Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Project Takes Root

A week ago the dogwoods and redbuds were in full, beautiful bloom in our backyard. After three days of highs in the 80-87F range, their flowers have matured and the petals are dropping, while their leaves are expanding. During the same three days I finally planted the seed potatoes, about a month later than I would normally plant them. It hasn't been a normal spring, if such a thing even exists in the Midwest. But at least St. Louis won't be getting any snow today or tomorrow, just lots of cold rain. By next week I should be back in the garden to complete planting of the cool weather crops.

It’s funny how projects can creep up on a person. When I began this blog I intended to touch on different aspects of the practice of voluntary simplicity, or if you prefer voluntary poverty, in the St. Louis region. I don’t prefer calling it voluntary poverty because Mike and I own our land, at least as much as anyone does in the U. S., and we don’t feel poor, but most people would consider us poor if the only piece of information they had about us was our yearly income. Certainly we have limits on what we can do because of that income, but after years of practice we find we can do most anything we really want to do with careful use of the resources around us. More importantly, we know that since we can only do a few things, we’d better be very clear on exactly what it is that we want to do and why.

As I wrote more posts, it became clear to me and I suspect to those of you reading this blog that my gardening efforts dominate the subject matter, and that I approach gardening in a rather scientific way. That shouldn’t be too surprising if you’ve read this post out of the series that I wrote on how our simplicity practice evolved. My application of the scientific method to my gardening efforts isn’t something I have to think about; I can’t imagine doing it any other way. Making scaled graphs of each year’s garden layout, weighing all the produce that I harvest, calculating the weight harvested per square foot for each variety and comparing it to the target yields in How to Grow More Vegetables, comparing the yield and taste of new varieties of vegetables to our current favorites, noting the various patterns of pest and disease infestations each year, looking at all the data at the end of the season to determine what did and didn’t work, trying to puzzle out why something didn’t yield well or why something else got hit by a pest or disease, reading gardening publications in an effort to learn better gardening techniques: all of these things are part of approaching my gardening efforts in a scientific way. But I haven’t been explicit about that in my posts so far.

I’ve been considering my reluctance to admit to the scientific aspect of my gardening practice. I think part of it is imagining the scorn that past scientific colleagues of mine would heap on me for working on what they would consider an uninteresting problem. Back when I was in grad school, we worked at the bleeding edge of science. We had a laboratory full of expensive, delicate optics directing high-powered laser beams that required an amount of electricity to generate that must have been orders of magnitude over what our household uses in the same period of time. We included lots of mathematical equations filled with Greek letters in the papers we wrote to describe our studies. We published these papers in the leading journals in our field of work. While I never presented a paper at a conference (I didn’t have the self-confidence to do so), my colleagues did. I was part of a group of people who considered themselves, and whom society at large considered, as bona fide scientists. Yet as far as I can tell, nothing that I did in grad school or in industry made the slightest bit of positive difference in the world. If anything, it went the other way. On the other hand, I think the gardening science I’ve been and will be doing does have the potential to be helpful to ourselves and others in a world of energy decline, even though it’s strictly amateur (in the sense of done for love rather than money), done on my own time, at home, without the need for fancy math or expensive equipment. It’s the sort of science that anyone can do and that I’d like to see more people learn and practice on the problems that are amenable to it. It’s this kind of science that I’m doing as I work on an issue that’s been of considerable importance to me and I suspect will become more so to more people over the years: just how much food can be grown by ordinary people in their backyards without making it difficult or impossible for other people to do the same thing?

Among the gardening books that are of use to me in my gardening practice,  John Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV), produced by Ecology Action, most directly deals with the issue of growing the most food in the least space in the most sustainable way. Another Ecology Action publication, One Circle, claims that it may be possible to grow a complete diet for one person in about 700 square feet if the method is applied correctly, crops are chosen carefully, and one is willing to eat a monotonous diet heavy in root crops like potatoes and onions and oily seed crops like sunflower seeds. A prerequisite for growing so much food in such a small space is to obtain yields at the medium to high levels for each crop (these are given in HTGMV). However, I’ve only been able to achieve low yields for all of the crops except for parsley mentioned in One Circle, and in fact for most of the crops I grow. I’ve been trying to understand why this is so. After 19 years of gardening I think I’ve gotten pretty good at the basic techniques. I know when to plant each type of crop and how to grow them in St. Louis. But since I’m still obtaining low yields on most crops, there must be a reason or reasons for that.

One possibility is that St. Louis’ growing conditions do not fit well with some crops, especially crops like potatoes and cabbage that yield best in long, cool spring and summer conditions. For crops like these I may never be able to achieve high yields. I also may not have fully optimized my growing practices, hence my continuing study of gardening publications. Lately I’ve been wondering if mineral deficiencies in my soil might be part of the reason for continuing low yields for most vegetables I grow. While Ecology Action’s publications suggest that a proper application of their techniques allows for self-sustaining fertility, they do say that one should have a soil test done when beginning a new garden and fertilize to remedy any deficiencies in the soil before doing the first dig. After that compost made from garden and kitchen refuse should be sufficient to maintain balanced fertility in the garden. When we first moved to this house I had a soil test done through the Missouri Extension service. I made an attempt to fertilize according to its recommendations for the first bed that I dug. But I did not repeat that for any of the subsequent beds.

After reading Steve Solomon’s book Gardening When It Counts, I began to use a version of the Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF) recipe in that book to see if it might raise yields of some crops. It seemed to help a little but not as much as I was hoping. Two of the components I used in the mix, rock phosphate (for phosphorus) and greensand (for potassium), are mined minerals that are expensive to ship due to the weights needed to be effective as fertilizers. I was leery of relying on them both because of the expense and because it didn’t feel right to be using so much of these non-renewable resources in a world of limits. In the past year or two I’ve been using the COF only on the beds planted with corn, as corn is a heavy feeder that needs a lot of fertility to grow well. However, I wasn’t sure if that would leave enough fertility for the next four years’ worth of crops (I’m currently using a five year rotation of crop families to avoid building up family-specific pests and diseases in my garden beds). Meanwhile, I’d been reading Acres U.S.A., a publication devoted to various aspects of holistic farming, where I’d been exposed to the idea that most soils need re-mineralization to produce the kind of pasture and grain crops that make for the best health in animals and people. It sounded good, I wanted to try it, but the bewildering number of publications on re-mineralization was off-putting. I’ll admit, too, that I didn’t want to engage enough with chemistry to understand the science behind the method. You’d think I’d be the ideal person to make sense of it, but the thought brought back too many bad memories of grad school and industry. Thus my excitement at reading Steve Solomon’s newest book, The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense Food. Someone else had done all the hard chemical work for me and all I had to do was apply the results to my own project! The previous post began that project, with my calculating a fertilizer mix specifically to remedy the pattern of mineral deficiencies and excesses in my soil. As the gardening year continues, I will let you know the results.

I have two different reasons for writing about this project. The first is that some of you may find the results applicable to your own gardening efforts. As I noted earlier, all signs are that more of us will either want to or have to grow more of our own food in backyard-sized plots as ongoing decline in available fossil fuel energy intersects with the ongoing decline of Western industrial civilizations. If anything that I have learned can help any of you grow a better garden, I’d like for you to have that information. Of course you will have to translate what I’m doing to your own situation, but I will do my best to provide enough background and references for you to do that.

The second reason has to do with one of the common effects of civilizational decline as discussed by John Michael Greer in his excellent and highly recommended blog The Archdruid Report.  One of those common effects is the loss of a large amount of the knowledge base of a civilization. Greer is particularly concerned about the possibility of the loss of the scientific method to future generations as our civilization moves through the decline process. Note that he’s not referring to the vast body of knowledge built up by using the method. Most of that will prove to be of little if any use to people surviving on a very small fraction of the fossil fuel energy base that our civilization was built upon. He’s referring instead to the process by which that body of knowledge has been obtained: the process of systemic observation, measurement, and experimentation and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses, as Wikipedia puts it. Because we swim in a sea of science and technology, this may seem nearly unbelievable. But between the case that Greer makes for it and some of my own observations, I share his concern. Even so, I’ve resisted the possibility of doing my part to attempt to get the scientific method through decline. I think that has a lot to do with those same bad memories of grad school and industrial science that I mentioned earlier and the lack of self-confidence in myself as a scientist that resulted. But the scientific method has just as much applicability in the garden as it does at the bleeding edge of scientific research. Perhaps if I make my application of the method more explicit, which I will do in one of my upcoming posts, some of you will be inspired to apply the method to those problems for which it works well. Perhaps if any of you try it and find it works, you’ll pass on the method to someone else. The more of us who are applying the method to more different problems in more different ways and passing on our experiences to others, the more likely it is that we can get it through to the people who are alive when things settle down enough to begin work on whatever comes next.

I have lots of other things to talk about this year as well. Just to give you a hint: one of them has to do with tea. You’ll have to check back later for more ...

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