Nearing Influence

What struck me most about Scott Nearing was his sturdy appearance, arms hanging loosely from broad shoulders, his near perfect teeth, and the deeply creviced wrinkles of his face. He was 91 years old. Looks aside, his influence on me was deep despite the brevity of my visit.Scott NearingScott Nearing was a professor of economics, a political activist, a pacifist, a vegetarian and an advocate of simple living. And a gardener. For many of these reasons, he was almost a cult figure back in the 1970s when I, a young man, visited him. He was then known mostly for his book Living the Good Life. I had read the book, and decided to drive 1,000 miles from Madison, Wisconsin to show up on his farm, unannounced, in Harborside, Maine.

I thought of that visit today as I was swinging my scythe. Would I have been out in the field this morning doing so if I hadn’t made that visit? Scott was a big fan of scything, about which, he wrote, “It’s a first class, fresh-air exercise, that stirs the blood and flexes the muscles, while it clears the meadows.” Lee scythingFor me, working my field in the quiet of early morning, with the sun low in the sky and grasses still moist from morning dew, is sheer pleasure. A morning dance.

From a practical standpoint, no need to worry about waking neighbors with noise of a mower engine, or to worry about getting a mower bogged down in wet spots.

Keeping the Magic

I’ve swung a scythe for many decades. (Not that that makes me an expert in its use; for the first couple of decades I did it wrong. Now, more right.) Two considerations have kept the magic alive.

First, not too much. When I first acquired the acre and a half field to my south, I aimed to keep it a meadow, stemming invasion from woody plants in a natural transition to forest by scything the whole field. Considering the lushness of the vegetation, and how rapidly it grew back, that was a bold undertaking. The result: Something short of sheer pleasure, and tennis elbow.

Salvation came in the form of a small, farm tractor and a brush hog, with which I now mow the bulk of the field once a year.

There’s still plenty to scythe, including areas near my fruit and nut trees, and areas too wet for the tractor. I also scythe selected areas of the field proper, changing yearly to allow scythed sections, whose mowings I gather up, to regenerate. Also important: I limit daily scything to no more than a half hour.
Meadow and cart full of hay
The second consideration is to use the right kind of scythe. The so-called American type scythe, with a curved handle and stamped blade, is put to best use decorating the wall of a barn. I use a so-called Austrian type scythe (purchased from, which usually has a straight handle and is lightweight with a razor sharp, hammered-thin blade. The blade needs periodic hammering (peening) for keeping its taper or for repair, and daily dressing with a whetstone.scything, beginning stroke

Blade length is important. Back when I was working the whole field, the job was made harder because of the 36 inch long blade I was using. Sure, you can cut more with a longer blade, but that was too much lush vegetation to plow through in one swing. Nowadays a 22 inch blade strikes a nice balance, not biting off more than I can “chew.”

No Big Field, No Problem

No need for access to a large field to experience the physical and practical pleasures of scything. For many years, my field was only a portion of my original three-quarter acre property. And no matter how large or small the field, no reason to do as Scott did, to “clear the meadow.” On my small property, I practiced what I called Lawn Nouveau, created, as I detail in my book,  The Pruning Book, by sculpting out two tiers of grassy growth. The low grass is maintained just like any other lawn, and kept that way with a lawnmower.

The taller portions need to be scythed but once a year, or more frequently if desired. Raking up mowings from the tall grass portions avoids unsightly clumps or smothering of regrowth. The rakings are good material for mulch or compost. A crisp boundary between tall and low grass keeps everything neat and avoids the appearance of an unmown lawn.
Lawn Nouveau
Lawn Nouveau saves me time because the tall grass needs infrequent mowing and there’s no rush to get it done. The tall grass becomes more than just grass as other plant species elbow their way in. Which ones gain foothold depend on the weather, the soil, and frequency of mowing. An attractive mix of Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, chicory, and red clover might mingle with the grasses in a dry, sunny area, with ferns, sedges, and buttercups mixing with the grasses in a wetter portion.

Curves at the interface of high and low grass present bold sweeps to carry you along, then pull you forward and push you backward, as you look upon them. Avenues of low grass cut into the tall grass invite exploration — that was the purpose of today’s scything. Thank you Scott.
Meadow with path

Farmden Health Club & Basil

Rei-King, an Ancient Exercise?

Among the many benefits of gardening is the opportunity it offers for enjoyable, productive exercise in the great outdoors. And now we can add an exercise called rei-king to boot camp, pilates, zumba, kick boxing, cardiofunk, and other ways modern humans build and maintain sleek, fit bodies. Or so I told my wife, Deb.

Deb rakes mown hay.

Rei-King by Deborah as Sammy looks on.

As with some of those other exercise routines, equipment is needed, simple equipment in the case of rei-king. Basically, the equipment is a pole, perpendicular to and at the end of which is a length of wood or metal, attached in its middle to the pole. From the lower side of the length of wood or metal are teeth, each a couple of inches apart and a couple of inches long.

Now for the exercise. You lift the pole just enough to bring the head off the ground, reach forward, and pull it towards you. For balanced exercise, it’s advised to occasionally switch which arm is most forward.

Resistance is the way to build up muscle and endurance. That resistance comes in the form of friction from material lying on the ground. This time of year, that material might conveniently be mown long grass or hay.

And Sie-Thing

I sometimes practice rei-king; more often I choose another exercise that complements Deb’s rei-king. I practice sie-thing (pronounced “sigh-thing”).

Like rei-king, sie-thing entails using one piece of equipment, a sie. The sie also has a single pole, in this case with two handles attached, one at the upper end and one about halfway down. A metal weight is attached at the bottom of the sie. The metal is a couple of feet long, curved, and sharpened on its inside edge. Muscle tone and strength is created by putting the left hand on the upper handle, the right hand on the lower handle, flexing the spine to the right and then unwinding it to the left while trailing the metal weight just above ground level.

Scything the meadow.

Here I practice the ancient art of Sie-Thing.

Again, sei-thing can be made more rigorous, in this case by passing the sharp metal through tall grass or meadow plants. The taller the plants, the denser the plants, and the older plants, the more the resistance.

A side benefit of all this sie-thing is that grass or meadow plants get mown during the exercise. The fallen material drops right in place, providing an opportunity — for me or, more usually, Deb — to then practice rei-king.

By the way, either exercise is most enjoyable early in the morning. At that time, plants are turgid so the sharpened metal of the sie pops plant cells as it is drawn along. And the fallen plants, best for rei-king after lying on the ground a day or two to wilt, cling together nicely when  heavy with dew. The cool morning air is also conducive to exercise.

Basil for Winter?

Many years ago I grew the few varieties of basil that were available and then wrote about them. My conclusion, at the time, was that taste differences between the varieties were minor, so the choice of what to grow should perhaps be on the fun of saying their names, which put Genova Profumatissima, Syracusa, and Fino Verde Compatto at the top of the list. What fun to wave my arms and speak their names!

Or, a variety could be chosen for the size or color of its leaf, whether for decoration or culinary use. “Spicy Globe basil, planted close together, makes soft, green mounds resembling a miniature boxwood hedge,” I wrote. Now we have yet another decorative form: Bonsai Basil.Bonsai basil plants in pots.

To create a bonsai basil, a variety such as Spicy Globe — perfect, with its diminutive, closely spaced leaves — is grafted onto a special rootstock. That rootstock is another variety of basil, one chosen, in perfect world, to impart to the grafted plant vigor, disease resistance, and hardiness. Periodically shearing such a plant keeps up appearances even as it provides basil for flavoring. Over time, the trunk even turn woody.

Even better, carry on the fun and the flavor through winter. Basil is perennial in the tropics but generally does not fare well in the cool, dry air, and relatively dark conditions of a northern home in winter. All of which calls out for a vigorous, disease-resistant, hardy plant. A grafted basil. Grafted basil, even more than grafted tomatoes, are very much the new kid on the (grafted) block.

A few weeks ago I was given a couple of grafted bonsai basil plants and I’m planning to grow them as perennials. It turns out that my plants are on a rootstock called Nufar which is resistant to fusarium disease. My soil doesn’t harbor basil fusarium disease, so that rootstock is of no benefit in that department. Perhaps it will help get the plant through the long, dark winter indoors anyway.

New rootstocks that could impart vigor and hardiness to help get a bonsai basil through winter — indoors, of course, around here — are on the horizon.


Ah, fusarium. Reminds me of last week’s patting myself on my back about my conquest of pea fusarium, which has plagued me for years. Well, between last week and this week, fusarium has again reared its ugly head and the vines have yellowed. I did get a decent crop, however. Looks like management rather than conquest will be the key to annual harvests of peas.