The Straight Row Mentality


My morning survey of the garden reveals that I did it again. The row of early potatoes, finally up, marches straight across the garden until the last four hills and then veers off inexplicably, six inches out of line. I try, I really do, but I am genetically incapable of making a straight row. Yes, I could use stakes and a string but that takes too much time. Who needs perfectly straight rows anyway?

A whole lot of people do. Most farmers for sure. For them , everything must be lined up square with the world. Straight. Smooth. Precise. Everything in its place, and a place for everything. My favorite farmer folds together the two wires he takes off a haybale into a neat little bundle and then instead of just tossing the bundles in the junk for recycling, he ranks them up like stove wood. I am not making this up. And you should see his real stove wood ricks. They are marvels of architecture. They look like he uses a level to stack the wood, and every piece, you better believe it, is exactly 16 inches long. It is enough to make a slop-honnus like me weep. “Slop honnus” was my mother’s word, probably a corruption of an old Prussian term for devious people who can’t keep their rows straight. In our family, the farmer or gardener with the straightest rows gets the most respect. In fact some farmers used to plant roadside corn fields parallel to the thoroughfare whenever possible so neighbors passing by couldn’t look down the rows to tell how straight they were.

Granted, if you are building a house, you better be very particular. But who says that tomatoes taste better when grown in straight rows rather than in crooked rows? To win a blue ribbon, why should a steer have to have its hooves polished, its back perfectly straight and horizontal to the earth (which, remember, is not horizontal but curved), its hide combed as smooth and plush as a new rug, its stance straight and tall with head outstretched as if were pledging allegiance to the flag? Wouldn’t you rather know how rich the steer’s meat is in health-supporting Omega 3 fatty acids?

The straight row society has words for heretics like me. While they keep everything “squared away,” we are wasting our time “running in circles.” To get even (evenness being another virtue of the very particular) I like to invite straight row addicts to our house. It sets cockeyed to the world. In the manner of country people who always know exactly where they stand, especially in the checkerboard square landscape of the Midwest where the country roads always run true north and south or east and west, very particular people want to know which direction they are looking at out our windows. “A little north of west,” I say, “but not quite northwest.” They stare at me as if I had just announced that I was a flat-earther. Then comes endless arguments about who is pointing most accurately toward Albert’s barn down the road or the grain elevator in town, neither of which is visible out any of our windows. Sometimes I cock a picture on the wall slightly askew just to complicate the issue a little more.

I think nature is a slop-honnus. I think going overboard in very particular farming or gardening is a threat to real world order. Nature does not lay out landscapes by tape measure and carpenter’s level. Streams meander. Hills and valleys flounder all over each other. Economic success in nature means that an oak tree produces 50,000 acorns to get two new trees. But in the process, the other 49,998 feed an unnumbered variety of animals and insects.

I could tell a few true stories about very particular farmers who upset their tractors trying to mow every tuft of grass on a steep bank or cultivate every last possible square foot of soil next to a creek or pond. A little slop-honnusness would have saved their lives.

One thing for sure is certain today. All the corn rows are straight, thanks to global positioning systems (GPS) that guide tractors perfectly straight across the endless fields of the midwest. Machines are very good at making straight rows. Of course if the rows really were straight, they’d be off the ground by several feet by the time the planter reached the far end of a big field.


A few years later and this writing is (and will be) still as relevant as it was when you wrote it. The only reason I even TRY to plant in “sorta” rows, is so when things start sprouting, I can usually tell if it’s something I planted or weeds!

“All the corn rows are straight, thanks to global positioning systems (GPS) that guide tractors…” Seriously?

Straight rows? How obssessive can farmers get? You should see my hayfields when I fall asleep while cutting them (the old JD60 rocks me to sleep with that two cylinder lullaby)! Bad enough to the neighbors that I’m an organic farmer, but even the weeds are crooked in my corn rows!

We call our little place Crooked Farm.Nothing is straight.

Gene, I must confess, I do use stakes when laying out my garden. I’m not obsessive about it, though. I space my rows three of my foot-lengths apart, pound in a stake, go to the other end of the garden and walk toward the stake in as straight a line as possible with my seeder. Being in Tennessee, we are blessed with the more than occasional fist-sized rock that always manages to knock the seeder out of line at some point. Even though I do use a string when planting tomatoes and peppers, they are still somewhat out of line because I refuse to use a plumb bob and a tape measure when setting them out like some folks do!

Thanks so much for your wry wit, Gene. My dear husband has such trouble with this, but to give him his due, he’s trying to just ignore the lack of straight rowness and enjoy the bounty of the garden.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House May 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm

I’ll raise a beer to crooked garden rows….or maybe that’s why I have crooked garden row, LOL.

I always enjoy your reflections on what often seems mundane or the accepted norm. “Faithfulness in that which is small” was highly recommended by a wise teacher.
It never occurred to me before, but it seems reasonable that straight rows became more prized with the wide use of metal fencing and mechanical corn planting. Stretching woven wire fence to hold livestock demands a tautness that slop honnus would not achieve. The early mechanical check-row planting of corn in straight fenced fields created a rather pleasing aesthetic and the regularity of the pattern was also functional for cultivation. There is a fine line between helpful orderliness and obsessive contol.
Just because this seems reasonable doesn’t mean it has any bearing on the truth but doctoral dissertations have been written on less.

This piece made me think of my older brother, who thirty years ago (long before GPS) could plant rows that were as straight as a laser, even on hillsides. He would never consider allowing me to plant his crops: I could work ground ok, but I just couldn’t drive as straight as was required to plant. He didn’t want his neighbors laughing, I guess. I never understood how he did it; for me it was an impossibility.

Excellent post, Gene! I have always felt that the real problem with a straight row mentality is that rigidity of any sort can blind you to other possiblities. Who was it made the comment about a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds? If you believe you must have straight rows, you will overlook the wonderful symbiosis of the Native American “three sisters” (corn, beans and squash), with the nitrogen-fixing beans twining up the corn plants instead of needing to be staked and the squash helping to shade the roots and conserve moisture. I think the key is balance, and a focus on assuring that in those areas where the straight line and the exact angle are truly critical, you take the necessary time and pay close attention. And even then, I wonder sometimes about the actual need for precision. When we decided our old house needed new siding, years back, we discovered that it had been built without studs in the walls. Oh, and no insulation, except a couple of fiberglass batts and the newspapers we found stuffed in the north wall. It had 4X4 corner posts with rough-cut 1X12s nailed horizontally to the corner posts, another layer of the same nailed vertically, and shiplap on the exterior. (What was really holding up the walls was the millions of nails!) Ihe inside was a single layer of wallboard and there wasn’t a plumb line in the place. It was so far out of code that it wasn’t even within waving distance! Yet it had stood for over sixty years, been through a few earthquakes, and survived being jacked off its foundation and moved twenty-five miles from the original building site. Now, I’m not recommending that anyone should build in this manner, but it certainly makes you look at the infinite ridiculous rigidity of many building codes with a jaundiced eye! And as a lazy gardener, I love the drunken garden concept Gretchen espouses.

I feel so much better now, Gene, thanks. Even WITH the posts and string, my lines of transplants and potatoes have wandered into a sinuous dance down the rows. Maybe it makes me feel better to think that the vegetables have a conga line going through the garden and will kick out the rabbits, mice, and slugs on their own…

Besides, I have to agree with thistledog, only it’s me walking a drunkard’s path down the rows to cultivate!

Gretchen Contreras May 19, 2010 at 4:16 pm

It is not possible for my small vegetable garden to be in straight rows because of the volunteer plants that I’m gifted due to no-till methods. This year I seem to have many more volunteer potatoes than usual (probably because I let my children harvest last year’s crop), tomatoes, corn, spinach, and lettuce. As I plant around those plants that came up on their own, I end up with strange clump-shaped patches of crops or what my straight-row neighbor calls a “drunken garden.”

“I think Square Foot Gardening (AKA Little beds without rows) are a clever way to imply orderliness without having to actually practice it on a daily basis.”

Even better, keyhole gardening! The idea is similar to Square Foot Gardening, but you arrange things in a semicirle, no wider than your reach when you’re in the middle.

I’m with you on this, Gene. Straightness is highly overrated in the gardening/farming world. So long as the row is straight enough to get my horse-drawn cultivator down it, that’s good enough for me. Horses don’t walk straight anyway, they’re constantly meandering right or left. Might as well have something other than my bad driving to blame for a couple of hoof-squashed potato plants…

I think Square Foot Gardening (AKA Little beds without rows) are a clever way to imply orderliness without having to actually practice it on a daily basis. I tend to sock in so many plants in my home garden (NOT square foot) that I lose count eventually; once nature softens the edges, it’s a beautiful thing. I never colored in the lines either.

Funny you should write this now: Just yesterday I squared off the corners of my tiny apple orchard so that I could set the espalier (another form of control) supports correctly. Next fall when the apples go dormant, I need to move some of them. We were in a hurry to get them into the ground when they were planted, and it looks it. As a result, they are too close together; they have to be moved. I need to get them in line with the wire, however, if I don’t get them lined up exactly into a grid, I won’t sweat it. I guess it all depends on what you’re trying to do….

Thanks for this one, Gene!

It seems I’m constantly having this discussion with people. The reason for the “grid” pattern is, of course, control. Four sentries can control a square mile of city when it’s laid out like a grid, but you’d need 400 to do the job in a crazy-quilt medieval European city.

We humans seem to be overly obsessed with the illusion of control. I think this is why natural building, using mud, straw, and sand, drive conventional builders nuts — and why it can never catch on as long as bureaucrats control the building process.

Yet, sometimes control is warranted. As I took our goats for a walk, calling out the half-dozen or so voice commands they’d deemed to allow me, a visitor said, “Why do you need to control them? Why can’t they just romp freely?” She was not the person milking them! “Romping freely” is not what you want on the milking stand.

There’s a certain beauty in purposely non-straight lines. There’s nothing like contour ploughing to not only preserve soil and water, but to show the world that one can fit in, without imposing one’s control.

Well my tomato rows are for sure not straight: I tend to plant them in a zig-zag fashion so as to get one or two more into the garden bed.

But you are surely right that nature is a “slop-honnus,” and that seems to have worked rather well for millions of years. But the geometric (now GPS) precision seems to be a European disease fomented by our mania for mechanical methods of farming/gardening and our obsession with economic efficiency. Of course if the peak oil people are right, that may be coming to a slow end in the next few decades.

I remember reading some pages of a book recommended to me by a botanist friend in which the author was describing several Indian gardens in Mexico and central America. He didn’t recognize them as gardens because they looked like a helter-skelter jungle as many different varieties of plants were all mixed up. But closer analysis revealed that there was some order, but of a non-European kind, an order that focussed on maximizing biodiversity and minimizing crop homogeneity. This reduced the opportunities for disease and pests and it also reduced the work effort of the Indians. I try to follow a version of this in my own gardens.

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