Crossing the Gardening Rubicon

By Cam Mather

This hasn’t been much of a winter here at Sunflower Farm, just like many places in North America. The area south of us along Lake Ontario had virtually no snow. By the end of the winter in 2008 and 2009 after numerous dumpings of snow we had enormous piles and snow banks that took forever to melt. Not this year.  I’ve heard a lot of people comment about what a great winter it was. They didn’t need boots. Their cars stayed clean. They were able to park all 4 of their family vehicles comfortably since there were no snow banks clogging up the streets. Farmers, on the other hand, looked out at barren fields and knew that this was not a good thing. Fields should be comfortably covered in a layer of snow during the winter. It serves numerous purposes, but mostly it keeps the soil from blowing away in the high winter winds.

We had some snow although less than most years, and yet we didn’t have to drive very far south before we noticed that there was no snow on the ground. The winter was also milder and so we had a lot of rain. So basically anywhere we had snow that was packed down, like the driveway, it became a skating rink. It was quite brutal. I finally bought “Icers” to strap on to my boots to try and avoid breaking a bone in a fall.

Now the weather has turned spring like and I still have a pile of unfinished winter jobs left to do. I feel kind of ripped off. I have a lot of firewood still to get in and a whole bunch of inside projects. And the books. My book pile is still large and once I can get into the garden, books are on hold, or at least the speed at which I get through them slows dramatically.

I had really looked forward to winter this year. Most years during the fall my garden time tapers off drastically but this year it really ramped up. Since it was finally cool I was able to work on a bunch of the larger more physically demanding jobs I had been putting off. This included making gardens bigger, transplanting a bunch of raspberries, getting all of my rhubarb into one area … those sorts of things. We did all of this with the intention of starting a CSA and growing vegetables for 10 or 12 member families this summer.

I’ve been having some reservations about running the CSA. Even after growing vegetables for 35 years, giving away boxes of produce for the last decade, and running a vegetable stand in town that went really well last summer, I’m still a little reticent about the CSA. Am I up for it? Can I really do it? Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge ego and have spent my life doing things that I really doubted I was capable of doing like moving off the grid and putting up a wind turbine, but I still have doubts. And I think this is a good thing. It keeps you from getting cocky. Keeps you grounded and humble. And inspires you to prepare as much as you can and have as many “Plan Bs” as you can.

In The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook I wrote that every fall I leave the garden burnt out on gardening. My passion is gone. Michelle will verify this. Every fall she hears, “That’s it, the gardens are going to be way smaller next year. They’re too much work.” And every year the gardens get bigger.

It happens during the winter. I love the winter rhythm. I sleep more. Sleep later. Get up and read. Tend fires. Cut and move firewood. Read some more. And I don’t think about the garden. It’s just out there under the snow and out of my consciousness. Most winters as we approach spring I start to gradually feel the pull of the garden. That desire to get my hands back in the earth.

After last fall’s garden marathon that kept up until the first snowfall I was concerned about whether or not I was ever going to get that enthusiasm back. This would be a particularly bad thing if I was hoping to run a CSA and earn part of my income from the garden.

But then one day recently my passion for gardening returned with a whoosh. I am currently putting together the eBook version of the gardening book. This is part of why I wish the winter would continue, so that I can get as much done on this migration of our books to electronic versions as possible. The nice thing about our eBooks is that we’re doing them in color. We’ve always fantasized about printing our books in color but simply couldn’t afford to. The gardening book really lends itself to this. As more and more people buy color tablets to read ebooks this gives our books the edge over the black and white eBooks.

So I was up to Chapter 11 and had been placing in dozens of color photos of the gardens. Then I placed in some photos of me making some raised beds. I was out in the garden in a t-shirt. And the soil looks dark and rich and damp and brimming with life. And I was pouring some water on seeds I’d just planted. And my knees were dirty and my hands were soil covered from the planting.

And in the words of Tina Fey’s character on “30 Rock” … “I want to go to there.” Right now. I want to be in that garden. I want the heat. I want the to feel the soil warm and pliable rather than hard and frozen as it is now. I want to see green everywhere, rather than just in the conifers that keep their color around the house all winter. Heck I’ll even take the bugs. We’re got some of our “polar mosquitoes” buzzing around in the house right now; I might as well be out in the garden dealing with them.

Each year the cracks and fissures in the skin on my hands get more pronounced and once I hit the garden in the spring my hands basically become permanently dirty. It doesn’t matter how much I wash them, they just look like I came out of the garden. Michelle’s Dad’s hands were this way, from a combination of his work day spent repairing machinery at Stelco and all of the gardening he did when he got home. I’ve always seen permanently dirty hands as the sign of someone who does real work. It’s not like a leather motorcycle jacket that you buy to pretend you’re a biker – permanently soil colored hands are something that has to be earned over the years. You can’t fake it.

After a few months spent away from the garden and inside washing dishes and cleaning toilets, my hands are all nice and clean now. You can see where the soil stains will be, but they look pretty good right now. After working on my ebooks and spending some time looking at my gardening photos I’ve crossed the Rubicon. I’m ready to get back in the soil and get them dirty again.

Michelle’s Note: We have a favour to ask of you. If you have read ANY of our books, please consider going to or or any of the other online book sellers and leaving a review. It doesn’t have to be long… just a sentence or two. It just might help someone to decide to purchase one of our books. Thanks!

7 Responses to “Crossing the Gardening Rubicon”

  • Farmgirlwanabe:

    Hi would be pleased to write a review

    See you in April

  • Caroline:

    The Upper Peninsula will be dry this year, again. It looked like we were coming out of a drought last year with all the rain we got, but the south had more snow than us this winter. We are now experiencing 50 and 60 degree weather with drying winds and I am still expecting freezing weather until the end of May. However, the sun is out, spring will be here, ready or not, this week, I have gathered the seed starting stuff and the seeds are sorted. There are visions of tellises, pots, fencing and veggies running around in my head. I am starting a new garden this year since my husband, one of my sons, and I are moving to our off the grid property a mile from nowhere. And I don’t own a pair of garden gloves. I have a pair for my granddaughter, but she doesn’t wear hers, either. We use the silicon glove and vita moist hand cream from Avon. It softens the creases and cracking and helps the hand clean up. However, it is not always effective on blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, and strawberry stains.

  • Cathy:

    “After a few months spent away from the garden and inside washing dishes and cleaning toilets, my hands are all nice and clean now.” Your hands are not just clean, they are hydrated after washing dishes and cleaning toilets. Working in dirt draws moisture out of your skin…cracked hands are dry hands.

    I must own 30 pair of once or twice used gloves. They usually come off within 20 minutes of getting “into” my dirt. Now, I rub a small dab of Bag Balm on my hands to keep moisture in and dirt out of the creases and I still feel connected to my soil. My gloves come out of my back pocket when my hands are chilled, I want to avoid thorns, rabbit & chicken claws, honeybee stings and very sharp blades. Oh, and muck, my fertilizer, comes in the form of rabbit pellets and chicken cocka-doodle doo doo.

  • Shirley:

    My dad would always run his fingernails over a cake of soap before working on the car or doing some other dirty job. Then that evening he would wash the dishes and his fingernails would come clean.

  • I’ve tried using gloves when working in my garden but I always end up taking them off and digging my hands right in there. You just can’t feel anything with gloves on. I don’t know how doctors and nurses work with gloves! If I’m working where I’m worried about something I use tools, but I don’t always. One time I combined some fertilizer (10-10-10, I think) with a micro-nutrient package from Food for Everyone and for some reason I decided not to use the spoon. I just dug my hands in there and it felt fine. By that afternoon I was puking on the basement floor. My husband was freaked out but I said it had to be that fertilizer. Next day I was perfectly fine. My body just did what it had to do to get rid of that poison. I won’t do that again! But I’ll opt for tools not gloves. Though in your honour I might try the gloves again when using the shovel. 🙂

  • Thanks Susan. I’ll look for that product. As you say, gloves just don’t keep your hands clean… the dirt finds a way in!

  • Will do a couple reviews. No problem. In the mean time tell Cam that Avon makes a product called Silicon glove and I have seen something similar at our local Ace hardware. It puts a coat on your hands that helps with that dirk and painful skin cracking thing. You just was it off after coming in from the garden. You still have to wear gloves but I have never had a pair of garden gloves that kept my hands perfectly clean.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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