Saturday, August 22, 2015

Rain, rain, rain ...

Here I was planning to start my post with a photo as I usually do, but my 10 year old digital camera has decided not to work. It's always something. Still, it seems only fair to catch you up on what has been happening here at Living Low Acre during the summer.

And that has been rain. Not a lack of it, either. When I last posted at the beginning of June, we'd had a somewhat wetter than average May that contributed to my being slow to get the beds of summer crops planted. No problem, I thought. Plenty of time to plant during June. Well, 10.8 inches / 25+ cm of rain later, I found myself near the end of June with most of eight 100 square foot beds still to be planted. Luckily the rain slacked off enough during the last week of June and the first week of July for me to get all those beds planted, barely. And they are producing well. I have almost forgotten how much digging went into that effort. Good thing because then I'll be willing to do it all again next year.

If you think 10.8 inches of rain in one month was a lot, you're right, but it wasn't as much as some parts of our area received. The official weather recording station for St. Louis is roughly 10 miles to the southwest of Living Low Acre. It recorded a record June rainfall of 13.4 inches of rain.

Nor has the rain stopped since then. I measured 3.0 inches of rain in July; the official site measured closer to 5 inches. Since August 5th, I've measured 4.7 inches of rain, and again the official station has recorded more than I've received. Just one of those weird weather anomalies, I suppose. Our water utility must be crying the blues; no one is running lawn sprinklers this summer so they won't make their usual profit for the year off of that. On the other hand, landscapers are mowing anytime the rain stops long enough that their mowers don't sink in the mud.

I'll have numbers later, but at this point I can say that harvest has been overall good, other than the carrots (which the rabbits decided were theirs instead of mine), the peas that I planted too early and didn't weed well, and the onions that rotted in the July rains. Of the calorie crops, a particular interest of mine, the popcorn crop looks good so far and the bed of potatoes that I am currently harvesting will yield close to 50 pounds when I finish with it in the next couple of days. It's been cool enough this month to sow seeds of turnips, arugula, and winter radishes; had the camera worked I would have included a photo of the seedlings which promise fall and winter goodness. In a week or so I'll plant the seedlings of lettuce, mustard greens, collards, kale, and bok choy which will complete the fall garden.

The excessive rains mean I have had to mow the lawn here at the Acre a lot more often than I could do by human-powered means. With that plus the demands of keeping up on weeding in the vegetable garden and all the pruning that isn't getting done on the various trees and shrubs that need it, I have to face up to my own limitations. When we bought the Acre, I was in my mid forties. 13 years later, the acre feels a lot bigger than it used to. Much meditation during the winter will center around how to make maintenance of the rest of the Acre easier than it has been, and how to incorporate more pollinator, bird, and amphibian and reptile habitat into the redesign.

In other living low news, a friend of mine sold me a beautiful antique ladies pocket watch that he had acquired at auction. If you haven't been fortunate enough to see a pocket watch made 100 years or so ago, please do at least search the web for photos. Not even the most expensive watch now made can match the beauty and functionality of the everyday pocket watch of a century ago. I have wanted one for years but until now I had not had the chance to acquire one at a price I was willing to pay. It's an interesting coincidence that I bought it so close to the time when John Michael Greer's narrative of Retrotopia is about to begin. I'm sure it will be in fashion on the train to our destination. Please check him out!

With this post I am embarking on an effort to make a short weekly post on the happenings here at the Acre, interspersed with the longer, more in-depth posts that have been the mainstay of this blog. Thanks to you, my readers, for the inspiration to write more often, for taking the time to read my posts, and for your thoughtful comments on them.

Monday, June 1, 2015

An ecological look at vegetable gardening systems

I’ve examined some different systems of growing vegetables in earlier posts, viewing them primarily from the standpoints of yield (pounds produced per unit area) and inputs required. Now I want to view them from another perspective: that of ecology. What does the science of ecology suggest about how we might best grow vegetable plants, and how do different growing systems support ecological insights or work against them? Fighting against the ecological tendencies of a plant makes extra work for the gardener and causes the plants to grow less well than they otherwise would. If we understand the ecological needs of the vegetables we want to grow, we can create a garden habitat that is better able to meet their needs. That might lead to a better yield of the vegetables that we grow or if not a better yield, at least a better use of our limited time as folks with lives outside the garden.

Caveat: I am not a trained ecologist. While I have studied aspects of ecology that relate to gardening, I cannot guarantee that I have applied them correctly. I think this topic deserves more study, especially by people who know a lot more about ecology than I do.

The Big Cover-up

To understand how ecology relates to growing vegetables, let’s examine what happens to a bit of ground that is stripped clean of plants. For instance, you might decide to fill in a depression in your backyard with a couple of wheelbarrow loads of soil. You intended to toss some grass seed on top of the bare soil after you dumped it and smoothed it out, but one of your children suddenly needed your attention, and then work called, and then ... pretty soon weeks have gone by, in which every time you remembered the bare soil that you should have covered with grass seed, you found some excuse to ignore it. (Doesn’t this sort of thing happen to you sometimes? Right now I am ignoring a patch of my yard where poison ivy is taking up residence even though I know it would be better to deal with it.) Finally, about the time when spring is turning into summer, you decide to take a good look at that spot. The bare soil is no longer bare (you knew that, of course; that’s why you’ve pretended not to notice that spot for weeks). Instead many plants have taken up residence, in varying stages of growth. You sigh, realizing you have a lot of work ahead of you if you mean to return that patch to grass.

What you may not have noticed is what kinds of plants are growing on the formerly bare spot. You might find a few seedling trees, especially if maple tree seeds fell between when you spread the soil and when you finally gather enough courage to tackle that layer of plants. But almost all the plants growing on your patch of soil will be what we call weeds. You may hate them (companies that sell herbicides spend lots of money training you to hate them), but Nature needs them. Those plants you call weeds are Nature’s repair crew.

When you dumped that load of soil in your backyard, you created what ecologists call a disturbance: an area in which the previous plant cover no longer exists. Many naturally occurring events create disturbances, such as fires, windstorms, and floods. Human activities such as plowing and its smaller-scale relatives, tilling and digging, also disturb existing plant cover. Whenever you dig or till to create a vegetable garden, you are causing a disturbance, leaving bare soil behind.

Ecologists tell us that what happens next, in a process they call succession, depends on several factors. Broadly speaking, whether the end result over a period of many years is a forest, shrubland, grassland, or desert depends on details of yearly rainfall and its patterns, yearly temperature patterns and extremes, the nature and thickness of the soil, and the chemical character of the underlying bedrock. On the time scale of several weeks or months during which our vegetable garden grows, however, the more critical factors are whatever seeds already exist in the soil, what seeds are brought there after the disturbance happens, the day-to-day weather, and any other disturbances that might take place after the initial tilling or digging.

Lifestyles of the Green and Rooted

Nature’s response to a disturbance is to cover the soil with a set of plants that stabilize the soil and re-establish water and nutrient cycles that were disrupted by the disturbance. Most of these plants grow, set and release seed, and die within the space of a few weeks or months. Plants that adopt this lifestyle are called annuals, meaning growth, maturity, and death take place within a year or less. Annual plants tend to set lots of smallish seeds that can live for a comparatively long time, and they grow best in full sun. As they die, their bodies slowly enrich the soil, allowing larger, slower-growing plants to gradually move in, shading out the annuals. The annual plants thus create conditions that eventually lead to their own demise (though not before they have left a legacy in the seed bank of the soil to re-establish plant cover in the event of future disturbances).

Next in line are two other plant lifestyles: biennials and perennials. Biennials usually sprout and grow a little more slowly than annuals do during the first growing season after the disturbance. However, the next growing season, they spring into life earlier from already-established root systems than annual seeds can sprout and start growing, thus shading out some of the potential annual seedlings. Later on in the spring or summer the biennials mature their own seeds and then die. Like the annuals, they tend to prefer considerable sun and create conditions that allow for the next lifestyle of plants, the perennials that live for a few to many years, to become established. The perennials might be even smaller than the biennials at first, and some of them cannot sprout and grow unless the annuals and biennials have already prepared the ground by re-establishing the water and nutrient cycles and increasing the levels of nutrients. The perennial seeds may also need to be brought to the site by wind, water, or animals if they are not present in the seed bank or if the perennial seed is short-lived. But as the years pass, more perennials take root and those already present grow taller, shading the soil and making it less hospitable for annuals and biennials. As perennial woody plants become established, they also appear to change the microorganisms in the soil from the bacterially-dominated soils of grassland ecosystems like prairies to the fungally-dominated soils of forests and woodlands, according to the discussion in Edible Forest Gardens. I suspect that recently disturbed soil, covered mostly with annual or biennial plants, is bacterially-dominated since it takes time for fungal networks to re-grow following disturbance.

Home Green Home

Let us inquire into the lifestyles of the vegetable plants that we grow. Are they annuals or biennials that thrive on disturbance, or perennials that require some previous soil preparation and a lack of disturbance to do their best? As it happens, most of the vegetables that we gardeners grow are annuals or biennials. Among the annuals are lettuce, beans, peas, sunflowers, sweet corn, melons, cucumbers, and squashes. Onions, leeks, cabbages, broccoli, kale, collards, mustard greens, turnips, beets, carrots, parsnips, and potatoes are all biennials. The only commonly-grown vegetables that are perennial are tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants (not that those of us in frosty climates would know that if we weren’t told), asparagus, and rhubarb. Many if not most of the vegetables we grow are derived from a weedy wild ancestor that we’ve improved to a greater or lesser degree by selective breeding. Is it any wonder, then, that traditional methods of gardening and farming start with plowing, tilling, or digging to create bare soil and then add the plants or seeds that we want to grow there? It’s the genetic expectation of these refined cousins of annual and biennial weeds to grow in bare soil and to have potential competitors removed or reduced in order to express themselves fully.

It’s become fashionable to revile bare-soil gardening and farming, not without reason. Soil left bare for too long erodes away in rain and blows away in the wind. Without plant cover, nutrients such as calcium cannot cycle properly and leach away with the rain as it soaks down through the soil. But to balance this, most of the vegetables, grains, and root crops that we humans living in temperate climates have come to depend on grow best on bare soil. Agricultural techniques such as cover cropping (the growing of a non-edible crop that covers the soil) have been developed to minimize the time that soil is left bare and to keep some of the nutrients in place between food crops. Most home gardeners do not use cover crops because few home gardening resources tell us how to use them effectively. Instead, mulching as a means to reduce weed competition has been popularized by garden writers like Ruth Stout. In Stout’s case, deep mulching allowed her to garden well into her 90s without having to expend energy weeding that she no longer had. Some gardeners, especially those in dry climates, use mulch to reduce the water lost from bare soil. Others use it because it makes the garden look better to them. However, mulch can offer living space to certain plant-eaters such as slugs. I found it difficult to move aside mulch to plant tiny seeds and to mulch tiny seedlings. In my opinion mulching is most useful to gardeners who grow vegetables in large containers or small backyard beds that are not suited to digging or tilling.

Permaculture designers advocate growing perennial plants, including perennial vegetables, fruits, and nuts, as they attempt to create self-sustaining yard-scale ecosystems with a higher proportion of edible plants than occurs in unmanaged ecosystems in temperate climates. Mulching to reduce the weed load and to conserve water is an essential part of their toolkit. I have been working on a permaculture design in the treed portions of my yard, where I grow tree fruits and nuts, a few other edible and herbal plants, and a variety of native and introduced plants that attract wildlife and beneficial insects. In the semi-tropical and tropical climates in which permaculture design developed, many good green vegetable crops and some calorie crops as well as fruits are perennials. Some green vegetables, like asparagus, grow as perennials in temperate climates; more could be grown and used, as described in the books How To Grow Perennial Vegetables and Perennial Vegetables, or could be developed by backyard or professional plant breeders. I grow a few of them and plan to try others, as they bring diversity to our diets as well as to our gardens. They grow well in the mulched ground typical of a permaculture design. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, all perennials in frost-free climates, should integrate well into the sunnier spots of such a design. However, it bears noticing that most of the plants which most of us in temperate climates eat most of the time, the grain, root, and vegetable crops that provide most of our calories and nutrients, are plants which are adapted to grow in sunny conditions on disturbed soil like your old-fashioned tilled or dug vegetable garden or plowed farm field. That’s why I have a large treeless space in part of the backyard where I’ve established my vegetable gardens, why I dig each bed before I plant it, and why I don’t mulch the vegetable garden. That’s why farmers plow before planting. Digging, tilling, and plowing aren’t evil, though the last two do require the use of substantial amounts of petroleum and thus are not sustainable over the long haul (unless and until draft animals make a serious comeback in agriculture). Digging, tilling, or plowing provides the disturbance that the disturbance-adapted crops we depend on require for good growth. And while these techniques do harm some of the soil life, primarily the fungal life, it also bears remembering that the disturbed soils in which the ancestors of our annual and biennial crops grew would not have had much fungal life in them because of the disturbance that created them. Further, our crops have adapted to life in frequently disturbed farm fields. My suspicion is that a yard like my own in which a vegetable garden that is disturbed frequently is bordered by areas in which localized infrequent disturbances occur and that grows a variety of annual and biennial plants as well as perennial trees, shrubs, and non-woody plants, provides a similar kind of animal, plant, and soil diversity as does a natural area that undergoes occasional disturbances at various scales.

Rooting for the Best System

Having said that, can we use these arguments to look more closely at and perhaps choose between the two techniques of bare-soil gardening that I’ve been examining in my blog? In order to do that, we need to look more closely at how the plants that colonize bare soil compete for nutrients, and how to slant the odds more in favor of the plants we want (our vegetable crops) and against the plants we don’t want (everything else).

As plants grow, they send their roots out in whatever pattern is typical for each plant as they search for the nutrients that they need to produce their bodies, and they grow their bodies upwards and outwards in their typical pattern to obtain the sunlight they require. If they are fortunate, they will find all the nutrients they need within the soil that their roots occupy and sufficient air and ground space for their bodies to get the sunlight they need to photosynthesize. Most often, however, before they can access everything they need, their roots will bump up against the roots of another plant trying to do the same, or another plant’s body will intrude on the space the first plant requires for its body. Then those plants have to compete for the nutrient, sunlight, and water supply within the root and air space that they share. 

I’ve already examined in a previous blog post the contrasting ways that two systems of vegetable growing that I have worked with supply what each considers to be sufficient amounts of nutrition. Now let’s look at another aspect of competition: reducing the numbers of competing plants sufficiently for our desired plants to utilize all the nutrition the soil provides. The way John Jeavons does this in How to Grow More Vegetables differs from the way Steve Solomon does it in Gardening When It Counts. Let’s see if we can use ecology to argue for one over the other.

The methods differ in how they pack the plants you want and how they remove the plants you don’t want.  Jeavons suggests growing almost all vegetables as seedlings in flats and planting out the seedlings on a hexagonal grid in order to pack the plants just close enough together near or at maturity to shade the soil. If the bed is prepared just before the seedlings are planted, then when the seedlings are added, they will start using the nutrients right away, getting off to good growth before the seeds in the soil seed bank can germinate and grow large. Minimal to no weeding should be required before the vegetable plants grow large enough to out-compete the weeds. Jeavons claims further that his spacings allow the vegetable plants to grow large enough to provide the best yield (pounds of the desired part per unit of area); even though the plants are crowded closer together than is usual in home gardening and thus the pounds of desired part per plant is lower, the higher number of plants per unit area makes up for that.

That’s in theory. My experience, after more than a decade of using the method imperfectly (according to Jeavons’ criteria), is that for most crops Jeavons’ method does not work as well as he suggests it should, at least not under the conditions in which I garden. The crops for which his close spacings work well for me are large, fast-growing summer crops, especially tomatoes and peppers. These crops out-compete most weeds even if I don’t weed regularly. However, the other crops I grow as seedlings (eggplants, onions, lettuce, cabbage, and broccoli among them) do not yield more per unit area when crowded together at Jeavons’ spacings compared to the more-generous spacing that Solomon suggests for them. They seem to need less competition, even from their own kind, than Jeavons’ spacing allows to do their best in my climate. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve done a better job of balancing the soil nutrient levels using Solomon’s methods than using Jeavons’, or because I’m weeding more frequently. Furthermore, with Jeavons’ hexagonal packing a goodly number of plants are located near or at each edge of the bed, hanging half or more of their bodies out into the 12 inch wide paths I maintain between beds. Inevitably those plants get stepped on or crushed as I walk on or kneel in the paths to weed or harvest, reducing or eliminating their yields and making my work more difficult. Sometimes I have to stop weeding earlier to avoid harming those plants, which may increase weed competition and lower yield. I could compensate for protruding plants by using 24 inch wide paths, but that would widen the area needed for the entire garden by about 20%, effectively reducing the yield measured using the size of the entire garden as a basis. I find it is much easier to weed and harvest from 12 inch wide paths when the plants are spaced according to Solomon’s larger spacings, which allow for the plants to grow almost entirely within the bed and away from the paths.

Seedlings of tiny plants that I want a lot of, like carrots, beets, or turnips, take a long time to plant because of their delicacy and large numbers (I know because I’ve tried it) and the roots are misshapen compared to direct-seeded roots. It takes less space in the cold frame or on the porch and less time to direct-seed into short rows in the garden and thin the resulting plants as they grow than it does to start these seeds in a flat, care for the seedlings, and painstakingly transplant the tiny seedlings to their final spacing. These seedlings are slow-growing and need a lot of weeding in spring under my conditions, a process much easier for plants in rows spaced 12 inches apart than for plants on a hexagonal grid that might be only 3 or 4 inches apart, a spacing which is too close for any hoe on the market. True, I found I needed to hand-weed the row-planted seedlings twice while they were still tiny, but the third weeding was done standing up with a hoe as will any other needed the rest of the growing season.

Jeavons suggests that only some easy hand-pulling of weeds should be necessary before the planted seedlings crowd out the weeds. Again, that isn’t what has occurred in my garden. I’m sure the weed-seed-infested compost I use and the occasional neglect of weeding to the point that the weeds go to seed in my garden has a lot to do with my garden’s weediness. But I don’t think that is all that is going on. I think that in my climate, with the weed seed bank in place, weeds can get the upper hand more quickly than most transplanted vegetable plants can grow large enough to shade them out. Far better to set up my garden to make it easy to hoe from a standing position most of the time than to spend more time hand weeding plants that are too close together for a hoe.

Solomon’s answer to competition is to set each plant far enough apart for root systems to not compete, and hoe or thin out all unwanted plants. I thought this would require more weeding work and reduce the yield per unit area too low for even my rather large (1500 square feet) garden to provide a significant fraction of our vegetables. But it turns out that it doesn’t. As I mentioned above, I did have to spend several hours hand-weeding the rows of direct-seeded root crops and the transplanted onion seedings (the latter because onion plants are small, don’t grow fast or compete well in spring, and are easy to cut with a sharp hoe). I also need to start thinning the rows of direct-seeded plants, which will be hand work. But the carrots, beets, parsnips, and onion plants are all much larger than I have seen them in past seasons at this time. By now it’s easy to hoe between rows of these seedlings, and it has always been easy to hoe around the large, well-spaced leaf crops, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. In addition, the cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, and lettuce plants are larger than usual at this point in the season, and the bok choy is yielding near to or over the best I’ve obtained in spring. The potato vines have been hilled twice, have very few weeds, and are much bigger than I’ve seen them at this point (about 6 weeks after planting, each hill is 9 to 10 inches high and the vines on the first-planted variety are about 30 inches tall, with flower buds in evidence).

Managing soil water levels also differs among the two systems. In Jeavons’ method, the bed is dug and then planted with seedlings. As each seedling is planted, the gardener firms the soil around it, re-establishing capillarity, the means by which water travels through the soil to get to the plants that need it. Years ago, I tried direct-seeding small seeds like turnips and carrots in Jeavons’ hexagonal pattern but got poor germination compared to direct-seeding large seeds like corn and beans. I’d wondered why that was the case. Now I suspect it was because I didn’t press down hard enough on small buried seeds to re-establish capillarity. With the larger seeds I tended to press down harder on a larger area, which seemed to do the trick. Solomon’s method of pressing a hoe handle horizontally into the soil where you intend your rows to be re-establishes capillarity following digging, and in my experience it works very well. Even small seeds like carrots, sown thickly, make a good stand of seedlings (and is why thinning is now required).

Solomon mentions the creation of a dust mulch when weeding with a hoe. I’ve noticed that weeding with a hoe stirs up the surface of the soil, reducing its capillarity to the point where most weed seeds find it difficult to germinate. As long as I hoe while the soil is dry and the weed seedlings that are dislodged dry out before the next irrigation or rain, well-rooted crops get the water they need and weeds do not get well enough established to compete for water. Jeavons’ method, by contrast, requires the soil be moist enough when weeding to pull out the entire weed, root and all, when weeding the more closely spaced crops, and the weeds must be collected and composted instead of being left on the bed as I do when I am hoeing. With the soil moist, more weed seeds can continue to germinate, competing with the crops for water.

One last ecological issue remains: nutrition and how it is provided. One of the reasons that Jeavons’ system has gotten widespread good press for many years is his claim that his system is sustainable: that in principle, a properly designed garden produces enough compostable materials to produce enough compost to maintain its fertility indefinitely without any outside inputs. Those of us, myself included, who are concerned about sustainability find this a very attractive feature. But a careful reading of Jeavons’ and Ecology Action’s books and booklets, as well as my own experience, leads me to doubt that his system actually requires fewer outside inputs than Solomon’s does.

In the later editions of his book, the ones published since 2000, Jeavons says that to produce enough compostable material within the garden’s confines to make enough compost for sustainability, about 60% of the garden space should be devoted to grain crops and another 30% to high-calorie root crops (potatoes and/or sweet potatoes) with only 10% of the area for all the other vegetable crops people want to grow (see pages 39 to 43 of the 8th edition for details). I don’t know of any gardener, myself included, who wants to allocate this much space to grain or root crops. Very few city or suburban gardeners want to grow any grain crop other than perhaps sweet corn. Most grain crops require considerable effort to liberate the ripe seeds (corn the least such) and all except for popcorn require a grain mill, a tool few people have or want to buy, to convert the seed into the product that most people use in the kitchen. And while potatoes and sweet potatoes are used as they come out of the soil, they take up a lot of space in our living quarters and that space has particular requirements that may not be possible for many people to provide. Most people with backyard vegetable gardens grow salad crops such as lettuce and tomatoes, greens such as kale, collards, and mustard greens, green beans and peas, herbs such as basil and parsley, root crops like carrots and beets, zucchini, cucumbers, melons, and maybe some sweet corn, potatoes, or sweet potatoes if they have enough space. I grow more grains, mostly popcorn, than most, yet I can make enough compost for the garden only by adding lots of autumn leaves from the rest of the yard to the compostables from the garden. Then, looking further into the argument (pages 37 and 38 of the 8th edition), we learn that even with the 60-30-10 design, we still have to compost all of our urine and humanure along with the compostable materials from the garden to recycle all the nutrients lost from the garden when we eat the produce. And that doesn’t address any nutrient deficiencies the soil began with, hence the need for a soil test and the addition of inputs at least the first time the garden is planted, as Jeavons discusses in his chapter on fertilization. He suggests that each gardener “strive to use less and less fertilizer brought in from outside his or her own garden area” (page 72). To me, this is an admission that it will be necessary, for a considerable period of time, to bring in amendments to balance the nutrient levels of the garden’s soil. I think Solomon’s approach better reflects the underlying ecological reality of gardening in small spaces. While my own garden requires less of certain nutrients than it did when I began working with Solomon’s approach, I still add others and expect to do so for the foreseeable future.

The upshot of this discussion? In my opinion, Solomon’s approach to organic vegetable gardening is based on a better understanding and application of ecology than is Jeavons’. And while I think much can be done through the use of permaculture design for perennial crops, including perennial vegetables (and we need to do a better job of this in our own yard and our kitchen), Solomon’s version of organic vegetable gardening is the soundest way to raise the standard vegetable crops at the level of a decent-sized backyard garden in the St. Louis region.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

My 2015 vegetable garden

I’ve been ignoring this blog in favor of doing garden planning, actual gardening, lawn mowing, and a host of other real-life activities. When the weather permits, I need to be doing garden and yard work, not writing blog posts. But a few days ago, as a prolonged period of rain ended, I picked up the blog’s thread once again to discuss the plan that evolved from the discussion in my previous post.

New tools: over the last several months I purchased some new tools. These are a sturdier reel mower that can mow zoysia and bermuda grass (so far it has worked well, but the real test is coming as these grasses green up); a jab planter I can use to plant larger seeds while standing up; a cutter mattock; a grub hoe; and a three-tooth cultivator. By now I have used all of them at least once and have been pleased with the performance of each. The grub hoe proved to be a fine tool to remove sod prior to planting trees and shrubs, much better than a hoe or a spade. Later this year I plan to use it to remove sod for creating new garden beds. I used the cutter mattock to remove a trip hazard, a short stump of a former peach tree. It was up to the task, not so heavy I couldn’t handle it (it has a three pound head instead of the usual five pounds) and long enough at 45 inches that I didn’t have to bend over excessively to do the work. I’ll also use it to chop corn and sunflower stalks before adding them to the compost pile. I planted pea seeds with the jab planter and will use it for corn, bean, and black-eyed pea seed planting later this summer. I can choose the depth and spacing for the kind of seed I am planting. Finally, I used the three tooth cultivator to incorporate compost and fertilizer into three of the beds I planted this spring, comparing it to digging them in with a shovel or with a broadfork as I did with the remaining beds. I’ll talk more about that below.

New procedures: the acquisition of the three tooth cultivator allowed me to develop the following general plan for preparation of each 100 square foot vegetable bed prior to planting, with the expectation that it would reduce preparation time and allow the compost and 2015 amendment mix to be incorporated a few inches deep, where plant roots could easily access it.   
    - Mow off any tall vegetation with the scythe, or hoe small vegetation if needed
    - If the soil is too dry for digging, water just enough to remedy that condition
    - Single-dig to about 1 foot with the shovel and roughly level with a garden rake
    - Scatter the 2015 complete organic fertilizer mix (COF) and three 5 gallon buckets of compost on top of the bed in a reasonably uniform manner
    - Using the cultivator, incorporate the compost and COF into the top three inches of soil
    - Using the bed rake, rake it smooth and draw the appropriate planting grid on it with row markers
    - Plant the bed according to the 2015 garden map and water.  
When I drew up that plan, I hadn’t factored in the rapidity of the growth of the rye cover crop, nor allowed it time to decompose before planting anything into it. By mid March, I realized that I’d need to dig under the cover crop on all the beds it occupied as soon as possible, before the rye grew too tall and while there was sufficient time for it to decompose before planting the spring crops. A friend of mine (thanks, Daniel!) helped me with this task, enabling me to get 10 beds dug before the end of the month. Three of those were planted to spring crops within a few weeks after being dug; for those, I used the cultivator to incorporate the compost and amendments. The cultivator worked better than older designs featuring a single row of tines with a 90 degree bend but it still required an hour or more to work the entire 100 square foot bed, not as much of a time saving versus digging as I had hoped. The photo at the top shows the bed with lettuces, bok choys, and broccoli plants visible that was planted this way. We’ll eat from the row of lettuce closest to the bottom edge this week.

Of the next three beds to be planted (two for potatoes and one for tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, ground cherries, and a few herbs), none had a rye cover crop and all had only scattered clumps of low-growing spring weeds on them. The easiest plan for the two beds to receive potatoes was to scatter the compost and amendments on the weedy bed, dig them and the weeds in with the shovel, and immediately plant the potato seed. That plan has worked well, as shown in the photo below. These potato plants were hilled up yesterday, after the photo was taken.

I dug the bed to receive the tomatoes and other crops shortly after planting the bed of potatoes so that the weeds would have some time to decompose, but did not add the compost or amendments at that time. Because of dry weather, very few weeds had appeared by the time I was ready to plant, allowing me to incorporate the compost and amendments with a broadfork just prior to planting. Steve Solomon, in his book Gardening When It Counts (GWIC), recommends incorporating the compost and amendments 12 inches deep, the depth afforded by use of the shovel or broadfork, compared to only three inches or so deep with the cultivator. That will prove especially beneficial for all the plants in these three beds, which grow large and deep-rooted.

The other seven beds, which had the rye cover crop dug into them several weeks ago, will be planted shortly. Because the rye crop should have decomposed by now and the weeds on these beds are very short, I will keep the weeds hoed off until time to plant each bed. Then I’ll scatter the compost and amendments, dig each with the shovel and roughly level with the bow rake to bury weeds, level and draw the row pattern using the bed rake and row markers, and plant.

For most of the beds I draw rows one foot apart across the short length of the bed (four feet) to form the basis of the planting grid. I press down on each row with a hoe handle as Solomon describes in GWIC in order to restore capillarity to the soil in the row before planting. If I’m planting seeds, I use a hand seed sower for small seeds or the jab planter for large seeds to place the seed into the pressed-down area. If I’m using the hand seed sower I sow thickly and will thin along the row as the plants grow. With the jab planter I can use its spacing device to place large seeds about the same distance apart. After placing the seeds, I cover them by hoeing some soil onto them and press down on the covered seeds with the flat side of the hoe. The carrots, parsnips, and beets sown this way have all come in well. For the parsnips, I also sowed in some radish seeds to mark the rows. That allowed me to find the row and avoid hoeing it when the parsnip seedlings still had only two leaves. I may use a different grid pattern for the popcorn seeds but I have not made a final decision on that as I write.

For plants, I space them according to the in-row and between-row spacings that I planned for this year, using the grid to help me put them in the right place. I will give most plants about the same amount of square footage as Solomon does in Column 2 of Figure 6.1 in GWIC (his semi-intensive spacing), but I will continue to plant some vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, much closer than Solomon does because my spacings have proven to work well in my climate. If we should experience a drought I can remove every other plant.

I’m growing the following crops and varieties in 2015.

Potatoes: I’m growing Elba, a buff-skinned, white-fleshed potato that I first grew in 2013, and Desiree, red-skinned, yellow potato that is new to me this year. Both are late, high-yielding varieties with moist, firm flesh according to Fedco’s catalog. Desiree is supposed to have good storage capability while Elba has excellent storage capability. Because I’m growing them the same way - in one row down the length of a four foot wide bed, with plants 12 inches apart - I’m testing them for yield, flavor, and storage capability.

Tomatoes: besides my old favorites Arkansas Traveler (a pink slicer) and Hungarian Italian Paste (a red paste tomato), I’m growing Black Prince, one of the currently popular black varieties, and Red Pear, a full-sized, pear-shaped, red tomato that might work well for sauce. I’m trialing the latter two for flavor and yield against the former two.

Peppers: I’m growing the usual two sweet peppers, World Beater (bell shaped) and Italian Frying (a long frying pepper, though we eat most of them raw as they are excellent that way as well), along with Jalapeno as this year’s hot pepper.

Eggplants: this year’s new variety is Listada di Gambia, which has already won points with me due to its seeds’ high germination rate, a trait I haven’t encountered in previous attempts to grow fancy eggplants. I’m trialing it against White Beauty for yield and flavor. Unlike tomatoes and peppers, which do well for me at a tight spacing of one square foot per plant, I give eggplants four square feet per plant. They seem to need the wider spacing to fruit well.

Other nightshade family plants: I’m growing Everona Large Green tomatillo and Cossack Pineapple ground cherry. In both cases I’m only growing two plants and giving each plant four square feet of space. Both are sprawling plants whose fruits fill a small but appreciated niche, so two plants of each is plenty.

Lettuce: besides Bronze Arrow, Anuenue, and Pablo, all varieties that I find have good taste and good yield and bolt late, I’m trialing Kalura to replace Jericho as a green romaine lettuce. My major change with spring lettuce is to grow only 16 full-sized heads, so that we might manage to eat them all before they bolt. For fall, I’ll try raising seedlings in the basement under lights and then plant out the seedlings. I’ve had little success with direct-seeding in August because the soil is too warm for seed germination. September seeding is too late for good growth because of the rapid fall cool-down we experience.

Broccoli: I’m growing four plants of an open-pollinated variety new to me, Limba. Broccoli works best for me as a summer green vegetable. It’ll be composted when it comes time to plant fall crops.

Cabbage: I’m growing four plants of a main-crop cabbage, Golden Acre, that has performed well for the past few years, as well as two plants each of two late varieties that are reputed to store well, Danish Ballhead and Premium Late Flat Dutch, which I am trialing against each other and Golden Acre. All of these are old, open-pollinated varieties. The major question is if the late cabbages can survive our long, hot summer.

Other cabbage-family plants: I’ll grow the proven Prize Choy bok choy in spring and fall (I may start the fall crop in the basement along with the lettuce so it can grow to full size). For fall greens and roots, I’ll grow arugula, two storage radishes (Red Meat, a beautiful round radish with a red skin and green interior, and a daikon, Miyashige), two mustards (Osaka Purple and Purple Rapa Gene Mix), Purple Top White Globe turnip, White Russian kale, and Alabama Blue collard. All these crops do well for me when direct-seeded in late July to mid August. The kale, collard, and the Purple Rapa Mix mustard are new varieties for me. I'm interested to learn how they taste and yield and how long they survive into late fall or winter.

Onions, leeks, and garlic: I’m growing the same two medium-day onion varieties that I grew last year, Bronze D’Amposta (red) and Australian Brown (yellow). Both had good yield and flavor; both stored well, with the red onion storing a few weeks longer than the yellow (we ate the last red onions in April). I’m also growing the same leek as last year, Giant Musselburgh. All three were started from seed in late February and planted as seedlings. I'm also growing the same three varieties of garlic as last year: one softneck (Inchelium Red), one rocambole (Kaskaskia Red), and elephant garlic.

Carrots, beets, parsnips: I’m growing the usual orange carrot, Danvers 126, and a red carrot, Red Samurai, to trial against the orange carrot for flavor and yield. As I noted above, I’ve finally had success in germinating a parsnip, Andover from Fedco. Now we’ll see how it does in our long, hot summer. I’m growing Cylindra, a cylindrical red beet that does well for me.

Peas: I’m growing a shell pea, Little Marvel, and a snow pea, Oregon Giant, both of which I’ve grown before and like. Their bed is the only one on which I did not press the hoe handle into the soil before planting. It could be that fact, or it could be the cold weather after planting in late March, that made for spotty germination of both varieties. I added more seeds a few weeks ago and got a few more plants, but the bed is still spotty. We like peas well enough that I’ll let them produce instead of planting the pole beans early into those areas (the  pole beans will be planted after the peas finish).

Green pole beans: I will trial two of these, Musica and Potomac, growing them at opposite ends of the bed so they will be less likely to cross. Musica is a flat-podded type while Potomac has round pods. I’ll also grow a yard-long bean (called that, but it’s actually a vining cowpea), Red Noodle, that has red pods. These will be planted after the peas finish, to bear in fall.

Sunflower: I’m trialing a short variety suitable for snack or oil use, Sunseed, with the hope that I can reach the heads and net them to keep the birds and squirrels from eating the seeds before they are ready for harvest. Wish me luck on this one!

Squash family: I’m planning to grow two varieties of cucumbers, Homemade Pickles and Arkansas Little Leaf H-19, to trial against each other; two varieties of melons, Green Machine and Hannah’s Choice; the usual zucchini, Costata Romanesca, and the usual winter squash, Butternut. What is notable here is that I’m trying melons once more (I’ve yet to have success with them but I like them enough to keep trying) and one of them, Hannah’s Choice, is a hybrid. It’s possible that the vigor of the hybrid will help me to achieve melon success. I’m considering trialing some hybrids in the cabbage family next year as well. I don’t have enough space to grow enough plants for most squash or cabbage family crops to keep a variety pure, so I may as well trial hybrids against open-pollinated varieties.

Corn: I’ll grow the popcorn variety that I received from a local farmer and have saved for over a decade. Popcorn seems much less attractive to four-legged critters than any other kind of corn that I have grown.

Dry beans: I’ll grow Midnight Black Turtle, a variety I received from the same farmer who gave me the popcorn.

Black-eyed peas (cowpeas): I’ll grow Queen Anne, a variety I’ve had success with in the past.

Sweet potatoes: I’ll grow Hernandez, Ginseng, and O’Henry. I’ve grown and liked O’Henry so I will be trialing the former two varieties against it for yield, flavor, and storage ability. I’ll also see if I can raise my own slips from the stored potatoes.

I’ll post preliminary results as I have time and a final report in fall or winter. In the meantime, I plan to take up the human-powered tools discussion again, as well as anything else which suggests itself whenever I have time to write.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A tale of two gardening methods

After my last post a gardening mentor contacted me with some suggestions on how I could improve my gardening practices (many thanks to my mentor!). As a result I’ve revisited the discussion on soil re-mineralization in Steve Solomon’s book The Intelligent Gardener (TIG), comparing it to the gardening method espoused by Ecology Action in the eighth edition of John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV). In this post I’ll discuss what I’ve learned and how I will respond.

As part of my overall goal to grow a complete diet in a small area I have dedicated the last two years to developing a better understanding of my garden soil and its contribution to the goal. To do that I take soil samples at the end of the gardening season and have them analyzed for a range of major and minor nutrients and certain other parameters that affect crop growth. With the results from the analysis and using the information on soil mineral balancing in TIG I develop a plan to add organic fertilizers to the soil to address any deficiencies found by the soil test. By keeping track of how each crop that I grow fares over the course of the season and comparing that to how that crop fared before I began to re-mineralize the soil in 2013, I can determine what, if any, positive changes occurred as a result. I take the soil samples at the end of the growing season instead of shortly before it begins because my soil often does not thaw before early March, yet I should be planting spring crops as the month ends. Taking the samples in early March leaves insufficient time to prepare and mail them, have them run and receive the results, analyze the results to determine the soil prescription, and purchase and receive any needed fertilizers in time to add them to the earliest plantings.

The soil sample taken at the end of the 2014 gardening season shows calcium and magnesium at their target levels, compared to the deficiency of calcium and excess of magnesium found in early 2013 before two years of re-mineralization. In TIG Solomon notes that soil with a proper ratio of these two minerals has better structure. I felt that for myself when digging beds for the summer crops in 2014. Soil that had been quite sticky before is now easy to dig using an ordinary shovel and my middle-aged muscles. I can dig a 100 square foot bed in 1 1/2 hours versus around 4 hours before re-mineralization.

When my mentor contacted me I had worked out a fertilizer mix to re-mineralize in 2015. After sharing that information and the soil test results with him, he made some suggestions for my consideration. One of them was to add manganese sulfate to parts of the garden but not to others, to see if a deficiency in manganese relative to iron might be affecting certain crops.

The more important information he shared regarded nitrogen. As organic matter is eaten by the soil microorganisms, they release nitrogen in a form that plants can use. My mentor felt that many plants would grow better if they received more nitrogen than was present in the organic matter already in the soil and the compost and fertilizer mix that I had applied in 2014. Because I live in an area with hot summer days and nights, which leads to high microorganism feeding activity and rapid depletion of their food sources, the amount of cottonseed meal I included in the 2014 mix did not provide enough nitrogen for the needs of many crops. In 2013 I had added three quarts of cottonseed meal to each 100 square foot bed per the discussion in TIG. That at least doubled the amount of nitrogen available in each bed compared to using only compost, and yields increased in many cases. But I had been concerned about creating a dependence on imported nitrogen. In 2014, accordingly, I reduced the amount of cottonseed meal I added by 1/3, to two quarts per 100 square foot bed, while keeping the amount of home-generated compost constant. I noted that yields went down for many crops compared to 2013. My mentor suggested using four quarts of oilseed meal in the 2015 fertilizer mix as well as the 1/4 inch thick layer of compost that I normally add to keep nitrogen levels high enough for strong growth.

He also pointed out that because I have light soil (TCEC less than 10), meaning not much clay or humus present in the soil to hold onto the minerals that I apply to it, I might try side-dressing long season crops such as fall cabbage, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn with another dose of the fertilizer mix every 6 weeks or so. TIG uses the analogy of clay and humus as the soil’s pantry. My light soil has a small pantry, insufficient to provide mineral meals to crops that remain at the dinner table for a long time. Occasional replenishing of the pantry will keep them growing strongly the whole season. Accordingly my mentor adjusted the quantities of soft rock phosphate and potassium sulfate for the 2015 fertilizer mix about 1/3 lower compared to what I had calculated. Lower-demand, short-season crops should still receive enough minerals to yield well. The long-season, higher-demand crops will get what they need with the extra dose of minerals and nitrogen from side-dressing. Assuming all else is equal, therefore, I hypothesize that by using the modified complete fertilizer mix on all beds and adding another dose to the long-season crops about 6 weeks or so into their season, yields of most crops, especially the long-season, higher-demand crops, should increase in 2015 versus 2013 and 2014.

HTGMV’s gardening method, which I had attempted to follow for over a decade, emphasizes growing grain crops in about 60% of the garden space. The grain crops provide two yields important to the method: the straw, which provides the carbon needed to produce enough compost to spread a layer 1/4 inch deep on the entire garden, and concentrated calories for the gardener, in the form of the seed grain. The grain crops, as well as special root crops that yield well and have a high amount of calories for their weight, form the backbone of a garden grown according to this method. HTGMV emphasizes this calorie gardening and its focus on increasing the weight per unit area obtained from these crops because of its concern with increasing human population and decreasing area of farmlands. Growing a higher yield on a smaller area addresses both of these concerns.

When I read the material on potassium in TIG, however, I began to wonder if HTGMV’s method might have a flaw that they do not acknowledge. TIG points out that the least expensive way to increase agricultural yields is to increase the amount of potassium in the soil relative to the other minerals that plants use. A potassium-rich soil can grow plants with high amounts of the carbohydrates, sugars, and fats that provide calories. However, other minerals are required to make the proteins, enzymes, and vitamins that we need for optimum health. In Solomon’s opinion, if potassium is just a little bit scarce relative to the other major and minor plant nutrients, the yield (weight per unit area) of the food grown will be somewhat reduced, but the plants will make the highest concentration of nutrients in proportion to the calories they contain. Hence he targets for less potassium relative to the other nutrients in order to grow nutrient-dense food. Nutrient-dense food, he feels, makes for healthier people, so he is willing to trade off some yield in order to grow the most nutrient-dense food that he can.

A goal common to both gardening methods is to build and maintain what each considers to be the proper levels of and balances among soil minerals. To do that you need to know what the levels of the various minerals are and, if they are not in balance, how to safely move them in that direction. Accomplishing this goal begins with collecting soil samples and sending them to a soil testing service. Gardeners often submit soil samples to their state extension service, but extension services typically provide only a restricted amount of information on the minerals in highest quantity. Thus both HTGMV and TIG recommend dedicated soil testing services for soil mineral analysis. Timberleaf Soil Testing, the soil testing service recommended in HTGMV, requires the purchase of two different test suites on each sample, the Basic Soil Test and Trace Mineral Soil Test, to obtain levels of all the minerals tested for by Logan Labs, the testing service recommended in TIG, at more than twice the cost of testing done by Logan Labs. The Basic Soil Test that you must buy from Timberleaf includes several other kinds of tests that are not mentioned in TIG or done by Logan Labs, one factor in the increased cost. Another part of the increased cost is accounted for by Timberleaf’s also providing some individualized information on what kinds and how much fertilizer to use to bring the soil into balance as well as individualized information related to the parameters they test for that Logan Labs does not. Logan Labs does not provide any soil information beyond the levels of the minerals, the soil pH, the organic matter level, and the TCEC, nor does it provide information on how to remedy the deficiencies in the cost of its basic test. However, someone who wants to follow the re-mineralization program in TIG but does not feel confident enough to convert Logan Labs’ soil test results into amounts of fertilizer to use to remedy deficiencies can subscribe to OrganiCalc at $9.50 per year to obtain that information. Put the cost of Logan Labs’ soil test and a one-year subscription to OrganiCalc together and you have still spent less money than the equivalent tests and information from Timberleaf.

HTGMV and TIG differ in the depth of their discussions of soil fertility and the range of potential materials with which to remedy patterns of deficiency and excess. The discussion of soil fertility in HTGMV is brief and sketchy, compared to the extensive and detailed discussion in TIG. HTGMV does not discuss what the target levels of each nutrient should be and that information is not provided on Timberleaf's website, while TIG discusses two different sets of mineral targets and why a gardener might choose one over the other. Further, compared to the wide range of potential nutrient sources given in TIG because of differing soil types and resultant patterns of mineral deficiencies and excess, HTGMV offers a very restricted range of nutrient sources to remedy deficiencies. Many organic fertilizers that were recommended in earlier editions of HTGMV are no longer recommended “because of potential problems with disease, pesticide residue, or heavy metal toxicity” (page 74). Unfortunately, that leaves out inexpensive and readily available sources of organic nitrogen such as oilseed meals and a wide range of fertilizers approved for organic farms to address differing soils and their needs. TIG acknowledges that oilseed meals from conventional farms may contain traces of pesticides and may be produced from genetically engineered seeds. All of us need to examine the various factors pertinent to each fertilizer material that might be appropriate for our soil and make the best choices we can from the limited information we have available. TIG prefers to offer a broader range of potential fertilizers, allowing us to weigh the choices involved and then make our own decision on what to use.

Suppose we find that we need to import a range of organic fertilizers and oilseed meal to up nutrient levels enough to grow nutrient-dense crops as described in TIG, or the more restricted range of fertilizers and nitrogen sources that HTGMV recommends to fulfill whatever its soil mineral target levels are. Both methods have as a goal importing the fewest resources from outside the garden and say that following their method will move garden soil in that direction over a period of years. Both methods have as a goal growing good yields of high-quality produce. Is there a basis for making a choice between them? I cannot give a definitive answer to that question although the discussion above highlights some of the factors that I think are relevant to that choice. As I’ve noted before, I only had one soil test done on my potential garden space in the decade I’d been gardening it before beginning re-mineralization. While I’d been following various aspects of HTGMV’s method, I had not done it as rigorously as they suggest; I never followed all the steps in the same year. I haven’t used Timberleaf’s soil testing services so I don’t know how its target levels and results might differ from Logan Labs’ and TIG’s. What I do know is that after over a decade of imperfectly following HTGMV’s method, yields were declining in many cases and none were increasing. Insect pressure and disease problems were increasing for some crops. After two years of following TIG’s method imperfectly (not giving long season crops sufficient nitrogen), insect and disease pressure has declined and yields have stayed the same or increased.

Ecological sustainability, a concept at the heart of HTGMV, needs to be understood in the broadest possible way. Focusing too intently on growing the most food in the smallest possible space as the answer to the problem of increasing human population and decreasing farmland area may not allow us to consider how everything interacts to produce that food and the impact that food has on our health. For instance, if we are producing less nutrient-dense food as a result of focusing excessively on increasing yield (weight per unit area), we may need to eat more of that food in an attempt to obtain the nutrients we need. If that’s the case, even if someone following TIG does not obtain as high a yield as someone following HTGMV, the latter may find she needs to increase the size of her garden in order to eat the same amount of nutrients as is produced by someone following TIG’s method on the same soil.

Considering the discussion above, I plan to optimize yield and nutrition by following TIG’s method as well as I can over the next several years. TIG suggests that as the soil minerals approach closer to the target levels, it might be possible to greatly reduce outside inputs while maintaining mineral levels and balance. After just two years I have been able to reduce additions of calcium and sulfur. As I learn how much it will be possible to reduce inputs to my own soil I will also gain enough information on yields obtained from this method to begin to sketch out minimum-area garden plans that will work for our soil and climate. And, of course, I’ll post what I learn here.

Discussions of garden methods have their place -- and so do concrete plans. In the next post I’ll discuss the concrete details of new tools, new procedures, and new crops for the 2015 garden.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What I learned from my garden in 2014

Two years ago, John Michael Greer posted A Wish List for Krampus to his blog TheArchdruid Report. After describing three technologies that he suggested would make the transition to a post-industrial, low-energy future a little less difficult, he asked his readers with scientific and engineering backgrounds to make suggestions of their own. To offer extra motivation, he set up a contest: formulate a post discussing a problem we’ll need to deal with or a solution to one of the challenges facing us as we undergo energy descent, post it by November 1, 2013, and he’d consider it for inclusion in a book of the best such entries. We, his readers, called it the Krampus contest after the post’s title.

Around this same time I was considering a worrisome trend in my vegetable garden. For the past few years I had noticed declining yields and an increase in pest and disease issues. I wanted to understand what had happened and what needed to change. With the Krampus contest as motivation it was a good time to re-invigorate my garden and my gardening practice by applying the scientific method to this challenge and and showing other people how they might do the same. Since I’d been working with Ecology Action’s method of gardening for over a decade and had David Duhon’s book One Circle which proposed sample minimum-area plans to produce a complete diet on a backyard scale, I could grow the crops featured in the plans to find out how well the proposed plans met the conditions, personal and environmental, that I deal with. Since I suspected that one cause of my garden’s languishing might be an imbalance in the soil mineral profile, I had a hypothesis to test, and with the help of Steve Solomon’s newly published book The Intelligent Gardener and a soil test I would know how to re-balance the soil minerals. Not only would the yield data that I collected help to determine if a complete-diet garden could be grown in the greater St. Louis area in the space suggested by Duhon, but by showing my work -- by using the scientific method to formulate a hypothesis about soil re-mineralization and then testing the hypothesis against the data that I gathered -- I could become a better gardener and show other interested gardeners how to do likewise. And in the process, I might improve the garden soil, the vegetables that I grew from it, and the health of the two people eating those vegetables.

This post was my entry for the Krampus contest. This post applied the same method to the other crops that I grew in 2013. While the contest did not elicit enough entries for the book to be pursued, taking part in it proved valuable to my gardening practice. Thus I continued my gardening science project in 2014 with new hypotheses and promised to publish yield data and evaluate the results at the end of the growing season. It’s that time, and here they are.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the scientific method, it starts with a problem that you’d like to solve. In my case, I want to know if either or both of two of the complete-diet garden plans that Duhon proposed in One Circle can be grown successfully here; more specifically, can I obtain the required yields for each plant in the garden designs? In order for the gardens to be grown in the space Duhon allots for them, the yield (weight per unit area) of each crop grown in them has to meet Ecology Action’s mid-range yield. Most of the crops I had grown had not achieved this yield most years, thus the specific form of my question.

In order to apply the scientific method to my question, I put it in the form of hypotheses, statements that can be evaluated by data such as yield (weight per unit area) of the harvest, insect damage, and taste which I collected for each crop that I grew. Gardens are living systems so the garden and the larger living system in which it is embedded asked and answered some of its own questions. As a gardener-scientist, my task is to look at the data that I collected, not only in light of the hypotheses I formulated to guide the work, but also to understand the questions that the garden asked and answered and how those interacted with the hypotheses. Doing this well will allow the garden and me to work together to grow delicious food in a way that respects the soil and its life, the lives of the other beings that share this bit of land, and the larger cycles that the land and its inhabitants participate in.

Let’s look at some natural events that shaped the garden in 2014. Our last spring frost occurred on April 15 and the first fall frost occurred on November 1 for a growing season of 198 days, about average for this area. April, May, and June were warmer and wetter than normal while July was cooler and drier than normal. August overall was warmer and wetter than normal; however, while the first half was cooler than normal, the second half (and the first week of September) brought the hottest weather of the season. Once the heat passed, the rest of the growing season was cool and wet. Before factoring in any of my own questions, then, we can hypothesize that weather conditions in 2014 might favor spring and fall crops over crops that require a long period of hot weather and might favor crops that prefer wetter over those that prefer drier growing conditions. We can also hypothesize that crops that compete well against disease might be favored over crops that compete less well against disease, since wet growing conditions tend to favor many diseases that affect vegetable crops.

Besides the weather factors, some personal factors affected my gardening in 2014. As I noted in this post, I spent more time at lawn-mowing during May and June than I have done in previous years. This reduced the time I spent weeding to the point where some of the spring crops failed from being out-competed by weeds. The increased weed growth required me to spend more time than usual preparing each bed for cropping, slowing down planting, until around the end of June when I learned how to use a scythe to hack off weedy growth rather than trying to hoe off tall weeds. Then I found out that I could dig the root-filled bed much faster with a shovel than with a broadfork. However, soon thereafter I spent three weeks away from home on family business. By the time I returned home at the end of July, I faced garden triage. I responded by ensuring that the full-grown spring crops needing harvesting got it and that the fall crops got planted, thinned, and weeded on time, leaving the long-season summer crops that I had managed to plant to face the weeds on their own and leaving the remainder unplanted for lack of enough growing days left for them to mature.

Because I suspected that my garden soil was not properly balanced for minerals and that the imbalanced minerals might be a major factor reducing the yields I have been able to achieve, I have focussed on evaluating how yields have responded to efforts to properly balance the minerals in the soil during the past two years. The hypotheses I made for the 2014 garden before the season began, based on my continuation of the soil re-mineralization work, were:
            1. Pest and disease pressure will be no worse in 2014 than in 2013;
            2. The taste of those varieties that I grow every year will show further improvement over that observed in 2014; and
            3. Yields will increase, or at least not decrease, for those varieties that I have grown in the past.
In each case a positive answer would suggest that soil re-mineralization had a positive effect on that particular crop. If enough crops responded positively I would consider continuing with the soil re-mineralization program in 2015. If, however, some or most of the answers were negative I might reconsider if soil re-mineralization would be beneficial in 2015. Note that I need to account for any effect of the weather and personal factors on yield as well. All these factors will figure into the discussion of individual crops and the overall results.

I also performed small trials for some crops, in some cases testing different varieties, in others different spacings, to look at how those changes affected yields and tastes. I’ll also mention what I learned from these trials in the write-up for particular crops.

In Table 1, below, I give the 2014 planting data for the crops that are included in two prototype garden plans that provide a complete diet from the book One Circle; they are in turn based on the work done at Ecology Action and described in their popular gardening guide How to Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV). The first two columns show the crop and the variety grown. Because the garden plans in One Circle depend on the methodology and crop spacing in HTGMV, I have included the spacing suggested by HTGMV for each crop in the third column. The fourth and fifth columns indicate the spacing I used and the date of planting for the year in which I obtained the highest yield for that crop prior to 2014. This data is important because in nearly every case I grow at wider spacing and in a square or rectangular grid rather than HTGMV’s triangular grid and because planting at the optimal time is required to obtain the highest possible yield. I used the highest previous yield I’ve obtained in order to assess the hypothesis about yield changes resulting from re-mineralization.

I also grew a number of other crops, because we and many other people like them and because some of them may eventually become part of my own complete-diet garden plan when I have enough reliable yield data to make an attempt at a design. Table 2 shows the same information as Table 1 for these other crops.

Table 3 gives the yields, in pounds per 100 square feet, that I obtained for the crops included in the northern version of One Circle’s complete-diet garden plan. The assumed yield in the second column is from One Circle and corresponds to the mid-range yield given in the HTGMV edition in print at that time. Duhon assumes that a gardener of intermediate skill who follows HTGMV’s method should be able to obtain the mid-range yield. Thus he uses the mid-range yield to derive the area required for each crop in his complete-diet plans. The third column is the best yield I have obtained for that crop before 2014; the fourth column is the 2013 yield; and the fifth column is the 2014 yield. Where necessary I have shown the variety for which I obtained the measured yield. 

Table 4 gives the yields for the crops included in the southern version of One Circle’s complete-diet plan. 

Table 5 gives the yields obtained for all the other crops I grew in 2014 that were successful. For the crops in Table 5 the assumed yield is the mid-range yield from the 8th edition of HTGMV.

With all this data at hand, let’s look at the hypotheses I made before the growing season began, to see how the garden answered my questions.

1. Pest and disease pressure: as in 2013, I noticed little of either, remarkable for a year in which disease pressures would be expected to be high due to excessive rainfall and humidity for almost the entire growing season. One variety of tomato, ‘Rose’, succumbed to disease in August, but all plants of each of the other three tomato varieties remained alive and producing until the first fall frost. All the pepper plants remained alive and producing till frost, as was true in 2013 and a marked change from high pepper plant mortality for a number of years preceding 2013.

2. Taste: I did not notice any further taste improvement in 2014 for those varieties that I grow every year - but neither did I notice any worsening of taste.

3. Yield: this is dependent on a multitude of factors considered in the posts describing the 2013 results. Among these are weather, soil moisture, spacing, mineral levels, weed pressure, pest and disease pressure, planting date, and variety grown. While some of these are within the control of the gardener, some of them are not. Some of those that could be controlled might not be controlled for various reasons, such as the personal factors that affected my garden this year. Assessing the yield hypothesis, then, requires a close examination of the planting information, the yields obtained, and the weather and personal factors that might have affected each crop. Thus I’ll discuss each of the crops that I grew in 2014 separately, starting with those in Tables 1, 3, and 4 (the crops used in One Circle’s complete-diet garden plans) and then those in Tables 2 and 5 (everything else I grew in 2014).

Garlic: note that the yield of the variety grown in both 2013 and 2014, ‘Inchelium Red’, increased by a factor of 3 in 2014 versus 2013 and is now the same within experimental error as the best yield previously obtained. I consider this as a yes answer to the yield hypothesis because my care of the garlic patch differed little in the two years and weather patterns were favorable both years. Note that a different kind of garlic first grown in 2014, elephant garlic, yielded at One Circle’s assumed level despite the wider 6” plant spacing I use. I do not know if elephant garlic has a similar nutritional profile to other kinds of garlic, but I do know that we liked its taste as much as ‘Inchelium Red’. I plan to grow a larger area to elephant garlic in 2015 for further evaluation.

Sunflower seeds: the crop failure was due to too-old seed not germinating. I plan to grow a small area in sunflowers in 2015 but will need to consider how to protect the seeds against bird and squirrel predation.

Potatoes: although the growing season was favorable for temperature, excessive rainfall, excessive weediness, and a late harvest may have reduced the 2014 yield. In addition, the latest revision to Steve Solomon’s soil re-mineralization program, available here, suggests that the soil for growing potatoes might need to be balanced differently from the rest of the garden. I will consider doing that in 2015. I found it surprising that the closest spacing produced the best yield, but then again the best yield I have ever gotten (for a different variety) was for the even closer HTGMV spacing. This suggests growing at the 12” spacing in 2015. I might trial another late-season variety against ‘Elba’. It’s worth noting that ‘Elba’ stored very well; the potatoes remaining at the beginning of December were as firm and tasty as those we ate just after harvest. I stored them in an open bushel basket in the coolest, darkest part of the basement.

Onions: the 2014 growing season weather was favorable for onions, plus I chose intermediate-day varieties (a better match to 39N latitude than long-day onion varieties, I suspect), planted them at the right time, weeded them a couple of times before I had to attend to family business, and harvested them at the right time. The yields of both red and yellow onions were double that of 2013’s red variety. While still not close to the assumed yield, at least it has improved. If I planted at the closer HTGMV spacing the yield might improve further but the extra time required to plant and weed at such close spacings makes that impractical in my opinion. The yield of potato onions also improved in 2014 versus 2013 for the same spacing and now meets the best previous yield. Thus the yield for potato onions answers yes to the yield hypothesis, while the yield hypothesis cannot be assessed for red and yellow onions because I grew different varieties in 2014 versus 2013. We liked the taste and size of both the red and yellow varieties and they are storing well with very few lost to rotting or sprouting; they will become my new standard bulb onions.

Turnips: the much higher yield for 2014 compared to 2013 is most likely due to the better fall growing conditions and more timely planting, thinning, and weeding in 2014 versus 2013. While the 2014 yield is still below my best yield, the best yield was obtained with rows grown half the distance apart. It may be worth doing that in 2015.

Parsnips: the crop failure in 2014 appears to have been due to low germination in the seeds used. I tried a different seed supplier for some of the biennial crops I grew in 2014 and noted poor germination in many of them. I will use a more reliable seed source for this and other biennial crops that I grow in 2015.

Sweet potatoes: this crop failed due to excessive weed pressure choking out the crop. I did not weed them at all, not noticing that the plants grow slowly at first and need to be weeded until they are well established.

Peanuts: this crop failed due to rabbits eating it while I was out of town.

Leeks: the seeds arrived too late to start in a flat and had to be direct-seeded to the garden, with spotty germination the result. I also let them get too weedy over the summer. Still, the yield was about the same in 2014 as in 2013, which at least does not negate the yield hypothesis. Because of the spotty germination in 2014 and the wider crop spacing I cannot compare the 2014 yield with the best yield I had previously obtained for this variety.

Looking at the crops in Tables 2 and 5, among those whose yield improved in 2014 compared to 2013 are arugula, sweet peppers, winter radish, and winter squash. In the case of arugula and winter squash, the 2014 yield also exceeds the previous highest yield. The 2014 yield for hot peppers also set a new record but that variety was not grown in 2013 so the yield for those two years cannot be compared. Some crops yielded about the same in 2014 compared to 2013; these include cucumbers, the spring crop of ‘Bronze Arrowhead’ lettuce, spring and fall bok choy, and snow peas. All these crops either support or do not contradict the yield hypothesis.

Now let’s look closely at the crops which appear to contradict the yield hypothesis, to see if other factors from the 2014 growing season can account for the reduced yield compared to 2013.

Of these, tomatoes stand out. The yield in 2014 was about half that of 2013. I think this can be explained by the cool, wet July and early August weather, conditions less favorable to tomatoes. The yield for both varieties in 2009, another year with a cool, wet summer, was the same within experimental error to the 2014 yield, while the yield for 2012 for ‘Arkansas Traveler’ was a little higher than that for 2013, a year with a similarly hot and dry summer. Thus I suspect that the reduction in yield for 2014 versus 2013 was largely accounted for by the difference in weather conditions. (For the paste tomato, the very high yield in 2012 may have been due to caging rather than staking the tomatoes. Caged tomatoes generally yield more per unit area but shade neighboring crops more.) The new variety I tried, ‘Pale Perfect Purple’, looked good and tasted good, but not good enough to earn it a permanent spot in my garden.

For broccoli, my 2014 planting plan was too complex; I found it difficult to tell what variety most of the plants were once they grew large enough to touch. While I was away I told Mike not to record the harvest data, since he would be unable to attribute it to the right variety. The 2014 broccoli yields are too low due to this error, thus the yield hypothesis cannot be assessed. Nor can I assess differences among the varieties.

For bok choy, all the plants of the ‘Chinese’ variety bolted in spring before they achieved any size. ‘Prize Choy’ plants also bolted but later, after they had sized up, so they provided usable food at about the same yield as in 2013. A couple of the fall-planted ‘Chinese’ variety also bolted but none of the ‘Prize Choy’ plants bolted; yields were about the same within experimental error. I’ll continue to grow ‘Prize Choy’.

For spring lettuce, ‘Anuenue’ bolted before I could harvest half of the heads, compared to 2013 when I harvested all the heads before they bolted. Checking weather data for both years during June, the critical month for the lettuce harvest, both years were wetter than normal; however, for temperature, June 2013 was average while June 2014 was warmer than normal. Thus, weather may account for the lower yield. I found that ‘Jericho’ tip-burned too much, thus I will not continue growing it. We liked the butterhead lettuce I grew, ‘Butter King’, and I may grow it again next year. The highest-yielding lettuce in 2014 was ‘Pablo’; as a pretty, long-standing lettuce with a good flavor, it has earned a space in my garden. I think reducing the growing space for spring lettuces to half that of 2014 will result in a much higher proportion of lettuce eaten before it bolts.

The fall lettuce garden failed. There was little germination and rabbits ate what few plants grew. I rarely have success with fall lettuce seeded directly to the garden, probably because the soil is too warm in August. In 2015 I’ll try sowing seeds for the fall crop to a flat held in the basement in early July, bringing the sprouted plants out to a shady location to grow on and planting decent-sized seedlings to the garden in August.

The weather patterns noted above for spring lettuce may have affected cabbage similarly. For both 2013 and 2014 ‘Golden Acre’ cabbage yielded twice as much as ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ and was ready to pick at about the same time. Thus I’m switching to ‘Golden Acre’ for summer cabbage. For fall cabbage, ‘Early Flat Dutch’ started on April 10 and transplanted to the garden on April 22 with just two true leaves resulted in excellent heads harvested during the second half of August, a time when I had no other leafy greens available. I’ll grow it again and may try an even later variety as well.

For the peas, I think not weeding before or after planting reduced the potential yield in 2014. Pre-sprouting the peas helped (I may not have gotten any peas without those extra few days to grow through the weeds) but the support system I tried did not seem very effective. I have an idea for a better support system to try in 2015.

For zucchini, I think I grew more plants per unit area in 2013 than in 2014, but I did not note that specifically on the data sheets I keep for each crop. I need to keep closer track of how many plants I grow per unit area for these and winter squash. Also, zucchini may have been negatively affected by the cool, wet conditions of July and early August when most of its fruits set, while the winter squash, which was planted later and flowered later, may have benefitted from the warmer conditions of the second half of August and early September.

For squash, I only planted ‘Waltham Butternut’ as I ran out of time to prepare the bed for the other variety I planned to grow. And I did not plant the squash until much later than I had planned. Even so, the yield beat the previous best and the quality of the squashes is excellent.

For cucumbers, the trellising system seemed to perform well enough, but I think I can improve it in 2015. The melon crop failed yet again; the vines succumbed before they ripened a melon. I did not have time to prepare the area that was to grow the watermelons.

For popcorn, the yield in 2014 will be poor. Because I did pre-planting preparation on three different days but planted all the beds on the same day, the effects of excessive weed pressure are apparent. In the bed prepared first the weeds had almost a week’s head start on the popcorn seeds, while I planted the bed prepared last on the day after it was prepared, with the middle bed in between. I did not weed any of the beds all season long. The result can be seen in the photo at the top, in which the harvest is grouped by the bed in which it grew. The largest harvest by far is from the bed planted a day after preparation (the group of cobs on the far left), with the smallest harvest from the bed planted a week after preparation (the group of cobs on the far right). This is a clear indication of the negative effect of excessive weed pressure on yield and overwhelmed the influence of any other factor on the yield for popcorn. Similarly, I did not weed the dry bean bed at all after planting the seed and its yield is likely to be negatively affected, based on the volume of the harvest compared to the volume from past harvests. I did not grow black-eyed peas or soybeans due to running out of time to plant them while there were enough days left in the season to grow them.

For winter radishes, I grew at double the row spacing in 2014 and planted three weeks later compared to the previous best year, so it is not surprising that the 2014 crop did not manage to attain the previous high yield - but it did beat the 2013 yield, which I suspect is primarily due to favorable fall weather and timely weeding and thinning (the same factors that resulted in the high yield for arugula). I did not anticipate that daikon radishes would yield so much better than ‘Red Meat’. I’ll still grow ‘Red Meat’ because it is both pretty and tasty, but I will also grow daikon radishes. I’ll also strive to plant both kinds of radishes earlier as this might be key to obtaining higher yields.

The eggplant, carrot, and beet crops failed due to weeds shading them out. All three of these crops grow slowly and need timely weeding to produce well, which I did not provide. Rutabagas grew well until late summer, when they rotted. They probably need to be planted in late July so that they mature in cooler fall conditions.

Overall, then, it appears that soil re-mineralization had enough of a positive effect on enough crops that I will consider continuing re-mineralization in 2015. Putting the results for both 2013 and 2014 together and combining that with some other changes in the garden and my gardening practice since the beginning of the project suggests I’ve learned some things pertinent to the larger goal of growing a complete diet in a sustainable way that I will discuss in the next post.