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A Farmer Far Afield: Spring Four-titude

By John Mattingly

There is immense temptation to begin gardening during the first warm spells of spring. With seductive regularity, a couple of weeks of warm and windless days come along that are easily mistaken for June.

The March winds, of fifteen to twenty miles an hour, are tolerable because they are basically no more than a short, strong breeze, not a true wind. Temperatures at night hover over the freezing mark, but don’t reach down into the twenties, at least not for the three hours needed to frost a crop. Grass and grains begin to make green shoots, and some weeds, like those in the mustard and thistle families, sprout and seem to thrive. Peas and greens and some root crops will emerge during a March warm-up.

Then comes April and May, the months in which the wind, historically and actually, reaches its maximum incidence and consequence. These winds can blow day and night without subsiding for several days, reducing visibility in clouds of vagrant dust, and ripping plant leaves to shreds with blistering efficiency, even if the crop is healthy and in good moisture.

These big winds, whose dust and debris clouds can be seen from satellites in space, come in April and early May. May 2 is the day of maximum average wind. The big winds are so severe that a plant cannot move enough moisture from root hair to stomate to overcome the searing evaporative effect. Often, the wind blisters the crop into dust while the inside of the farmhouse is guest to so much dust and dirt that a died-in-the-wool farmer would think of planting a crop in it.

An old timer, Ralph, told me that if I planted in spring, I needed four testicles to have the fortitude to face the ensuing hardships and devastation. Ralph always planted in March, so I had to ask if he had two pair.

“I do,” he said.

[InContentAdTwo] Taking his claim as more symbolic than numeric, I did not ask for proof. In conversations with other farmers, however, the topic of Ralph’s endowments came up several times, and as time moved on, I began to believe that, perhaps, Ralph was not boasting.

In the shifting realities of everyday life, Ralph’s claim became a moderately bewitching novelty, not unlike Wilt Chamberlin’s boast of 20,000 lovers and other such claims that require access to details so intimate as to be perpetually obscure. But the puzzling thing was that Ralph talked about the hazards and miseries of early planting, but he always planted in March and he almost always had good, if not exceptional, crops both in the field and in his garden.

I finally caught up with Ralph while he was filling his grain drill in mid-March. “Planting early, I see. “How is it that you talk the terrors of planting early and then you … plant early.”

“I guess I got you fooled,” Ralph said, talking as he continued working the stub auger. “What is the most important thing for a farmer?” he asked.

“Knowing your ground and understanding it,” I said with confidence.

Ralph squinted. “No,” he said flatly. “The real skill in farming and gardening is a feel for timing. The right thing done at the wrong time is still wrong, and the wrong thing done at the right time is always wrong. When you have two pair, like I do, you can sense the peculiar ambiences of weather. You can feel pressure changes. It’s like cows, because of their body mass. The plants that survive March and April grow extra whiskers, if you plant them at just the right time.”

“So, basically, I should watch what you do, and grow a pair.”

“Be a good start,” Ralph said,

Unfortunately, Ralph passed away before I could get more instruction. His wife, Edna, told me that he died in his sleep after talking about cheeseburgers on the moon. Ralph thus dissipated into the unknown as a larger-than-life enigma.

At Ralph’s funeral, I spoke with his son, Willard, a software engineer from Denver. We mentioned this and that, and I finally got around to speaking with Willard about Ralph’s ability to plant in the lion’s month of March and still have a good crop.

Willard laughed. “I explained to Dad that something like eighty percent of the heat units in the Valley come in true summer, late June to early September. That’s when plants really grow. So, a lot of times Dad planted a legume or a small grain early, like peas or beans or rye, maybe some kind of vetch, and then he turned the legumes under as green manure nitrogen before doing his main planting in late June.”

Having learned one of Ralph’s several secrets, there remained one for which my curiosity had not yet diminished regarding his family jewels.

“Well,” Willard said, smiling, “Anyone who farms and gardens in the Valley needs four-titude.”

John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Moffat.