Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 retrospective

Hey, it's the end of the year, everyone else is doing it, why not me too?

Garden-wise, 2012 was a surprisingly good year. As other folks who live in the US Midwest have noted, the decreasing polar ice cap seems to have affected the usual march of weather systems. The jet stream locked itself into unusual flow patterns for weeks at a time. In St. Louis, the result was an abrupt end to winter on March 12. I worried when the fruit trees burst into bloom before the spring equinox, but as it turned out our last spring frost was on March 10 and we had high yields of bush cherries, plums, peaches, pears, and American persimmons as well as a few apricots and apples. We also had an early and excellent spring strawberry crop. With all the different fruits available in sequence, we stopped buying fruit in late April and didn't buy any more fruit until November, other than some local peaches when I happened to find myself across the street from one of the orchard's outlets. We also had a good year for nuts: we harvested quite a few black walnuts courtesy of the neighbors' tree that overhangs our back yard as well as some chestnuts from our chestnut trees (young and just starting to bear) and some American hazelnuts from the various shrub borders.

We had enough rain through early May but then very little rain until August. It was hot, very hot, all summer long. Did I say HOT? 2012 will end with the highest average temperature on record for St. Louis, beating the previous hottest year by nearly a full degree. We smashed the old record for days with highs of 105F and higher and set several other records for number of days with a high of various temperatures. Over half the days this year had a high of 70F or higher! With the combination of heat and lack of rain, we spent most of the summer and fall in one degree of drought or another, from as high as extreme drought to the current moderate drought. In some ways that made it an easier summer for growing food. The high humidity of the past two summers was very hard on my pepper and tomato crops of each year. This year, by contrast, peppers did reasonably well and tomatoes were superb; the low humidity cut down on disease problems I can have with these crops. I also had good crops of cucumbers, zucchini, dry beans, garden peas, blackeyed peas, edamame-type soybeans, and popcorn, but almost no squash due to planting too early and thus attracting too many squash bugs. Spring greens generally bolted early due to the heat and drought in May and June, although onions, garlic, broccoli, and cabbage all did well. We also had an early and productive asparagus crop. The potato crop was very poor. On the other hand, fall greens and root crops yielded pretty well because Isaac brought us about 4 inches of rain in early September and the rest of that month and October were cool and moist.

With the very hot, dry weather I had to water a lot. I limited watering as much as possible to the vegetable gardens and newly planted trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, but that still meant hours of moving a garden hose around the yard from late June through early August. As a result we had by far the highest water bill ever for the three months including May, June, and July, using about 3 to 5 times the amount of water we have used during the same period in previous years. St. Louis had plenty of water, this year, as the rivers were at reasonable levels over the summer. Now both the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers are near historic lows. The latest prediction is that drought will hang on in most of the Missouri River's watershed for at least the next three months. I don't think St. Louis has ever restricted water usage, but if the drought continues, it wouldn't surprise me if 2013 brings water restrictions in the summer. With this in mind, I am planning next year's garden to be more drought tolerant than this year's was. Our big garden purchase this year was a 10 foot by 12 foot garden shed with a metal roof. Besides holding all the garden tools and supplies in a central location, it will have gutters and downspouts added to the roof to feed into a 500 gallon water tank. The shed sits at the highest spot in our yard, so we can gravity-feed water collected in the tank to the nearby vegetable gardens. This will supplement the rainwater we collect off the roof of the house, used to water containers and the plantings in the front yard.

The very warm weather this year meant a lower than usual use of natural gas, the fuel that provides our household heat. The glassed-in front porch contributed a little solar heat as well, especially in late winter and early spring and again in October and November. The lower humidity this summer, combined with being out of town for 12 days during the hottest part of the summer, reduced our use of air conditioning to only 16 days in 2012 and thus meant a lower than usual use of electricity in 2012. The glassed-in front porch also provided an excellent place to keep our collection of subtropical and citrus plants over the winter; our rosemary plants bloomed from November through March!

This is long enough now, and we have neighbors due to come over soon to eat blackeyed peas and cornbread, the traditional Southern foods to bring good luck to the new year. May all of you enjoy the best year possible in 2013! I'll be back soon to continue the series that I interrupted for this post.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Part 3: Starting to Wake Up

After marrying Mike, my performance at work began to improve. Part of it was that after five years at the company, I had a better idea of what was expected of me and how to meet expectations. A larger part, I think, was that I now had a good life outside of work. Besides being happy within our marriage and home life, I was also learning to play the mountain dulcimer. I’d wanted to learn to play the instrument since shortly after moving to the St. Louis region, when I first heard it at a re-enactment of pioneer days at a nearby Illinois state park and loved the way it sounded. Taking up the mountain dulcimer was the first thing I’d done that had no connection whatever with trying to get ahead within an empire since college. I’d played the clarinet from fifth through eighth grade and enjoyed making music within a school band, but I had stopped playing after leaving eighth grade and had not taken up any other instrument until I chose to play the dulcimer. I knew how to read music, but making music on a woodwind instrument is sufficiently different from making music on a stringed instrument such as the dulcimer that it was almost like starting to play music from scratch. Nevertheless, I persisted with it and though I did not practice often enough to make rapid progress, I did make slow progress and more importantly, mostly enjoyed the effort, even the recitals (after they were over and my shaking stopped). All these things helped me devote some energies that used to be wasted on feelings of unworthiness and unhappiness back toward my job, and not surprisingly, improved both my performance and, according to management, my attitude as well.

I was also learning a number of useful skills in my volunteer projects. For three years I was a demonstrator in the small auditorium at the St. Louis Science Center, putting on gee-whiz science shows for audiences of all ages. As a demonstrator I received free training on how to do the best job at it and plenty of exposure before audiences, some of whose members then asked me to prepare and offer talks to other audiences. The result was that during a five year period I prepared and presented talks on laser science and on opportunities for women in chemistry to audiences ranging from 1st graders to adults aged 50 and up, learning by doing how to tailor presentations to the needs of the audience. During the seven years I volunteered with the local section of a society for professionals in chemistry and chemical engineering, I worked as newsletter editor, chair of one of the committees, secretary, and a member of the board of directors, honing my administrative skills in this friendlier environment and gaining experience with writing and editing, skills that helped a lot with the written communications I had to make for my job.

Though I’d been trained as a physical chemist, within the company I was more useful as an analytical chemist, in particular a thin film analytical chemist. This was a field I could understand and I formed good working relationships with scientists elsewhere in the company who operated the instruments that provided results that I could not obtain on the lower-tech instrumentation I had available in my lab. My stock at work rose along with my effectiveness level and end of the year results review, though I still spent Sunday afternoons and evenings dreading the Monday morning return to the lab.

Up to this point, however, I’d held myself aloof from the economic aspects of working, and indeed from economics in general. I’d developed a dislike for economics during the introduction to accounting course that I took my senior year of college. It wasn’t the accounting for actual monies earned and spent that bothered me; I could readily understand the value in that. It was all the approximating that went into, for instance, assigning values for depreciation. It didn’t make sense that a piece of equipment could be assigned a useful life of, say, five years and zeroed out on the books at the end of year five when, one day later, it still worked perfectly, in fact might still be in use. It seemed to me that by the time the various sorts of approximations required to develop a balance sheet or profit-and-loss statement had been made, the numbers on them had only the most tenuous connection with reality. As a experimental scientist, I dealt with numbers all the time, with plenty of institutional checks to ensure that the numbers I measured and reported were both precise and accurate. I didn’t see any such commitment to physical reality in what accounting did. And they called it a science? As usual in the courses I disliked, I made sure I learned it well enough to get an A and as a result I could read and understand balance sheets and had a nodding acquaintance with economic terms, but I avoided any further engagement with a subject that seemed to me so riddled with subjectivity as to be nearly worthless. At work, this meant I tuned out during meetings as soon as economic concepts were discussed. I knew we were supposed to be helping the company make a profit, but that was all I felt I needed to know. Let the folks above me determine how to make that profit; it was their job, not mine.

It was the summer of 1990 during an offsite departmental meeting at a conference center in a rural area when I first realized what growth in profits actually meant. At the time, team-building exercises were popular management tools, the theory being that if a group of people could solve a made-up problem that had nothing to do with their work, at someplace that was nothing like their workplace, they could somehow translate that into effectively working together on real problems in real workplaces. (During one such activity we were to allow ourselves to fall over backward from an elevated platform into the supposedly waiting arms of our colleagues. I was the only person who refused to participate in this activity; it struck me as not just pointless and an opportunity for my male colleagues to touch me in inappropriate places, but possibly dangerous as well. In fact, they didn’t fully catch one of my colleagues and she tumbled to the ground, but luckily she wasn’t visibly hurt by the experience.) It was at the concluding meeting of this exercise in money-wasting that either the second or third boss up from me was giving us the standard pep talk including the usual 15% return on investment company goal. (If that sounds absurdly high, remember that this was 1990 and it was a common expectation in the industry at a time when oil was far cheaper than it is now.) Perhaps because I was so miffed at my colleagues and the entire corporation, I didn’t tune out of the discussion. For the first time in the six years I’d been working, I suddenly grasped that this was exponential growth we were expecting, for as far into the future as anyone expected the company to be around.

My first reaction, I admit, was grim amusement. This was because Mike worked for a bigger and meaner multinational corporation than I worked for. In my mind’s eye I saw my company grow, and his, and eventually both grow to the point that they were the only two corporations left on Earth ... and then his company swallowed mine up with a smack of its lips and a burp. I liked watching my company get what I thought was its just desserts. But now his company can only grow a certain amount more, I saw, because after all, Earth is finite; obviously the company can’t grow larger than the Earth itself. As soon as I grasped that I realized that what my hypothetical exercise meant was that profit growth has a finite lifespan, at my company or any other. I didn’t know how long that lifespan was or what might replace profit growth as an economic driver, but as soon as I grasped that profit couldn’t grow forever, I couldn’t help wondering why seemingly no one else, in a roomful of people practically every one of whom knew exponential functions inside and out, had picked up on this basic absurdity. In brief, I began to wake up. And once I woke up that much, I knew that I couldn’t stay at the corporation for all that much longer, that in the long run whatever I did for money had to made sense on a finite Earth as well as be something I actually enjoyed doing.

After the meeting, Mike and I discussed what might happen at whatever time I chose to leave the company. We decided to dedicate as much of my income as needed to remodeling work on our house and to save some of it toward whatever period of time I would be out of work while deciding on my next career. Although Mike earned less than I did, he felt he could support both of us for awhile while I looked for different work. I got busy on interviewing and hiring companies to do landscaping work and to remodel the kitchen, bathroom, and back porch. Knowing that my time at the company was finite, that I wouldn’t be there for the more than twenty years I needed to reach early retirement age, freed up more energy that I could put into doing my job well during the time I had left. I finally figured out that I not only had a budget at work that I was supposed to stay within, but that the goal was to get the maximum amount of analytical work done while staying within that budget, and I dedicated myself to that effort. My supervisor was delighted with my newfound enthusiasm for staying within budget, and I turned out a competent body of analytical research over the next two years. During this time the period of employment to be vested in the company’s pension plan changed from ten to five years. Now that I was vested in both the pension plan (a plan in which I could receive a pension as early as 55 years of age) and in the 401(k) investment plan I was also taking advantage of, all the financial barriers to resigning ended. It was just a matter of knowing when the right time to leave would be. I trusted I would know when that was and continued to work while I waited for whatever sign would let me know the time was right.

By spring of 1992, I’d had enough success at work that I’d been invited to one of the monthly luncheons the CEO held to meet a cross section of people from throughout the company and a similar luncheon that the president of our division, four levels above me, held to meet people in our division. The luncheons, I knew, were supposed to reward me for good work and encourage me to devote even more effort to the company. However, other events suggested the time to resign was approaching.

A few months previous during a department-wide meeting, the manager three levels up from me had told the department that we had about a year in which to develop at least one product which was deemed sufficiently good to begin the steps toward commercialization. No such product had yet come out of our department, and upper management was clearly becoming impatient with us. Awhile later came rumors of a departmental reorganization. I’d been through enough reorganizations by that time to suspect that this was the prelude to a big shakeout, though I wasn’t sure how the process might play out.

Part of our yearly results review involved identifying a long-term career path for each of us. I had not responded with any real enthusiasm to the long-term career path that had been proposed for me. On the surface the path made sense to the various managers who had signed off on it. It acknowledged my lack of interest in what they called exploratory science, meaning that I wasn’t any good at inventing the new products that the company needed to keep its profit increasing. In contrast, I was pretty good at what they called explanatory science (I could clarify questions about and identify problems with something someone else had invented), plus I had good communication skills. Combined with my history of work on one of the products made by the division’s plant in Massachusetts, a plant I’d visited numerous times over the past several years, that suggested a transfer to the analytical department at that plant with a potential of rising to supervisor of the analytical department. But I didn’t want anything of the sort. I hated that plant. During one visit I’d gotten sick on the odor it generated. (I got no sympathy from my colleagues at the plant, one of whom commented that it smelled like money to him.) I’d lived on the east coast during high school and college but didn’t like it much; nothing about the town the plant was located in suggested I’d find anything about it to like. Mike is a lifelong resident of the St. Louis area and most of his family is here; I had made a home here as well and intended to stay here the rest of my life. On top of that, I’d had plenty of time to observe colleagues at levels ranging from technicians to the CEO of the company, and my observations had taught me that any supervisory post meant changing one’s values to those of the corporation. At my level I could still resist most of the pressure to conform at the cost of hiding aspects of myself, but I saw that those just one level up faced far more pressure to conform than I did, and the process of value change was complete one level above that. Even at my level I was having some health issues related to the mismatch between my values and the ultimate corporate goal, and I knew they would only get worse the longer I spent with the company. At home, the landscaping and remodeling work had been completed and we’d put some money aside toward the several months to a year I thought it would take for me to determine another way to earn some money. I was finally ready to take the first big action of my life that would not mesh well with the goals of empire.

Toward the end of May, I resigned effective the last business day in June, a couple of weeks past my eighth anniversary with the company. I handed in my resignation just a day or two after the reorganization plan was announced that made it clear I’d picked exactly the right time to resign. When my shocked boss asked me why I was resigning, all I could say was that I was tired. If I’d been able to tell him why I was tired, I would have said that I was tired of the endless pressure to conform to the corporate imperative to grow that was at odds with the Earth’s very real limits; I was tired of pretending I liked the work; I was tired of having so much of my energy sucked up by work and work-related volunteer activities; above all, I was tired of the feeling of dread that crept up every Sunday afternoon. With my resignation handed in, I put one last burst of effort into writing reports and cleaning up my laboratory and walked out on my last day with a huge burst of relief and gratitude. During those last few weeks I noticed the difference in how I was treated once it became widely known that I had resigned with no other job in line. If I’d resigned to take a better offer someplace else, or because my spouse was relocating and thus I was as well, I would have been congratulated in the first circumstance, wished well in the second. Resigning without a job in hand, though, intrigued and challenged my colleagues. A few of them told me confidentially that they wished they could do the same but that they had families to support, that I was fortunate to have a husband to support me. I agreed with them, of course, but they did not know that our household income would drop by close to two-thirds when I quit. But I felt I’d challenged them enough as it was so I kept that last bit, as I had kept so much else over the years, to myself.

Once I walked out of the building that last time, I faced deciding what to do next, a process I hadn’t had the energy to deal with while I was working for the company. The story will continue from there, though I may make an unrelated post first to sum up 2012 here at Living Low Acre. May you all have a happy New Year, and see you here again about then!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How I Got Here, Part 2: Crisis

In part 1 of this series I described how it was that I came to obtain a PhD in chemistry despite my neither liking chemistry much nor being all that good at it. I’ll pick up the story with my job search and its results.

1984 was a good year to graduate with a chemistry PhD; all the major chemical corporations were hiring, courtesy of Reagan-era easing of pesky “restrictions on the productivity of business” that had lifted the US out of an energy-related economic recession at the cost of many working-class jobs. As a woman seeking a research position I had an advantage: businesses were under pressure to increase diversity among their workforces. Since the percentage of women working in research positions was still low, I could provide them not only with the research to help them keep the new products and higher profits coming, but I could also make them look as if they were socially responsible while doing it. I still had to get through the hiring process, however, which included a presentation on my research project as well as personal interviews. Fortunately my research director had been an avid debater in high school and college, learning through debate clubs and meets how to make effective presentations. I’d never been interested in debating myself, but I do enjoy speaking in public. That trait, combined with my director’s instructions on how to prepare and make an effective presentation, helped me make a better impression than my level of understanding warranted. What helped me with the personal interviews, in addition to decent social skills, was my pride in the work I’d done, not so much for the sake of the work itself but because I knew I had helped my director get a lot of research done when it needed to happen for him to get tenure. (He did in fact receive tenure a couple of years later.)

I wound up with job offers from three of that era’s major chemical corporations as well as an offer to do a postdoc with a well-known research laboratory, the offer my research director wanted me to accept, as much because it would look good for him for one of his students to be working there as it would be beneficial to my career. I didn’t take the postdoc offer as I had no desire for an academic position, something I’d taken care not to reveal to him until then because I thought it might lessen what he was willing to do on my behalf. All that remained to do was choose which employer to chain myself to. For various reasons I picked the one headquartered in the St. Louis area, moving here in June of 1984.

Making the change from student to corporate research scientist proved quite difficult. For one, I wasn’t working in a field I had training in (I started out working on catalysts while my training was in spectroscopy), so I was immediately faced with learning the field on top of learning how to work within a corporation. At least I was working in the corporate research laboratory so I didn’t have too much product pressure on me, but the goal remained to make the company money, a goal that I soon learned didn’t mesh well with my own motivations. I still don’t know why the company kept me on past my first year or two, though it might have had something to do with a management potential they saw in me based on the volunteer work I was doing with an internal organization helping young scientists like myself get acclimated to the organization and also for the local section of the American Chemical Society. (I’d joined the latter because I realized that building a network of colleagues would be essential to my obtaining another position should the company come to its senses and get rid of me.) I think it also had something to do with the wealth pump of empire still being functional at that time. They could afford to keep me on while they and I figured out what kind of research I could do that would benefit them, even if it took a few years. I was at least improving their workforce diversity, if nothing else. 

A friend of mine within the corporation had told me early on that one of the big hurdles facing many graduating students upon entering the work force was finding a goal to strive for. During our student years we didn’t have to think hard about what our purpose was, as the degree we worked toward provided an obvious goal. Once we began paid employment, however, we were faced with finding motivation within ourselves and setting goals based on that, not always an easy thing to do. He was right. The only thing motivating me for the first few years was keeping enough money flowing in to afford the trappings of a middle class lifestyle. In due course I had a car and a condo as well as the job and the volunteer work. I’d achieved everything I had worked for to that point: I was supporting myself. Problem was, I was miserable. Besides not enjoying the work and not doing an especially good job at it, I hated being inside an office or laboratory for so many hours. Though I endeavored to spend as much time on the weekends as I could with friends, at area gardens and parks, or riding my bicycle in the nearby river bottomland or on day tours, I could not get away from the knowledge that I’d have to be back in the lab come Monday morning. My life was dominated by paid employment and the extracurricular activities I had to engage in to keep that employment, activities which were increasingly at odds with anything I found meaningful or even enjoyable.

It was a setup for a crisis. That crisis hit when I turned thirty. While it was precipitated by a series of poor relationship choices, the problems went much deeper that that. By that time I was far from living in alignment with my values. To get back on track I needed help from a therapist to see how a deep sense of not being “good enough” propagated into my choices in all of life. I was grateful to be earning enough money to afford the therapy and in enough of a crisis to be willing to do the personal work needed to face some of my shadow aspects. During the course of the therapy, I met the man who was to become my husband at the home of mutual friends. The connection was instant, but it took the insights I gained through therapy to not screw things up when the relationship got serious fast. We were married eight months after we met.

Mike’s background is quite different from mine. While I grew up in a solidly middle class household, Mike comes from working class stock. Though his high school counselor wanted him to go to college, Mike had had quite enough of formal schooling by the time he graduated from high school. After a few years of working for small camera stores, he went to trade school and got a degree as an electrician, turning that into a factory maintenance position with an even larger multinational corporation than the one I worked for. Mike had the good sense to not get his identity tied up with his job. He put in his time at work and did a good-enough job. His off-work hours were spent on his varied personal interests, including music and reading (he’s always enjoyed learning when he can choose the subject). He’d bought a small house in the North County suburb where he’d grown up, only because he was tired of continuous increases in apartment rents, not because he had a big desire to own a house. The house came cheap because it needed a lot of cosmetic work. Mike had gotten the required work done to bring it to code but didn’t have sufficient motivation to do the cosmetic work. When we became engaged and started to discuss where we were going to live, Mike proposed a deal: I could decide on whatever kind of work I wanted done on his house if I would be willing to move there. He had no interest in living in my condo in West County, a much too middle class area for his taste. Generally in a situation like this both parties sell their respective dwellings and buy a different house together, but we knew his house would not sell quickly or for much money while my condo was nearly new and much more salable. I liked the idea of moving into his house, not just because of the chance to take charge of the details of the cosmetic work and because I could finally have a small garden of my own, but because living in Jennings would be a chance to get out of the middle-class rut I’d gotten myself into. The decision to sell my condo and move into his house was to have much farther reaching consequences than either of us could have guessed at the time.

It looks like I’ll need more than three parts to tell this story and that it will drag on into January. So be it. I remember I promised to discuss low-cost ways to start seeds and it’s about time for that post as well; if need be I’ll interrupt the ongoing story for the seed-starting post.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How I Got Here, Part 1: Accommodation

Jason Heppenstall, who writes 22 Billion Energy Slaves, is currently writing a series of posts he calls The Great Escape, an exploration of the path he’s taken through life and how it led him to an understanding of the serious problems we all face. Inspired by him (thanks, Jason!), I decided it’s time for me to explain how I diverted from the conventional life path I followed before age thirty to the low cost, low energy life that is likely to be in store for a lot more of us as we work our way farther into a post-peak world. Perhaps it might help some of you who are struggling to make similar changes in your own lives.

I grew up in the Space Age 1960s. Since the US was flush with cash at the time, the beneficiary of its imperial wealth pump and its fossil fuel lottery winnings, it not only had plenty of money to fund the space program but it also had plenty of money to invest in basic scientific research and in science education. It was a good time to grow up for anyone who found any aspect of science or technology fascinating. I was one of those children. Early on I found and read my grandparents’ popular field guides for wildflowers, trees, and birds, using them to teach myself to identify by common name many of each. I was also fascinated by weather, a fascination aided by living in the US Midwest, a place of changeable and sometimes awesome weather phenomena. The feminist revolution ongoing in the 1960s made it an especially good time to be a girl interested in science. No one told me I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, pursue a scientific career. In fact, they encouraged me to do so, now that women with scientific and technical degrees were not only tolerated but actually sought out and courted. The only decision I had to make was which branch of science to pursue. Here my practicality, my sense of how to position myself to take advantage of the opportunities the wealth pump brought to my doorstep, asserted itself. I loved plants. I had a strong interest in environmental matters, courtesy of the growing awareness of ecological problems during the 1960s and 1970s and being a teenager and young adult during the energy crises of the 1970s. I considered a career in an environmental field and in fact wrote my college admission essay on environmental matters. But I attended and graduated from college in the late 1970s, during an energy-related recession, a time when economic issues were beginning to trump environmental issues. My major scientific role model was Marie Curie, a chemist. I did well enough in chemistry in high school and college to consider it as a potential career field. Job opportunities at that time were better for graduating chemists than they were for biologists or environmental studies majors, and better for PhD graduates than for BS graduates. So I did the logical thing: I got a BS in chemistry in 1979 from a good private college, leveraging that into a PhD in physical chemistry in 1984 from a top-ten university. The fact that I didn’t much like chemical research, already evident in college and even more obvious during grad school, was something I considered irrelevant. I needed a good job to live according to prevailing middle class standards; corporations were very eager to hire a woman with a PhD in chemistry to further their attempts to “diversify” their workforces; thus I set my sights on a research position with a large corporation.

Now I don’t mean to imply that I was only looking out for Number 1, in the phrase of the time. I tried to do right by other people, to be a good friend and a good family member. I tried to live ethically to the best of my ability, an effort made easier by having little disposable income during my college and grad school years. I vowed that I wouldn’t take a job whose purpose was to make it easier to kill more people faster, thus leaving myself out of consideration for jobs in the defense industry that could have been mine given my grad school work in laser spectroscopy, a field of considerable interest to the industry. But I also had a strong desire to live on my own as soon as I could, and within the ethical constraints I set for myself I was determined to succeed at it. Since I lived in an empire, that meant collaborating with the empire enough to obtain my goals. That in turn meant getting a good job with a major corporation.

I showed astuteness in choosing my research director and jumping through the hoops grad school set in front of me. As soon as I entered grad school, I made friends with a few older students who were more than happy to tell me how to succeed. Take the offer to teach the physical chemistry laboratory course rather than the first-year general chemistry course, they said; it’ll be more fun and less work. I did; listening to my classmates describe their experience with the general chemistry course I knew I’d made the right choice. Don’t make the mistake of studying for the monthly exams (we were required to pass at least six out of the eighteen it was possible to take by the end of our second year), they told me. You’ll do better to go to all the seminars, since many of the professors like to draw questions for the exam from the seminars, and to be as relaxed as possible before taking the exams. I followed their advice and passed the needed six before the end of my first year (aided by the laboratory course mentioned above; some of the questions drew on knowledge I’d acquired from teaching that course). Pick a research director as soon as possible, they counseled. Each can only take a limited number of students. Once you choose one, you’ll get office space and attention that will help you get through the grad school gauntlet. I listened carefully and spent what little time I had after coursework and teaching responsibilities interviewing potential research directors and talking to their students. In the process it became clear to me that if I chose to work for a tenured professor, I’d be expected to take a lot of initiative in deciding on a project and conducting it, a prospect I felt decidedly uncomfortable with after my experience with research in college. Most tenured professors had large enough groups that they spent little personal time with each student; some came with reputations of being extra hard on women students. So I made an early and brilliant choice in a newly hired faculty member fresh out of grad school, less than five years older than me. He’d have seven years to prove himself worthy of obtaining tenure. I’d be there about five years, during which time he’d have to get most of the work he’d be judged on for tenure done. Thus I’d receive a lot of attention and direction from him, much more than I’d receive from any other faculty member. This is exactly what happened, and exactly what I needed in order to get the PhD. I’d long ago figured out how to overachieve myself into As in coursework and grad school coursework was no different, but physical chemistry research was another matter entirely. Despite my research director’s best attempts to teach me how to choose and solve a current research problem, I wasn’t able to figure it out. Contemporary physical chemistry was too far above my mathematical ability for me to quite catch on to it. Fortunately my research director was good at choosing and solving problems and (mostly) patient with my slowness, as well as willing to put in the time to direct me and to promote me to those who might hire me. I was (barely) able to do what he needed me to do and I was willing to work long hours to achieve my and his goals. What got me through, besides the PhD payoff, was knowing that I was helping him to build a laboratory and a good research program - and knowing that I’d only be there five years.

I’ll stop here for the moment. What I have in mind is a three part series, with the remaining two parts to be written and posted before the winter solstice. We’ll see if that’s how it turns out!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Winter food storage the Living Low way

I promised you a post on storing food at no or low cost or use of fossil fuels so you can take advantage of the fall harvest and keep some of it into winter and even into next spring. There is plenty of information on this topic available in books and on the Web, and I will be referring to a few of these sources. However, while adapting some of the information to our situation, I have found that some foods seem to be able to last for longer, and/or at higher temperatures, than the official sources claim. Whether foods stored at these higher temperatures or longer periods of time are as nutritious as more conventionally-stored foods is an open question. If you want to push the food storage boundaries, you must consider your own situation carefully and gather as much information as you can on potential benefits and possible harms. Consider this post as one information source and be sure to consult others.

Since this post is specifically on working with the fall harvest, I’ll limit it to what you could expect to be harvesting from a fall garden or from local farmers markets in the greater St. Louis region, or what you may have on hand from summer harvests or market trips. This could include the last flush of warm-weather vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and squash as well as the cool-weather vegetables and fruits that are coming into season from now through sometime in November, when short day lengths and cold weather put an end to plant growth in an unprotected garden until next spring. I’ll also limit it to foods you can store without having to can, dry, or blanch them first. You may be storing foods in your refrigerator, freezer, or in various locations in your residence or an outbuilding depending on the food and how long you want to keep it.

Some vegetables can be stored at cool room temperatures for many weeks. We heat our house to around 60F most of the time during heating season (50F when we are sleeping), occasionally as warm as 68F when we have visitors. The two rooms on the north end of the house are always a few degrees cooler than the thermostat reading. The resulting temperature range of 50-60F in those two rooms is perfect for long term storage of squashes. However, the storage life of squash is strongly dependent on the species and to a lesser extent on the variety, so if you want to store squashes through winter, you need to choose the right squashes. Carol Deppe, in the squash chapter of her book The Resilient Gardener, discusses the general pattern of storage life among the three common squash species: Cucurbita maxima, C. pepo, and C. moschata. C. pepo varieties include acorn and delicata squashes and most of the pumpkins as well as all of the zucchinis and most of the other summer squashes. Of these, she says that only the delicatas are good storage squash, and even these cannot be stored longer than about two or three months before deteriorating in quality. For storage through winter and into early spring, she says that you want C. maxima squashes like the buttercups, bananas, and hubbards or C. moschata squashes like the butternuts. Carol’s favorite storage squashes are mostly from the C. maxima group because she lives and gardens in Oregon, which has a cool summer season more suitable to the maximas than the moschatas. With our long, hot growing season, we can grow C. moschata varieties easily. I grow and like ‘Waltham Butternut’, a long-storing and very high quality squash that is deep orange and quite sweet after curing (allowing it to sit for a few weeks after harvest before eating it). I have had them last into March! If you want to stock up on squashes available at local farmers markets (most if not all of them will continue through the last week of October), you may want to look for the squashes mentioned above. You could buy some of each species and eat the delicatas first, then the longer-storing squash.

If you keep your residence warmer than we keep ours, you may have a small area that stays in the range of 50-60F from late fall through early spring; a likely candidate is a closet on an outside wall or, if you have an unheated basement, a spot in the basement. Or you may have a room that stays cooler than the rest of your residence, perhaps because of lack of insulation or being farthest from the furnace. These would be good places to consider for storing squash or the other vegetables that keep best in the 50-60F range.

A few other vegetables can be stored in the same temperature range as the squashes. Of these, sweet potatoes keep the longest, even longer than squash in my experience. I’ve had sweet potatoes last until May. Dried hot peppers will also keep for a long time, a year or more, and at even warmer temperatures; we have kept dried peppers in our kitchen pantry for multiple years. Finally, mature green tomatoes can be kept at room temperature until they ripen and are ready for use.

I have had success with storing garlic and onions from the time they are harvested through fall and winter (the onions are varieties which are known to store well, unlike some onions that are not long keepers). Mike and Nancy Bubel, in their book Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables, claim that onions are best stored cool (32-50F) and rather dry. Our unheated basement is not that cool except in January of cold winters, when it has dropped under 50F. But it is dry and I think that may be a more critical factor than cold in preserving onions and garlic. I store onions in wooden baskets in the basement and garlic in open cardboard boxes in our kitchen pantry. Another good storage option is net bags hung from the ceiling in a basement or another cool, dry area. Some people braid onions and garlic and hang them from one end of the braid. Our stored garlic and onions begin to sprout by late winter or early spring, but they are still good food at that point (we eat the greens as well as the bulbs). Onions and garlic stored in the recommended temperature range probably last longer without sprouting than do those that we store at our less than optimal conditions. The recommended temperature range for storing dry beans and popcorn is also 32-50F; we also store these in our pantry or the basement, and they last for multiple years.

Every vegetable or fruit other than those above should be kept cooler than 50F and most should be kept cooler than 40F, according to the Bubels and also according to the Missouri Extension guide on root cellar storage. In my experience, however, some vegetables survive for long periods at considerably higher storage temperatures. I have kept potatoes from harvest in July through the following March in nothing more elaborate than a 5 gallon bucket sitting on our unheated basement floor, even though the Bubels and the MU Extension claim they should be stored at 32-40F. Right now we have sugar beets in another 5 gallon bucket that were harvested last November, ten months ago, and stored either in our improvised cold storage area or on the basement floor, and they are still firm and tasty despite supposedly requiring the same temperature range for storage as potatoes. On the other hand, the leafy crops I have harvested and kept in our cold storage area, primarily leeks, bok choy, and turnip and radish greens, don’t seem to last as long as the Bubels and the Extension suggest they should. This may be because our storage area doesn’t get as cool as the 32-40F that is supposed to be ideal. Root crops like radishes, turnips, beets, and potatoes last longer under a wider range of conditions for us, as might be expected since their purpose is to store energy while the plant is dormant. Leafy crops need colder conditions to stop their attempts to grow.

The Bubels’ book includes descriptions and plans of root cellars constructed as such and also some improvised cold storage areas devised and used by their interviewees. Our improvised cold storage area is underneath the porch leading to our kitchen door. In the photo below you can see the slanted door over a short stairway that leads into the anteroom under the porch.
This anteroom, in turn, has a door to the south that leads into the basement and an opening to the north leading to the crawl space underneath the north two rooms of our house. The photo below is of the anteroom. You can see the door leading to the basement on the left edge. The area is also used as storage space for some of our garden equipment until we build a garden shed.

The opening to the outside allows some cold air to filter into the anteroom since the outside door does not seal tightly. The room is mostly underground so produce set on and near the floor does not freeze, using the more constant soil temperature to good advantage. I do not store anything in the room until the final fall harvest of the year, usually in mid to late November, because the temperature in the room does not cool down sufficiently earlier in the fall. The room does not have a ventilation system to allow the entry of cold air and the exit of warmer air or the insulation that are included in a properly designed root cellar. However, outside temperatures are cool enough by December to drop the temperature in the room to around 40F, cool enough for storage of root crops. By March the temperature goes above 40F again so I move any remaining produce into the basement or into the refrigerator. The space works well enough for storage of root crops, leeks, and greens. It does not cool off quickly enough to store apples, since most of the apple harvest happens in September and October around here. However, I might be able to store some apples in the ice chest you see in the photo if I were to obtain a number of cool packs, chill them in the refrigerator, and rotate them through the ice chest until the room cools off enough to not need the cool packs. I can keep apples in our refrigerator, but it is quite small so it does not have the capacity to store as many apples as I would like to purchase from local growers or what I hope to obtain from our trees as they mature.

The Bubels say that produce, being alive, breathes during its storage and thus should be stored in containers that allow it to breathe. These could be bins open at the top, baskets, or crates with slatted sides. Root crops like carrots need a very humid atmosphere, so the Bubels and their interviewees pack these into closed-sided bins in layers with dampened sawdust, sand, or leaves. Most of what we store are root crops. I didn’t want to go to the trouble of using sawdust, sand, or leaves, so I decided to put my roots into 4 and 5 gallon plastic buckets with the tops on loosely (not fully sealed). To my surprise, these work very well. None of the roots I store have softened, a sign that they are losing too much water to their surroundings. Neither have they molded or rotted, a sign of being too wet. I wash out the buckets and let them dry in the sun before I put in the vegetables for storage. I use buckets or ice chests for the leeks and greens as well. Leeks have lasted a month and may have gone longer but we ate them up by then. Bok choy and kale only last a few weeks, but that has been long enough to allow us to eat most of them. I haven’t tried storing heads of cabbage yet, which are reputed to store for as long as two months in the range of 32-40F. The Bubels suggest that cabbages for storage should be pulled from the ground with their roots intact and laid on a shelf or hung upside down from the roots. If I had fall-grown cabbage (so far I haven’t succeeded at growing it in fall), I would pull it and then store it in an ice chest or plastic bucket, perhaps with cool packs included to extend storage life as I described for storing apples. But I don’t know that leaving on the root is necessary. If I can purchase locally grown cabbage at farmers markets at the end of October, I plan to see if I can store it in our space. If so, that will add incentive to learn how to grow good fall cabbage.

Sweet and hot peppers freeze very well without prior blanching. I wash small whole hot peppers and freeze them without any further preparation. I wash sweet peppers, cut them into strips, and freeze the strips. Frozen peppers do not have a good texture for eating raw, but for cooked dishes they work fine. In a good pepper-growing year I can harvest quite a few immature peppers off my plants just before the first frost. I store the largest in the refrigerator, where they keep for a month or more, and freeze the rest as described.

If you like the idea of stocking up on fresh produce, your own or that of local growers, in order to eat fresh food into the winter, I recommend reading the Bubels’ book and considering what spots you may already have that could be used as is or modified slightly for food storage. Use what you’ve learned here and from the sources mentioned, and experiment with a little food if you want to see if you can get away with storing things warmer than the guidelines, as I did. It's worth a little effort to have fresh produce available at home during the cold months.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Ideas for extending the garden season

Now that cooler fall temperatures have arrived (even after almost 30 years in St. Louis, the rapidity of the September cool-down continues to amaze me), you may be wondering how to keep your garden going as late in fall as you can. Mid September is too late to start seeds for full-sized crops of fall cabbage or lettuce, though you could sow a small patch thickly to lettuce and other greens and get some salads this fall as you gradually thin out the patch. However, there are a few crops you can start from seeds now and get a good-sized plant. You may be able to find seedlings on sale at some garden centers that you can plant now to grow on for the next month or two. Here are a variety of ways to extend the garden season into late fall or winter along with my assessment of how they fit with the Living Low lifeway. Next post will discuss living-low food storage, so you can stock up from your garden or nearby farmers markets and eat well during the cold months.

Experimenting with what you have now
If you’ve ever wondered how long your favorite garden lettuce could survive into the winter, the easiest way to find out is to leave a few plants in the garden past the time you would normally harvest them. Ditto for anything else you grow. Just because I, or the Missouri Extension, or anyone else says that tomatoes don’t survive a frost, or lettuce won’t overwinter in St. Louis unless it’s under cover, doesn’t mean that’s what will happen in your garden. Your garden may be in a spot which cools down faster or slower than the rest of your yard or the average for the area (what gardeners refer to as a microclimate), so your tomatoes might frost out even if the rest of your yard didn’t show any evidence of frost. Or you might be growing a hardier lettuce that can stand colder temperatures before it freezes out compared to what I’m growing or what the Extension uses as a standard. The only thing you lose by leaving a plant in the ground is the food value of the plant if it dies before you can harvest it.

It makes sense to consult with the information that the Extension, for instance, puts out on frost tolerance of vegetables and fruits and planting dates for fall crops, and to consider if your garden is located in a microclimate that could alter expectations, when you are considering what kinds of experiments you might want to do. I’ve noticed that my vegetable garden frosts before anywhere else in the yard because it is the most open area and thus experiences the most radiational cooling on still, clear, cold nights. If your garden is a little shaded or just south of your house or garage, your garden might not frost even if the rest of your yard does. Most any garden book or information source can tell you how to recognize and use microclimates to your advantage in extending the season. I do experiments of this sort, sometimes intentionally, sometimes because I get caught with too many veggies to harvest before a freeze so things I had intended to harvest get left in the ground. The Living Low Way embraces the effects of chance as well as the results of good planning.

Grow the most cold-tolerant vegetables
An easy way to extend the season is to look for vegetables that can stand a lot of cold weather, especially the combination of wide temperatures swings, freeze-thaw cycles, and lack of sustained snow cover that makes it difficult to overwinter most vegetables in St. Louis and the lower Midwest in general. These might be specially bred varieties of particular crops, such as ‘Ice Bred’ arugula compared to other varieties of arugula. Or they might be types of vegetables that are much more cold tolerant or able to withstand freeze-thaw cycles than are others. I use this strategy a lot. Below are some cold-tolerant vegetables that have done well for me, but please don’t consider this an exhaustive list.

Root crops: radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, parsnips, and leeks all thrive during the cool weather of fall and into early winter, and taste the sweetest after the first frost or three. You can wait to dig these out until just before the ground freezes. I’ve accidentally left carrots in the ground all winter, during one of the rare winters when the ground was frozen for the entire winter, and most of them survived to be dug up and enjoyed once the ground finally thawed out in early March. I don’t know if they would do as well in our more usual freeze-thaw cycles. Parsnips are supposed to overwinter successfully in our area although I haven’t tried them yet. The information I’ve read suggests that beets, radishes, and turnips won’t overwinter here, but I hadn’t confirmed that experimentally. I don’t know about leeks. So far I’ve harvested all of these before the ground freezes solid. My favorite fall radishes are the large (4 to 6 inches across) storage radish varieties such as ‘Red Meat’ and ‘Black Spanish Round’, although the salad radishes are also very cold-tolerant. Except for the radishes, you won’t get full-sized crops from planting seeds of any of these in mid September, and you needed to plant leeks last spring for harvest in the fall.

Tatsoi, an Asian salad green in the cabbage family, has a pleasing appearance, with dark green spoon-shaped leaves arranged in a low rosette, and a mild mustardy-cabbagey flavor. It can take an amazing amount of cold, standing until the worst of winter, long past when most lettuce freezes out. This is one crop you could sow now and expect to get a decent harvest. Some other Asian greens may also grow quickly enough to be sown now for a decent crop. Look for varieties with under 60 days to maturity (30-45 days is best for planting this late).

Arugula also takes a lot of cold in my garden, with the ‘Ice Bred’ variety from Fedco supposedly taking more cold than most arugula, though I haven’t done a side by side comparison yet. This is another crop you can sow now and get a decent amount of food for your trouble.

‘Bronze Arrow’ lettuce seems to take more cold than other varieties of lettuce I have grown, but you can grow any lettuce if you harvest it before lows get into the mid 20sF. Sow your seeds thickly, then thin the patch a few times starting early in October and eat the thinnings in your salads. If you are lucky, you might find lettuce seedlings for sale now. I started seeds of the lettuces in the photo at the beginning of this post in early August and planted the seedlings on September 10. I expect they will grow to a good size before it gets too cold for growth to continue.

Kale is another very cold-tolerant green; in fact, it seems to taste best in the colder days of late fall and early winter. This might overwinter as a small plant if you sow it now. Or you could buy ornamental kale and plant it for looks, then harvest and eat it before lows drop below 10-15F. The ornamental kales might be best as cooked greens, but try them both raw and cooked to find out.

The champion of cold-tolerant salad crops is mache. You don’t sow it till around the end of September or early October, yet it still grows and produces a full-sized crop in late winter and early spring! The catch is, a full-sized plant is very tiny, just a few inches high and across. You’d need a huge amount of it to give you much food. It grows as a winter groundcover in my asparagus patch along with some winter weeds. Even though we get little food from it, it takes care of itself (I allow some plants to flower and go to seed in spring so it comes back on its own) and by itself or as an addition to a purchased salad it earns its keep when it is the only edible green available in February or early March. It has a mild flavor unlike that of any other salad plant I’ve tasted.

Use mulch for extra protection
Mulch can be used in a thick layer to keep the ground under it from freezing and hence allow you to dig a root crop through winter. I have mulched sunchokes thickly, using the abundant autumn leaves shed by the oaks and maples in the yards around us that blow into our yard. A foot-deep layer of leaves will keep the ground underneath from freezing, allowing me to dig out sunchokes in January. However, by early spring there are no sunchokes big enough to bother with left, and the roots I do find are obviously chewed on. I think that voles or other small vegetarian mammals feast on the roots all winter long in their cozy, unfrozen bed. By contrast, some carrots that I left unmulched in ground that froze were still alive and uneaten in March when the soil thawed out, although some of the carrots in the patch had succumbed to rot. If you have free or cheap mulching materials available, try mulching some root crops you’d like to hold into winter and see what happens.

Potato onions (perennial onions that develop from single bulbs into a clump of bulbs as do shallots) and garlic need to have a few inches of mulch over them to carry them over the winter in a climate with winter freeze-thaw cycles such as we experience. Left unmulched, they will heave out of the ground during mid-winter thaws. I’ve tried pushing them back into the mud, but most frost-heaved bulbs die despite my attempts at saving them. However, I have also had mulched bulbs die because I failed to remove the mulch in early March when the plants resume active growth, so manage mulch correctly if you choose to use it. Last winter, we never got a long-lasting freeze. I hadn’t mulched the bed with the garlic and potato onions, but since we didn’t get much if any freeze-thaw cycling, almost all the garlic and most of the potato onions survived the winter and grew well over spring.

Use row covers to protect against light frosts and freezes
A row cover is a piece of fabric or plastic that you place temporarily over some plants to protect them from low temperatures a few degrees lower than the threshold to kill the plants. They are most often used on a cold, still, clear night when good radiational cooling will allow a light frost or freeze to occur. The fabric or plastic mimics a light cloud cover, keeping enough heat from radiating out to raise the temperature underneath it the few degrees needed to keep whatever is underneath the cover alive. Usually after the first light frost or freeze there will be several days to a few weeks before it gets so cold that a row cover won’t save the plants from cold weather, so you can keep a tomato or pepper plant alive long enough to ripen the nearly-ripe fruits, or keep your lettuce bed alive for awhile past the time the low drops into the mid 20sF for the first time. Because row covers can be as simple and low-cost as a few old sheets or blankets that you prop up with whatever is handy to be slightly taller than the crop you are protecting, this strategy fits very well into the Living Low Way. You can also purchase specially-made garden fabrics to confer specified degrees of cold protection if you have the desire and money to do so. In my case, I figure that if it’s so cold that my collection of multi-purpose old sheets won’t keep a plant alive, it’s time to either harvest it or bid it goodbye for the year.

Use a cold frame to protect cold-tolerant crops
A cold frame is a bottomless box, made to fit over part of a row or garden bed. It’s generally a foot or two tall. The box top is one or more pieces of glass or plastic to allow sunlight to enter. Think of a cold frame as a tiny greenhouse, something that anyone with a few pieces of wood and a scavenged storm window or piece of plastic can put together. Its ability to be cobbled together from scrounged parts fits into the Living Low lifeway, as does the fact that it relies only on the sun for sufficient warmth to shelter some plants into the winter and even the following spring.

Mike constructed two cold frames, about 10 feet long and three feet wide, from a mix of new and reused wood and reused storm windows that we placed in permanent spots due to their weight and large size. Here are pictures of the cold frames and a crop inside one of them, taken in late fall 2003.

I made a garden bed in the ground inside the larger frame and grew a selection of salad and greens crops in it for a few years, till the frame rotted out. I wasn’t as happy with the cold frame as I had anticipated. Its size wasn’t large enough to grow much food and the crops didn’t seem to grow as much as I expected; this may have been poor management on my part or poor construction of the frame. The windows needed to be propped open on sunny days and closed again once the sun went down, something that would be difficult or impossible to do for anyone not home during the day. Hailstones broke a couple of the glass panes in the windows on my frame. My experiences soured me on the utility of cold frames for growing food crops. (I have a cold frame much like the smaller one now because it is very useful for raising seedlings, something I’ll discuss in posts on starting seeds.) But a cold frame might be perfect for you, especially if you already have the parts lying around and you’re of a mind to try it out to see how it works. If I were making another frame, I’d either make it small enough that I could carry it by myself to a garden bed and plop it onto the portion I wanted to protect, or I’d make a cold frame that could be put together on the spot in fall and taken apart and stored in pieces in spring. I might also use a piece of polycarbonate plastic rather than glass to cover the frame so the occasional hailstorm didn’t poke holes in the clear top.

Use low hoop structures to protect a garden crop
Low hoop structures, sometimes called quick hoops or low tunnels, are a variation on the cold frame theme. A low hoop structure is a large piece of plastic draped over a series of low metal hoops arranged along the length of the row or bed you wish to protect from winter cold. Low hoops might be 2 to 3 feet high in the center of the protected area, with the metal hoops spaced a few feet apart. They seem to be used most often to cover garden beds about 30 inches wide but could be sized wider if you garden in wider beds. Low hoops are becoming quite popular on vegetable farms as a way to protect late fall and early spring crops. The major advantage of a low tunnel over a cold frame is that a low tunnel can cover a much larger area since it is built in place over an existing row or bed from lightweight parts. One person can build the tunnel; the hoops can be reused for many years and the plastic can be reused for a few years if nothing like stray hailstones, animal claws, or other sharp objects puncture it, you weigh it down well enough to keep winds from carrying it off, and you take care to avoid tearing it when putting it on or removing it. (In St. Louis excessive weight from snow cover should not be an issue since we rarely get more than 6 to 8 inches of snow in a single storm, usually much less. Ice storms, on the other hand, could create excessive load, and we do get them on occasion.) To me the major disadvantages of a low tunnel are its use of plastic film, something that will go up in price and become less easily available as the oil from which the plastic is made depletes, and their appearance. I cannot see beauty in a low tunnel the way I can in a well-constructed cold frame (not that our cold frames were beautiful, quite the contrary). Low tunnels share with cold frames the disadvantage of needing to be vented on sunny days and closed before the sun goes down. I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting to put up a low tunnel or three, however. It’s the most cost-effective way to protect a large area of overwintering greens and root crops. Johnny’s is a good place to start your search for supplies to build a low tunnel.

Use a high tunnel to protect crops
High tunnels are low tunnels that are tall enough to walk into. You may have seen these at a garden center where they grow their own seedlings for sale or at a local vegetable farm, where they are used to grow crops or seedlings when it’s too cold outside to grow them. You can buy these in kit form in various sizes, or buy the components and make your own. Compared to low tunnels these are larger so they hold more food, and they are easier to work in since you are able to stand up inside them instead of needing to reach in from the outside. They will also swing less in temperature than a cold frame or low tunnel due to the larger volume underneath the covering in proportion to the surface area of the covering, although they will still need to be vented on sunny days. The disadvantages are the same as for low tunnels, plus they cost a lot more and require a lot more plastic. A large enough one might need a permit to be constructed.

Use a greenhouse
Whenever we are out and about I look for greenhouses. There is something about them that appeals to me, even the cheap or dilapidated ones. I associate them with sunshine and warmth, green plants and the sight and fragrance of flowers in the middle of winter. Apparently the greenhouse marketers have done their work well on me. The reality of greenhouses falls far short of my vision, I’m afraid. Freestanding greenhouses of traditional construction may look good, especially the more well constructed (and hence expensive) ones, but if you are expecting a tropical paradise in the middle of a St. Louis winter, you’ll be disappointed. They have too much exposed glass to retain overnight most of whatever solar heat gain they received during the day and hence will drop below freezing most nights for a few to several weeks in midwinter. You could heat them, but that is already an expensive proposition and likely to become more so over time. You’ll need to vent them on sunny days so they don’t overheat and close the vents before the sun goes down. They will be too hot for you and plants from May through September and perhaps some of April and October as well, even with the vents wide open. All this is due mostly to the glass roof and the north-facing glass wall. The roof allows too much sunlight in during warm and hot weather and the roof and north wall allow too much heat to escape in cold weather. On top of that, they are expensive to construct and vulnerable to hail (unless you get the polycarbonate versions). If you want a traditional greenhouse that is actually useful, you’d best move someplace with more cloudy days all year and warmer winters than we have.

Solar greenhouses supposedly minimize some of the disadvantages of the traditional greenhouse by using a solid, insulated north wall and a partial solid, insulated roof along with heat absorbers such as 55 gallon drums filled with water. For more information, you should read The Solar Greenhouse Book, edited by James C. McCullagh. This 1970s classic is long out of print. You may be able to borrow it from your local library or request it through interlibrary loan, or you might be able to purchase a used copy as I did. Of the various versions of the solar greenhouse it describes, the one I think is most useful here is the attached greenhouse with vertical glass walls and a solid, insulated roof. We have a name for that: an enclosed porch.

Use an enclosed porch
If you already have or can build onto a house or outbuilding an enclosed porch with partial or full glass walls, or you can cover screened windows on such a porch with plastic for the winter, and especially if the longest wall faces more or less south, you have the version of a solar greenhouse that I think works the best in St. Louis’ climate. The roof provides needed shade during summer while allowing the lower winter sun to shine into the porch. The vertical glass walls are less vulnerable to hailstrikes than slanted walls and let through most of the low-angled winter sun while reflecting away some of the higher-angled summer sun. The solid north wall and solid roof help keep some of the heat in during cold months, especially if either or both is insulated. Whatever building it’s attached to also shields from wind on that side. Hence an attached porch used as a greenhouse will generally stay somewhat warmer in winter and somewhat cooler in summer than does a traditional greenhouse. You can increase winter heat storage on a porch the same way as described for a solar greenhouse. If you already have an enclosed porch with partial or full glass walls that is oriented more or less south, you’ve probably already noticed that it can be pleasantly warm on a sunny winter day. All you need to do is grow some vegetable plants in containers from late fall through early spring and you can have the occasional fresh veggie treat. Unless you are fortunate enough to have a huge porch you won’t be able to eat a salad every day, but if you enjoy growing food and can tend your plants over winter, you might find it worthwhile. Unless you want to grow something like tomatoes that can’t take any frost, you probably won’t need to add heat to such a porch in the St. Louis area.

Our house had an open porch (a roof and a concrete floor but no walls) on the south side facing the street. Because we aren’t confident builders and the porch was visible from the street, we decided to hire professionals to enclose our porch. You can see it in the photo below.

We enclosed the porch two years ago, primarily to provide a warm-enough space to keep my potted citrus trees and tender perennial herbs over the winter and to allow some of the heat captured by the porch to enter our house. It does the first well and the second some, better in late fall and early spring when there are more hours of daylight available. (It would do better at heat gain overall if the huge pin oaks next door and across the street weren’t shading it too much in the early afternoon.) Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to pot up the excess seedlings of lettuce and salad greens left over after I planted the fall garden. I’ll put the pots on the front porch when freezes begin, in late October or November. In this way I’ll learn whether or not I can grow enough salad greens on the porch to be worthwhile. Expect a report next year!

If your porch is on an east or west facing wall rather than a south facing wall, it won’t heat up as much but it may still be useful for season extension. Our previous house had a screened porch attached to the east-facing wall, so it had a north, east, and south wall with screened windows. By covering the windows with greenhouse plastic in the winter, I could keep my citrus trees on the porch most of the winter. I raised seedlings on it in the spring. I probably could have kept containers of salad vegetables on it during winter if I’d thought to try it, though it did get colder in midwinter than our current south-facing porch has. If your porch is attached to a north facing wall, however, it’s probably too cold and dark for season extension. But you don’t need to take my word for it: try keeping a 6 inch pot of lettuce on it this fall and winter and see what happens. It might work (though I suspect it would freeze out by January).

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Summer garden report

Now that we are officially done with the summer of 2012, it’s a good time to look at what went well, and what didn’t, in my garden. The short story is that it’s surprising just how much did go well with timely watering and lots of it, even with the extreme heat and drought that we experienced. I plan to look more closely at how to reduce the need for backup irrigation from municipal water now that I’ve experienced an extreme drought and seen its effects.

Fruits: I was very concerned when my fruit trees burst into bloom during a warm spell in mid-March, as this is well before our usual last frost date of early to mid April. As it happened, we received no more frosts and the continued warm temperatures brought each kind of fruit into bearing stage 2 to 3 weeks ahead of usual. Starting with strawberries in late April, then progressing through Nanking cherries, apricots, two kinds of plums, summer peaches, elderberries, pears, and now persimmons and a fall peach, we have had fresh fruit available somewhere in our yard and thus in our menus. We’ve bought fruit only once and that was only because I happened to be across the street from a local orchard store for another purpose. We were also given some peaches, most of which we dried, and some early apples that we are still eating, and Mike gathered some pawpaws a few days ago. Our apple trees have a few apples on them, as does the Seckel pear; we still have a lot of persimmons on our two bearing trees; and the two jujube trees in back will provide the last fruits to ripen later this fall. The Nanking cherries and elderberries have been or will be turned into wine. Aside from the gift peaches that I dried, everything else so far has been eaten fresh. Later this fall we may dry some fruit or make fruit butter if we obtain a surplus of fruit, or if I figure out how to dry or process the jujubes.

Vegetables: most crops have yielded at least an average amount so far with copious irrigation starting in June and continuing through early August when cooler and wetter weather returned. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants have yielded much better than the past two years, apparently because the low humidity most of the summer reduced disease pressure and I planted them early enough to have fruit set before the heat got too bad. Cabbage did really well and broccoli was pretty good, although lettuce did not stand long into June as it did last year and mustard greens and spring bok choy bolted very early. Enough kale and collards survived the heat to provide fall greens without having to reseed. Some of the self-sown bok choy seedlings have also survived the vicious heat and should grow well as the fall cool-down occurs. The storage radish seeds I sowed early this week have sprouted nicely and should produce a good crop later this fall, and I have seedlings of lettuce and greens to plant in the second half of September. Two happy surprises: the spring carrots and turnips not only survived the summer but grew large and we are starting to harvest these now. Onions did pretty well and garlic is excellent. Cucumbers and zucchini yielded well in July but died by early August. Major disappointments this year have been potatoes, winter squash, and melons. Perhaps the spring and early summer weather was too hot and dry for good tuber set on the potatoes (we experienced the warmest March-May period on record and I didn’t water the veggie gardens until very late in May). As for the squash and melons, a severe outbreak of squash bugs killed them and the cucumbers and zucchini by August. Rather than wait to start these until the beginning of July (the Missouri Organic Association’s suggestion to reduce or eliminate squash bug infestions), I started them in late May as is generally recommended by garden advisors around here. I won’t be making that mistake again in future years. Since June was so dry, I didn’t get the usual volunteer squash plants sprouting out of the compost pile, usually a good source of squashes.

The pea varieties did not germinate as well as I hoped for but yields from the plants that did grow were good since I planted them on time for once. I’m still harvesting black-eyed peas and expect them to do well. The edamame soybeans, black beans, and popcorn are all still growing and will be harvested later this fall. All look to be in good shape and will be helped greatly by the rain we’ve received from the remnants of Isaac.

Herbs: As might be expected, the herbs that prefer cooler weather, especially calendula and nasturtium, gave up and died early. The St. John’s wort plants didn’t flower, probably because I didn’t water the herb garden in June when it usually flowers, but the plants remained alive. Basil, some of the Gem marigolds, and almost all of the perennial herbs in my herb garden have withstood the heat well, even the seedlings of lemon balm that I didn’t plant till May and didn’t water till July. Lavender flowered copiously this year! Normally I don’t water the herb garden at all, but it got watered a few times in July in order to keep the skullcap and the lemon balm seedlings going. The pale purple, glade, and yellow coneflowers put on a beautiful show of blooms in May and June, and I got my first harvest of New Jersey tea this summer.

Other: The shiitake mushrooms fruited a little but not much this spring since we did not have much of the cool, wet weather that they prefer. Nor did we find much in the way of morels or other wild mushrooms. Perhaps in Isaac's wake we will have a decent fall shiitake crop.

I’ve been able to keep almost all of the newly planted tree, shrub, and herb seedlings and the newly created perennial border and hosta bed in the front yard alive with copious watering starting in May in some cases. I also watered some of the established trees and shrubs in the yard south of the vegetable garden, especially those that produce fruits or nuts and/or those that are closest to the house and could be a fire hazard during a drought. We got a harvest of hazelnuts for the first time ever and the elderberries bore heavily. I carried water to keep an established but still rather young pawpaw tree in the backyard going (it was showing drought distress in July) and left everything else in that area on their own. At most only a few gray dogwoods suffered severely, and even they may come back now that rains have returned. I’m sure the fact that all of these plantings are several years old helped, as did the general flatness of the back yard and the fact that we are located on an east-facing slope and have very deep glacial loess soil. They grass went dormant or died, not that I cared as I am allowing what grass we have to slowly transition to other groundcovers. One good thing about this summer was going nearly 2 months without needing to mow!

Lessons: Our water bill for the three months from early May to early August was $218, compared to the usual bill of $75 for this time period. Was it worth it? Let’s compare grocery bills for 2012 through June (the latest figures I have on hand) with the same time period in 2011. By the end of June 2012 we’d spent about $300 less on groceries than during the same time period last year. We’ve purchased much less in the way of fruits and vegetables so far this year than we normally do. I think most of this saving can be attributed to the excellent fruit crop and good vegetable crop we’d had through that time, although a full analysis would have to subtract off what we spent on the garden and is not something I will do until the end of the year when the harvest is completed.  Overall I think the extra water used has been very much worth it in terms of the amount of food we've gotten from it and I’m pretty sure it will have saved us money over the purchase of equivalent quality food at a farmers market (grocery store food is much lower quality although lower priced) once I have all the data and can do a proper cost comparison.

I would like to cut down on how much backup irrigation we need, however. One of the things we plan to do over the next several weeks is put up a garden shed and collect water off its roof into a 500 gallon tank located where we can gravity-feed the stored water to the vegetable gardens. (We can’t do this from our house or garage because they are downhill of the veggie gardens.) It might be worth reshaping the veggie gardens and/or the yard above them to allow for collection and direction of yard runoff into the veggie-growing area. Diverting overflow water from the rain barrels collecting water off the house roof and into swales could help with watering trees and shrubs near to and downhill from the house. Over the winter I’ll be looking more closely into these possibilities and looking at other ways to reduce our need for backup irrigation. That will help a lot during future years when the growing season is drier than usual.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Really Low Energy Laundry

As I mentioned in the last couple of posts, earlier this summer I decided it was time to learn how to do laundry by the use of human rather than machine energy, the way it was done before electricity and washing machines. In this post I’ll discuss what I did and and what I learned from this experiment.

Some of you may wonder why I’m concerned about doing laundry if you live in an area that doesn’t experience prolonged electrical outages. St. Louis is not such an area. In 2006, severe thunderstorms in July and an ice storm at the end of November left hundreds of thousands of people without electrical service for anywhere from a day to two weeks or longer. We ourselves lost electrical service for six days as a result of one of the severe thunderstorms. While our household can go a week or two without needing to do laundry, we’d want to be able to do laundry if an outage went on for longer than that. And that’s assuming reliable electrical service exists when the weather isn’t severe. As we get farther along into energy and economic decline, grid maintenance will decline further than it already has and reliability will suffer. Most peak energy writers make a reasonable assumption that folks near the edges of the grid, the places that got electrical service the latest, will lose service first. Even in areas that retain decent service - and urban areas such as I live in are likely to be the last to lose decent service - it may become more difficult to afford electrical service as we get farther into decline. Finding another way to do essential household tasks can make the thought (or reality) of intermittent or no electric service less stressful.

The second reason to do laundry by hand was to find out if it’s as difficult as some of the commentary on blogs suggests that it was. Some feminists have worried that women’s gains in the last 100 years have been due in part to machines having made their household work less time and (human) energy consuming. Since these machines are powered by fossil fuels, the loss of sufficient energy to perform these tasks means that women will be saddled with them again, according to this argument. Laundry seems to be the task of most concern, because it required handling large quantities of water and heavy, wet clothing, and traditionally it took many hours to heat the water and do the washing, rinsing, wringing, and hanging required. I wondered how much time and physical labor was actually necessary to do a reasonable job at laundry. If I could reassure other women, and men, that laundry by hand doesn’t have to be onerous, I might be performing a useful service.

Before getting to the details of my experiments, allow me to note briefly that very few, if any, of the supposed “labor saving” household appliances actually saved any labor for anyone. Research reported on in Juliet Schor’s book The Overworked American has shown that hours spent doing household chores did not go down with the introduction of, for instance, the vacuum cleaner. Instead, rugs became larger and wall to wall carpet became fashionable, and the level of cleanliness expected by both household members and visitors became higher. The extra hours needed for the higher standards and the larger area vacuumed balanced out the lower labor hours per vacuumed area. Almost any motorized household appliance you’d care to name has had the same effect upon its introduction. The clothes washer is not an exception in terms of hours spent; we now have more clothes and wash them more often than folks did before fossil fuel powered washers came along. As for labor, well, I’ll be exploring that issue below.

The simplest laundry equipment as described by Charles Gray in his book Toward a Nonviolent Economics consists of a large sink or a large bucket and a plunger. Put the clothes in, cover them with water, add laundry soap or detergent, and allow the clothes to soak for awhile, say 15 minutes to an hour or so. After the soaking has loosened up the dirt, use the plunger as an agitator for about 10 minutes (longer if the clothes are heavily soiled). Wring out the clothes, dump the soapy water (on a tree if it’s droughty!), and rinse the clothes a time or two in clean water, plunging each time for a couple of minutes and, of course, dumping the rinse water on a plant that needs it if you’re in a drought. Hang the clothes to dry on a clothesline or clothes rack. Some of you may have done a small-scale version of this technique to wash clothing while you were traveling or to hand-wash delicate clothes. It works at larger scales too, as I found out when I tried it several years ago on a load of clothes including blue jeans. While I did not find washing the clothes to be onerous, wringing them out, especially blue jeans, took a fair amount of physical strength and allowed enough water to remain in the clothes for them to be quite heavy and hard to handle. From this I took away my first lesson: it’s not washing the clothes that is laborious, it’s handling them after washing. Plus they took much longer to dry because I couldn’t get  anywhere near as much water out of them as the spin cycle of the clothes washer does.

Now that we’ve obtained a washtub from a yard sale, a laundry plunger (called a hand washer on the Lehmans website), and a hand wringer (also from the Lehmans website) as shown in the photo at the top, it was time to try the experiment again. The washtub stands on legs with casters, so I could stand up while plunging the clothes. I moved the washtub to our patio where I could plunge without fear of getting anything wet that shouldn’t; during cold weather I’d do laundry in our unfinished, concrete-floored basement for the same reason. I haven’t found a drain plug to fit the washtub drain, so I wrapped a rubber band around the end of the drain hose, bent a sturdy paper clip into a hanger, looped a portion of the rubber band into the hanger and put the hanger on the washtub rim to keep the water in the washtub while doing laundry, as shown in the photo below.
To empty the tub, I unhooked the hanger and allowed the hose to hang below the washtub. Since we are in a drought, I caught the used water in a bucket and watered shrubs and trees with it. The hand washer is supposed to more effectively push water and soap through the clothes than a standard plunger. I used the laundry detergent we normally use and plunged the clothes for about 10 minutes for washing, a couple of minutes for rinsing. I didn’t find plunging to be onerous. It was roughly comparable to kneading bread, an activity I do on a semi-regular basis. (I didn’t use the washboard in the photo because we hadn’t obtained it yet; it will be handy to use on stubborn dirt or stains, and in fact the washboard shows signs of having been used for just such purposes years ago. Mike found it in his mother’s basement and she gave it to him.) As for the wringer, once I caught on to how to feed clothes through it and set the tension on the knob so it didn’t jam, I found that it got some of the water out of the clothes, but not enough to eliminate the need for wringing by hand. However, it was much easier to do the hand-wringing after passing the clothes through the mechanical wringer than it was if the wringer hadn’t been used first. I didn’t bother with heating the water before doing laundry because during the hottest July on record in St. Louis, the so-called “cold” water coming out of the tap was over 80F! I hung the clothes on a clothes rack to dry. They came out as clean as clothes washed in our washing machine.

All told, it took me two hours to do a full load of laundry and hang it, but that was only because it was my first time at the job and because it included the time it took me to carry 30 plus gallons of water to various trees and shrubs following washing and rinsing. Fiddling with the wringer tension and learning the right way to feed clothes into the wringer took much more time than it would if I were doing laundry this way all the time. I suspect that an hour per full load of clothing would be a reasonable amount of time for an experienced hand washer to allow. Having said that, I acknowledge that washing clothes by hand does take some physical strength, primarily for the wringing and hanging of the still-wet clothes, enough so that I don’t care to do it this way if I don’t have to. I prefer a broom over a vacuum cleaner and hand-washing dishes over a dishwasher (we don’t even own a dishwasher although I had and used one at several previous living quarters), I nearly always hang-dry clothes rather than use the clothes dryer, and I am not averse to getting on hands and knees to wash our wood and tile floors, but I won’t be giving up the clothes washer as long as electrical service is available. However, I am glad that I have the equipment to do laundry by hand and that I know how to use it when I need to. Nor does it seem to me that feminists have cause to worry that women will be especially disadvantaged by a loss of fossil fuel powered household machinery. Even laundry can be done by hand without undue physical labor and time expended, I’ve found, and I expect that we’ll lower our standards as needed when fossil fuel powered machinery becomes less available again.

What if we were in a situation where we need to do laundry by hand for an extended period of time? We’d be wearing clothes and using the same sheets and towels even longer than we now do before we washed them, to minimize the amount of washing needed. Note too that laundry is not a chore that needs to be done by an adult, or an adult woman for that matter. An older child or teenager should be quite capable of the labor involved. If we needed to do laundry by hand, I’d ask Mike to take responsibility for doing his own. I recommend having everyone in the household capable of doing the labor involved be responsible for doing their own laundry. I suspect people who do their own laundry would take more care to keep their clothes as clean as possible and wear them for as long as possible! For when I needed warm to hot water for a load of laundry, I’d pick a sunny day and use a solar shower, available from retailers specializing in camping equipment, to heat up the water for washing, since we have sunny spaces available outside or on the south-facing front porch. I do so little ironing that it seems to me to be nearly a non-issue, but at any rate irons heated on a stove exist; you can find them on the Lehmans website. I suspect they could be heated as well in a good solar oven, but I haven’t tried it since I don’t own such an iron at this time. Looks like that’s an experiment for a future post!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Independence Days update, 7-29-12

I haven’t done an Independence Days update for over a month. Since I last updated, we’ve attended two out of state weddings, keeping us away from home for 12 days. During the first trip, the high temperature in St. Louis ranged from 99F to 108F. During the second trip, highs each day were in the 90sF. I didn’t measure any rain at our house during either trip. While being away from home kept our electric bill lower (we don’t run the AC when we are not at home), the gardens suffered from not being irrigated for those 12 days. According to the US Drought Monitor, our area is now suffering from extreme drought, and it looks it. Not only are lawns dormant, but I am seeing wetland plants, shrubs, and some trees going dormant early or dying. I irrigate some part of the yard every day whenever I am awake and at home, but only the vegetable garden has gotten enough irrigation to grow reasonably well, and it barely enough. The best I can do elsewhere is keep desirable plants from dying and reduce fire risk near the house. This morning we received about 0.2 inches of rain, just enough that I will not irrigate today. Tomorrow, however, the round of irrigation begins anew and continues until we get a substantial amount of rain (at least an inch in a week or less).

The update below will include everything important since the last update in June.

Planted: I planted a fall crop of the ‘French Fingerling’ potatoes even though the weather has been so hot, just to see if they will grow. So far no potato plants have emerged, but that could still change; they seem to take about 3 weeks or so to show up and it hasn’t been quite that long since I planted them. I also planted a few pole bean seeds in front of the southernmost row of corn, some of which have grown despite the heat and insufficient rain and irrigation. On the other hand, the pumpkin seeds I planted in mid-June failed to germinate, and the replacement seeds I planted in early July germinated but died during the second wedding trip due to the heat and drought. I don’t plan to seed fall radish or greens crops unless the pattern of heat and drought breaks for several days sometime before late August. We still have collard, kale, and other greens alive in the garden that we can harvest through fall.

Harvested: peas were harvested until the end of June, as were plums. I harvested the ‘French Fingerling’ potatoes in early July. This month I’ve harvested peaches, pears, elderberries, hazelnuts, black walnuts, red and yellow onions, orange and yellow carrots, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, cabbages, and some herbs. I started harvesting some of the black-eyed peas, letting them dry further in the pod while under cover in the basement. Squirrel pressure is much less this year so we are able to harvest some of the fruit and nut crops for ourselves rather than the squirrels stealing the entire crop as in past years.

Preserved: various mint-family herbs, by drying. Tomatoes, by making and freezing a quart (so far) of tomato sauce. Potatoes, by holding in a 5 gallon bucket on the floor of the basement. Pears, by refrigeration. Onions, by holding in baskets in the basement. Cucumbers and cabbage, by fermentation into pickles and sauerkraut respectively (14 pounds worth of cabbage got made into sauerkraut!). Elderberries, by freezing for later use in making wine.

Waste not: I’ve written blog posts on minimizing the use of electricity for AC and on reusing graywater from the kitchen sink and the laundry. Mike was able to repair a puncture in one of my bicycle’s tires using the patches from the patch kit and Shoe Goo in place of the dried-up epoxy in the patch kit. I’ve continued to use the solar oven for boiling water, baking the occasional loaf of break, and recently to bake eggplant Parmesan.

Want not: Mike found and purchased a peck basket on one of his thrift store runs. We used the remaining half of a processed ham and lots of garden produce to put together most of the dinner we prepared in celebration of Mike’s mom’s 85th birthday. Our neighbors gave us a few pounds of the overripe peaches from the box they’d gotten, so I expect to be drying peaches tomorrow. We are continuing to eat the remaining kimchi to make space in the fridge for the new batches of fermented products.

Eat the food: coleslaw made from homegrown cabbage, peppers, onions, and carrots. Boiled and fried homegrown potatoes. Homemade salad dressings. Eggplant Parmesan from the homegrown eggplants, basil, and garlic (we used a jar of tomato sauce Mike’s mom didn’t prefer and therefore gave to us). Salads with various combinations of zucchinis, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Tomatoes, plums, peaches, and/or pears with breakfast. The unprocessed ham half as red cooked pork according to a recipe in Mike’s Chinese cooking book. The remaining kimchi and pickled tomatoes from last year. We took some of the homegrown fruits and veggies as well as bread and cheese along with us on the trips in order to reduce purchase of fast food meals.

Build community food systems: nothing outside of sharing some of the harvest with neighbors, family, and friends.

Skill up: I learned how to reuse graywater using items we already had on hand. I also learned how to do a load of laundry by hand; I’ll write that post eventually.