Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Meet the Scrapers: reducing energy use on the cheap

In the last post I discussed the actions Mike and I took toward reducing our energy usage and showed how our usage changed as we took those actions. But your situation is different from ours. What might be a sensible order in which to take steps to reduce your own energy usage?

In this post I’ll look more closely at how a financially strapped family could choose which actions to take and in what order to take them so that the savings from actions taken earlier finance actions taken later on. Even better, the energy savings will continue past the end of the work, yielding further savings that can be used for other purposes.

Allow me to introduce you to our family. Call them the Scrapers, because they’re just scraping by. The Scrapers consist of two resident adults (the RAs) and two children (Cs). If you’re in a single-adult household, and/or you have a different number of children than the Scrapers, and/or you have multiple adults living with you temporarily or less so, make whatever mental adjustments you need as we look over the Scrapers’ shoulders to see how they planned and acted their way to significant reductions in energy use.

The Scrapers’ RAs have become at least as tired of watching money leaking out of their household as they’ve become at their feet complaining about the ever-present cold draft every winter, so they’ve been looking for ways to plug the leaks. Through their research they’ve realized that one way to cut expenses is to take more control of how much energy they use to heat and cool their dwelling, to power all the various appliances they use, and to heat their water. They’ve also learned that some of those changes would reduce the cold drafts that cause their feet to talk back at them. But how to fund some of those changes? They are finding it difficult to pay bills as it is.

The RAs mull over the possibilities. Finally one of them has an insight: hey, some of the changes we could make are free! How about we start with those? After awhile, we’ll have saved some money that we could apply toward making a change that would cost money at first but save even more money later on. Then we can put some of those savings toward the next purchase, and so on. The other RA says: brilliant! Let’s make a plan. So the RAs put their heads together and, over a period of time, work up a list of actions they might take. While the Scrapers didn’t do this, we, looking over their shoulders, could organize their list of actions into four categories:
    Demand reduction: use less
    Loss reduction: keep it around longer
    Source substitution: do it differently
    Efficiency improvements: do it more efficiently

The Scrapers begin with some free changes, which fall into the demand reduction category. Their list of possible actions looks like this:
    Turning the lights off unless someone is in the room.    
    Taking fewer and/or shorter showers.
    Doing fewer loads of laundry.
    Changing the dishwasher setting to air drying.
    Lowering the temperature setting on the hot water heater.
    Changing the thermostat setting (lower in winter, higher in summer).
    Turning off the TV(s), radio(s), and/or computer(s) when they’re not in use.

After some discussion, the Scrapers decide to start with a slow change in the thermostat setting. It’s heating season when they begin, so they turn the thermostat for the furnace 2F lower. Somewhat to their surprise, the RAs find they barely notice the change ... each adds a sweater or sweatshirt to what they usually wear at home and they are good. The Cs are pickier, complaining about being “too cold,” but after they are reminded that they too have sweaters/sweatshirts they can wear on top of what they are already wearing, and the RAs standing firm against further complaints, the Cs grumpily acquiesce. The RAs also lower the hot water heater setting to about 125F rather than 140F and change the dishwasher setting to air drying. Over the course of the winter they effect another 2F lowering of the thermostat and begin to slowly change their, and the Cs’, patterns around the other items on the list. They also manage to increase the temperature setting for the AC about 4F over the course of the following summer. By keeping track of changes in their utility bills and the weather during that first year they learn that they have saved some money without having to sacrifice any significant degree of comfort aside from the occasional need to discipline the Cs as they test the RAs’ resolve (and the resistance each of the RAs encounters during their efforts to change their own long-standing habits).
Pleased with their success so far, the RAs consider their next move. With it cooler in the house during the winter and warmer during the summer, they are even more aware of drafts around doors and windows. Going back to the list they made a year ago, they realize this is a good time to use some of the money they’ve saved toward loss reduction strategies. So they crack their books and websites, then sit down together and write out a list of loss reduction actions they could take. Their list looks like this:
    Weather-strip windows and doors.
    Caulk air leaks.    
    Fix leaky faucets (especially hot water faucets).
    Add pipe insulation to hot water pipes.    
    Add attic insulation.
    Close off windows in the spare bedroom unless guests are using it.
Their research has suggested that the best place to start is with weather-stripping their exterior doors. Weather-stripping is cheap and should be quite effective on the older doors of their residence. Since they do this project in the winter, their feet notice right away that the nasty cold draft has been reduced significantly. Next they check around their windows for drafts, discover them, and purchase weather-stripping for the windows that fits their budget and is easy enough for them to install. Their hot-water pipes are accessible, so they buy and install pipe insulation around them as well. A chance discussion with a friend yields an offer for the friend to come over to show them how to fix a leaking hot water faucet. That makes for a good winter’s work, more comfort (the hot water gets to their sinks a lot sooner now!), and further reductions in energy use.

The RAs decide they need to do some more research to determine where and how to caulk before taking on that project, and they know from their research to wait to add attic insulation until after they’ve caulked (and saved up the money they’ll need to buy the insulation). They also want to think more about how to close off the guest bedroom windows before they attempt that project. So they move to the next category on our list: source substitution. Their list of possible projects looks something like this:
    Do dishes by hand instead of using a dishwasher.
    Dry laundry on a clothesline or rack rather than in a clothes dryer.    
    Replace electric tools with human-powered tools.
    Substitute the sun for fossil fuels where possible.   

The RAs have been using their dishwasher, but they began to wonder if they might be able to teach the Cs to wash the dishes by hand. As it happened, the next time they got together with their parents, the conversation turned to child-raising differences between their parents’ days as children and those of current times, and their parents noted how they and their friends had done the dishes before their parents got dishwashers. A few questions later, the RAs knew how to turn the dish-washing chore over to the Cs. Naturally the Cs resisted, but eventually the RAs prevailed and the Cs learned to do a good-enough job in the usual ways families work these issues out. The only things the RAs had to buy was a dish drainer to stack the clean dishes in for air-drying, more dishcloths/sponges for washing dishes, and a supply of dish towels for the occasional dish too big to fit onto the dish drainer, all readily available at a nearby department store and affordable due to savings from previous steps.

Once the Cs were reliably doing the dishes, the RAs decided to use some of their savings to buy a clothes rack to allow them to air-dry laundry on their back deck during dry weather from late spring through early fall. They knew that the payback time on the clothes rack would be quick even for a large, sturdy model that would last for a long time, so that’s the kind they chose to buy.

The RAs have become aware of solar ovens and have sunny areas in their back yard in which they could place a solar oven, but the cost of the commercially-available versions is high, and they want to do more research before they decide if they wish to make a home-built version or save longer to afford the commercial version. At this point they decide to turn their attention to the last category on our list, efficiency improvements. Their list of actions for this category looks like this:
    Replace existing incandescent or compact fluorescent light bulbs with LED versions.
    Replace existing household appliances with high efficiency versions.

It didn’t take long for the RAs to decide to work on the first item of their list. They had noticed how low prices have gotten for LED bulbs and seen one in use at a friend’s house. Its much more pleasant light color and its somewhat lower use of electricity and longer lifetime compared to CFL bulbs meant that they would save money even over CFLs and save a lot of money compared to the incandescent light bulbs which were in most of their fixtures. Accordingly, they began to replace every bulb as it burned out with an LED bulb. But they also realized that it makes no sense for them to replace their existing appliances unless and until an appliance breaks down past the point of being repaired. So they decided to set aside some of the money they continue to save on utility bills toward replacing appliances and funding some of the actions they still want to take.

At this point we’ll leave the Scrapers as they ponder what to do next, and I’ll return with an analysis of the 2016 garden season in the next post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How we went on an energy diet, and what we lost (and gained!)

In this post I’ll discuss how we’ve reduced energy usage in our home over the years and the benefits of having done so. I’ve already revealed some of what we’ve done in the posts about keeping cool in the summer and keeping warm in the winter. But I haven’t gone into detail about how much energy we used before and after the changes we made, nor about its impact on our finances. I hope that by describing what we’ve done and the benefits it has brought, some of you will be inspired to make changes according to your situation that will reduce your energy usage.

And what are some of the benefits? Well, how about keeping more of your money to yourself and depriving your energy provider of some of it? (Do you like handing over hard-earned cash to your energy provider? I thought not.) Or maybe you would enjoy losing that cold draft around your feet in winter and not getting shocked every time you touch, or even look at, a piece of metal. Yes, these goodies and more await those who embark on a serious energy diet.

Now I have to admit that the subject borders on being dry. (Well, doesn’t just border, but is out in the middle of the desert, dying of thirst.) If we had a cat, I’d liven this post up with the occasional cute cat picture. But we don’t have a cat; we don’t even dress up as one for Halloween. The best I can do is to slip in an occasional soothing plant photo. With that said, on to the post!

First, some details about our house, since size and appliance usage affect how much energy is used, and so you can better compare your situation with ours. The main part of the house, four rooms and a bathroom, was built in 1928; the two room addition, judging from the floor tile and stylistic details, dates from the 1940s or early 1950s. It’s about 1300 square feet all told, one story with a basement underneath the main house and a crawl space underneath the addition. It had an open front porch and a very small back deck when we bought it. Both the main house and the addition are wood frame construction. There was no insulation in any of the walls. In the attic of the main house we found a thin layer of vermiculite insulation, typical for houses of its day. Traces of vermiculite insulation remained in the attic of the addition, but it appeared that most of it had been removed at some time in the past.

When we bought the house, it included a clothes washer and a large copper-colored double-door refrigerator, both of which dated from the 1960s, and an electric range and oven, clothes dryer, and 40 gallon water heater of unknown ages but younger than the washer and refrigerator. In the basement, a circular raised concrete platform and a coal chute informed us that the original furnace had been coal-burning, again typical of houses of its era. The woman we bought the house from told us that she’d replaced a later, oil-burning furnace with a natural gas furnace when oil got expensive, during the one of the 1970s energy crises. She’d also had a central air conditioning unit installed at that time. There was no dishwashing machine.

Because we knew that old refrigerators, clothes washers, furnaces, and air conditioners are less energy efficient than comparable Energy Star rated units, we replaced the refrigerator with a smaller, efficient 15 cubic foot unit and the clothes washer with an efficient front-loading unit before we moved in. During the first summer we lived here, we replaced the furnace and AC with a 96% efficient gas furnace and an AC with a SEER rating of 12. Otherwise we continued with our previous energy conserving habits and made no further changes to conserve energy for a few years.

We knew we needed to have air leaks sealed and insulation added to our house to make a larger dent in our energy usage, and to reduce the discomfort of cold drafts during heating season (if my feet could talk, you would have heard them whining from here to both coasts all winter long). During the summer of 2005 we contracted to have that work done. Coincidentally, the electric hot water heater failed at that time. Knowing gas water heaters are more efficient, we had the electric water heater replaced with a natural gas water heater of the same size.

This is how matters stood for a few more years, until we realized that further reductions in natural gas usage could be obtained through reducing the thermostat setting in the winter. In the fall of 2009, we reduced the thermostat from 65-66F to 55F. That proved to be too cold. By 2012 we settled into keeping the thermostat at 60F during the day, 63F in the evening, and 50F overnight during the heating season, raising it higher only when one or both of us felt ill or we had guests.

In order to further reduce wintertime energy usage and provide a place to overwinter my collection of subtropical plants, we had the existing open front porch converted to a three season room in 2011. Because this long, narrow room faces south, it captures some solar energy on sunny days, when we can use an electric fan to blow some of the warmed air into the house. In 2013, we had the existing storm doors replaced with new, more tightly fitting units. And in 2014, we had a wood stove added so we can burn deadfalls (since we live in an older neighborhood with many large trees, windstorms result in considerable numbers of downed tree limbs that we can harvest for firewood) as well as pruned wood from our own trees.

I think it’s time for the first soothing plant photo, don’t you? Take a moment to enjoy it before continuing on. A soothing beverage of your choice might help too.

OK, back to the topic. In order to see how each of the changes we made affected how much natural gas we used for the year, look at the chart of our yearly natural gas usage for 2003 through 2015, shown below. (Note that the version of Excel that I use does not seem to give me the option to label with just the year. Jan. 04 thus corresponds to 2003, Jan. 05 to 2004, and so on.)

The first thing to note is the large drop in yearly usage in 2006 versus 2005. This is due to sealing air leaks and adding insulation to our house during 2005. Further drops in natural gas usage did not occur till 2009 and later, when we began to reduce the setting on our thermostat during heating season.

Below is a chart of our yearly electrical usage from 2003 through 2015.

The beneficial effects of air leak sealing, insulation, and the replacement of the electric water heater with a natural gas water heater are evident in the large drop in electricity consumption in 2006 compared to 2005. Another smaller reduction appears to be ongoing from about 2007 through 2015. In this case the reduction is due to a change in the way I grow seedlings. From 2003 through 2006, I grew seedlings for the vegetable garden in the basement, using up to four light fixtures, each with two 48-inch fluorescent tubes, to provide light for the seedlings 16 hours a day. I also put the flats with seeds needing bottom heat to germinate and some heat to grow on a 50 watt electric heat mat, running 24 hours a day. I started seeds as early as February and kept them in the basement until early April, an effect that could be seen in high electricity consumption during February and March.

Around 2007 or 2008, I began to start the cold-tolerant seedlings in a cold frame in March, reducing the number of fluorescent fixtures in use in the basement for raising seeds. After the open front porch was modified into a three-season room in 2011, I stopped raising seedlings in the basement, raising them all in natural light on the front porch. In addition, in the past few years I have not started using the heat mat until the beginning of March, so it only needs to be on for about 2 to 3 weeks, until the seeds needing warm soil germinate. The porch is warm enough by then so they grow well without bottom heat. It’s a good thing I did this, because we have had to run a dehumidifier in the basement during the past several summers due to excessive humidity caused by heavy rains. Our dehumidifier is not Energy Star certified, so we set it to keep the relative humidity in the basement just under 70%. It must add to our electricity consumption (the lowest electricity consumption we’ve had was in 2012, a very dry and hot summer in which we used the dehumidifier very little), but apparently its addition was offset by the reduction in heat mat and grow light usage.

It’s time for another soothing plant photo. Take a deep breath and appreciate the beauty before returning to our discussion.

We’re about to delve into what you’ve all been waiting for: how the changes have affected what we pay for energy services. See the charts below for 2003 through 2015.

The first thing to notice is how little we pay for electricity and natural gas in a year. It seems to be relatively common for people in this area to pay $100-200/month or more for electricity, especially in the summer. In 2015 we paid $410 for the entire year! Similarly, I’ve heard of people who pay $200-300/month for natural gas to keep their homes heated in winter, while we paid $545 for the whole year in 2015.

However, other factors besides how much energy we use also affect how much we pay for energy, as is clear from a comparison of these two charts with the two charts for yearly energy usage. While the energy usage charts show large drops in our usage in 2015 compared to 2003, what we paid for electricity is about the same in 2015 as it was in 2003 while what we paid for natural gas has dropped only a little. Why is this?

To understand why what we pay for energy services has changed so little in 12 years despite our using only about half as much electricity and natural gas in 2015 compared to 2003, we have to look at the factors that affect the rate (the cost of energy per unit used). To know what affects the rate, we have to look at what goes into producing the electricity and natural gas that we use.

Our electricity provider uses coal-fired plants to generate about 70% of the electricity it produces, so the price it pays for coal must be reflected in the rate it charges us for electricity. Since coal is mined and transported using diesel-powered equipment, the price of oil affects the cost of coal and thus the electric rate we must pay. The price of oil was around $30/barrel in 2003, increasing to around $60/barrel by late 2007. In 2008 it shot up to a peak of $147/barrel, then dropped back to $80-100/barrel through late 2014. This plateau is about two to three times higher than the price before 2008 and is perhaps the largest factor in the higher electric rate in 2015 compared to 2003. Since late 2014, the price of oil has dropped due to excess supply as the oil-producing nations pump it out as fast as they can, but that surplus is likely to be a short-term phenomenon as oil continues to deplete. Assume electricity rates will go up over the years, and you’ll be right a lot more often than not.

In addition, coal itself is becoming more expensive to use for generating electricity because of the various forms of pollution it causes when it’s burned; environmental regulations require that the pollution be reduced with treatment of the exhaust from coal-fired plants, an expense that is passed along to us. If carbon dioxide pollution comes under regulation later on, the cost of using coal will increase further as it produces more carbon dioxide per KWH of electricity generated than do oil or natural gas powered electric plants.

In the case of natural gas, depletion of conventional natural gas wells led to rate increases through about 2009. Around that time, however, fracked natural gas began to take up the slack in supply. Once fracked gas became a significant source, the rate dropped. The cost of oil also affects natural gas because of the use of diesel-powered equipment to produce it, but it appears that the surge in supply from fracking has outpaced effects due to changes in the price of oil. Again, I don’t expect the current low rate situation to hold, because fracked gas depletes very rapidly and the sweet spots in the various fields are already fully exploited or nearly so. Also, if the price of oil shoots up, the price of natural gas must do so as well.

One final effect on how much electricity and natural gas we use is the weather. A warmer summer means more use of air conditioning; a warmer winter means less use of heat. I track CCD (cooling degree days) and HDD (heating degree days) along with energy use so I can attempt to disentangle their influence from that of any changes we make. Our energy providers don’t report this information, so I obtain it from the monthly climate summaries posted on the St. Louis NWS website. I adjust it for the actual dates on which our meters are read, but if you prefer, it’s good enough to use the end-of-month values even if your meter is read on a different day. So now let’s look at charts of the yearly CDD and HDD for St. Louis from 2003 through 2015 and compare them to our energy usage.
From the yearly CDD chart we could hypothesize that all else being equal, we might have used the least amount of electricity in 2008 or 2009. As noted in the chart of yearly electricity usage, however, 2014 is the year in which we used the least amount of electricity, so our efforts to cut back electricity usage were able to overcome increases in CDD to an extent.

For HDD, 2012 was the warmest year in this range, while 2014 was the coldest. On this basis we might hypothesize that we used the least amount of natural gas in 2012 and the most in 2014, all else being equal. In fact, our yearly natural gas usage was lowest in 2012. It was higher in 2014 than any time since 2009, but it was still considerably less than 2003 through 2008 despite the lower HDDs in all those years. Again, we were able to overcome some of the effects of colder years through our efforts to conserve energy.

Finally, we can compare our usage of natural gas and electricity to that of an average US household, using the values from Sharon Astyk’s Riot 4 Austerity project. At that time (several years ago) the average US household electricity usage was 11,000 KWH per year; the average US household natural gas usage was 1,000 Therms per year. This figure may not be quite the same as current usage, but it will be close enough for our purposes.

Comparing our usages for 2015 (2,471 KWH and 261 Therms), Mike and I used about 22% of the household average usage of electricity and about 26% of the average for natural gas. It isn’t up to Astyk’s Riot target of 10% of average household usage, but still, not too shabby if I do say so myself.

Since we use about 1/4 of the energy of the average US household, the average household (at least in the metro St. Louis area) must pay about 4 times our combined cost of $970 for electric and natural gas service, or about $3900. That’s about $2900 more than we paid for electricity and natural gas in 2015! Now we didn’t actually save this much money from our efforts, because we already used only about half of the electricity and natural gas compared to the average US household in 2003. Based on our actual 2003 usage, our steps to reduce demand and conserve energy saved us about $910 from our utility bills, at 2015 pricing. That’s money we can apply to other needs, or save toward the future. Thus we’ve achieved a triple win: by reducing the amount of these forms of energy that we use, more oil and coal remains for future use, the environment is a little cleaner, and our financial position is better.

If you’d like to join us in achieving this triple win, in the next post I’ll suggest a sensible order (more sensible than ours, anyway) in which to undertake actions intended to reduce your energy usage and cost.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The decline may not be permacultured, part 2

As I noted in a previous post, I think that while some of the techniques that are presented under the label of permaculture design may have a place in easing some of the difficulties that we’ll encounter as cheap energy sources dry up and the U.S. continues in its decline, I think it’s best to learn those from books and by doing rather than from the permaculture design course. In this post I’ll discuss my reasons for that belief, using the article I critiqued in that post (“Hellstrip Polycultures” by Frank Raymond Cetera in the August 2015 issue of Permaculture Design, abbreviated as PcA/PcD in this post to account for the years it was published under the title of Permaculture Activist before the 2015 name change) and other resources promoted under the permaculture label to look critically at the design course and what seem to be common habits of thought among its graduates and its teachers.

One of the points I raised in the previous post is the lack of understanding of the functions of and constraints upon the tree lawn within the current ecology of the city that the author of the article displayed. Since one of the major goals of a permaculture design course is to raise attendees’ awareness of the patterns of energy and resource flow through the area under design, I wonder how well that objective is met in practice. How could it be that a course which claims to offer a good grounding in and understanding of ecological processes apparently failed to transmit an understanding of the city as an ecological system? It should not be difficult to understand why planting a tree lawn with tall, sprawling, dispersive plants next to a busy street on one side and a narrow sidewalk on the other does not make good ecological sense for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, police, and residents alike. Even if the author of the article was unaware of the functions of and constraints on a tree lawn, the editor of Permaculture Design, who has been working with permaculture design for many years, should have caught the problems and not published the article as it appeared. Why didn’t that happen?

One possibility lies in the history of permaculture. Back in 1974, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed a framework for a sustainable agricultural system based on multiple types of crops, many of them perennials, which are claimed to support each other similarly to the ways that plants in ecosystems like forests, woodlands, and prairies support each other (from the preface to Introduction to Permaculture). They coined the term “permaculture” as a shorthand for “permanent agriculture.” From the beginning, growing food and other useful plants in polycultures in which the plants are supposed to provide for each other’s needs has been a central aspect of permaculture.

However, because much of permaculture design deals with making major modifications to landforms for water and energy harvesting to support large-scale perennial cropping, and because in temperate climates such as most of the U.S. tree crops are the only perennials that are commonly grown for food, permaculture design in the U.S. seems to have focused more on tree crops and perennial plantings for larger semi-rural and rural properties than it has on the different needs and ecologies of cities and suburbs. Mike’s and my one acre lot, because it is located in an inner suburb of a major metropolitan area, has more in common with the 1/8 acre lot we used to own in a nearby inner suburb than it does with the semi-rural to rural properties that Mollison, Holmgren, and many other permaculture teachers and authors live on, have written about, and/or seem to be most familiar with. It doesn’t make much sense to learn about swales as water control and harvesting structures, for instance, if the only bit of land you have control over is your 1/8 to 1/4 acre city or suburban lot. Instead, it could be a lot more useful to learn about how to capture and use water from your roof cheaply and effectively. But you don’t need a permaculture design course to learn about that. Search “rain barrel” or “rain garden” on the web, and you’ll learn everything you need to set up your own rain barrels and rain gardens (including this post). And you don’t need a computer or Internet access at home if your public library provides that.

What if you rent your property? Even if your property has a little land, say 1/8 to 1/4 acre, your landlord may not want you to plant anything on it. Even if that isn’t an issue, you may not want to put much money or time into permanent plantings or the various tools that you would need to plant a garden if you don’t know how long you will live at that location. Many renters live in multi-story buildings without access to anything more than a community garden bed, if that. Under these circumstances, permaculture design for plantings has little to offer. On the other hand, there are many books and websites on growing vegetables in containers or on small pieces of land such as community garden beds and in small backyard spaces. A few hand tools will suffice to work a small vegetable bed or garden or a container planting. Again, no need for a permaculture design course when your local library has or can get for you the books that you’ll need, and websites like this blog as well as state extension services and local gardening organizations have information that can help vegetable growers decide which approach makes sense for them.

The emphasis on polycultures in permaculture design has a lot to do with why the author of the article chose the plants that he did, I suspect. This emphasis on polycultures - groupings of plants that are supposed to supply each others’ needs and put each others’ outputs to good use - has been a part of permaculture design from the beginning and continues to have a prominent place in PcA/PcD as well as in books on permaculture design. The best polycultures are supposed to use mostly perennials to supply human foods and other needs as well as the needs of the soil microorganisms, birds, pollinators, and other animals in the area. They are intended to imitate plant communities of a mature ecosystem that would exist in the area without human intervention. The author of the article I critiqued is one in a long line of permaculture designers to design a polyculture for a particular environment, in this case for a tree lawn.

Considering that permaculture has been around for 40 years and that polycultures are one of the aspects of design that has been emphasized for that entire time, I would think that permaculture designers would have a good-sized list of well-understood polycultures appropriate for various ecosystems by now. But such a list doesn’t seem to exist in practice. I’ve not seen it in PcA/PcD, though the Spring 2016 issue advertises a plant database that is claimed to allow designers to build their own polycultures and plant guilds. Many permaculture books describe how to design polycultures to fulfill the goals of the designer. But after 40 years, with tens of thousands of graduates claimed for all the design courses that have been offered, I would expect that at least a few good polycultures that work with temperate climate plants would be well known within the community of permaculture designers, written about in books and discussed in PcA/PcD as examples for others to learn from. John Wages, editor of the May 2014 issue of PcA, seemed to expect the same thing when he called for articles on stacking functions (the jargon permaculture designers use for the interactions among a group of plants that meet each others’ and the designer’s needs) for that issue. In his Editor’s Edge column, Wages wrote, “While we had hoped to see detailed examples of landscape designs that incorporated a high degree of multifunctionality, only a few such articles appeared.” I haven’t seen them in other issues of PcA/PcD, nor in the permaculture books that I’ve read. Why is this?

One possibility is that it’s harder to design polycultures for temperate climates with plants we are used to eating for food and can grow in small urban and suburban spaces than permaculture designers suggest. Dave Jacke’s and Eric Toenmeier’s Top 100 species list as published in volume 1 of Edible Forest Gardens, for example, includes very large trees like pecans and hickories, which are too big for the vast majority of urban and suburban lots and require many years to grow to bearing age. Persimmons and pawpaws, more suitably sized trees, do make the list, but they still require several years to reach bearing age and few people are familiar enough with the fruit to want to grow the trees. Pears also make the list, but most are subject to fireblight, which has ravaged my two pear trees. Hazels are the right size for urban and suburban yards, but squirrels get nearly all of the hazelnuts in my yard. Raspberries, elderberries, and blueberries all make the list, but birds usually outcompete me for the first and third, and the second needs to be cooked or made into wine and is unfamiliar to most people. Groundnut provides an edible tuber, but it’s highly expansive in my yard, the tubers don’t taste as good as a potato, and they leave a nasty latex-like substance coating the sides of the pan they are cooked in which is quite difficult to remove. I wouldn’t care to eat any of the herbaceous plants they list in large quantity, though small amounts of the edible ones are a nice change. It’s worth noting again that the vast majority of the plants I and most people eat are the standard grain, tuber, and vegetable crops, none of which are perennial in St. Louis. I have many of the Top 100 plants in my yard and value them, but more for the diversity they bring to the land and to the other beings here than because they are a big part of my diet. I get a lot more food out of my vegetable garden, filled as it is with annuals and biennials and organized for easy planting and care rather than on interactions among the plants themselves, than I do from the remaining 95% of the yard. Since permaculture designers don’t seem to have lists of polycultures suited to various ecosystems to offer to potential students, once again I encourage people with an interest in this area to read books on the topic (in my opinion, the best one for those of us in the eastern deciduous forest biome of the U. S. is Edible Forest Gardens) and start trying designs of your own. And if you come up with some that work well, share them! Meanwhile, as I’ve documented in numerous posts and will continue to share in future posts, a well-grown vegetable garden combined with any small or tree fruits of interest that you have the space to grow and the inclination to properly care for will provide you with more nutritious food in a shorter period of time and for less cash outlay than will a polyculture built on perennial crops suited to small urban and suburban spaces.

Permaculture designers might retort that they have much to offer beyond land design. If so, I wish they would discuss and document more of it, in more detail, than I’ve seen in PcA/PcD or in the permaculture books I’ve read. For instance, given how much housing stock exists that desperately needs cheap energy-efficient retrofitting, I would think that after 40 years permaculturists would have developed well-tested plans for such retrofitting and published the results in books, PcA/PcD and other magazines, and on blogs for themselves and others to implement. With very few exceptions, however, I haven’t seen anything like this. Bob Waldrop recognizes the importance of the issue, to his credit, and discusses his and his housemates’ retrofit of their Oklahoma City house in his e-book iPermie. Unfortunately, you have to slog through 416 pages of bloated, overheated, inelegant prose before you get to the chapter with this information, and even then he doesn’t offer enough details to make it easy to reproduce what he did, nor does he offer documentation on how much energy he and his housemates used before and after the work was done.

A quick scan through the last two years of PcA/PcD reveals just one article on home energy use, by Peter Bane in the Winter 2014-15 issue. While he does give a description of how he and his partner make use of a combination of fossil fuel and solar energy sources along with conservation to deal with fluctuations in energy flows during the year in their Indiana home, again he provides almost no data on how much energy they used before and after making some of the changes he describes, nor does he tell us how to make similar changes.

One of the few issues of PcA to deal with appropriate technology is the Winter 2013-14 issue. While it does describe some interesting technologies, there are no articles about using demand reduction (like changing thermostat settings and dressing properly for them) or retrofitting (sealing, adding insulation, and so forth) to reduce energy consumption in existing buildings, a hot topic, for good reason, in the appropriate technology resources from the 1970s. These are among the most effective changes that most of us can make, yet permaculture designers almost completely ignore them, preferring to discuss cool but un-permitted (in most cities) technologies like rocket mass heaters and building new eco-houses out of cob, straw bales, and the like in the exurbs or rural areas. But it’s almost certainly the case that changing to more energy-conserving habits plus a good energy retrofit of existing housing will end up saving more energy than even the most energy-efficient new construction when the energy embodied in the materials from which the new house is made (even a cob or straw-bale house includes plenty of high-energy industrial materials) are taken into account. While John Wages pays lip service to the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s in his Editor’s Edge column of this issue of PcA, it appears that most permaculture designers have little use for this body of cheap, practical, and tested knowledge on how to live a low-cost, low-energy life.

This brings me to what I think is most problematic in the article by Cetera that I critiqued in part 1 and about the writers in PcA/PcD in general: their employment of the left-wing version of the Rescue Game. As John Michael Greer notes, to play the Rescue Game we must fill three roles: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer. The victim, in Cetera’s case the people in the neighborhood for whom Cetera claimed to create the garden, suffer by being deprived of space and other resources in and by which to grow their traditional foods. (I’m not arguing this isn’t the case; instead, Cetera will use this fact in a way that won’t solve the problem but rather perpetuate it.) The persecutors are the City of Syracuse code enforcement officers, and more generally the city power structure and corporate capitalism, although unsympathetic passersby and those who are unwilling to volunteer to help him in his game also fill the role at times. The rescuer is Cetera himself, though he also considers himself a victim, as when the code cops crack down on his overgrown front yard. The article reads like a classic of the genre as Greer describes it. Cetera’s sympathy for the victim does not flow in the direction of growing or helping them to grow the food and other plants they want in a safe and appropriate location. That would stop the game. Instead, he used his survey as a ruse to get what he wanted all along: a polyculture of his own design in a highly visible location, created with financial and labor help from others rather than paying for it and doing the work himself. It’s no surprise that he didn’t win election to the Syracuse city council: if he had, he’d have to play the role of Persecutor.

While Cetera’s article is a particularly clear example of the left-wing version of the Rescue Game, PcA/PcD writers as a whole are no stranger to the game. It underlies the magazine and the permaculture “movement,” as they like to call it, the way soil underlies my vegetable garden (hence the many years the magazine used the word Activist in its title).

Most of the permaculture designers who write for PcA/PcD are trying to support themselves, in part or in whole, by offering design services to the general public and/or by teaching classes in permaculture design. However, the members of the public who can afford to pay for the services of a permaculture designer are, for the most part, members of the salary class. As a group, they fit into the Persecutor category of the left-wing Rescue Game. If they know of permaculture at all, I suspect they realize they are being cast as Persecutors. Why would they want to pay money to people who clearly don’t like them, even if they do recognize that their high-consumption lifestyle has no future and want to make the kind of changes that permaculture design at its best has to offer? Similarly, the people who can afford to pay for the permaculture design course, and to take off two weeks from work and to travel to and from the course location, are most likely to be salary-class folks rather than the people most permaculture writers claim they want to help the most. The contradiction between designers’ stated ideals and the reality of the situation likely plays a large role in the lack of inroads that permaculture design has made in the culture at large.

That leads to a more subtle point: that permaculture designers of today, in their attempt to market themselves and their knowledge base to the salary class, have to turn themselves into believers in the Religion of Progress, if they aren’t already. This is why they spend more time on talking up things like straw-bale and cob houses than they do about lessening overall energy consumption by simple measures like changing thermostat settings, dressing for using less energy, and caulking and weatherstripping existing housing. This is why Peter Bane, in his otherwise decent article on his household’s energy usage patterns in the Winter 2014-15 issue of PcA, makes the mistake of claiming that a hybrid car would be more energy efficient and a better use of his limited capital than a solar water heater. A hybrid car, after all, is new and technologically cool (even if it’s used) than a solar water heater. A hybrid car looks more like the renewable-energy version of the shiny new future that’s waiting for us if only we can get the powerful on board with it than does a solar hot water heater, with its smell of the miseries of the 1970s energy crisis and the economic contraction that followed. But note that the hybrid car requires ongoing and repeated public spending on energy and materials to keep up a road system for its use, not just one private spending on the car itself (actually, more than one, since the batteries only last a few years). The solar hot water system does have an embedded energy cost (much less than the car, however), but once it’s up and functioning, it costs very little further to use or maintain. This is why permaculture designers ignore the appropriate technology movement for the most part: it challenges a core belief system, the Religion of Progress, held by them and by the people who they want to teach and to purchase their services. And it’s why I think that the decline may not be permacultured: unless permaculture designers get this and work to change it, their principles and practices might not survive the grind of relentless decline.

That doesn’t mean that the design process or melange of techniques that come under the names of permaculture design and practice are useless. If those who promoted them spent most of their time on practicing them and telling us what they learned, rather than trying to get the rest of us to hire them to design our properties or to take courses from them so we can then try to get others to hire us or buy from us, I think we’d know a lot more about what works well and what doesn’t. Those who do practice and write about what they learn, like Chris at Fernglade Farm, have a lot of great stuff to say about what actually does work and what does not. I suggest that the best way to find out what is of value from permaculture design and practice is to try it ourselves, with the help of a few good books and blogs. Besides Jacke’s Edible Forest Gardens, I suggest Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables, Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, and Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook for readers in the eastern U. S. Holmgren’s book has broad applicability and Jacke’s is the best for the design process itself, but readers in arid, subtropical, tropical, and northern climates will want to supplement these with books specific to their climates. But unless you have plenty of time, money, and curiosity and you are comfortable with the left-wing political agenda, or you want to make a partial living from being a permaculture designer or teacher yourself, I suggest steering clear of permaculture design courses. In this field, doing it yourself is the best way to learn and to preserve what works against the pressures of decline.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The decline may not be permacultured, part 1

This post and the next take a critical look at the way that permaculture design is promoted and practiced in the US. While certain techniques presented in the permaculture design course may ease the difficulties of life during an age of decline, I see evidence that those who learn permaculture through the design course rather than on their own may come out of the experience less well prepared for the realities of decline in some respects. I think that people who want to explore the possible applications of permaculture design to the current situation will do better to spend their money on books and and their time on putting ideas they glean from the books into practice as opposed to taking the permaculture design course.

While I have not taken the permaculture design course, for reasons that will be covered in part 2 of my critique, I have read every issue of Permaculture Design and its predecessor magazine Permaculture Activist (PcD/PcA), the magazines published by permaculture teachers in the US for each other and those who have taken the standard 72 hour permaculture design course, for the last 17 years. Thus I am reasonably familiar with the ways that those who teach and take the course understand its uses and promote it to the public and each other. I have also read some of the books published by teachers of permaculture design, such as Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison, Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook, Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, and both volumes of Dave Jacke’s Edible Forest Gardens. I used the first edition of Hemenway’s book to design the property Mike and I live on when we bought it 14 years ago. Since then I’ve modified the design based on observations of the yard combined with insights from Holmgren’s and Bane’s books. I have also learned a lot about the ecology of the eastern broadleaved forest from Jacke’s books. But I find much to critique in the way permaculture design is presented to the public and taught to those who take the design course. Without serious consideration to some of these issues, permaculture designers may find they and their techniques have little relevance to life in decline.

While I’ve been finding PcA/PcD less interesting and less relevant to my own work and life for the past few years, it was one article in particular that crystallized my decision not to renew my subscription, which expires this month, and to write this critique. It exemplifies everything I find wrong with permaculture design as a self-described movement and what that means for the challenges it faces as the long decline continues.

That article appeared in the August 2015 issue of PcD, on page 15. It’s entitled Hellstrip Polycultures. The “hellstrip” of the title refers to the narrow strip of soil between a street on one side and a sidewalk on the other side. In St. Louis these are called tree lawns, because the plants that are most likely to be present on them are a mowed “lawn” (more precisely, a mix of grass and various other plants most people call weeds) and perhaps a tree of some sort.

The author of the article, Frank Raymond Cetera, lives in Syracuse, New York. Based on the author information presented at the end of the article, which states that he is a member of the Northeast Permaculture Design Business Guild among other affiliations, I infer that he has taken the standard 72 hour permaculture design course and intends to earn at least a portion of his living as a permaculture designer. He was running for the Syracuse City Council on the Green Party ticket in 2015 and is active with other left-of-center organizations as well.

In the article, he describes how he (and perhaps others, although that is not made clear) decided in 2012 that it was a good idea to “grow food on the grassy edge between concrete and pavement,” the “hellstrip” of the title. He raised $500 through a micro-grant to fund his project. With the intent of using plants native to the homelands of people living in the neighborhood, and after developing, distributing, and analyzing a survey to decide on those plants, he designed a garden incorporating sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), currant shrubs, a dwarf apple tree, and an herbaceous understory consisting of bunching onions, garlic, oregano, cilantro, and galinsoga for planting in a nearby “hellstrip.” He discusses his experiments in leaving his front yard and “hellstrip” uncut and snipes at the code cops who served him with a code violation as a result, claiming that these and similar code violations friends of his received would not have been served if the properties were located in the university neighborhood. Nor was this his only swipe. The neighbors who expressed misgivings about the design as it progressed into implementation and the people who criticized him and his co-planters for leaving a half-finished project also got called out for not pairing their criticism with offers to volunteer to help with the project. He also noted that “[t]he original idea to plant sunchokes as a replacement tuber for jicama has been changed due to their habit of creating an impenetrable visual screen,” that galinsoga is commonly seen as a weed in upstate New York so “ ... we will have to be diligent in education opportunities ...” and that they had had a five-foot apple tree snapped in half from vandalism and another crushed by a snow plow. Still, he seemed to hardly notice these setbacks, gushing instead about how well the 2015 spring planting work party had been attended by meshing it with a March Against Monsanto Rally and Parade.

To understand what is wrong with this article, from failure to pay attention to the way that city ecologies function to disregard for feedback Cetera received through the course of the project, let’s begin with understanding the ecological role of the “hellstrip” in urban environments (yes, it has one, and that role is better described by the St. Louis term “tree lawn,” which I will use for the rest of the post). Then we’ll be in a better position to understand where Cetera went wrong and, in part 2, why this is relevant to the permaculture movement as a whole.

For those of us who use sidewalks for their intended function of walking from one place to another, the tree lawn serves as a buffer zone between us and the dangers presented by motorized vehicles and their occupants as they pass by us on city streets. This buffer zone not only protects us from being hit by vehicles, but if it is wide enough, it protects us from being drenched by spray from puddles of water and by wet, slushy snow thrown by vehicle tires toward the sidewalk. If you have spent enough time walking on a sidewalk, you have likely encountered at least one driver who deliberately drives past you in such a way as to spray you with water or slush, or who leans out or allows a passenger to lean out to grab your behind or to verbally harass you (all of these have happened to me at some point in my life). For a walker, a sidewalk with a wide tree lawn between it and the street serves as a primary defense against hostile actions like these.

When our walker is ready to cross the street, she needs to have the longest possible view of all the traffic on both sides of the street, so she can gauge the speeds of the vehicles and their distance from her, allowing her to cross when it is safe to do so. She also needs to be able to see what she is walking toward, in order to avoid various other hazards that may confront her as she moves across the street and onto the sidewalk on the other side. Whatever is on the tree lawn, then, needs to allow her the unobstructed view that she needs to complete her trip safely.

Motorists would rather the tree lawns and sidewalks go away entirely and extra traffic lanes be constructed in their place. To walkers, sidewalks are their roadways, and the wider the tree lawns are, the better they separate walkers from potentially dangerous cars and hostile drivers. To the city government which is tasked with their creation, maintenance, and replacement, tree lawns are one of the many compromises between competing needs that are characteristic of representative democracy -- and like the others, they have to be funded out of a budget that has too many demands on it. Thus, while tree lawns are constructed by the city, their plantings are maintained by the resident whose yard lies on the other side of the sidewalk from it. The city government uses its property maintenance code to ensure that the tree lawn plantings allow for unobstructed visibility, protecting drivers and walkers from each other.

With all this in mind, the functions of plantings on the tree lawn are easy to understand. If a tree is planted in the tree lawn, it should be pruned up high enough that tall people can walk under it without leaves or branches touching them and so it provides enough visibility for safety. An ideal tree won’t drop messy fruits that stick to walkers’ footwear or attract stinging insects or stink like gingko fruits. It won’t drop hard, rounded seeds like sweetgum balls or nuts that can act like ball bearings, causing walkers to trip and hurt themselves. Trees which produce copious amounts of pollen are also best avoided, as pollen can get in hair or on clothes and cause much discomfort to passersby who are allergic to it. Often these design constraints lead to tree lawns that are all lawn. The lawns, or multi-species plantings (“weeds”) passing as lawns, should be mowed often so that walkers crossing them can see all potential hazards in all directions and can avoid getting their feet wet from dewy or rain- or snow-moistened grass or get bit by ticks that might be hanging on to a plant stem, waiting to latch onto an unwary walker. Mowing the plants on the tree lawn is also the easiest and least time-consuming way for a resident to maintain a bit of property that doesn’t belong to him but which the city forces him to maintain via property management codes backed up with financial penalties and even jail terms for noncompliance.

Anyone who lives in a city for a reasonable period of time and who walks, drives, or pays taxes has all the experience needed to understand and work within these constraints. It is thus jarring to look at Cetera’s initial design, with its disregard for the functions of the tree lawn and the constraints attending to them. Let’s look at the design more closely to better understand how it fails.

To begin with, as Cetera admits, the border of sunchokes next to the street will form an impenetrable screen during summer and fall. I wonder if Cetera grew sunchokes or studied the information on them closely before including them in his design. Did he not understand their growth habit? If he did, does he not walk or drive and therefore not understand the seriousness of blocking views of walkers and drivers of each other? Nor is this the end of his ignorance about sunchokes. With the apparent exception of one cultivar that sets all of its tubers (the edible portion) underneath the parent plant, it’s impossible to harvest all the tubers each plant produces. Any bit of tuber left in the ground will regenerate itself the next season, rapidly creating a patch too crowded to yield good-sized tubers, and even harder to see through than the previous year. Further, the tubers range well beyond their intended borders, so he’d soon have tubers entangled in the roots of the currants and apple tree included in the design, further decreasing visibility and competing with the tree and shrubs for nutrients. Finally, the tubers don’t taste that good and they cause considerable intestinal bloating and gas discharge, as we have learned from Mike’s and my efforts to incorporate them into our menus. Sunchokes makes no sense in a design for a tree lawn or for a public garden intended to provide a food familiar to nearby residents.

Another problematic plant in the design is the currant shrubs. Like the sunchokes, they will obscure the view that vehicles and pedestrians have of each other. They have some additional disadvantages as well. Birds will find them an excellent perching spot. Anyone who has a fence, trees, or shrubs under their control and is at all observant will notice that the result of birds perching is seedlings of various unintended plants growing underneath the perches. In my yard, these include bush and vining honeysuckles, euonymous, mulberry, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy. The vines and the mulberry root deep and are difficult to remove should they become established, and the poison ivy causes rashes to those unfortunate enough to come in contact with it. Furthermore, currants aren’t great for raw eating, and there may not be many people who want to take the time to process them into jelly or jam. If Cetera meant to include a shrub in the design that makes tasty fruit that is familiar to most people and can be eaten raw or processed in various ways, a blueberry would have been a more sensible choice, though it would also accumulate unintended seedlings under it.

Then there is the galinsoga which Cetera includes as a component of the understory. As Cetera mentions, it’s considered a weed by most people, including the horticultural industry in Missouri. I understand that many folks in Cetera’s neighborhood consider galinsoga part of their cuisine and his inclusion of it in the design shows respect for them. But still, why go out of your way to include a plant in a quasi-public place that many people know best as a weed and attempt to eradicate when it shows up uninvited in their yards? The comment about needing to educate the people who call it a weed hides behind it a contempt toward those folks and their actions that will do little to make Cetera welcome in the power circles of city government that he was attempting to join.

Beyond the plant choice issues lie other questions. Who has responsibility for maintaining the planting to remove bird-sown and other weedy seedlings, keep the sunchokes or their replacement (the author says he will try oca as a replacement tuber) controlled, and sort out any other issues that the various plants may have with each other or that they may present to people who are affected by them? Who has responsibility to water the planting when there is insufficient rain? Who has the right to harvest from the planting, and when can they do so? What happens if disputes arise around these issues - who should those disputes be brought to, and how are they to be handled? Who ensures that the plantings are defended against vandals? What happens should the plantings be damaged by a snowplow or by other sorts of accidents? If the plantings need to be removed or changed for various reasons, who makes those decisions and who will fund and do the work? The impression I have from the article is that none of these questions were considered prior to the design and initial installation of a portion of the planting, and he doesn’t discuss any of them concerning the redesign and further planting in the spring of 2015.

Regarding the code violations being directed against him and his friends, my own experience of living in low-income areas since 1989 indicates that he and his friends were able to keep their lawns uncut for longer than anyone would who lives in a wealthy area. This is best appreciated by traveling through different parts of town on the same day during the growing season. Whenever I do this, I am always struck by the fact that I see no lawns that have gone more than a week without being cut in the wealthier parts of the greater St. Louis area, versus, for instance, my own street, where at least one homeowner had not cut the lawn for several weeks until the code cops came through for the first time this season. No wealthy person would tolerate an uncut lawn on their street - it’s an indicator of poverty - and the code cops will not hesitate to enforce any such complaints made. In a poor area, on the other hand, there are too many uncut lawns and other code issues to allow for the rapid responses that are characteristic of wealthy areas. There are legitimate reasons to gripe about differences in the way governments treat residents in poorer versus wealthier areas, but this isn’t one of them.

Beyond the particular problems I have noted with this article, it illustrates in microcosm many deeper issues within the permaculture movement as I see it reflected in the pages of PcD. In Part 2, I’ll take a look at those and what they suggest about the permaculture movement’s probability of survival within the constraints of decline.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Presentation on Growing Organic Vegetables in Summer and Fall

Just a quick note: I am giving a presentation on Growing Organic Vegetables in Summer and Fall on June 1, for anyone interested in attending. Here's the link:


Mike's and my yard will be on the 2016 Sustainable Back Yard Tour on June 12. Here's the link for that event:


If you go to either event, introduce yourself to me!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Finding soil amendments in bulk quantities

After reading my last post, a reader commented about not being able to find bulk quantities of soil amendments locally and asked if I had any insights to offer on locating them. Shipping of 50 pound bags of amendments gets costly very quickly as distance from the shipping location increases. At the time I could offer very little help. Since then I have learned where folks in the greater St. Louis, MO area can find at least one of the desired soil amendments in 50 pound bags. While that may not help the rest of you much, the sort of place I found it at may suggest where and how to look for them in your area.

I found that O. K. Hatchery and Nursery (115 E. Argonne Dr., Kirkwood, MO, 63122, 314-822-0083) carries 50 pound bags of cottonseed meal, the oilseed meal that I prefer. Oilseed meal provides food for the soil microherd, whose excreta provides nitrogen in a form that the garden plants can use. What makes cottonseed meal preferable to soybean meal is that the soybean meal is lumpy, requiring me to grind it prior to applying it so I can obtain a reasonably even coating. Cottonseed meal, on the other hand, comes to me already evenly ground, eliminating the grinding step. O. K. Hatchery’s 50 pound bag of cottonseed meal cost under $25 to boot! I didn’t ask if they carried Calphos (soft rock phosphate) when I was there, as I had already purchased a 50 pound bag that will last well into 2017 if not beyond. But I will check there first when I need it or any other soil amendments in bulk.

You may be wondering why I didn’t include a hyperlink to the business. It’s because they don’t appear to have a website, according to the Internet search that I did. That fact bears noting. O. K. Hatchery is a long-standing local business which appears to spend what money it has on inventory rather than on a fancy building or frills like websites. These days, we tend to think that if it’s not on the Internet, it doesn’t exist. But this case proves the folly of that thinking. I knew to go there only because I’d seen the place at other times I’d been in downtown Kirkwood and because we had business at another store in Kirkwood on that day.

To find a similar store in your area, you may have to do some old-fashioned, pre-Internet store sleuthing. O. K. Hatchery is listed in our phone book, and its online version, under Garden Centers. That’s your first clue. For your second clue, think about what garden centers in your area also cater to folks who have poultry and some money. Where I live, the garden center that sells bulk feeds doesn’t carry organic chicken feed or much in the way of even small bags of organic amendments. Kirkwood is centrally located and well-off economically. O. K. Hatchery caters to backyard poultry raisers and offers organic chicken feed as well as conventional feed. I suspect that the same folks who buy organic chicken feed want to maintain their large (and expensive) properties using organic methods. Hence the availability of the bulk cottonseed meal. No, the cottonseed meal itself isn’t organically grown, but it is still considered to be an organic amendment compared to the salts that you’ll find in a conventional fertilizer bag.

If that doesn’t help, I know of a few online places to buy bulk soil amendments. If you aren’t too far away from one of them, you may get by with shipping costs you find acceptable. They are Fedco’s Organic Growers Supply division, Garden Harvest Supply, Black Lake Organic, and GrowOrganic.com. Good luck with your search!

Friday, March 4, 2016

Perennial plants and a promise produce a new project

The first daffodils of spring

I had mentioned in my post on the 2015 garden results that I planned to discuss the soil test results that I’ve obtained and what they suggest about the possibility of further reductions in the use of soil amendments. But a sharp-eyed reader noticed I’d left it out of my post on the 2016 garden plans and let me know about it. So I went back to organize the soil test results for this blog post and in the process I learned something unexpected. Now I’ll share that with all of you and how it will affect my garden plans for 2016 and beyond.

Let’s look first at the soil test results for the 15 beds in the 2013-2015 vegetable gardens and how they changed over the years. Table 1, below, shows the values for total cation exchange capacity (TCEC) in milliequivalents, the pH, and soil organic matter percentage as determined for that sample by Logan Labs. For the spring 2013 and fall 2013 testing I used the acid soil spreadsheet in Steve Solomon’s book The Intelligent Gardener to convert the results Logan Labs reported for each nutrient into pounds per acre of that nutrient. I then determined the deficit or excess for each nutrient from the instructions in Solomon’s book and report the deficit in the table below. The amendment mix is formulated to counteract the deficit in each nutrient. Nutrients in excess are so noted; the soil provides enough of these so none is added. In a few cases the amount present and the amount needed are equal within error; in that case I left the space blank. For the fall 2014 and the fall 2015 testing I used Solomon’s modified acid soil spreadsheet available from this site to determine the amount of the nutrient and its deficiency or excess.

First, let’s consider trends in TCEC with time and what that suggests about how the soil responds to annual vegetable gardening and re-mineralization, following Solomon’s discussion. The TCEC tells us the storage capacity for cationic (positively charged) nutrients in the soil. The cationic nutrients are Ca, Mg, K, Na, Fe, Mn, Cu, and Zn. Solomon tells us that these nutrients can be stored on both the clay and the humus (fully stabilized organic matter) in the soil and likens the TCEC to a kitchen pantry. If your kitchen has a small pantry, you can’t store a lot of food, so you need to buy small amounts of food pretty often if you want to keep eating. On the other hand, if your kitchen has a large pantry, you can shop once, bring home a huge amount of food, put it in the pantry, and eat for weeks without having to go back to the store. In the case of TCEC, if it’s less than 10, the soil can’t store enough of the cationic nutrients for the entire growing season. In this case the gardener applies the full deficit or close to it at the beginning of the growing season, then adds about that much more after about two months for those crops that stay in the ground longer than that. If, on the other hand, the TCEC is 10 or more, there is enough clay and/or humus to hold onto the cationic nutrients all season long, so the gardener adds enough to erase the deficit at the beginning of the growing season and then doesn’t have to again.

Looking at Table 1, we can see that the TCEC starts out around 7, jumps to 9 in fall 2014, and then falls back to about 7 again in fall 2015. Since some of the storage is humus, part of the soil organic matter, we look at that line and see that it is somewhat lower in fall 2015 versus previous years. The extended period of warm, wet weather in 2015 may have burned off more organic matter than usual. I also grew a lot more food in 2015 than any previous year, which converts some of the organic matter into food and may account for some of the reduction. Solomon suggests that 4% organic matter is a reasonable target for Missouri soils given our hot, humid summers. I don’t have that much in the vegetable beds after the last two seasons, so I will increase the amount of compost I add to each 100 square foot bed from three 5 gallon buckets to four 5 gallon buckets in 2016. My hypothesis is that all else being about the same, adding more compost might raise the organic matter percentage to closer to 4% for the fall 2016 vegetable garden soil sample.

Regarding clay, I know from soil surveys that the topsoil at my location is a silt loam with little clay in it. I’d have to add clay to up the clay percentage, which should increase the TCEC and thus the size of the soil’s pantry. The soil survey says there is a layer of silty clay loam soil from 14 to 22 inches below the soil surface that doesn’t have any iron (Fe) or manganese (Mn) concretions in it. Solomon suggests “mining” for clay in the subsoil for those of us who could use more of it in the topsoil and adding the clayey subsoil into our compost piles. Since the silty clay loam layer is within reach of a post hole digger, I might give that a try this season.

Some of the nutrients are found in the soil in anionic (negatively charged) forms. These are sulfur (S), phosphorus (P), and boron (B) [also nitrogen (N), but Logan Labs doesn’t test for it so it isn’t in the table]. Clay can’t hold onto these elements; only humus can. Some of the organic matter is stable humus but some of it is not that far along yet, so it isn’t an easy thing to correlate organic matter to the size of the soil’s pantry for these nutrients. If I could increase the proportion of humus in the organic matter, it should increase the size of the pantry. It so happens that something called Menefee humates is available through Fedco. I added a small amount, about a half pound to each 100 square foot bed, in 2014. That might be one reason for the increase in TCEC in the fall 2014 results, since the humates also attract the cationic nutrients and thus increase the TCEC. I don’t know why I didn’t add them in 2015, but I will add them again this year. I hypothesize that doing so will increase the TCEC in the fall 2016 vegetable garden soil sample compared to the fall 2015 sample.

The pH is a measure of how acid or basic (alkaline) the soil is. Most vegetables grow best if the pH is 6 to 7, or slightly acidic to neutral (potatoes are supposed to prefer it a little more acid, however). It looks like the pH is good across time according to the results in Table 1.

Now let’s look at the nutrients. The table reports how much of each nutrient should be added to reach Solomon’s ideal level for acid soil, in pounds per acre (I convert that value to pounds or ounces per 100 square feet according to directions on Solomon’s spreadsheet to formulate the amendment mix to add to each bed). If, as Solomon suggests, over time the soil begins to balance itself, the deficits should decrease for at least some of the nutrients as I continue the re-mineralization program. For S, Ca, Cu, and Zn this has proven to be the case. Mg is only slightly in excess now, compared to in spring of 2013; as I’ve noted elsewhere, this has helped with soil texture. K now needs to be added each year, but Solomon thinks it best for the garden to be slightly low in K compared to other nutrients, to maximize the amount of protein and vitamins in the crops. He no longer suggests adding Na unless there is a serious deficiency, which my soil does not have. P is a major nutrient and the soft rock phosphate I use releases it slowly, so I will probably need to keep adding this for some time. Thus, in 2016 I’m adding to the vegetable beds a mix of soft rock phosphate (for P), potassium sulfate (for K), a bit of manganese sulfate (for Mn, to bring the Fe:Mn ratio into better balance) and borax (for B). I’ll also add soybean meal (for nitrogen; when the soil critters eat it, they excrete a form of nitrogen that the plants can use), kelpmeal (for trace elements that the soil test doesn’t cover), and the Menefee humates mentioned above.

So far it’s the same story as last year. But I have some new information this spring, because last fall I took soil samples from the beds planted to strawberries, asparagus, and raspberries, as well as a soil sample from a friend’s garden so he can improve his garden this year. I also take a control sample from the mowed lawn next to the vegetable beds every time I collect soil samples from my garden. For Table 2, below, I report the results for TCEC, pH, and organic matter from Logan Labs and the deficits for each nutrient, obtained by calculation from Logan Labs’ report and using Solomon’s modified acid soil spreadsheet, for the soil samples taken from each of these areas.

When I looked at the data in Table 2, what stood out was the TCEC. The soil sample from my yard had a TCEC of near 7, indicative of light soil, as did the sample from the vegetable beds nearby. The sample from Joe’s garden has a higher TCEC of about 11, which I expected because his soil has some obvious clay in it and he has a much higher organic matter percentage because he tilled leaves into his soil last year. What I didn’t expect to see was that the TCEC of my strawberry, asparagus, and raspberry beds was also about 11. And it’s not that they are in another part of the yard with different soil. These beds are next to vegetable beds, separated from them by only a one foot wide path. Remember that higher TCEC means a bigger pantry for the positively-charged nutrients. These beds have it without adding any clay to the soil. Since they have no extra clay added, the higher TCEC seems to be attributable to increased humus, which would mean the soil holds more of all the nutrients! This is what I’d like to see happen in the vegetable beds, for it would mean no need to add more amendments later in the season. Eventually, as I’ll discuss below, it may mean I can reduce the amendments I add by a considerable amount, maybe to nothing some years. So why does it happen in these beds, yet not in the vegetable beds next to them? Is there a way to make it happen in the vegetable beds?

After thinking about it for awhile, I wondered if the higher TCEC has to do with the strawberries, asparagus, and raspberries all being perennial plants with good-sized root systems and with the beds containing other perennial plants as well (some deliberately planted, some weeds). While I remove the dead tops of the asparagus and the taller weeds in all the beds in spring, I leave any litter, such as autumn leaves and short dead plants, on the soil to accumulate slowly as surface organic matter, similar to what happens in undisturbed systems with perennial plants. Over the growing season, the bottom of the surface litter slowly composts into the topsoil, while roots grow, reach maturity, and die to be replaced by new roots, increasing organic matter farther down in the topsoil and perhaps the subsoil. It might be that these processes create a higher percentage of humus in the soil organic matter as well as more organic matter of any kind. Supporting that possibility, the organic matter percentage for these three beds is 4% or so, compared 3% for the vegetable garden. The lawn, on the other hand, doesn’t collect much leaf litter, nor do the short grasses and their short roots provide much in the way of plant material to decay on the surface of and within the topsoil. In the vegetable beds, I pull out the plants and weeds and compost them, most of the leaves blow off those beds and onto the beds with the standing stalks, and only a few perennial or winter annual weeds have live roots after the growing season ends. I suspect that treated this way, neither the vegetable beds nor the lawn can generate much organic matter that can decompose into humus, leading to lower TCEC and lower organic matter percentage than the beds with perennial plantings.

With this information in hand, we can speculate on how to create conditions that might lead to higher organic matter levels and TCEC in the vegetable beds. Cover-cropping is a well-known way to increase organic matter levels in gardening and farming. Beds not currently being used to grow crops are sown to an appropriate cover crop for the conditions prevailing while they grow and are then cut down and incorporated into the soil before the next crop is sown. I have been collecting information on cover-cropping and have tried crimson clover and winter rye as cover crops, but instead of incorporating them into the soil I have removed and composted them. It looks like I’d do better to dig them into the soil before planting the beds to the intended crops. I do now dig in any short weeds, but this seems not to be sufficient to bring up the organic matter percentage. As I mentioned above, adding more compost to each bed might also help. The target level I used comes from places with somewhat cooler summers than mine. It might need to be increased for my conditions.

The higher TCEC of the beds planted to perennial crops suggests that Solomon’s idea of moving vegetable beds to a new area each year that had been previously sown to perennial grasses, and my version of rotating vegetable beds with beds sown to a pollinator pasture of a mix of annual and perennial flowering plants, might be another way to increase the TCEC gradually over time. It won’t matter if the pollinator pastures are somewhat weedy, as long as there are enough flowering plants blooming over the course of the growing season to attract and keep pollinators in the area. I’ll manage them the same way I do the perennial crops: remove and compost the spent stalks in early spring and remove any woody seedlings throughout the year as I notice them. Since these beds will become vegetable beds again in a few years, I’ll re-mineralize them before I sow the pollinator seed mix. Each fall, I’ll take soil samples from the pollinator pasture beds, either as a unit or separately if they look different enough to warrant that, at the same time that I take the soil sample from the vegetable beds. I hypothesize that over time, the TCEC of the pollinator pasture beds will increase relative to the vegetable beds. If so, when I return these beds to vegetable production, for at least the first season they should not need a second dose of any soil amendment. Since I will be sampling the pollinator beds for nutrients every year, I will be able to see how the nutrient levels trend with time. That will let me know if it might be possible to further reduce the addition of nutrients to vegetable beds by rotating them out of production and into a pollinator pasture with lots of perennial plants for a few years. If I add some deep-rooted nutrient accumulating plants like comfrey to the pollinator pasture, that might help to bring nutrients up from the subsoil, also reducing the need to add nutrients for optimum vegetable production when the beds are returned to that use.

Regarding the nutrients, I have also reported them in Table 2. Joe’s garden has a similar pattern of nutrient deficiencies to my own in spring 2013, except that calcium is even lower than it was in my garden. He’ll need to add a lot of calcium but very little magnesium this year, so he will be adding oyster-shell calcium (aragonite). The gypsum he’s adding should help to increase the calcium:magnesium ratio as well as add the sulfur he needs. Although his garden is deficit in manganese, Solomon says not to add it until the pH comes up. By next year, with this year’s dose of calcium, the pH should increase enough to add some manganese, and he should be adding less of most nutrients, maybe none of some of them. He should get the same or higher yields of better tasting vegetables this year.

In the case of the strawberry, raspberry, and asparagus beds, I did not do soil testing before planting them or since then until fall 2015. While I added some nutrients the first season each bed was planted, I have not added any since, and I did not know how to balance the nutrients when I did add them. Thus I can’t draw any conclusions from the nutrient levels reported in the table. Because each bed will be planted to vegetables this year, I will re-mineralize each of those beds based on the deficiencies reported for it. I may test them separately one more year before I return to lumping them in with the rest of the vegetable beds for soil testing. As for the beds to which the strawberry and raspberry plants will be re-located, I’ll take separate soil samples from them and monitor how the nutrient levels and the yields change with time.

So it looks like I have a new project to keep me busy for the next few years and to share the results with all of you. Many thanks to Chris of Fernglade Farm for reminding me that I had promised to report on the results of soil testing! If it hadn’t been for that, I would not have taken a closer look at all of the soil test results I have collected over the years, thus failing to take advantage of this opportunity to learn more about how keeping part of the garden in a pollinator pasture with lots of perennial flowers could help both the pollinators and the vegetables that later rotate into those beds. Serendipity strikes again!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The 2016 garden: a year of transition

Snow crocuses announcing the impending end to winter

The last few weeks have been a flurry of seed ordering, fine-tuning of the garden design I began to develop in early winter, working out the 2016 planting calendar, and starting seeds that don’t need heat to germinate. Now it’s time to share with you my plans for the 2016 garden.

The garden has told me the answer to the major question I have asked it in the past three years: soil re-mineralization, done correctly and with sufficient organic nitrogen in the form of oilseed meal, has resulted in a noticeable increase in yield, measured in pounds of food obtained per unit area, versus the way I had gardened from 1999 through 2012. It also told me that the re-mineralization program reduced pest and disease pressure (except for squash bugs ... nothing seems to stop them) and improved the taste of some vegetables as well. It also told me that planting according to Steve Solomon’s semi-intensive spacings leads to no worse yields than the closer spacings of the HTGMV approach, that Solomon’s spacings make it easier to plant and maintain the garden, and that timely weeding is more important to high yields than I had realized. Finally, it demonstrated that ecological insights can be applied to vegetable gardening to explain why Solomon’s approach has worked better for me than the HTGMV approach.

Re-visiting the larger question that I have been trying to answer since 1999 - is it possible to grow all of one adult’s food in about 1,000 square feet in a sustainable way? - I conclude that the answer is no, that it will require much more space than that, at least in this climate. I plan to post on why that is later on. But in the meantime, that leaves me with how to proceed in the garden in 2016.

Over the past year, I’ve begun to realize that I want to go in some different directions than the current yard design allows. Through Xerces Society’s book and through blog posts I have learned a little about pollinators and their difficulties. Now I want to do my part to help them by establishing more flowers over the yard as a whole. It doesn’t hurt that since Mike’s pensions and Social Security have kicked in, we have enough extra money over expenses that I can put some of it toward buying more of the tricky-to-start-from-seed prairie, savanna, and woodland plants that will provide more blooms for the pollinators for more of the growing season and help to increase the population of the plants as well. And besides that, I love flowers and want to have more of them around to feed my soul as well as the land and its other inhabitants.

This will happen in stages over the next few years. For this year, I have re-worked the vegetable garden design, from 15 beds of vegetables and grains down to 10 beds (each bed is 100 square feet in area). As I mentioned in the previous post, I harvested more than we could eat of some crops last year. With that knowledge, I was able to re-design the bed layout to avoid excesses, reducing the total area I need to devote to vegetables and grains. I also realized I could plant the sweet potatoes into the bed that I harvest the potato onions from in early June, since that’s about when the slips arrive, while planting the squash around the edges of the beds planted to corn. We still have squash and sweet potatoes in storage, so these along with grains and oilseeds could be our mainstay garden crops from late winter, when the radishes and turnips are gone, through June. But we don’t eat enough squash to devote a whole bed to it.

I have eight other beds within the currently fenced-off food garden area. Of these, one is already planted to strawberries, but the current plants were put in before I practiced soil re-mineralization. In 2016 I’ll re-locate some of the strawberry plants to a re-mineralized bed, then re-mineralize the former strawberry bed and plant it to black-eyed peas. Another bed is planted to asparagus, but that turns out to be much more asparagus than we eat. That bed will be re-mineralized and planted to potatoes.  A third bed is a not-well-thought-out mix of raspberries, rhubarb, and some pollinator-attracting perennial flowers. The flowers will be moved elsewhere in the yard and the raspberries will be moved into their own, re-mineralized bed. Unless I find some place to park a few rhubarb plants, they will go. Neither Mike nor I care for it. I might also try to relocate a few asparagus plants elsewhere in the yard, but no more than three. I like it but Mike doesn’t.

That will leave six beds in the food garden area to plant for the use of pollinators. Pollinator seed mixes are a popular item in the 2016 seed catalogs. After mulling over the various offerings, I chose Johnny’s Bee Feed Mix. It was available in a large enough size to plant more than the 600 square feet I’ll plant to it this year, it was priced fairly for the size, and it has 19 different species including six perennial species that I have elsewhere in the yard and know how attractive they are to pollinators. There are several annual species included as well. My beds aren’t weed-free as is recommended, but I can do some weeding before I sow the mix. And if some weeds show up, not a big deal, as long as I remove the weedy woodies each spring.

The mix of pollinators and food crops is meant for more than just feeding pollinators. I am also interested in learning if at some time in the future I might be able to further reduce or even eliminate the use of soil amendments other than my own compost. While last year’s results show that a few fully-mineralized and properly tended beds can generate far more food than I realized, the amendments come from someplace else. Peak nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium aren’t that far off. Over the long run, I like Steve Solomon’s idea from The Intelligent Gardener (linked to above) of a one-acre plot divided into eighths, with one of the eighths planted to fruit and nut trees and some herbs, and perhaps also housing small livestock like rabbits or chickens. The vegetable garden would be located on another eighth and rotated in turn through each of the remaining eighths. Each of the rested plots would be re-mineralized once before it’s planted to a mix of grasses and pollinator-attracting flowers. Perhaps something like this, with the plots rested most of the time, would preserve the minerals and organic matter enough so that the vegetable plot would do well with compost only. Even though we have an acre lot, most of it is already planted to trees, so I can’t do the full version. But I can start with the six beds planted to the pollinator mix for a few years before I rotate food plants back onto them and rest some of the beds that now produce foods. In the meantime, I could remove the few small trees just north of the food garden and begin to mow that area during the growing season. Some of it is in lawn grass now. The rest is what came up in the former owner’s vegetable garden after we stopped mowing it and I tried seeding it to a prairie mix. For the most part the prairie mix didn’t take. What is growing there now are the goldenrod and aster species typical of former fields, along with weedy woody seedlings, grapevines, and poison ivy. If I remove the weedy seedlings and vines and start mowing the area, that will over time reduce the dominance of goldenrod and aster and starve the vines’ root systems, allowing me to lay out beds and plant them to cover crops over the next few years. Eventually I should be able to bring that area into the food garden rotation. Even if I can only rest each bed half of the years instead of six-sevenths of them as Solomon proposes, it’ll be better than nothing, and it’ll get more pollinators into the yard.

Another change I’m planning for this year is removing the fencing around most of the currently fenced food-growing area. I’d hoped it would keep out rabbits, but it has failed to do so. It is very effective at keeping me from mowing right up to the edge of the food beds and it provides a place for weedy vines and trees to take hold and grow. The fencing will go to the recycler while the posts will be re-used to mark out the corners of the food beds.

This year I will try growing a dent corn developed in Ohio. Carol Deppe got me excited about her flint corn, but it didn’t seem to perform that well for me, nor has the flour corn I’ve tried in the past. It’s time to try a dent corn, the overwhelming favorite in the Midwest. I also plan to try a bush version of butternut squash that is supposed to be as good or better tasting than ‘Waltham’ and try once again the oilseed pumpkin ‘Kakai’. I’m trialing two pink main-crop tomatoes against the so far invincible ‘Arkansas Traveler’, new-to-me varieties of lettuce, storage cabbage, and collards, and I will try orach, a cool-weather green, for the first time this year.

In later posts I’ll explore other changes I want to make in the yard over the next few years. I have a number of other post topics in mind as well. I know I’m not the best for responding in a timely way to comments, nor have I done as well as I’d like in keeping a regular posting schedule. But a new growing season is about to begin. May it bring on better posting habits!