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!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Peak infrastructure, peak oil


In the previous post I discussed the severe cold wave in Texas that came close to crashing the electrical grid for almost the entire state. The estimated insured loss from the deep freeze in Texas and surrounding states will exceed $10 billion. That doesn’t include the additional cost for the extreme rate hikes in electricity and natural gas when many of the plants went offline; ratepayers will be stuck paying for that for years. Nor does it include the estimated costs for freeze-proofing any of these systems before the next deep freeze occurs.


If the Texas electric grid were the only bit of aging infrastructure that is in desperate need of upgrading, this wouldn’t be a problem outside of Texas. But it isn’t, not by a long shot. The ASCE’s collective grade for all US infrastructure is C-. That’s an average; some of our infrastructure gets D+, D, and even D- grades. Those of you who want to know the grades for the infrastructure in your own state can find it on the linked page.


True, it’s not as if the ASCE is a disinterested observer. Their members stand to benefit financially from upgrading the country’s infrastructure, so I expect them to take the most pessimistic view of the situation. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t already paying for the infrastructure we’ve got and the upgrades already occurring. And it doesn’t mean that our infrastructure doesn’t need any upgrading; just ask anyone who lost electrical service to freezes, the risk of wildfire, severe storms, and the like, or anyone who lives downstream of a dam that is at risk of failure, or anyone who has to play dodge-a-pothole every time they drive.


From time to time, our politicians take notice of our infrastructure. President Biden has recently proposed a $2 trillion plan that addresses deficiencies in many of the areas highlighted in the ASCE report. (It also contains some items that aren’t strictly infrastructure upgrades but are intended to appeal to the Democratic party base.)


Most politicians, and most people, probably favor improving infrastructure, especially the infrastructure that is closest to them and most obviously in need. But the work can’t be done for free. To pay for the plan, Biden proposes to raise the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28%, a proposal that the Democratic party base will generally favor. However, the Business Roundtable, made up of the CEOs of the nation’s biggest companies, and the US Chamber of Commerce have already denounced the tax rate increase, proposing instead that user fees such as highway and bridge tolls fund the improvements. I’m pretty certain that most ordinary people, who are already paying for infrastructure maintenance and improvement via drastic increases in utility bills (our sewer rates have increased fourfold in the past 17 years and we are being asked to vote on April 6 for yet another rate hike to pay for a bond issue to fund more work on the sewer system), aren’t inclined to agree to higher taxes and user fees to fund the improvements. If I were a betting woman, I’d bet that this proposal isn’t going anywhere in its current form. No Republican will vote for it, and enough Democrats won’t that it won’t make it out of the Senate, even if it gets through the House, and I’m not sure it will get that far. Possibly a smaller-scaled infrastructure bill will make it through, but such a bill won’t be enough to do more than fund a few pet projects in a few districts whose politicians have enough influence to direct dollars toward them.


Having noted what should be reasonably obvious – that we aren’t willing to pay to maintain all of the infrastructure that we already have – let’s take a look at the entirely new infrastructure that will be required to expand the use of so-called “green” electricity. “Green” electricity means electricity that is supposed to release smaller amounts of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the air than is produced from burning fossil fuels. The technologies usually considered in this category are solar and wind powered plants, hydropower (dams), and hydrogen produced from splitting water by solar power and used to power fuel cells that produce electricity. Hydropower is already using all of the best sites, and there are attempts to remove some of those dams for environmental reasons, so I won’t consider it any further. Solar and wind power not only require the solar and wind plants that don’t already exist to be built, but they also require a major upgrade of the existing electrical grid to accommodate the intermittent nature of these two sources, which I have argued above is at best unlikely.


As for hydrogen, the hip new source of “green” electricity, rather than my addressing all the reasons that this is just one more subsidy dumpster, one more rathole for government money, I’ll just direct you over to this blog. Read it and then try to imagine all of the infrastructure that will be required for hydrogen fuel cells to make enough electricity to run enough cars to matter, at an efficiency that is less than that of a standard electric vehicle.


And as if all that isn’t enough, every bit of current infrastructure that must be at least maintained, if not upgraded, and all of the bright shiny new “climate-saving” infrastructure that is being pushed as absolutely necessary by the climate-emergency crowd, requires energy and materials to do so. Specifically, diesel fuel, produced from oil, goes directly or indirectly into maintaining or upgrading existing infrastructure, not to mention producing and deploying and maintaining new infrastructure. I understand why you may not have paid much attention considering what the past year or so has brought to us, but it turns out that we may well have passed peak oil more than two years back. Check out the graphic near the beginning of this Energy Bulletin of world liquid fuel (oil) production (the blue line on the graph). Notice the slow rise to a production peak in the 4th quarter of 2018. Notice that the highest production peak in 2019 didn’t quite match that of the 4th quarter of 2018. Then comes the familiar rapid drop of oil production and consumption in 2020 resulting from the measures put in place in reaction to COVID-19 that were intended to bring us back to “normal.” You’ll notice that the forecast for oil production in 2021 doesn’t make it up to levels we last saw in 2017 until late in the year, and that was, in retrospect, almost surely optimistic given the forecast was made last December when the concern about vaccine-resistant variants of COVID-19 was less than it is now.


Meanwhile, the deep cuts to capital expenditures made by oil companies during the past few years when oil prices dropped to levels that the companies couldn’t profit from suggest, if not too little oil available for the infrastructure upgrades that Biden and other politicians are promoting, at least a rise in the price of oil due to increased demand meeting reduced supply from the reduction in capital spending that would have funded the new sources of oil that infrastructure upgrades and additions require. But oil prices can only rise so high before they drive an economic downturn similar to 2008. I don’t expect us to be able to afford to maintain all of our current infrastructure under these conditions, much less upgrade it or add new infrastructure. Sure, some projects will get funded by political influence and subsidy dumping. But most of us will do more of what we are already doing: paying more money than we already are for services that are no better than, and likely worse then, what we already have, or being forced to drop services in favor of less resource-intensive ways of providing for ourselves.


And that’s why I keep this blog. Why are so many people gardening now? Among other things, it feeds us for less money and less infrastructure than any other way I know of. Why do people need to know about how to stay comfortable in a cooler residence in winter and a warmer residence in summer? Because it’ll reduce the drain on your wallet as utility prices rise to reflect deteriorating infrastructure and energy price spikes. At some point I plan to pick up the human-powered tools theme that I began some years back, because human-powered tools can do most of what fossil-fuel powered tools do without the infrastructure that fossil fuels require. I will probably touch on other aspects of home economics as time goes by, especially if the suspicions I’ve detailed above eventuate.


Next time I’ll write about this year’s garden project. Till then, I wish you all a good April!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

When the lights went out in Texas


It got cold here in February. Sometime during the day or evening of the 5th the temperature dropped below 32F. It didn’t reach 32F again until late afternoon on the 19th. In between, St. Louis set new record low maximum temperatures of 8F on the 14th and 4F on the 15th. Belying the too-cold-to-snow theory, on the 15th, the coldest day of the 2020-2021 winter season with that record low maximum temperature of 4F, we also received the season’s largest snowfall event of 5.7 inches.


Outside of St. Louis, none of this mattered. Instead, our attention fell on the much more serious problems that the same storm brought to Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and parts of the Deep South. The storm demonstrated how weather events have disproportionate effects on areas where they rarely occur.


St. Louisans experience temperatures around 0F every winter and around 100F every summer; building codes reflect this reality, as does the prevalence of air-conditioning for summer heat waves. I think fewer people have backup non-electric means of heating as have air-conditioning, but some people have wood stoves and wood-burning fireplaces, and natural gas heating and cooking are fairly common. Natural gas fireplaces are becoming more common as well. If Mike and I lose electric service in winter, we’ll still have hot water because we have a gas water heater, and we have a wood stove for heating and some cooking. (We used the wood stove to provide more heat than we wanted to pay for during the worst of the cold wave, which also served as one of our contributions to our electric utility’s request to conserve electricity during that time.) Beyond that, we have stored rainwater and a water filter to provide clean water and a supply of canned and dry foods along with a manual can opener. This meant we didn’t need to leave the house until the roads were cleared of snow and ice and the temperature wasn’t as cold.


South of us, on the other hand, storms of this magnitude rarely occur. Texas last experienced a cold wave like this in 2011 and before that in 1989. Most Texans don’t have enough practice with severe cold to have developed the home infrastructure to manage it. Wood stoves don’t make sense in a climate where the lowest average high is 56F (that’s for Dallas/Fort Worth). Even the cheaper forms of non-electric heating like a kerosene heater would get little enough use that few people probably have them. While many people have non-electric barbeque equipment, the extreme cold, snow, and ice made it impractical to use them for heating water or cooking. And heating water implies that you have water; the lack of electricity, whether at home or in water utilities, led to a lack of water when the pipes froze and broke and the water pumps shut off.


When heat waves strike locations which normally experience relatively cool summers, the same lack of practice and home infrastructure results in higher death rates than for places farther south where residents contend with heat waves every summer. In the US, a good example is the difference in deaths between Chicago and St. Louis in the heat wave of 1980. Something like 100 people died of the heat in the St. Louis region. In Chicago, on the other hand, at least 700 people died. The biggest single factor accounting for the difference was the higher percentage of air-conditioned residences in St. Louis as opposed to Chicago. Most Chicagoans didn’t have air conditioning because they so rarely needed it, while most St. Louisans did. A similar lack of air conditioning due to usually mild summers led to an estimated 30,000-50,000 people dying of heat-related causes during the European heat wave of August 2003.


Infrastructure deficiencies cause problems on larger scales than just that of a single residence. The cold wave of February amply demonstrated how Texas’ electricity and water infrastructure failed in the face of the extreme cold conditions.


In the immediate aftermath, the usual fingers pointed at the usual targets. Fossil fuel advocates pointed to wind turbines covered in ice that had to be shut down. Renewable energy advocates countered with fossil fuel plants that were forced offline because equipment essential to operating the plants froze. Advocates for public utilities and regulation noted that under Texas’ privatization and deregulation of electrical generation and distribution, Texas’ electric utilities and electrical consumers alike have no incentive to take on the high cost of, for instance, properly insulating electrical plants and their equipment so that the plants can continue to supply electricity during a cold wave of this magnitude. Since the vast majority of Texas had declared energy independence from the rest of the US, almost all of the Texas electrical grid stands alone. When the Texas grid couldn’t supply the amount of electricity needed to match demand, it could not open a connection to either of the other two large-scale grids in the US to mitigate the severity of the situation. Not that those grids had a lot of spare capacity at the time, since the cold wave was as severe and expansive as it was; their own customers were already taxing the grid with their own demands.


It wasn’t till about a week after the worst of the event, as I was mulling over what I wanted to say in this post, that I fully understood the implications of the event. With considerable interest I read the stories about what happened when it became apparent that the grid’s carefully balanced condition was failing as plant after plant dropped offline while demand continued to increase. One of the people on the scene was quoted as saying that the entire Texas stand-alone grid was “seconds to minutes” away from catastrophic failure. He and others realized that the only solution was to drop off huge chunks of demand in order to buy time to stabilize the system to the remaining demand and then to slowly add back other chunks of demand as plants could be made operational again. It’s similar to how your local electrical utility manages outages from a severe storm: if you’re lucky, the circuit you’re on is added back quickly; otherwise you have to wait until the utility can safely add the demand from your circuit into its distribution system.


The “catastrophic failure” potential he described, however, would have been far more severe than anything the vast majority of us have ever experienced. The closest equivalent would be the January 1998 ice storm in Maine and in Quebec in Canada. Some communities had no electricity for two weeks or longer. This being Maine and Canada, most people had non-electric means to withstand winter conditions, so they managed well enough. The limited extent of the storm meant that electric utilities could respond relatively quickly and effectively. Even so, it would have been a long two weeks without electricity for those who went through it.


In the case of Texas in mid-February, the person interviewed described the potential failure as being very wide-ranging. Electrical equipment relied on by most of the people in Texas would have failed past the point of quick and easy repair, if it could be repaired at all, according to what I understood. Texas has the second highest population of all states in the US, estimated at 29 million in 2019. Of its major cities, only El Paso, population roughly 700,000, is not on the Texas stand-alone grid; its electrical system is part of the western grid. A very small area of extreme eastern Texas belongs to the eastern grid, but there are no major cities in this area. Had the electrical grid completely failed, as it was within seconds to minutes of doing, something like 27 to 28 million people would have lost electrical service for at least days, if not weeks to months. Electric utilities, whether public or private, don’t keep a lot of skilled grid repair people on staff, instead relying on compacts that send those employees to other cities and states in the event of widespread outages that the local utility cannot handle on its own. I suspect that an effort to repair a catastrophic failure of Texas’ grid would have absorbed most of the skilled electric utility workers in the entire US, leaving the rest of the country at risk from the smaller-scale severe weather events that the US is prone to.


I don’t think that all of those 27 to 28 million people would have been willing to remain in their residences without food or water for very long. Besides being the second most populous state, Texas is also the second largest state in area. The logistics of getting relief to everyone in the state who would have needed it is staggering to contemplate. Failing that, it’s reasonable to suppose that most Texans with a car and enough gasoline to make it to a place with electrical service would have set out for said place. Can you say “refugee?”


I bring this up because it’s a particular case of a larger problem with infrastructure in the US. Those who rate the quality of the US infrastructure – the transportation, electrical, fossil fuel, water, and other hardscape systems that we all depend on to supply our daily needs – rate it quite poorly. Most of our infrastructure needs infusions of cash, material, and labor to bring it up to a satisfactory level. However, the will to provide those things seems to be lacking. We’d like to have an infrastructure in good repair, but we’re unwilling to pay to repair the infrastructure we already have. So we have a patchy network of shiny new infrastructure in places currently being built up, while the already-existing infrastructure slowly, and sometimes not so slowly, decays. What’s shiny and new now will need repair later on as it wears out, but we don’t even keep up what we already have.


Can we in fact keep all of our current infrastructure in good repair, much less the new infrastructure we insist on adding? You’ll have to wait for next month’s blog post for my thoughts on that. It’ll probably be the post after that before I return to gardening. In the meantime, I’ll be starting seeds this week and watching for the first daffodil blooms. Happy March to all of you!

Monday, January 25, 2021

What the 2020 garden told me


The garden on June 20, 2020

In this post from last year, I discussed why I asked the 2020 garden what the effect would be of replacing my previous source of garden nitrogen, cottonseed meal, with urine. I also described a psychological issue associated with safely using urine and referenced this 2019 post for information on potential environmental and health hazards, and I described how I would collect and apply the urine. Now it’s time to let you know how the garden answered my question.


When I wrote the post last February, COVID-19 was in the US but not yet widespread. By the time the growing season began, Mike and I, along with most people in the US, were under some form of lock-down. COVID-19 can be carried in both urine and feces. If I knew I had COVID-19, I would not used my urine on the garden, just as I would not have used it if I had any of the other diseases whose infectious agents can be spread through urine. As it happened, I have not experienced symptoms of COVID-19, nor has anyone told me they exposed me to it, so I felt it was safe to fertilize with urine throughout the growing season. As the 2019 post notes, there is as close to no chance as I can imagine that any urine would find its way outside of our property to be a health hazard to anyone.


I decided to apply urine to all of the vegetable and grain beds to replace all of the cottonseed meal I would have otherwise used. Thus I did not have any control beds in which I used cottonseed meal rather than urine. In order to have space for control beds I would have needed to expand the garden into areas covered with grass and weeds and unprotected from rabbits. This would have introduced variability in newly gardened versus previously gardened soil, variability in rabbit pressure, and a reduction in the time I spent on each garden bed compared to what I have done in past years, which would have made it harder to compare this year’s yields to those of previous years. Instead, I compared the yields I obtained in 2020 to the best yield I obtained for each of the varieties over the past six years, after I had settled on Steve Solomon’s re-mineralization practice and the spacing for all the crops that I grow. The only exception was for soybeans, because the last time I grew them before 2020 was in 2011. Hence I compared the soybean yield with a different variety grown in 2011 using the same spacing between stations but more seeds per station.


When I began collecting urine I used the same system as I had used in 2019: I urinated into a urinal and then transferred the contents of the urinal to a 2 gallon bucket. The next morning I emptied the collected urine from the bucket into a sprinkling can, added water to fill the sprinkling can, and applied the diluted urine directly to the bed, on top of the plants in it. However, I soon grew weary of leakage around the edges of the urinal. For those of you with flexible appendages to deliver urine, many possible ways to collect urine without making a mess suggest themselves. For those of us who, like me, lack such appendages, avoiding messes when using a urinal is more difficult. Fortunately we have a camp toilet, inherited from my father-in-law.


 The camp toilet, with the lid open to show its resemblance to a water-flush toilet. A sliding valve at the bottom allows the urine to drain by gravity into the bottom container and that container to be sealed off between uses. I collected and composted the toilet paper I used.

Side view of the camp toilet. The top chamber unbuckles from the bottom chamber so that the urine collected in the bottom container can be emptied into a sprinkling can.


Using the camp toilet to collect the urine removed the mess factor from the collection experience. Each morning I poured the urine collected the previous day into the sprinkling can, diluted the urine with water to fill the can, and then sprinkled the urine onto the bed and the plants it contained, following it with a sprinkling can of water to wash the diluted urine off the plants and onto the soil. As in 2019, I collected urine only when urinating was all I was doing, and I only collected it during the day because the camp toilet was located in our basement and I had no desire to descend the steps into the basement when I had to urinate overnight. Thus I collected perhaps two-thirds to three-quarters of the total urine I produced in a 24 hour period, but I calculated how much urine to add to each bed as if I had collected all of the urine I produced in a day.


To calculate how much urine to apply to each bed, I proceeded similarly to the calculation for the 2019 corn bed experiment. The daily urine production of the averages adult contains about 0.024 pounds of nitrogen. My growing season is about 180 to 200 days long. Using 180 days for my growing season, if I collect urine every day and apply all of it over the course of the growing season:

180 days * 0.024 pounds of nitrogen per day = 4.3 pounds of nitrogen


According to Solomon, cottonseed meal is 6% nitrogen, and he recommends applying 6 pounds of nitrogen to a 100 square foot bed (twice that for potatoes). Thus the amount of nitrogen applied via cottonseed meal is:


6 pounds * 0.06 = 0.36 pounds of added nitrogen to a 100 square foot bed

12 pounds * 0.06 = 0.72 pounds of added nitrogen to a 100 square foot bed of potatoes


Dividing the 4.3 pounds of nitrogen from all the urine I produce in a 180 day growing season by 0.36 pounds of nitrogen needed per bed, that amount of urine will supply all the needed nitrogen for twelve 100 square foot beds.


I grow a total of nine beds of vegetables and grains, two beds of small fruits, and one bed of herbs and flowers in the garden. The latter three beds are not re-mineralized. Since the potato bed needs twice as much nitrogen as the other beds, then I needed to apply urine to the equivalent of 10 beds. I had 12 beds’ worth of urine to apply during the 180 day growing season. Thus I began collecting urine on April 1 and applied the collected urine to bed 1 the next day. That day’s collected urine was applied to bed 2 the following day, with this rotation continuing through bed 6. For bed 10, which held the potatoes, I collected and applied urine two days in a row, then treated beds 11 and 12 as I had treated beds 1 through 6. After applying urine to bed 12, the next day’s urine was collected and applied to the subtropical trees and shrubs I keep in containers. Then I began again with collecting and applying urine to bed 1 and so forth. When the soil was saturated, I did not apply urine, waiting until the soil drained to resume the application sequence. Later in the season I altered the collection and application sequence, as discussed below.


Wood ashes are a potential source to replace all of the calcium and some to all of the potassium required for re-mineralizing garden soil. In 2020 I did not have enough wood ashes on hand to remedy the full deficiency of potassium, and I had an excess of calcium. However, the soil test indicated that magnesium was deficient. Wood ashes contain about 3% magnesium. Therefore I added enough wood ashes to the re-mineralization mix to supply 10% of the magnesium deficiency, as Solomon suggests in the Acid Soil Worksheet. This avoids the risk of having too much magnesium relative to calcium in the garden soil. I made up the remaining potassium deficiency and the deficiencies in the other minerals in the usual way.


Most years the weather has a strong effect on the conversation between the garden and me. But unlike some other aspects of 2020, the weather gave me a break. The last spring frost was on April 18; the first fall frost occurred on October 16, for a growing season of 181 days. April and May were cooler and wetter than normal. June was warmer and drier than normal, while July temperatures were close to normal but accompanied by excessive rainfall. August was cooler and wetter than normal while September was about average in temperature but drier than normal. October was near normal in both temperature and rainfall, while November was warmer than normal with about normal rainfall. Since there was nothing particularly unusual about 2020’s weather (which is the only unusual thing about it), I do not need to take weather into account when discussing what the 2020 garden taught me.


The yields for all the vegetable and grain crops I grew in 2020 are shown in the following figures.




A first glance reveals that the 2020 yields varied compared to the best previous years. To better understand the variability, I considered together the crops grown at different times during the growing season. These fall into the following groups.


Group 1: planted in autumn 2019 for harvest in late spring 2020. This group includes garlic and potato onions.


Group 2: planted in April 2020 for harvest later in spring or in summer. This includes bok choy, cabbage, endive, spring lettuce, and potatoes.


Group 3: planted in April 2020 for harvest in summer and autumn. This includes beets, carrots, and leeks.


Group 4: planted in May and June 2020 for harvest in summer and autumn. This includes pole snap beans, dent corn, cowpeas, cucumbers, eggplant, muskmelon, sweet peppers, soybeans, various squashes, and tomatoes.


Group 5: planted in August 2020 for autumn harvest. This includes arugula, bok choy, Chinese broccoli, Chinese cabbage, kale, fall lettuces, mustard greens, daikon and winter radishes, and turnips.


Within Group 1, yields were around 15% to 25% below the best previous value.


Within Group 2, I ignored endive since it was first grown in 2020. Cabbage and bok choy yields were much below the best previous, by a factor of 3 or more, and the romaine lettuce yield was lower by a factor of about 8. The loose-leaf lettuce yield was about 25% lower than the best previous yield, while the potato yield was about 40% lower than the best previous.


Within Group 3, yields were about 40% less than the best previous for the beets and about 25% lower than the best previous for leeks. For the carrots, compared to the same variety the 2020 yield was about 15% lower, but it was much lower than for the other variety shown.


Within Group 4, the 2020 yield of dent corn was about half of the best previous, and the 2020 yield of cowpeas was about 75% lower than the best yield (but of a different variety). On the other hand, the pole snap bean yielded better in 2020 than in 2019, though not as well as a different variety. The soybean yielded about half as much as a different variety planted with more seeds per station in 2011.


The 2020 cucumber yield was higher than the best previous for both the May and June plantings. The 2020 muskmelon and winter squash yields were much lower than the best previous. One of the zucchini varieties yielded poorly but the other one yielded about two-thirds of the best previous (of a different variety). The ‘Desi’ summer squash yielded as well as the better of the two zucchini varieties grown in 2020.


The three sweet pepper varieties yielded 10-25% lower in 2020 compared to the best years, while two of the four tomato varieties matched their best yields from previous years and the eggplant variety yielded better than a different variety.


Within Group 5, the bok choy variety doubled its best previous yield, and a different variety of Chinese cabbage yielded almost a factor of 4 more than in previous years. The kale variety also outperformed the previous best yield of a different variety; the same held true for the two mustard varieties grown in 2020. On the other hand, the 2020 yields of arugula, daikon and winter radishes, and turnips were all below the best previous yields.


What can we learn from this data? The first thing to notice is that overall yields were comparable to, though somewhat lower than, the best previous year. The total weight of the crops harvested in 2020 was 560 pounds, bested only by 2015’s total of 687 pounds and considerably exceeding 2016 and 2018 (about 390 pounds each).


Within the groups, only in Groups 4 and 5 did some, but not all, of the crops grown match or exceed the best previous yields. All other crops yielded below the best previous, some by a large factor.


By June of 2020, as I observed the slow growth of the cabbages compared to previous years, I began to suspect that rotating applications of urine across the entire garden meant that I had not applied sufficient nitrogen to shorter-maturity crops like the spring greens. I also wondered if applying urine before I planted a crop meant that the urine I applied before planting did not contribute to growth of the crop. The following figure gives the bed number, the crop(s) planted in that bed, when the crop(s) were planted, the days on which urine was applied to that bed, the total amount of nitrogen contained in the applied urine, and how much of the nitrogen was applied while the crop was present in that bed. 




With the results from the figure in hand, let us look at our five groups of crops again. My hypothesis is that for crops which received 0.36 pounds or more of N from urine while they were in the ground (0.72 pounds for potatoes), the yield would be about the same as for previous years. Crops which received significantly less than this while they were in the ground would yield lower than in previous years.


Group 1 (bed 4): when I planted the potato onions and garlic in early November of 2019, I added a quarter of the usual amount of cottonseed meal, which contained about 0.09 pounds of nitrogen. This was to give them a good start, as they begin to grow after planting and pick up growing again in early spring, before I began applying the urine. Thus the total nitrogen applied was 0.23 pounds, about 63% of the amount that I intended to apply. As hypothesized, observed yield is lower than the best previous yield.


Group 2 (beds 10 and 11): the potatoes and the spring greens received significantly less nitrogen than intended (the spring greens received only about half as much nitrogen), and the yields were less than the best previous yields, as hypothesized.


Group 3 (bed 11): while these beds received more nitrogen in urine than from cottonseed meal, they yielded less well than the best previous. There were other gardening issues with these crops that I believe contributed to the lower yields. I did not keep up with removing weeds in this bed after I harvested the spring greens; thus I suspect that the weeds used some of the nitrogen and minerals that I had meant for the crops. The weeds also shaded the crops to an extent, reducing their productivity. I did not thin the carrots or the beets, which caused overcrowding, another factor that may have contributed to reduced yields. Finally, many of the carrots in the carrot patch rotted over the summer, reducing the carrot yield.


Group 4 (beds 1-3, the summer planting of bed 4, beds 5 and 6, and bed 12): I will take a closer look at the various beds and their crops below.


Beds 1, 2, and 3 all grew corn and pumpkins. All were planted on the same date; all received some of the urine before planting. As hypothesized, because the amount of nitrogen applied after planting was about 52% of the amount I calculated would be required, the yield was lower than that obtained the previous year. I also note that some of the stalks lodged (fell over) in July after applying urine, and more lodged during a windstorm. Ears of corn that lay on or near the ground were predated on, presumably by small mammals. I suspect this accounted for some of the yield loss, but I believe that the lower than intended amount of urine accounted for a large part of the yield loss. This is bolstered by the 2019 results, when all of the intended nitrogen was applied to the corn bed to which I applied urine, and which yielded as much as the two beds to which cottonseed meal was applied for nitrogen.


The summer planting of bed 4 did not receive as much nitrogen from urine as intended. It was, however, sufficient to grow a much higher yield of cucumbers than I obtained from the same variety planted at about the same time in 2019, as well as about half the yield of soybeans compared to a variety planted more densely (same spacing but more seeds per station) in 2011. Possibly using the intended amount of urine would result in higher yields for both of these crops. The zucchini variety planted at this time yielded poorly, and did not perform well in the main crop planting in 2019. I will not grow this variety again, as it seems poorly suited to my conditions.


Beds 5 and 6 both received some urine before planting, but the total amount received after planting was about 80% of that intended. Compared to the same varieties grown in previous years, the cucumbers yielded more, two of the tomatoes yielded about the same, the peppers yielded somewhat less, and the melons and squash yielded much less. This suggests that factors other than the amount of nitrogen applied affected some of these crops. However, because some of them yielded as well or better than previously, this suggests that urine can supply all the nitrogen these crops need when enough of it is applied.


Bed 12 contained legumes: lima beans, cowpeas, and pole green beans. Only the last was the same variety as grown previously. While it yielded more in 2020 than in 2019, other factors need to be considered. In July 2019 a rabbit fed on some of the plants as they began to vine, setting them behind in growth. Also, I had not added any re-mineralization mix to the legume bed in 2019, because legumes can supply their own nitrogen through rhizobacteria in root nodules, and to conserve on the re-mineralization mix. I did not remember this until late July of 2020, after which I ceased applying urine; the 2020 legume bed received the same re-mineralization mix as the other beds. I cannot untangle the effect of the urine from the other factors discussed.


Group 5 (bed 10, planted 8/23/20): this bed received more than the amount of nitrogen I had intended to give it. This was in part due to a lessening need for urine on other beds as I finished harvesting from them, and in part because I made sure to apply at least as much as I had calculated it needed. Notice that all of the leaf crops except for arugula out-performed the previous best yield, but none of the root crops did so. One possible explanation is that I did a better job of thinning the leaf crops than the root crops. Because I left too many roots in each row for too long, they competed with each other, so that I harvested too many small roots rather than the larger roots that are easier to use in the kitchen. Another possibility is that the ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium became too large; the latter two are needed for good root growth, so that the turnips and radishes may have grown their leaves at the expense of their roots.


Overall, considering that I did not apply enough urine to fully meet the needs of most of the crops, the 2020 yields are high enough to justify continuing to use urine in place of cottonseed meal for most of the crops that I grow. I will need to adjust the application schedule to ensure that I apply enough urine to each crop I use it on to replace all of the nitrogen that had been met by applying cottonseed meal in past years. The details of that schedule are yet to be worked out; when it is available, I will post it here, as well as anything else I want to share about what I’ll ask the garden in 2021. Till then, enjoy life!


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The garden balancing act


Last time we met, I promised to write about how I have balanced seasonality, size, and opportunity cost in my own garden, and how that balance has changed over time. Now that harvest season is complete and the winter lull has begun, I can live up to that promise.


Before we moved to the land where we have lived for the past 19 years, we lived on a much smaller plot of land, about 1/8 acre (roughly 5000 square feet). By the time I became interested in growing food plants, the only part of the land that was not already planted to something else was the narrow strip of lawn between the north side of the house and the neighboring driveway. I squeezed two 40 square foot beds into this space. Small space and correspondingly low opportunity cost made this a very good first garden, where I learned fundamental lessons on growing and harvesting food to eat. However, its small size also limited it to growing plants that produce well in small spaces, primarily tomatoes, peppers, garlic, lettuce, and salad greens from the cabbage family, plus some herbs and short flowers like nasturtium. Except for a few winter squash grown vertically up a trellis on the north sides of the beds and the leaves I could dry from some herb plants like sage, garden produce was available for eating only from late spring through mid-autumn. I wanted more food over a longer season. The only way to accomplish that goal was to have more land to grow on. So we moved to our current place: a full acre with no more than about 3000 square feet allotted to the house and back porch, patio and sidewalk, driveway, garage, and garden shed. I could grow as big a garden as I could maintain! But how big was that? What mix of crops could provide us with a season-long harvest and some to store? How do I grow crops like corn, cabbage, and autumn greens that I hadn’t had the space or proper conditions to grow before? Answering those questions has taken up a considerable amount of my time for the past 17 years.


In 1999, a few years before we moved here, I attended a three day workshop on the methods in How to Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV), a book describing Ecology Action’s work to make small gardens grow large amount of food. Their famous claim is that it is possible to grow a spare but adequate diet for an entire year for one person in less than 1000 square feet. Such a garden must include a large percentage of calorie crops (primarily grains and starchy tubers) and protein crops (primarily dry beans); only a small percentage can be grown to the green vegetables and other salad crops like tomatoes that most people grow in their gardens.


Now that we had moved to a much larger lot I had the space to grow such a garden. I also had the motivation, because growing some of our food would save us money on our grocery bill, and HTGMV suggested that I could do it in an ecological way, using human-powered tools to work it and my own compost to provide for the plants’ nutrient needs. In 2003 I began to convert some of our lawn area to an Ecology Action-style garden by digging and planting one 100 square foot bed to a mix of corn, potatoes, collards, soybeans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and autumn greens and roots. A smaller bed located underneath an old swing set frame was planted to a variety of spring and summer greens followed by pole beans and squash.


The first thing I learned that year is that rabbits eat most of these crops and that if I wanted to maximize the value of my time in the garden, I needed to fence rabbits out of the garden. The second thing was that I needed to improve my gardening skill level to make the effort worthwhile. The third thing was that if I wanted to get enough food to matter, I needed more garden space.


Over the next decade I continued to add (and fence in) 100 square foot beds that I grew by Ecology Action’s method, keeping track of the yields of each crop I grew. In 2013, when it was apparent that yields of most crops were declining, I changed to Steve Solomon’s gardening methods instead. By then the vegetable garden totaled fifteen 100 square foot beds planted as follows.


1.     Three beds planted to flint corn.

2.     Two beds planted to winter wheat, then squash following the wheat harvest.

3.     One and a half beds planted to potatoes, with the remaining half bed planted to sweet potatoes.

4.     One bed planted to dry bush beans, then to potato onions in November.

5.     One bed planted to shell and snow peas and peanuts.

6.     One bed planted to cowpeas and edamame soybeans.

7.     One bed with overwintered potato onions and garlic, with summer squash, melons, cucumbers, and gourds following.

8.     One bed spring planted to onions and leeks, followed by autumn greens and roots.

9.     One bed planted to carrots, beets, parsley, and cutting celery.

10.  One bed planted to spring and fall lettuces and cabbage-family plants.

11.  One bed planted to peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, basil, tomatillo, ground cherries, and zinnias.


I intended this garden plan to demonstrate a local versionof a southern complete-diet plan for one person, with more crops for wider eating interest at the cost of the larger garden area required. But when I attempted to put it into practice, I ran square into opportunity-cost issues. Simply put, the garden was too large, given my skill level and other commitments, to keep all of it up. Some of the beds did not work as I had hoped that they would. And the portion of it that I could care for did not provide a well spread out yield; sometimes there wasn’t enough food, sometimes there was more food than we could put to good use.


With two decades’ worth of gardening experience by this time, I had learned that for vegetable and small fruit gardening to be enjoyable enough for me to put in the time required for it, I need the following conditions to hold.

1.     I have fresh fruits and/or vegetables available to harvest as early as is consistent with gardening in open beds here in St. Louis (April for sorrel, early May for strawberries, late May for annual crops);

2.     I have something to harvest from then until it becomes cold enough to kill any remaining garden crops (depending on the year, November to December);

3.     I have some harvested food available in short or long term storage that we can eat after the crops die in the garden;

4.     Each bed is planted with crops that grow under the same conditions, and the entire bed is planted on a single day;

5.     Crop rotation can be accomplished by rotating the beds, with at least two full years between plantings of a particular crop family in each of the beds;

6.     I can obtain a high enough yield of each crop to make the time I spend on that crop worthwhile;

7.     We can eat most of what I grow before it rots, and preserve what we can’t eat fresh in a manner appropriate to the time, expertise, and facilities we have available;

8.     The garden as a whole is large enough to provide a substantial fraction of the fruits and vegetables that we eat and some of the grains and dry beans, and small enough that its upkeep fits within the time I have available to care for it.


With those points and three years of gardening experience with Solomon’s methods in mind, in 2016 I reduced the number of beds growing vegetables, roots, herbs, and grains to ten and added one bed each of strawberries and raspberries. Since 2016 the 10 beds growing grains, roots, herbs, and vegetables are planted as follows.


1.     Three beds are planted in the second half of May to early June to a dent corn or popcorn crop, with a hill of pumpkins in the middle of each bed.

2.     One bed is planted in late October to early November to garlic and potato onions. In early to mid-June these are harvested and the bed planted to a mix of cucumbers, summer squash, sunflowers and/or zinnias, and a variety of soybeans used for edamame.

3.     One bed is planted in May to tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplants, and low growing edible flowers such as nasturtiums and/or signet marigolds.

4.     One bed is planted in May to a mix of summer and winter squash and melons.

5.     One bed is planted to a mix of culinary and medicinal herbs; this is the only bed that is not all planted at the same time, because some of the herbs I grow can tolerate frosts but others cannot. This bed includes a short row of perennial sorrel and some perennial herbs as well as annual herbs. I rotate plants within the bed while the bed itself remains in the same location relative to the other beds.

6.     One bed is planted to potatoes in early to mid-April. The potatoes are harvested in July and the bed is then planted to a mix of autumn greens and roots, most of which are in the cabbage family.

7.     One bed is planted in April to a mix of leeks, beets, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, and bok choy.

8.     One bed is planted in May to a mix of crops in the bean family. In 2020 this included pole green beans, pole lima beans, and bush cowpeas.


I garden primarily for fresh eating and try to avoid growing more of anything than we can eat right away or store short-term in the refrigerator, aside from specific crops that I can store in our living space or in the improvised root cellar and fruits that freeze well to store in the freezer. Winter squash and pumpkins can be stored for a few months in the living area, but they soften and rot before spring comes. Corn, potato onions, garlic, and potatoes can all be stored in the basement, but the potatoes and potato onions will only keep until the following March at best. I store the root crops I harvest in late autumn (beets, turnips, carrots, and radishes) in the root cellar; by March they begin to rot. The leeks do not last more than a month or so in the root cellar, the greens less than that; if we had a larger refrigerator I could keep them longer, but absent that, the best I can do is limit the area I plant to them so that we can eat, freeze, or ferment them before they rot. With only 20 tomato plants, I do not harvest enough tomatoes to can them (not a problem as canning is not something I want to do in hot summer weather); I cook down some tomatoes into tomato sauce and freeze that, amounting to a few pints. Excess strawberries, raspberries, and elderberries are frozen and later made into wine; persimmons, pawpaws, and chestnuts are frozen, then thawed and eaten on demand.


For several of the years between 2003 and 2013 I tried growing cold-tolerant greens inside cold frames or the front porch. Neither effort proved to provide enough food to matter, and what little I grew suffered from aphid attack, a problem I don’t experience in the open garden. As a result I don’t try to grow any food crops over the winter except for the citrus, bay, and rosemary plants that overwinter on the front porch, none of which are not overly troubled by aphids.


To give you a real-life example of what we eat out of season, on December 21 our breakfast included corn mush made from our dent corn and pawpaws that were thawed in the refrigerator and eaten out of hand. Lunch and dinner included a vegetable medley made from frozen peppers and summer squash, and leeks, turnips, daikon radishes, and carrots from storage as well as raw ‘Red Meat’ winter radishes. Mike cooked some of the stored beets for himself (I don’t like them). We ate the last of the stored greens a couple of days previous and the last of the potatoes earlier this month. We still have dried herbs, butternut squash, and pumpkins and their associated seeds in our living space; turnips, leeks, beets, and daikon and winter radishes in the root cellar; tomato sauce, summer squash, sweet and hot peppers, chestnuts, pawpaws, persimmons, and elderberries (the latter four from elsewhere in the yard) in the freezer; and fruit wines, potato onions, garlic, and dent corn and popcorn in the basement. By March all we’ll have left are dried herbs, wines, garlic, dent corn, and popcorn.


The current 1200 square foot garden doesn’t provide anywhere close to what two omnivorous adults eat, though it does supply a substantial amount of food. But how large a proportion of a vegan diet for one adult could it supply? I plan to address that question now that I have several years of yield data to draw on. But first, I have the results from the 2020 garden to discuss, in my next post. Until then, I wish you all a happy 2021!