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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Move Over Corn, the Peas are Coming

Early ancestors on their homestead.

I think most people aren’t interested in learning where their ancestors came from, the study of genealogy, until they’re in their 40s or beyond. That was the age when I started wondering where all the Longs came from and started my searching. What I learned was we date back pretty far, 1640 to be exact, and that the various parts of the family moved Westward, every 20 years.

Puzzled by why the whole family would pack up and move with such regularity, first to Pennsylvania, to Indiana, then Illinois, Iowa, Kansas Territory and finally Missouri, I thought they must simply be wanderers. A few years ago I was eating lunch with several other conference speakers at a conference in North Carolina and the subject turned to genealogy. I expressed my concern about my family’s habit of up and moving with such regularity. One of the people at the table said she wasn’t surprised at all, that most families did that. Why, I asked? It’s simple, she said. Corn. It turned out she was a sociologist, one who studies population movements. She went on to explain the method of gardening back then, was to move into an area, girdle or cut the trees and till the land for corn. Corn was the main crop to sustain farm and family. Once the land was exhausted of all of the soil nutrients, the family had no choice but to move on and start all over.

Our Billy, eating corn stalks.
Unfortunately I haven’t applied that lesson to my own garden. I have been raising sweet corn in the same 2 spots in my garden for over 30 years. Sure, I’ve added compost, bags of peat moss, even small applications of vegetable fertilizer over the years, but by and large, my 2 corn plots are severely exhausted. It’s not good to keep growing the same thing in the same place year in and year out. Every year my sweet corn has produced fewer ears of corn, on increasingly shorter stalks.

Cooking corn.
One option, of course, would be applications of chemical fertilizers, which do nothing for building up the soil and only support corn for that one year. I prefer to use more organic methods if possible. While I am not completely opposed to fertilizers, if I can use something like compost and cover crops, it is overall, better for my soil and my own health.

Peas of any kind help rebuild tired soil.

This year I’m doing something different. First, I’ve made new beds for the corn in “new” soil - soil I moved from another location. It has a lot of composted straw and manure and has never had corn planted in it before. Second, my old corn patches are getting planted with peas, lots and lots of peas. I bought several pounds of bulk peas, sugar peas and shelling peas. Peas are good at fixing nitrogen in the soil, so I’m planting them with the sole purpose of building up the soil. When they’re through, I’ll till them under and plant a crop of another cover crop, probably hairy vetch or wheat, which will also be tilled under to help build the soil. The corn beds will get a rest from corn for at least 3 years and during that time, I will work on building the soil.

Peas, by tradition in the Ozarks, are to be planted by Valentine’s Day, so I have mine ready. Onions, peas, lettuce and potatoes are all fair game now, as well. To see links to more information about cover crops as well as earlier Ozarks Gardening columns from this newspaper, go to Happy gardening!

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