Sunday, September 27, 2015

Dressing for Comfort in a Minimally-Heated Residence

This is the first post in a short series on ways to stay as comfortable as possible in a minimally-heated residence. For the last several years Mike and I have heated our residence to 60F / 16C during the day (63F /17C for 5 hours in the evening) and 50F / 10C at night for economic and environmental reasons. We even set it as low as 55F / 13C one winter and managed, though I prefer to keep our house a little warmer than that to keep my spirits and activity level a little higher during cold weather.

My toes and fingers turn white and become numb if they get too cold. This can happen in an excessively air conditioned environment in the summer but it happens much more frequently during the winter if I do not take care to prevent it. While I haven’t been formally diagnosed, my symptoms are consistent with Raynaud’s disease, and it isn’t pleasant when it occurs. So the fact that I can manage in a house whose warmest portion is 60F most of the winter means that most all of you can put my tips to good use.

Who am I aiming this information toward? Everyone who lives in a place where it gets cold enough to add heat indoors at some point during the year and who have some control over how much heat is added. I will provide some tips appropriate for both renters and owners and some that are only possible for owners. We have done almost everything I mention, so as always what I share reflects personal experience. If I have only read about it but not tried it myself, I will say so.

Why should I care about this, some of you might be thinking; I can afford to heat my place as much as I want to! Natural gas prices are lower now than they were 10 or 15 years ago, before the fracking process became widespread. But one of the dirty little secrets of fracking is that fracked wells deplete very rapidly, so frackers must find new fields faster than the current ones deplete. So far they have been able to do that, but the folks with the best data and most realistic thinking on the issue suggest that within a decade the pace of new wells being brought online won’t be able to offset the depletion of old wells. We’ll likely see a period of volatile pricing around that time, maybe earlier. In addition, oil has its own depletion issues and may not be keeping pace with demand within a decade or so as well, which may affect those of you who heat with electricity if your utility burns oil to produce electricity and those of you who burn oil directly for heat. Since it takes fossil fuels to grow the economy, once fossil fuel supplies can no longer keep up with demand, economic growth must stop too. When that happens, more people will find themselves without jobs, perhaps with reduced pensions or other aid. They will have to choose what they spend money on, and that may mean they choose to heat less, or not at all, during winter. I’d like for everyone to know how to keep themselves as close to comfortable as they can in such a world. Folks have done this during lean times in the past and some are doing it now; most of what I write here is what I’ve learned from them, and I’ll include a list of references at the end of the final post. I think more of us will be facing lean times in the next five or ten years. So even if you can afford to heat your residence as much as you want, you might want to bookmark this post, or print it out and put it someplace you can find it later if you should need it. And for those of you who are already enduring being colder in the winter than you’d like to be, I hope that you’ll find a tip you can make use of in one or more of the upcoming posts.

Layers are not just for cakes

Whether you rent or own, the easiest way to improve your comfort is to keep your body’s internal heat in and around your body as long as possible. Clothing yourself in several well-chosen layers will go a long way toward accomplishing this purpose. I’ll describe the layering system I’ve worked out over the years that enables me to stay comfortable in our minimally heated house. Even if you don’t need as many layers as I do to be comfortable, you might find that adding another layer or two of the right sort increases your comfort level enough to lower the heating temperature, saving you more money than you spent on the clothing if you pay for your heat. And you can take the clothing with you should you move.

The innermost layer: long underwear

If you aren’t already wearing long underwear, I suggest getting a pair and trying it under what you usually wear. Some of you may find that it is the only extra layer you need. For me, it is the first layer of defense against cold air.

The cotton thermal weave type is readily available and is the cheapest, but it is not the best choice if you can afford something warmer. While the thermal weave helps to trap and hold warm air around you as long as it is dry, wet cotton clothing will make you feel colder rather than warmer. (That’s why cotton clothing is popular in summer in temperate climates and all year long where it is hot all year.) You might think you won’t sweat in the house, but then you might start doing some housework or you might have a hot flash, and all of a sudden you are sweating. You could change to a dry pair of long underwear when needed, but as many layers as I’m wearing, I’d much rather not have to do that. Thus I suggest choosing a fabric that keeps you warm even if it gets damp from sweating. A number of retailers sell this kind of long underwear, marketed to people who engage in outdoor activities during the winter. The most affordable versions are made of a single layer of synthetic fabrics such as polyester. I find Polartec versions to feel a bit itchy so I choose smooth fabrics instead. Long underwear that clings to me feels colder than looser-fitting styles, so I choose the latter. Some more-expensive fabric choices exist among this kind of long underwear, including silk and wool; I have not tried either so far. The single-layer synthetic long underwear I have is several years old and still in good condition. If you can’t or don’t want to spend that much money, go with old-fashioned cotton thermal underwear. I’d suggest buying multiple pairs so you can change out of them if they begin to feel cold and clammy.

The second layer above the waist: turtleneck or mock turtleneck shirt or sweater

Unless you have an unconventional fashion sense, you’ll want to cover up the long underwear with something more conventional-looking. A turtleneck or mock turtleneck shirt or sweater does a good job of this. They are easy to find at stores and online. If you need to look professional, you’ll probably choose a button-down shirt for this layer.

For several years I wore cotton mock turtleneck shirts, until I learned about the superior warmth of wool. It happened that cashmere turtleneck sweaters made their way to upscale used clothing stores like ScholarShop here in St. Louis by that time. I now own three of them, none of which cost me more than $20, all bought since 2009 but not in the past couple of years, so I am not sure if you can still find them or not. At a different upscale used clothing store I found a white crewneck cashmere sweater for $35. These have become my second layer of choice. They are warm, lightweight, and good-looking. They do need to be hand-washed and line-dried, however. That’s why I own multiple such sweaters. I minimize how often I need to wash them by allowing the one I had previously worn to air out for a day to a few days before I put it back in the closet. Doing that, I can get several wearings out of it before it needs to be washed. To cut down on insect problems, I use cedar blocks that hang on either side of my collection of cashmere sweaters. I have mended holes in some of the sweaters, using cotton thread that is a close match in color. The cashmere layer made enough of a difference for me to recommend it if you can afford it. If you’d like to try it, check out upscale used clothing stores to see if you can find them there. I’ve yet to see one in the more common thrift stores, although they are good places to find other good used clothing, and you might get lucky. However, you can get by with a cotton shirt for this layer as long as you wear warmer, looser layers on top of it and change it if it gets damp from sweat.

The third layer: a heavy sweater or sweatshirt

For this layer I choose a wool or acrylic sweater. I used to use a cotton sweater for this layer, but once I tried a wool sweater instead, I found it kept me warmer than a cotton sweater did. I found the three wool sweaters I have at ScholarShop, but because this layer is of a more readily available wool than cashmere, you may have more luck finding them at thrift stores. You can find these easily new (some of them claim to be machine-washable) but those you find in thrift stores will be much more affordable. If you’re layering it over long underwear and a shirt like I am, you’ll want to buy a size larger than you would if you were wearing it over just one layer. The larger size will slip over the rest of the layers and trap some more warm air closer to your body. If you don’t like wool, I have found that acrylic sweaters are almost as warm. If the second layer you chose is cotton, it’s best to choose acrylic or wool for this layer, in my experience. Most of the time I choose for this and the layer beneath it to be wool for maximum warmth. But if all you have or can get for this layer is a fleecy sweatshirt, hooded or not, it will serve.

The fourth layer: a fleece-lined vest

Once the inside temperature drops under 65F, I’m ready to add another layer to the three layers above. Several years ago my mother-in-law gave me a fleece-lined quilted cotton vest, and it has become the fourth layer of my five-layer system. It’s large enough to go over the three layers below it, and it keeps more warmth in my trunk, which helps warm up the blood as it returns from my extremities. It’s still in very good shape and I should get many more years of use out of it. I found different versions of fleece and down lined vests at L. L. Bean’s website, which I mention only because it suggests that different styles of vests should be widely available. If I find a wool vest in a thrift store I might buy it, but the fleece-lined cotton vest I have seems to be good enough at this point.

The fifth layer: a large hooded sweatshirt or fleecy hooded shirt

Major requirements for this layer are that it be large enough to fit over all the other layers and that it have a hood to keep my head warm. The other thing I hope to find in this layer is that it’s free or very cheap, to offset the cost of the other layers. My mom gave me two sweatshirts she didn’t want, and I found a fleecy zippered jacket with a hood at ScholarShop that I use for this layer. I’ve seen plenty of sweatshirts at thrift stores that should work fine. A fleece-lined flannel shirt or heavy wool shirt would also work for this layer.

Below the waist: long underwear and fleece-lined jeans

Jeans that aren’t lined just don’t cut it for me in a 60F house, even with long underwear worn underneath them. Thick, warm sweatpants worn over the long underwear are warm enough but don’t fit my sense of style if someone other than Mike will see them. I’ve found that lined jeans worn over long underwear keep my legs acceptably warm, and jeans wear well in most places I go. I find fleece-lined jeans to be warmer than flannel-lined jeans. I always buy them from L. L. Bean, which gives you an idea of my fashion sense, but experience shows that they fit me well and last for several years, so they are in my opinion worth the price. I use older pairs for gardening and other grubby work so the younger pairs stay good-looking longer. Wool pants might also work for this layer, but I haven't seen them in thrift stores and they cost more than I want to spend to buy new.

On my head: one or more hats

The people who told you that a hat will keep your feet warm weren’t kidding, even though you may have thought they lacked fashion sense (who likes hat hair? Not me). However, even though hat hair offends my fashion sense, the rest of me wants that hat on when it’s cold in the house! Brains suck up a lot of blood for their volume. While hair has some insulating value, it isn’t insulating enough for me when it’s cold, and some of you may not have any hair to help insulate your brain against heat loss. Heat lost out of your head translates to cold hands and feet. The solution: a hat, or more than one. That’s why the fifth layer in my winter clothing system is hooded and I wear that hood in the house. When the house is only 60F, I like to have another hat underneath the hood for extra warmth. The one I use is an alpaca wool cap, but a cotton or wool watch-style cap is readily available and cheaper. Mike usually wears a watch cap, often one he’s found while walking, under the hood of his sweatshirt in the winter. (We often wonder how the clothing we find in the streets got there. But maybe it’s better not to ask.)

On my hands: fingerless gloves and/or mittens

Wool mittens would be the best choice to keep my hands warm in a cold house, but they cut down on dexterity too much, as do full-fingered gloves (ever try to turn the pages of a book while you are wearing mittens or gloves?). So I wear fingerless cotton knit gloves that a friend of mine found at a dollar store and gave me as a gift. My hands still get cold, but not as cold as they would without the gloves. When I saw a pair of wool fingerless mittens in a catalog I bought them, hoping that by layering them over the fingerless gloves I could keep my hands warmer. But it turned out that cold air could still flow through the opening for my fingers. Of all the aspects of my winter dressing system, this layer is the least satisfactory. I’ll keep searching for a better solution as I do the best I can with the fingerless gloves and mittens.

On my feet: wool socks and over-the-ankle slippers

Since my feet are farther from my heart than any other part of my body, they are the coldest part of my body in the winter. Keeping a hat on keeps my feet a little less cold, but they still need extra help.  Luckily they are easier to find proper clothing for and still keep their essential functions than are my hands.

Wool socks are my friends in the winter. But not just any old wool sock. I have two pairs of single-layer wool socks that I wear in spring and fall for a little extra warmth. However, in the winter I need the equivalent of a layer of insulation inside my socks. The socks I now have and like very much are the Killington Hiker socks from Maggie’s Organics. You may be able to find similar socks at sporting-goods retailers. On top of these I wear bootie-style insulated fleece slippers so I can pull my jeans down over the booties, keeping cold air from falling down into the slippers. This combination is better than anything I’ve yet found for keeping my feet reasonably warm in a cold house at a price I am willing to pay.

In the next post, we’ll start moving away from our clothing to consider other ways to keep ourselves tolerably warm in a minimally-heated residence.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Autumn work

With the autumnal equinox less than a week away, the wildflowers of autumn are in full bloom. I took these photos in various parts of our yard so that I can share their beauty with you.
The yellow flower in the middle is showy goldenrod, and it lives up to its name!
These are woodland asters. The delicate, small blue flowers are among my favorites.
This is yet another member of the aster family, as are the two previous flowers.

Planting is done now except for cover crops, due to be sown as I clear off beds over the next few weeks, and garlic and potato onions, which will be planted around the end of October or early November. I enjoy the slower pace of garden work in early autumn. This week I harvested nine good-sized butternut squash, the first-planted of the four beds of popcorn, and, for the second time, the dry pods of blackeyed peas. I also harvested about two pounds of arugula, with a good deal more remaining to be harvested. At least I can grow one good salad crop during autumn! Even better, arugula will remain usable into December, possibly January if winter is warmer than usual.

Speaking of winter, it isn’t all that far off, only about two months away. With that in mind, I began making the glassed-in front porch ready to receive the container plants that spend the warm months on our patio. I have already moved a few plants to it and have seedlings of calendula in process for flowers during the winter. I expect to move most of the rest of the patio plants to the front porch over the next week or so. Although our first frost is probably still a few weeks off, I’d rather not have to move all the plants in a hurry, perhaps during bad weather.

Meanwhile, Mike has begun to frame-in the woodshed that will provide wood for the wood stove we bought and had installed late last autumn. Rather than chuck any old piece of wood into the stove, we intend to burn dry, properly seasoned wood. By doing so, we minimize the risk of creosote formation in the chimney as well as minimize the pollutants produced when wood is burned in a careless way. Thus, the woodshed will be roofed over to keep the rain off and have open walls to allow air to pass through to dry the wood. We have some wood stacked up elsewhere in the yard under a tarp, waiting for the woodshed to be finished. Most of it is from the silver maple tree that we had removed in 2012, where the garden shed now stands. The rest of it is from large shrubs and small trees I’ve removed and limbs that have fallen on our yard or on the lot to our west, where no one currently lives. As my shrubs and trees grow larger, some of the prunings are large enough to burn, as kindling if nothing else. Later on, I intend to try coppicing some of the larger trees in our back yard. Our goal is to minimize the use of purchased firewood. Mike will process all the wood with human-powered tools, including a hydraulic human-powered wood splitter that works well! I’ll talk more about the wood stove later on, after we have more experience with it.

In the meantime, I am writing the first of a short series of posts on keeping warm in a minimally-heated residence. I don’t know yet if these will be the weekly post for the next few weeks or if I will put them up in between these a-week-in-the-life-of posts. While I work on that series, I wish all of you in the northern hemisphere an enjoyable autumn equinox, and an enjoyable spring equinox to those of you in the southern hemisphere!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Homegrown meals

Blogger seems to be behaving better today, allowing me to import images again. Above is Autumn Joy sedum. Although my point-and-shoot digital camera doesn’t have the resolution to show them, bees are busy working the flowers.

As we leave summer behind, the planting decisions I made last winter and the combination of my actions to prepare, plant, and weed beds along with Nature’s provision of air, sunshine, water, and soil have produced enough food so that some of our meals are now almost entirely homegrown. This week I’ll share with you what we’ve been eating and how that will change over the next few days and weeks.

For the salad course, Mike, our primary household cook, has been preparing a mix of homegrown ripe sweet peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, and onions for about the last month. Not all of these have been featured in every salad but the base has been peppers, cucumbers, and onions along with whatever of the others we’ve had on hand when the salad was prepared. It’s been a good year for each of these three crops; even though the red and yellow onion crop suffered from the excessive June and early July rains, we have some remaining and I have more than enough potato onions (a multiplying, perennial onion that tastes the same as yellow onions) to provide all the onions we’ll need into winter and perhaps next spring.

Now, however, the squash bugs and the hot, dry weather of late August and early September have put an end to the cucumbers and nearly so to the zucchini, and the small carrot harvest has been eaten. To compensate, however, the arugula has grown enough to be included in our salads. The only issue with it is thinning and eating it fast enough to allow the remaining arugula to grow on and to avoid having any harvested arugula go bad before we can eat it. By necessity, those who have a big garden have to plan the kinds and amounts of crops grown to provide an ongoing harvest and also must put in the time in the kitchen to convert the harvest into food on the plate.

For the main dish on our homegrown meal days, we are eating snap beans and potatoes in some form. It has been several years since I grew a successful snap bean crop, so I had almost forgotten how much a good stand of pole snap beans can produce. About 3 1/2 pounds of the long, flat Roma-type beans, about 2 pounds of a shorter heirloom snap green bean, and about 2 1/2 pounds of a Red Noodle type bean (really a cowpea but eaten whole, similarly to a snap bean) await use in our refrigerator. Meanwhile we have 80 or 90 pounds of potatoes holding in the darkest part of the basement. Mike and I have differences in how we prefer to use these foods to make up the main portion of lunches and dinners. He likes to boil the potatoes and then add slightly cooked beans to the pot with the potatoes so the beans cook the rest of the way in the pot, eating the mixture as a stew. I like this well enough but have a slight preference to eating the potatoes and beans separately. The beans can be boiled or stir-fried; the Red Noodle beans seem to be especially good when stir-fried, in my opinion. Potatoes can be mashed, boiled, roasted, fried, or made into a casserole. A week or two ago, I made scalloped potatoes in a slow cooker rather than in the oven, following the recipe in The Gourmet Vegetarian Slow Cooker. They tasted nearly the same as when the dish is made in the oven, with less heating up of the kitchen and, I suspect, less energy usage as benefits of choosing the slow cooker to make the dish. As I type, potatoes are roasting in our sun oven, to eat for lunch along with leftover snap beans (and there should be plenty of leftover roasted potatoes for future meals). Together, potatoes and beans provide a complete protein profile as well as calories and various nutrients: along with the salad, this is the sort of meal that a backyard garden can readily provide in this climate. We’ll have fresh beans until frost, stored potatoes longer than that. Later on popcorn and dried beans will take over for the green beans, and winter squash and sweet potatoes will join the potatoes. Along with greens and root crops to come later for use in salads and stir-fries, these will form the foundation of homegrown meals through fall, winter, and perhaps early spring of next year. My goal is to learn how long we can stretch out the food supply and, knowing that, modify the garden plan and how we store food to stretch out the availability of homegrown food into spring and even early summer, before summer’s main crop harvest begins.

On September 6, the high was 96F / 36C. On September 10 the high was 88F / 31C. By September 12 the high was only 70F / 21C. At our house on September 13, the morning low was 46F / 8C, a few degrees cooler than the official low of 51F. This is autumn in the Midwest: warm or even hot spells followed by ever stronger cold fronts sweeping through, then followed by more warm weather until the next cold frontal passage. Over the three months of autumn the bottom of the cold spell will become colder and the rebound become less warm, till by late November we should transition into mostly cold winter weather punctuated with brief spring-like warm-ups. We received some rain from the weekend cold front, but once again much less than the official St. Louis weather station about 10 miles away. It’s not the fact that the rainfall varies so much over short distances that puzzles me; that happens often. It’s the fact that starting in June, the pattern has so consistently favored the official station getting more rain than we do. I don’t think anyone can explain it. It will just be one of Nature’s mysteries, even quirks.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The case of the missing seedlings

A little over a week ago, I planted seedlings of lettuce, kale, bok choy, collards, and mustard greens, happily anticipating meals later on this fall with these cool-weather leafy crops as star players. All went well at first; they survived their first night and full day in the ground. But then seedlings began disappearing. Time to put on my detective hat and get to work. What or who had motive and opportunity to kill my seedlings, and how might I prevent further occurrences of this dastardly crime?

Young seedlings can die from a number of different causes. Sometimes they just keel over, in the seedling flat or in the garden. Plant people call this damping-off. It’s caused by a fungus attacking the stem of very tiny seedlings and can lead to heavy losses in seedling flats. This doesn’t often cause the loss of seedlings transplanted into the garden, however, because most of my seedlings get pricked-out of the first flat and grown on in cell packs for a few weeks before transplanting into the garden. Even the younger seedlings I planted this time should have grown large enough to no longer be vulnerable to this particular criminal.

Predation by animals sometimes kills seedlings. I have witnessed rabbits and slugs eating seedlings in the past. A wide range of insects also attack seedlings. Since I have already had rabbits eat carrots and bush beans (a Black Turtle type, for dry beans) this year, and I thought it quite possible that they would enjoy eating lettuce as much as I do, I protected the portion of the bed where the lettuce is planted with Plantskydd, a repellant I purchased from Johnny’s when I discovered that rabbits were munching on the bush bean plants in late July. After I put down Plantskydd according to directions, I observed no further predation of the bean plants, which are now flowering. Does this mean Plantskydd repelled the rabbits? Well, maybe. But because I did not include a control (an area of bean plants that I left unprotected), I cannot conclude that the Plantskydd caused the lack of further predation, only that it is correlated with that observation. Distinguishing correlation from causation is one of the most pressing, and often difficult, problems in science, informal backyard garden science just as much as cutting edge research science. If I had protected a part of the bean bed with Plantskydd and left another part unprotected, and if I had then observed continued predation on the plants in the unprotected area but no further predation on the plants in the protected area, I would have some confidence in saying that the use of the repellant caused the lack of predation. As it is, however, the lack of further predation may have another cause. Perhaps the rabbits happened to find another food source they favored around the time I applied the repellant. And why, you might be asking, didn’t I include the control, unprotected plot? It was because there were so few bean plants left that I didn’t want them to be unprotected and it was too late to plant more beans in time for them to mature.

As every detective knows, in order to solve a crime, we must gather evidence. So I took a good look at the various seedlings, those which had been eaten and those which had not. The first thing that caught my eye was that no lettuce seedlings had been eaten. Hmm, interesting ... the area which had received the repellant had remained crime-free. But wait; so had part of the bed that hadn’t received it. Not only that, but none of the bok choy or mustard greens seedlings had been murdered, though it appeared that a couple of them were missing a leaf or two. Nearly all the attacks had been on collard and kale seedlings.

Now I had a pattern that might narrow down the list of suspects. Investigating, I found that in some cases all the leaves had been eaten off the seedlings, leaving only a tiny stem and maybe a leaf nearby. In others, a withered stem was all that was left. In a few cases, nothing was left. I considered what suspects might act in this way. In those cases where the stem had the leaves eaten off, it seemed likely that a leaf-eating predator was responsible, though I didn’t have enough evidence to finger the culprit. But it might not have been the only criminal. Nor could I think of a predator that would eat only kale and collards and not eat mustard greens or bok choy. Nevertheless, it seemed wise to put a repellant on all the remaining seedlings, one which would discourage insects and slugs as well as mammals. I chose diatomaceous earth (DE), a powder made from the fossilized shells of tiny sea creatures called diatoms, since it is allowed in organic production. As for how it works, let’s let Wikipedia weigh in: “The fine powder absorbs lipids from the waxy outer layer of insects' exoskeletons, causing them to dehydrate. Arthropods die as a result of the water pressure deficiency, based on Fick's law of diffusion. This also works against gastropods and is commonly employed in gardening to defeat slugs.” Mammals seem not to enjoy eating it either. So I dusted the leaves of all the remaining seedlings with DE after watering them well. Maybe, if I couldn’t catch the culprit, I could at least prevent further attacks.

Over the next several days, more collard and kale seedlings died. As of today, only three of twelve collard seedlings remain. No kale seedlings remain of the eight which I had planted. One bok choy seedling was also murdered, but all the rest of them, and the lettuce and mustard greens seedlings, remain and are growing. Hmm, the case was more complex than I had suspected. So I looked again, pondered ... and then I remembered something else. Of all the seedlings that I had planted, the kale and collard seedlings were the smallest. When I had planted the seedlings, the weather had been rather cool, but it has gotten much hotter since then (today’s high temperature at the official St. Louis station was 96F / 36C) and it has not rained since August 22. These are not conditions favored by any of these cool weather loving crops.

So we have hot, dry weather and a pattern of the smallest seedlings being far more likely to be murdered than larger seedlings. It looks like we now have two suspects, the weather and, as much as I hate to say it, me. For I was the one who had started the seedlings too late to obtain good-sized plants that would have the strength to resist difficult growing conditions. I think we can close this case.

But I still have a trick up my sleeve: some extra seedlings that I can plant in place of those that died. I always grow a few more seedlings than the garden plan calls for just for cases like this. In a few days the weather pattern is predicted to shift much cooler and it’s likely that rain will accompany the change. At that time, I’ll put in replacement seedlings. Whatever I get from them will be better than nothing. In the meantime, I’ll keep that detective hat nearby. You never know when I might need it.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The slow transition to autumn

Here at Living Low Acre, the slow transition from summer to autumn is underway. Some of the leaves on one of our dogwood trees have changed to their fall colors. Birds such as robins eat the ripe berries; I walk over broken berry parts on the way from the house to the vegetable garden. While most of the leaves are still green, they are taking on the washed-out tint of the transition.

I had intended to include a photo of the dogwood leaves as proof that my digital camera again works and also because the leaves turn to a beautiful red color that I thought you all would enjoy. However, although the camera works again, Blogger is not responding when I click on the photo button to add a photo. Bad Blogger! Although I suppose that someone who insists on using a 14 year old computer should not complain about a relatively small thing like that.

Anyway, regarding the camera, it turns out that when I put new batteries in it, the batteries were the wrong chemistry. For some reason it does not work with ordinary, non-alkaline batteries. While I had read that in the owners manual, that was a few years ago, and I had forgotten to pay attention when we bought a pack of non-alkaline AA batteries recently. At least those batteries can be used for flashlights and clocks.

Yesterday I planted seedlings of four varieties of lettuce as well as bok choy, kale, collards, and mustard greens. While I can grow all but the lettuce by direct-seeding into the garden in early August, I prefer to raise and transplant seedlings of these larger plants. I have enough thinning work for the next week as it is since the radishes, arugula, and turnips that I sowed in the middle of the month are now large enough for their first thinning.

As for the lettuce, I have not been able to grow it from direct-sown seeds in our August heat, even when I have sown the seeds during a cool spell when direct-sowing of root crops works. Lettuce seeds need to be cool to germinate. Apparently I have not been able to keep the soil cool enough for them to sprout at this time of year, when they need to be sown if they are to mature before it gets too cold for them to grow. I’ve read in different places that freezing lettuce seeds for a few days prior to sowing them helps when sowing them in summer for fall crops. Since I have a cool basement in which I can hold a flat of lettuce seeds for long enough to germinate them, I have not yet been tempted to experiment with freezing the seeds and then direct-sowing them.

While starting seeds in the cool basement works, it has its disadvantages. The major disadvantage is that the lights under which I hold the flats are not bright enough to produce stocky seedlings. Even though I hold the flat in the basement just long enough to get most of the seedlings up and growing and then put them on the front porch where they get more light, they grow long and gangly. Long, gangly seedlings are difficult to separate from one another when I prick them out into cell packs to grow on. As they grow, they tangle together again, making it difficult to remove them from the cell packs without breaking them or the other seedlings tangled together with them. Then, too, I have to keep them watered and growing during July and August heat. Keeping them in a shaded spot so they stay a little cooler helps, but it also promotes more long, gangly, tangle-prone growth. On top of that, I didn’t start the seedlings soon enough this year so I had to transplant them before their roots had filled enough of the cell space that the root ball was easy to handle. And now the weather pattern has changed to a hot, dry pattern, with highs around 90F / 32C predicted for the next week, so I’ll have to keep the seedlings well watered. It will be worth it, however, to have the lettuce for salads in the fall and the greens for stir-fries into early winter. I’ll let you know the results.

Speaking of the transition into fall reminds me that I want to write about how we minimize our use of fossil fuel heating. Although I’ve been promising to get back to the human-powered tools series (and I will, one of these days), with the fast cool-down we get here it’s not too soon to post on this topic for those of you who might want to start looking for things like warm sweaters and wool blankets. Yes, I know it sounds odd to think about heating season if it is as warm where you are as it is here while I am writing this. But St. Louis almost always records at least a few low temperatures near 40F / 4C before the end of September, and sometimes lows close to freezing. And most years we have our first frost around mid-October to the first week in November. If all goes as planned, I’ll have the post on keeping warm with a minimum of fossil fuel use up before the end of September.

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.