Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tea for Two in the Lou

Now that the Siberian irises are blooming (the blue flowers in the photo above) ruby-throated hummingbirds spend a lot of time in our yard. Yesterday Mike and I watched them work the iris flowers as well as other flowers in the gardens surrounding the patio. The warmer weather and lack of rain (except on the 20th) of the last couple of weeks has allowed me to finish planting the last of the cool weather crops and prepare and plant the first bed of warm season crops: the bed containing peppers, eggplants, ground cherries, tomatillos, tomatoes, and basil. Meanwhile I’ve already harvested four pounds of strawberries in just five days!

Count me in among the set of gardeners who like to push the limits of what they can grow. Just because something isn’t supposed to be able to survive a St. Louis winter -- or a St. Louis summer -- doesn’t always mean that it won’t. It does seem highly unlikely that during my lifetime I’ll be able to grow, say, a coconut palm in my yard. But I may be able to grow more than gardening books, nursery catalogs, and the USDA claim that I can.

Those of you who garden in the U.S. are likely familiar with the USDA Zone Map as many retailers mark their perennial plants with a range of USDA zones in which the plant is supposed to thrive. Each zone marks out locations with the same range of lowest expected winter temperatures because winter lows are one of the key factors that determine whether or not a perennial plant survives to grow another season past the one in which you purchased and planted it. Generally the farther south the location within the U.S., the wider the range of plants that can be grown because of milder winter conditions. However, some plants need a period of winter cold to survive (most daffodils and tulips, for instance) or need at least some winter chill hours to set blossoms and fruit (most apple varieties), so a plant’s zone rating is often a range, such as Zones 5-9.

The problem with relying on zone ratings to determine what you can grow in your area is severalfold. The first issue is that the zone ratings seem more rigid and exact than they really are. Plants, like people, are individuals. Some plants of a given species, variety, or cultivar may have a slightly different genetic make-up that allows them to survive colder temperatures than most other plants of that type, or conversely, makes them less able to survive cold weather. We gardeners can’t tell by looking if the particular plant we buy or receive will live up to its zone rating or be the occasional individual that is exceptionally hardy or exceptionally delicate. We have to plant it to find out if it survives our weather and climate conditions.

Even without that problem, zone ratings are inexact. Sometimes plants can survive colder temperatures under snow cover than they do the same temperature in a St. Louis winter that mostly lacks snow cover. Some plants can take the dry summer heat of the West better than a humid summer of the South, or vice versa. Sometimes you can help a plant to survive by putting it in a spot in your garden that is warmer or cooler than the rest of the garden, what gardeners call a microclimate, thus extending the range of what you can grow beyond your official USDA zone rating.

Catalogs don’t always agree on the zone rating for a particular species or cultivar. As an example, Raintree Nursery claims that ‘Enterprise’ apple trees are hardy in Zones 4-9 while Stark Bro’s claims they are hardy in Zones 4-7. Which is correct? I don’t know. My ‘Enterprise’ tree is doing fine but I don’t know if someone in Atlanta or New Orleans could grow it or not. Neither catalog tells me how many chilling hours it needs to bloom, information that would help more than the zone rating for someone in the south who wants to know if he or she can grow this apple variety.

As if all that isn’t enough to cause a person to question the usefulness of zone ratings, then there is the issue of whether the USDA Zone Map actually reflects on-the-ground reality. Consider the 2012 map, the latest one available. It puts St. Louis in the middle of Zone 6, where the coldest winter lows would be expected to be in the range of 0F to -10F. But the official lowest winter temperature for St. Louis has not dropped below 0F since 1999! That fact suggests that St. Louis is currently somewhere in Zone 7 (lowest winter temperatures between 10F and 0F) rather than Zone 6. This is quite a change from when I first moved to St. Louis in 1984 and through the 1980s and 1990s, when the lowest winter temperatures routinely dropped below 0F and sometimes dropped below -10F. The last two winters have seen the lowest temperatures closer to 10F than 0F. If this trend holds, we could be close to the border between USDA Zones 7 and 8 in terms of winter hardiness. That would allow me to grow some southern plants that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to grow, especially if I take care to locate them in an appropriate microclimate.

One classic southern plant of interest to me is the camellia. Most of the zone ratings I’ve seen for camellias put their northern hardiness limit at Zone 8 though some cultivars are hardy to Zone 7 or even Zone 6. The only camellias I’ve seen in St. Louis so far have been in the Linnean House, one of the oldest greenhouses west of the Mississippi River, at the Missouri Botanical Garden. During a winter visit the camellia flowers in the Linnean House provide a welcome shot of vivid color to relieve the gray-brownness of a typical St. Louis winter day.

In theory I could keep a camellia alive on my glassed-in front porch during the winter as it has never gotten colder than the mid 20sF, but that space is small and already overcrowded. I’m much more interested in the possibility of keeping a camellia planted outside alive. And not a floral camellia either, despite my enjoyment of them. The camellia I have in mind is Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as tea. This is the plant from whose leaves we get black, oolong, green, white, and the other types of the caffeinated beverage we call tea. The type of tea obtained depends on which leaves are taken and how they are processed as well as on the particular variety of the plant and where it is grown.

I am a tea drinker. I don’t like coffee at all, but tea is another matter. I limit myself to one or two cups a day most days because of the caffeine content and also because I buy organic, fairly traded tea as much as possible. This is one plant that I’d like to grow in my yard, even if I have to coddle it a bit, because I’d feel better about being able to provide even a little of a beverage that I drink so much of. And we are so close to being able to grow it that it seems worthwhile to spend a little money and time on some plants.

It has taken me awhile to decide on where to grow the tea plants. Since I don’t discount the possibility that St. Louis could experience winter lows close to or even below 0F in the future, a site protected from winter winds seems best. The articles I've read on growing tea plants suggest that they are quite adaptable to my conditions otherwise: they can grow in Zone 7, they like acid soil, and they can tolerate summer heat and drought. They grow in full sun to partial shade. The best location seems to be on the east side of our house, where they would enjoy morning and early afternoon sun yet would be protected from cold northwest and north winter winds. That space was already occupied by two spiraea shrubs. All I had to do was remove them and a few companions, including poison ivy, and in a few years I can be harvesting, processing, and drying tea for Mike and myself. Not much, probably, but I can always drop my consumption of tea down to what I can harvest and for the rest drink herbal teas like spearmint and lemon balm that I also grow and harvest for that purpose.

A month ago, after cutting the spiraea shrubs to the ground (carefully so as to avoid contact with the poison ivy), I planted two tea plants that I purchased from Edible Landscaping and which they claim are hardy to Zone 7. Whenever I plant young trees and shrubs I always protect them with a circle of hardware cloth to keep the local rabbits from nibbling them down to stubs. The photo below that I took a few days ago shows one of the tea plants within its protective cage. Both plants seem to be doing well so far. I plan to leave them unprotected next winter unless the low is predicted to be near or below zero. In that case I will cover each plant with a large pot overnight. Once the plants grow tall enough I plan to leave them unprotected all winter long. In a few years I hope to make tea for two in the Lou from our own plants!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Science as Dialogue: What My Garden and I Are Discussing in 2013

Another cloudy, wet spring day in St. Louis. The mulched bed is my herb garden.

In the last post I brought up my use of the scientific method in my gardening practice. Now I’d like to talk more about how ordinary folks (and as far as gardening goes, I’m as ordinary as any of you) can use the scientific method to solve problems that come up with the materials of everyday life. What I hope to do is de-mystify the method and also separate it from any negative associations you may have picked up about it from prior experiences, so that you can turn to it when the question you have in mind is amenable to its use.

In my previous post I quoted Wikipedia’s definition of the scientific method: “the process of systemic observation, measurement, and experimentation and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.” It’s an accurate enough description, but I suspect rather forbidding for ordinary people to apply to everyday problems in the material world. This may have something to do with schooling and its tendency to separate knowledge into fields that seem to have nothing to do with each other. The scientific method gets classified as something you do in science class and nowhere else. If you didn’t like or do well in science, you may not realize how useful the method can be.

So let me suggest a more informal and friendlier description of the method so that anyone who is curious about a problem in the material world can use it fruitfully. Think of the scientific method as a dialogue with the material world, a process by which you can ask questions about aspects of the material world that puzzle you and obtain information that may help you to answer those questions, or modify them, or ask new ones, or any combination of these things. The questioning part corresponds to the hypotheses mentioned in Wikipedia’s definition. Obtaining information corresponds to the systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation portion of the definition. The questioning and information-gathering process continues for as long as you find the dialogue useful to maintain.

Suppose we want to find out why a friend holds a particular position. We might have an idea about how our friend came to that position and start by asking questions to see if our idea is in fact important to our friend’s thought process. Our friend’s answers to these questions would provide information that we would consider in deciding whether or not our idea has merit. If it doesn’t, we might have gained enough information from our friend’s answers to change our idea about how she came to that position, or perhaps we are now thoroughly confused about why she holds that position. Maybe we’d ask some more questions, especially in the latter case, as we attempt to understand her position from her viewpoint. Perhaps she’s changing her own ideas as she listens to and responds to our questioning; she may ask some questions of her own about our position and why we hold it. Eventually the process, done well, results in a clear understanding of each person’s position and the reasons for it. It may lead to changes in one or both peoples’ positions due to the new information that comes to light. This sort of extended dialogue is what I’m doing in my garden. I can’t do it through talk because of the language differences between me and the plants, animals, and other materials and processes that constitute the garden system. The scientific method, or scientific dialogue, offers me a language in which to ask and receive answers to questions that I have about the garden system and change the way in which I garden to interact more fruitfully with it. In the process, I’m likely to be changing the garden itself ... and it changes me in turn.

In the scientific dialogue that I am having with my garden, the major question that I’ve been asking since I first learned of Ecology Action’s work in the middle to late 1990s is the one that I mentioned in my last post: can a person grow all of his or her own diet in a small backyard garden in the St. Louis region without making it difficult or impossible for someone else to do the same thing in a similar sized garden elsewhere? At the time Mike and I were living on a 1/8 acre lot, of which I had less than 150 square feet in vegetables. I obtained One Circle by David Duhon no later than the 1999 three day Ecology Action workshop in Fairfield, Iowa that I attended. Duhon’s claim that it was possible to grow a complete diet in about 700 square feet of gardening space suggested to me that the answer to my question could be yes, at least in principle. If we chose to remove the trees, ornamental plantings, and patio from the back yard and planted the flattest portion completely to vegetables, and if I put some of the prettier edibles in the front yard, I could have installed close to 1000 square feet of garden space into that excessively sloped and paved-over (a 100 foot long driveway!) lot, enough space to provide two adults with most of a complete diet according to the book. That lot was similar in size to many urban lots in St. Louis. Most suburban lots in the region are closer to 1/4 acre in size; a sizable fraction, including our current lot, are larger than that.

Since the availability of sufficient gardening space didn’t appear to be an issue for most people in the region, the next question became whether or not I could obtain a high enough yield (measured as pounds of food harvested per 100 square feet of growing space) of the crops discussed in One Circle to grow the complete diet worked out there. The tricky part of working out a complete diet is that the usual crops grown in a backyard garden -- largely salad crops like lettuce and tomatoes along with fresh vegetables like snap beans and peas -- provide vitamins and minerals but not many calories for their weight. One Circle has an extensive discussion of human dietary needs, the first among them being calories, or food energy. Most backyard gardeners haven’t concerned themselves with growing crops dense with calories, primarily root and seed crops, because these are widely available at low cost from agribusiness and its distributors and retailers. Backyard gardeners prefer to grow the more perishable vegetables that do well in small spaces, often taste better grown and consumed fresh than do the multiple-day-old versions available through the agribusiness chain, and cost more to purchase fresh from a local farmer than they do to grow oneself. In addition, the seed crops such as wheat, corn, and rice that constitute a high proportion of the calories in my diet and that of most people in the U. S. take a lot of space to grow per calorie obtained, more than is available in a small backyard garden, and also require considerable processing to use. Root crops like potatoes and sweet potatoes, in contrast, do provide a lot of calories for the garden space they take up and don’t need special processing to use but do require a lot of storage space in living quarters. Potatoes are harvested in the height of summer and require a cool, dry storage space, something St. Louis conditions don’t provide at that time of year. Sweet potatoes may be better suited to our climate and storage conditions but still require a lot of storage space. Both crops are cheap and readily available in grocery stores however so most gardeners do not bother with them. All that being the case, One Circle puts forth a convincing argument that a backyard gardener who wishes to grow most of what she eats should concentrate on growing calorie-dense root and seed crops along with some highly nutritious greens. As jobs and income continue to erode and food costs continue to rise, the economic argument for raising a higher proportion of calorie-dense crops in backyard gardens gains merit as well, for me and Mike as well as many other people.

For this reason I started including most of the One Circle crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes, soybeans, sunflower seeds, onions, garlic, leeks, wheat, parsnips, parsley, collards, and turnips) in my garden once we moved to our current lot, where we have enough space for a 1500 square foot vegetable and grain garden. For the past several years, therefore, the form of the major question that I have been asking my garden to answer has been can I obtain high enough yields of the crops profiled in One Circle that we could grow almost all of our diet from them in the 1500 square feet I now have available for those crops? So far for all of these crops except parsley, the answer has been no.

I’ve been trying to understand why my garden keeps telling me no. As I noted before, it could be my gardening techniques are not optimal for this climate and I continue to pursue information that could help me to improve them. However, I think two other factors have a larger effect. One is an unbalanced soil mineral base as discussed a few posts back. That’s what has prompted the particular question that I am asking my garden to help me understand in 2013: what effect does proper soil mineralization have on the yields that I am able to obtain under my particular growing conditions and at the skill level I now have? As the year proceeds and I harvest my crops, I’ll be reporting on the yields I obtain and other garden observations I make so you can follow the dialogue as it proceeds. That may help you learn how a scientific dialogue could aid you with questions you have about your material world.

The second factor is one I mentioned briefly in the last post: it may be that growing conditions in the St. Louis region will not allow for high yields of some of these crops because our growing conditions do not match well to the requirements of the crops. I suspect this is the case for many if not most of the crops on the list. If after proper soil re-mineralization and attention to garden technique (planting the crops at the right time and in the proper spacing, for instance) I still cannot achieve the yields needed for the set of crops advocated by One Circle, then I’ll need to use the information in that book and a later Ecology Action publication, Designing a Grow Biointensive Sustainable Mini-Farm, to work out the space requirements for a complete diet specific to the St. Louis region and the yields I have been able to obtain. Then I’ll have to try growing that diet and eating it to see what modifications it may require. That means lots of good scientific work to be done in upcoming years and reported on in this blog!

As for how to conduct my dialogue with my garden, I rely on another of my favorite garden writers, Carol Deppe. She includes in her excellent book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener’s and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving a description of how to conduct the dialogue (which she calls gardening research) as it pertains to variety trials. She points out that variety trials are central to answering gardening questions. I’ve used her work as a guide to my own.

Observations, data gathering, and record-keeping are essential to any scientific dialogue. Your partner in the dialogue -- in this case, my garden -- offers its answers in the form of things you can sense by sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. So you won’t forget these things after you sense them, you need to write them down someplace where you can refer to them later as needed. These pieces of sensory information are what scientists call observations and data. An observation is usually something qualitative: the lettuce leaves have some kind of insect on them, for instance. Data is more often quantitative: on May 8 I harvested 13 ounces of asparagus. You want a place where you can record both kinds of information. The Bountiful Gardens website has a downloadable pdf (Crop Record Keeping) form with spaces for both qualitative information (called Observations) and quantitative information such as weight harvested (and number if it’s something like heads of lettuce or cabbage) and the date, as well as information on what variety was planted, when it was planted and in how much space, how the bed was prepared and how the crop was spaced, and other important information to help you figure out what your garden is telling you. You can use this form or devise a similar form more suited to your own garden. I keep records the old-fashioned way, using paper and pen, but there is nothing to stop you from keeping the information on your computer if that makes more sense to you. I use a separate sheet of paper similar to the form linked to above for each variety of each different crop I grow each year. I keep all the current year’s sheets in one binder, arranged alphabetically by crop and then alphabetically by variety within each crop, because that binder is small enough to carry with me to wherever I need it. After each variety is completely harvested and I’ve calculated the yield and written down anything else I want to remember about it, I file its data sheet into master binders also arranged alphabetically by crop and variety. Within each variety that I grow for more than one year, I arrange the sheets chronologically by year. I find this arrangement is the best for answering questions on yield and how it changes from year to year. You may prefer a different system depending on the questions you most want to answer. As for the information you might want to record, see Deppe’s book as she has a thorough list that you can choose from according to the questions you are asking.

In order to get answers to the questions you are asking, you have to know how to set up a gardening plan or design that will allow the garden to answer those questions for you. Scientists call this design an experiment. Deppe calls it a garden trial. Whatever you call it, you have to make sure you can obtain the answer you want from the way in which you garden. Since one of the questions I want to answer has to do with how many pounds of, say, ‘German Butterball’ potatoes I grow so I can compare it directly to the yield for potatoes in How to Grow More Vegetables, I need to know the number of square feet of those potatoes that I have planted and I need to weigh all the potatoes that I harvest from that area. The square feet of garden space devoted to these potatoes is noted on my garden plan for 2013 and on that potato’s data sheet. I weigh all the produce I harvest, and I also record the date it’s harvested. At the end of the season, I add up the total pounds harvested for these potatoes, convert that to pounds per 100 square feet using the actual bed space for the crop, and check that against what I’ve obtained for this and other varieties I’ve grown over the years. I’d like to see the yield increase in 2013; at least it should not decrease, or if it does, another factor like taste should increase enough to compensate for that. But I think it will take a few years for me to obtain a definitive answer to the yield question, for reasons I’ll explore farther down.

One of the claims for Ecology Action’s method is that when the soil has been properly fertilized, the compost that the garden produces maintains garden fertility without further importation of fertilizer. Steve Solomon makes a similar claim in The Intelligent Gardener: a garden with a proper mineral balance should maintain that balance for at least a period of some years and should require over time fewer mineral imports. A quantitative method to assess both of these claims is to test soil mineral levels each spring. If my garden is moving closer to a balanced, self-maintaining fertility, those minerals that are currently deficient or in excess should become less so over time. Each March I plan to repeat the same soil testing I did in April of this year to see if this pattern is observed. If anything is deficient, the 2014 garden prescription will be based on the March 2014 soil test. I expect it will take at least a few years to learn how the garden answers this question as well.

Besides these two quantitative tests, I will be evaluating some qualitative properties as well. One of Solomon’s claims is that produce grown on well-balanced soil tastes better. Since I have been running garden trials of different varieties of crops against current favorite varieties for many years, I will be checking for any obvious taste differences between, say, this year’s ‘Bronze Arrow’ lettuce and my memory of its taste from previous years. Obviously this sort of test is highly subjective and can’t make subtle distinctions, but that does not mean it’s useless. If it turns out that most of my favorite varieties seem to taste better this year, I’d consider that a major point in favor of soil re-mineralization even if nothing else changes. The other qualitative testing I’ll be doing is watching for any pest or disease pressure among the various crops. The major pest problems I have are squash bugs on the squash-family crops and harlequin bugs on the cabbage-family crops. A common disease issue, especially in wet years (and so far 2013 has been a wet year) occurs on many to most pepper plants and sometimes tomato plants as well. I’m not sure of its identity but I do know the symptoms so I will be watching for it. Again, properly balanced soil is supposed to grow crops that are less susceptible to pests and diseases, so this is my guess for what I’ll observe. And again, I suspect it will be a few years before I can say for sure how the garden answers this question.

I might be able to get quicker answers to some of my questions if I were more careful about using controls in my gardening dialogue. A control could be planting some of the ‘Bronze Arrow’ lettuce in a bed that was fertilized the same way I have fertilized that bed in past years, which in this case would be not at all. Using a control would correct for problems like unfavorable or especially favorable weather conditions or an unusual pest or disease problem or lack thereof that might happen in any particular year. This year, my lettuce crop is going in very late, probably next week in fact when I would prefer to plant it by April 20. If it gets and stays hot rapidly, none of my lettuces might do well. But if the lettuce in the re-mineralized part of the garden yielded better than the same variety in the control area, I’d be pretty certain that the reason was because of the re-mineralized soil.

The problem with running controls has to do with the large numbers of different crops I grow in most beds and the consequent small space devoted to most varieties of most crops. It would be quite difficult to get uniform yet different fertilization schemes into two 8 square foot areas next to each other, the amount of ‘Bronze Arrow’ lettuce that I grow each year. The only one of my crops that I will grow enough square feet of in different beds that I can use a control is corn. For corn I might in fact fertilize one bed (100 square feet) with the original fertilizer formula and the other two beds (200 square feet total) with the 2013 formula. As long as I segregate the ears from the differently-treated beds and weigh them separately, I will have a good control for that one crop. However, for most of the other crops I grow I do have at least one variety that I have grown from anywhere from 5 to 15 years, in a variety of different weather conditions. It shouldn’t be too difficult for me to determine if the yield I get for ‘Bronze Arrow’ lettuce is about what I would expect for whatever conditions it has to grow under, or much better or much worse. I can always change gardening patterns in succeeding years if it seems necessary to the quality of the dialogue that my garden and I practice.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Project Takes Root

A week ago the dogwoods and redbuds were in full, beautiful bloom in our backyard. After three days of highs in the 80-87F range, their flowers have matured and the petals are dropping, while their leaves are expanding. During the same three days I finally planted the seed potatoes, about a month later than I would normally plant them. It hasn't been a normal spring, if such a thing even exists in the Midwest. But at least St. Louis won't be getting any snow today or tomorrow, just lots of cold rain. By next week I should be back in the garden to complete planting of the cool weather crops.

It’s funny how projects can creep up on a person. When I began this blog I intended to touch on different aspects of the practice of voluntary simplicity, or if you prefer voluntary poverty, in the St. Louis region. I don’t prefer calling it voluntary poverty because Mike and I own our land, at least as much as anyone does in the U. S., and we don’t feel poor, but most people would consider us poor if the only piece of information they had about us was our yearly income. Certainly we have limits on what we can do because of that income, but after years of practice we find we can do most anything we really want to do with careful use of the resources around us. More importantly, we know that since we can only do a few things, we’d better be very clear on exactly what it is that we want to do and why.

As I wrote more posts, it became clear to me and I suspect to those of you reading this blog that my gardening efforts dominate the subject matter, and that I approach gardening in a rather scientific way. That shouldn’t be too surprising if you’ve read this post out of the series that I wrote on how our simplicity practice evolved. My application of the scientific method to my gardening efforts isn’t something I have to think about; I can’t imagine doing it any other way. Making scaled graphs of each year’s garden layout, weighing all the produce that I harvest, calculating the weight harvested per square foot for each variety and comparing it to the target yields in How to Grow More Vegetables, comparing the yield and taste of new varieties of vegetables to our current favorites, noting the various patterns of pest and disease infestations each year, looking at all the data at the end of the season to determine what did and didn’t work, trying to puzzle out why something didn’t yield well or why something else got hit by a pest or disease, reading gardening publications in an effort to learn better gardening techniques: all of these things are part of approaching my gardening efforts in a scientific way. But I haven’t been explicit about that in my posts so far.

I’ve been considering my reluctance to admit to the scientific aspect of my gardening practice. I think part of it is imagining the scorn that past scientific colleagues of mine would heap on me for working on what they would consider an uninteresting problem. Back when I was in grad school, we worked at the bleeding edge of science. We had a laboratory full of expensive, delicate optics directing high-powered laser beams that required an amount of electricity to generate that must have been orders of magnitude over what our household uses in the same period of time. We included lots of mathematical equations filled with Greek letters in the papers we wrote to describe our studies. We published these papers in the leading journals in our field of work. While I never presented a paper at a conference (I didn’t have the self-confidence to do so), my colleagues did. I was part of a group of people who considered themselves, and whom society at large considered, as bona fide scientists. Yet as far as I can tell, nothing that I did in grad school or in industry made the slightest bit of positive difference in the world. If anything, it went the other way. On the other hand, I think the gardening science I’ve been and will be doing does have the potential to be helpful to ourselves and others in a world of energy decline, even though it’s strictly amateur (in the sense of done for love rather than money), done on my own time, at home, without the need for fancy math or expensive equipment. It’s the sort of science that anyone can do and that I’d like to see more people learn and practice on the problems that are amenable to it. It’s this kind of science that I’m doing as I work on an issue that’s been of considerable importance to me and I suspect will become more so to more people over the years: just how much food can be grown by ordinary people in their backyards without making it difficult or impossible for other people to do the same thing?

Among the gardening books that are of use to me in my gardening practice,  John Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV), produced by Ecology Action, most directly deals with the issue of growing the most food in the least space in the most sustainable way. Another Ecology Action publication, One Circle, claims that it may be possible to grow a complete diet for one person in about 700 square feet if the method is applied correctly, crops are chosen carefully, and one is willing to eat a monotonous diet heavy in root crops like potatoes and onions and oily seed crops like sunflower seeds. A prerequisite for growing so much food in such a small space is to obtain yields at the medium to high levels for each crop (these are given in HTGMV). However, I’ve only been able to achieve low yields for all of the crops except for parsley mentioned in One Circle, and in fact for most of the crops I grow. I’ve been trying to understand why this is so. After 19 years of gardening I think I’ve gotten pretty good at the basic techniques. I know when to plant each type of crop and how to grow them in St. Louis. But since I’m still obtaining low yields on most crops, there must be a reason or reasons for that.

One possibility is that St. Louis’ growing conditions do not fit well with some crops, especially crops like potatoes and cabbage that yield best in long, cool spring and summer conditions. For crops like these I may never be able to achieve high yields. I also may not have fully optimized my growing practices, hence my continuing study of gardening publications. Lately I’ve been wondering if mineral deficiencies in my soil might be part of the reason for continuing low yields for most vegetables I grow. While Ecology Action’s publications suggest that a proper application of their techniques allows for self-sustaining fertility, they do say that one should have a soil test done when beginning a new garden and fertilize to remedy any deficiencies in the soil before doing the first dig. After that compost made from garden and kitchen refuse should be sufficient to maintain balanced fertility in the garden. When we first moved to this house I had a soil test done through the Missouri Extension service. I made an attempt to fertilize according to its recommendations for the first bed that I dug. But I did not repeat that for any of the subsequent beds.

After reading Steve Solomon’s book Gardening When It Counts, I began to use a version of the Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF) recipe in that book to see if it might raise yields of some crops. It seemed to help a little but not as much as I was hoping. Two of the components I used in the mix, rock phosphate (for phosphorus) and greensand (for potassium), are mined minerals that are expensive to ship due to the weights needed to be effective as fertilizers. I was leery of relying on them both because of the expense and because it didn’t feel right to be using so much of these non-renewable resources in a world of limits. In the past year or two I’ve been using the COF only on the beds planted with corn, as corn is a heavy feeder that needs a lot of fertility to grow well. However, I wasn’t sure if that would leave enough fertility for the next four years’ worth of crops (I’m currently using a five year rotation of crop families to avoid building up family-specific pests and diseases in my garden beds). Meanwhile, I’d been reading Acres U.S.A., a publication devoted to various aspects of holistic farming, where I’d been exposed to the idea that most soils need re-mineralization to produce the kind of pasture and grain crops that make for the best health in animals and people. It sounded good, I wanted to try it, but the bewildering number of publications on re-mineralization was off-putting. I’ll admit, too, that I didn’t want to engage enough with chemistry to understand the science behind the method. You’d think I’d be the ideal person to make sense of it, but the thought brought back too many bad memories of grad school and industry. Thus my excitement at reading Steve Solomon’s newest book, The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense Food. Someone else had done all the hard chemical work for me and all I had to do was apply the results to my own project! The previous post began that project, with my calculating a fertilizer mix specifically to remedy the pattern of mineral deficiencies and excesses in my soil. As the gardening year continues, I will let you know the results.

I have two different reasons for writing about this project. The first is that some of you may find the results applicable to your own gardening efforts. As I noted earlier, all signs are that more of us will either want to or have to grow more of our own food in backyard-sized plots as ongoing decline in available fossil fuel energy intersects with the ongoing decline of Western industrial civilizations. If anything that I have learned can help any of you grow a better garden, I’d like for you to have that information. Of course you will have to translate what I’m doing to your own situation, but I will do my best to provide enough background and references for you to do that.

The second reason has to do with one of the common effects of civilizational decline as discussed by John Michael Greer in his excellent and highly recommended blog The Archdruid Report.  One of those common effects is the loss of a large amount of the knowledge base of a civilization. Greer is particularly concerned about the possibility of the loss of the scientific method to future generations as our civilization moves through the decline process. Note that he’s not referring to the vast body of knowledge built up by using the method. Most of that will prove to be of little if any use to people surviving on a very small fraction of the fossil fuel energy base that our civilization was built upon. He’s referring instead to the process by which that body of knowledge has been obtained: the process of systemic observation, measurement, and experimentation and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses, as Wikipedia puts it. Because we swim in a sea of science and technology, this may seem nearly unbelievable. But between the case that Greer makes for it and some of my own observations, I share his concern. Even so, I’ve resisted the possibility of doing my part to attempt to get the scientific method through decline. I think that has a lot to do with those same bad memories of grad school and industrial science that I mentioned earlier and the lack of self-confidence in myself as a scientist that resulted. But the scientific method has just as much applicability in the garden as it does at the bleeding edge of scientific research. Perhaps if I make my application of the method more explicit, which I will do in one of my upcoming posts, some of you will be inspired to apply the method to those problems for which it works well. Perhaps if any of you try it and find it works, you’ll pass on the method to someone else. The more of us who are applying the method to more different problems in more different ways and passing on our experiences to others, the more likely it is that we can get it through to the people who are alive when things settle down enough to begin work on whatever comes next.

I have lots of other things to talk about this year as well. Just to give you a hint: one of them has to do with tea. You’ll have to check back later for more ...