Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What I learned from my garden in 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, November 24, 2014

Off with their heads: mowing and trimming with the European scythe


County property maintenance codes require us to keep grassy areas on our property mowed to 6 inches (15 cm) or less in height. Even though I have worked to reduce the amount of our acre (about 0.4 hectare) lot that falls in this category, much of it still requires at least occasional mowing during the growing season. The front yard and the portion of the property surrounding the vegetable gardens require mowing most often: the front yard because code officials can see it from the street, the part surrounding the vegetable gardens because it receives nearly full sun.

For several years I have wanted to try using a European scythe to mow the lawn. I’d bought and read The Scythe Book by David Tresemer, a paean in homage to the scythe, but also more than a little intimidating. On the one hand I could score serious saving-the-earth points by using nothing but a stick and a blade to mow the lawn. On the other, the book offered more romance than practical information, at least the sort of information that a not-mechanically-inclined person like myself could understand.

This past spring, I realized it was time to overcome my fear and learn how to mow with a scythe. I found Scythe Supply’s website and decided on the best scythe blade for mowing our property. Mike measured me as directed to determine the proper dimensions for a scythe to fit me. I chose a scythe outfit with a bent snath (the stick) and a 26 inch TOPS blade.

When the outfit arrived I read all the literature that came with it. I wish I could say that the literature helped me understand how to adjust the position of the blade relative to the snath (pages 15 to 18 in The Scythe Book) and how to mow, but it didn’t. All I could do was set up the scythe the best I could and start mowing.

It did not take long for me to realize that not only did I not understand how to set the blade at the proper angle, but I also did not understand how to swing the scythe. The pictures and words in the book did not translate into bodily knowledge. Eventually I remembered that Scythe Supply offered a DVD on mowing techniques. With a sigh, I realized this was something I’d need to learn by seeing if I were to learn it at all and ordered the DVD.

It was seeing how to mow and how to peen and sharpen the blade that turned me into a mower. After setting the blade as directed in the video I started mowing again. Now I understood what David Tresemer and Peter Vido (Vido wrote the addendum in the second edition of the book) meant, why they and others scythe. I scythed for a couple of hours, immersed in the joy of the process. When it was time to peen the blade, I stopped and looked at how much I had mowed during that time ...

And I understood why reel lawnmowers and gasoline-powered lawnmowers exist and why I’d never seen anyone use a scythe to mow a lawn. Scything is a wonderful activity, the most pleasant way to mow a lawn that I have tried. It is also, however, a slow activity. A scythe cuts very close to the ground, and at least at this point in my scything career, it cuts less evenly than even a reel lawnmower, points against it for people who like carpet-like lawns. But the scythe did cut tall grass as easily as short grass, and it cut the plantain flower stems and other stringy weeds that a reel mower cannot cut.

With some regret I laid aside the scythe as lawnmower. Instead I considered if there were other ways to use a scythe to accomplish tasks that I had previously done with gasoline or electric tools. For instance, could it mow the tight space between the ends of the vegetable beds and the fence around them? I tried that but found that the blade was too long for the width of the space. Back to Scythe Supply’s website to see if I could buy a shorter blade. The shortest blade it offered that I could use on my bent snath was an 18 inch ditch blade. I thought perhaps I could use the ditch blade to mow both between the veggie beds and fences, so I bought one. It is shown in the photo of my scythe at the top of this post.

The ditch blade proved to have many good uses. For one thing, it could mow a mature cover crop like crimson clover or the three foot (about 1 meter) high stand of grass and weeds I pretended was a cover crop on vegetable beds I had not had time to plant. In the past I’d hoed off the weeds on vegetable beds before digging them, a step that could require several hours for beds I don’t prepare for planting till early summer. Using a scythe allowed me to complete that step in an hour or less no matter how tall the weeds grew. If I hadn’t found any other good uses for a scythe, that use alone made it more than worth the money I’d spent on it.  But that wasn’t all! The ditch blade mowed off errant cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) stems in the peony bed and parts of the front yard. It mowed off hazelnut and indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) shoots that I would have needed to cut with long-handled pruners if I had waited till next spring to remove them. It mowed off poison ivy and honeysuckle vines working their way across the narrow strip of yard on the west side of the house. Finally I could get rid of the electric string trimmer!

By September, with fall planting done and no large harvests to deal with, I started looking more closely at how and where the grass was growing in the back yard. The trees I planted the first couple of years after we moved here are now much taller than I am and their canopies are beginning to touch. While grass still grew between the back edge of the vegetable garden and the tree line and from the tree line to the neighbors’ fences, it had slowed down and was thinning out. Where the tree canopies met, very little grass remained, with violets now the primary herbaceous cover. Perhaps mowing with the scythe might be an option after all. Inspired, I switched to the grass blade and mowed. Mowing was still slow, although it became somewhat faster with more practice. But I now realized that because the back yard is not visible to the code enforcers, I could compensate for the slowness of mowing with the scythe by mowing less often. I would only need to use the gasoline-powered mower in the sunniest part of the yard, the grassy area surrounding the vegetable beds, and then only from May through September when the warm season grasses that predominate in that area grow. When those grasses don’t grow, the reel mower mows nearly as fast as the gasoline-powered mower. Best of all, as the trees continue to grow, they will further reduce the coverage and strength of the grass! I should be able to use the scythe and reel mower more often, and the gasoline-powered mower less often, each year. Using the right tool in the right place at the right time, observing how the grass grows and adjusting to it instead of just mowing everything out of habit, and owning up to and changing my expectation that grass should look like a green carpet all the time, has allowed me to reduce use of a fossil-fuel-powered mower (and eliminate use of a fossil-fuel-powered string trimmer) in favor of the human-powered scythe and reel mower.

Would a scythe make sense for you? Well, it depends (you knew I would say that, of course). Based on my experience I’ll make suggestions, but please don’t take what I say as the final word. You need to consider your particular situation and do some research to determine if a scythe makes sense for you.

I think most people who use a string trimmer for trimming rather than for lawn mowing could replace their string trimmer with a scythe. In fact, I don’t know why anyone would prefer to use a string trimmer over a scythe. The scythe trims about as well, doesn’t require fossil fuels or plastic string, weighs much less, doesn’t stink or vibrate during use, and you can maintain it yourself. For this purpose the TOPS blades or ditch blades are likely the best choice. If you’ll be trimming woody seedlings or shoots I suggest a ditch blade. I think shorter blades are more practical for trimming but you can read the information on blade choice on Scythe Supply’s website to determine the right size for your situation.

For lawn mowing a scythe is most practical when the lawn area is wide enough for a full swing of the scythe, free of  excessive numbers of obstacles like shrubs or outdoor furnishings, and either small enough that you can mow it in the time available or large and invisible enough that you need to mow only occasionally or can get by with mowing only part of it each week. Scythe blades swung properly cut a wide expanse. My swing cuts over a 6 foot (2 meter) wide row. Ideally you walk a row the length of your lawn swinging the scythe in the same direction and with the same width, then move over and scythe the next row from front to back in the same direction. Any place where there is an obstacle, you need to mow in a circle around the obstacle. This slows you down. You also need to take care that you don’t swing your scythe blade into obstacles, to avoid damaging the blade. As an example, I spent an hour scything an area of about 625 square feet (about 59 square meters) with several obstacles in it. Had there been no obstacles I might have been able to scythe about twice that area in an hour, and it might have taken even less time than that if I had scythed early in the morning as Tresemer and Vido suggest rather than in the afternoon. If you don’t like the look of the swaths of mown grass you will need to rake them up after you mow. I left them in place and didn’t think it hurt anything.

For gardeners, a scythe can be used for mowing cover crops as I have done. This winter I plan to try mowing the prairie in the back yard with the ditch blade to keep tree seedlings and vines under control. I think it will mow dead perennial stems as well.

If you are interested in scythes but have not seen anyone using them, I recommend viewing the videos on Scythe Supply’s website or checking on YouTube for videos of mowing with the European scythe. For those of you who decide to purchase a scythe, study the information on Scythe Supply’s website carefully to determine the best choice of snath and blade(s) for your situation and to size the snath correctly. I chose to buy an outfit and added the sharpening service and a blade cover to that order, a choice I recommend to anyone new to the scythe. If you want more blades you can order them at the same time or later on. If I had known how helpful the DVDs on mowing techniques and peening and sharpening would be I would have added the DVD combo to my first order. Those of you who find and can view some good YouTube videos may learn everything you need to know about mowing and sharpening from them, in which case you won’t need the DVDs.

You’ll need the peening jig and whetstone (included in an outfit) in order to keep your scythe blade sharp. Mike attached the peening jig to a wooden workbench in our basement and I stand up while peening the blade; it works fine this way. Those of you who do not have a suitable workbench could attach the jig to a piece of wood, or you could buy the peening log offered by Scythe Supply.

Now that the growing season is over, it’s time to evaluate the results from the 2014 garden science experiment. After that I’ll return to the human-powered tools series, specifically to the tools I find most useful for gardening. See you later!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reel-ly mowing the lawn

This is the second post in a series discussing human-powered tools that I use. Here I’ll consider human-powered reel lawn mowers.

In the previous post I mentioned that Mike and I have a large property for a suburban area, a full acre (a little under a half hectare for those of you who use more sensible metric units). When we bought this place 12 years ago most of the property was covered with a combination of various lawn grasses and weeds, as are most urban and suburban lots in the U.S. With this much lawn, and living in an area with a property maintenance code requiring lawns to be six inches or less high, most people in the U.S. would either hire a lawn maintenance company to do the mowing or buy a riding lawn mower to maintain it themselves. We chose not to do either. Riding lawn mowers are expensive to buy, use, and maintain, require a lot of storage space, perpetuate dependence on motors and fossil fuels, and don’t provide beneficial physical activity for those people capable of it such as ourselves. Instead we bought a gasoline-powered rotary lawn mower, not self-propelled, the kind you have to push. It’s dependent on fossil fuels, it’s noisy, it’s potentially hazardous, and its vibration hurts my hands, but it’s less expensive to buy and maintain than a riding mower and because I have to push it, I get exercise while using it. As the trees and gardens I’ve planted have grown, I’ve been able to reduce the space needing to be mowed and thus the time needed to use this mower, but I still need to mow a third or so of the property often enough to satisfy code requirements.

Several years ago I bought a human-powered reel lawn mower that was advertised as able to cut almost any kind of lawn grass and could be set to a cutting height of up to 3 inches. Our lawn has a mix of cool-season grasses that reel mowers cut well and tough warm-season grasses that most reel mowers cut with difficulty if they can cut them at all. The high cut setting helps to keep the mower from jamming when it runs over twigs. With huge pin oak and silver maple trees in the properties on three sides of our lot, twigs (and branches, and sometimes limbs) find their way onto our lawn regularly. With the high setting most twigs and small branches can be mowed over without their jamming the blades.

To my disappointment, the reel mower seemed to be of limited use. It cut the grass and broad-leaved weeds in the front yard though not the sedges and stringy plantain flower stalks. But I found it so difficult to use on the warm-season grasses and quackgrass-infested portions of the back yard that I gave up on using it there, though I continued to use it to mow the front yard. Furthermore, the clips holding the handle onto the attachment posts on the reel assembly have a habit of popping off, and I once had to replace the entire handle assembly due to metal fatigue. To its credit, the company I bought the mower from has replaced all these items for free, though I would not again purchase a mower from them. We bought a sharpening kit, which Mike uses at the beginning of mowing season to sharpen and adjust the blades.

This year Mike must have adjusted the blades much better than in past years. While the mower was harder to push than it had been in the past, as I pushed it to the shed where it’s stored I noticed that it had cut the mix of warm-season grass and weeds despite it being over a week since the last lawn mowing. In past years the reel lawn mower had not been capable of cutting the grass and weeds in this area at the height they were then. Inspired, I kept cutting that part of the lawn. You can see the difference between cut and uncut areas in the photo at the top, taken on May 9th, about the time when the warm-season grasses start to grow strongly in this area. Maybe the key to mowing with the reel mower lay with proper blade adjustment. It was time to try an experiment: could I now cut the entire lawn with the reel mower?

By the end of June I had learned the answer: yes, but with qualifications. It turned out that not only do the blades need to be properly adjusted, but the lawn must be cut no less often than once a week during that time, the mowed rows should overlap a greater distance than I overlap rows mowed with the powered mower, and zoysia needs to be double-mowed with the reel mower I use (mow north-south first, for instance, then east-west). Mowing once a week with a gasoline-powered mower required about four hours; with a reel mower it required about eight to ten hours. Once the plantain flower stalks began to appear, the reel-mower-cut lawn suffered in appearance compared to the power-mower-cut lawn, but otherwise no difference in appearance was apparent to me.

From a physical-workout standpoint the reel mower won out over the gasoline-powered mower. I had no trouble bicycling up hills, for instance, during that time, having built up stamina from mowing the lawn. I also preferred using the reel mower to mow the entire lawn for its lack of vibration and noise, the reduced time and cost to maintain it and its not using fossil fuels, and because I did not need to wear steel-toed boots while using it, as I do when using the gasoline-powered mower. But the extra time I spent mowing the lawn had to come from not doing something else. In my case it came from not weeding the vegetable garden in a timely manner. As I’ll discuss in a later post, not weeding proved to have detrimental effects on vegetable crop yields and on the appearance of the vegetable garden. When I returned home at the end of July after three weeks away on family business to a garden taken over by weeds and a need to harvest potatoes and onions and plant fall crops right away, I realized I needed to re-think the best strategy for mowing our lawn. Mowing once a week in order to use the reel mower won’t work with the size lawn we have. I can mow every two or three weeks, even less often in a drought, if I mow with the powered mower as I have done in past years, but I wanted to reduce its use. Eventually I figured out a mowing strategy that reduces powered-mower use to a minimum. I’m back to using the reel mower where it works best, in the front yard. I use other means to mow the rest of the yard.

Reel mowers work best and are easiest to push when you cut the lawn often, so that only 1/3 to 1/2 of the grass blade is being cut each time. In the St. Louis metro area, that translates to no less frequent mowing than once a week from April through June and September through October as well if we are receiving normal rainfall. Less frequent mowing might work in the hot and usually drier months of July and August, especially for those of you who have bluegrass and fescue lawns. Reel mowers are most appropriate for those of you who have less than 1/4 acre (about 10,000 square feet) of lawn, to keep lawn mowing time minimized. The majority of urban and suburban properties are 1/4 acre or less, and many are 1/8 acre (about 5,000 square feet) or less. If your lawn falls in this size range and is all or mostly composed of cool-season lawn grasses such as bluegrass and fescue, I recommend ridding yourself of fossil-fueled mowers and getting a reel mower instead. Choose the best one for your needs from this chart. You can buy the reel mower from that site (I will if I need to replace mine in the future) or see if a retailer in your area carries it. Some big-box stores and smaller hardware stores carry reel mowers these days.

If your lawn is mostly composed of zoysia or bermudagrass, look at this blog entry for the best reel mowers to cut these tough grasses. Then consider carefully the size of your lawn and how much time you have available to cut it to decide if a reel mower is practical for you. I would not want to use a reel mower on a lawn of this type that was more than 5,000 square feet (about 1/8 acre) in size, preferably less than that. But you might think differently.

While reel mowers require less maintenance than powered mowers, they do need to be kept properly sharpened and adjusted. How often you need to do that, and how it’s done, varies among the different mowers. Be sure you know what to do and how often to do it, and what equipment is needed, for the mower you obtain. Some companies include the equipment with the mower. In other cases you can purchase a sharpening kit to do it yourself or take the mower to a sharpening service.

If your lawn has a lot of weeds like sedge and plantain which reel mowers do not cut well, you may want to consider ways to reduce the coverage of weeds, or using other human-powered tools to whack off those weeds after mowing is completed. A grass whip, weed cutter, or scythe are all possibilities.

Next post we’ll look at another option for mowing lawns and discuss the mowing philosophy that I worked out this summer.



Monday, May 26, 2014

Meditations on human-powered tools



April through June is my favorite time of year and also the busiest time of year for people in this area who have lawns or gardens to care for. In my case, with an acre lot which has less lawn than when we moved here but still more than I’d like, and with good-sized vegetable and herb gardens, lawn and garden care is my primary job for these three months.

While this post begins a short series on human powered tools, I wanted to include a few photos from the vegetable garden, where the 2014 garden science project is in progress. So far this year I’ve been able to plant everything at the proper time. Between that, the favorable weather, and probably the continuing good effect of proper re-mineralization, the spring crops appear larger and healthier than any I’ve grown in past years. To the left is the lettuce plot, with six different varieties. We ate the first lettuce of the season yesterday. It tasted delicious, no bitterness at all.


The ‘Golden Acre’ cabbages are the lower plants in the foreground of the photo above. I allow them 2 square feet per plant. Behind them are three different varieties of broccoli.

‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ cabbage is in the foreground, with broccoli plants behind. This cabbage is smaller than ‘Golden Acre’ so I grow them closer together, allowing 1 square foot per plant.

As I mentioned above, I’m beginning what I envision as a short series on human powered tools that I favor and how to use them effectively. A good book to read along with this series is The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles over Motors by Tamara Dean. She discusses the physics and mechanics of human power before addressing various devices powered by human arms and/or legs, some commercially available, some made by various people and organizations for specific purposes, some as plans for building yourself. So far we’ve stuck to human-powered tools we’ve been able to buy new or used. I do have an idea for a human-powered leaf shredder percolating in my mind but I don’t know if or when we’ll try to make it happen.

Before moving on, please know that when I discuss using human-powered tools I am addressing only those people who are physically able to use them, or could with only a minor amount of exercise to build up sufficient muscle strength to do so. All thoughts I have on human-powered tools apply only to people who can use them. I’ll repeat this before each entry in the series because of its importance.

Those of you who meet the condition above may be asking yourself, why use human-powered tools when motor-powered tools are so readily available these days? Whether powered by gasoline, line current, or batteries, it seems possible to avoid using our muscles for almost any yard, kitchen, or household task as well as for transportation. Motorized tools are promoted on the basis that they save labor, as if the labor associated with using a human-powered tool is too excessive for physically capable people to consider doing. The ads also imply that the motorized tool is a real advance, part of the continued progress of humans toward a state of leisure. And in fact, motorized tools are faster and more powerful than the human-powered versions in every case that I’ll discuss. In a few cases the power advantage is significant enough that I continue to use the motorized version at least some of the time.

More often than not, however, motorized tools actually don’t save us labor, not if we include the labor required to obtain, learn how to use, maintain, and store the tool compared to the human-powered version. New motorized tools may be cheaper to buy than a new human-powered version, but over the life of the tool the human-powered tools I’ll discuss are cheaper to use. If you can find a good used version of the human-powered tool it will generally be cheaper than a new motorized version. This is one of the reasons that Mike and I prefer to use human-powered tools where possible.

Another problem with motorized tools is their use of fossil fuels, whether directly as gasoline or indirectly as fossil-fuel-generated electricity or as batteries manufactured and shipped with the aid of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel supplies are limited; we’ve already passed the peaks of cheap oil, cheap natural gas, and cheap coal. Price movements will likely continue to be erratic but upward over the long term and it may become harder for us to justify use of motorized tools as we find it more difficult to stay employed (one effect of passing the peak of cheap fossil fuels is slowed economic growth) and need to divert financial resources to keeping ourselves fed and sheltered. Mike and I prefer human-powered tools because they reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and the various costs associated with their use.

A third reason to choose well-designed and good-quality human-powered tools is because they promote health by getting us to use our muscles appropriately. Ironically, because we have populated our lives with “labor-saving” tools, many of us find we need to spend some of our precious time off the job getting exercise in ways that don’t make use of the power our muscles are generating.  Walking on tracks or using gym equipment exercises our muscles, but it takes time and costs money as well (the gym membership, the commute to and from the gym or track, specialized shoes and/or clothing). I don’t need these because I get plenty of exercise using human-powered tools while wearing clothing and shoes I already have, and at the same time I put the power generated by my muscles to good use.

In the vast majority of cases I can think of, human-powered tools are safer to use than motorized versions. Motors vibrate. I find the vibrations hurt my hands and arms in some cases, such as lawn mowers and string trimmers. Human-powered tools don’t cause this vibration-induced injury. The much slower speed at which blades of human-powered tools move make them much safer to use in most cases (a sharp knife might be the lone exception). Because most human-powered tools are safer, older children and teens can use them, giving them a chance to contribute useful work to their families and households. Motors have many safety issues, such as shock hazards, that are not present with human-powered tools. Often these are serious enough to recommend or require the use of specialized clothing, shoes, or accessories when using a motorized tool, adding to its cost and inconvenience. And motors are loud; human-powered tools are quiet. We prefer human-powered tools for all of these reasons.

Finally, I think there is a spiritual purpose to meeting as many needs as possible through human-powered tools. When I use the proper tool for a task and that tool is working at its best, not only do I get the job well done, but I feel good physically even if my muscles are a little tired. I also feel good mentally, knowing that I can do the work needed to care for Mike’s and my needs and wants at a very low cost and without contributing to the problems associated with fossil fuel use. In some cases, such as the first time I used a scythe to mow grass, I felt good beyond the ability of well exercised muscles, a well-done job, and the satisfaction of doing the job without fossil fuels and at minimum cost can explain. I felt a sense that I was doing exactly the right thing, fully alive, in tune with the earth and the cosmos.

When we use human-powered tools we feel deeply our power and our limitations. We work in concert with the animals, plants, and people around us; we can stop to listen to the birds, watch the breeze, smell the flowers, attend to families and friends and then return to our task. We work together with all life. Try them and find out for yourself!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Gardening for peanuts



Each year I grow something I haven’t tried before. Often it’s a new-to-me variety of a crop I already grow. In these cases I’m looking for a variety that we might like better, that may yield better or be more pest or disease resistant, or might be processed in a different way. Sometimes I try a new crop and have to learn how to grow the crop as well as how to process it. In 2013 one of those crops was peanuts. The results were good enough, and the crop is rarely enough grown in gardens, that a post on how I grew and processed them is in order. I’m planning to devote more space to them this year, and perhaps some of you will want to try them as well.

I chose the variety ‘Tennessee Red Valencia’, available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, based on the information in an article on growing peanuts from the April 2006 issue of Growing for Market. The author, Pam Dawling, recommended it for its 110 day growing season, its high productivity, and its willingness to produce with little to no hilling (pulling loose soil around the plants). SESE offers five different varieties of peanuts in its 2014 online catalog.

Peanut seeds are sold in their shells; remove them from the shells as you plant them. Somewhere I read that you should retain the skin around the peanut seed as you plant it, and I did so. On June 3 I planted 2 to 4 seeds each in spots 1 foot apart, planting two rows of peanut seeds two feet apart in the middle portion of a bed that had had peas planted in the outer portions in spring. I didn’t record how deep I planted the seeds but it was probably an inch or so. Dawling suggests planting them 2 inches deep and 12 inches apart in the row, with rows spaced 30 to 36 inches apart, and planting them when the soil is 65F at a depth of 4 inches for three consecutive days. John Jeavons suggests a spacing of 9 inches each way for peanut plants in the 8th edition of How to Grow More Vegetables, a spacing too close for hilling the plants. I decided to plant the peanuts far enough apart so I could hill them up but closer together than Dawling’s spacing, and compare the yield I obtained to the yield figures in Jeavons’ book.

I chose not to inoculate the peanuts when I planted them because I was curious to see how they would grow without that input. If you want to inoculate them, make sure to buy inoculant that says it’s for peanuts. The bed used for peanuts was one of the two that did not get the 2013 fertilizer mix designed to remedy the mineral deficiencies in my soil, one of which was calcium. Dawling says that for peanuts the soil should have a pH of 5 to 6 and if calcium is deficient, gypsum should be added. That’s because gypsum will add calcium without increasing the pH. I would only add gypsum if the soil is also deficient in sulfur, but that is based on the re-mineralization I have been doing. Dawling has years of experience growing peanuts to back her recommendation.

As Dawling notes, peanut seedlings resemble pea or clover seedlings. She says to hill them up when they are about a foot tall but not to disturb the soil after they begin to flower. I don’t remember how tall mine were when I first hilled them, but I think I hilled them up twice. My record sheet indicates that I first saw flowers on July 7, a little over a month after planting. Peanut flowers grow downward to peg themselves into the soil, where the seeds develop. Since I couldn’t see if seeds were forming I put my trust in the plants and left them alone to develop.

On October 16 the weather was cool and the soil was moist. The plants had had over 130 days to mature seeds. So I dug the peanut plants and their pegs out of the soil with a garden trowel. I was delighted to find multiple peanuts had pegged from each plant! As I removed each plant I pulled the peanuts off the pegs and piled them in a basket. It didn’t take long to do and was pleasant work.

Dawling discusses the proper drying of peanuts at some length due to the danger of aflatoxin developing if the peanuts should mold. She recommends drying them quickly, in the sun if possible or using a fan to blow across them if it isn’t sunny. Because I harvested only about three pounds of peanuts (wet weight), I spread them in a single layer on a window screen that was propped up on both ends so air could circulate under and through the peanuts as well as over them. I did not use a fan to aid drying. I chose not to wash the peanuts before I dried them, thinking that might reduce the chance of their molding. I left them on the screen for several weeks to dry before I put them in a plastic one gallon container for storage prior to roasting. The peanuts appeared to be free of mold, at least any that I could detect by eye, and none developed during storage. The yield of dried peanuts was 5 pounds per 100 square feet, compared to Jeavons’ yield figures of 4 pounds for beginning gardeners, 10 pounds for more experienced gardeners. Not bad for the first year of growing them!

A few days ago I set aside a pint glass jar that I filled with dried, unwashed peanut seeds for planting this year. I then used our sun oven to roast the remaining seeds without washing them first and without salting them. The sun oven’s temperature was between 300F and 350F while the peanuts roasted. It took 25 minutes to roast them fully. Mike says he would prefer them to be salted but they still taste good. I think they are delicious as they are!

This year I’ll do two things differently that I think will improve the quantity and quality of the final product. First, I’ll fertilize the bed with the same mix I use on all the beds. As with the other crops, I hypothesize that a proper mineral balance will improve the yield and/or flavor and/or disease resistance of the peanuts. Second, I’ll wash those that I roast prior to roasting them. Mike thinks that soaking them in salted water, then roasting them, will result in the salted product that he prefers, so we will treat one batch that way and roast another batch washed but not soaked in salted water and compare the results.

I found that peanuts are easy to grow and delicious, plus they provide a higher proportion of fat and protein for their weight than most garden crops. That makes them a valued part of my garden and our diet.  If you try them, let me know what you learn!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What I’ll discuss with my garden in 2014



In the previous post I discussed the questions I’m asking my garden soil to answer in 2014. This post discusses what I want to learn from the crops I’ll be growing this year.

Last year’s dialogue with my garden suggested that re-mineralizing the garden soil brought positive results even though I did not make the best choice for materials to use in the fertilizer mix. Most notably, pest and disease pressure seemed less last year. Regarding this year’s re-mineralization effort, I hypothesize that pest and disease pressure will be no worse than in 2013. I also hope that flavor of those varieties whose flavor I know well will show further improvement, and that yields increase, or at least do not decrease, for those varieties I have grown before. If this happens, it will be more evidence that proper soil mineral levels are one of the keys to raising a lot of delicious, nutritious food in the small spaces that Ecology Action’s work claims is possible. I hope that as the garden soil improves it will need little if any added minerals and organic matter beyond the compost I make. However, I think it will be a few years before the soil can answer that question.

In the meantime, last year’s results suggested that I need to make some improvements in my gardening technique. These include ensuring that I plant crops closer to the times when I’ve obtained the highest yields in past years, not shading the peppers and eggplants with taller crops, reducing spacings for some crops in order to boost the yield per unit area to levels in past years, including a control variety for all crops I grow, and reducing weed pressure. I hope that the crimson clover cover crop will help to reduce weed pressure, although I will also have to make sure it does not shade out low crops. For the other goals, I kept each in mind as I drew up the planting plan and seed starting schedule for 2014.

Another change I will make this year is to avoid using triangular spacing. It takes longer to plant this way (at least for me it does), especially when I transition from one crop to another with a different spacing. Also it is harder to determine the exact area planted to each crop. Instead I will allot the various crops about the same amount of space per square foot but use rectilinear spacing. In this way I hope to give each crop the room it needs and have a more accurate knowledge of the area it is using, allowing a more accurate measurement of yield per unit area.

Here’s what I’m planning to grow and how in 2014 to allow the garden to answer some of the questions that last year’s results suggested I ask it this year.

Dry beans, black-eyed peas, and soybeans. Last year I learned that I must trellis the dry beans in order to keep the bean pods off the ground. This year I’ll grow ‘Midnight Black Turtle’, a favorite variety from past years, and trellis it in some fashion. I’ll also trellis the ‘Queen Anne’ blackeyed peas and plant them earlier, hoping to get higher yields. I’ll pre-sprout the ‘Asmara’ soybeans, a variety eaten as edamame (harvested green, boiled in the pod, and squeezed out of the pod to eat), plant them earlier, and trellis if needed.

Beets and carrots. I reduced the area devoted to carrots and am only growing one variety, ‘Danvers 126’, this year as we may have enough carrots remaining from last year’s crop to last through spring. For beets I am growing the same area and varieties, again because the stored crop should last through spring.

Bok choy and spring cabbage. I hope to get these crops sown and transplanted at the proper time so they grow to their full potentials. I plan to trial a different variety of bok choy against ‘Prize Choy’ which I have grown for several years. I will grow the same two spring cabbage varieties.

Broccoli. This year I’ll grow three different open-pollinated broccolis: ‘Green Goliath’, ‘Nutri-Bud’, and ‘Atlantic’ to compare them for yield, flavor, and pest resistance. The first has been the highest-yielding to date, the second is the one I grew last year, and the third is new to me. I’ll grow them in the spring only and strive to get them sown and transplanted at the proper time. If the fall cabbage does well (see below) I will likely try a fall broccoli crop in 2015.

Fall cabbage. I haven’t tried a crop of fall cabbage for storage in the past because harlequin bugs have killed any cabbage-family crops I tried to grow through the entire summer. Instead I have sown kale and collards in August for fall crops. However, I have been dissatisfied with the yields I have obtained, and we have not used them as effectively as we would stored cabbage. Nor do kale or collards survive winter reliably in the open garden. This year I am taking a chance on raising long-season storage cabbage varieties ‘Brunswick’ and ‘Early Flat Dutch’. They will have to be sown into flats or pots in April and transplanted to the garden in early June in order to mature by the end of October, about when the growing season ends here. If we don’t have a summer-long heat wave and associated drought as we did in 2012 and if the harlequin bugs don’t suck the life out of the cabbages before they can mature, we’ll be rewarded with cabbage for sauerkraut, slaw, and stir-fries during at least part of the winter. And if this effort is successful, I’ll probably devote a larger area to fall cabbage in 2015 as cabbage has become our staple winter green vegetable.

Cucumbers and melons. I need to trellis these and plant them earlier to get a better crop. I’m trying three different melons this year to see if I can get a ripe melon out of any of them, a feat that for some reason has remained beyond me.

Parsnips, onions, and leeks. This year I will grow parsnips, onions, and leeks in the same bed as all three are crops that should be planted by early April here. At that time the soil is cool enough that the parsnips should germinate well. I’m trying ‘Andover’ parsnip this year. I’ll grow ‘Giant Musselburg’ leek, the one that has yielded best for me. I’ll grow two intermediate-day onion varieties, ‘Australian Brown’ and ‘Bronze D’Amposta’, to see how they yield, taste, and store. In addition I’ll grow ‘Noir de Russie’ scorzonera in this bed to see how we like this as a root crop.

Lettuces. I don’t plan to try any new lettuces this year, just make sure I get them planted at the right time for both spring and fall. I will also start lettuces in mid-September for an overwintering crop on the glassed-in front porch. Last year’s overwintering crop, started at about the same time, is doing very well (you can see it in the photo above). We’ve already enjoyed some of the crop and I will pick more soon.

Peas and peanuts. For these I am growing the same varieties as last year. However, I will be certain to pre-sprout the peas before planting them, and I will rig up a trellising system for them. I’m devoting more of the space in this bed to peanuts and less to peas since the peanuts store well in ambient conditions.

Popcorn. This year I’ll plant all the beds on the same date so the corn pollinates well. I have diatomaceous dust on hand in case some critter decides to sample the crop before it is ready. Perhaps a mouthful of dust will discourage further pilfering.

Potatoes. I’m planting ‘Elba’ at three different spacings across the bed and will measure the yield for each spacing separately, in order to determine the best spacing for my conditions. I’ll also try some sort of fencing to keep the plants within bounds. I acquired a potato planter and look forward to planting potatoes from a standing position!

Peppers and eggplants. I re-designed the bed with these crops to reduce shading by too-close neighbors. I’ll also increase the space allotted to each eggplant to 2 square feet and trial ‘Rosita’ against last year’s ‘White Beauty’. For peppers, I’ll grow two varieties of sweet peppers and two varieties of hot peppers, ‘Serrano’ and ‘Trinidad Scorpion’. I’ll try wonderberry this year, another crop in the same family that is supposed to grow only about two feet tall, instead of ground cherries. I’ll trial ‘Purple’ tomatillo this year but allot 4 square feet to each plant rather than last year’s 1 square foot.

Winter radishes and turnips. This year I’ll try a daikon radish, ‘Japanese Minowase’, in addition to ‘Red Meat’ and ‘Round Black Spanish’. I’ll also commit to sowing and weeding all of these crops at the proper time to achieve full-sized roots.

Squash. We did not think as highly of the taste of ‘Sweet Meat - Oregon Homestead’ as its re-selector, Carol Deppe of Fertile Valley Seeds, does. We do not find it sweet, rather it tastes bland although the texture is good. I don’t know if this reflects taste differences between her and us or growing conditions that did not bring out the best in this squash. Nor is this squash storing as well as ‘Waltham Butternut’ does in our basement, admittedly a little cooler than Deppe thinks is ideal for squash storage. This year, I’ll try a different maxima, ‘Guatemalan Blue’, and grow the butternut as well, comparing the two for taste, yield, and storage ability. I also plan to start the plants in late May or early June, as most people do in this area, to learn if they can better withstand squash bug attack when grown in a better-balanced soil.

Sweet potatoes. This year I’m devoting an entire 100 square foot bed to this crop. Half I’ll plant to ‘O’Henry’ assuming I get sprouts off some of my stored crop. I’ll trial two different kinds of orange sweet potato against it for taste, yield, and ease of growth and harvest.

Tomatoes. This year I’m trialing one new tomato variety, ‘Pale Perfect Purple’, against ‘Rose’ and ‘Arkansas Traveler’. ‘Rose’ is much like ‘Brandywine’ in size, shape, and taste but more productive for me. I don’t grow it every year because its tomatoes can be hard to get off the vine and can split but I like it well enough to grow it once in awhile. I’ll grow ‘Hungarian Italian Paste’ for paste tomatoes.

Watermelon and luffa gourd. I’ve been wanting to try ‘Blacktail Mountain’, a small, early watermelon, for years and decided this year is as good as any. I also will try growing luffa gourds and making sponges from them.

With a garden plan and seed starting schedule in hand and onion seeds already started in flats, spring is not all that far away -- snow on the ground and a low of -1F this morning notwithstanding. I hope this year brings a good harvest for all gardeners!