Thursday, March 7, 2019

What the 2018 garden told me

The vegetable garden shivers under snow.

Hello to all! It’s time to share with you what I learned from my garden in 2018 so that your gardens might benefit.

As I say at this time each year, whatever I attempt to learn from the garden takes place within a much broader conversation, that of the garden with the weather systems and other beings which affect it. With that in mind, let’s look at the weather during the 2018 growing system to learn how it affected the garden as a whole and the plants that grew in it. The following is based on the St. Louis NWS’ annual climate report for 2018, supplemented with my on-site observations. (To read the climate report, click on Local under the Climate heading at the bottom of the St. Louis NWS site. On this page, click on the radio button for Annual Climate Report under Product and Archived Data under Timeframe, and then choose January 1st, 2019 if it’s not already highlighted. Clicking the Go button will bring up the 2018 report.)

When I tell people about the weather in St. Louis in 2018, I say that it was the year with no spring and no autumn. I don’t mean that March through May and September through November didn’t exist; they happened here at the same time as they did everywhere else in the northern hemisphere. Nor do I expect long stretches of near-average temperatures in either season in this part of the US as these seasons usually feature wide and rapid swings in temperature. But there wasn’t much swinging of temperature in either season in 2018. Instead, the weather seemed to lock into either winter or summer for most of both. April was a continuation of March weather-wise while May took June’s place and June acted like a month-long extension of July. September through the first third of October acted like a continuation of August, with the rest of October taking the place of November and November behaving like December. I don’t know who stole spring and autumn, but my garden and I missed them.

The last frost in 2018 came late, on April 20. The garden received well over normal rainfall in May, somewhat less than normal in June. All else being equal, then, I would expect that crops favoring cool weather would yield less in 2018 than in years with more typical spring weather.

In autumn, the first low temperature under 40F / 4C didn’t occur till October 12, later than usual, and there were only three days with low temperatures under 50F / 10C before this. However, the first frost followed rapidly on October 16, with the first freeze occurring on October 21, and three days of measurable snowfall by November 15. Furthermore, we received little rain after a drench of 3.1 inches / 7.9 cm on September 9. All else being equal, this suggests the likelihood of lower than normal yields for the autumn crops which I plant in August.

With a growing season from April 20 through October 16, and with plenty of hot weather and good rains during May to establish the crops that like heat, it would be reasonable to expect good yields from those crops, assuming I planted and cared for them properly.

The yields I obtained in 2018 are shown on the next four figures.

The first thing I notice when I look at the data is that the only crops in which the yield approached or exceeded the best previous yield were arugula, cucumber, daikon radish, winter squash, and the paste tomato. Of these, two are autumn crops (the arugula and the daikon radish) and three are summer crops (the cucumber, winter squash, and paste tomato). The only spring-planted crop that approached the best previous yield was one lettuce variety, and in most cases the yields of spring crops were well below the best previous.

The low yields of the crops favoring cooler spring weather, whether direct-seeded or transplants, are easy to understand. To begin with, not only was March cold, but it was also cloudier than average. Because I start my seeds on our solar-heated sun-facing front porch, a cooler and cloudier than normal March, the month I start seeds for transplants, slows down their growth. Because it was so cold during April, I wasn’t able to plant these and the direct-seeded crops until late April to early May, two to three weeks later than I prefer to plant them. Then the heat of May and June adversely affected their growth, as well as that of the potatoes, the one spring crop that I planted on time. I wasn’t the only one having trouble with spring-planted crops; the Missouri Extension reported that farmers across the state suffered from poor yields in crops like broccoli. (None of my broccoli plants headed out; all I harvested was a few meager side shoots.) The only pleasant surprise was the good performance of the romaine lettuce ‘Kalura’, which has become one of the two consistently good performers among the lettuce varieties I’ve tried.

With the generally favorable summer weather, the lackluster performance of the peppers, blackeyed peas, and zucchini needs an explanation. The zucchini plants made plenty of zucchinis; however, they made too many of them while we were out of town for a week or so. When we returned, the patch had gone feral, producing at least nine 3 to 6 pound monster zukes that proved inedible; I only reported the weight of those zucchini we could eat. I planted the blackeyed peas too late; when frost came, the plants were loaded with immature pods. As for the peppers, their seeds require very warm conditions at sowing time in March in order to germinate and grow. Even with a heat mat under the flat, the porch proved too cold an environment for good pepper seedling production. I re-seeded both pepper varieties on March 27, and even then did not raise as many seedlings as I had space allotted for in the garden. Then most of the plants succumbed to disease in the unrelenting heat. The only problem with the ‘Arkansas Tomato’ tomatoes was that we were out of town during part of the first flush of ripe fruits (my neighbor, whom I’d given permission to harvest ripe tomatoes while we were away, told me she’d gotten quite a few of them). Some of the ‘Old German’ tomatoes suffered from sun bleaching but otherwise it’s proven to be a beautiful and good-flavored tomato, and ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato again impressed with its taste and yield. We liked the ‘Mitoyo’ eggplants better than any others I have grown so far, and they yielded well for being so widely spaced.

As for the fall garden, the excellent yield of arugula may have to do with my planting only one short row of it rather than two, so that we harvested and ate almost all of the arugula. I’m not sure why the daikon radishes grew so well; maybe I happened to thin them just right. Still, I consider the fall crops a success because all of them, even the lettuce, grew from direct-seeding, a much easier way to grow crops at this time of year compared to growing transplants. I froze the lettuce seeds for several days before planting, as suggested by some garden writers. Perhaps that’s what made the difference with them, as I had not been able to raise lettuce from direct-seeding in August before. I was also pleased with the Chinese cabbage variety, which grew fast enough to head up before it got too late in the season.

Regarding other new varieties I tried, the ‘Garnet Butter Gem’ lettuce looked pretty and tasted good, but it was small and an early bolter. The ‘Lorz Italian’ garlic out-yielded ‘Inchelium Red’, tastes as good, and has lasted as long in storage. Of the two bell-shaped sweet peppers I trialed, only ‘Ozark Giant’ fruited, and it made only two peppers (but they were large and tasty). Fortunately, the dependable ‘Italian Frying’ peppers again proved their worth, and I got enough peppers to save seeds for this year’s crop, though not without drama associated with needing to re-seed them in order to get the six seedlings that I planted into the garden (as opposed to the eight seedlings I had intended to plant). Beyond the problem with cold conditions during seed germination, the seed was too old to germinate well. I’ve learned that I must save seeds of peppers every year; they do not last long under my storage conditions (an unconditioned basement). It might be worthwhile to store just the pepper seeds in the refrigerator in order to keep them viable for longer.

The fourth figure gives the total weight for the vegetables and the popcorn that I harvested in 2018 as 391 pounds, almost equal to 2016 (392 pounds) but much less than in 2017 (536 pounds). Why so much more in 2017? It could have been because of better weather, but it could also have been because among the commercially grown seedlings I used that year were some hybrids that benefited from hybrid vigor, along with other possibilities I haven’t considered.

The fourth figure also gives the weight of various fruit crops that I grew in 2018. The beds for the raspberries and strawberries are within the same fenced area in which I grow the vegetables and corn; the trees are scattered across the rest of the property. I tried using tomato cages to hold up the raspberry canes last year, to keep them from shading the crops in the beds on either side. While some of the cages tipped from the weight of the canes and will need to be staked or replaced, the cages did corral the canes that I allowed to grow within them, reducing the shading that raspberry canes have caused in the past and making it easier to harvest the berries. I had to spend time hoeing or pruning out canes that grew outside the cages and push canes back inside the supports as they grew, but I felt the effort was worthwhile.

In general, 2018 was a good year for fruit crops, despite the frosts and freezes in April. The apple, pawpaw, persimmon, and strawberry yields were much higher in 2018 than in 2017, plus I harvested some ripe apricots and peaches, and would have gotten more of each if we hadn’t traveled when most of them ripened. The chestnut yield was much less in 2018 versus 2017, possibly due to a tendency to biennial bearing. As the apple, pawpaw, and persimmon trees mature, I can probably expect more fruits each year. The peach tree may be nearing the end of its lifespan, but it continues to bear, though squirrels usually get the crop before it ripens.

I had intended to write a post following the May 21 post last year about the experiment I ran on the popcorn beds. The writing fell by the wayside, but I did perform the experiment. Because this post is long enough already, I’ll discuss it in a separate post. Till then, may your gardens grow well in the coming year!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Garden conversations for 2018

After a very cold April turned into a very warm May, the lilac, redbud, and dogwood bloomed at the same time, something I have not seen in past years. This photo was taken on May 4.

As promised at the end of the last post, I’ll discuss here the conversations I’ll be having with my garden in the 2018 growing season. But first, this post will be interrupted for the following announcement.

Once again Mike’s and my yard will be a destination for this year’s Sustainable Backyard Tour. As the website for the Tour puts it, “A sustainable backyard offers the opportunity to provide food for our families, wildlife habitat, relaxation and visual appeal, all while minimizing impacts on the environment and the communities in which we live.”

The event will take place on Sunday, June 10 from 11am to 4pm at sites throughout St. Louis City and County plus a few others elsewhere in the metro area. To find out more about the Sustainable Backyard Tour and how you can register as an attendee, click on the link in the previous paragraph. The tour is free and the people I’ve met on past tours seem to get a lot out of it.

We now return you to your irregularly scheduled post.

Now that I’m in the sixth year of the soil re-mineralization program described by Steve Solomon in his book The Intelligent Gardener, I have gained a good feel for the garden’s soil as well as the size of garden I can handle and a suite of well-performing vegetable varieties and when and how to plant and care for them. This year, then, besides testing a few new varieties and methods of growing some of the vegetables, the focus of my garden science will begin to shift to look more closely at different materials I might use to re-mineralize the soil.

Before that, however, I wanted to mention some of the new varieties and growing techniques I will try in 2018 in case they may be of interest to you.

Of new varieties, I’m trialing ‘Garnet Butter Gem’ lettuce, a butterhead, against our staple ‘Bronze Arrowhead’ oakleaf lettuce and a romaine variety, ‘Kalura,’ that has performed well in the past few years. ‘Lorz Italian’ garlic is going bulb-to-bulb with ‘Inchelium Red,’ a variety I feared I might lose after last year’s dismal harvest, but to my surprise and delight is growing strongly after surviving a miserable winter and early spring. Later this summer I’ll try again to grow ‘Hilton’ Chinese cabbage for autumn (last year’s seedlings died before they could be planted). I’m growing ‘Arkansas Traveler’ tomatoes from purchased seed again (I’m not sure how true-to-type my saved seed is) and also ‘Cherokee Purple’ and Old German’ based on the excellent tomatoes we picked from purchased seedlings of these varieties last year. If they are as good again I’ll save seeds from them. I’m trying a different eggplant variety, ‘Mitoyo,’ said to be a regional Japanese variety, because Mike likes the Japanese types of eggplants.

I hope to replace the seemingly underperforming open-pollinated sweet bell pepper varieties I’ve grown before with bell-shaped varieties that can keep up with ‘Italian Frying,’ an open-pollinated sweet pepper of bull-horn shape and excellent yield and taste. (I don’t know what its real name is. Many years ago Mike and I bought this sweet pepper from a local grower, and I saved its seeds and have grown it ever since. But I haven’t seen the grower since so I couldn’t ask him its name. Thus, I named it for its shape and its thin walls, typical of a frying pepper.) The two bell peppers I’m trying this year are ‘Ozark Giant’ and ‘Jupiter.’ With those names, each has a reputation to live up to.

Speaking of the peppers, the very cold and cloudy conditions during March and April played havoc with raising seedlings. As I have since 2012, I raised all my seedlings on the enclosed sun-facing front porch, which I have added drums of water to so that it can passively absorb and store solar heat, as I described here. By March, which brings increased day length and a higher sun angle as we head toward the vernal equinox, the porch generally works very well as a greenhouse. Most seeds can be started in flats placed on the floor, with the seeds needing the warmest temperatures, peppers among them, started in flats placed on a heat mat. But the porch needs sunlight to work properly; we don’t provide any extra heat to it. In March, the monthly average sky cover was 7 (0=no clouds, 10=complete cloud cover), with only 9 days of average daily cloud cover 0 to 5, and the monthly average temperature of 43.1F was 3.2F below normal. Many of the seeds I sowed didn’t germinate at all, and others were slower and germinated at a lower percentage than usual. Fortunately, most of the vegetable seeds did fine, but peppers were the exception. I had them on the heat mat as usual, but it didn’t seem to be able to warm the bottom of the flats enough to compensate for the cold air and lack of sunlight. April proved March’s equal for cloud cover and was even colder relative to average than March was (it was the 4th coldest April on record in the St. Louis area, according to the St. Louis NWS office). While I suspect the main culprit in this year’s poor seedling crop was the weather, it’s possible that the seeds I used for some of the crops may have died. I don’t replace all seeds every year (most seeds live anywhere from 2 to 5 years or more) and those I planted fell into accepted standards for age, but it may be that storage conditions caused the seeds to die prematurely. At any rate, I redesigned the two flower and herb beds (I’ll discuss these more below) to hold purchased seedlings and perennials. I tossed the seeds that didn’t germinate to the birds and will replace them with fresh seed next year.

I was especially concerned about the ‘Italian Frying’ pepper seeds because they dated from 2015. Pepper seeds seem to have a rather short period of high viability, only about 2 years under my less than ideal storage conditions in the basement. Because of this I had planned to save seeds from this pepper in 2017 for future crops. But the life I mentioned in the previous post put paid to raising any seedlings in spring of 2017, so I could not replace the 2015 seeds with a fresh crop. When I sowed the ‘Italian Frying’ seeds from 2015 this year, I sowed extra heavily, fearing that germination would be low. It was worse than that; only one seedling had resulted from the March 6 sowing by March 27. So I sowed them again. And it turned out OK; between a straggler or two from the first sowing and a few seedlings from the second, I managed to raise 6 seedlings of this pepper. Not the 8 seedlings I planned space for, but it means I shouldn’t lose the variety, because I can save seeds from these plants for future years. But it reminds me that annual crops can be a precarious business. It’s good to save some of your own seeds, but don’t forget to support the companies that offer seeds grown by small breeders and farmers. The more people and farmers are raising any one variety, the more likely it is to remain available to all of us. Any of us can lose a variety through life issues, and I am not out of the woods with my favorite ‘Italian Frying’ pepper until I have a packet of seeds set aside from this year’s crop.

One other effect of the especially cold weather in March and April is that it delayed getting the garden started. It’s May 21 and the pepper, tomato, and eggplant seedlings still haven’t been planted, whereas I usually plant them around May 1. This has the advantage of giving the pepper seedlings time to grow large enough to withstand attack from damping-off fungus when I plant them. But I should put cutworm collars around them when I plant them as they are small enough to be subject to cutworm attack.

Also concerning the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, I plant them in a separate bed to make it easy to rotate them throughout the garden, to help reduce the effects of disease on them. In the past I have tried to grow basil, calendula, and zinnias interspersed with them. But all of these grow too tall and wide in the well-amended soil. This year I intend to grow only quite short flowers in between the vegetable plants, in the hope that the flowers might draw pollinators and cover the soil between these vegetable plants without interfering with the growth of the vegetables.

This year I’ll be growing popcorn to replenish our popcorn supply. The last time I grew popcorn I noted that it didn’t yield as well as it had in the past and wondered if it was suffering from inbreeding depression. If I get low yields again this year and other factors don’t readily account for it, then I will be certain enough of inbreeding depression to have to take some kind of action the next time I grow popcorn.

Since I decided last year not to grow sweet potatoes again, I redesigned some of the garden beds. However, I didn’t do the best job of it that I could have, because I didn’t place the peas in the bed with the spring lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and bok choy. Had I done that, the peas would have been planted in late April when the soil temperature was about right for them. Instead, they were planted on May 8 which began a stretch of July-type temperatures, much warmer than peas like. But since the pea seeds did not germinate I will use their space for a second sowing of zucchini and cucumbers, which should provide those crops for a longer period of time. And I can do the same after future pea crops die, as there is plenty of time left in the growing season for good crops of these.

Meanwhile, the flowers and herbs that I didn’t plant in the tomato/pepper/eggplant bed, and more besides, have been planted in the two beds that also have the towers on which I am growing pole beans. Last year I only cultivated the portion of each of these beds that held the pole bean towers. This year I am putting all of these beds into plantings. I can space the herbs and flowers more widely in these beds and grow more varieties of each than by trying to interplant them in the vegetable beds. The beds won’t need any added minerals because they retain some from previous years, and they should help to support pollinators. In addition, I relocated some perennial native plants that had grown into the mowed paths around the bed into these two beds. In this way I can save them and then replant them into other parts of the yard next year.

I mentioned in the previous post that two crops, raspberries and blackeyed peas, flopped over onto the crops planted next to them. To prevent this from happening I am trying support systems. For the raspberries, I have put a tomato cage over each clump, as shown in the photo below.
The raspberries inside the tomato cages are in the middle of the photo, with one of the herb/flower beds in the front and the strawberry bed between them.

As the canes grow, the tomato cage should keep them contained within their allotted three-dimensional space. To do this, I remove canes emerging from the clump that I cannot guide into the support as well as the offsets that branch off of the clump and put up new shoots away from it. Because I had extra tomato cages, it didn’t cost me anything but the time I put into setting up the cages and pruning the canes to fit within them. So far the cages are working as I envisioned; it’ll be interesting to see what the yield of raspberries is when they are caged compared to when they are left mostly to their own devices. 

For the blackeyed peas, I’ll try using pea fences to keep them contained.

As I mentioned above, now that I have learned how to re-mineralize the soil to produce consistently good yields of vegetables, I am beginning to consider ways in which I can replace some of the minerals added that I now purchase with sources available within the boundaries of the yard. Rather than stretch out this post, I’ll take a closer look at what the soil has told me over the past five years in the next post and what I have on hand that might be able to replace some of what I typically purchase. In the meantime, I’ll concentrate on putting the rest of the garden in and readying it for show-and-tell on June 10.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The 2017 garden: small is bountiful

Plum tree blooming on April 6, a week or two later than usual.

2017 was a year that didn’t go according to plan, and thus neither did this blog. However, I’m back to the blog now and intend to continue making posts on an irregular basis. And that means it’s time to report on what the garden told me in 2017.

I had expected to raise seedlings in February and March of 2017 for spring planting as I have in past years, but life had other plans. It’s easy to find vegetable seedlings for sale if you don’t care about what varieties you buy. I had to make do with what they had for sale, which for the most part did not match what I wanted to grow.

The most important question I asked the garden to answer was how much I could raise in 1,024 square feet of bed space. That includes 100 square feet planted to strawberries and another 100 square feet planted to raspberries, with the remainder in vegetable, root, and grain crops. Over the past few years the area devoted to food crops grew larger than the amount of time I wanted to spend on it, plus I grew more than we wanted of some crops. The 2017 garden area was about half of the 2015 garden area. I also asked the blackeyed peas to tell me if I could grow them on much less cottonseed meal (an organic source of nitrogen) than I use for vegetable beds, and the pole green and yard-long beans if I could grow them on no soil amendments at all, as part of my long-range goal to reduce inputs I need to obtain from outside the yard. I also got a new human-powered garden tool in 2017, a Hoss wheel hoe, that I hoped would make some of the work of preparing and weeding garden beds easier on my body, and I bought two bean towers to grow pole beans on.

One other change I made was to replace the fence around the entire garden area. In the post on the 2016 garden, I discussed how my removal of fencing around part of the garden and the creation of a brush pile near it allowed for continual rabbit raids on garden produce. Before the 2017 gardening season began, I re-used the best of the old fencing to fence in the garden. Remembering how much easier it was when I could bring a garden cart up to the bed I was working on, and how much easier it was to maintain the path area when I could bring a mower up to it, I put in a gate. It isn’t elaborate; as you can see from the picture below, it’s just two panels held between closely spaced posts. I can lift or slide the panels to make a large enough space between the posts for the cart, lawnmower, and wheel hoe. It works very well!

The garden gate: the two panels at center left.

However, after I planted the lettuce seedlings, I again found rabbits in the garden, eating the lettuce. We hadn’t had time to mulch the brush pile; in fact, it had grown during the year. The rabbit resort residents had figured out how to break into their dining hall. Chasing one of them, I noted it leapt through the wide openings at the top of the fencing. After pondering on the situation, I realized I had enough old fencing left to turn it upside down and attach it to the existing fencing. The small openings on the outer layer would then cover the large openings on the inner layer, preventing rabbit access. With that change in place, the rabbits found other food sources easier to access, and we ate lettuce, carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes in 2017. Last autumn I finally hired a tree service company to shred the rabbit resort and scattered seeds of native flowers where the resort had been, to provide food and shelter for pollinators. I expect less rabbit predation in 2018, though the cover afforded by the tall native plants may attract more rabbits to the area near the vegetable garden in future years.

The 2017 growing season weather

As I’ve noted before, the highly variable nature of weather in the US Midwest makes it a major factor in what my garden can provide. For this reason, I’ll recap the weather and suggest how it affected the crops that I grow.

Spring 2017 was warm and very wet. The last frost date, March 16, was two to four weeks earlier than usual. I did not have my rain gage out in early April, but the St. Louis NWS official station is only a few miles away so it is a good proxy. It received 10.37 inches of rain in April, almost 4 inches above normal! April was warmer than normal as well. May also featured above-normal rainfall of 6.7 inches and warmer than normal temperatures. Seedlings planted in those months did very well, but seeds planted in the wettest weeks rotted. Luckily conditions improved later in May and early June when I planted the corn and bean seeds.

We received 2.8 inches of rain in June, 4.2 inches in July, and 2.9 inches in August; between the rain and some supplemental watering, moisture proved sufficient. June was a little warmer than normal, July much warmer than normal, and August a little cooler than normal. The cooler weather in August made it easy to get direct-seeded fall crops started. The heat and humidity of July were hard on crops like peppers, cucumbers, and zucchinis but other summer crops grew and produced well.

Autumn conditions turned quite dry, with only about 0.3 inches of rain in September, though we got close to normal rainfall in October at 2.8 inches. While September started cool, with the morning low already down to 48F on the 2nd, the second half of the month featured an impressive heat wave to end the month at above-normal temperatures overall. October was warmer than normal until about the last week, with the growing season coming to an abrupt end on October 29 with a hard freeze of 25F. The dryness and heat did not favor fall crops. I concentrated watering on the tomatoes, leaving the fall greens, lettuce, and root crops at the mercy of the heat and dryness.

The 2017 results

Despite my disappointment at not being able to grow some of the varieties I wanted and the disruptions due to various aspects of life, it was a good year. I harvested over 500 pounds of vegetables, roots, and dry beans, about 33 pounds of dent corn, and 30 pounds of berries in the 1,024 square feet of fenced-in garden space, in total the best yield I’ve obtained. The blackeyed peas did fine on reduced nitrogen, the pole beans did fine without any amendments at all, and the wheel hoe proved its worth in reducing the effort and time required to prepare beds and weed paths and beds with widely-spaced crops.

I’ll discuss each crop briefly below. Following that is the table of results for 2017, from which the crop vignettes are derived. The left side of the table shows the crop, variety, date planted, and yield in pounds per 100 square feet for the best previous year. The right side of the table includes the same data for 2017 plus the area I planted and the weight I harvested out of that area. 

Potato onions, garlic, and leeks: the aforementioned life conspired to prevent me from removing the mulch on these crops till early April, about a month later than is ideal. While the elephant garlic leaves grew through the top of the mulch, most of the ‘Inchelium Red’ garlic and potato onion leaves were unable to grow through the mulch before they exhausted their food stores. As a result, the elephant garlic yielded well but the other garlic and the potato onions yielded poorly. I ended up with a lower weight of potato onions than I planted the previous autumn, not exactly sustainable. Fearing that I would lose the ‘Inchelium Red’ crop altogether, I purchased a new garlic variety, ‘Lorz Italian,’ to plant in fall 2017. As it turned out, I had enough ‘Inchelium Red’ to plant some of it as well as the ‘Lorz Italian’ and elephant garlic for 2018. As for the leeks, the blackeyed peas planted in the bed to their south flopped onto them in late summer, killing some of the leeks and checking the growth of the rest. At least we got enough for two batches of leek-potato soup.

Bok choy: I didn’t find seedlings for this crop at the nurseries I visited in the spring and the seeds I direct-sowed failed to germinate, so I grew it only in the autumn. Its low yield relative to the best year can be attributed to excessive heat and dryness and no supplemental watering, and possibly also to some shading from the corn crop in the next bed to the south. In addition, one of the four plants I grew died before harvest.

Spring-planted cabbage and broccoli: the broccoli planted at one plant per square foot yielded over twice that planted at one plant per four square feet and beat the previous best yield to boot. As for cabbage, the unlabeled but probably hybrid variety I planted in 2017 failed to out-perform the heirloom ‘Golden Acre.’

Fall-planted cabbage family leaves and roots: most of these were adversely affected by the hot, dry weather, my not watering them, and perhaps excessive shading from the corn plants in the next bed to the south of them. In addition, I neglected to thin the direct-seeded root crops, which reduced their yields compared to the best of previous years. In spite of the difficult conditions, the kale and arugula yielded as well as the best previous fall-grown crops, while the mustard greens yielded only about half of the best previous (a different variety, so that may have had an effect).

Lettuce: I didn’t find any seedlings of any of the varieties I like to grow for the spring crop, instead choosing to buy an unlabeled frilly red lettuce. It didn’t yield that well and we preferred the tastes of all the varieties I grow compared to the red frilly variety. Surprisingly, since the heat and dryness of autumn killed some of the seedlings after I planted them, enough survived to match the best yields I’ve obtained previously.

Carrots and beets: while the beets yielded a little better than the best previous yield, the ‘Danvers 126’ carrots suffered from poor seed germination due to too-old seed. The ‘Cosmic Purple’ was a free package from one of the seed companies I ordered from, and its seeds germinated much better. It wasn’t a bad carrot, either.

Potatoes: both of the two varieties I grew yielded well. I preferred the taste of ‘Yukon Gold.’

Cucumbers: I had difficulty getting them to germinate in the excessively wet soil of early May. When I finally got them to grow, they grew well enough until the heat wave of July broke their spirits. But at least we got enough to enjoy fresh cucumbers and to make some pickles.

Winter squash: not only does ‘Burpee’s Butterbush’ taste as good as ‘Waltham Butternut,’ but it yielded 2 1/2 times better and is a smaller, easier to manage vine. And for the first time, I got several ‘Kakai’ pumpkins with mature hull-less seeds, the feature I grow them for. All told I grew about ¾ pound of seeds, which I roasted and eat as snacks.

Zucchini: we got a decent yield of these, though like the cucumbers they didn’t care for the excessive heat and humidity they experienced in July, the vines dying by the end of the month.

Sweet potatoes: ‘Hernandez’ yields well and the voles left us most of the crop, but its vines crawled through the two corn beds to its north, and it grew small tubers into both of those two beds as well as the one I planted it into. We aren’t fond enough of sweet potatoes to eat that many, and they require more effort to harvest than any other crop, including potatoes. I won’t grow them again, preferring to use that space for something we like better.

Sweet peppers: despite the heat and humidity, ‘Better Belle’ yielded respectably and tasted good as well. It appears to be a hybrid seed according to results from the search I did on it, so I couldn’t save seeds from it if I could find them for sale. Nor did it out-perform the best yield I’ve obtained from the ‘Italian Frying’ seeds I’ve saved for years. ‘Gypsy,’ a pepper that I think was bred for cooler summers, performed poorly in my garden. I didn’t grow any hot pepper varieties in 2017.

Tomatoes: all four of the varieties I grew yielded well. Oddly, the label on the ‘Arkansas Traveler’ tomatoes I bought claimed them to be hybrids, while the seed companies I buy the seeds from label them as open-pollinated, and I have saved and re-grown those seeds myself. The tomatoes from the seedlings I bought didn’t look quite the same as those I have grown in the past, nor did they seem to taste quite as good, so it might be that there are two different tomatoes out there with this name. If so, I prefer the heirloom version I’ve grown in the past. ‘Cherokee Purple’ was every bit as tasty as Carol Deppe says it is, and ‘Old German’ tasted good enough to grow again, plus its yellow fruits with red stripes looked appealing next to the pink and purple fruits of the others. ‘San Marzano’ is a widely available paste variety that yielded almost too well.

Pole beans and vining cowpeas (aka yard-long beans): the bean towers proved their worth, as they made it easy for me to find and pick the beans off the plants as they grew up the strings. I had to drive a stake next to one tower and tie the tower to the stake to keep the tower from leaning after strong winds pushed it partway over. I also planted the beans earlier than in the past and was rewarded with higher yields despite not amending the soil they grew in at all. I’ll keep growing them this way as long as the yield holds out.

Cowpea/blackeyed pea: the variety I grow is supposed to have short vines, but they seem rather long to me, and the seed company I bought them from says the trade allowed the vine length to increase. As noted in the entry on leeks, the vines crawled into their bed, and also crawled up the raspberry canes on the other side. For all that, I doubled my previous best yield, and this with very little added nitrogen. Better growing conditions? Earlier planting? I don’t know enough to say, but I’m in favor of it.

Dent corn: this yielded almost twice as much as in 2016, perhaps in part due to being planted earlier. This variety makes a good-flavored corn mush, so we can eat it for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Good thing; it’ll take us awhile to get through last year’s and this year’s crops.

In the next post I’ll discuss my plans for 2018’s garden and what has happened so far.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

2017 Sustainable Backyard Tour

Hi everyone! I've had some life happen in 2017, so I haven't checked for comments or had a chance to complete and put up a post for several months. That should change within the next few weeks, unless more life decides to happen.

In the meantime, the 2017 Sustainable Backyard Tour will take place across the St. Louis metro area this coming Sunday, June 11, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. This event is free and once again Mike's and my yard will be on the Tour. Click here to register for the tour. Ours is one of the two yards in Spanish Lake. Hope to see a few of you next Sunday!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The 2016 garden: what the rabbits taught

Is this rabbit looking for someplace to eat or someplace to hide?

Once again, it’s time to look at the lessons that the garden and its residents taught me during the past year. You can check this post for basic information on how I listen to what the garden tells me and how to conduct a dialogue with your own garden.

When you do garden research, consider posting your results to the Internet, as I’ve done here. This will help gardeners in your own region know what varieties work well, how to grow them, and how much to expect to harvest.

2016 weather

Midwestern gardeners learn early on that our changeable (read: weird) weather is a garden force to be reckoned with. Assuming I do everything correctly on my end - and for “assume”, you know what to read -  the weather becomes the major determiner of what the garden produces. And a good indication that I didn’t do everything correctly is unusual results given the weather during the growing season. So let’s first look at 2016’s weather and make predictions based on it.

The biggest weather challenges of 2016 were the excess heat, especially in autumn, and heavy rains in July and August. While the growing season was only a little longer than normal (the last spring frost was on April 9 and the first fall frost was a week or two later than usual, occurring on November 13, for a 218 day growing season), it was distinguished by its warmth. The St. Louis NWS site says that 2156 cooling degree days accumulated in 2016 (all but 8 of these during the growing season), a total of 516 more than normal, and more than any year in the last two decades or so except for 2012. More importantly for the garden, the heat was accompanied by high rainfall during July and August. A combination of high heat and humidity in July and August often causes tomatoes and peppers to succumb early from disease. The only two drier than normal periods were in mid April and in June. September and October were both much warmer than normal, a situation that usually reduces yields of the fall greens and roots, which need cooler conditions to do their best. Looking at weather and nothing else, I would have expected good to excellent yields for most spring and summer crops (excepting peppers and tomatoes) but somewhat lower yields of fall crops compared to past years.

Changes made in 2016

As I noted in this post, I made some changes to the garden in 2016. The most far-reaching changes were the removal of fencing around two of the three sets of vegetable beds and follow-on effects to obtaining a chipper/shredder. Other changes will be mentioned in the vignettes on individual crops.

2016 garden results

The four figures at the bottom of this post show the results I obtained for most of the crops that I grew in 2016 in comparison to the best yield I have obtained in the past for that crop. The five leftmost columns give the particulars for the year in which I obtained the best yield, while the six rightmost columns give the information for 2016.

Look at the Comments column on the first three figures and the Notes on figure 4 and you’ll quickly see what I meant by the title of this post. While removing the fencing around two of the three sets of beds did make it much easier to work in the garden, it also allowed rabbits access to crops that in their opinion I had planted for their benefit. I didn’t have to guess that rabbits were responsible, either. I caught the floppy-eared rascals in the act of eating.

It so happened that Mike and I made an addition to our garden tool inventory early in the year that contributed to the rabbit raids. Because I planted a lot of trees and shrubs on our property, and trees and shrubs need pruning, and the prunings pile up, and the pile of prunings represents a resource not being used, we purchased a used wood chipper/shredder. We held one shredding session in February, producing a gratifying amount of wood chips from a large pile of prunings. But I don’t enjoy using powered machinery, and the chipper/shredder is worse than most in the amount of noise that issues from it and its potential for mayhem. So after that one big shredding session, I started another pile of prunings, telling myself we’d wait till I finished pruning before we operated the chipper/shredder again. Well, by the time pruning was done, it was time to prepare beds and plant. And prepare and plant more beds. And weed. And plant. And harvest. And so on ... and I kept adding branches to the pile from summer storms and from shrubs we removed to make room for a back porch addition. And the growing pile was only about 6 feet (2 meters) or so away from the garden.

The pile of prunings on an icy winter day. Just beyond is the garden. The blue tarp is smothering grass where new garden beds will be dug in 2017.

Now if I’d read the third revised version of The Wild Mammals of Missouri last spring (alas, it wasn’t yet available), I would have realized that I was creating a four star rabbit resort. Rabbits enjoy living under thick brush piles because most of their many predators cannot get to them there. Couple the secure rabbit residence with a bountiful buffet (aka vegetable garden) just a few steps away, and the rabbits not only made themselves at home but also invited all their relatives and friends to join them for extended stays. Many times I watched rabbits I flushed out of the garden dart into the pile of prunings and thought longingly of rabbit stew. I’m of German ancestry and grew up on the German version, hasenpfeffer; it’s one of my favorite foods. But it wasn’t hunting season - except for the rabbits, who were happily engaged in hunting down and eating all the produce they could stuff into their bellies.

After the rabbits taught me what I’d done, I pondered how to respond. I could have re-fenced the beds. But by that time I knew I’d be changing the configuration of the beds for 2017. Any fencing I put up would have to be removed and replaced before the next growing season, something I preferred to avoid. I’d also grown to like not stepping over a 30 inch (0.8 meter) tall fence to get into the garden, and being able to bring a lawnmower and a garden cart right up to the garden beds. So I tried using repellent around the spring greens and roots and around the peas, to make those areas smell like predators instead of food, and caging the peppers, eggplants, and sweet potatoes with the same cylinders of hardware cloth that I place around saplings to protect them from rabbits. While my attempt to protect the spring lettuce crop succeeded, it was too little, too late for the beets, carrots, and peas. I was able to protect the new sweet potato plants while they took root, but as soon as the vines started crawling out of the cylinder, the rabbits ate them. And although the peppers and eggplants eventually recovered from their rabbit pruning, the lost growth time, coupled with disease-inducing heat and humidity that killed the pepper plants early, reduced the pepper yield drastically, while some critter, I don’t know what, ate each of the few eggplants that formed a day before I deemed they were ready to harvest. Score it Rabbits 1, Gardener 0 for 2016 for these crops.

As you’ll see from the figures, not all of the crops were eaten by rabbits. I’m not sure if they don’t like those crops or if they took pity on the poor incompetent human and left them alone in an act of rabbit charity. At any rate, you can find the overall weight of vegetables, beans, and grains that I harvested in 2016 on the third figure near the bottom right. It amounts to about 57% of 2015’s yield. If you think I’m disappointed by that, you have another think coming, as my mother would say. In fact, except for the crops that the rabbits ate, the yields we got matched better with how much we wanted to eat and how much we were able to preserve for later than did the 2015 yields. Nevertheless, I think there is room for improvement, especially now that we have obtained a small chest freezer that allows us to freeze more of what we cannot eat.

And now, here’s what I learned from the rest of the crops that I grew.
    Onions: after another disappointing year for red onions contrasted with harvesting more than enough potato onions to last us until the next harvest, I have decided to stop trying to start, plant, and grow red onion seeds in sub fluffy optimal conditions. Potato onions rule!
    Garlic: I have concluded that rocambole garlic and the Midwest are not meant for each other after yet another disappointing year (data not shown in the figure). I’m sticking to ‘Inchelium Red’ and elephant garlic from now on.
    Bok choy: four plants are plenty for the two of us at the yields I’m now able to obtain. And don’t try to tell me that bok choy can’t be grown successfully in the spring; check out the yield of spring-planted bok choy for proof that it can be.
    Broccoli: hybrid vigor is supposed to lead to improved yields for cross-pollinating crops like broccoli, but 2016’s hybrid broccoli variety ‘Tendergreen’ seems not to have gotten the memo. However, planting issues (too much shading from nearby crops) may have been a factor.
    Fall-planted cabbage family crops, leaves and roots: as I predicted, yields of all of these, except mustard greens and daikon radish, were lower in 2016 than the best past year. For kale, another factor besides the heat was larger spacing between plants in 2016 compared to 2015.
    Lettuce: once I protected the spring lettuce, it rewarded me with excellent growth. May’s warm, wet weather gets most of the credit for this. But the rabbits got back at me in fall. They did seem to turn their noses up at ‘Bronze Arrowhead’ lettuce in favor of the other varieties, something those of you who garden with rabbits might find noteworthy. The humans in this house, on the other hand, like ‘Bronze Arrowhead’ just fine.
    Cucumbers: I grew them on a trellis, which made them easier to find and harvest. We’re still eating some pickles that Mike made from them.
    Butternut squash: the rabbits left these alone - but I wouldn’t want to bite through a prickly squash stem, either. If I hadn’t let the area in which the squash were growing go to weeds so I couldn’t see them, thus causing me to cut most of them to shreds with the lawnmower, we would have enjoyed more squash than we did. At any rate, the seed catalog was right: as delicious as ‘Waltham Butternut’ is, ‘Burpee’s Butterbush’ is better.
    Peppers: once again the hot pepper variety proved to withstand the disease that attacked the sweet pepper plants, thus only the hot pepper plants made a respectable yield.
    Tomatoes: had most of the tomato plants not died early from disease, yields may have set new records. But the excess soil moisture level seemed to reduce the taste of all the tomatoes even as it bulked them up. ‘Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye’ tasted good, different from ‘Arkansas Traveler’, but we thought it wasn’t up to the superlatives heaped on it in the seed catalogs. However, it might taste much better in a drier summer since it was developed in California.
    Beans: to keep the rabbits from eating the seedlings, I chose to plant pole beans and vining cowpeas among the corn plants, which were growing in the remaining fenced area. I didn’t expect a high yield due to competition from corn and both varieties met that expectation. I also found them hard to pick as they got above my head, and they made it harder to harvest the corn. But at least we got something to eat from these, unlike the snow and shell peas.
    Blackeyed peas: I planted them in an unfenced bed and protected the bed with repellent when the seedlings were small. Whether it was due to the repellant or to rabbits not favoring blackeyed pea plants if they can get something better (and they could), we got a respectable yield.
    Dent corn: because I planted this into the fenced-off area, I don’t know if corn plants are on rabbits’ menus. But the corn ears have been on some critters’ menus in past years. This year, however, either the critters were gone, or their attention was elsewhere, or they just don’t like ‘Blue Clarage’ corn and so I got enough corn to be worth the time and space it required.
    Potatoes: remember I mentioned the lack of rain in mid-April? This was right after I planted the seed potatoes. Apparently my attention was elsewhere, probably on the rabbits, thus I neglected to keep the bed moist enough. Close to half of the seed potatoes failed to sprout. Memo to me: don’t forget to water the seed potatoes if the weather turns dry!

In the next post, I’ll turn my attention to plans for the 2017 garden. Some things, they will be changing ...

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Meet the Scrapers: reducing energy use on the cheap

In the last post I discussed the actions Mike and I took toward reducing our energy usage and showed how our usage changed as we took those actions. But your situation is different from ours. What might be a sensible order in which to take steps to reduce your own energy usage?

In this post I’ll look more closely at how a financially strapped family could choose which actions to take and in what order to take them so that the savings from actions taken earlier finance actions taken later on. Even better, the energy savings will continue past the end of the work, yielding further savings that can be used for other purposes.

Allow me to introduce you to our family. Call them the Scrapers, because they’re just scraping by. The Scrapers consist of two resident adults (the RAs) and two children (Cs). If you’re in a single-adult household, and/or you have a different number of children than the Scrapers, and/or you have multiple adults living with you temporarily or less so, make whatever mental adjustments you need as we look over the Scrapers’ shoulders to see how they planned and acted their way to significant reductions in energy use.

The Scrapers’ RAs have become at least as tired of watching money leaking out of their household as they’ve become at their feet complaining about the ever-present cold draft every winter, so they’ve been looking for ways to plug the leaks. Through their research they’ve realized that one way to cut expenses is to take more control of how much energy they use to heat and cool their dwelling, to power all the various appliances they use, and to heat their water. They’ve also learned that some of those changes would reduce the cold drafts that cause their feet to talk back at them. But how to fund some of those changes? They are finding it difficult to pay bills as it is.

The RAs mull over the possibilities. Finally one of them has an insight: hey, some of the changes we could make are free! How about we start with those? After awhile, we’ll have saved some money that we could apply toward making a change that would cost money at first but save even more money later on. Then we can put some of those savings toward the next purchase, and so on. The other RA says: brilliant! Let’s make a plan. So the RAs put their heads together and, over a period of time, work up a list of actions they might take. While the Scrapers didn’t do this, we, looking over their shoulders, could organize their list of actions into four categories:
    Demand reduction: use less
    Loss reduction: keep it around longer
    Source substitution: do it differently
    Efficiency improvements: do it more efficiently

The Scrapers begin with some free changes, which fall into the demand reduction category. Their list of possible actions looks like this:
    Turning the lights off unless someone is in the room.    
    Taking fewer and/or shorter showers.
    Doing fewer loads of laundry.
    Changing the dishwasher setting to air drying.
    Lowering the temperature setting on the hot water heater.
    Changing the thermostat setting (lower in winter, higher in summer).
    Turning off the TV(s), radio(s), and/or computer(s) when they’re not in use.

After some discussion, the Scrapers decide to start with a slow change in the thermostat setting. It’s heating season when they begin, so they turn the thermostat for the furnace 2F lower. Somewhat to their surprise, the RAs find they barely notice the change ... each adds a sweater or sweatshirt to what they usually wear at home and they are good. The Cs are pickier, complaining about being “too cold,” but after they are reminded that they too have sweaters/sweatshirts they can wear on top of what they are already wearing, and the RAs standing firm against further complaints, the Cs grumpily acquiesce. The RAs also lower the hot water heater setting to about 125F rather than 140F and change the dishwasher setting to air drying. Over the course of the winter they effect another 2F lowering of the thermostat and begin to slowly change their, and the Cs’, patterns around the other items on the list. They also manage to increase the temperature setting for the AC about 4F over the course of the following summer. By keeping track of changes in their utility bills and the weather during that first year they learn that they have saved some money without having to sacrifice any significant degree of comfort aside from the occasional need to discipline the Cs as they test the RAs’ resolve (and the resistance each of the RAs encounters during their efforts to change their own long-standing habits).
Pleased with their success so far, the RAs consider their next move. With it cooler in the house during the winter and warmer during the summer, they are even more aware of drafts around doors and windows. Going back to the list they made a year ago, they realize this is a good time to use some of the money they’ve saved toward loss reduction strategies. So they crack their books and websites, then sit down together and write out a list of loss reduction actions they could take. Their list looks like this:
    Weather-strip windows and doors.
    Caulk air leaks.    
    Fix leaky faucets (especially hot water faucets).
    Add pipe insulation to hot water pipes.    
    Add attic insulation.
    Close off windows in the spare bedroom unless guests are using it.
Their research has suggested that the best place to start is with weather-stripping their exterior doors. Weather-stripping is cheap and should be quite effective on the older doors of their residence. Since they do this project in the winter, their feet notice right away that the nasty cold draft has been reduced significantly. Next they check around their windows for drafts, discover them, and purchase weather-stripping for the windows that fits their budget and is easy enough for them to install. Their hot-water pipes are accessible, so they buy and install pipe insulation around them as well. A chance discussion with a friend yields an offer for the friend to come over to show them how to fix a leaking hot water faucet. That makes for a good winter’s work, more comfort (the hot water gets to their sinks a lot sooner now!), and further reductions in energy use.

The RAs decide they need to do some more research to determine where and how to caulk before taking on that project, and they know from their research to wait to add attic insulation until after they’ve caulked (and saved up the money they’ll need to buy the insulation). They also want to think more about how to close off the guest bedroom windows before they attempt that project. So they move to the next category on our list: source substitution. Their list of possible projects looks something like this:
    Do dishes by hand instead of using a dishwasher.
    Dry laundry on a clothesline or rack rather than in a clothes dryer.    
    Replace electric tools with human-powered tools.
    Substitute the sun for fossil fuels where possible.   

The RAs have been using their dishwasher, but they began to wonder if they might be able to teach the Cs to wash the dishes by hand. As it happened, the next time they got together with their parents, the conversation turned to child-raising differences between their parents’ days as children and those of current times, and their parents noted how they and their friends had done the dishes before their parents got dishwashers. A few questions later, the RAs knew how to turn the dish-washing chore over to the Cs. Naturally the Cs resisted, but eventually the RAs prevailed and the Cs learned to do a good-enough job in the usual ways families work these issues out. The only things the RAs had to buy was a dish drainer to stack the clean dishes in for air-drying, more dishcloths/sponges for washing dishes, and a supply of dish towels for the occasional dish too big to fit onto the dish drainer, all readily available at a nearby department store and affordable due to savings from previous steps.

Once the Cs were reliably doing the dishes, the RAs decided to use some of their savings to buy a clothes rack to allow them to air-dry laundry on their back deck during dry weather from late spring through early fall. They knew that the payback time on the clothes rack would be quick even for a large, sturdy model that would last for a long time, so that’s the kind they chose to buy.

The RAs have become aware of solar ovens and have sunny areas in their back yard in which they could place a solar oven, but the cost of the commercially-available versions is high, and they want to do more research before they decide if they wish to make a home-built version or save longer to afford the commercial version. At this point they decide to turn their attention to the last category on our list, efficiency improvements. Their list of actions for this category looks like this:
    Replace existing incandescent or compact fluorescent light bulbs with LED versions.
    Replace existing household appliances with high efficiency versions.

It didn’t take long for the RAs to decide to work on the first item of their list. They had noticed how low prices have gotten for LED bulbs and seen one in use at a friend’s house. Its much more pleasant light color and its somewhat lower use of electricity and longer lifetime compared to CFL bulbs meant that they would save money even over CFLs and save a lot of money compared to the incandescent light bulbs which were in most of their fixtures. Accordingly, they began to replace every bulb as it burned out with an LED bulb. But they also realized that it makes no sense for them to replace their existing appliances unless and until an appliance breaks down past the point of being repaired. So they decided to set aside some of the money they continue to save on utility bills toward replacing appliances and funding some of the actions they still want to take.

At this point we’ll leave the Scrapers as they ponder what to do next, and I’ll return with an analysis of the 2016 garden season in the next post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How we went on an energy diet, and what we lost (and gained!)

In this post I’ll discuss how we’ve reduced energy usage in our home over the years and the benefits of having done so. I’ve already revealed some of what we’ve done in the posts about keeping cool in the summer and keeping warm in the winter. But I haven’t gone into detail about how much energy we used before and after the changes we made, nor about its impact on our finances. I hope that by describing what we’ve done and the benefits it has brought, some of you will be inspired to make changes according to your situation that will reduce your energy usage.

And what are some of the benefits? Well, how about keeping more of your money to yourself and depriving your energy provider of some of it? (Do you like handing over hard-earned cash to your energy provider? I thought not.) Or maybe you would enjoy losing that cold draft around your feet in winter and not getting shocked every time you touch, or even look at, a piece of metal. Yes, these goodies and more await those who embark on a serious energy diet.

Now I have to admit that the subject borders on being dry. (Well, doesn’t just border, but is out in the middle of the desert, dying of thirst.) If we had a cat, I’d liven this post up with the occasional cute cat picture. But we don’t have a cat; we don’t even dress up as one for Halloween. The best I can do is to slip in an occasional soothing plant photo. With that said, on to the post!

First, some details about our house, since size and appliance usage affect how much energy is used, and so you can better compare your situation with ours. The main part of the house, four rooms and a bathroom, was built in 1928; the two room addition, judging from the floor tile and stylistic details, dates from the 1940s or early 1950s. It’s about 1300 square feet all told, one story with a basement underneath the main house and a crawl space underneath the addition. It had an open front porch and a very small back deck when we bought it. Both the main house and the addition are wood frame construction. There was no insulation in any of the walls. In the attic of the main house we found a thin layer of vermiculite insulation, typical for houses of its day. Traces of vermiculite insulation remained in the attic of the addition, but it appeared that most of it had been removed at some time in the past.

When we bought the house, it included a clothes washer and a large copper-colored double-door refrigerator, both of which dated from the 1960s, and an electric range and oven, clothes dryer, and 40 gallon water heater of unknown ages but younger than the washer and refrigerator. In the basement, a circular raised concrete platform and a coal chute informed us that the original furnace had been coal-burning, again typical of houses of its era. The woman we bought the house from told us that she’d replaced a later, oil-burning furnace with a natural gas furnace when oil got expensive, during the one of the 1970s energy crises. She’d also had a central air conditioning unit installed at that time. There was no dishwashing machine.

Because we knew that old refrigerators, clothes washers, furnaces, and air conditioners are less energy efficient than comparable Energy Star rated units, we replaced the refrigerator with a smaller, efficient 15 cubic foot unit and the clothes washer with an efficient front-loading unit before we moved in. During the first summer we lived here, we replaced the furnace and AC with a 96% efficient gas furnace and an AC with a SEER rating of 12. Otherwise we continued with our previous energy conserving habits and made no further changes to conserve energy for a few years.

We knew we needed to have air leaks sealed and insulation added to our house to make a larger dent in our energy usage, and to reduce the discomfort of cold drafts during heating season (if my feet could talk, you would have heard them whining from here to both coasts all winter long). During the summer of 2005 we contracted to have that work done. Coincidentally, the electric hot water heater failed at that time. Knowing gas water heaters are more efficient, we had the electric water heater replaced with a natural gas water heater of the same size.

This is how matters stood for a few more years, until we realized that further reductions in natural gas usage could be obtained through reducing the thermostat setting in the winter. In the fall of 2009, we reduced the thermostat from 65-66F to 55F. That proved to be too cold. By 2012 we settled into keeping the thermostat at 60F during the day, 63F in the evening, and 50F overnight during the heating season, raising it higher only when one or both of us felt ill or we had guests.

In order to further reduce wintertime energy usage and provide a place to overwinter my collection of subtropical plants, we had the existing open front porch converted to a three season room in 2011. Because this long, narrow room faces south, it captures some solar energy on sunny days, when we can use an electric fan to blow some of the warmed air into the house. In 2013, we had the existing storm doors replaced with new, more tightly fitting units. And in 2014, we had a wood stove added so we can burn deadfalls (since we live in an older neighborhood with many large trees, windstorms result in considerable numbers of downed tree limbs that we can harvest for firewood) as well as pruned wood from our own trees.

I think it’s time for the first soothing plant photo, don’t you? Take a moment to enjoy it before continuing on. A soothing beverage of your choice might help too.

OK, back to the topic. In order to see how each of the changes we made affected how much natural gas we used for the year, look at the chart of our yearly natural gas usage for 2003 through 2015, shown below. (Note that the version of Excel that I use does not seem to give me the option to label with just the year. Jan. 04 thus corresponds to 2003, Jan. 05 to 2004, and so on.)

The first thing to note is the large drop in yearly usage in 2006 versus 2005. This is due to sealing air leaks and adding insulation to our house during 2005. Further drops in natural gas usage did not occur till 2009 and later, when we began to reduce the setting on our thermostat during heating season.

Below is a chart of our yearly electrical usage from 2003 through 2015.

The beneficial effects of air leak sealing, insulation, and the replacement of the electric water heater with a natural gas water heater are evident in the large drop in electricity consumption in 2006 compared to 2005. Another smaller reduction appears to be ongoing from about 2007 through 2015. In this case the reduction is due to a change in the way I grow seedlings. From 2003 through 2006, I grew seedlings for the vegetable garden in the basement, using up to four light fixtures, each with two 48-inch fluorescent tubes, to provide light for the seedlings 16 hours a day. I also put the flats with seeds needing bottom heat to germinate and some heat to grow on a 50 watt electric heat mat, running 24 hours a day. I started seeds as early as February and kept them in the basement until early April, an effect that could be seen in high electricity consumption during February and March.

Around 2007 or 2008, I began to start the cold-tolerant seedlings in a cold frame in March, reducing the number of fluorescent fixtures in use in the basement for raising seeds. After the open front porch was modified into a three-season room in 2011, I stopped raising seedlings in the basement, raising them all in natural light on the front porch. In addition, in the past few years I have not started using the heat mat until the beginning of March, so it only needs to be on for about 2 to 3 weeks, until the seeds needing warm soil germinate. The porch is warm enough by then so they grow well without bottom heat. It’s a good thing I did this, because we have had to run a dehumidifier in the basement during the past several summers due to excessive humidity caused by heavy rains. Our dehumidifier is not Energy Star certified, so we set it to keep the relative humidity in the basement just under 70%. It must add to our electricity consumption (the lowest electricity consumption we’ve had was in 2012, a very dry and hot summer in which we used the dehumidifier very little), but apparently its addition was offset by the reduction in heat mat and grow light usage.

It’s time for another soothing plant photo. Take a deep breath and appreciate the beauty before returning to our discussion.

We’re about to delve into what you’ve all been waiting for: how the changes have affected what we pay for energy services. See the charts below for 2003 through 2015.

The first thing to notice is how little we pay for electricity and natural gas in a year. It seems to be relatively common for people in this area to pay $100-200/month or more for electricity, especially in the summer. In 2015 we paid $410 for the entire year! Similarly, I’ve heard of people who pay $200-300/month for natural gas to keep their homes heated in winter, while we paid $545 for the whole year in 2015.

However, other factors besides how much energy we use also affect how much we pay for energy, as is clear from a comparison of these two charts with the two charts for yearly energy usage. While the energy usage charts show large drops in our usage in 2015 compared to 2003, what we paid for electricity is about the same in 2015 as it was in 2003 while what we paid for natural gas has dropped only a little. Why is this?

To understand why what we pay for energy services has changed so little in 12 years despite our using only about half as much electricity and natural gas in 2015 compared to 2003, we have to look at the factors that affect the rate (the cost of energy per unit used). To know what affects the rate, we have to look at what goes into producing the electricity and natural gas that we use.

Our electricity provider uses coal-fired plants to generate about 70% of the electricity it produces, so the price it pays for coal must be reflected in the rate it charges us for electricity. Since coal is mined and transported using diesel-powered equipment, the price of oil affects the cost of coal and thus the electric rate we must pay. The price of oil was around $30/barrel in 2003, increasing to around $60/barrel by late 2007. In 2008 it shot up to a peak of $147/barrel, then dropped back to $80-100/barrel through late 2014. This plateau is about two to three times higher than the price before 2008 and is perhaps the largest factor in the higher electric rate in 2015 compared to 2003. Since late 2014, the price of oil has dropped due to excess supply as the oil-producing nations pump it out as fast as they can, but that surplus is likely to be a short-term phenomenon as oil continues to deplete. Assume electricity rates will go up over the years, and you’ll be right a lot more often than not.

In addition, coal itself is becoming more expensive to use for generating electricity because of the various forms of pollution it causes when it’s burned; environmental regulations require that the pollution be reduced with treatment of the exhaust from coal-fired plants, an expense that is passed along to us. If carbon dioxide pollution comes under regulation later on, the cost of using coal will increase further as it produces more carbon dioxide per KWH of electricity generated than do oil or natural gas powered electric plants.

In the case of natural gas, depletion of conventional natural gas wells led to rate increases through about 2009. Around that time, however, fracked natural gas began to take up the slack in supply. Once fracked gas became a significant source, the rate dropped. The cost of oil also affects natural gas because of the use of diesel-powered equipment to produce it, but it appears that the surge in supply from fracking has outpaced effects due to changes in the price of oil. Again, I don’t expect the current low rate situation to hold, because fracked gas depletes very rapidly and the sweet spots in the various fields are already fully exploited or nearly so. Also, if the price of oil shoots up, the price of natural gas must do so as well.

One final effect on how much electricity and natural gas we use is the weather. A warmer summer means more use of air conditioning; a warmer winter means less use of heat. I track CCD (cooling degree days) and HDD (heating degree days) along with energy use so I can attempt to disentangle their influence from that of any changes we make. Our energy providers don’t report this information, so I obtain it from the monthly climate summaries posted on the St. Louis NWS website. I adjust it for the actual dates on which our meters are read, but if you prefer, it’s good enough to use the end-of-month values even if your meter is read on a different day. So now let’s look at charts of the yearly CDD and HDD for St. Louis from 2003 through 2015 and compare them to our energy usage.
From the yearly CDD chart we could hypothesize that all else being equal, we might have used the least amount of electricity in 2008 or 2009. As noted in the chart of yearly electricity usage, however, 2014 is the year in which we used the least amount of electricity, so our efforts to cut back electricity usage were able to overcome increases in CDD to an extent.

For HDD, 2012 was the warmest year in this range, while 2014 was the coldest. On this basis we might hypothesize that we used the least amount of natural gas in 2012 and the most in 2014, all else being equal. In fact, our yearly natural gas usage was lowest in 2012. It was higher in 2014 than any time since 2009, but it was still considerably less than 2003 through 2008 despite the lower HDDs in all those years. Again, we were able to overcome some of the effects of colder years through our efforts to conserve energy.

Finally, we can compare our usage of natural gas and electricity to that of an average US household, using the values from Sharon Astyk’s Riot 4 Austerity project. At that time (several years ago) the average US household electricity usage was 11,000 KWH per year; the average US household natural gas usage was 1,000 Therms per year. This figure may not be quite the same as current usage, but it will be close enough for our purposes.

Comparing our usages for 2015 (2,471 KWH and 261 Therms), Mike and I used about 22% of the household average usage of electricity and about 26% of the average for natural gas. It isn’t up to Astyk’s Riot target of 10% of average household usage, but still, not too shabby if I do say so myself.

Since we use about 1/4 of the energy of the average US household, the average household (at least in the metro St. Louis area) must pay about 4 times our combined cost of $970 for electric and natural gas service, or about $3900. That’s about $2900 more than we paid for electricity and natural gas in 2015! Now we didn’t actually save this much money from our efforts, because we already used only about half of the electricity and natural gas compared to the average US household in 2003. Based on our actual 2003 usage, our steps to reduce demand and conserve energy saved us about $910 from our utility bills, at 2015 pricing. That’s money we can apply to other needs, or save toward the future. Thus we’ve achieved a triple win: by reducing the amount of these forms of energy that we use, more oil and coal remains for future use, the environment is a little cleaner, and our financial position is better.

If you’d like to join us in achieving this triple win, in the next post I’ll suggest a sensible order (more sensible than ours, anyway) in which to undertake actions intended to reduce your energy usage and cost.