Monday, July 22, 2019

(Not) in hot water: short-term alternatives to central hot water heating

A couple of weeks ago, on an ordinary Sunday evening after dinner, I turned on the hot water tap in order to fill the kitchen sink with water of the right temperature to do dishes. But hot water didn’t flow out of the tap after the usual short delay. Instead the water remained about the same temperature as the cool water coming out of the cold water tap. I told Mike this and he found that the natural gas water heater’s burner wasn’t lit. He tried lighting the pilot light, which lit the burner momentarily, but it went out almost instantaneously. After he said he’d try lighting it again the next day, I shrugged and did the dishes in cool water.

The next morning Mike attempted the same fix, obtaining the same non-result. I called our plumber’s office, only to learn they were out of the office for a week. So I left a message that we needed their services once they returned and found other means to heat water for various uses until we again had central hot water services. I thought this might be useful information to share with you my readers, hence this post.


This disruption in routine happened at the best time of year for us. Our hottest and sunniest weather is in July and August. St. Louis County’s municipal water supply is drawn from the Missouri and Meramec Rivers. While the Meramec River water is cold all year, the Missouri River water is rather warm during the summer. That meant we could tolerate washing our hands in the cool tap water, unlike in winter when incoming water is quite cold. I’d done laundry just before the water heater stopped working and two older adults don’t generate enough laundry that it needs to be done every week. Thus we needed only to find ways to heat enough water to do dishes by hand and to bathe. Furthermore, with the electricity working I could heat up water on the electric stove, and with abundant sunshine and seasonably warm temperatures I had the means to heat water by the sun. Here’s what we did that made it possible to spend a week and a half without central hot water with minimal disruption to routine.

Washing dishes

With the incoming water cool rather than cold, I found that heating water in our teakettle, which holds a little over 2 quarts / 2 liters of water, to near boiling provided enough hot water, when mixed with the cool tap water, to half fill one side of our stainless steel double-bowl sink with the right temperature of water for dish-washing. I rinsed the dishes with cool tap water, then put them in the dish drainer as usual to dry.

How much cool tap water did I use? I didn’t measure it, but I added somewhat more tap water than near boiling water. I used the thermometer next to the teakettle in the photo above to tell me when to stop adding tap water to the hot water. Using my hand to tell me wouldn’t have been a good idea: until the water was at the right temperature I risked mild to serious burns, and if I added too much tap water I would have had to heat more water. Instead, I started by adding enough tap water to cover the bottom of the sink, to minimize thermal shock when I poured in the hot water. Then I turned on the tap and started adding tap water, while holding the thermometer’s sensitive end in the water with one hand and stirring the water with a long-handled plastic or wooden spoon with the other. I added cold water until the thermometer dropped below 120F / 49C. Then I washed the dishes. Other than waiting for the teakettle of water to heat up and rinsing with cooler water than usual, I experienced no disruption to the dish-washing routine.


As I mentioned, washing my hands or face with cool water wasn’t too unpleasant. But showering or bathing in it would have been. I am not a fan of cold/cool showers. Since it was sunny and seasonably hot, however, we could use a simple alternative technology: the camp shower. You’ll see one of ours (we have two) in the photo below.

Heating the water is simple – if you have a flat spot in a yard that will stay sunny for a few hours. You’ll notice a red circle just below the handle of the camp shower. This is the same type of opening that an air mattress has to admit air. Open the flap and add tap water through the hole till the shower is as full as you think is necessary. It can hold up to 5 gallons / 20 liters of water, which I found to be more than enough water. Then take the camp shower to the aforementioned sunny area and lay it flat on its back (the black side) so the clear side is up, facing the sun. Wait a few hours on a sunny summer day and you’ll have 120F / 49C water. The wording on the camp shower claims it’ll get the water in the bag this hot even if the air temperature is 60F / 15.6C. I don’t how low the air temperature can get and the water inside still heat up to a comfortable temperature. When it gets colder than 60F again, I’ll try it and report back.

In a camping situation, you would have a sturdy rope with you and a sound and sturdy tree branch above you so that you can tie one end of the rope to the handle at the top of the camp shower and pull on the other end of the rope to suspend the camp shower high enough to provide the showering experience. That’s what the plastic tube coming out of the bottom is for. You pull out on the red end, which is a valve that allows water to flow through small holes punched in a disk. Then you take your shower in the flow of water.

That had better be one very sturdy tree limb that you hang the camp shower from, because 5 gallons of water weighs about 40 pounds / 18 kg. Do not hang the camp shower from a towel rack, a shower curtain rod, or a picture hook! None of these are strong enough to hold it up and you’ll have an expensive mess to fix.

So if you can’t hang the shower up, what good is all that heated water? That’s what your 10 gallon / 40 liter blue plastic tub is for, as seen in the photo above. Set the plastic tub on the floor of your tub or shower and empty the now-heated water into the plastic tub through the same opening that you filled the camp shower with. I found the water was hot enough from the camp shower that I had to add some tap water to it to cool it to the right showering temperature. Now grab a plastic or metal cup (I used a 1 quart / 1 liter plastic container) to fill with water from the plastic tub and pour the water over yourself. I had more than enough water to get just as clean as I would have using a regular shower. You can use any leftover water to wash clothes and, as long as you still have electricity, you can then spin them dry in your washer and dry them in the usual way. If I’d needed to wash clothes, I would have done so by this method. You can use a metal washtub instead of a plastic tub, but it might leave rust stains on the porcelain. A plastic tub won’t leave stains.

Why not use the same method to make hot water for washing dishes? Because the water will no longer be potable once it contacts the inside of the camp shower. The shower water is clean enough to wash clothes or to wash you as long as you don’t get it in your mouth, but don’t use it to wash anything that holds food you’ll put in your mouth. You don’t know what’s growing in that shower, and it doesn’t get hot enough to kill whatever it is.

What if … ?

I know some of you are grumbling under your breath, “But what if it’s not sunny for that many hours before I need the water? What if it’s too cold to use the camp shower? What if I don’t have a camp shower or a sunny place to put it if I did have one? What if I can’t heat water on my electric or gas stove because I lost that utility service?” Here are some suggestions.

If you don’t have a camp shower, your favorite bricks-and-mortar or online camping supplier will be happy to sell you one. The Coleman shower I used can be purchased from Coleman’s website.

If you don’t have a thermometer, get one! You can use a meat thermometer from the grocery store.

If you can’t use a camp shower (no sun, not enough time to let the sun heat water before you need it, it’s too cold outside for the water to heat up), then you’ll have to heat water for washing yourself or clothes some other way. As long as your gas or electric stove works, you can heat the water on it. In this case I suggest heating the water in larger pots such as stock pots and only to 120F / 49C, because you’ll need to carry the pots to the plastic tub, and you don’t want to risk the burns you’ll get if you splash hotter water on you. I suspect you’ll quickly figure out how little water you really need to get yourself or your clothes clean. If you don’t have electricity or natural gas, heat the water on a grill (it’ll heat water as well as it grills burgers) or a wood stove.

Bottom line: because we have the camp shower, plastic tub, grill, and assorted large stock pots, we can easily deal with a short-term loss of central hot water. If you don’t have them, the time to get them is now, before you need them. And practicing with them before you need to use them makes sense.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

2019 garden science: homegrown nitrogen

Dogwood blooms, trees leaf out: spring!

In the last post, I discussed how the 2018 garden responded to my poorly phrased question about using wood ashes in place of some of the purchased soil amendments that I have used in past years to balance the soil, following the program in Steve Solomon’s book The Intelligent Gardener. I also used wood ashes in a few other beds in 2018. Of these, the most interesting story features the garlic and potato onion bed. For this bed I added enough wood ashes to provide all the potassium needed for 2018 (about 7 pounds of ashes for the 100 square foot bed area). Besides all of the potassium, this amount of wood ashes supplied a little less than 1/3 of the phosphorus to add, and far more calcium and magnesium than the results suggested was needed to balance the soil. Although excess magnesium (compared to calcium) is not desirable, I think there will be enough calcium added to keep the ratio in the desired range. I plan to test the soil in this bed after the onion and garlic harvest is completed in June, to learn more about the effect on the soil of adding such a large amount of wood ash – which was still within the Missouri Extension’s recommendation of 5 to 10 pounds of wood ash added per 100 square feet. And I’m eager to learn how much food I harvest! So far the plants look strong, with excellent winter survival.
 The allium bed: garlic in front, potato onions behind

While I worked on the previous post, and recalling that I hadn’t taken a soil sample in late autumn as I usually do, I decided to take a soil sample before planting most of this year’s garden and compare it to the previous several years of soil samples. Below is the spreadsheet of nutrient deficits for each year I’ve done soil sampling (the same one I put into the previous post), along with three other soil parameters that help to decipher some of the characteristics of soil. 

 Well, even if your eyes are glazing over, mine sure didn’t when I saw the spring 2019 soil results compared to those of previous years. In fact, I just about got up out of my chair and cheered! Read on to find out why. (For extra credit, take a moment to try to figure out why I was cheering before you go on. I’ll even give you a hint: it’s in the nutrient part of the spreadsheet and refers to a discussion about the soil in the previous post.)

First, before going on to the nutrients, let’s look more closely at the soil characteristics. Of these, pH and organic matter percent (OM%) are probably the ones you are most familiar with. The pH indicates soil acidity or alkalinity; a pH less than 7 is acid, 7 is neutral, and higher than 7 is alkaline. Most garden vegetables prefer soil pH to be in the range of 6.0 to 7.0, though potatoes do well at a slightly more acid pH. The pH of my soil has always been in the 6.0-7.0 range.

After I published the previous post, Chris asked me about what he interpreted as a reduction in organic matter level over the years. This gave me the chance to do something I should have done years ago: to think about the precision in measuring the OM%, rather than assuming the precision based on the number of significant figures in the reported result. Chris assumed, as I had, that by reporting the result for organic matter to hundredths of a percent, Logan Labs is implying that the precision of the test is in hundredths of a percent. (Precision is the degree of closeness of the results from multiple tests run on the same sample.) But when I re-read Erica Reinheimer’s and Steve Solomon’s 2014 revision to the worksheets presented in Solomon’s book, I learned that, in their words, “…OM% test results can vary widely, like 2X, when we send the same soil sample to the same lab.” 2X means a factor of 2: in other words, the 2019 OM% that Logan reported to me might have been as low as 1.5% or as high as 6% across different samples had I sent them multiple soil samples from the same garden!

Going back to the organic matter results across the years and keeping this low precision in mind, I notice that they are all in the 3-4% range, which Solomon suggests is about what can be expected in the US south of the Mason-Dixon line (about 39 degrees 43 minutes north). I’m about a half degree south of this line and our summers certainly quality as hot and humid. Thus I interpret the organic matter percent as remaining roughly constant over the years, to the precision of the test method. Since I’ve been adding the same volume of compost over the years, the rough equality of OM% makes sense. Unless I start making more compost so I can add more (or start making higher quality compost) and as long as I continue using Solomon’s method, the garden will likely continue to be tested at about 3-4% organic matter.

(Aside: in science, the precision of a test isn’t the same as its accuracy. Accuracy is how close the test comes to reporting the true value of what it purports to test. For the moment I’m assuming that the accuracy of the test for organic matter is good enough to fall within the precision that Reimheimer and Solomon suggest I can expect. But I don’t know if anyone knows how accurate it actually is.)

To continue, TCEC stands for total cation exchange capacity. That’s enough wonky-sounding words to make most peoples’ eyelids droop. Allow me to attempt to make some garden-level sense out of it, following the argument in Solomon’s book. Cations means positively-charged ions. In the table of nutrients, all but sulfur and phosphorus occur in the garden as positively-charged ions, and these are adsorbed onto the clay fraction of the soil. Thus TCEC correlates roughly with the amount of clay in the soil: in Solomon’s homey language, clay acts as a pantry from which more positively-charged ions can be drawn as garden plants take them up into their bodies. He suggests that a TCEC of about 10 or more correlates to a well-stocked pantry that doesn’t need any topping-up of more minerals during the growing season. My soil seems to have a TCEC of around 7 to 8, though I don’t know what the precision of the TCEC test method is. I’ve been adding humates to the soil in small quantities in an attempt to raise the TCEC, but so far to no noticeable effect. Solomon suggests adding more minerals after 8 weeks or so to gardens with low TCEC soil, but I have chosen not to do this. It would only be necessary for crops that stay in the ground significantly longer than that, which in my case is just the warm-season crops, and not all of these need it (tomatoes don’t, though it might be helpful for the others, and perhaps especially for greedy corn and disease-prone peppers).

As for sulfur and phosphorus, these occur as negatively-charged ions in soil, in association with organic matter, which acts as their pantry. Increasing the OM% would be one way to make better use of the sources of these nutrients, but as I mentioned in the previous post, without livestock to provide a source of OM beyond the limited amount I obtain from my compost piles and without a pickup truck to haul manure from close-in sources, the only other way I know to increase OM is to take beds out of production to grow green manures for a full growing season. So far I’ve not wanted to take this step, though I do allow winter-annual weeds to play the role of green manure and grow crimson clover on beds that I harvest early enough to allow it to germinate and grow enough to survive winter. Both of these are dug into the soil before growing the next crop.

Now let’s look again at the spreadsheet and pretend that we don’t see the results from the spring 2019 soil test. The soil required additions of phosphorus (the P in N-P-K) every year and sulfur every year but one. I add phosphorus as rock phosphate, which is a mined and refined mineral requiring considerable amounts of energy to prepare and transport. Solomon suggests that most of the phosphate I add isn’t immediately available to the soil, which may explain why it was deficient by about the same amount every year. Wood ashes also supply some phosphorus, but I cannot add enough to resolve the full deficiency without throwing other minerals like potassium out of balance. Sulfur, on the other hand, is available in the form of gypsum, the common name of calcium sulfate. Since the closest gypsum mine is in Kansas and it is needed in much smaller amounts than rock phosphate, I’ve been less concerned about using it. Wood ashes may provide a good substitute source of potassium, which I’ve needed to add most years, pending the results from the bed of onions and garlic and any further testing I may want to do. Calcium is of little concern: besides being included in gypsum and in wood ash, there is a large limestone quarry within 10 miles, thanks to the Missouri of long ago having been at the bottom of a sea. Thus, before the 2019 soil test, I had resigned myself to always needing to apply a source of phosphorus, with most of that needing to come from outside of the yard, while I had a possible alternate source for potassium and calcium at hand in wood ashes should the commercial sources I use become too expensive or difficult to obtain.

Now let’s take a good look at the spring 2019 results. Please direct your attention to phosphorus, and note that it is in excess. Let me repeat that: phosphorus is in excess. That means that for the first time since I began the soil testing program, I don’t need to add the mineral that I had to use the highest weight of, which cost the most to ship and is one of the two mineral sources I was most concerned about becoming dependent on due to the high demands on it. Solomon suggests, on page 142 of his book, that once the phosphorus level builds to that required for the soil and the OM% is high enough, phosphorus may remain sufficient for a decade or two. Since I’m 62 now, the current phosphorus level might be sufficient for the remainder of the time that Mike and I will live on this land as long as I can keep the OM% at its current level or perhaps increase it a bit. And potassium, the other mineral source of biggest concern, is in excess as well. In 2019 all I need to apply is some gypsum (for sulfur and some calcium), oyster-shell lime (for calcium without magnesium, which is in excess), and borax, manganese, and zinc (all of which are added in tiny amounts).

Except for the cottonseed meal that I also add. And here’s where the post is going to get, well, earthy.

To step back, the reason I’m adding cottonseed meal is to supply an organic form of nitrogen. Actually, it’s not the cottonseed meal itself that the plants use. The meal needs to be converted into a form of nitrogen, nitrate (a negatively charged ion containing nitrogen and oxygen), that plants can use. Our friends the soil microherd (everything from bacteria up through earthworms) do this by eating and excreting the meal and/or each other, gradually releasing nitrate into the soil where it can enter plant roots. The microherd becomes more active as the weather becomes hotter, which follows the plant growth cycle. And yes, to answer the question that you’re no doubt asking yourself right now, the organic matter I add does the same thing, but it’s a much less potent source of nitrogen than the cottonseed meal is. Manures are also a less potent source of nitrogen; if added at a high enough amount to equal cottonseed meal, they can bring too much salt into the soil.

But there is a homegrown source of nitrogen at hand: urine.

Human urine is one of the most potent sources of nitrogen available to the gardener. According to Carol Steinfeld’s book Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of UsingUrine to Grow Plants, the N-P-K value of adult urine is, on average, 11-1-2.5. That’s more nitrogen than everything but bloodmeal and monoammonium phosphate on Solomon’s revised Acid Soil Worksheet. It’s almost double the amount of nitrogen in seed meal. There’s a catch: the N-P-K value of urine is calculated for the solids in urine only, not for liquid urine, which is 95% water, meaning I have to apply a lot more urine in both volume and weight than the cottonseed meal. On the other hand, there’s no shipping charge to making use of my urine, just the schlepping charge of getting it out to my garden.

Steinfeld tells us that an average adult excretes 11 grams of nitrogen in each day’s urine. For a 180 day growing season, that amounts to 4.4 pounds of nitrogen. The cottonseed meal I add to a single 100 square foot bed provides 0.36 pounds of nitrogen to the bed during the same 180 day growing season. This suggests that if I collect and apply all the urine I produce to the garden, I can supply nitrogen to ten 100 square foot beds – which is one more than the nine beds that need it. In theory, at least, I can supply enough nitrogen through my own urine to replace all of the cottonseed meal for the entire garden.

Before going on, let’s consider arguments against applying urine. The first issue is a health issue: urine can carry pathogens which can cause serious diseases. Steinfeld writes that urine, unlike feces, transmits only a few significant diseases: leptospirosis, schistosoma, and salmonella. Of these, she says that the first two are rarely encountered outside of an aquatic tropical environment, and the last is typically inactivated shortly after excretion. I live in the temperate zone,  unfavorable for the first two. The third seems like more of a threat considering that we hear of outbreaks of salmonella from contaminated foods from time to time. But those outbreaks usually arise from high densities of livestock, which is not the case in my yard. Furthermore, I have none of these diseases, so I cannot pass them in my urine – though if I do get sick, I will refrain from using urine until I’m well again.

Joseph Jenkins, the author of The Humanure Handbook, adds yersiniosis to the list of diseases that might be caused by pathogens in urine, and he includes E. coli in the list of pathogens potentially carried by urine, another pathogen that makes for occasional news headlines and is often linked to issues with high-density livestock facilities. But, again, I have neither of these, and I’ll use my urine only when I’m well.

Urine that enters surface waters will fertilize aquatic plants. If too much urine enters the water, aquatic plants may overgrow their habitat and die. The decomposition process requires oxygen; if too many aquatic plants die too fast, decomposition can deplete the water of oxygen that other organisms need, causing die-offs. Steinfeld writes that excess nitrogen in waters, from urine or from other nitrogen sources, can lead to blue baby syndrome. For these reasons, it is imperative to apply urine only to land well above the water table and far enough from any surface waters that it cannot enter them, and only on a scale in which the urine can be absorbed and used before it reaches any underground sources of water. Also, the soil should be well aerated, so that it supports the aerobic microbes that oxidize the urine to nitrates and make it available to plants. Since my garden is near the top of a hill and on very deep and well-drained soil, and because I garden organically to support the microherd, I can fulfill these conditions. If there is any standing water in the garden, I won’t apply urine until the soil can again absorb what I apply. This is very rare, occurring only when heavy rains have saturated the soil and then more rains fall.

To use the urine, I will first collect a day’s worth of it in a 2 quart/2 liter bucket. Then I’ll dilute it with water in a sprinkling can, apply that dilution to a garden bed, and follow it with another full can of water, to ensure that all the urine is absorbed into the soil and rinsed off any part of the plant that we will eat. Moreover, I’ll arrange it so at least one day passes before I harvest anything from a bed I treat in this way.

But the scientist in me would like to do a small-scale test of the power of pee before committing to a half year of liquid gold prospecting. And just as it did in 2018, the three beds of corn, dent corn this year, offer me the opportunity for just such a test. For this test I’ll apply the 2019 re-mineralization mix including cottonseed meal, humates, and kelp meal (for micronutrients) to one of the beds of corn as a control. For another bed, I’ll replace the cottonseed meal with urine, collecting the urine once every 10 days and adding it to the bed as above, and add all the rest of the components in the 2019 re-mineralization. For the third bed, I’ll leave out the kelp meal but use cottonseed meal and all the other components of the 2019 re-mineralization mix. It’s a long way from here to the seacoast, so it would be best if I can avoid using kelp meal in the garden. I’ll observe all the plants in all three beds, noting any differences from bed to bed, and keep the harvest from each bed separate so I can calculate that bed’s yield and compare to that of the other beds and to previous years. And so Year 2 of my multi-year project to reduce the need for added minerals and to source as many of any still needed as possible locally is underway.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Corny work: A garden science experiment and what I learned from it


As part of my work to encourage readers to learn and use the scientific method in practical endeavors like gardening, I discuss and interpret a test I devised to answer a question I asked the garden in 2018. It has it all – the original question, a belated realization that the design was flawed, difficulties experienced when I attempted to perform the experiment and the necessary re-boot, and the results that I got and what little I could learn from them. Read on to find out what I did and what all of us, including me, can learn from it!

For the past several years, I have tested the re-mineralization program described by Steve Solomon in his book The Intelligent Gardener. This post from 2013 describes my garden soil at the beginning of the re-mineralization program and the materials I added to it that spring. Since then I have been taking soil samples and, using the most current worksheet (available here), determining which minerals in my soil are deficient and which are in excess. The figure below shows each year’s excesses and deficits in minerals. The units for the deficits are pounds per acre.
Each year from 2013 through 2017 I added a nitrogen source (seed meal, which soil bacteria eat and excrete as nitrates that the plants can use). The nitrogen source ensures that there is sufficient nitrate in the soil for good plant growth; the compost I add isn’t high in nitrogen and we do not keep livestock whose manure could be used for this purpose. The soil tests showed phosphorus was deficient each year, so I added soft rock phosphate to supply that macronutrient. Most years I have also added a source of sulfur (gypsum), calcium (lime, oyster shell, and/or gypsum), potassium (potassium sulfate), and boron (borax) to remedy deficiencies. When the soil test indicated a deficiency, I added mineral forms of manganese, copper, and zinc.

After the 2017 growing season, with five years of garden data to hand, I had proven to my satisfaction that the re-mineralization program produced much better results than did my attempts to follow the Ecology Action program. The garden data from 2017 shows that the majority of the best yields for each crop and variety occurred in 2013 or later, even though most of the crops were grown at wider spacing than I had grown them before 2013.

Then I looked at the data in the figure above through the fall 2017 soil sample and considered what it told me about the soil and how it had changed over the years. So far I had needed to add multiple minerals to the soil each year, in accordance with the low TCEC of my soil (meaning I could not keep a large supply of those nutrients occurring in positively-charged forms – everything from calcium down in the figure – which is due to the low clay content of my soil). I also needed to add the negatively charged minerals, sulfur and phosphorus, which are associated with the organic matter in the soil. Because we have a hot, humid summer which includes rain during the entire growing season, it is difficult to keep a high level of organic matter in the soil, and thus difficult to hold onto these minerals over time. I would add more compost to raise the organic matter level if I could make more of it, but so far I have not been able to do so.

Since I thought I would need to continue adding some minerals each year unless and until I could raise the TCEC and the organic matter level of my soil, I wondered if there were other substances I could use to re-mineralize the soil that I could source for myself, rather than having to purchase them. While cottonseed meal, soft rock phosphate, gypsum, and potassium sulfate are still readily available and cheap, all of these materials come from someplace else. The rock phosphate and potassium sulfate are both depleting. If natural gas supplies become constrained, so will the supply of the ammonia used for fertilization on commercial non-organic farms, because natural gas is used as the hydrogen source in the Haber-Bosch process that produces ammonia. In that case seed meals may become a substitute nitrogen fertilizer for commercial agriculture, which could prevent me from obtaining it or raise the price past what it makes sense for me to pay.

The first material that came to mind as something I can source was wood ash. Whenever we burn wood in our wood stove we generate wood ashes, which we store in a metal trash can to keep any live sparks that could start a fire away from combustible materials. By spring 2018 the trash can was almost full of wood ashes. In order to be able to put ashes generated in the following winter into the trash can, we needed to do something with the ashes already in it. At about that time, the Missouri Extension published an article on recycling wood ashes as a garden amendment. While their opinion was that it was best used to decrease soil acidity (Missouri soils tend to be acid due to rain during the growing season), they also mentioned that it could be used to supply potassium and phosphorus, and they provided an average analysis of P (phosphorus), K (potassium), and Ca (calcium) for wood ashes: 0.9% P, 5% K, 23% Ca, and 2% Mg (magnesium). With this information I could calculate how much of my soil’s needs could be supplied by wood ashes.

I had another material in excess which contains some nitrogen (N) and P: worm castings from the worm bin. While I use worm castings in the potting soil I make for seedlings and container plants to add N and P, the worms produce more castings than I need. With this material also needing to be made use of, I searched the web for analyses of the nutrient content of worm castings. The best I could determine from the web search, worm castings on average contain about 1% N, 0.5% P, and no K. (Whether or not my castings match this analysis I don’t know; I chose not to pay for an analysis.) Worm castings probably contain some sulfur as well, but I could not find any information on their sulfur content.

Having decided on two materials I could use for part of the re-mineralization formula, I thought about how to determine if using them instead of the purchased amendments would be effective for re-mineralization. If I wanted to do a proper experiment, I would need to include a control area where I used the usual ingredients as well as an experimental area where I tried their substitutes. The best choice was the three beds of popcorn I planned to grow in 2018. Thus, for all of the other beds except those growing beans and peas I used a mix with cottonseed meal, soft rock phosphate, dolomitic limestone (for the Mg as well as Ca), potassium sulfate, and borax for re-mineralization in 2018. For the three corn beds I could use that same mix on one bed as the control, with the other two beds available for the experimental mixes. Then I could compare the appearance of the corn plants as they grew and calculate the yields for each bed separately to determine the effect of substitution of materials.

(Why did I not use this same mix on the pea and bean beds? Because peas and beans have bacteria associated with them that supply their nitrogen needs, so I used only as much seed meal on these beds as I needed to get a good mix of the other ingredients. Those were used in the same amounts as for the other beds.)

Here I encountered the first issue in translating theory into practice. The experiment I wanted to do required four beds of popcorn: the control bed, with the same mix as the other beds; one bed with worm castings substituting for the seed meal but all other ingredients the same; one bed with wood ashes substituting for all of the limestone and potassium sulfate and some of the rock phosphate but all other ingredients the same; and one bed with both the wood ashes and the worm castings, with enough of the other ingredients to make up the remaining deficiencies. But I planned to grow only three beds of corn and did not have room to add a fourth bed. Furthermore, one of the three beds was a newly formed bed that had been planted at different times to asparagus and raspberries and, most recently, had contained weeds for a few years. I hadn’t taken a soil sample from that bed so I didn’t know how similar or different it was to the rest of the garden. After much thought, I decided to re-mineralize the reclaimed bed as if it had the same set of deficiencies and excesses as the grassy areas surrounding the beds, which I sample each year as controls along with the garden soil. In that way I could test it against the control. In the remaining bed, I used both the worm castings and the wood ashes and enough of the other ingredients to make up the remaining deficiencies, based on the fall 2017 soil analysis in the figure.

In retrospect, I realize the flaw in my design: if the yield in this bed were different from that of the control bed, I would not know which of the two substitutions was responsible for that change. Rather than trying both wood ashes and worm castings in the remaining bed, I should have chosen to try only the wood ashes. I allowed my desire to find a place for the excess worm castings to overcome my scientific judgement, when I could have added them to the compost pile instead. As my mother would say, live and learn … which you’ll notice in future garden science posts.

Beyond this theory-level flaw, I ran into difficulties I hadn’t anticipated when I attempted to prepare the mix with worm castings and wood ashes. While I usually apply compost and the re-mineralization mix separately and then cultivate the soil a few inches deep to mix them in, the castings were so wet that I thought it would be preferable to mix them with the compost and wood ashes and then spread the mix. However, the mixture proved to clump together unevenly and the mixing step took far too long to be practical.

This is where I should have taken a deep breath and dropped the worm castings out of the experimental design altogether. But, still being determined to include them, I persisted long enough to drop clumps of mixed worm castings and compost over about 1/6 of the bed area before I gave up on the castings as too heavy and wet to work as a practical nitrogen source in garden beds.

That left the wood ashes. Until I worked with them, I didn’t realize how light and fluffy they are; I couldn’t mix them evenly by hand with the rest of the ingredients. In the end, I cast the wood ashes, compost, and re-mineralization mix with seed meal onto the remainder of this bed and worked it into the top few inches of the soil as I normally do. For the part of the bed with the castings, I added the proper amount of wood ashes and remineralization mix without seed meal before cultivating it. After preparing the control and newly formed beds as I mentioned before, I added popcorn seeds to all three beds on the same day and then cared for each bed in the same way. When I harvested the ears of popcorn, I kept the ears from each bed together so that when I shelled and weighed the popcorn, I could calculate the yield, in pounds per 100 square feet, for each bed.

What were the results? First, I didn’t notice any visual differences between the plants in any of the beds until the ears of corn were ready for harvest. By that time, it looked as if there were more and larger ears in the control bed than in either of the other two beds. I didn’t see any difference in pest or disease pressure among the three beds, or any difference in plant color or height except near the end of all three beds that is partially shaded by hazelnut shrubs and is attributable to that shading.

The yields of popcorn I obtained for the three beds were as follows:

Bed 10 (control): 9.0 pounds per 100 square feet
Bed 11 (wood ashes and worm castings): 5.7 pounds per 100 square feet
Bed 12 (mix for lawn areas): 6.1 pounds per 100 square feet

I can’t do any kind of statistical analysis on the data because I didn’t set up the experiment to allow for that. But based on the results I obtained, it appears that the yield of the control bed was higher than that of either of the other two beds. The problem is, I don’t know if the yield of the experimental bed was lower because of the change in the re-mineralization ingredients, or because of the practical difficulties I encountered working with the wet worm castings and the fluffy wood ashes. And if it was the change in ingredients, I don’t know which one was responsible, or if it was an interaction between them. As for the third bed, since this is only its first year being re-mineralized and I don’t know if I used the right mix for its soil, I’m not surprised that it seems to have produced a lower yield.

There you have it: a real person doing a real experiment, experiencing real difficulties and doing her best to understand the message in the results. And it’s something any of you could have done as well as I did; it only required a good grasp of fractions and percentage, and a basic understanding of the scientific method. Tune in to the next post to find out where I’ll take my quest to use home-grown ingredients for re-mineralization in 2019!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

What the 2018 garden told me

The vegetable garden shivers under snow.

Hello to all! It’s time to share with you what I learned from my garden in 2018 so that your gardens might benefit.

As I say at this time each year, whatever I attempt to learn from the garden takes place within a much broader conversation, that of the garden with the weather systems and other beings which affect it. With that in mind, let’s look at the weather during the 2018 growing system to learn how it affected the garden as a whole and the plants that grew in it. The following is based on the St. Louis NWS’ annual climate report for 2018, supplemented with my on-site observations. (To read the climate report, click on Local under the Climate heading at the bottom of the St. Louis NWS site. On this page, click on the radio button for Annual Climate Report under Product and Archived Data under Timeframe, and then choose January 1st, 2019 if it’s not already highlighted. Clicking the Go button will bring up the 2018 report.)

When I tell people about the weather in St. Louis in 2018, I say that it was the year with no spring and no autumn. I don’t mean that March through May and September through November didn’t exist; they happened here at the same time as they did everywhere else in the northern hemisphere. Nor do I expect long stretches of near-average temperatures in either season in this part of the US as these seasons usually feature wide and rapid swings in temperature. But there wasn’t much swinging of temperature in either season in 2018. Instead, the weather seemed to lock into either winter or summer for most of both. April was a continuation of March weather-wise while May took June’s place and June acted like a month-long extension of July. September through the first third of October acted like a continuation of August, with the rest of October taking the place of November and November behaving like December. I don’t know who stole spring and autumn, but my garden and I missed them.

The last frost in 2018 came late, on April 20. The garden received well over normal rainfall in May, somewhat less than normal in June. All else being equal, then, I would expect that crops favoring cool weather would yield less in 2018 than in years with more typical spring weather.

In autumn, the first low temperature under 40F / 4C didn’t occur till October 12, later than usual, and there were only three days with low temperatures under 50F / 10C before this. However, the first frost followed rapidly on October 16, with the first freeze occurring on October 21, and three days of measurable snowfall by November 15. Furthermore, we received little rain after a drench of 3.1 inches / 7.9 cm on September 9. All else being equal, this suggests the likelihood of lower than normal yields for the autumn crops which I plant in August.

With a growing season from April 20 through October 16, and with plenty of hot weather and good rains during May to establish the crops that like heat, it would be reasonable to expect good yields from those crops, assuming I planted and cared for them properly.

The yields I obtained in 2018 are shown on the next four figures.

The first thing I notice when I look at the data is that the only crops in which the yield approached or exceeded the best previous yield were arugula, cucumber, daikon radish, winter squash, and the paste tomato. Of these, two are autumn crops (the arugula and the daikon radish) and three are summer crops (the cucumber, winter squash, and paste tomato). The only spring-planted crop that approached the best previous yield was one lettuce variety, and in most cases the yields of spring crops were well below the best previous.

The low yields of the crops favoring cooler spring weather, whether direct-seeded or transplants, are easy to understand. To begin with, not only was March cold, but it was also cloudier than average. Because I start my seeds on our solar-heated sun-facing front porch, a cooler and cloudier than normal March, the month I start seeds for transplants, slows down their growth. Because it was so cold during April, I wasn’t able to plant these and the direct-seeded crops until late April to early May, two to three weeks later than I prefer to plant them. Then the heat of May and June adversely affected their growth, as well as that of the potatoes, the one spring crop that I planted on time. I wasn’t the only one having trouble with spring-planted crops; the Missouri Extension reported that farmers across the state suffered from poor yields in crops like broccoli. (None of my broccoli plants headed out; all I harvested was a few meager side shoots.) The only pleasant surprise was the good performance of the romaine lettuce ‘Kalura’, which has become one of the two consistently good performers among the lettuce varieties I’ve tried.

With the generally favorable summer weather, the lackluster performance of the peppers, blackeyed peas, and zucchini needs an explanation. The zucchini plants made plenty of zucchinis; however, they made too many of them while we were out of town for a week or so. When we returned, the patch had gone feral, producing at least nine 3 to 6 pound monster zukes that proved inedible; I only reported the weight of those zucchini we could eat. I planted the blackeyed peas too late; when frost came, the plants were loaded with immature pods. As for the peppers, their seeds require very warm conditions at sowing time in March in order to germinate and grow. Even with a heat mat under the flat, the porch proved too cold an environment for good pepper seedling production. I re-seeded both pepper varieties on March 27, and even then did not raise as many seedlings as I had space allotted for in the garden. Then most of the plants succumbed to disease in the unrelenting heat. The only problem with the ‘Arkansas Tomato’ tomatoes was that we were out of town during part of the first flush of ripe fruits (my neighbor, whom I’d given permission to harvest ripe tomatoes while we were away, told me she’d gotten quite a few of them). Some of the ‘Old German’ tomatoes suffered from sun bleaching but otherwise it’s proven to be a beautiful and good-flavored tomato, and ‘Cherokee Purple’ tomato again impressed with its taste and yield. We liked the ‘Mitoyo’ eggplants better than any others I have grown so far, and they yielded well for being so widely spaced.

As for the fall garden, the excellent yield of arugula may have to do with my planting only one short row of it rather than two, so that we harvested and ate almost all of the arugula. I’m not sure why the daikon radishes grew so well; maybe I happened to thin them just right. Still, I consider the fall crops a success because all of them, even the lettuce, grew from direct-seeding, a much easier way to grow crops at this time of year compared to growing transplants. I froze the lettuce seeds for several days before planting, as suggested by some garden writers. Perhaps that’s what made the difference with them, as I had not been able to raise lettuce from direct-seeding in August before. I was also pleased with the Chinese cabbage variety, which grew fast enough to head up before it got too late in the season.

Regarding other new varieties I tried, the ‘Garnet Butter Gem’ lettuce looked pretty and tasted good, but it was small and an early bolter. The ‘Lorz Italian’ garlic out-yielded ‘Inchelium Red’, tastes as good, and has lasted as long in storage. Of the two bell-shaped sweet peppers I trialed, only ‘Ozark Giant’ fruited, and it made only two peppers (but they were large and tasty). Fortunately, the dependable ‘Italian Frying’ peppers again proved their worth, and I got enough peppers to save seeds for this year’s crop, though not without drama associated with needing to re-seed them in order to get the six seedlings that I planted into the garden (as opposed to the eight seedlings I had intended to plant). Beyond the problem with cold conditions during seed germination, the seed was too old to germinate well. I’ve learned that I must save seeds of peppers every year; they do not last long under my storage conditions (an unconditioned basement). It might be worthwhile to store just the pepper seeds in the refrigerator in order to keep them viable for longer.

The fourth figure gives the total weight for the vegetables and the popcorn that I harvested in 2018 as 391 pounds, almost equal to 2016 (392 pounds) but much less than in 2017 (536 pounds). Why so much more in 2017? It could have been because of better weather, but it could also have been because among the commercially grown seedlings I used that year were some hybrids that benefited from hybrid vigor, along with other possibilities I haven’t considered.

The fourth figure also gives the weight of various fruit crops that I grew in 2018. The beds for the raspberries and strawberries are within the same fenced area in which I grow the vegetables and corn; the trees are scattered across the rest of the property. I tried using tomato cages to hold up the raspberry canes last year, to keep them from shading the crops in the beds on either side. While some of the cages tipped from the weight of the canes and will need to be staked or replaced, the cages did corral the canes that I allowed to grow within them, reducing the shading that raspberry canes have caused in the past and making it easier to harvest the berries. I had to spend time hoeing or pruning out canes that grew outside the cages and push canes back inside the supports as they grew, but I felt the effort was worthwhile.

In general, 2018 was a good year for fruit crops, despite the frosts and freezes in April. The apple, pawpaw, persimmon, and strawberry yields were much higher in 2018 than in 2017, plus I harvested some ripe apricots and peaches, and would have gotten more of each if we hadn’t traveled when most of them ripened. The chestnut yield was much less in 2018 versus 2017, possibly due to a tendency to biennial bearing. As the apple, pawpaw, and persimmon trees mature, I can probably expect more fruits each year. The peach tree may be nearing the end of its lifespan, but it continues to bear, though squirrels usually get the crop before it ripens.

I had intended to write a post following the May 21 post last year about the experiment I ran on the popcorn beds. The writing fell by the wayside, but I did perform the experiment. Because this post is long enough already, I’ll discuss it in a separate post. Till then, may your gardens grow well in the coming year!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Garden conversations for 2018

After a very cold April turned into a very warm May, the lilac, redbud, and dogwood bloomed at the same time, something I have not seen in past years. This photo was taken on May 4.

As promised at the end of the last post, I’ll discuss here the conversations I’ll be having with my garden in the 2018 growing season. But first, this post will be interrupted for the following announcement.

Once again Mike’s and my yard will be a destination for this year’s Sustainable Backyard Tour. As the website for the Tour puts it, “A sustainable backyard offers the opportunity to provide food for our families, wildlife habitat, relaxation and visual appeal, all while minimizing impacts on the environment and the communities in which we live.”

The event will take place on Sunday, June 10 from 11am to 4pm at sites throughout St. Louis City and County plus a few others elsewhere in the metro area. To find out more about the Sustainable Backyard Tour and how you can register as an attendee, click on the link in the previous paragraph. The tour is free and the people I’ve met on past tours seem to get a lot out of it.

We now return you to your irregularly scheduled post.

Now that I’m in the sixth year of the soil re-mineralization program described by Steve Solomon in his book The Intelligent Gardener, I have gained a good feel for the garden’s soil as well as the size of garden I can handle and a suite of well-performing vegetable varieties and when and how to plant and care for them. This year, then, besides testing a few new varieties and methods of growing some of the vegetables, the focus of my garden science will begin to shift to look more closely at different materials I might use to re-mineralize the soil.

Before that, however, I wanted to mention some of the new varieties and growing techniques I will try in 2018 in case they may be of interest to you.

Of new varieties, I’m trialing ‘Garnet Butter Gem’ lettuce, a butterhead, against our staple ‘Bronze Arrowhead’ oakleaf lettuce and a romaine variety, ‘Kalura,’ that has performed well in the past few years. ‘Lorz Italian’ garlic is going bulb-to-bulb with ‘Inchelium Red,’ a variety I feared I might lose after last year’s dismal harvest, but to my surprise and delight is growing strongly after surviving a miserable winter and early spring. Later this summer I’ll try again to grow ‘Hilton’ Chinese cabbage for autumn (last year’s seedlings died before they could be planted). I’m growing ‘Arkansas Traveler’ tomatoes from purchased seed again (I’m not sure how true-to-type my saved seed is) and also ‘Cherokee Purple’ and Old German’ based on the excellent tomatoes we picked from purchased seedlings of these varieties last year. If they are as good again I’ll save seeds from them. I’m trying a different eggplant variety, ‘Mitoyo,’ said to be a regional Japanese variety, because Mike likes the Japanese types of eggplants.

I hope to replace the seemingly underperforming open-pollinated sweet bell pepper varieties I’ve grown before with bell-shaped varieties that can keep up with ‘Italian Frying,’ an open-pollinated sweet pepper of bull-horn shape and excellent yield and taste. (I don’t know what its real name is. Many years ago Mike and I bought this sweet pepper from a local grower, and I saved its seeds and have grown it ever since. But I haven’t seen the grower since so I couldn’t ask him its name. Thus, I named it for its shape and its thin walls, typical of a frying pepper.) The two bell peppers I’m trying this year are ‘Ozark Giant’ and ‘Jupiter.’ With those names, each has a reputation to live up to.

Speaking of the peppers, the very cold and cloudy conditions during March and April played havoc with raising seedlings. As I have since 2012, I raised all my seedlings on the enclosed sun-facing front porch, which I have added drums of water to so that it can passively absorb and store solar heat, as I described here. By March, which brings increased day length and a higher sun angle as we head toward the vernal equinox, the porch generally works very well as a greenhouse. Most seeds can be started in flats placed on the floor, with the seeds needing the warmest temperatures, peppers among them, started in flats placed on a heat mat. But the porch needs sunlight to work properly; we don’t provide any extra heat to it. In March, the monthly average sky cover was 7 (0=no clouds, 10=complete cloud cover), with only 9 days of average daily cloud cover 0 to 5, and the monthly average temperature of 43.1F was 3.2F below normal. Many of the seeds I sowed didn’t germinate at all, and others were slower and germinated at a lower percentage than usual. Fortunately, most of the vegetable seeds did fine, but peppers were the exception. I had them on the heat mat as usual, but it didn’t seem to be able to warm the bottom of the flats enough to compensate for the cold air and lack of sunlight. April proved March’s equal for cloud cover and was even colder relative to average than March was (it was the 4th coldest April on record in the St. Louis area, according to the St. Louis NWS office). While I suspect the main culprit in this year’s poor seedling crop was the weather, it’s possible that the seeds I used for some of the crops may have died. I don’t replace all seeds every year (most seeds live anywhere from 2 to 5 years or more) and those I planted fell into accepted standards for age, but it may be that storage conditions caused the seeds to die prematurely. At any rate, I redesigned the two flower and herb beds (I’ll discuss these more below) to hold purchased seedlings and perennials. I tossed the seeds that didn’t germinate to the birds and will replace them with fresh seed next year.

I was especially concerned about the ‘Italian Frying’ pepper seeds because they dated from 2015. Pepper seeds seem to have a rather short period of high viability, only about 2 years under my less than ideal storage conditions in the basement. Because of this I had planned to save seeds from this pepper in 2017 for future crops. But the life I mentioned in the previous post put paid to raising any seedlings in spring of 2017, so I could not replace the 2015 seeds with a fresh crop. When I sowed the ‘Italian Frying’ seeds from 2015 this year, I sowed extra heavily, fearing that germination would be low. It was worse than that; only one seedling had resulted from the March 6 sowing by March 27. So I sowed them again. And it turned out OK; between a straggler or two from the first sowing and a few seedlings from the second, I managed to raise 6 seedlings of this pepper. Not the 8 seedlings I planned space for, but it means I shouldn’t lose the variety, because I can save seeds from these plants for future years. But it reminds me that annual crops can be a precarious business. It’s good to save some of your own seeds, but don’t forget to support the companies that offer seeds grown by small breeders and farmers. The more people and farmers are raising any one variety, the more likely it is to remain available to all of us. Any of us can lose a variety through life issues, and I am not out of the woods with my favorite ‘Italian Frying’ pepper until I have a packet of seeds set aside from this year’s crop.

One other effect of the especially cold weather in March and April is that it delayed getting the garden started. It’s May 21 and the pepper, tomato, and eggplant seedlings still haven’t been planted, whereas I usually plant them around May 1. This has the advantage of giving the pepper seedlings time to grow large enough to withstand attack from damping-off fungus when I plant them. But I should put cutworm collars around them when I plant them as they are small enough to be subject to cutworm attack.

Also concerning the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, I plant them in a separate bed to make it easy to rotate them throughout the garden, to help reduce the effects of disease on them. In the past I have tried to grow basil, calendula, and zinnias interspersed with them. But all of these grow too tall and wide in the well-amended soil. This year I intend to grow only quite short flowers in between the vegetable plants, in the hope that the flowers might draw pollinators and cover the soil between these vegetable plants without interfering with the growth of the vegetables.

This year I’ll be growing popcorn to replenish our popcorn supply. The last time I grew popcorn I noted that it didn’t yield as well as it had in the past and wondered if it was suffering from inbreeding depression. If I get low yields again this year and other factors don’t readily account for it, then I will be certain enough of inbreeding depression to have to take some kind of action the next time I grow popcorn.

Since I decided last year not to grow sweet potatoes again, I redesigned some of the garden beds. However, I didn’t do the best job of it that I could have, because I didn’t place the peas in the bed with the spring lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and bok choy. Had I done that, the peas would have been planted in late April when the soil temperature was about right for them. Instead, they were planted on May 8 which began a stretch of July-type temperatures, much warmer than peas like. But since the pea seeds did not germinate I will use their space for a second sowing of zucchini and cucumbers, which should provide those crops for a longer period of time. And I can do the same after future pea crops die, as there is plenty of time left in the growing season for good crops of these.

Meanwhile, the flowers and herbs that I didn’t plant in the tomato/pepper/eggplant bed, and more besides, have been planted in the two beds that also have the towers on which I am growing pole beans. Last year I only cultivated the portion of each of these beds that held the pole bean towers. This year I am putting all of these beds into plantings. I can space the herbs and flowers more widely in these beds and grow more varieties of each than by trying to interplant them in the vegetable beds. The beds won’t need any added minerals because they retain some from previous years, and they should help to support pollinators. In addition, I relocated some perennial native plants that had grown into the mowed paths around the bed into these two beds. In this way I can save them and then replant them into other parts of the yard next year.

I mentioned in the previous post that two crops, raspberries and blackeyed peas, flopped over onto the crops planted next to them. To prevent this from happening I am trying support systems. For the raspberries, I have put a tomato cage over each clump, as shown in the photo below.
The raspberries inside the tomato cages are in the middle of the photo, with one of the herb/flower beds in the front and the strawberry bed between them.

As the canes grow, the tomato cage should keep them contained within their allotted three-dimensional space. To do this, I remove canes emerging from the clump that I cannot guide into the support as well as the offsets that branch off of the clump and put up new shoots away from it. Because I had extra tomato cages, it didn’t cost me anything but the time I put into setting up the cages and pruning the canes to fit within them. So far the cages are working as I envisioned; it’ll be interesting to see what the yield of raspberries is when they are caged compared to when they are left mostly to their own devices. 

For the blackeyed peas, I’ll try using pea fences to keep them contained.

As I mentioned above, now that I have learned how to re-mineralize the soil to produce consistently good yields of vegetables, I am beginning to consider ways in which I can replace some of the minerals added that I now purchase with sources available within the boundaries of the yard. Rather than stretch out this post, I’ll take a closer look at what the soil has told me over the past five years in the next post and what I have on hand that might be able to replace some of what I typically purchase. In the meantime, I’ll concentrate on putting the rest of the garden in and readying it for show-and-tell on June 10.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The 2017 garden: small is bountiful

Plum tree blooming on April 6, a week or two later than usual.

2017 was a year that didn’t go according to plan, and thus neither did this blog. However, I’m back to the blog now and intend to continue making posts on an irregular basis. And that means it’s time to report on what the garden told me in 2017.

I had expected to raise seedlings in February and March of 2017 for spring planting as I have in past years, but life had other plans. It’s easy to find vegetable seedlings for sale if you don’t care about what varieties you buy. I had to make do with what they had for sale, which for the most part did not match what I wanted to grow.

The most important question I asked the garden to answer was how much I could raise in 1,024 square feet of bed space. That includes 100 square feet planted to strawberries and another 100 square feet planted to raspberries, with the remainder in vegetable, root, and grain crops. Over the past few years the area devoted to food crops grew larger than the amount of time I wanted to spend on it, plus I grew more than we wanted of some crops. The 2017 garden area was about half of the 2015 garden area. I also asked the blackeyed peas to tell me if I could grow them on much less cottonseed meal (an organic source of nitrogen) than I use for vegetable beds, and the pole green and yard-long beans if I could grow them on no soil amendments at all, as part of my long-range goal to reduce inputs I need to obtain from outside the yard. I also got a new human-powered garden tool in 2017, a Hoss wheel hoe, that I hoped would make some of the work of preparing and weeding garden beds easier on my body, and I bought two bean towers to grow pole beans on.

One other change I made was to replace the fence around the entire garden area. In the post on the 2016 garden, I discussed how my removal of fencing around part of the garden and the creation of a brush pile near it allowed for continual rabbit raids on garden produce. Before the 2017 gardening season began, I re-used the best of the old fencing to fence in the garden. Remembering how much easier it was when I could bring a garden cart up to the bed I was working on, and how much easier it was to maintain the path area when I could bring a mower up to it, I put in a gate. It isn’t elaborate; as you can see from the picture below, it’s just two panels held between closely spaced posts. I can lift or slide the panels to make a large enough space between the posts for the cart, lawnmower, and wheel hoe. It works very well!

The garden gate: the two panels at center left.

However, after I planted the lettuce seedlings, I again found rabbits in the garden, eating the lettuce. We hadn’t had time to mulch the brush pile; in fact, it had grown during the year. The rabbit resort residents had figured out how to break into their dining hall. Chasing one of them, I noted it leapt through the wide openings at the top of the fencing. After pondering on the situation, I realized I had enough old fencing left to turn it upside down and attach it to the existing fencing. The small openings on the outer layer would then cover the large openings on the inner layer, preventing rabbit access. With that change in place, the rabbits found other food sources easier to access, and we ate lettuce, carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes in 2017. Last autumn I finally hired a tree service company to shred the rabbit resort and scattered seeds of native flowers where the resort had been, to provide food and shelter for pollinators. I expect less rabbit predation in 2018, though the cover afforded by the tall native plants may attract more rabbits to the area near the vegetable garden in future years.

The 2017 growing season weather

As I’ve noted before, the highly variable nature of weather in the US Midwest makes it a major factor in what my garden can provide. For this reason, I’ll recap the weather and suggest how it affected the crops that I grow.

Spring 2017 was warm and very wet. The last frost date, March 16, was two to four weeks earlier than usual. I did not have my rain gage out in early April, but the St. Louis NWS official station is only a few miles away so it is a good proxy. It received 10.37 inches of rain in April, almost 4 inches above normal! April was warmer than normal as well. May also featured above-normal rainfall of 6.7 inches and warmer than normal temperatures. Seedlings planted in those months did very well, but seeds planted in the wettest weeks rotted. Luckily conditions improved later in May and early June when I planted the corn and bean seeds.

We received 2.8 inches of rain in June, 4.2 inches in July, and 2.9 inches in August; between the rain and some supplemental watering, moisture proved sufficient. June was a little warmer than normal, July much warmer than normal, and August a little cooler than normal. The cooler weather in August made it easy to get direct-seeded fall crops started. The heat and humidity of July were hard on crops like peppers, cucumbers, and zucchinis but other summer crops grew and produced well.

Autumn conditions turned quite dry, with only about 0.3 inches of rain in September, though we got close to normal rainfall in October at 2.8 inches. While September started cool, with the morning low already down to 48F on the 2nd, the second half of the month featured an impressive heat wave to end the month at above-normal temperatures overall. October was warmer than normal until about the last week, with the growing season coming to an abrupt end on October 29 with a hard freeze of 25F. The dryness and heat did not favor fall crops. I concentrated watering on the tomatoes, leaving the fall greens, lettuce, and root crops at the mercy of the heat and dryness.

The 2017 results

Despite my disappointment at not being able to grow some of the varieties I wanted and the disruptions due to various aspects of life, it was a good year. I harvested over 500 pounds of vegetables, roots, and dry beans, about 33 pounds of dent corn, and 30 pounds of berries in the 1,024 square feet of fenced-in garden space, in total the best yield I’ve obtained. The blackeyed peas did fine on reduced nitrogen, the pole beans did fine without any amendments at all, and the wheel hoe proved its worth in reducing the effort and time required to prepare beds and weed paths and beds with widely-spaced crops.

I’ll discuss each crop briefly below. Following that is the table of results for 2017, from which the crop vignettes are derived. The left side of the table shows the crop, variety, date planted, and yield in pounds per 100 square feet for the best previous year. The right side of the table includes the same data for 2017 plus the area I planted and the weight I harvested out of that area. 

Potato onions, garlic, and leeks: the aforementioned life conspired to prevent me from removing the mulch on these crops till early April, about a month later than is ideal. While the elephant garlic leaves grew through the top of the mulch, most of the ‘Inchelium Red’ garlic and potato onion leaves were unable to grow through the mulch before they exhausted their food stores. As a result, the elephant garlic yielded well but the other garlic and the potato onions yielded poorly. I ended up with a lower weight of potato onions than I planted the previous autumn, not exactly sustainable. Fearing that I would lose the ‘Inchelium Red’ crop altogether, I purchased a new garlic variety, ‘Lorz Italian,’ to plant in fall 2017. As it turned out, I had enough ‘Inchelium Red’ to plant some of it as well as the ‘Lorz Italian’ and elephant garlic for 2018. As for the leeks, the blackeyed peas planted in the bed to their south flopped onto them in late summer, killing some of the leeks and checking the growth of the rest. At least we got enough for two batches of leek-potato soup.

Bok choy: I didn’t find seedlings for this crop at the nurseries I visited in the spring and the seeds I direct-sowed failed to germinate, so I grew it only in the autumn. Its low yield relative to the best year can be attributed to excessive heat and dryness and no supplemental watering, and possibly also to some shading from the corn crop in the next bed to the south. In addition, one of the four plants I grew died before harvest.

Spring-planted cabbage and broccoli: the broccoli planted at one plant per square foot yielded over twice that planted at one plant per four square feet and beat the previous best yield to boot. As for cabbage, the unlabeled but probably hybrid variety I planted in 2017 failed to out-perform the heirloom ‘Golden Acre.’

Fall-planted cabbage family leaves and roots: most of these were adversely affected by the hot, dry weather, my not watering them, and perhaps excessive shading from the corn plants in the next bed to the south of them. In addition, I neglected to thin the direct-seeded root crops, which reduced their yields compared to the best of previous years. In spite of the difficult conditions, the kale and arugula yielded as well as the best previous fall-grown crops, while the mustard greens yielded only about half of the best previous (a different variety, so that may have had an effect).

Lettuce: I didn’t find any seedlings of any of the varieties I like to grow for the spring crop, instead choosing to buy an unlabeled frilly red lettuce. It didn’t yield that well and we preferred the tastes of all the varieties I grow compared to the red frilly variety. Surprisingly, since the heat and dryness of autumn killed some of the seedlings after I planted them, enough survived to match the best yields I’ve obtained previously.

Carrots and beets: while the beets yielded a little better than the best previous yield, the ‘Danvers 126’ carrots suffered from poor seed germination due to too-old seed. The ‘Cosmic Purple’ was a free package from one of the seed companies I ordered from, and its seeds germinated much better. It wasn’t a bad carrot, either.

Potatoes: both of the two varieties I grew yielded well. I preferred the taste of ‘Yukon Gold.’

Cucumbers: I had difficulty getting them to germinate in the excessively wet soil of early May. When I finally got them to grow, they grew well enough until the heat wave of July broke their spirits. But at least we got enough to enjoy fresh cucumbers and to make some pickles.

Winter squash: not only does ‘Burpee’s Butterbush’ taste as good as ‘Waltham Butternut,’ but it yielded 2 1/2 times better and is a smaller, easier to manage vine. And for the first time, I got several ‘Kakai’ pumpkins with mature hull-less seeds, the feature I grow them for. All told I grew about ¾ pound of seeds, which I roasted and eat as snacks.

Zucchini: we got a decent yield of these, though like the cucumbers they didn’t care for the excessive heat and humidity they experienced in July, the vines dying by the end of the month.

Sweet potatoes: ‘Hernandez’ yields well and the voles left us most of the crop, but its vines crawled through the two corn beds to its north, and it grew small tubers into both of those two beds as well as the one I planted it into. We aren’t fond enough of sweet potatoes to eat that many, and they require more effort to harvest than any other crop, including potatoes. I won’t grow them again, preferring to use that space for something we like better.

Sweet peppers: despite the heat and humidity, ‘Better Belle’ yielded respectably and tasted good as well. It appears to be a hybrid seed according to results from the search I did on it, so I couldn’t save seeds from it if I could find them for sale. Nor did it out-perform the best yield I’ve obtained from the ‘Italian Frying’ seeds I’ve saved for years. ‘Gypsy,’ a pepper that I think was bred for cooler summers, performed poorly in my garden. I didn’t grow any hot pepper varieties in 2017.

Tomatoes: all four of the varieties I grew yielded well. Oddly, the label on the ‘Arkansas Traveler’ tomatoes I bought claimed them to be hybrids, while the seed companies I buy the seeds from label them as open-pollinated, and I have saved and re-grown those seeds myself. The tomatoes from the seedlings I bought didn’t look quite the same as those I have grown in the past, nor did they seem to taste quite as good, so it might be that there are two different tomatoes out there with this name. If so, I prefer the heirloom version I’ve grown in the past. ‘Cherokee Purple’ was every bit as tasty as Carol Deppe says it is, and ‘Old German’ tasted good enough to grow again, plus its yellow fruits with red stripes looked appealing next to the pink and purple fruits of the others. ‘San Marzano’ is a widely available paste variety that yielded almost too well.

Pole beans and vining cowpeas (aka yard-long beans): the bean towers proved their worth, as they made it easy for me to find and pick the beans off the plants as they grew up the strings. I had to drive a stake next to one tower and tie the tower to the stake to keep the tower from leaning after strong winds pushed it partway over. I also planted the beans earlier than in the past and was rewarded with higher yields despite not amending the soil they grew in at all. I’ll keep growing them this way as long as the yield holds out.

Cowpea/blackeyed pea: the variety I grow is supposed to have short vines, but they seem rather long to me, and the seed company I bought them from says the trade allowed the vine length to increase. As noted in the entry on leeks, the vines crawled into their bed, and also crawled up the raspberry canes on the other side. For all that, I doubled my previous best yield, and this with very little added nitrogen. Better growing conditions? Earlier planting? I don’t know enough to say, but I’m in favor of it.

Dent corn: this yielded almost twice as much as in 2016, perhaps in part due to being planted earlier. This variety makes a good-flavored corn mush, so we can eat it for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Good thing; it’ll take us awhile to get through last year’s and this year’s crops.

In the next post I’ll discuss my plans for 2018’s garden and what has happened so far.