Friday, January 22, 2010

Pasture from Scratch: Tips from the FarmWife

Dear Readers,

You must know by now that I love Bent Barrow Farm and that my FarmWife does to. It has not been born overnight, believe you me, and it is not finished by any stretch of the imagination. It is, however, coming along nicely and is a most suitable kingdom for a celebrity mule like me, Fenway Bartholomule.

I haven't lived at Bent Barrow Farm forever, and neither has the FarmWife. In fact, just a few years ago I lived in an adjacent pasture and could see nothing here next to this little green house but overgrown fields of weeds interspersed with heaps of twisted metal. Smoking barrels of putrid garbage, broken windows and mangled vehicles, and heaps of oysters (oysters!) littered the ground. It was not what I would have hoped for had I known it would be my future home, but to the Joneses it appeared as a diamond in the rough.

The FarmWife and Mr. Jones were, like most humans, shopping on a budget when they endeavored to find a farm of their own. They were happy to find this property, which came with seven (really, seven) tons of scrap metal and a handful of trash heaps, as well as a WONDERFUL neighborhood mule!  FarmWife is fortunate to have married a human man of mulelike persistance, endurance, and vision, and so it was not so long until Mr. Jones had done away with the seven tons of scrap metal and most of the trash heaps, giving the Joneses a property that looked a darn sight better than the dollars they'd paid for it.

There are expensive ways to do things and then there are affordable ways to do things, and here I would like to share with you the (relatively) affordable way to do things that FarmWife and Mr. Jones settled upon when they bought a rubbishy  patch of garbage and weeds three years ago. Keep in mind that affordable is a subjective term, and that this project would have been impossible had the FarmWife's husband been anything other than mulelike in his vastness of skills and energy.

The following applies in a situation where you have a piece of land that is not livestock-ready. If you already have gorgeous groomed paddocks, you can ignore this advice, get up from your computer, and go riding. If you don't have land at all, start shopping!

Now, you have your place and you need your mule space. Your husband has loaded the seven tons of scrap metal into a rented container, for which you will be reimbursed by the delighted scrapyard owner, and filled several dumpsters with all of the garbage he can load with his hands. Make him some strawberry shortcake and give him a back rub! Then, here's what to do next:

1: Envision your pasture. This is important. There is no point in having a farmlet if you do not have a place for your livestock to frolic, and it had better be pastoral for at least some portion of the year or you won't be able to get those great photos that you wanted of your own animals gamboling merrily throughout the Eden you've created.

2: Obtain the best weed whacker/string trimmer/ brush cutter you can afford. The FarmWife and Mr. Jones settled on a 2-stroke Husqvarna string trimmer with a brush cutter attachment. It could take your toes off.

3. Cut brush. This is best done in the winter, at least here in the wilds of Washington where the blackberry/triffid hybrid thrives on fertile soil and ample sunshine. Cut brush until your hands bleed and then cut some more.

4. Observe the several dozen additional Garbage objects that you have now uncovered. Enlist the help of your dad, a friend, or your long-suffering husband in getting them off to the dump.

5. Cut brush some more. At this point you should have reached the bottom layer of rotten plywood, mangled barbed wire fences, old metal hardware, cinder blocks, burn barrels and fiberglass boat hull sections. If you are tired of taking things to the dump, or if you have run out of funds for dumping, you can file these items according to flammability in what will later be referred to as "the habitat." This is a section of the property that will be allowed to return to a natural state, obscuring the items that are not a)burnable, or b)recyclable. Later, you will build a nice safe fence around "the habitat", and you will enjoy hearing the tap-tap-tap of the yellow-bellied sapsuckers and seeing the flutter of goldfinches hopping out of the underbrush and into the pasture through gaps in the woven wire.

6. When everything you can find and uncover has been disposed of, recycled, burned, dumped, removed, given away, hidden in "the habitat", or turned into yard art, take a very big magnet and sweep the area. You will find several hundred pounds of metal fasteners in various states of chemical transformation. Be thorough!

7. Obtain large swaths of heavy duty water-permeable landscaping fabric, and cover hoof-traffic corridors and any particularly troublesome areas (old burn piles, for instance) with this material. Top with as much 3/8" gravel (plus fines) as you can afford. It can be particularly helpful to make friends with any tractor-owning neighbors at this point. Make them pies with fresh whipped cream.

8. You've spent all of your money on gravel at this point, and so the time has come to economize on fencing. When you are 110% sure that there is no remaining garbage in your future pasture, and when your magneting endeavors come up dry, make another weed-whacking circuit of the perimeter. Establish your fence with four to five strands of electric wire, heavily flagged for visibility, on capped heavy-duty six foot T-posts. There is a reason for using four to five strands, so don't skimp.

8. Buy goats.

9. Put your new goats in your electric fence pasture before or during the spring growth season. They will obliterate all plant life, so I hope you didn't plant your prized Weeping Higan Cherry out there.

10. Check your four to five strand electric fence daily and check for breached areas. Sell whichever goat gets out most often, but preferably to a friend or neighbor who will cherish her and love her forever. Even escape-artists have feelings!

11. Pull up the exposed roots of any remaining blackberry plants by hand. The goats should have so weakened them with their constant browsing that this activity will take the same muscular effort as picking daisies. This is also a great time to remove tansy, thistles, buttercups, and other poisonous plants. Cut your thistles before they flower, please!

11a. Daydream about discing, harrowing, and reseeding the pasture, but don't forget that you've run out of money. If you're as lucky as FarmWife, you'll get grass without taking any of these steps by some miracle of vegetative propagation.

12. Observe that the goats have killed all of the blackberries but none of the miraculously recovered grass, and borrow some horses from your mother. They will manage the desireable things (clover and grass) while the goats continue the work on the blackberry front, rendering the acquisition of a field mower unnecessary. This is good, since you still have no remaining money after buying all that gravel. Do, however, pick poop and cut weeds. Unmowed doesn't have to equal unsavory! (Photo at left is a real, untouched image of a goat in our field that was totally blackberry-covered just two seasons prior.)

13. File your taxes. Working parent? Awesome. You should get a nice tax return, which you can spend on a thousand or so dollars worth of woven wire horse fence.

14. Give your mother's horses back to her, but not without telling your husband how much they'll be missed. It's winter now, and you're still out of money. No barn-building this year, but your handy husband should be able to whip up some magnificent and cozy goat accommodations out of scrap lumber and found objects! Make him a white chocolate raspberry fudge cake and give him another back rub.

15. Spring has sprung and your tax return is in the bank! Hurry to the store for more fencing materials! Get a come-along and some decent gloves, and work every evening until your have a very horse- and mule- and goat-proof pasture. It will be worth it.

16. Talk to your long-suffering husband about how nicely the neighbor's mule would fit in in this beautiful pasture you've finally ended up with, and mention how it just so happens that the "goat" fence you've built would be very suitable for equine containment. At this point, he should be very aware that you've had some sort of ulterior motive behind the year+ worth of expenditures and effort, and should be glad that you want a sensible mule and not an imported Holsteiner weanling. He should also be willing to acknowledge that the 16x16' goat shed that he fixed up really does include space for a third hoofbeast. This, of course, assumes that your husband is the kind of man that the FarmWife's husband is, which is to say perfect and adorably wonderful. (And here I thought that transcriptionists were just supposed to write what they were told.)

17. Bring your own Fenway home to live. Give your neighbor a dozen eggs and a raspberry pie, as well as whatever cash your mother will loan you. Tell him that this mule is the best thing since sliced bread. Thank him from the bottom of your heart for being willing to sell.

18. Save your pennies! You may be done making your pasture, but there's still that snug little barn you dream about . . . and an arena, and more footing for the sacrifice paddock . . . and of course, a trip for your mother to Australia (because after all she did help you get that mule you'd wanted) . . .

19. Acknowledge that your mule habit is going to be a lifelong financial burden unless you get thee a lucrative career, and apply at your local community college to obtain some sort of practical degree.

20. What? You already have a B.A. in English? I don't care, I said lucrative.

21. Family, farm, garden, home, husband, children, goats and mule . . . you have everything you've ever wanted, and the rest is just details. Go to school, go to work, go home, go riding. Love Your Life.

Fenway Bartholomule

Australia travel poster by James Northfield circa 1930


  1. This is wonderful, and exactly what this raised-in-the-country-without-pasture-lived forever-in-cities-now-wants-to-get-all-her-animals-together-in-a-forever-place-that-comes-cheap needs to know. Thank you! (and Mabel, Tigger, Pan, Lexie, Pandorea and Diego thank you, too) You make it seem absolutely do-able.

  2. Cassandra, Mabel, Tigger, Pan, Lexie, Pandorea and Diego—good luck! And you're welcome.


  3. Love your blog, and that was very informative...I don't have a Mule (wonder if there are any in New Zealand) But I do have 3 rescued horses, and the budget of farmwife!
    I have just despatched the scrap metal bin fully loaded (shame I don't get any money for the scrap - but it was free delivery/pick up so I can't complain, Last year I would have had to Pay for that)
    I am now busy trying to make our paddocks goat proof and improve the soil and you have boggy land?

  4. Dear Kat . . .

    Thanks for your comment, and sorry for the delayed response! I was away camping this weekend, boldly going where only a handful of mules had gone before. Anyway, I am lucky to have a gently sloping acre. It is hardly perceptible, but angled enough that we get very little standing water. We have slick clay soil, so walking on it in the winter produces ideal mud-wrestling conditions, but if we let it be it remains dry.

    It is strange, really, how we came to be lucky in the drainage department. Our property is bordered on one side by a 63 acre Whatcom Land Trust wetland preserve in the Samish river headwaters and on the other by quiet, little-used train tracks. Wickersham had a 100-year flood a couple winters ago and the tracks were submerged. We were on an island, with no dry roadway, but Bent Barrow Farm had hardly a puddle!

    Good luck with your pasture. Please post an update!

    Your friend,


Thanks in Advance for Your Mulish Opinion!