Ozark Top Soil

Reader Contribution by Phil Nichols
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When 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.

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.

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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