the touch.

Solarizing with plastic

Next, we solarized the soil by placing black plastic over the surface and keeping it flat over the soil for 6 weeks or so when temperatures were in the 70s and 80s. This essentially sterilized the soil, killing weed seeds, insect larvae and resetting the soil. Worms dove deep aiding the aeration effort. Be careful in handling the plastic and you will be able to reuse it several times.

We rototilled again after the solarization to mix the soil one more time before planting our second season. I grew 80 heirloom varieties from seed that year and harvested about 1300 pounds of produce!

Fallowing and Beyond

Each year, we’ve continued to mulch with grass clippings and wood chips. The soil continues to improve, though it is interesting how much organic material it seems to need to maintain its fertility. The predominance of clay seems to want to return so we forge on with our amendments.

Last year, we employed another age-old practice for soil health: fallowing. I’d planted buckwheat as a green manure cover crop and we let the garden go. We rototilled that in and then did another round of solarization to kill any weed seeds that sneaked in during the fallow.

Worth the effort!

I’m eager to uncover the soil, rototill again and embark on a new growing season. With the effort it’s taken to build the soil, the garden yield tastes all the more delicious! Despite the backaches and blisters, it’s a commitment worth keeping with all the benefits of organic, garden-fresh vegetables.

Snow Custard

Sarah JoplinThey say that tastes and smells are evocative of early memories. That was certainly the case when I was inspired to make a recipe from my childhood.

Snowy, Mid-Missouri winters in the 1970s often stretched from December through March or April.  In our “neighborhood”, which consisted of 5 farms spread over nearly 500 acres, families came together and devoted entire days to sledding down the steep hill which connected our homesteads. Such occasions would culminate at a neighbor’s kitchen table with steaming hot chocolate shared in high spirits.  Other neighborly happenings were more somber and occurred when someone slid off the ice-rink-like roads into a ditch and needed to be rescued with a tractor or when pipes froze and whoever still had running water would share their good fortune.

I didn’t know then that snow could be an ingredient. At 5 years old, I rarely concerned myself with cooking at all unless Mom engaged me in kitchen tasks, asking that I mix a bowl or stir a simmering pot while she fed our wood-cook stove. One snow-day, home from school as I hovered around her, she showed me how to knead Irish Soda bread and braid Challa strands into their traditional loaf shapes prior to baking. Other times when she enlisted my help, we made egg noodles from scratch to complete her signature chicken soup.  With her kind gestures and loving ways, my mother taught me some of the most vital ingredients for the recipe of a contented life—humor, gratitude, and patience.

One wintry day, as fresh snow accumulated on already-fallen mounds and drifts and I made a snowman in the yard, Mom got a gleam in her eye and said that we were going to make something special. Then she did an odd thing, getting two bowls and directing me outside to do as she did, scooping fresh snow into her bowl. “No yellow snow”, she chuckled, as our dog poked around nearby! I happily followed instruction, filling my bowl and trotting back inside behind Mom. I remember the house was warm from wood-heat and smelled of sweet vanilla. Once in the kitchen, Mom showed me the custard that she had lovingly concocted made with sugar, eggs from our hens and milk from our neighbor’s cow. In turn, I proudly held up my bowl of snow. She nodded approvingly and told me to set it outside by the front door, nestled in the snow next to hers. Now was the time for patience, as we waited for the mixture to cool. All the while I salivated in anticipation. To pass the time and expedite the process, she brought the custard pot outside and nested it in the snow. We both delighted in making snow angels to pass the time. Finally, Mom did a surprising thing; she fetched the bowls of snow, returned to the kitchen and invited me to help mix the two ingredients together. I squealed with pleasure, thrilled by the novelty, eager for the treat. And in that first bite of snow custard, I could taste the mellow flavors of country living and the secret ingredient of love.

Mom’s Snow Custard Recipe


  • 3 cups Milk
  • 2 fresh eggs
  • 2/3 cups of sugar
  • 1 tsp. Vanilla
  • 6 cups Fresh Snow


snow custard

1. Combine milk, sugar, and vanilla in a medium sauce pan. Whisk eggs together and then add to the aforementioned mixture over medium heat.

3. Beat mixture while cooking over medium heat. Heat until mixture starts to rise. DO NOT let boil.

4. Scoop fresh snow into a mixing bowl.

mixing snow custard

5. Once liquid mixture is ENTIRELY cooled (you can leave covered in snow to cool), pour mixture over snow and mix thoroughly.

finished custard

6. Serve immediately and Enjoy this rare treat!


Photo credit: Copyright Sarah Joplin

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