Notes from Windward: #57

Fencing the new garden

Monty starts the next hole
There are all sorts of mythical creatures such as the centaur, a winged half-man half-horse, that couldn't actually exist in real life. Our ideal fence is such a creature. It has to be able to keep goats in, range cattle out and still be affordable; a combination which almost defies fulfillment. Fencing is a long-term project that will provide us with an enduring challenge for years to come.

Eventually, we'll fence our entire perimeter which currently stretches some two miles. Since materials alone will run about $2 a foot, you can appreciate the financial dimension. However worthy the idea, it's a lot of money and work that won't do much for us until it's completely done since half a fence won't keep anything in or out. Still, it's a necessary expense and can't be posponed indefinitely. When something has to be done, you eventually find a way. In the meantime, we're building a test fence around the new garden to see if what we're planning on the larger scale will work on a smaller scale.

Fencing is an integrity issue. The tricky thing about integrity is that it has to be complete. For example, it doesn't matter how strong the rest of a boat's hull is if it has a hole in its bottom. Regardless of how water-tight the rest of the boat is, one hole is all it takes to sink it. The same is true of a fence. All it takes is one weak spot, and the rest of it might as well not even be there. Range cows may be as dumb as a post about some things, but they're pretty smart at being cows. We're not talking about your pampered bovines who enjoy room service; these cattle have to range the woods and hunt up their breakfast. If you're going to grow a field of alfalfa, they're going to want their share.

Our primary fence design:
welded and galvanized cattle panels
with RR ties every 16 feet
and two t-posts per span
The perimeter fence will utilize a combination of cattle panels, railroad ties and T-posts to do the job. The cattle panels are 16 feet long and 52 inches high, and are constructed of 1/4" steel rod. They're welded together and then dipped galvanized to prevent corrosion. Around here, they cost right at $20 each.

Over the last nine years, we've tried a lot of different fencing options, and have come to swear by these panels. They do the job, they don't require maintenance and they last and last. While they're spendy at first, over the long run they're cheaper to use, and re-use, than anything else we're aware of. As our needs change with the seasons, we don't think twice about taking down a few panels here, and tieing them together over there for some other purpose.

On straight land, cattle panels will enable you to keep a taunt, upright fence. Metal wire expands when it's hot and shrinks when it's cold, and the resultant stress can do substantial damage to a fence. If the wire's taunt enough to do the job in summer, then next winter's cold spell will snap wires, pull staples and sometimes even pull fence posts right out of the ground. If it's slack enough to make it through zero degree weather, then come the heat of summer, it'll be all loose and floppy. At that point, you might as well open the gate and save the wear and tear as the range cattle bully their way through to get to your grass.

Fences are usually strung in lengths of 330' feet, and over that distance the expansion and shrinking of the metal wire can do remarkable things. With a traditional wire fence, you have to go out each spring and deal with maintenance and repair. Remember, you only need one break in almost two miles of fence to render the property vulnerable. Right now, the range cattle don't have a lot of incentive to break in, but as we get more of our agricultural development further underway, that will change. When the rangeland gets dry, and you've got a lush green stand of alfalfa, it's hard to convince a 1,000 pound range cow that she's not welcome to graze it.

Range cattle grazing our pasture
In the heat of summer, traditional wire fencing slackens considerably. All it takes is for one calf to wiggle its way through a fence. While it's mother might not have messed with the fence before (cows don't have a lot of initiative), once her baby has gone through, there's no way you're going to keep her out. After she's bullied her way through, your fence will be in tatters and the first you'll know about it will be when you see a hundred head of hungry range cattle standing in the middle of your truck garden. So, you have to be able to keep that calf out, something which cattle panels do better than anything else short of chain-link fence.

Fence panels are only sixteen feet long, and while they too are subject to expanding and contracting with the temperature, they're short enought that this doesn't pose a problem. The expansion I'm talking about here is in the order of 1%. For a 330' stretch, that's an change of more than three feet. For a 16' cattle panel, it's a little less than a quarter of an inch.

Since cattle panels are welded at every cross point, the stresses are evenly distributed around the panel, and there's no slack spot for a critter to take advantage of. Once the head gets through, the body is never far behind. Relying on wire fence is a lot like trying to keep a guitar in tune; too slack and the critters can wiggle through, too taunt and it will snap under pressure.

As a bonus, fence panels look nice and uniform. Part of the process of development of the land involves bringing about a sense of order and definition. While that's more of a human need than a practical need, still there's real value in enhancing Windward's visible definition. While nature doesn't recognize the artificial boundaries that humans place on the earth, those lines are an enduring part of how humans do things. It's important to remember the human part of the sustainable equation. As Frost said, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Setting the posts on
eight foot centers going downhill
The real work in putting in a fence at Windward involves sinking the post holes. This is especially true when we're having to fence down a slope. In order to insure that the slope doesn't create too great a gap under the panel, we have to fall back to putting in a post every eight feet. It's more work and more expense, but that's the way it goes.

Most of our soil is shallow and rocky, and power posthole diggers just can't deal with it. Often the only feasible way to sink a hole is with hand tools. Once, we even encountered a rock that was too big to effectively lift out of the three-foot deep hole. We tried a couple of different ways to grapple with it, and then realized it wasn't necessary to get it out of there. Instead, we dug out a small space to the side, levered the rock over enough so it was out of our way, and went ahead with installing the post.

We try to schedule our posthole digging for March and early April while the ground's still wet from the winter melt. Given our high clay content, once the ground dries out, it becomes very hard to work with. Then the process of digging a hole becomes a multi-day affair as we dig a bit and then fill the hole with water. The next day, the water will have softened the earth enough to allow us to work the hole deeper. We still get it done; it just takes longer.

Buckets of sand and gravel
for mixing concrete
Once the holes are down three feet, they're ready for the railroad tie. After it's snugged up to the guideline, we use braces to hold it straight and vertical. The process of prying out the rocks leaves us with a hole that's around two feet in diameter. We back-fill the base of the hole with the rocks that we've so painstakingly dug out. They wedge the base of the tie in place and serve to help fill up the volume. We mix our cement from scratch on the spot, but it still costs a dollar a cubic foot for materials. Taking up space with rocks is the thrifty way to go.

One bag of Portland cement is enough to make five mixes, so if we just need one or two mixes during the rainy season, we'll often go with the more expensive premix. During the dry summer months, we can use up a bag over a period of a few weeks without it starting to set.

Monty adds water to the mix
The recipe we use calls for 5 gallons rock, 3 gallons sand and one and a half gallons Portland cement. We mix it a bit on the wet side since we want to be sure that it works its way in and around the rocks we've wedged into the bottom of the hole. One mix is enough for an in-line post, but we add a second batch if it's a corner or gate post. The plug of concrete at the bottom acts like the flukes of an anchor, and the dirt that's piled on it forms a substantial amount of down pressure which holds the tie firmly in place.

We've found that mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow is easiest with two people using two different tools. Here I'm using a small shovel that reaches into the corners of the wheelbarrow and brings stuff on the bottom to the top of the mix. Monty is using a mixing hoe that moves the material from the front of the mix to the back. Working together, the mix is ready to go into the hole in about five minutes. We have a powered mixer that could do the mixing for us, but given the time it takes to clean the mixer, we usually just opt to mix by hand.

Walt and Monty two-team the mix
After the concrete has set for a day, we remove the braces, fill in the hole and let it sit for a few days to cure. Concrete sets up in a matter of hours, but it takes days to achieve it's true strength. Since there's always other things to do, there's no reason to rush the next step.

On this project, our goal was to sink a post a day, and while that may seem slow, it's a steady pace that doesn't stress any of us out too much. By taking a steady bite out of the task each day, we keep things moving forward in the midst of every thing else that needs attending to. That isn't the only way to do things, but we've found it's the most sustainable.

The corner post gets a double mix
For a while, we're holding off putting up all of the cattle panels in order to provide access. I've found that the backhoe makes the most marvelous garden tool. Want to double-dig a long, rocky bed? No problem! Need an old stump out of the way? No problem! Need that big pile of rotted barn compost moved down to the garden? No problem!

Using the heavy equipment on this garden is handy, but not really necessary. Still, what we're learning now will stand us in good stead down the road. This garden is ten times larger than the kitchen garden, and the next garden will be at least five times larger than this one, so the equipment utilization we're learning here will serve us well when we put the truck garden in later on. There are lots of things that look good on paper, but don't pan out in practice. Trying things now, ideas that we might want to use later on, is part of the research we try to weave into everything we do.

The east side of the garden fence
In time, we'll put up the rest of the fence, but for now we're keeping the southern side open so the backhoe has easy access. This year, our actual planting will be modest. We're growing some plants that will serve as source material for larger plantings next year, such as rhubarb and ever-bearing, day-neutral strawberries.

Other plantings, like our new raspberry patch, will have to settle in for at least a year before they start serious production. Getting them in this season will pay dividends next year. Pretty much the only annuals we're working with have to do with products we're considering marketing, like Cindy's zucinni pickles and dried cherry tomatoes. For now, it's more a nursery than a garden as we focus primarily on structure and trying out innovative ways to do things. Just because it works in the magazines is no assurance that it will work for us.

For example, we'll be using the water trench to try out a nifty way to grow potatoes. After excavating down to two feet to install water lines throughout the garden, we backfilled the trench up to about six inches from the surface. We'll plant seed potatoes on the surface, then cover them with the straw used last winter as barn bedding. The potatoes are supposed to grow along the surface under the straw, thereby avoiding the need to dig for them. The books say that the new potatoes will be found growing at the dirt - straw interface. You just remove the straw, and there they are. Will it work out that easily? Stay tuned.

This year's primary crop will be rocks, knowledge, and a quarter-acre garden. Next year will be different, as we bring this new resource further on line. For now, we're "growing" the garden itself.

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