Mail Call: January-February 2010

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Tall raised garden beds helped put the fun back in gardening for reader Robert Miller.
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Tall raised garden beds helped put the fun back in gardening for reader Robert Miller.
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Paul recommends Jonathan apples. What’s your favorite variety?
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A yearning for New Mexico shows in Bonnie Allen’s Illinois chicken coop.
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Tall raised garden beds helped put the fun back in gardening for reader Robert Miller.
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Would a rooster crow to warn off the competition of a chiming clock?

Put Pleasure Back in Gardening

You love to garden but hate turning over all that soil. The taste of grilled potatoes, freshly dug, gets your taste buds working, but the thought of all that weeding makes you wonder if it’s really worth the effort. Freshly cooked carrots and sweet pickled beets get the juices flowing, but the sore back and tired muscles from preparing soil, seeding, weeding and the tender loving care that goes into your growing season make you wonder if the payload is worth the trouble.

How about that old saying, “I didn’t have to put in a garden this year. My neighbor has one.” Most large gardens produce a lot more vegetables than the owner can use, and if you are lucky enough to live next to one of these enthusiastic growers, sit back and enjoy his rewards.

So what is the answer? Garden boxes – I mean big, tall garden boxes. Being an active gardener, I began looking for an easier way to enjoy fresh vegetables without back pain and other aches associated with gardening.

Armed with hammer and nails, I built three large boxes using 2-by-4 frames and fence boards for the sides. These boxes are 30 inches high, 30 inches wide and 8 feet long. I chose 2-by-4s and fence boards, but plywood for the sides would do just as well. Since you need good drainage, a bottom to the box is not required; however, all corner joints should be braced. The inside of the box should be lined to prevent the topsoil from seeping through the cracks. Black plastic garbage bags work great. My three boxes were built in a row running lengthwise, leaving enough space between each to allow a lawn mower to do its thing. Add two yards of topsoil, and your garden bed is ready.

Each year, I rotate the growing plan so that each box holds different vegetables. One box will handle nine potato plants, producing close to 100 potatoes. My second box is home to two zucchini plants and two tomato plants. The third box contains a row of carrots and two rows of beets. These three boxes grow all the vegetables I can use; the only thing I give away is maybe a third of my zucchini crop. When they start producing, I’m harvesting about 10 of these good-sized green vegetables a week. There’s nothing like grilled stuffed zucchini, filled with hamburger and onions, to get you thinking about next year’s crop.

When you have eliminated all of the bending, garden preparation each spring is a cinch. Soil turnover is easy and can be done with small hand tools because your garden is waist-high. Seeding, planting and weeding become tasks of love when the soil can be reached from both the sides and the ends. Adding and mixing new topsoil and compost along with fertilizer becomes an almost effortless task. Gardening is painless with planting boxes. Once again, you can enjoy the pleasure gardening brings and the fruits of almost effortless labor that you will enjoy all winter long. For me, garden boxes helped put the pleasure back in gardening.

Robert H. Miller
Warburg, Alberta, Canada

Thanks for sharing your practical solution to such an age-old question, Robert. Grit readers are the cream of the crop. – Editors

Finding My Place

I have recently subscribed to Grit, and what a wonderful magazine it is. I’m currently a city slicker whose heart’s desire is to be on a farm. I was wondering if there is a way a person like me, who needs to get out of the city, can find his way to where he belongs: on a farm. My knowledge of farming comes from books I read and the summers I spent on ranches in Mexico.

I’m currently growing a few crops in my small yard, and I am attempting to raise a few chickens to feed my children hormone-free eggs. I had to ask for permission from the city to do so since it is not allowed in my area.

Are there any courses or classes I could be looking into to help me fulfill my dream of becoming a farmer in this beautiful country of ours? Thank you for such an informative magazine, and please continue to inspire us city folk with your great literature.

Omar Olivas
Pico Rivera, California

Omar, check with the folks in the Agriculture Department at Cal Poly Pomona for course-work. Our website’s archives ( are also growing by the day with information on everything from how to best care for livestock to land for sale. Dig in, and we’ll keep adding new information to keep you well-read. – Editors

We Read From Afar

I grew up on the island nation of Papua New Guinea back in the late 1970s. We subscribed to Grit, which was sent to us via boat-mail. Sometimes the mail delivery was so slow that we’d get two editions at a time. Nevertheless, it was always a big thrill when it arrived, and we’d take turns reading it cover to cover (many times more than once). I’m glad to see you’re still in production. Thanks for many hours of interesting and uplifting reading.

Myles Bancroft
Westerville, Ohio (via Facebook)

Welcome back to the Grit family, Myles! – Editors

Adobe Chicken House

I am writing to say how much I love Grit, and to show off the new chicken house we built last year (photo above). I live in midwestern Illinois, but I have always wanted a home in New Mexico. Being realistic, I figure that may never happen, so I think the next best thing might be to make an adobe chicken house. We made most of it from recycled materials. The roof and awning are from an old shed a friend tore down, the windows are from an old house, the posts from our timber, and the plywood was among what we had stored in the shed from other tear-downs we have done.

My best buddy, Callie, a rescued Australian Shepherd, is playing chicken protector, as she always does. She even saved our little banty rooster’s life one night when a raccoon got into the pen.

I truly enjoy reading the bloggers’ views ( on country living.

Bonnie Allen
Chillicothe, Illinois

Awesome homemade chicken house, Bonnie. Here at the Grit office, we admit to spending time talking and laughing over great blog posts. Keep reading! – Editors

Pleased Hobby Farmer

Two years ago, I began my journey to create a small farm. My goal is to plant hardwood trees, wildflowers and low-maintenance vegetables. I want my young grandchildren to experience the joy and serenity of nature and working with the soil.

I currently subscribe to more than 10 farming- and conservation-related periodicals, and Grit has become my favorite. It has a balance of stories – gardening, recipes, farm animals, wildlife and helpful how-tos.

Richard Wahlstrand
Davenport, Iowa

Richard, and all our readers, we hope you continue to enjoy reading Grit as much as we enjoy putting it together. – Editors

Loving Jonathans

On Page 52 of the September/October issue, under the title, “Pick Your Favorite Apple” (a sidebar to “A Bite of the Past”), 21 varieties of apples are listed. The first one is Red Delicious, which to me is the most tasteless of all apples that I know.

My complaint, or question, is where are the Jonathans? This is my first pick, and they are not on the list. Go to any fruit market or apple orchard, and you will notice that people are carrying out Jonathans.

I just wanted to put in a plug for my favorite.

Paul Eklof
via e-mail

Readers, whether you agree or disagree with Paul, we’d love to hear from you. What is your apple of choice, on the list or not? – Editors

Garter Snakes for Chickens

In response to the Chicken Whisperer’s article (search for “Chickens Bringing Rats?” at I moderate the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts Google group, more than 115 members and growing.

When the Chicago City Council proposed banning backyard chickens two years ago, rats were among the reasons cited. There are plenty of rats in Chicago where there are no chickens – but we don’t want to promote chickens without some answers to concerns about rats.

We promote preventive tactics like those described in the article.

I have also been trying to get definitive information about the potential for adult garter snakes to eat baby rats – I’m looking for someone who can share information about garter snakes around chickens AND rats.

Martha Boyd
Chicago, Illinois

We’ve never heard of garter snakes eating baby rats, but we do know that chickens eat mice. Readers? Anyone have any suggestions for Martha? – Editors

Quieting the Rooster

In the November/December 2009 issue, reader Debi Hicks wrote in about a neighbor’s rooster in Austin, Texas, that crows every 30 minutes. Here are a couple of possible explanations. Thanks to Marilyn and Loretta for their thoughtful comments.

Light and Dark

Roosters will crow following a loud noise any time of day. I think they think it’s competition.

As to crowing after dark, is it really dark in the coop? A security light in the neighboring area, or a bright light from a window that can be seen from the coop, will result in a rooster crowing at night.

Marilyn Antill
Centerville, Pennsylvania

Like Clockwork

Regarding the reader whose neighbor kept a caged rooster that crowed every 30 minutes: We’ve found that our roosters crow in response to noises and events that they perceive as threatening, as well as crowing when they want me to let them out of the coop in the morning to free-range.

When our coffee grinder starts up at 5:30 in the morning, they crow in response. When our alarm clock goes off (at whatever time) they crow in response. When they hear a car coming up our dirt road – you guessed it – they crow. If the rooster is crowing exactly every 30 minutes, my guess would be that the neighbor has a clock that chimes on the half-hour.

Loretta Liefveld
Three Rivers, California

Grassfed Beef

Since moving from Los Angeles to the Midwest, I’ve been scratching my head at the endless expanses of corn and soybeans here, confounded at how it can make sense to devote so much land to raising crops that are then trucked elsewhere for livestock or processing into food. I keep looking at these “Big Ag” and “Big Meat” practices, trying to see how the setup is truly beneficial for anything other than fattening up the corporations themselves.

I was happy to see (Richard) Manning (“The Amazing Benefits of Grassfed Meat,” November/December 2009) tackle this topic through his exploration of how a radical yet ultimately “big duh” change to meat production could be a win-win for consumers, individual producers, livestock and the ecosystem. I’d love to see an exploration that takes this concept a step further. What if Americans cut their meat intake by half? How might this affect us? Would we get enough protein to be healthy? How many millions of acres of farmland, not to mention public grazing land on the Western Range, could be freed up? Thanks, Grit, for the thought-provoking articles.

Elizabeth Stevens
Lawrence, Kansas

Elizabeth, these are all thoughtful, engaging questions, and we’ll devote significant space to the discussion in a future issue if we receive sufficient reader response. Thank you for sharing. – Editors