Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The 47 hour learning experience



The weather headlines this summer have been about heat, heat, and more heat. But it hasn’t been hot everywhere, and one of the places where it hasn’t been particularly hot is where I live. Which is not to say that summer weather has been uneventful.


We often found ourselves on the northern periphery of the heat bubble that affected the southern tier of states during most of the summer. At times the mixing of hot and moist air with cooler, drier air resulted in outbreaks of severe thunderstorms along portions of the periphery. We’ve experienced four of them so far, on June 1, July 1, July 14, and July 29. Each time we lost electrical service as a result of downed electrical lines. Living in an area with overhead lines and many large old trees, any episode of high winds brings down limbs and sometimes entire trees onto the lines, cutting off electrical service for some people. We’ve become accustomed to losing electrical service during severe thunderstorms. Usually it remain off for a few hours, and we have a routine established for such short-term outages. But the damages in our area from the July 14th storm were so severe that it took our electrical utility 47 hours to restore our electrical service. We were without electricity from about 7:30pm on the 14th to about 6:30pm on the 16th. The photo above shows one reason for our loss of electricity: two houses up the street to the west, a trunk of a silver maple tree fell on the overhead electrical lines and across the full width of our narrow, two lane, low traffic street.


The last time our electricity had been out for so long was in 2006, following two severe thunderstorms about 36 hours apart. We had no electricity for 6 days after the second storm. What we learned then had already been incorporated into our power-out routine. To make things easier, our nearest grocery store and some of the local gas stations installed generators as a result of the 2006 storms, so we could readily obtain ice and groceries after this storm. But I hadn’t fully accounted for another change since 2006, which came to the forefront during this 47 hour outage.


In this post I’ll discuss how we fared during the recent outage and what we learned for the next one – because there will be a next one, and another, and another. That’s what decline looks like. I hope you can learn something from our experience that helps you the next time an electrical outage happens to you.


Air conditioning


Most of the people we told about our 47 hour outage expressed the most discomfort about not having air conditioning during that time. For us, that was the least of our concerns.


Granted, the few days before and including the day of the storm featured some of the hottest and most humid weather we’ve had this summer. We had our air conditioning on, set at 80F as we prefer, when the storm hit. Along with the high winds, we received about 2.3 inches of rain.


Rain cools the air. Immediately following the thunderstorm, the temperature dropped from the upper 80sF to the low 70sF. We responded by opening the windows to let in the cooler air. It was more humid air than the air in the house, but by living our lives in the house, we raise the humidity just by breathing. With all of the windows open wide, we cooled the house enough to sleep comfortably that night.


As we always do in the summer to minimize air conditioner usage, we left the windows open the next two mornings until the temperature rose outside to above the interior temperature, then closed them. In the evenings, after the outside temperature dropped below the inside temperature, we opened the windows again. Two other improvements to the house that we’ve made over the years, sealing against air leaks and adding insulation in 2005 and new windows last year, combined with the strategic opening and closing of the windows, kept the temperature inside the house at 76 to 78F. It helped that the weather cooled off as well, with highs of 89F and 92F on the 15th and the 16th. Even if we hadn’t lost electricity, we would not have run the air conditioner after the rain cooled the air, nor did we turn it back on after our electrical service was restored. We spent most of the two days of the outage, as we do during the warmer months of the year, on the roomy and breezy back porch rather than in the house.




We have collected quite a few sources of off the grid lighting over the years, which we employed during the hour or so we were awake in the evenings after the sun went down. Among these are two oil lamps that sit on the low shelf separating the two largest rooms in the house; multiple flashlights, including the one on a headband that I use for reading and seeing my way around the house during outages; and a candle for light in the bathroom. We have two battery-powered lanterns as well (we keep their batteries sitting next to them so they don’t corrode and install the batteries only when we put them to use), but with it being summer the days were long enough that we didn’t need to employ them. We ate meals on the back porch instead of in the kitchen as we usually do, because it was brighter on the porch.




With scattered severe thunderstorms predicted for the evening of the 14th, we chose to eat dinner earlier than usual so that any leftovers would be in the refrigerator and cooling down if not already cooled before a storm hit. After the storm, we implemented our don’t-open-the-fridge rule to keep the contents cool enough that we wouldn’t need to worry about them until the next morning.


I know that “experts” claim that the food in refrigerators only stays cool enough for safety for 4 hours. Let me unpack what I think are the factors that go into that advice.


First, it seems likely that the “experts” expect someone in the house to open the refrigerator door at least once, if not more than once, during that four hours. Opening the door lets some of the cold air out, replacing it with room-temperature air. If no one opens the door, this exchange of air takes place much more slowly, allowing the contents to stay safely cool for a longer period, especially if the contents are all at refrigerator temperature at the time the electricity goes out. That’s why we keep aware of our local weather and the local NWS weather radar when severe weather is predicted, and why we always eat any meal that we would normally eat around the time of expected severe weather well before that time, so that we can keep the refrigerator closed for several hours in case of an electrical outage.


Second, the “experts” most likely have lawyers advising them. Lawyers are paid to be risk-averse and advise their clients accordingly. I am NOT advising you to do what we do! We are willing to take some risks as long as careful thought suggests that for us the risk is minimal. All readers need to assess their own situations carefully and act accordingly.


The next morning, the electricity was still off. I checked for news about the outage on the emergency radio because we don’t have internet service when the electricity is out and neither Mike nor I have a data plan on our cell phones (more on this in the communications section). The brief local news report on the major local FM station didn’t mention the outage, suggesting it was restricted to a relatively small area, but a look at our street showed that nothing had changed since the night before. We began to suspect that we might not have electricity for at least several more hours and that it was time to get some ice and transfer the contents of the fridge to coolers. After visiting a local donut store for donuts and hot coffee and tea, allowing us to add some charge to our cell phones (see the communications section), we bought ice and transferred all the food that needed continued cooling into coolers with ice. We left cheese, butter, and the garden vegetables in the fridge since they didn’t require being cooled to stay safe. We transferred the food in the freezer compartment to the chest freezer along with another bag of ice to keep the food in it from thawing. Having done this, we could eat from the foods in the cooler as well as the various canned foods and the pretzels and crackers that we keep for eating during shorter-term outages when we aren’t opening the refrigerator.


On the 16th, when electrical service still hadn’t been restored, we emptied the bag of ice in the chest freezer into the coolers and bought two more bags of ice, which we put in the freezer unopened to keep it cool. If the electricity hadn’t been restored by the morning of the 17th, we would have considered getting dry ice for the freezer, but we hoped that wouldn’t be necessary. We would have then used the ice in the freezer for the coolers. After the electricity came on in the evening of the 16th, the bags of ice in the freezer became available for future electrical outages – and we used one of them during the outage on the 29th, because the electricity had already been out for about 5 hours before we went to bed. The second bag is still in the chest freezer, ready for whenever we next need ice.




We have an electric stove so we couldn’t use it during the outage, but we also have several means to cook food without electricity. Had the weather been sunny I would have employed the sun oven to heat water for tea and coffee and to heat foods from the cooler as desired, but conditions were too cloudy for its use. We could have heated water or leftovers or cooked on the propane grill or the charcoal grill, but as it turned out, we didn’t do this. Instead, we got tea and coffee from the donut store and a local gas station, ate out the evening of the 15th, and got a rotisserie chicken the late afternoon of the 16th from the local grocery store because I wanted to eat hot rather than cold food for dinner. Otherwise we ate leftovers out of the coolers.


Next time, we’ll do more to employ non-electric sources of heat for cooking, as I am not fond of a continued diet of cold foods, and meals out are increasingly expensive.




This was our biggest challenge during this outage.


In 2006, while we lost internet service once the battery backup lost charge, we retained landline service because the phone was hard-wired into the phone network. Neither of us had cell phones then. Not having internet service wasn’t a big issue, as our service was slow and used primarily for email, which we could check on the computers at the library.


For several years our battery backup module for internet service has been inoperable, probably due to failure of the battery inside. We knew where we could take our unit to get the battery replaced. We just hadn’t done it and accepted the loss of internet during electrical outages, knowing that if we really want or need service, we can take our computers to the library to read and respond to email and to read some of the websites we frequent. I’m a reader rather than a video watcher and I always have multiple projects in progress that don’t depend on the internet, so I’m never bored. Mike likes to watch short videos on the net but he likes to read as well, and we play our own music rather than listen to others play music. In short, we enjoy internet but don’t require it to make our lives bearable, and we have more than enough to do when it isn’t available.


On the other hand, since most of our electrical outages are for less than 8 hours, and because our electrical utility forces us to stay abreast with information on outages through its website, it would be good to have the battery backup module working again. I’ll take our old module in for battery replacement soon.


We still have the landline phone but now it’s connected to the fiberoptic system and we supply the electricity to run it, so it is inoperative during electrical outages. Our cell phones work during outages – as long as they are charged. Our standard procedure when severe weather threatens is to charge up our cell phones well before severe weather hits. But I neglected to charge my phone before this storm. That was a mistake, as I had less than two days’ worth of charge on my phone when the electricity went out.


Mike wasn’t as affected by the lack of electricity for charging his phone, because he could take advantage of one of our alternative means to charge the phones, via an adapter to charge it from the car battery. He had two events at the Zen center he belongs to, and it’s far enough from us that he could get a good charge on his phone by driving to and from the Zen center. However, the only riding in the car that I did was on much shorter drives that did little to charge my phone. My only alternative was to limit phone time. Even then, my phone dropped to near zero charge before the electricity came back on.


Our other alternative means to charge the phone is from our emergency radio, which has three different ways to power its internal rechargeable batteries: solar cells, a hand-cranking system, and an AC adapter to charge it from our electrical service. It has an adapter with a USB port on one end and a jack into the radio on the other for charging cell phones. It also accepts three AA batteries, so it doesn’t need to use the rechargeable batteries for radio service. We got the radio in 2016, when we were still relying more on the landline phone than our cell phones, primarily for its function as a receiver of FM, AM, and weather broadcasts when we don’t have electricity. While I knew it could be used to charge our cell phones, I hadn’t tried to do so.


When I realized that my cell phone didn’t have enough reserve charge to remain usable through the expected length of this outage, I remembered that in theory I could charge it from the radio. But I didn’t remember where I had stored the adapter for that purpose, and I began to fear I’d lost it. Even if I had found it, the rechargeable batteries would not have had enough charge to add much charge to my cell phone.


Earlier this month, I consulted the website for the radio’s manufacturer and discovered, much to my relief, that the cell phone charging adapter was offered for sale as a replacement part. I promptly ordered one. Then, before it arrived, I got it in mind to look again for the adapter and discovered it in the tray of a desk drawer, hidden under a pile of rubber bands. So now we have two adapters. In the meantime, I found the manual for the radio and read it more closely, learning that the AC adapter would charge the rechargeable batteries more quickly than either the solar cells or the hand crank. The AC adapter doesn’t come with the radio but it can be purchased from the same website. After checking our collection of spare AC adapters and not finding a suitable version, I ordered the AC adapter from the website. It’s arrived and I’ve charged the internal battery with it. I also found a small cloth bag to keep the cell phone adapters and the AC adapter in and put the bag next to the radio, so we can find them the next time we want them. When the cell phone next needs charging, I’ll try charging it from the radio.


The other issue I may address is the lack of a data plan on both of our cell phones. Mike has an Android smartphone but doesn’t have a data plan with it, so he can only talk or text during electrical outages. I have a flip phone that doesn’t have a data plan option, so I can also only talk or text in that situation. I’m considering upgrading to the smartphone and data plan that my provider offers, because it would be helpful to have the ability to access our electrical utility’s website during electrical outages.


I hope you all enjoy the rest of summer (or winter if you are reading from the southern hemisphere)! I expect the next post to be a quick update on this year’s garden.


Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Results from the 2022 garden and plans for 2023

Every year at about this time I write posts on what I learned from the previous garden and what I want to learn from the new garden. This year I’m combining them into a single post.


In the tables below you’ll find the yields for each crop I harvested in 2022.



Our last spring frost date (low of 32F or less) was April 19th, with a low of 34F on April 26th. Despite the late cold snap, the average temperature for the month was about normal. Precipitation was less than normal but adequate. May was warm and wet, while June was hotter and drier than normal. This weather pattern favors the spring crops like lettuce, cabbage, and bok choy. A look at the data shows that while none of these crops broke yield records, each of them did well.


The hotter and drier pattern in June continued through July, with one exception: record-breaking rainfall on July 25-26. August was about average in temperature and rainfall, while September was about average temperature but very dry. October was very dry till the last week, with the first autumn frost occurring on October 18th, with a low of 29F (the low was 25F on the 19th). The dry conditions combined with hot weather in June and July led to pepper flowers not pollinating well, reducing their yields considerably. The bell pepper plants didn’t set any peppers until well into August, and the plants suffered more from disease than did the ‘Italian Frying’ variety. Tomatoes withstood conditions better and the muskmelon yield would have been higher but for one fruit that a critter found before we did. The vining beans had decent yields and the bush lima bean yielded better than the pole lima beans that I have tried, but the squash and cucumber plants died early and produced poorly. The combination of dry autumn conditions and lack of thinning led to poor yields of autumn crops – and the critter(s) that ate the lettuce and kale didn’t help matters any. I did a better job of thinning the beets, and they, carrots, and leeks produced a decent yield.


For the fruits, the strawberry plants would have yielded more, but I was unable to pick them for a week during the height of their ripening. The plants did not come back after I mowed them in June, following the end of fruiting. Apparently the combination of age and inadequate watering on top of the stress of being mowed led to their deaths. Because the raspberries were newly planted in the spring, they did not yield, and critters ate all the apples on all three apple trees. I don’t know why the persimmon yield was low. On the other hand, the pawpaw trees yielded magnificently! We’re still eating pawpaws that I froze from last summer!


One of the questions I wanted the 2022 garden to answer is how well a six-bed vegetable garden fits in with the other interests and commitments of my life. As it turned out, the answer isn’t yet clear. On the one hand, it was less work than the nine-bed garden, and we had a good variety of fresh produce from the vegetable garden from late May through early December. In fact, we still have daikon radishes in storage, waiting to be eaten. On the other hand, the garden work still got ahead of me, especially in summer and autumn. Certainly the heat didn’t help, but it seemed to be more than that. It may be that I need to re-think the amount of time I give the various activities of my life if I am to keep up with the weeding and thinning of a six-bed garden. Or it may be that I need to consider a further reduction in the space devoted to vegetable gardening. I’ll consider that as I work in the six-bed garden this year.


Another question I asked was how the bush lima bean variety I trialed in 2022 would yield and if it would be a good garden citizen and not overgrow the space allotted to it. On both counts I’m very pleased with it. We haven’t eaten any of the crop yet, but I will grow it again this year and hope that we like the taste of the beans when we get around to cooking them.


In 2022 I asked the potato onions if planting the 1 to 1.5 inch diameter bulbs in early March would lead to better survival and yield than planting them in early November. Those were the onions planted in 62 square feet in the data tables. The answer: yes, planting them in early March resulted in greater survival and higher yield. In fact, they out-yielded the 1.5 to 2 inch diameter onions that I planted in early November (the onions planted in 27 square feet).


This year’s question for the potato onions is if I can hold the larger onions in storage until early March (larger potato onions don’t survive as long in storage as smaller ones do) and plant them out then to obtain a higher yield with them as well. In order to minimize rotting I laid them out in a single layer on a wire shelf suspended from the basement ceiling. As of today, only a few of the smaller onions have sprouted, but close to half of the larger onions have sprouted. I’ll plant all of the un-sprouted larger onions and as many of the sprouted larger onions as seem to be firm enough to catch on and grow. I’ll keep the harvest from each part of the bed separate so I can compare the yields from the area planted to larger onions from the yield planted to smaller onions. I’ll also observe the plants as they grow and take notes of any differences between the areas.


What about last year’s experiment with seeds from Lisa Brunette’s potato onions? Well, they produced seedlings that I planted out, and the seedlings grew well. The plants went dormant in June, at the same time as the potato onion bulbs go dormant and I harvest them. Unlike the case with the onions in the documentation I read, the seed-grown onions did not grow larger than the bulb-grown onions. Rather, the seed-grown onions were smaller. So I left them all in the ground. In retrospect, I should have harvested half of them then and left the rest in the ground, because most of them rotted over the summer. But six of them revived in early autumn. Rather than leave them to the ravages of winter, I potted each of them up and moved them to the front porch. All have survived the winter on the front porch. I’ll share half of them with Lisa and plant the other half in my garden (making sure to harvest them in June along with the crop from bulbs!). Meanwhile, I stored the rest of Lisa’s seeds in the freezer and planted some of them in a flat for this year’s bed. I stored the seeds in the freezer rather than in the basement where I store the rest of the seeds because onion and leek seeds are not supposed to be long-lived, perhaps only a year or so. The colder and drier they are stored, the longer they live.


For the three beds that I used to plant in corn, my current plan is to move some plants from elsewhere in the yard that need more sun or need dividing into that space. This will include daylilies, purple coneflowers, and peonies. I am also considering other perennial herbs for any space remaining. I will mulch as much of these beds with autumn leaves as I have available to reduce the weeding needed. Thanks to someone who dumped 20 or 30 plastic bags full of leaves into the creek down the street that Mike and I salvaged, I already have some of the mulch in place. As I continue with garden clean-up I’ll rake more leaves for these beds.


This year I’m planting a new strawberry bed with new plants of the same variety, ‘Earliglo’. If I have enough autumn leaves I will mulch this bed as well and do the best I can to keep competing plants out of it.


While I plan to continue the blog for the time being, expect posting to be occasional and at irregular intervals. In the meantime, enjoy life!

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Citrus for cold climates and warm homes


I’ve described our glassed-in front porch aka solar greenhouse in a previous post, but I haven’t talked about the citrus trees that I keep on it during the winter, aside from the time that the weather outside became so cold that some of them died. Here’s what I have learned about the varieties of citrus that I can grow successfully in containers on our front porch, for those of you in cold-winter climates who may wish to add home-grown citrus to your diet.


The 2014 cold spell was much harder on the citrus plants than I had realized when I wrote that post. It turned out that the only citrus tree on the porch that survived was the ‘Meyer Improved’ lemon, and not without damage. Because the satsuma tangerine was small enough to move into the house, it survived as well. I replaced the dead trees with a ‘Lisbon’ lemon, a ‘Bearss’ lime, and a ‘Meiwa’ kumquat. This set of trees grew well.


By early 2019, the tangerine had fruited a couple of times, though not profusely. The ‘Lisbon’ lemon sported its first crop of 8 large lemons and we were looking forward to their ripening! But then an ominous weather forecast prompted me to move the kumquat, lime, and Meyer lemon into the basement to avoid potential sub-freezing temperatures. The Lisbon lemon and the tangerine were bigger, enough so that it made it difficult to move them into the house. I chose to leave them on the porch. Both froze to death. (We did juice the frozen lemons … the juice was delicious.)


With this many years of experience I feel confident that I can now provide recommendations on the best citrus to grow in containers for those of us who are forced by cold winter conditions to move them inside our homes for part or all of our winters. These trees are easy to care for, are attractive especially when in bloom or when covered with ripe fruits, and provide excellent fruits that ripen in winter to add some freshness to winter meals. They are small enough to be placed in a basement or in front of a good-sized window inside the house, if you don’t have a greenhouse or a space like our front porch that can be made into one.



My ‘Meiwa’ kumquat tree, shown above, is covered with small fruits that pack a much larger taste than their size suggests. In my opinion, kumquats are the best choice for anyone with limited space that allows for only one plant (my 9 year old plant is about 3 feet wide and tall). Because you eat the whole kumquat except for the seeds – in fact, the peel is the sweetest part of a kumquat! – there is little waste. Like other citrus, the flowers have a strong floral odor. It blooms later than the lemon and lime trees, in the summer rather than in the spring. I just harvested the first four kumquats and should be harvesting fruit for the next few weeks as each one ripens. A kumquat tree may live through a very light frost but should be moved out of the cold when temperatures drop below 30F.


For those of you who like limes and have room for a somewhat larger plant, I suggest the ‘Bearss’ lime. My lime tree (above, with the yellowish fruits) is about 4 feet wide and about 4 ½ feet tall at 9 years old. The juice from a ‘Bearss’ lime has the classic lime flavor. My current tree has withstood temperatures a degree or two below freezing, but I bring it into the house when the porch gets any colder than that. I’ve picked 8 limes so far this winter, with another 5 to pick later on. They are ripe when the skin turns light yellow. Each lime weighs 2 to 3 ounces.


‘Meyer Improved’ lemons can weigh up to a half-pound each and have a good lemon flavor, though not quite as good as the Lisbon lemons. My ‘Meyer Improved’ lemon, above, is going on 20 years old and is about 4 feet wide and 5 feet tall. It only bore 5 lemons this year but each lemon weighed 6 to 8 ounces! It can stand a much colder temperature than the lime or kumquat trees, down to 20F or even colder, though temperatures that cold can damage it.



The photo above shows the trunk damage that my lemon tree sustained in the 2014 cold snap.


In my experience, navel orange, satsuma tangerine, and Lisbon lemon trees all eventually grew so large that I could no longer move them from the porch to the house when we experienced a cold snap. This doesn’t mean that they might not work for you, but if you choose them I suggest that you have a good pair of pruners on hand and learn how to prune them to keep their size small enough that you can move them into and out of the house when you need to.


Caring for these trees is similar to any houseplant. In between your last spring frost and first fall frost, they enjoy living outdoors in a sunny spot. Keep the soil moist but not wet and fertilize them on occasion so that they will have enough nutrition to fruit. I like to pot mine in a mix of garden soil, compost, and earthworm castings and fertilize them with diluted urine once every week or two when they are outside. When they are on a porch or inside the house, they grow so slowly that they don’t need any extra fertilizer. The soil can be drier when they are inside, but not completely dry. If you start to notice drooping leaves and stems and the soil is dry, they need water. They do not seem to be especially attractive to insect pests except for scale, and the scale that is on the lime tree doesn’t seem to bother it that much. A good time for potting them on and for pruning is when you move them outside in the spring, so that they will have time to regrow their roots and branch framework before they go dormant. Lime and lemon fruits often drop off the plant when they ripen, but picking them first will ensure that they don’t bruise where they hit the floor. The fruits keep for weeks in the refrigerator and can be used in the same ways you use lemons and limes from the grocery store. We also candy the lemon and lime peels and coat them with melted chocolate for a homegrown treat!


I wish all of you a happy 2023! When next we meet, I’ll report on the 2022 garden.

Sunday, August 28, 2022


Orchids flowering

Hi readers,


To those of you who are new to the blog, welcome!


It’s been a busy few months, as spring and summer tend to be at Living Low Acre. I plan to have a new post up by the end of September. In the meantime, I’m picking pawpaws from the pawpaw patch, gathering the black walnuts that fall onto our yard from the neighbor’s tree, and taking a bit of a break after harvesting the potatoes and planting that bed with greens and roots for harvest in autumn.


While you’re waiting for a new post, please check out the post my friend and fellow archdruid Dana O’Driscoll put up on her blog about my garden. She visited while on her way home from Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage in northern Missouri. While she was here, she interviewed me on my garden and the ecological art of living low that is reflected in the blog’s name. Please enjoy the beautiful pictures she took while you learn more about the garden design and how it’s worked out, and why we live low.


Thank you to everyone for reading, and meet you here again sometime in September!

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Learning from potato onions

Daffodils in peak bloom

In the last post, I discussed the two different conversations I’m having with potato onions during this growing season. In one of the conversations I’ve asked the onions to compare survival from spring planting versus autumn planting. I’ve hypothesized that spring planting will result in a higher percentage of plants surviving to harvest and for that reason a higher yield. In the other conversation I’m asking potato onion seeds that Lisa Brunette’s plants produced last year to teach me how to grow them. Both the onions and the seeds have made a first response to my questions.


On November 10 of last year I planted seven rows of 1.5 to 2 inch diameter potato onion and four rows of three different varieties of garlic, mulching all of them with fallen maple leaves. In early March I removed most of the mulch, because I have found from previous experience that if I do not remove most of the mulch then, most of the onions die. As best as I can tell, death results either from rotting before sprouting, or from the leaves of sprouted onions failing to grow above the mulch layer before the energy of the bulb is spent. If I do not mulch after planting in autumn, most of the onions die over the winter from frost-heaving (being pushed above the surface of the soil). Frost-heaving is the bane of lower Midwest winters. Highly variable temperatures during winter cause the soil to freeze and then thaw multiple times before the final thaw in early spring. The mulch keeps the onions from frost-heaving, but it can also cause them to rot through excessive moisture or prevent the leaves from emerging before the energy of the bulbs is spent.


The photo above is the potato onion bed on April 5. The onions I planted on March 6 are closest to the camera and are not mulched. Farther back, in the mulched area, are the potato onions and garlic that I planted last November. While it is not obvious in the photo due to the camera angle, it is clear from looking at the bed that almost every onion I planted in spring is growing well. However, a substantial number of the autumn-planted onions have failed to produce any leaves as of today. Because I know how many rows I planted in autumn and in spring, and I know I planted 8 onions in each row, I know how many onions have so far failed to produce leaves. In the area planted in November, 14 out of 56 onions planted have failed to produce leaves (25%), while in the area planted in March, 4 out of 128 onions planted have failed to produce leaves (3%).



Meanwhile, on March 3 I planted the potato onion seeds that Lisa Brunette gave me. You can see the seedlings that have resulted in the photo above. They are the long thin leaves on the left side of the flat. Later this month I will transplant them into one of the garden beds so they can grow on. I didn’t plant all of the seeds in case something went wrong; the remainder are being kept in the freezer for planting next spring.



Lastly, the photo above shows the flats of seedlings that I will plant in the garden over the next several weeks.


Until next time, enjoy life!

Monday, March 7, 2022

The 2022 garden conversations


One of our largest snowfalls of the winter, on February 4


Each year, as I reflect on how the garden answered the questions I asked of it the previous season, I consider what I would like to learn from the garden during the upcoming growing season and how to design the garden accordingly. Here’s what I am asking the 2022 garden to teach me.


Back in early 2021, when I was forming the garden design to answer questions about using wood ashes to re-mineralize garden soil, I did not realize that the garden would also ask and answer an entirely different question: what does it really make sense for me to grow in a backyard garden at this time of my life? Each year the garden asks at least one question of its own, and in fact I expect it to do so because it is a living system embedded in a nested series of larger living systems, just as I am. I didn’t expect it to be that particular question, however, even though each of the last few Augusts I have had it arise. But this past August the squirrels hit me over the head with it when they ate every kernel of every popcorn cob. The series of four posts on backyard garden reality was my way to understand and answer that question. I took those answers to heart when I designed this year’s garden.


To be specific, I realized that having now answered to my satisfaction the approximate size that a garden would need to be to provide marginally enough food for one vegan adult for one year in this climate, I can let go of that work and have a sensible backyard garden that leaves me more time for my other interests while providing Mike and I with a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits during late spring, summer, and autumn along with some stored and preserved foods in winter and spring. That means I will no longer grow corn or pumpkins in my backyard garden. By not growing corn I have only six beds that need to be dug and re-mineralized before planting and that need some level of weed control during the growing season. It may still be that six beds is more than I want to grow, so one of the questions that I am asking this year is how the six bed garden design fits in with the rest of my life. If the past few years are any indication, August will answer that question for me.


This also means that I will have three beds that were formerly set aside for corn that I can plant to something else or let revert to a mix of mowed plants. I’m still mulling over possibilities and not yet ready to commit to a particular design. I would like to have more flowers and more herbs in this part of the garden, but I need to do some more thinking and research before I make any decisions on what to plant.


I do know that I will remove the current raspberry plants, and I have already planted a different variety in one of the three beds that held popcorn last year. The current raspberry plants show evidence of plant disease in lowered yield and poorer quality berries than in past years. The old raspberry bed will become one of the beds with herbs or flowers or whatever else I decide to do with the three beds no longer growing corn. The strawberry bed still is producing a good yield of high quality berries, so it will remain in place for 2022.


Meanwhile, the six vegetable beds will be mostly the same as in past years, but I am posing a few questions for the garden to answer. One of them concerns replacing the bush cowpeas with a bush lima bean variety. For the past couple of years I have grown a pole lima bean, but it flowers late enough that most of the beans do not mature before frost. Meanwhile, the bush cowpea plants are too tall and flop over onto the neighboring beds. This year I am trialing a bush lima bean that is supposed to grow to only 18 inches tall and may mature more quickly than the pole lima bean as the dry bean crop. I’ll grow a yard-long bean that I have grown before and liked as one of the two pole bean varieties. Yard-long beans are the same genus and species as cowpeas. This means I will grow four different kinds of legumes, all different species that don’t cross: snap (green) and yard-long pole beans, bush lima beans, and an edamame variety of soybeans.


I’m asking two questions of the potato onions, a type of multiplier onion. I plant them as bulbs, with smaller bulbs growing to a larger size and larger bulbs dividing into several smaller ones. As the summer solstice approaches the bulbs go dormant. When that happens I dig them up and let the bulbs dry. After they dry I split up the clusters of bulbs and sort all the bulbs into 4 size classes. We eat the largest ones (2 inches or more in diameter) at that time, reserving the remainder. I plant the 1.5 to 2 inch diameter onions in one-third of the bed I have allotted for them in late October or early November and the 1 to 1.5 inch diameter onions in the remaining two-thirds of the bed, mulching them with autumn leaves to prevent them from frost-heaving. We then eat all of the remaining onions, which have been mostly the smallest ones, less than 1 inch in diameter. In early March I remove the mulch from the potato onion bed and allow them to grow until they go dormant and the process repeats. This is the procedure I learned from the company I bought starter bulbs from, which claims that autumn planting leads to larger bulbs than spring planting.


I enjoy growing these onions; as plants I find them appealing, I plant them at a time when they do not conflict with other garden duties, the bulbs have the strong onion taste characteristic of yellow onions that both my husband and I like, and in theory I could grow enough of them to provide a significant fraction of our onions. However, many to most of the 1 to 1.5 inch diameter onions rot and die before harvesting. If we are to have enough onions to make a noticeable dent in our onion purchases, I need to figure out how to plant them so most of them will grow and be harvested.


Last year I read Kelly Winterton’s publications on potato onions. He practices spring planting in his Utah location and says they do better planted in spring than in autumn where he lives. He also soaks the onions in bleach before he plants them, which he claims leads to better survival and larger bulbs. As a result I decided that this year I would plant the 1.5 to 2 inch diameter bulbs in autumn and mulch them as in the past, using them as a control, but I would hold the 1 to 1.5 inch onion bulbs in storage in the basement until the soil thaws in March and then plant them. The first question was if they would survive that long without sprouting; I’m pleased to say that the answer is yes. On March 6 I planted the open space in the bed with 1 to 1.5 inch diameter onions using the same in-row and between-row spacing as I have in the past. The next question will be how well they yield with spring planting. My hypothesis is that even if individual bulbs don’t grow as large, the overall yield will be larger because a smaller percentage will rot before harvest.


Even though Winterton recommends soaking in a weak bleach solution prior to planting, I won’t try that this year. If I change two things – planting date and presoaking – I won’t know which one, or both together, might have caused any changes that I may observe. If the garden tells me that spring planting leads to a higher yield, I’ll consider an experiment with presoaking in 2023.


In the 20 years that I have grown potato onions, none of them have ever gone to seed. I didn’t know that they could produce seeds until my friend Lisa Brunette at Brunette Gardens shared a link to Winterton’s publications with me. Winterton has had potato onions produce flowers and seeds, so he has learned how to grow them from seed and developed new potato onion varieties from some of those plants. Last year some of the potato onions that Lisa grew produced flowers and seeds, and she has very generously shared the seed with me. I’ve started seeds for both of us so that they may teach me how to grow them, sharing the plants that result with Lisa. I’m sure the seeds will be happy to receive your well-wishes for good germination and growth! I’ll share what the seeds teach me with all of you in turn.


If I have enough wood ashes to use to re-mineralize the squash-family and bean-family beds, I’ll use them and urine to provide nitrogen, to test how that combination works for those two plant families. Mike and I did not use the wood stove much this winter, so I will not have as much wood ashes for re-mineralization as last year.


That’s all for now. I wish everyone a happy spring!

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

What the 2021 garden told me


Almost a gallon of strawberries - and there were more after this picking


Now that I have all the data for the 2021 garden, it’s time to learn how the garden answered the questions I asked it last year.


Let’s start with comparing the soil test results from the soil sample I took in March 2021, before the growing season began, with the samples I took when I began re-mineralizing the garden soil in 2013 and with the samples taken in 2019 and 2020.



Notice that the soil re-mineralization program has greatly reduced the deficiencies in sulfur, phosphorus, and calcium since 2013, as Steve Solomon indicated that it would do. This is very encouraging indeed, as it suggests that a few years of attention to re-mineralization produces a balanced soil that grows plants with balanced nutrition. The phosphorus deficit in 2021 was low enough that I could meet it by applying about two and a half pounds of wood ashes to each bed, well under the maximum of five to ten pounds recommended by the Missouri Extension Service, and I had enough wood ashes on hand for the entire garden. Calcium and potassium were already present in more than sufficient quantity, and magnesium was slightly deficient; the wood ashes contain more than enough magnesium to remove that deficiency. I still needed to add a little gypsum to address the sulfur deficiency. Although it seems to me that wood ashes might contain some sulfur, I haven’t found an analysis of wood ashes that includes sulfur. Unless and until I can answer that question, I’ll continue to add gypsum. The amount needed is small, four ounces per bed, and gypsum is widely available and cheap.


Based on that information from the soil I asked the garden to answer the following questions.

·      For the spring greens/roots beds, I used cottonseed meal to provide all of the nitrogen and only enough wood ashes to meet the magnesium deficiency (about 2 ½ ounces of wood ashes for a 100 square foot bed). By doing so the crops would have sufficient nitrogen to meet their needs and not risk an excessive amount of magnesium. I used the phosphate rock that I have used in past years to provide the rest of the phosphorus for remineralization. This bed would tell me something about the overall growing conditions for spring, so that I could compare the rest of the beds to it.

·      For the autumn greens/roots bed I used cottonseed meal to provide all of the nitrogen and about 3 pounds of wood ashes to supply both magnesium and phosphorus. This allowed me to ask about the effect of using wood ashes to supply all of the phosphorus to some of the same crops as in the spring roots/greens bed, albeit under different weather and daylight conditions. By using cottonseed meal rather than urine in this bed I hypothesized that the yield of roots would be higher than it was in 2020, since cottonseed meal does not seem to stimulate production of leaves to as large an extent as urine does.

·      For the bean-family, squash-family, and popcorn beds I used cottonseed meal and about 2 ½ pounds of wood ashes. By doing this I could compare the results to 2020, when I used urine but not wood ashes, and to earlier years when I had not used either.

·      For the nightshade-family bed I used urine to supply all of the nitrogen and about 2 ½ pounds of wood ashes to supply all of the phosphorus. The plants in this bed responded very well to urine in 2020, so I chose this to be the one bed in which I used the full amount of both urine and wood ashes, asking the garden what the effect of using both of these in the same growing season would be. If there were unforeseen issues with using both in their full amounts I could minimize the damage by limiting the beds to which I applied the combined treatment.



Below is the yield data for all of the crops I grew in 2021.



Let’s start with the spring greens/roots beds. Note that yields were generally lower than the best previous, but not out of line with some previous years. I think that weather issues contributed to the lower yields. While April skewed cool and wet, we experienced cool and dry weather in May. June was warmer than normal and quite dry until the last week of the month. Since the majority of the time these crops were actively growing was dry, I suspect that I under-watered the garden, leading to lower yields than I might otherwise have observed.


The autumn greens/roots bed under-performed compared to the best previous year. Again I think that weather issues contributed to the lower yields. Excessively hot weather began after I direct-sowed the crops, resulting in spotty germination, and continued through October. In addition, we received lower than average precipitation in September, October, and November; in fact, it was the third driest November on record for St. Louis, Missouri where I live. I have noted before that during hot, dry growing conditions autumn greens and roots yield consistently lower than when temperature and precipitation are closer to average, and 2021 followed that pattern. Importantly, yields were at least as good as during other hot, dry autumns, suggesting that adding enough wood ashes to supply all the phosphorus did not negatively affect the yields.


For the popcorn beds, squirrels ate every kernel of every ear long before they were ripe, thus I cannot compare yields with wood ashes to yields without them. Mike took advantage of his hunting license to harvest several squirrels once the season began, so at least we did eat a little of what they ate. The damage had already been done by that time, so the most I can hope for is that the squirrels we have already eaten, and any more we eat before hunting season closes, reduce the population enough to reduce their feeding in 2022.


Among the crops in the bean bed, the ‘Super Marconi’ green pole beans under-performed compared to 2020, most likely because I failed to provide them with enough vertical poles and horizontal strings to allow them to climb properly. Some of the bean plants sprawled on the ground as a result, allowing beans to rot and be eaten by other critters before I could harvest them. I believe that had I set up the tower properly, the plants would have yielded about as well as the 2020 plants did. On the other hand, the cowpeas yielded much better in 2021 than in 2020, although not as well as a different variety planted closer together yielded in 2017. This suggests that the wood ashes did not have a negative effect on bean-family plants.


Yields in the squash beds were less in 2021 than in 2020, when this bed received a steady supply of nitrogen via urine, but not out of line with previous years. The cucumbers, zucchini, and summer squash plants all died early compared with 2020. Winter squash, on the other hand, yielded better in 2021 than in 2020. I took more care to pick the winter squash as it ripened in 2021 than I did in 2020, which may explain some of the yield increase. The results suggest that the wood ash application did not negatively affect the yield compared to most years prior to 2020, while urine applied steadily over the growing season as in 2020 appears to increase yields compared to a one-time application of cottonseed meal.


Yields were excellent, on par with the best previous yields, for all the eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes (nightshade-family crops) except for the ‘Old German’ tomatoes. This suggests that urine to supply nitrogen and wood ashes to supply phosphorus can be applied together, and that this combination works as well, at least for nightshade-family crops, as does the combination of cottonseed meal for nitrogen and phosphate rock for phosphorus. I’m very encouraged by this result! It means I might be able to supply almost all of the nitrogen and minerals that the garden soil needs to produce nutritious food with urine and wood ashes, two materials we produce here at home and that would otherwise be lost to the biogeochemical cycles that sustain life here on Earth.


Looking at the fruits, the only fruit that yielded well in 2021 was strawberries. Dry weather during harvest kept the berries from rotting and gave me no excuses to avoid the labor of harvest. Unlike the pawpaw and persimmon flowers, the strawberry flowers survived the late April freeze. So did the young apples. I was really looking forward to a good crop of all three apple varieties … but well before they were ripe, the squirrels showed up and decided all of the apples, and what few persimmons formed, belonged to them. And they made good on their decision. They deigned to leave us a handful, or maybe they didn’t notice them. As for the raspberries, the plants seem to have weakened; they didn’t form as many berries as usual. Raspberries are prone to diseases that reduce yields, so I think the garden is telling me that if I want to keep eating raspberries, I need to provide it with some new plants.


That’s it for now. The next post will be what I’ll ask the 2022 garden. See you then!