Thursday, April 30, 2020

Gardening in the spring of COVID-19


This redbud was in full bloom a week ago

Awhile back I made my first social media post in several years, to the effect that Mike and I were doing fine in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A friend of mine responded that he was imagining Mike and I living off our garden indefinitely. To be sure, our vegetable and small fruit garden is larger than most backyard gardens, but like most people, including me before I started gardening, my friend isn’t fully aware of how much he eats in a year and how much land it takes to produce that amount of food. In a later post I plan to dig more deeply into this topic, based on the 25 plus years of experience I have in growing backyard gardens. In the meantime, I’d like to take a look at the upsurge in gardening that the loss of jobs and social distancing measures associated with COVID-19 has engendered and why I think that it illustrates the biggest benefit of growing backyard gardens.

In the US the COVID-19 isolation measures came during March for most of the population, near the beginning of the growing season or not long before it begins for those of us east of the Rockies. Most US garden seed retailers experience their heaviest seed sales during late winter and early spring, after gardeners have received seed catalogs and decided what to grow and how much seed they will need for their gardens. After many people lost their jobs or began to work at home in response to the various measures enacted to reduce the transmission rate of COVID-19, some of them realized that they had the time to begin a garden and to cook and a need to reduce their grocery expenditures. They promptly began ordering seeds and garden supplies, as did the habitual gardeners who usually order seeds at this time of year. The increased business combined with the need to implement social distancing measures in the buildings in which the seed orders are pulled and prepared for shipping has resulted in delays in processing and sending seed orders. A number of seed retailers have been forced to stop accepting new orders for a period of time while they caught up on pulling and mailing orders they had already received. While this makes things more difficult for erstwhile gardeners who must wait for their seed orders to arrive, I am grateful that my favorite seed retailers will be among the businesses that do well despite the economic disruptions caused by the isolation measures.

Recently some US meat processing plants have been forced to close because of the rapid spread of COVID-19 among the workers in the plants. As a result there has been some discussion of COVID-19 effects on future food supplies in the media. This ties in with the increase in gardening in an interesting way, which I will highlight in this post.

John Jeavons, in his How to Grow More Vegetables book, states that many people grow backyard gardens for what he calls nutrition intervention. In other words, they grow in their gardens mostly vegetables eaten fresh or minimally cooked. However, he feels that more people should focus their backyard gardening efforts on sources of calories (grains, dry beans, and potatoes primarily). If there were a shortage of grains, dry beans, or potatoes in the US his position would have merit. However, to my mind he fails to take into account the effect of automation on the production of these crops, compared to the needs for fruit and vegetable crops to be harvested, and sometimes planted and tended as well, primarily by human labor.

Anyone who lives in the Midwest, as I do, has seen the effect of cheap oil and mechanization on farmland. It is especially noticeable during harvest season, when huge machinery operated by one person drives slowly through the field, ingesting entire corn plants on one end and spitting out clean corn seed on the other. Whatever you may think about eating oil (which is essentially what we are doing in the large-scale agriculture of the US Midwest), social distancing is built into it. These farms don’t need seasonal farmhands to produce a crop. Moreover, the farmers planned their farms and ordered their seeds before COVID-19 caused its havoc. That corn, wheat, rice, and soybean seed, and those seed potatoes and dry bean seed, have been or will be planted. If the livestock that would normally eat Midwestern-grown corn and soybeans is significantly reduced in number due to knock-on effects from COVID-19, humans can eat corn and soybeans too. We may not like it as much as meat (as an omnivore myself, I do not look forward to less meat availability and higher prices), but if that is what there is, we’ll eat it. If you aren’t already eating a substantial amount of these crops, you may want to spend the next few months finding cookbooks on how to make good use of them and starting to experiment with the recipes.

What about vegetables and fruits? While planting and tending of some of these have been automated to a greater or lesser degree, harvest is often still a labor-intensive activity requiring human minds and bodies to accomplish. It is these human minds and bodies that could be in short supply at crucial points in the growing season. I have already read reports that vegetable crops in Florida had to be plowed under because the social isolation measures meant there were not enough workers to harvest the crop, and the institutions that the vegetables were meant for had closed so that even if the crops could be harvested, there were no buyers for them.

At the same time, it is exactly these crops – lettuce and other salad greens and roots; tomatoes and peppers; green beans and sweet corn; zucchini and cucumbers; root vegetables like carrots and onions – that are easiest to grow well in a small backyard garden. Fruits like strawberries and raspberries, if protected from birds and other predators, are also labor intensive, vitamin-rich, and delicious crops that work well in a backyard garden setting. If these were all the crops that I grew, my garden could be about half the size it is now, meaning it would need half the labor that it currently does. And these are exactly the seeds and plants that folks thrown into their backyards are seeking to grow, and exactly the crops that are most likely to be in short supply if social distancing and closed borders reduce the workforce of the large vegetable-growing farms in Florida, California, and other places where this kind of farming is prevalent in the landscape. Thus I take it as a good sign that so many people are taking up backyard vegetable and fruit growing this spring. We need more backyard and small scale vegetable and fruit growing to provide the vitamins and minerals (and the tastes) that are missing in the large-scale grain, dry bean, and potato crops. Combine the calories available from the latter with the nutrition and taste of the former, and that will make for better health and a more resilient food system overall. If my blog helps you to grow a better backyard garden, I will have accomplished one of my goals in writing it.

I hope to have the next post up sometime in May, but May is also the busiest garden month of the year. Sometime in the next couple of months I expect to return to the topic I brought up in the first paragraph. Until then, I wish all of you good health and happiness!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

More fun in the garden in 2020


Not only was 2019 wetter than normal, but 2020 has been wetter than normal as well. You can see the standing water in low spots in the backyard in this photo, taken on March 18. The soil is saturated, with more rain to come later this week. Fortunately the vegetable garden itself (on the other side of the fence) has enough of a slope that water does not puddle on it.

In my previous post I described how I asked last year’s garden if I can use my urine as a source of nitrogen. With the caveats that I mentioned, the garden seems to have answered in the affirmative. Thus I’ll use urine on all the vegetable and grain beds this year to replace cottonseed meal and assess the effects that it has. But this isn’t the only question I’ll ask the garden to answer in 2020. Read on to learn what else I’m asking the garden, and why.

Nitrogen isn’t the only nutrient that I’ve needed to import in order to re-mineralize the soil in my garden. In this post from 2019, I discussed the results of asking the garden if the wood ashes left over from burning wood in our wood stove can be used to replace, in full or in part, the materials I purchased to supply calcium (Ca), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). This experiment was done on a single bed, the bed in which I planted garlic and potato onions in autumn 2018. For this bed I added enough wood ashes to correct the entire deficiency in K and about 1/3 of the deficiency in P, which also supplied an excess of Ca and magnesium (Mg). After harvesting the garlic and potato onions in June 2019, I sent in a sample of the soil in this bed for analysis, in order to learn if using that large an amount of wood ashes (about 7 pounds for the 100 square foot bed) had brought that bed out of balance with the rest of the garden. The table below gives the analysis of nutrient deficiencies in the garden when the re-mineralization program was begun (spring 2013); in all the beds except the allium bed in spring 2019; in the allium bed in July 2019, after the allium harvest; and in all the beds except the allium bed and the bed that I ran out of time to plant in 2019 (spring 2020, from a sample I took on March 11).



Let’s look at the results in detail. TCEC means total cation exchange capacity: how well the soil can hold onto cations until the plants growing in it need them. The cations are everything from calcium (Ca) down in the table and are stored on the clay fraction of the soil. Steve Solomon says that a soil with a TCEC of 10 or more can hold onto sufficient cations to supply the plants’ needs for an entire growing season. Less than that means that the gardener should consider adding more of the re-mineralization mix about halfway through the growing season. Although the TCEC of my soil is less than 10, I have not done this, so I may not be obtaining as high yields as I could. I do, however, get decent yields while using less of the sources of the nutrients.

The TCEC of the allium bed may be somewhat higher than that of the rest of the garden in 2019, but as I discussed in this post, there is enough uncertainty about the precision and accuracy of the test to make any firm statement inadvisable. The same uncertainty affects the organic matter percentage. pH measurements have higher precision and accuracy, and the change in pH in the allium bed compared to the rest of the garden is in the direction I expect for adding wood ashes, which raise the pH. Fortunately it did not raise it over 7 even for the high amount of wood ashes I used, since vegetables generally prefer a soil with a pH in the range of 6 to 7. Since we receive rain during the growing season, the acidic rain will help to neutralize the high pH wood ashes. Those of you who live in arid or semi-arid areas or who experience dry growing seasons (anywhere west of about the 100th parallel of longitude in the US) will need to check with your state extension service or local gardening organization to learn if you can safely add wood ashes to your soil and if so, the maximum amount you can add each season. Based on these results, I will feel comfortable in adding as much as five pounds or so of wood ashes to any bed which does not already have an excess of calcium, to correct, in whole or in part, deficiencies of Ca, K, Mg, and/or P.

Now consider the 2020 results compared to the 2013 and 2019 results. There have certainly been changes, but they don’t appear to be consistent. The excesses of P and K that I was so pleased about in 2019 have swung over to deficiencies. What, if anything, can I learn about how the re-mineralization project affects the soil over time?

First, plants take up these nutrients from the soil to form their bodies. When I harvest the plants, I remove and Mike and I eat those nutrients. If there isn’t another source that replenishes the lost nutrients, over time the soil continues to lose them until it no longer can support plant growth.

Nature has many different ways to keep nutrients cycling through the air, water, and soil; if you’re curious, you can find descriptions in ecology textbooks. However, if the cycle for any particular nutrient cannot supply enough of it to replace what I remove via the harvest, then that nutrient will, over time, become deficient. This is the bane of annual agriculture, and traditional vegetable gardening as well. Nature cannot re-supply all of the nutrients we remove fast enough to continue to grow annual plants on the same plot for years in a row. Some nutrients will go deficient and need to be replenished, as I am doing by re-mineralization. Taking soil samples and having them analyzed, then tailoring a re-mineralization to add just what the soil needs, avoids adding excess nutrients, which can cause as much harm as not enough of them. While I hope that over time I can get some cycling of nutrients from the compost pile back into the soil as the weeds I put into them become better balanced, I don’t expect to drop all re-mineralization. To the extent that I can partially close the cycles by using on-site resources like urine and wood ashes, I will do that. It’s probably the best I can hope for, though I would not mind being proven wrong.

Second, I don’t have a good feel for why particular nutrients change in particular directions over time. Possibly an ecologist could explain it, but I have no formal training and not enough informal reading in the field. Among other things, the apparent excess of Ca in 2020 stumps me. Calcium tends to dissolve into the soil water and move with it down into the groundwater, thus being lost to the garden and its plants. Considering the excessive rain we had last year and have had so far this year, I would have expected more than the usual amount of Ca to be lost to the garden and therefore to see a deficiency this year. This is a common frustration in scientific research, just something we garden scientists have to keep in mind as we try to understand what our gardens are telling us – and a good excuse to spend some time with textbooks on ecology or agronomy.

The question now becomes, can I use wood ashes to add some or all of any of the deficient nutrients in 2020?

Since trees take up the same range of nutrients from the soil as do vegetable plants, wood is a potential source of nutrients for re-mineralization. Those of you who add woody mulch to your gardens are at least partially closing the nutrient cycles by doing so. I don’t have a convenient source of woody mulch that I trust to not contain systemic herbicides. Since I have the wood ashes and would prefer to use them rather than landfill them, wood ashes it is.

Wood ashes have a variable composition. A Missouri Extension publication on using wood ashes in the garden indicates that wood ashes contain, by weight, about 1% P, about 5% K, and about 25% Ca. It didn’t mention Mg, but a brief web search brought up an article analyzing the elemental composition of certain hardwoods from forests in England, which indicated that the Mg level in these hardwoods is about 10% of the Ca level. Thus wood ashes are roughly 3% Mg.

In 2020 the soil is deficient in P, Mg, and K, and in excess in Ca. I would have to add about 3 pounds of wood ashes to each bed to correct the entire K deficiency. With an excess of Ca already, this does not strike me as a wise move. So I will add potassium sulfate to correct the K deficiency, which also adds more than enough S to correct the S deficiency. I had hoped to not have to use this soil amendment as it is depleting, but perhaps some years it will not be needed, as it was not in 2019. That would be preferable to adding it every year.

I can add a smaller amount of wood ashes to correct for the Mg deficiency. The Acid Soil Worksheet indicates that I should only add 10% of the amount needed to correct the deficiency this year. Adding more risks getting the Ca:Mg ratio out of whack, which among other things makes for too-sticky soil. I can add about 5 ounces of wood ashes to each bed to correct for 10% of the Mg deficiency without adding more Ca than I am comfortable doing. This also adds a small amount of P and K, but not enough to correct these deficiencies.

Last year I was very happy that the soil had an excess in P, because sources of phosphate are depleting. This year, while I do need to correct a deficiency in P, at least it is less than it has been in any other year with a deficiency. I’ll correct it by using Tennessee brown rock, which has about half as much P as rock phosphate and comes from the washing piles left behind from extracting superphosphate from high-grade ore about 100 years ago.

One other question I’m asking the garden this year stems from my continuing interest in the possibility of increasing the TCEC of the garden soil. Fedco is offering for the first time this year a product called Hum-Amend Max which is touted as doing just this. Given the uncertainty in the precision and accuracy of the test for TCEC, rather than adding it to only one bed and not to the others, I will add it to every bed in 2020 and see if it changed the TCEC enough to notice in 2021. I’ll also observe the garden as I usually do with an eye to noting differences between this year and past years. This may be a one-time addition (Fedco’s write-up indicates that at least part of the formulation is intended to have long-term effects), but I will wait to see the results from this year’s test before deciding if I should add any more in future years.

So that’s what I’m asking the garden in 2020. I wish all of you the best in your own projects! Meet you here again in April.


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The 2020 garden: further adventures with homegrown nitrogen

In 2019 I engaged in a conversation with my garden, asking it to answer a question I posed to it about the effect of using a homegrown source of nitrogen, aka urine, to replace the cottonseed meal that I had used in the past. A scientist would call my approach a simple application of the scientific method. As I related in the previous post, the conversation amounted to applying the usual re-mineralization mix, formulated to address deficiencies found in the March 2019 soil test and including cottonseed meal as usual as the nitrogen source, on one of the three beds of dent corn that I grew last year. This bed served as the control bed. For each of the other two beds of corn, I made one change in the planting conditions compared to the control bed: for one bed I replaced the cottonseed meal with urine but kept all the other components in the re-mineralization mix the same, for the other bed I used the same re-mineralization mix but planted three days later. When I harvested the corn, I kept the corncobs from each bed in separate locations and shelled each pile of corncobs separately, so that I could measure the yield of the corn that grew in each bed. I also made observations of the plants and the cobs in each bed during the growing season. This allows me to assess what the effect of that single change was on the yield and on any other observable changes among the plants in each bed.

Since I’m working with living plants in a living world, interpreting the results of such an apparently simple test really isn’t that simple. There are quite a few things that might not have been uniform between the three beds. And this doesn’t address more subtle differences, such as the fact that I knew which beds got which treatments, meaning it isn’t even a single-blind test. My hopes for what the test would reveal may have influenced the results. US society officially doesn’t accept that nonphysical causes, such as my thoughts, could have physical effects, but this has been shown to occur often enough in the medical field that only the double-blind test, where neither the patient nor the researcher knows who gets the drug or the placebo, is considered to provide reliable results. Beyond that, a host of other subtle effects are creating considerable difficulties in accepting the results of studies in the medical field. I mention this because I want you to understand why I consider the result to be more tentative than it may appear when you look at the data in the previous post.

Let’s look more closely at why I asked the garden about using urine as a home-grown nitrogen substitute last year. Cottonseed meal works well as a nitrogen source in my garden, and at the moment it’s readily available. And not even from all that far away; I’ve seen cotton fields in far southeast Missouri, and there are plenty in Arkansas just to the south.

But even though it works, and it’s readily available, it comes at a price. The price is most obvious when I pay for it, and when I have to haul the 50 pound bag of meal out of the car and into the basement. But that doesn’t account for other costs incurred in growing the cotton and getting the cottonseed meal to me.

Cotton demands a highly fertile soil. Without adding fertility, cotton-growing will render the soil it’s grown in infertile within only a few years. The fertilizer business demands a lot of diesel fuel and a lot of natural gas to produce the nitrate fertilizers the commercial growers use. (No, I don’t use organic cottonseed meal. There is so little organically grown cotton in the US that it’s prohibitively expensive to buy organic cottonseed meal.) There is more diesel fuel used to power the machinery that prepares, plants, maintains, and harvests the fields, and more used to process the cottonseeds into dry meal, and more to get that meal to me. All of that burned fuel adds to the pollutant load of the atmosphere and contributes to fossil fuel depletion. Any nitrate added to the fields over what the cotton needs to grow adds to the pollutant load of the rivers that drain cotton-growing country, most of which drain to the Mississippi River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to the dead zone there. If I could find a source of nitrogen that is closer to me and eliminates most if not all of the fossil fuel use and associated pollution, I would love to use it. And if in addition it is free and using it avoids a source of pollution, then what could be stopping me from using it?

As it happens, there is a free, local source of nitrogen in a form that plants can use, which requires almost no fossil fuels to collect and apply, and which avoids the more usual fate of that source, where it becomes a problem to solve. That source is urine. It’s free for the collecting and applying, which can be done in a low tech, nearly fossil fuel free manner. As long as I avoid applying more than the plants require for growth and I take precautions to keep it from running off into the local stream, it will be taken up and used and not cause pollution. As long as I only collect it when I’m well, it won’t have the potential to cause illness. Not sending that urine into the sewer system means that it won’t require energy to process before dumping it into the river, nor will any byproducts of that process pollute the river. And using it closes a loop which runs from the land to me and back to the land again. Animal urine is part of the nitrogen cycle that keeps Earth and its beings alive.

A simple calculation I did last year indicated that I generated enough nitrogen in urine to only need to collect and apply it once every 10 days to one corn bed to provide enough nitrogen for that bed for the entire growing season. Then I wanted to know if theory and the physical world are in agreement. Thus I devised and carried out the simple scientific experiment that I briefly described above. Corn is a particularly nitrogen-hungry crop, so if substituting urine for cottonseed meal works for corn, it should work in the rest of the garden as well. The data I collected suggest that urine was a successful substitute for cottonseed meal, with the caveats I mentioned above.

With this information in hand, I will expand the use of urine to the entire garden in 2020. Here I’ll discuss how I’m collecting and applying the urine, how much nitrogen an adult human produces in a day in urine, and how large a garden area that urine can supply nitrogen to.

I have already discussed health and environmental issues to be aware of when using urine. There is also a psychological issue which arises from the known health hazards of urine and from its association with feces: many if not most people consider urine dirty and dangerous and won’t want to eat anything grown with it. Urine is illegal to use on any food crops grown for sale because of the health and environmental risks associated with inappropriate use. If you were to consider using your own urine to supply nitrogen for your own garden (not that I am suggesting you should), you must first ensure that none of the food you grow with it is sold. Second, you must ensure that you yourself, and anyone who is eating the food you grow with it, knows you are using urine and favors its use. Informed consent is just as important in this case as it is in sex and medicine. Third, you must ensure you are applying the right amount, to avoid pollution of surface waters from any excess urine that cannot be used by the soil and the plants.

In my own case, my husband Mike and I favor its use, and I collect it only when I’m healthy. I use a plastic urinal such as are sold in pharmacies for collection (those of you with more exposed genitalia can collect it in any suitable container), dumping the contents into a larger lidded plastic container for storage. I pour the day’s collected urine (roughly 2 quarts) into a 2 gallon watering can and add water to fill the can. Then I sprinkle the contents of the can on whichever 100 square foot bed is to receive the previous day’s urine, following that with another 2 gallons of collected rainwater. The plastic urinal, storage container, and sprinkling can required some oil to make and to ship to me, but no more to use. Since I’m careful to apply only as much urine as the plants need, and I keep that urine out of the local sewage treatment plants, the urine turns a problem – nitrate pollution – into a solution – home-grown soil nutrition, which in turn feeds the plants I grow. The garden is surrounded by mowed grass paths and many square feet of unfertilized groundcover (a mix of lawn grasses and weeds) and trees beyond, so any nitrogen the garden or the grass paths cannot use will be absorbed and used just beyond the garden fence.

How do I know how much urine is the right amount to apply? First, I need to know how much nitrogen the plants I’m growing in the garden require. Agricultural scientists have done exhaustive experimentation to answer this question and produced tables like the one available here (page 8). A glance at the table shows that crops vary in their need for nitrogen, with potatoes and cabbages needing a lot more than, say, turnips. If I wanted to, I could calculate exactly how much urine I should apply to the area of each crop that I grow with the data in this table plus knowing how much nitrogen the average adult urinates in a day plus the square feet taken up by that crop. But in practice, I applied the same amount of cottonseed meal to each bed except for the potato bed, which received twice as much as the other beds. Since I know the weight of cottonseed meal I added to each bed and the percent of nitrogen it contains, I know how much nitrogen it added to each bed. Thus I’ll add the amount of urine that provides the same nitrogen as the cottonseed meal I used previously, except that I’ll add twice as much urine to the potato bed as I do to the other beds. In later years I will consider refining how much I apply according to the nitrogen need for each particular crop.

Here is the calculation I did in case you are curious about how you could do this in your garden (not that I am suggesting it, of course). From Steve Solomon’s book The Intelligent Gardener and the current version of the worksheets in the book, which you can find here, we note that the percent nitrogen in cottonseed meal is given as 6%. Since I know that I apply 6 pounds of cottonseed meal to each bed (12 pounds to the potato bed), the amount of nitrogen in the cottonseed meal is:

6 pounds * 0.06 = 0.36 pounds of added nitrogen to a 100 square foot bed
12 pounds * 0.06 = 0.72 pounds of added nitrogen to a 100 square foot bed of potatoes

In order to know how much urine to apply to each bed, I need to know how much nitrogen an adult human produces in that person’s urine in a day. Carol Steinfeld in Liquid Gold tells us that adult humans produce about 11 grams of nitrogen in a single day’s urine. Since there are 453 grams in a pound, if I divide 11 grams by 453 grams per pound, I will get the amount of nitrogen in a day’s urine in pounds: 

0.024 pounds of nitrogen excreted in urine each day

Now you need the length of your growing season in days; that multiplied by the amount of nitrogen in urine per day tells you how much nitrogen your urine can supply during the growing season. My growing season is about 180 to 200 days long. Using 180 days for my growing season, here is how much nitrogen I can supply to the garden if I collect it every day and apply all of it over the course of the growing season:

180 days * 0.024 pounds of nitrogen per day = 4.3 pounds of nitrogen

Above we found that each 100 square foot growing bed needs 0.36 pounds of added nitrogen, or 0.72 pounds if it is growing potatoes. If I divide 4.3 pounds of nitrogen by 0.36 pounds needed per bed, I know how many 100 square foot beds a growing season’s worth of urine will supply with enough nitrogen for good growth:

4.3 divided by 0.36 = 12 beds

I grow a total of 9 beds of vegetables and grains in the vegetable garden. Since the potato bed needs twice as much nitrogen as the other beds, then I need to supply the equivalent of 10 beds. I have 12 beds’ worth of urine, so I can supply all the nitrogen my vegetable and grain beds need over an entire growing season on just my urine. In my day planner I will keep track of which bed I add each day’s worth of urine to. In practice, each bed only needs urine applied when it has plants growing in it that haven’t been fully harvested, and I won’t apply urine any time the soil is soaked from rain, so I will add somewhat less than I have calculated above. I’ll keep track of yields as I always do and also observe each crop as it grows and make notes about any changes compared to what I’ve seen in past years. And I’ll report the results in 2021.

Besides this conversation, I’ll engage in some others. One of the questions I’m asking the garden in 2020 will be if it makes sense for me to direct-seed lettuce and some cabbage family crops in spring instead of growing and planting seedlings. Mike and I have been eating salads almost every day, but I haven’t been growing enough salad crops to supply anywhere close to what we are eating. I’d like to see if I can do better this year by direct-seeding and eating thinnings. I’ll try two separate sowings of these crops in spring, to see if I can prolong the spring salad season. I’m also trying to grow endive this year and some different varieties of crops than the usual ones I grow. And with that I’ll leave you till next month and wish you bountiful harvests in 2020!

Thursday, January 23, 2020

What the 2019 garden told me


Cabbages happily growing in early June 2019

If you have been reading my blog for awhile, you will know that I grow a vegetable garden and that I strive to grow as high a yield as possible of delicious vegetables in a limited space, in the most sustainable manner possible. Toward this goal, each year I develop one or more questions to ask the garden to answer through applying the scientific method to my gardening practice. The big question that I asked my garden to answer in 2019 is if the urine that I produce as a byproduct of being alive can provide sufficient nitrogen to grow dent corn in place of using cottonseed meal as I had been doing. And I’ll get to what the garden told me in due time.

As usual, the garden also told me the answers to some other questions that I hadn’t asked. So let’s start by examining the weather during the 2019 growing season to learn how the weather affected the vegetable garden. Then we’ll examine the data that I collected on yield, which is one of the ways the garden communicates with me, to learn how the garden responded to the weather and to the test that I set up. Finally, I’ll share observations I made on taste and pest issues with some crops for my own use and for those of you who also grow these crops in your gardens.

I can describe the weather in 2019 in one word: wet. St. Louis has not experienced such a consistent excess of rain across the growing season since 1993 – and as in 1993, the rivers flooded in response. The Mississippi River at St. Louis was at or above flood stage for 127 straight days from late March through late July!

The flooded Mississippi River backed up Watkins Creek and covered the Coal Bank Road overpass on June 8, near where I live. This is about a half mile upstream of their confluence.

Here’s how much rain the garden received in each month of the growing season compared to the average for each month as reported by the St. Louis NWS office. Because freezes in March and November would split the plastic rain gauge I use, I reported the value measured at the official site for St. Louis for these two months. The values for the other months are totals of what I measured in my rain gauge during rain events in that month. 



Notice, first, that the only month in which our garden received significantly less than average rainfall was September. Second, note the astonishingly large total rainfall in August. Almost half of this, at least 5.5 inches of rain, occurred in a single storm event on August 12! This was about double what the official recording station received during the same time period. Nor was this our only rain event of this size; 5.0 inches of July’s rain fell in a single storm event on July 22, and this was about 50% more than the official recording station received.

Given this much rain, I feared that the excessive rainfall and accompanying humidity would reduce yields in general due to waterlogged soil. In fact, while the yields of some crops were lowered, other crops yielded as well as or better than they usually do. This suggests that while what I considered excessive rainfall may have had a negative effect on some crops, other crops do well, perhaps even better, with very moist soil. I’ll discuss this more in the reports on individual crops.

Concerning temperatures, spring tended to be cool, with the last frost occurring on April 15. A period of particularly cool weather occurred from May 9 to 14, when I was planting some of the summer crops. Seeds that I planted during this time failed to germinate and needed to be re-seeded. Summer temperatures averaged to near normal while September proved to be much warmer than normal, as well as drier. October averaged a little cooler than normal, but the usual wide autumnal temperature swings produced an early frost on October 12 and a hard freeze of 25F on November 1, for a growing season of 180 days, two or three weeks less than average. Based on temperature, spring crops would yield about their average, summer crops would yield better than average (because our average summer weather tends to be hotter than most of the crops other than corn prefer), and fall crops would do poorly. Most crops fell roughly in line with these expectations, with notable exceptions being peas, beans, eggplants, cabbage, winter squash, and zucchini, all of which yielded less well than I would have expected.

Below you’ll find the data for each crop that I grew in 2019.


Rather than discuss each crop or group of crops in detail, I’ll only mention those that answered particular questions that I asked the garden or that the garden asked and answered. If any reader has a question that you’d like answered about any of the crops, please feel free to post it in a comment and I will respond by the time I put up the next post.

First, the muskmelons. I spent years trying to grow ripe muskmelons on the ground or on vertical trellises, with no success. Other area gardeners as well as farmers grow them, however, so I decided to try them once again. In 2019 I grew them a new way, on an A-frame trellis, thinning to two plants on that trellis. 

The A frame trellis on which I grew the melons is near the center top of the photo, just in front of bok choy plants. Moving toward the viewer are rows of kale, cabbages, collards, and lettuces. The next bed to the left holds potato plants. This photo was taken on May 25.

Those two plants produced eight ripe melons over a month long span! They were planted on the same day as the winter squash, but the melons performed much better than the winter squash and the zucchini planted about 10 days later. The latter two grew on the ground compared to the trellised melons. I wonder if getting the melons off the ground may have been key to their better growth and yield during the excessive rain and humidity of the summer of 2019. Also, melons are a moister crop than winter squash, so I think melons would benefit more from consistently moist soil than winter squash. Given how well the melons did in such a wet growing season, I plan to favor them with any irrigation I need to do during future growing seasons.

Second, the sweet peppers and tomatoes. Both varieties of sweet peppers yielded as well as they did in the best previous year, 2015. Both 2015 and 2019 featured excessive rainfall; 2015 was a little warmer than usual, 2019 a little cooler. I conclude that sweet peppers, like melons, benefit from consistently moist soil; I will also favor them when irrigating in future years. Also, while the ‘Purple Beauty’ bell peppers yielded very well, I found them to not have as good a flavor as ‘World Beater’ when ripe. As for the tomatoes, their yields were higher than I reported because we were out of town during the couple of weeks when they first ripen. I gave a friend permission to harvest all the tomatoes that ripened while we were away from home. While she didn’t weigh them, she reported that she harvested many tomatoes! Still, I’ve noticed in past years that tomatoes suffer during warm, wet conditions, so they probably didn’t yield as well as usual in 2019.

Third, the kale and collards I tried to keep going through the summer. In past years harlequin bugs attacked cabbage-family crops like kale and collards that I left growing after late July, so I got in the habit of removing them then, a few weeks before planting the autumn crops. In 2019 the weather was cool and moist enough I decided to leave the kale and collards in the ground. Wrong move. By the time I planted the autumn crops, the kale and collards were being attacked and eaten by a caterpillar that I could not identify. Sometime in October I realized I should have taken some of the caterpillars to the Missouri Extension Service desk at the Missouri Botanical Garden so their experts could identify them, which may have helped me learn how to control them. By that time the caterpillars were gone … but before then they had moved over to the seedlings and fed freely on them, setting them back. Add that to the hot, dry conditions in September that these plants dislike and none of the autumn cabbage-family crops did well. May I learn this lesson for good this time.

The kale looked great on June 24, before the caterpillars attacked

Fourth, the dent corn. I wanted to know if I could substitute my urine for the cottonseed meal that I had used before as a source of nitrogen, so I designed an experiment for the garden to provide me with an answer. Because of the excessive rain and cool weather in May, I had to delay planting the corn until the beginning of June. Then a too-short dry spell meant I could only plant two beds on the same day. So I made a change in the experimental plan. As in the original plan, I used cottonseed meal on Bed 5 (the control) and urine in place of cottonseed meal on Bed 4, keeping the other added amendments the same (the experiment). For Bed 6, I used cottonseed meal and the same amendments, so in this respect it was treated the same as the control bed, except that it was planted three days later. The later planting made it an experimental bed as well, with the variable being the planting date. 

The three beds of corn on August 11. Bed 4 is the two rows to the left; Bed 5 is the two middle rows; and Bed 6 is the two rows on the right. There are no visible differences between the plants in the three beds.

You will notice that the results are the same for all three beds (the kitchen scales I use to weigh the crops are precise to two significant digits) and better than the results from 2017, a much drier growing season than 2019. I conclude that urine was successful in replacing cottonseed meal as a source of nitrogen, the significance of which I’ll discuss in the next post. I also conclude that corn is another crop that benefits from consistently moist soil.

With that, I will return you to whatever else you need to do, and I will return to completing the 2020 garden design. When next we meet, I’ll let you in on what I plan to ask the garden in 2020.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

An Opinionated Person’s Guide to Growing Fruits and Nuts, Part 3




In this post I discuss the fruit and nut trees that took longer than 10 years to bear well but have proven worth the wait. If you have access to some land on which you can plant trees and you expect, or at least hope, to have that access for at least 10 years, consider planting these trees. As in the first two posts, I’ll tell you how they grow for me so you can decide if you want to grow them. I may be able to offer a more realistic expectation for you based on my experience than a nursery catalog can.

If you don’t have land on which you can plant trees, you might consider searching for trees from which you can harvest. In much of the eastern and midwestern US you can find pawpaw and persimmon trees growing wild. You’ll need to determine if you have the legal right to harvest before you get all excited about free fruit. If the trees are on public land, please make sure to check the regulations for that land to determine if harvesting is legal before you harvest! And if they are on private land, be sure to receive permission from the landowner before harvesting.

Semi-dwarf apples

The neighborhood squirrels permit us to eat some of the apples from one of the semi-dwarf apple trees that I planted. Maybe they think they are being generous in allowing us to eat any of the fruit. Or maybe the fruits they leave for us are their least favorite. Or maybe they forget to eat the rest of the apples once the acorns are ready. Whatever the reason, at least we do get to eat some apples.

The variety that the squirrels share with us is ‘Enterprise’. It bears a crisp apple with a red color over a green background and has a well-balanced flavor; we eat them raw, though I expect they would be good in cooking as well. The apples begin to ripen sometime in September here and I can pick them for about a month. I use an extendible rod with a fruit basket on the end of it to pick the apples. In 2019 I picked about 34 pounds of apples out of this 15ish year old tree.

Squirrels always eat all the apples from our ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ tree well before they ripen. It ought to be named ‘Squirrel Selected’. ‘Eddie April’ hasn’t borne enough apples to tell how the squirrels feel about it yet.

I’ve found apples to be the most productive of the well-known fruit trees under my conditions. This does not mean, however, that they are without their share of pests, large and small.

If you have squirrels (and if you have acorn- or nut-bearing trees within a few hundred feet of you, you have squirrels) expect them to get a share of your apple harvest. The one thing I think might stop a squirrel is a hundred feet or more of lawn or similar tree-free space between the apple tree and any oak or nut tree. Squirrels may be disinclined to travel across such a long stretch of open area where their predators can easily spot them. Otherwise, you’ll just have to accept their feeding.

Of the small pests, I haven’t had trouble with any of the worms that are reputed to attack apples. However, most of the apples do have some rot around the stem and/or blossom ends by the time I harvest them. Because I don’t spray the trees, most of the apples display fly speck and other disfigurements of the skin. Some of them also have small holes in the outside of the flesh that appear to be the work of insects such as wasps or yellow jackets that feed on the outside of the fruit. We aren’t deterred by skin imperfections, and we’ve found that we can cut out the rotted areas and holes and enjoy the fine flavor of the remainder of the apple. If you want to eat the apples your trees produce without going to the trouble of spraying them, I suggest developing a similar attitude.

Pawpaws

This tree, whose scientific name is Asimina triloba and is native to much of the eastern and midwestern US, is IMHO underappreciated. Only since about 1980 has much breeding work been done on the pawpaw, with a number of new grafted varieties having been introduced in the past few years. If you are a fan of pawpaws, or if you are considering planting them, I highly recommend the book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore. It's an enjoyable read and you’ll learn about the natural and cultural history of the pawpaw and the breeding work that has gone into “improving” it.

Why do I put “improving” in quotes? Because I’ve planted at least three different grafted pawpaw trees since the early 1990s, none of which survived for more than two or three years. However, trees grown from seeds have done well for me. Maybe the newer grafted varieties survive better than the ones I tried to grow. Possibly their fruits taste better. I’ve never tasted a pawpaw from one of the grafted varieties so I can’t speak to their flavor. I can tell you that the pawpaws from our trees taste very good to us. Be warned, however, that some people dislike the taste of pawpaws. If you haven’t tried a pawpaw before, I recommend tasting some fruits before you decide to grow them. Moore gives you hints on finding wild trees to harvest from and discusses pawpaw festivals and other ways of obtaining a taste of the grafted varieties.

Pawpaws are among the easiest fruit trees to bring to a successful harvest, at least if you are growing them where they are native. Squirrels leave pawpaws alone and I have yet to encounter any insect pests, though Moore mentions some insect pests of pawpaws grown in orchards. I did have a tree rot where the trunk met the soil, but I’ve not noticed any other disease issues. The trees need only a light winter pruning to stay in good shape and they are taller than wide, with a single trunk; being about 30 feet tall at maturity, they can fit easily into a small yard. Because they are understory trees they will grow and fruit in shady conditions, though they will produce more fruit if grown in sun. They flower late enough to avoid frosts so they crop every year. Note, however, that the trees sucker once they are several years old, creating an expanding patch of genetically alike pawpaws. You’ll need to buy at least two genetically distinct trees for cross-pollination and you’ll probably want to thin out the suckers so as not to crowd the original trees and to make it easier to harvest the pawpaws.

I harvest the fruit when it drops off the tree onto the ground, usually in September to early October. If a fruit isn’t quite ripe, I leave it on a shelf for a day or so until the skin yellows and the fruit softens. They have a cloyingly sweet scent when ripe. We eat them raw, fresh or thawed after freezing them (they freeze well with no blanching required). Moore recommends using the pulp to make pawpaw ice cream and provides a recipe, while some folks like to use the pulp in place of bananas in a banana bread recipe. Be warned: do not eat the seeds or skins! Fortunately the seeds are very large and therefore easy to avoid eating. We cut the fruits in half along the short dimension and dig the flesh out from the skins with a spoon, spitting out any seeds as we eat each bite. I harvested about 29 pounds of pawpaws in 2019, with three of our younger trees producing fruits for the first time this year and with five trees yet to reach bearing age. Yes, we like pawpaws.

Persimmons

The American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is another underappreciated fruit tree native to the Midwest US. While pawpaws prefer moist soils and shadier locations, persimmons grow farther upslope, in drier soils and in more sun. They grow taller than pawpaws, up to about 60 feet, and they have broader crowns. Most persimmon varieties require cross-pollination but some are self-fertile. Persimmons will produce suckers and spread from seed, forming patches; as with pawpaws, you’ll need to thin these. And like pawpaws, they need only a light winter pruning.

While squirrels will eat persimmons, they don’t seem to favor them. Between that and their blooming late enough to avoid frosts, persimmons, like pawpaws, provide me with good yields of fruit. In 2019 I harvested 11 pounds of persimmons from just two trees, with younger trees in another part of the yard that should bear within the next five years or so. I haven’t noticed any issues with insects or diseases.

Even fewer named varieties of American persimmons than pawpaws are available from nurseries, though this is slowly changing. I have one named persimmon variety, ‘Early Golden’, but I don’t notice any difference in the flavor between it and the wild persimmons that I’ve tasted.

American persimmons must be dead ripe to be delicious; otherwise they will make the inside of your mouth feel as if it is covered with dry fur. I find that the best way to harvest ripe persimmons is to wait till they fall on the ground, then check that the cap pulls off the rest of the fruit easily; those fruits whose cap pulls off easily are ripe. Persimmons that are still stuck to a twig when they fall are unripe. Don’t eat the seeds of persimmons, but you can eat the skins, and a good thing too, because persimmons are small fruits, about the size of apricots. Imagine trying to skin a fruit that size, and you’ll appreciate that you won’t have to. We eat persimmons raw; many people like to separate the seeds from the pulp and use the pulp in place of bananas in a banana bread recipe. Persimmons freeze even better than pawpaws, with no blanching required. I can’t tell any difference in looks, taste, or texture between fresh and thawed persimmons. This means that we refrigerate the apples and eat them in autumn, while we freeze most of the persimmons and pawpaws and eat them during the winter.

Chestnuts

If it weren’t for chestnuts and black walnuts, we wouldn’t get to eat any nuts at all. And the only reason we get to eat them is that we can get past their defenses while squirrels cannot. I won’t mention black walnuts other than this, because I find them enough trouble to not bother with harvesting more than a few of them. But chestnuts are another matter. We have 15 pounds of chestnuts waiting for processing in the freezer.

Unless you have a very large lot, you’ll have to forego growing chestnuts. They are among the tallest of the eastern forest trees, up to 100 feet or more tall, and you’ll need at least two of them for pollination. They are quite stately trees with beautiful smooth grayish bark.

You may already know that one of the worst ecological disasters in the last century or so of US history was the devastation caused by chestnut blight, which was accidentally introduced from Asia in the early 1900s. While the chestnut species in Asia can tolerate the blight, it rapidly killed most of the American chestnut trees, a keystone species for humans as well as the rest of the denizens of the eastern US forests. Besides the food value of the nuts (unlike most nuts, they have a high carbohydrate content so they can be used similarly to grains), the rot-resistant wood was used for fenceposts and to side buildings and for furniture. Fortunately one American chestnut tree happened to survive the blight, whose story you can read about here. From this one tree comes the Dunstan chestnut, of which I have three seedlings. A decade and a half after planting, all three are thriving. They have produced nuts for the past several years.

Chestnuts survive squirrel predation (and predation by almost everything else) because a very spiny case encloses the nut. And when I say spiny, I mean spiny. I have seen a few brave (and probably very hungry) squirrels with bleeding mouths harvesting chestnuts, but I think they only do this when there are no easier foods to eat. When you harvest chestnuts, wear sturdy shoes that will protect your feet from the spiny cases.

Sometimes the spiny case opens while the nut is still on the tree, releasing the nut to fall on the ground. The squirrels will probably find those nuts before you do, unless you get lucky. You’ll be using your feet to open the cases of nuts that fell off the tree still enclosed in the case, so your hands won’t get stuck by the spines. I do this by using my feet to roll the case till I can position the seam in the case between my feet. Then I place a foot on either side of the seam and push with both feet to the side, to force open the case at the seam. Once it’s open wide enough, I pick out the nuts with my fingers. I freeze the nuts so they won’t mold before I have a chance to use them. You can find information on using chestnuts here.

And thus ends my opinionated guide to growing fruits and nuts. When next we meet, I’ll have the 2019 garden results to discuss. In the meantime, a happy 2020 to all of you!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

An Opinionated Person’s Guide to Growing Fruit and Nuts, Part 2


As I mentioned in Part 1, I am writing this series to describe my real-life experiences in growing various fruits and nuts. I won’t be showing you pictures of flawless fruit or claiming that growing any of these plants will rescue us from the follies of treating a limited supply of fossil fuels as a limitless source of energy and riches. Rather, I’ll tell you honestly, and sometimes grumpily, what I’ve learned from growing them, in the hope that it will help you enjoy the fruits (and nuts) of your labor and save your neighborhood from the hazards of overfed wildlife.

In Part 1 I considered plants that can provide fruit in a single growing season and those that provide good crops after 2 or 3 years, for the benefit of those of you who have limited growing space or expect to be in your current location for five years or less.

For those of you who expect to remain in your current location for somewhere in the 6 to 10 year range and who have access to some land on which you can grow shrubs or trees, more possibilities lay before you. While I’m not going to go into the details on how to grow any of these plants, I will mention the things that I wish I had known before I planted them.

Blueberries

I have about 10 different blueberry plants. They are long lived and easy to care for, requiring only a winter pruning. Most people like blueberries and know how to use them in the kitchen. The plants are pretty when they bloom and the leaves are colorful in the autumn as shown above, so they are an attractive landscape plant as well as potentially providing delicious fruit.

I was quite excited when my plants began making berries for what I hoped would be several weeks’ worth of breakfast fruits. But I was not the only one watching the berries, and the birds won’t wait long enough to harvest ripe fruit. It wasn’t long before I caught a bird in the act of eating the unripe berries. OK, I thought, I’ll just get some bird netting and put it over the plants. Problem solved, right?

Wrong.

If you haven’t worked with bird netting, let me assure you that it is no fun at all. The material readily tangles with itself and with stray twigs, stems, and other small bits of poky stuff. Assuming you get it untangled and arrayed over the blueberry plant, you’ll have to figure out how to close off the bottom to keep the birds from walking under it. No, you won’t be able to neatly tie it around the stem of the plant like the catalog illustrations show you; the stuff is far too bulky when it’s gathered together in that fashion to secure. You’ll have to lay it on the ground and put weights on the edges to hold it down against the wind, or attach it to stakes around the plant. Don’t lay it down next to grass that you intend to mow, because sooner or later your mower will catch it.

And this isn’t the end of your problems with netting, not at all. For you’ll soon find that the plant is quite happy to grow through the net, rendering it more difficult to remove than it was to put on. Nor does even well weighted down or staked netting keep out all the birds … and some of those birds will die before you can remove them. And then you have to figure out how you are going to get into the net to get the ripe fruit. My advice on bird netting: skip it. And don’t bother with scare balloons or any of the other bird “repellents” being promoted to gullible growers. Take a deep breath and accept that the birds will eat more of the blueberries than you will. Maybe all of them. If you’re lucky, the neighbor’s mulberry tree will have ripe fruit at the same time your blueberries are ripening and the birds will spend enough time in the mulberry tree to leave you a few half-ripe blueberries to eat. That’s the only time I’ve ever eaten any blueberries from my plants. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Serviceberries

I have both the native serviceberry, a large shrub to small tree, and one of the smaller shrubby species that are grown in parts of Canada as a cold-tolerant fruit crop. Both species bloom early and are very pretty in bloom but don’t bloom for long. I like the taste of the few fruits I’ve been fortunate enough to eat, which ripen about the time the strawberries finish, but the birds like them at least as much as I do and eat the vast majority of the fruit. If you plant it, plant it for the spring show of flowers and for the birds. As long as you don’t expect to eat any of the fruit yourself, you’ll be happy with serviceberries.

 Nanking cherries

Nanking cherries are shrubs in the same genus as cherry trees. They make fine landscape plants with their attractive white flowers and red fruits. You may harvest some cherries from if you catch them just as they ripen, before the fruit-eating birds have looked up from the nearest mulberry tree long enough to notice that the Nanking cherries are also ripe. The cherries are small enough to preclude eating out of hand (they have inedible pits just like their larger cousins), but they can be juiced and the juice makes a good wine. My shrubs did fine until the severe drought of late spring and summer 2012. The following year all three shrubs died. Possibly they would have lived had I irrigated them the previous summer, but I chose to focus my irrigation efforts elsewhere, and I decided not to replant them in favor of fruits that do better in my conditions.

Elderberries

This fruiting shrub has earned a place of honor in my heart, yard, and diet. These spreading, 10 to 12 foot tall shrubs leaf out early in the spring but don’t flower until late May or June, long past any danger of frost. The showy white flower clusters stand out since no other shrubs or trees bloom at this time. Best of all, the small red-black berries of the native elderberry make a delicious deep red wine, and although the birds do eat them, they will do so at a leisurely pace, allowing you to harvest enough for 2 or 3 gallons of wine from just two shrubs. If I only had enough room for one kind of fruiting shrub, this is the one I would choose. But the fruit isn’t tasty to eat out of hand, and it takes time and patience to pull off only the ripe berries on each cluster (there will always be some unripe berries to avoid picking). Still, if you decide you don’t want to bother harvesting them, the birds will happily do so, and you’ll still have the beauty of their flowers to enjoy. Or you could make elderflower wine from the flowers, if you can bear to remove them.

Mini-dwarf and columnar apples

If you want to have apples but don’t plan to stay in the same place past 10 years or have minimal space in which to grow them, consider the columnar apple trees or the mini-dwarfs. According to the nursery catalogs I receive, these will begin to bear within a few years. Dwarf apple trees may also bear well in this time frame; check with the seller to be sure. My apple trees are all semi-dwarfs and didn’t begin to bear well until they were 10 or so years old. I’ll discuss them in Part 3.

Pears

Mike is very fond of ripe pears and I like them too, so I planted two pear trees, one ‘Seckel’ and one multiple-cultivar tree. Soon I ran into the first problem: maintaining the multiple-cultivar tree so all four cultivars grafted onto the truck grew reasonably well. Pear trees would much rather send all their resources to only the highest-up cultivar, as my tree proceeded to do. For those of you who only have room for a single pear tree and need the multiple-cultivar trees to allow for cross-pollination, you must do a better job than I did to properly prune the tree to force it to devote resources to all of the cultivars.

Don’t think that just because you have enough room for two single-cultivar trees that will pollinate each other, you will harvest many sweet juicy pears. Most pear cultivars are very susceptible to fire blight, a bacterial disease that spreads rapidly during the warm, wet spring weather that we are prone to. While the ‘Seckel’ pear has not been affected too badly, the multiple-cultivar pear is nearly dead from this disease. Only in the dry and hot spring and summer of 2012, during which I noticed very little fire blight infection, did I get a large enough crop of pears from the tree to be worthwhile. And squirrels have proved willing to take more than their share of the pears. My advice: unless you live in a place with a dry growing season and you’re willing to irrigate the trees, leave the pears to others. 

Peaches, plums, and apricots

While I grew the pears more for Mike than for myself, I grew peaches, plums, and apricots for me. A ripe, juicy peach is one of the best gifts of summer in my opinion, and having apricots and plums, delicious in their own rights, would extend the availability of fresh home-grown fruit. My trees were bearing by the time they were 5 or so years old. Of the two peach varieties I planted, the dwarf peach tree died young while the white-fleshed cultivar is still alive and fruiting. All of the apricot and the purple-leaved plum trees (you can see the purple-leaved plums in the photo above) are in good shape. I’ve also grown the smaller native American plums.

Sadly, none of these trees have lived up to my hopes for them. The culprits include late frosts that kill the flowers and hence the fruits, brown rot afflicting most of the plums and peaches, a caterpillar that finds the area between the flesh and the pit to be its favored abode, and squirrels and birds eating most or all of the fruits before they ripen. Some of the the native American plums sport vicious thorns and all of mine produce sour fruits. You might be luckier with the stone fruit trees than I am if you are careful to remove all the fallen fruits (to reduce brown spot and perhaps the caterpillar attacks) and if you can protect the trees against late frosts or they are not of concern where you live – and if you don’t have squirrels or birds who are looking for an easy snack.

Hazels

I have grown both the native, shrubby American hazelnut and the European hazel tree. The shrubs come into bearing within 2 to 3 years, the trees a few years later. If you don’t have squirrels you will find these shrubs and trees will happily bear nuts for you. On the other hand, if you have squirrels, they will harvest the nuts for you, and the squirrels around here do not believe in sharing the harvest. A few years back I removed the hazel trees to allow more sun to reach the nearby apricots and pears. The American hazels earn their keep by screening the view of the lots next door and providing shelter and food for all the other lives in the yard, plus the autumn color, shown above, is attractive.

Part 3 will take a look at some fruit and nut trees that take a longer time to bear but are so worth it when they do.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

An Opinionated Person’s Guide to Growing Fruit and Nuts, Part 1


Strawberry plants (left) and raspberry canes (right) in my garden on 3 June 2019

I’ve written a lot about growing vegetable plants, the crops most people think of when they consider growing some of their own food. Most vegetables can be grown most places in temperate climates as long as you know the characteristics of your growing season and how to use them to figure out when to plant and how to grow the vegetables you want and what varieties do best for the length of your growing season. But humans do not live by vegetables alone – or at least Mike and I don’t. One of the reasons we moved to this place 17 years ago was to have room to grow our favorite conventional fruits like strawberries, raspberries, peaches, pears, and apples as well as native fruits like persimmons and pawpaws, along with nuts such as hazelnuts, pecans, and chestnuts.

Upon moving here I used the book Gaia’s Garden, supplemented with information I gleaned from the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Missouri Department of Conservation, and our state Extension Service, to design a plan that included as many of these crops as I thought I could fit into the yard. Now it’s time to share with you what worked for me and what didn’t, what I liked well enough to grow if I had to start over in a new place and what I wouldn’t bother with. May it be useful to you (or at least amuse you).

What makes growing fruits and nuts different from growing most vegetables is that most fruits and all nuts I know of are perennial plants that take a few years to a decade or more to bear well. If you’re lucky, someone planted fruits or nuts on your property years ago so they are bearing now, and all you need to learn is how to maintain them and when and how to harvest them and use the harvest. If you’re like me, however, you move to a lot that doesn’t have a single fruit or nut bearing plant on it. You may already know that you won’t be there for long enough to grow trees, but you might wonder if you could grow strawberries. Or you might want to grow certain fruits or nuts but wonder how long it will take them to bear and if so, if you’d get enough out of them to bother. So I’ve divided the guide into multiple parts. In Part 1, I’ll discuss which fruits or nuts I would grow if I were expecting to move elsewhere in 5 years or less. In Part 2 I’ll discuss the ones that take more than 5 years to bear a good crop, and in part 3, the ones that don’t bear well for a decade or more after planting.

If you’re going to make the best use of my opinionated views, you need to know what my growing conditions are so you can make adjustments for your conditions. For newcomers to this blog, my husband Mike and I live in the northeast corner of St. Louis County, MO, the county that surrounds the city of St. Louis wherever the Mississippi River doesn’t. In general, we experience rather cold but changeable winter weather. The USDA says we are in Zone 6 and the last few winters have matched this with the lowest temperatures between -10F and 0F, but even in December and January high temperatures occasionally reach the 60s or 70sF; highs can also be well below freezing, as the Zone 6 designation suggests. More typical winter highs are in the 30sF to 40sF. With the wide swings in temperature, we usually experience a number of freeze-thaw cycles during the winter. This can be harder on plants than where the soil freezes in autumn and stays frozen until spring.

Spring and autumn also feature widely varying temperatures as warm and cold fronts parade across the region, with severe thunderstorms not uncommon during spring and the first half of summer. The last spring frost is usually sometime in April while the first autumn frost is typically sometime in October for a growing season of about 180 to 200 days. Summer is reliably hot. We don’t have wet or dry seasons but we do tend to get less precipitation in winter than in the other seasons. We get droughts some years but they usually do not last longer than a few months. We can also get prolonged periods of heavy rain during the growing season, as in 1993 and again this year, which may lead to saturated soil conditions that can damage or kill roots of perennial plants if it lasts long enough.

As to the particulars, we live on a loess hill, thanks to glaciers. Loess hills look like what you would imagine a series of ocean waves look like if you flash-freeze them in place. The soil is silt loam and it’s very deep, 40 inches or more to bedrock. With this soil and our being near the top of an east-facing slope, even in years with the heaviest rain like this year the soil never gets waterlogged for long. The flip side, of course, is that it can also dry out rapidly, though not as fast as a sandy soil would. This is a good area to grow fruit trees; there are still a few old apple trees down the street from us that we think date from when this was still rural farm country.

Annual fruit crops

While the majority of vegetable and root crops that are grown in temperate climates can be started, grown, and harvested within a single growing system, the list of sweet-tasting fruit crops that can be grown in this way is very short. (I specify sweet-tasting because some of the crops we use as vegetables, such as tomatoes and squash, are fruits botanically.)

The most commonly grown annual fruit crops are the various melons. Up until this year, I hadn’t had enough success with any melon to be worth the space the plants needed in the vegetable garden. But this year I struck gold: ‘Missouri Gold’, to be precise. I grew two plants of this muskmelon on this A-frame trellis in a 16 square foot space and harvested 8 melons weighing about 20 pounds total over a month-long period! I’m not sure why I was successful this year when I hadn’t been in the past, but it could have been a combination of the right plant spacing, mineral-rich soil, the trellis, and plenty of water from the excessively rainy summer we had, something I will discuss more when I make my report on the 2019 garden. At any rate, assuming you get the right varieties of the right kind of melon and grow them under the proper conditions for your area (in my experience they like lots of water and well balanced fertility), melons are probably the best bet for good annual fruit production. That’s assuming you like melons, and we do; that’s why I’ve kept trying to grow them for 17 years. The best part about growing melons is that you can pick yours when they are actually ripe, when they taste much better than the pathetic excuses for melons that most of the grocery stores in this area offer. I’d forgotten how good melons are till I tasted the melons I grew this year.

An unusual fruit crop that I have grown as an annual is ground or husk cherry (Physalis pruinosa). Like tomatoes and peppers, it’s in the nightshade family, and it’s grown in the same way that tomatoes and peppers are. The plants are shorter than sweet pepper plants but much wider and more sprawling. I tried growing them in cages but they grew wider than the cages could handle. The half to three-quarter inch fruits are borne singly inside a papery husk like those on tomatillo or Chinese lantern plants. Wait till the fruits turn their ripe golden yellow color to harvest and eat them; do not eat any unripe (green) fruits as the seed catalogs assure me the results are highly unpleasant. The husk becomes papery when the fruit inside is ripe; it may open up and drop the fruit on the ground at this stage.

Similarly to cherry tomatoes, each plant can provide a lot of fruit in a single growing season. The fruits are reasonably tasty, quite sweet and with a hint of pineapple flavor. But I didn’t like the short and sprawling nature of the plants, which makes it hard to find the ripe fruit that falls on the ground. If you cannot get down on your hands and knees to find the ripe fruit, this is not a good plant for you. While its flavor is pleasant enough, and I would figure out ways to use it if it were all I had, I don’t like it as much as the other fruits I grow. A few years of working with it were enough for me; I no longer grow it.

The Fedco seed catalog also offers a related plant, Cape gooseberry (P. peruviana). They say it’s a larger, more upright plant (3 to 4 feet tall) with larger husks and fruits. That would make it easier to grow and to harvest from. They claim that the variety they offer, ‘Ambrosia’, lives up to its name. It’s a tender perennial in warmer climates and requires a much longer season of 115 days to ripe fruit. I’ll let you know if I try it.

Those of you who live in places with cooler, longer growing seasons than mine may find some of the other nightshade family fruit crops grow well for you in a single growing season. Baker Creek offers seeds of several species.

I grow melons using the same soil re-mineralization process that I employ to grow vegetables, in among the vegetables in their beds. I had very little trouble with insect pests this year on the melons or, for that matter, any of the other squash family crops. This has not always been the case. You would do well to watch for the pests and diseases that you get on cucumbers or squashes, as they might also take a liking to your melon plants. When I’ve grown melons on the ground, unidentified mammals have eaten the fruits before I could. Growing them on the trellis seems to have kept the mammals at bay. In the few years I grew ground cherries I didn’t notice any issues with pests or diseases.

Fruits that yield well in 2 to 3 years

If you expect to be in your current location in a temperate climate for something like 3 to 5 years, you might consider strawberries or the various cane berries. Strawberries and all the cane berries I know of are members of the rose family. Most of them are widely adapted and perennial in most of the temperate climate zones, though you should check that a particular species and variety is hardy in your conditions before trying it. All of the ones I know about grow well under the same conditions that vegetable plants like (a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight). I grow two of these, strawberries and raspberries, each in its own dedicated bed in the fenced area where I also grow vegetables and corn, as shown in the photo at the top. I move the beds on a long rotation, 5 to 10 years, when I notice the yields beginning to drop. I re-mineralize the soil before I plant strawberries or raspberries in a new bed, but I haven’t added any more minerals to the soil for the remainder of the time the plants occupy the bed.

Both strawberries and raspberries are very productive in my conditions once they are three years old or older. Last year I picked 15 pounds of ‘Heritage’ raspberries and 28 pounds of ‘Earliglow’ strawberries, the most of any other fruit I grew that year except for apples. Both are delicious (in my top 5 favorite fruits) with many uses in the kitchen, and they can be harvested for about 3 to 4 weeks. Whatever diseases and pests may be present aren’t affecting them enough to bother me, and I have moved runners from an existing bed to another bed when it’s time to rotate them, although the catalogs say that this can cause a buildup of pests and diseases. Because they readily propagate themselves they cost less to buy than fruit trees and bear much sooner. Raspberries are harvested from a standing position at a convenient height for adults and older children alike, as the hours I spent eating from my grandparents’ raspberry patch as a child will attest.

On the negative side of the ledger, their runners will overcrowd their bed and spread into adjoining areas, so they require more active management over the growing season than fruit shrubs and trees. Perennial weeds like to hide in strawberry beds and are difficult to remove once they are present. You have to pick strawberries from your hands and knees because the plants are short and the ripe berries hide among the leaves; it takes me over an hour to thoroughly pick a 100 square foot bed of strawberries at the height of the season. Raspberry canes are prickly; they need some kind of support to keep them upright enough so you don’t have to pick up the prickly canes with your hands in order to harvest them, and you must keep up with training them onto or into whatever support system you use or they will rapidly outgrow their allotted space and support system. And both raspberries and strawberries have tough root systems that aren’t fun to dig out whenever you decide it’s time to convert their current bed to something else. Still, the high yields of delicious fruit keep them in my garden year after year.

I’ve recently taken to mowing the entire strawberry bed about a month after harvest ends. This is something I learned about from an organic gardening book. Mowing the bed removes the old leaves, allowing the plants to grow healthy new leaves. It also makes it easier to see and remove annual and perennial weeds or runners that crowd too closely together.

As for the raspberries, ‘Heritage’ is an ever-bearing variety so I used to leave the year-old canes to fruit the following spring and then pick from the new canes in the autumn. Finding that the birds took entirely too much interest in the spring berries while much of the autumn crop fell to frost, I now prune out all the old canes during the winter, so only this year’s canes fruit, primarily in August between the elderberries and the autumn-bearing fruit trees. The birds take less of an interest in the August crop, perhaps because they are finding other kinds of foods more to their liking. This leaves most of the crop for Mike and me and we take full advantage!

The last fruit that I’ve grown that fits in this category is grapes, specifically the ‘Concord Seedless’ variety. This is a table grape rather than a traditional wine grape, but we like it for both eating and making wine. I have never fertilized the grapevine, although it was mulched when I first planted it. Once you get the hang of pruning the vine (I use Barbara Damrosch’s instructions), grapes are easy to grow – but it’s not easy to protect the clusters of grapes from birds. Only one year did I get enough grapes for eating and wine-making. This year we didn’t get to eat any of the grapes. Unless you are prepared to protect the clusters from birds, I suggest growing something else.

In Part 2 I will opine on several fruiting shrubs and one shrubby nut, the hazelnut, that I’ve grown, or at least tried to grow.