Sunday, November 28, 2021

Backyard gardening reality revisited, part 3: the complete-diet design collides with reality

The greens and roots bed on November 17


The last post included a complete-diet design for a 2100 square foot garden (twenty-one 100 square foot beds), using crop varieties that I grow and yields I have obtained for them, which can provide marginally enough calories and sufficient protein and calcium for one vegan adult for one year in a good growing year. Now I want to look more critically at the practicality of that design, in garden terms and also in kitchen and eating terms. How would your life change if you were to attempt to grow and eat from this garden, and are those changes acceptable to you?


How much of your backyard is needed for such a garden?


The space required for the garden will be more than 2100 square feet, because you’ll need paths around each of the beds in order to reach all the space in each bed. I can reach a little more than two feet, so a four foot bed width works for me. At 64 years old I am still limber enough that I can leave a one foot wide space between the long side of each bed, but I don’t know for how much longer this will be the case. For those of you who need a smaller bed width or a wider path between beds than I use, you’ll need a larger garden area to accommodate beds and the paths around them than I need. Conversely, if you have a longer arm reach than I do, your beds can be wider and you will need a smaller garden area for the same width paths as I use.


The 12 beds in my garden are arranged in two groups of six beds, oriented with the long sides on an east-west axis. There is a six foot wide path between the two groups of beds and a five foot wide path around the edges of the twelve beds as a unit. You’ll need this much space to easily get a garden cart or wheelbarrow to either short end of each bed – and you’ll need a cart or wheelbarrow to transport compost and possibly other amendments to your beds. Because I have to fence around the paths and beds to keep rabbits from eating most of the garden, my current 1200 square feet of growing space requires closer to 2000 square feet of fenced-off space in the backyard.


Let’s hazard a guess that twenty-one 100 square foot beds will require at least 3000 square feet total to include the paths between and around the beds and at least another clear space of 1000 to 2000 square feet around that to keep anything larger than small shrubs from shading the garden. That means anywhere from 4000 to 5000 square feet is restricted to the actual garden beds, the paths between and around them, and an area that cannot be planted to anything bigger than small shrubs. In the US a typical suburban lot might be about ¼ acre, or 10,000 square feet in size. That means the backyard is probably no more than about 5000 square feet or so. In other words, my complete-diet garden design will require the majority to nearly all of the backyard space available in a typical suburban lot to be devoted to the garden. Most city-dwellers have smaller lots, sometimes much smaller, than this. And even people who have a large enough backyard may have various issues that prevent devoting this much space to vegetables, such as steep slopes or existing large trees on their own or neighboring lots. The complete-diet design, in other words, requires more space than most homeowners in the US have available for food gardening.


How much time will you spend working in this garden?


My current garden of 1200 square feet requires on average 10 to 20 hours a week to prepare, plant, maintain, and harvest from. The garden design I developed is not quite twice as large so a first estimate of the time required for it will be on average 20 to 40 hours a week, or the equivalent of a part to full time job. In case you think my estimate is too large, take a look at this post from an urban gardener with a very large property (2 acres, about twice the size of my lot) who keeps about 2000 square feet of growing space for vegetables. He reports that to keep up that garden plus the fruits, berries, and grapes that he also grows requires the equivalent of about one full time job for one person. Let’s say that you as the gardener are trying to raise all of your food using my garden design and keep up a full time job … you won’t be doing much else besides your job and gardening.


What preservation methods will be needed, and when will you need to plant, harvest, and preserve the crops?


My design is based on my living in zone 6, where I cannot grow anything in open beds for three to four months of the year. Not even kale will overwinter successfully here. Thus my design squeezes a year’s worth of food into a little more than half a year’s growing time. A lot of the food from the garden will need to be stored and preserved in various ways.


The only crops that provide fresh food before the potato harvest in August are beets, garlic, and potato onions. I chose beets for the design because they can be planted in April and mature in July, the seedlings can be thinned for some food before the remainder mature, and both the root and leaves can be eaten. Once they mature, they can be harvested as needed and left in the bed until the temperature drops below the mid 20sF in autumn. I know many people don’t like beets, me among them, but Mike likes them so I grow them every year. I currently grow cabbage-family crops for late spring into summer fresh food, but I already have as many of them as I can fit into the design and still allow for crop rotation. Keeping them growing over the summer inevitably draws destructive insect pests that destroy the seedlings for autumn crops, when I include them in the design and when I also grow them for fresh food, as you can see from the photo above. If I could keep carrots alive in the garden over the summer I would include them in the design rather than beets because both Mike and I eat them, but many carrots rot or are eaten by small mammals during August and September, while beets do not rot and are not eaten by other mammals.  


From late winter or early spring until August, then, you’ll be eating mostly stored food, plus some harvested beets, garlic, and onions. Once the potato harvest begins it’ll be necessary to eat potatoes … lots of potatoes … every day. That’s because you’ll have 400 or so pounds of potatoes to eat before they sprout too much to be edible. Where will you store all of those potatoes? If you have a good place to store potatoes they might last into February, but I don’t; I’d have to start preserving them in November or December as they begin to sprout. And you’ll mostly stop eating corn once you harvest the potatoes, because corn will keep for years as seeds while the potatoes will keep for only a few months as whole potatoes. You’ll eat corn later, after you finish eating squash and potatoes and before the next potato crop matures.


Sometime in August or September you’ll also gain fresh soybeans (edamame) to eat. You’ll freeze or can a large proportion of the crop soon after harvest because it won’t store for long, and it’ll rot otherwise. As September goes on you’ll start eating thinned plants from the turnip and bok choy beds, and the squashes will mature by then. You can keep the squash in your living space and eat it over the next few months, but keep an eye on it and be ready to cook and freeze or can it once the stored squash begin to show a tendency to rot (and you also need enough space to store all that squash). You can start eating the leeks now too; they will be full size, and you can pull and eat them until the ground freezes.


In October and November you’ll have the most fresh food available: by now you’ll be eating, and also cooking and freezing or canning, turnip greens and roots and bok choy. You’ll have lots of turnip roots to store – do you have enough space for them? I find that turnips keep in my makeshift root cellar through late February, so if you have enough space, you can keep and eat from them until then and cook and freeze or can the rest. You’ll plant some of the potato onions and all of the garlic for next year’s crop during this time as well. These will keep for a long time as long as you have cool, dry storage space for them.


A turnip, ready to pick and eat



At some point in November to early December it will get so cold that you’ll have to harvest everything remaining. Better make sure you have plenty of time to process the leeks, turnip greens, and bok choy; none of them store well in my makeshift root cellar.


In March, after the ground thaws completely, you’ll plant the remainder of the potato onion beds. After that you’d better freeze all of the remaining potato onions, because they’ll sprout very soon if they haven’t already. Keep an eye on the garlic too; if it begins to sprout, you’ll need to freeze it too.  You’ll also be starting leek seeds at the beginning of the month so you have leeks to transplant in April. Everything else is direct-seeded.


After March, the carbohydrate in your diet will be some combination of preserved squash, preserved potatoes, and/or something you make from ground corn. For vegetables you’ll be eating from your frozen or canned stock of what you harvested from the previous year’s crops.


In early April you’ll start the bed of beets from seeds and plant the leek seedlings as soon as they are large enough, and you’ll also plant the potato beds. In late April and through May you’ll plant the corn and squash beds. In June you’ll harvest the garlic and potato onions, then plant the soybeans in those beds. In July you’ll begin harvesting beets. In August you’ll harvest the potatoes and then start the beds of turnips and bok choy from seeds. And that brings us back to where we started.


What processing and kitchen tools will you need?


If you expect to can some of the greens and roots, you’ll need a pressure canner, the incidental tools needed for canning, and a large number of canning lids, rings, and jars. You don’t need to buy the canning jars new as long as standard canning lids and rings fit re-used jars. I’ve re-used grocery store jars for water-bath canning without any issues. You may be able to find used canning jars in thrift stores or at yard or estate sales. But you’ll still need to buy new rings the first season – they can be re-used from year to year as long as they have no rust – and you’ll need to buy new lids every year according to current safety standards. Some people have had a hard time finding new canning supplies to purchase the last two years. You’ll also need a lot of sturdy shelf space in a cool and dry location to keep your canned goods. Better start looking for shelving now, or figure out how to build the sturdy shelves you’ll need or hire someone to build them for you. Do you have enough space for those shelves? And can you afford to buy them or the lumber used to make them?


You can also blanch and freeze the greens and roots for later eating (onions and leeks don’t need to be blanched before freezing, but you’ll want to coarsely chop them first). You’ll need a large stock pot or steamer for blanching, and plastic freezer bags to hold the foods you’ll freeze. If you plan to freeze a substantial fraction of the greens and roots, you’ll need a chest freezer. Do you have the space for a chest freezer, and can you afford one? Will you be willing to defrost it every month if you get a cheap one? I don’t defrost ours as often as I should.


If you intend to dehydrate any of the crops you’ll grow, you’ll need a food dehydrator. Since you’ll be harvesting most of the greens and roots in autumn or early winter when there isn’t enough sun for solar dehydrating, you’ll have to use an electric dehydrator. That’ll cost you some electricity, plus you’ll need room to store and use it, and you’ll have to put up with noise from the fan while it operates.


You’ll need a grain mill to grind the corn into meal or flour. To grind dent corn with a hand mill, you’ll want one with a flywheel so you can get enough power behind it to grind the corn to meal in two passes. It’ll take time, say 20 minutes to a half hour to grind 2 cups of kernels to about 3 cups of meal. Of course you’ll need space to store and use it. You’ll also need a hand-cranked sheller to shell the 500 or so ears of corn you harvest. And you’ll need a place to store the ears of corn before you shell them and containers to store the shelled kernels in. You might be able to get some containers for free from businesses who buy ingredients in 4 or 5 gallon plastic buckets, otherwise you’ll need to buy them.


You’ll also need to cook all your meals from scratch, so you’ll need all the standard kitchen appliances and tools and you’ll want cookbooks that tell you how to cook the foods that you’ve grown. If you cook large quantities at one time and can keep what you don’t eat in a refrigerator, you might not need to cook meals every day. But you’ll cook a lot more than you do now.


Are there sufficient fats in the design for good health?


One aspect of the complete-diet design that I did not investigate is whether or not the fat content is sufficient. A range of fats are required for good health. However, determining whether the diet has a sufficient amount of fat is less straightforward than determining if it has enough calories, protein, or calcium. For that reason I did not choose to calculate the fat content, although I will hazard a guess that it is insufficient based on what the design includes.


Will you be able to eat a monotonous diet with little fresh food for several months?


Finally, I address the psychological issue of whether or not you would be willing to eat this way even if you can make everything else work. A complete-diet garden relies on a small number of crops that provide a lot of nutrition for the garden space that they require. This is as true for the designs in One Circle (10 crops in the northern version, 11 crops in the southern version) as it is for my 2100 square foot design (10 crops). Even people who eat vegan diets eat a much wider variety of crops than are in any of the diet designs I’ve seen.


I’ve heard many people say that if you are hungry enough, you’ll eat anything. However, after eating boiled eggs every morning for the past 5 years I’m no longer willing to eat boiled eggs, though I ate fried eggs day in and day out for more years than that and never got tired of them. How long would it take for you to start disliking any of the foods in the diet enough that you’ll no longer be willing to eat them, even if you do have a wide variety of ways to cook, flavor, and eat them? How long would it take before the very low level of sugar and fats in the design bored you to the point where you could no longer face eating the foods you have grown, even if you like them in the quantities you now eat? I would not last long on such an austere diet, even if I liked beets.


I conclude that for reasons of time (growing, harvesting, processing, and cooking) and the psychological factors of food and eating, not only could I not turn the complete-diet garden design into reality, but the number of people who could is very tiny, if it’s not actually zero. But this extensive criticism of my complete-diet design does provide some insights into what makes sense for a backyard garden and the people who grow and eat from it at this particular time. In the final post of this series I’ll discuss this.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Backyard garden reality revisited, part 2: fun with garden design

In the last post I estimated the amount of calories, protein, and calcium that this year’s vegetable garden design can provide, using a combination of yields obtained for crops already harvested and the best yields I have obtained from previous years’ gardens for those crops still in the ground or that failed. I want to emphasize once again that I used actual yields that I have obtained for actual varieties in my actual garden in order to do this nutritional analysis. All other attempts that I know of to analyze the nutrition available from a small backyard garden have assumed Ecology Action’s mid-range yields for a small number of crops that may or may not grow in a particular region. Furthermore, the minimum-area designs in One Circle do not allow for easy crop rotation, so it might be difficult to sustain yields over a period of years.


My 2021 garden falls far short of providing enough nutrition to sustain one adult human for a year because it does not grow a large enough area of high-calorie crops such as grains, potatoes, leeks, and garlic. Suppose, then, I design the garden in blocks that I can rotate such that no plant family is repeated in the same bed more often than once in four years and include higher percentages of the high-calorie crops in the design than I do in my actual garden. Crop rotation reduces the buildup of pests and diseases that can happen when crops of one plant family are grown repeatedly on the same land area, and it also helps to avoid imbalances in soil minerals that can build up under the same conditions. What is the minimum area of this type of design to provide an adult with a full year’s worth of calories, protein, and calcium?


Ecology Action suggests that a minimum-area garden should have grain and fava bean crops planted in about 60% of the garden, potatoes or other high-calorie root crops in about 30% of the garden, and the rest planted to all the other crops. If we are to have a four year rotation between crop families like the grass family (corn), the bean family (soybeans) and the nightshade family (potatoes), then a garden plan allowing for that rotation would include one block of corn; one block of soybeans; one block of potatoes; and one block containing crops in plant families other than those three. This last block should contain substantial amounts of Ecology Action’s other special root crops, as given on page 40 of the 8th edition of How to Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV).


Let’s start with a 1600 square foot garden design containing four blocks of 400 square feet each. Each 400 square foot block contains four 100 square foot beds. I’ll design the garden as follows.


Block 1: four 100 square foot beds of dent corn.

Block 2: four 100 square foot beds of soybeans, harvested green.

Block 3: four 100 square foot beds of potatoes. After the potato harvest two of the beds are planted to turnips (cabbage family), with both the greens and the roots being eaten, while the other two beds are planted to bok choy (cabbage family).


The four beds in Block 4 will be planted as follows:

            One 100 square foot bed to winter squash (cucurbit family)

            One 100 square foot bed to beets (amaranth family)

            One 100 square foot bed planted half to leeks and half to elephant garlic (allium family)

            One 100 square foot bed planted to potato onions (allium family)


Notice that the garden design allots about 25% of the garden area to a grain (corn) and another 25% to soybeans (not fava beans as HTGMV recommends, which don’t grow well in this climate). About 30% is planted to potatoes, garlic, and leeks among the special root crops. The other beds are planted to other crops that yield well in my garden and are good sources of various nutrients but are not as efficient at producing either calories or protein.


The spreadsheet below shows the calories, protein, and calcium this garden design provides. The values for calories, protein, and calcium per pound for each crop were obtained from the 8th edition of HTGMV. The yields are the best I have obtained for that crop as shown in the spreadsheet in my post on the 2020 garden results or, for crops that have already been harvested, the yields I have obtained in 2021. As with the previous post, I compared the result to the daily requirements for calories, protein, and calcium as given in the book One Circle.



This is encouraging; the calories have more than doubled compared to the 2021 garden design although still not up to the daily need, protein is borderline, and there is more than enough calcium. Suppose I increase the garden design to 2000 square feet, planted as follows:


Block 1: five 100 square foot beds of dent corn.

Block 2: five 100 square foot beds of soybeans.

Block 3: five 100 square foot beds of potatoes followed by three 100 square foot beds of turnips and two 100 square foot beds of bok choy.

Block 4: one 100 square foot bed each of garlic, leeks, beets, potato onions, and squash.


The spreadsheet below gives the calories, protein, and calcium for this garden design. The values are higher, but still short of the daily requirement for calories.




If I designed a garden with a higher percent of the area devoted to corn and potatoes, a garden of about this size would provide an even higher fraction of the daily requirement for calories and protein. To do this, let’s consider a design with a three year rotation, as in my real-life garden. Here’s a design for a 1500 square foot garden with a three year rotation:


Block 1: five 100 square foot beds of dent corn.

Block 2: five 100 square foot beds of potatoes, followed by three 100 square foot beds of turnips and two 100 square foot beds of bok choy.

Block 3: two 100 square foot beds of potato onions followed by soybeans, harvested green; 50 square feet of garlic followed by soybeans; 50 square feet of leeks; one 100 square foot bed of beets; one 100 square foot bed of winter squash.




This design provides almost as many calories as the 2000 square foot design in a smaller space than the 1600 square foot design. My three year rotation scheme has kept pests and disease at a low-enough level for the past decade, so I think that a three year rotation plan is good enough.


Could a 2100 square foot garden with a three year crop rotation provide enough calories for one vegan adult for a year? Let’s find out. Here is the design:


Block 1: seven 100 square foot beds of dent corn.

Block 2: seven 100 square foot beds of potatoes, followed by six 100 square foot beds of turnips and one 100 square foot bed of bok choy.

Block 3: two 100 square foot beds of beets; one 100 square foot bed of winter squash; one 100 square foot bed of leeks; one 100 square foot bed of garlic; two 100 square foot beds of potato onions. The garlic and potato onion beds are followed by soybeans (three 100 square foot beds).


And here is the spreadsheet:




Finally, a design that provides marginally enough calories and more than sufficient protein and calcium for one vegan adult for a year; that allows for an easy three year crop rotation; and that uses crops I actually grow, plants them as I do in my garden, and assumes yields I have actually attained!


Now let’s step back and look more closely at the design with a gardener’s eye.


First, remember that yields vary from year to year for many different reasons, such as unusual weather conditions, spotty germination of seeds, pest or disease problems, and/or other issues. Thus in any one year the actual amount of calories, protein, and calcium obtained from the harvest may not be as high as the amount shown.


Could that be compensated for by increasing yields? Possibly. For one, there are far more varieties of each of these crops than I have tried. Maybe a different variety would yield more than the variety that I grow.


Or I might be able to plant certain crops more closely spaced than I have been. I think I could plant garlic, potato onions, and maybe leeks the same distance apart within the row (6 inches) as I do now but with rows 8 to 9 inches apart rather than 12 inches apart. It’s possible that corn stations could be 18 inches apart within a row. Potatoes might be planted 8 or 9 inches apart rather than 12 inches. All of these would increase the number of plants in a 100 square foot bed, which could increase the yield as long as the plants still can access sufficient resources from the soil. I haven’t grown soybeans enough years to know how to best plant them, so I might be able to increase their yield as well.


Earlier this year I read Kelly Winterton’s publications on potato onions (look toward the bottom for the links). He suggests doing two things to increase the yield of potato onions: soak them in a weak bleach solution before planting them, and plant them in early spring rather than in autumn (he spring plants in Utah). While most of the larger bulbs that I plant in autumn survive the winter under mulch, many to most of the smaller ones – which is most of what I plant – rot either before the mulch is removed or in the first month or so afterward. Following Kelly’s methods might lead to higher yields.


Taking all this together, I feel reasonably safe in saying that a 2100 square foot garden in the St. Louis region, planted according to my design, could potentially provide all of the calories, protein, and calcium for one vegan adult for one year if year-to-year yield variability can be compensated for by increasing the yields through good variety choice and closer plant spacing.


However, there is much more to the minimum-area garden than a design on paper. As I have discussed before, there are a host of other issues, from garden labor to preserving the harvest to meal planning to psychological and cultural issues surrounding diet that I need to address with the garden design that I have developed, just as I did with the minimum-area designs in One Circle. In the next post I’ll tackle these.


Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Backyard garden reality revisited, part 1: can my current garden feed me for a year?


Late summer color provided by sweet coneflowers.

In 2013 I critiqued a concept that has become embedded in discussions about living sustainably: that it is possible to grow all the required calories and nutrients needed to maintain health for a vegan diet for one adult in a space of 1400 square feet or less. David Duhon designed gardens intended to do just that using the medium yields for crops in John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables and published his results in the book One Circle. While I find the procedure Duhon used to be valuable in analyzing the nutritional possibilities of a small garden space, a careful reading of that book and subsequent garden design publications from Ecology Action shows that these are thought experiments only. The most recent small garden diet design I’ve seen from a source outside of Ecology Action is also a thought experiment. I wanted to know if a real gardener in a particular place could obtain high enough yields to grow a complete diet for a vegan adult in 1400 square feet or less while also practicing sustainable gardening principles such as crop rotation and soil re-mineralization. I promptly volunteered myself for the role of that real gardener and have spent the last 8 growing seasons seeking to answer the question for my suburban St. Louis, Missouri garden. Now I have learned enough to wrap up the project in this and the next few posts. I’ll begin with my current garden design and ask what percentage of an adult vegan’s diet for a year it can supply.


I garden in a fenced-off area of the backyard with full sun exposure containing twelve 100 square foot beds separated by paths. This post discusses the reasons for my adoption of the gardening techniques and soil re-mineralization methods described by Steve Solomon rather than those promoted by Ecology Action. Each report on the previous year’s garden such as the most recent report includes the spacing and timing for each crop I grew that year and the yield I obtained. I have set up the garden so that the group of three beds of corn rotates as a block through the nine beds planted to grains or vegetables, so that any one bed in the garden is grown to corn one year, then to something other than corn for the next two years. Each of the other beds is rotated so that no bed is grown to crops of the same plant family two years in a row. This feature addresses one of the major flaws in Duhon’s designs, the inability to rotate crops properly. My garden design addresses the climate limitations of my location, such as the inability to overwinter any crops other than potato onions and garlic in an open garden. The very short springs and autumns I experience restrict double-cropping, a feature of Duhon’s designs that does not translate well to this climate.


The beds in the 2021 garden are planted as follows. Each bed is 4 feet by 25 feet, for a total of 100 square feet of growing space in each bed.

·      One bed of annual and perennial flowers and herbs, including sorrel, the only crop eaten as a vegetable from this bed

·      One bed of strawberries

·      One bed of raspberries

·      Three beds of popcorn, two of which also include naked-seeded pumpkin vines

·      One bed consisting of peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and basil

·      One bed of squash-family plants (summer and winter squash including zucchini, cucumbers, and muskmelons)

·      One bed of overwintering potato onions and garlic. After June harvest, this bed was replanted to a mix of zinnia, sunflowers, cucumbers, soybeans (for edamame), and zucchini

·      One bed of bean-family plants (green and lima beans and cowpeas)

·      One bed of potatoes. After the potato harvest this bed was planted to an autumn crop of greens and roots, mostly from the cabbage family but also to include lettuce

·      One bed of spring-planted greens and roots, including lettuce, cabbage, bok choy, carrots, beets, and leeks


The spreadsheet below includes the names of each variety of each crop that I am growing this year; whether or not the crop is a grain (G), dry bean (B) or special root crop (R) according to Ecology Action; a yield I have obtained for that crop, in pounds per 100 square feet; and the number of square feet of garden space I have allotted for that crop in the 2021 garden.


Because I am in the middle of the growing season, I only have a yield for 2021 for the crops I have already removed from the garden. On the spreadsheet, those crops are in bold type. Some of the varieties I’m growing this year are new to me. Those crops are in italic type. For these crops, I have reported the best yield I have obtained for a similar variety that I have grown.


For the rest of the crops, I have reported the best yield I have so far obtained for that crop. Some of the crops may yield better than that this year. Some may not yield as well. Thus the best I can do is approximate the percentage of a complete diet for one vegan adult that I will grow this year. You’ll soon see that this is good enough to answer the question.


In the case of popcorn, some animal – I suspect squirrels – has already eaten every single ear on every plant. In its place, I have substituted the dent corn variety that I have grown in previous years and the best yield I obtained for it, which occurred in 2019. Thus the results given in the spreadsheet are actually an overestimate of the nutrition that the 2021 garden will provide. However, including it gives an upper limit to how much nutrition this garden design is capable of providing when everything goes right.


How To Grow More Vegetables includes the calories, protein (in grams), and calcium (in milligrams) for each crop listed in the Master Charts. Using the total weight of each crop that I have already harvested or that I can reasonably expect to harvest, I multiplied the per-pound values given in HTGMV by the weight of each crop in pounds to obtain the total calories, protein, and calcium provided by that crop. Summing up the columns for each of those provides the total amount of calories, protein, and calcium that I estimate I will harvest from the garden in 2021. Then I divided that number by 365 to obtain the daily amount of each, to compare with the dietary needs chart on pages 69-71 in One Circle



No, my current garden will not supply me with sufficient calories, protein, or calcium to sustain me for a full year. In fact, it falls quite far from that standard in both calories and protein, by a factor of three to five. In terms of calcium it does somewhat better, supplying me with close to half of what I need for a year. Since two adults are eating from this garden, the garden falls even farther short of supplying us with a complete diet.


Why does Ecology Action highlight grains, dry beans, and certain root crops in their gardening method? A look at the spreadsheet gives the answer. The corn crop provided by far the highest amount of calories compared to any other crop – more than half of the total, in fact. Potatoes, one of the special root crops, were also a significant source of calories, as were soybeans even though they were eaten green rather than dry. If the cowpeas had yielded better they also would have been a significant source of calories. The corn, potatoes, and soybeans were also the most significant sources of protein. Garlic and leeks provided good amounts of calories for the small amount harvested. This is why Ecology Action recommends allotting about 60% of garden space to grain crops (this category also includes dry beans), about 30% to high yielding root crops such as potatoes, garlic, and leeks, and about 10% to everything else. Such a design, however, has the disadvantage of not allowing for crop rotation unless you include grain crops that are not in the grass family, such as sorghum or quinoa, in the grain crop area in sufficient quantity to avoid growing plants in the same crop family in any bed two or more years in a row.


Using the current garden design, then, my garden would need to be four times the size it now is, or 4400 square feet, to provide a just-sufficient amount of calories and protein for my needs. Could a change in design using the same crops that also allows for proper crop rotation reduce the space needed to grow a complete diet? I’ll investigate that possibility in the next post.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

A slice of garden life: the harvest of July 22

I have received a request to post pictures of a recent harvest to this blog. Since I’m still in the process of writing a post on the nutritional content of this year’s garden and whether or not it would be sufficient for a complete diet for a vegan adult for a year, this is a good time for a quick post that’s heavy with pictures. The pictures below show the complete harvest of July 22.


At this time of year I’m primarily harvesting squashes, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Although I could have chosen to harvest some beets and carrots as well, we have enough vegetables in the refrigerator to leave the beets and carrots in the ground for now.


With that said, let’s begin with the cucumbers and zucchini I harvested on the 22nd. You’ll see them below. The basket is 11.5 inches in diameter. Mike added the cucumbers to the pickling container for us to eat as pickles later on. We use some of the zucchini raw, adding tomatoes, onions, and carrots to make a salad. The rest of the zucchini is used in stir-fried dishes.




In the next picture, the same basket holds six ‘Desi’ summer squash. These will all find their way into stir-fries.




Below you’ll see two of the four heirloom tomato varieties I’m growing in the same basket. The yellow tomato with red stripes is ‘Old German.’ It’s not as productive as the others, but we enjoy it for its flavor and contrasting color in the summer salads I described. By itself the tomato weighs nearly one pound! The surrounding tomatoes are ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ a workhorse of a tomato in this climate. It combines great taste with no green shoulders, depriving the compost pile of some material and leaving more tomato for us to eat.




In the next picture you’ll see ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes in the same basket. They are larger, more variable in shape and size, and darker in color than the ‘Arkansas Traveler’ tomatoes. Like the ‘Old German’ tomatoes, the ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomatoes sport green shoulders. By green shoulders, I mean that when these tomatoes are fully ripe, the area around the blossom end will retain some green color and unripe flavor. We cut the green shoulders off and compost them. For both of these tomatoes, the taste is worth putting up with the green shoulders.




Each of the three tomatoes already shown find their way into salads, with excesses being turned into tomato sauce. The final tomato variety shown below in the same basket, ‘Roma VF’ is a paste tomato that we use exclusively for tomato sauce. It has less pronounced flavor than the others, but it also has less water so it adds volume to the sauce.




We are still waiting for some other summer crops to size up (green beans, eggplants, potatoes) or ripen (sweet peppers, raspberries). Today, the 25th, I harvested the first ripe red sweet pepper. Within the next couple of weeks we should be harvesting the first crops of each of the rest of these.


That’s all for now. Enjoy whatever is in season where you live!

Wednesday, July 7, 2021





While you’re waiting for the next post, I have a couple of announcements.


First, the Sustainable Backyard Network is holding the Sustainable Backyard Tour as a virtual event this year. Mike’s and my yard will be included on the virtual tour, which takes place on Sunday, July 11th on the Network’s YouTube channel. Once you’re there, click on Uploads to see the videos of each yard on the Tour. The one I’m in is called The Intelligent Gardener. You won’t go wrong watching any of them, because they are full of good ideas for people with small spaces, large spaces, and anything in between. I’ll be watching all of them soon!


Second, as of this month Blogger is no longer supporting the FeedBurner app that allowed you to follow this blog through email. I’m in the process of moving to FeedBlitz for the follow-by-email function. Those of you who receive email notice of new posts may find you receive two emails (or maybe more) of the same post while the changeover occurs. I hope that you’ll be patient with me as I become comfortable with the new app.


Thank you for reading and for your comments! See you later this month with the next post.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

What I'm asking the garden in 2021


The garden on May 4. The bed to the left has lettuce, mustard greens, beets, leeks, carrots, cabbage, and bok choy. The bed on the right has potatoes.

Since 2018 I have been asking my garden if some potential soil amendments that I produce at home can replace some of the soil amendments that I import into the garden. Worm castings, one of the potential soil amendments for replacing nitrogen, turned out to be too difficult to apply and too low potency for the small amount of it that I have available. I have also trialed two other materials, urine as a source of nitrogen and wood ashes as a source of calcium, phosphorus, and potassium.


In the last two years the garden told me that urine is as effective as cottonseed meal to provide nitrogen for some kinds of plants, such as corn and tomatoes. In other cases, such as for root crops, it may be less effective than cottonseed meal. It also told me that I can use as much as seven pounds of wood ashes in a garden bed and not raise the pH too much, but that it would be preferable to use that much on crops that will make good use of all the potassium that it brings. However, having only used that large quantity of wood ashes on one crop family, the alliums (garlic and potato onions) that did not make the best use of the excess potassium, I did not know how it might affect other crops.


The first two beds I plant each spring are the potato bed and the bed with greens and roots. I had some cottonseed meal left over from 2019. These crops seem to do better with cottonseed meal than urine. Rather than take the time to look more closely at the soil test results, I used the usual amount of cottonseed meal and just enough wood ashes to make up a magnesium deficiency, using Tennessee brown rock to provide the rest of the phosphorus the beds needed. Then I got those plants into the ground while I gave the whole issue more thought.


Mineral deficits from soil testing. The results from this spring are in the rightmost column.

The garden is settling into a pattern of a few small deficits each season after 8 years of re-mineralization. Organic matter is in the range of 3 to 4%, which is about the best that I can expect for the amount of compost I add and the heat and length of the growing season. The pH is in the right range for vegetables and the TCEC shows that the light silt loam nature of the soil remains unchanged despite adding purchased humates. On the other hand, sulfur and phosphorus deficits have dropped to low levels. Part of the reason I am adding the humates is that they can adsorb and hold sulfur and phosphorus anions; it may be working. The lower the phosphorus deficit, the more likely it is that I can remedy it by adding sufficient wood ashes without needing to add such a large amount as to increase the pH above 7.0. The humates are stable so I should be able to stop adding them at some point. Magnesium is a little deficient, but I can easily add enough wood ashes to remedy it. The sulfur deficiency is easy to remedy with gypsum, the boron deficiency is easy to remedy with borax, and the zinc deficiency is too small to worry about.


Having noticed all that, I decided there were two questions for this year’s garden.

1.     Do I want to use cottonseed meal or urine to add nitrogen to the garden beds this year? Cottonseed meal is easy to apply when I prepare each bed, but I have to buy it. I make my own urine, but last year’s results suggest that I don’t make enough of it to provide all the nitrogen that the spring and summer crops need. I could ask Mike to contribute, but it’s harder to control the amount I add in that case.

2.     Do I want to use a rock source of phosphorus or use wood ashes to make up the phosphorus deficiency? Both are easy to apply when I prepare the bed. I have to buy the rock source. We have wood ashes from the wood stove to make use of, and this year adding a little over 2 pounds to each bed is enough to remedy the phosphorus and magnesium deficiency. Most likely I have enough wood ashes for all of the beds. I will be adding more calcium to an already existing excess if I use wood ashes, but we get rain during the growing season so it would be almost impossible to add so much as to create an undesirable layer of caliche. It’s only a 10% or so excess anyway.


Eventually I realized that I can ask the garden to answer the following questions this year.


1.     In the bed in which I planted the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, I added the full 2 plus pounds of wood ashes to remedy the phosphorus and magnesium deficiencies. This bed produced good yields last year with urine as the nitrogen source, so I will collect urine for it this year as well. It will be easy to collect the 15 or so days’ worth of urine that it will need between now and the beginning of October. This bed will answer the question of the effect of adding both urine and wood ashes on yield, taste, and disease and insect pressure.

2.     I will use the full 2 plus pounds of wood ashes and cottonseed meal on all remaining beds as long as I have enough wood ashes to do so. All of these beds will answer the question of the effect of using wood ashes along with cottonseed meal on yield, taste, and disease and insect pressure. Only on the bed with garlic and potato onions have I done that before and I used about a factor of three more wood ashes that time.


That’s all for now. See you in another month or so!



Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Update and link to interview of me

Accumulating snow on April 20. Note the redbuds and dogwood in bloom.

Last week Mike and I experienced accumulating snow. It's certainly not the first time it has snowed in April in St. Louis. In fact it's not that uncommon to receive snow in early April. However, in the 36 Aprils I have lived in St. Louis, none has included an accumulating snow after the middle of the month, until this one. 

It was bad enough to receive snow, but worse that it was accompanied by two freezes, on the mornings of April 21 (30F) and April 22 (32F). All of the fruit trees except for the persimmons had flowered and leafed out. Only the pawpaw trees show damage to the leaves and flowers, so it could have been worse. I won't know how significantly this year's pawpaw crop has been affected for some time.

This isn't the post I promised you on what I'm asking the garden this year. After I complete another writing commitment I will write that post. But I do want to draw your attention to Lisa Brunette and her blog Cat In The Flock. Lisa and I met through a mutual interest in John Michael Greer's work and found out we share gardening and blogging interests and write about our gardens, among other topics, on our blogs. Lisa and her husband Anthony Valterra live in another of St. Louis' many suburbs. In the last year or so we've become friends, and I've become a fan of Lisa's blog (you'll see it over on the blogroll). If you enjoy my blog, you'll enjoy Lisa's as well. I really like her and Anthony's sense of style as well as the practical work that they do. They make living with LESS beautiful!

Recently, as Lisa explains on her blog, she interviewed me and will feature that interview on three posts. You'll find the first post here. The next two go live on May 2 and May 5. I encourage you to read them and to enjoy the other posts on Lisa's blog as well. And thanks to Lisa for the interviews and for her work!