Saturday, December 28, 2019

An Opinionated Person’s Guide to Growing Fruits and Nuts, Part 3

In this post I discuss the fruit and nut trees that took longer than 10 years to bear well but have proven worth the wait. If you have access to some land on which you can plant trees and you expect, or at least hope, to have that access for at least 10 years, consider planting these trees. As in the first two posts, I’ll tell you how they grow for me so you can decide if you want to grow them. I may be able to offer a more realistic expectation for you based on my experience than a nursery catalog can.

If you don’t have land on which you can plant trees, you might consider searching for trees from which you can harvest. In much of the eastern and midwestern US you can find pawpaw and persimmon trees growing wild. You’ll need to determine if you have the legal right to harvest before you get all excited about free fruit. If the trees are on public land, please make sure to check the regulations for that land to determine if harvesting is legal before you harvest! And if they are on private land, be sure to receive permission from the landowner before harvesting.

Semi-dwarf apples

The neighborhood squirrels permit us to eat some of the apples from one of the semi-dwarf apple trees that I planted. Maybe they think they are being generous in allowing us to eat any of the fruit. Or maybe the fruits they leave for us are their least favorite. Or maybe they forget to eat the rest of the apples once the acorns are ready. Whatever the reason, at least we do get to eat some apples.

The variety that the squirrels share with us is ‘Enterprise’. It bears a crisp apple with a red color over a green background and has a well-balanced flavor; we eat them raw, though I expect they would be good in cooking as well. The apples begin to ripen sometime in September here and I can pick them for about a month. I use an extendible rod with a fruit basket on the end of it to pick the apples. In 2019 I picked about 34 pounds of apples out of this 15ish year old tree.

Squirrels always eat all the apples from our ‘Ashmead’s Kernel’ tree well before they ripen. It ought to be named ‘Squirrel Selected’. ‘Eddie April’ hasn’t borne enough apples to tell how the squirrels feel about it yet.

I’ve found apples to be the most productive of the well-known fruit trees under my conditions. This does not mean, however, that they are without their share of pests, large and small.

If you have squirrels (and if you have acorn- or nut-bearing trees within a few hundred feet of you, you have squirrels) expect them to get a share of your apple harvest. The one thing I think might stop a squirrel is a hundred feet or more of lawn or similar tree-free space between the apple tree and any oak or nut tree. Squirrels may be disinclined to travel across such a long stretch of open area where their predators can easily spot them. Otherwise, you’ll just have to accept their feeding.

Of the small pests, I haven’t had trouble with any of the worms that are reputed to attack apples. However, most of the apples do have some rot around the stem and/or blossom ends by the time I harvest them. Because I don’t spray the trees, most of the apples display fly speck and other disfigurements of the skin. Some of them also have small holes in the outside of the flesh that appear to be the work of insects such as wasps or yellow jackets that feed on the outside of the fruit. We aren’t deterred by skin imperfections, and we’ve found that we can cut out the rotted areas and holes and enjoy the fine flavor of the remainder of the apple. If you want to eat the apples your trees produce without going to the trouble of spraying them, I suggest developing a similar attitude.


This tree, whose scientific name is Asimina triloba and is native to much of the eastern and midwestern US, is IMHO underappreciated. Only since about 1980 has much breeding work been done on the pawpaw, with a number of new grafted varieties having been introduced in the past few years. If you are a fan of pawpaws, or if you are considering planting them, I highly recommend the book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore. It's an enjoyable read and you’ll learn about the natural and cultural history of the pawpaw and the breeding work that has gone into “improving” it.

Why do I put “improving” in quotes? Because I’ve planted at least three different grafted pawpaw trees since the early 1990s, none of which survived for more than two or three years. However, trees grown from seeds have done well for me. Maybe the newer grafted varieties survive better than the ones I tried to grow. Possibly their fruits taste better. I’ve never tasted a pawpaw from one of the grafted varieties so I can’t speak to their flavor. I can tell you that the pawpaws from our trees taste very good to us. Be warned, however, that some people dislike the taste of pawpaws. If you haven’t tried a pawpaw before, I recommend tasting some fruits before you decide to grow them. Moore gives you hints on finding wild trees to harvest from and discusses pawpaw festivals and other ways of obtaining a taste of the grafted varieties.

Pawpaws are among the easiest fruit trees to bring to a successful harvest, at least if you are growing them where they are native. Squirrels leave pawpaws alone and I have yet to encounter any insect pests, though Moore mentions some insect pests of pawpaws grown in orchards. I did have a tree rot where the trunk met the soil, but I’ve not noticed any other disease issues. The trees need only a light winter pruning to stay in good shape and they are taller than wide, with a single trunk; being about 30 feet tall at maturity, they can fit easily into a small yard. Because they are understory trees they will grow and fruit in shady conditions, though they will produce more fruit if grown in sun. They flower late enough to avoid frosts so they crop every year. Note, however, that the trees sucker once they are several years old, creating an expanding patch of genetically alike pawpaws. You’ll need to buy at least two genetically distinct trees for cross-pollination and you’ll probably want to thin out the suckers so as not to crowd the original trees and to make it easier to harvest the pawpaws.

I harvest the fruit when it drops off the tree onto the ground, usually in September to early October. If a fruit isn’t quite ripe, I leave it on a shelf for a day or so until the skin yellows and the fruit softens. They have a cloyingly sweet scent when ripe. We eat them raw, fresh or thawed after freezing them (they freeze well with no blanching required). Moore recommends using the pulp to make pawpaw ice cream and provides a recipe, while some folks like to use the pulp in place of bananas in a banana bread recipe. Be warned: do not eat the seeds or skins! Fortunately the seeds are very large and therefore easy to avoid eating. We cut the fruits in half along the short dimension and dig the flesh out from the skins with a spoon, spitting out any seeds as we eat each bite. I harvested about 29 pounds of pawpaws in 2019, with three of our younger trees producing fruits for the first time this year and with five trees yet to reach bearing age. Yes, we like pawpaws.


The American persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, is another underappreciated fruit tree native to the Midwest US. While pawpaws prefer moist soils and shadier locations, persimmons grow farther upslope, in drier soils and in more sun. They grow taller than pawpaws, up to about 60 feet, and they have broader crowns. Most persimmon varieties require cross-pollination but some are self-fertile. Persimmons will produce suckers and spread from seed, forming patches; as with pawpaws, you’ll need to thin these. And like pawpaws, they need only a light winter pruning.

While squirrels will eat persimmons, they don’t seem to favor them. Between that and their blooming late enough to avoid frosts, persimmons, like pawpaws, provide me with good yields of fruit. In 2019 I harvested 11 pounds of persimmons from just two trees, with younger trees in another part of the yard that should bear within the next five years or so. I haven’t noticed any issues with insects or diseases.

Even fewer named varieties of American persimmons than pawpaws are available from nurseries, though this is slowly changing. I have one named persimmon variety, ‘Early Golden’, but I don’t notice any difference in the flavor between it and the wild persimmons that I’ve tasted.

American persimmons must be dead ripe to be delicious; otherwise they will make the inside of your mouth feel as if it is covered with dry fur. I find that the best way to harvest ripe persimmons is to wait till they fall on the ground, then check that the cap pulls off the rest of the fruit easily; those fruits whose cap pulls off easily are ripe. Persimmons that are still stuck to a twig when they fall are unripe. Don’t eat the seeds of persimmons, but you can eat the skins, and a good thing too, because persimmons are small fruits, about the size of apricots. Imagine trying to skin a fruit that size, and you’ll appreciate that you won’t have to. We eat persimmons raw; many people like to separate the seeds from the pulp and use the pulp in place of bananas in a banana bread recipe. Persimmons freeze even better than pawpaws, with no blanching required. I can’t tell any difference in looks, taste, or texture between fresh and thawed persimmons. This means that we refrigerate the apples and eat them in autumn, while we freeze most of the persimmons and pawpaws and eat them during the winter.


If it weren’t for chestnuts and black walnuts, we wouldn’t get to eat any nuts at all. And the only reason we get to eat them is that we can get past their defenses while squirrels cannot. I won’t mention black walnuts other than this, because I find them enough trouble to not bother with harvesting more than a few of them. But chestnuts are another matter. We have 15 pounds of chestnuts waiting for processing in the freezer.

Unless you have a very large lot, you’ll have to forego growing chestnuts. They are among the tallest of the eastern forest trees, up to 100 feet or more tall, and you’ll need at least two of them for pollination. They are quite stately trees with beautiful smooth grayish bark.

You may already know that one of the worst ecological disasters in the last century or so of US history was the devastation caused by chestnut blight, which was accidentally introduced from Asia in the early 1900s. While the chestnut species in Asia can tolerate the blight, it rapidly killed most of the American chestnut trees, a keystone species for humans as well as the rest of the denizens of the eastern US forests. Besides the food value of the nuts (unlike most nuts, they have a high carbohydrate content so they can be used similarly to grains), the rot-resistant wood was used for fenceposts and to side buildings and for furniture. Fortunately one American chestnut tree happened to survive the blight, whose story you can read about here. From this one tree comes the Dunstan chestnut, of which I have three seedlings. A decade and a half after planting, all three are thriving. They have produced nuts for the past several years.

Chestnuts survive squirrel predation (and predation by almost everything else) because a very spiny case encloses the nut. And when I say spiny, I mean spiny. I have seen a few brave (and probably very hungry) squirrels with bleeding mouths harvesting chestnuts, but I think they only do this when there are no easier foods to eat. When you harvest chestnuts, wear sturdy shoes that will protect your feet from the spiny cases.

Sometimes the spiny case opens while the nut is still on the tree, releasing the nut to fall on the ground. The squirrels will probably find those nuts before you do, unless you get lucky. You’ll be using your feet to open the cases of nuts that fell off the tree still enclosed in the case, so your hands won’t get stuck by the spines. I do this by using my feet to roll the case till I can position the seam in the case between my feet. Then I place a foot on either side of the seam and push with both feet to the side, to force open the case at the seam. Once it’s open wide enough, I pick out the nuts with my fingers. I freeze the nuts so they won’t mold before I have a chance to use them. You can find information on using chestnuts here.

And thus ends my opinionated guide to growing fruits and nuts. When next we meet, I’ll have the 2019 garden results to discuss. In the meantime, a happy 2020 to all of you!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

An Opinionated Person’s Guide to Growing Fruit and Nuts, Part 2

As I mentioned in Part 1, I am writing this series to describe my real-life experiences in growing various fruits and nuts. I won’t be showing you pictures of flawless fruit or claiming that growing any of these plants will rescue us from the follies of treating a limited supply of fossil fuels as a limitless source of energy and riches. Rather, I’ll tell you honestly, and sometimes grumpily, what I’ve learned from growing them, in the hope that it will help you enjoy the fruits (and nuts) of your labor and save your neighborhood from the hazards of overfed wildlife.

In Part 1 I considered plants that can provide fruit in a single growing season and those that provide good crops after 2 or 3 years, for the benefit of those of you who have limited growing space or expect to be in your current location for five years or less.

For those of you who expect to remain in your current location for somewhere in the 6 to 10 year range and who have access to some land on which you can grow shrubs or trees, more possibilities lay before you. While I’m not going to go into the details on how to grow any of these plants, I will mention the things that I wish I had known before I planted them.


I have about 10 different blueberry plants. They are long lived and easy to care for, requiring only a winter pruning. Most people like blueberries and know how to use them in the kitchen. The plants are pretty when they bloom and the leaves are colorful in the autumn as shown above, so they are an attractive landscape plant as well as potentially providing delicious fruit.

I was quite excited when my plants began making berries for what I hoped would be several weeks’ worth of breakfast fruits. But I was not the only one watching the berries, and the birds won’t wait long enough to harvest ripe fruit. It wasn’t long before I caught a bird in the act of eating the unripe berries. OK, I thought, I’ll just get some bird netting and put it over the plants. Problem solved, right?


If you haven’t worked with bird netting, let me assure you that it is no fun at all. The material readily tangles with itself and with stray twigs, stems, and other small bits of poky stuff. Assuming you get it untangled and arrayed over the blueberry plant, you’ll have to figure out how to close off the bottom to keep the birds from walking under it. No, you won’t be able to neatly tie it around the stem of the plant like the catalog illustrations show you; the stuff is far too bulky when it’s gathered together in that fashion to secure. You’ll have to lay it on the ground and put weights on the edges to hold it down against the wind, or attach it to stakes around the plant. Don’t lay it down next to grass that you intend to mow, because sooner or later your mower will catch it.

And this isn’t the end of your problems with netting, not at all. For you’ll soon find that the plant is quite happy to grow through the net, rendering it more difficult to remove than it was to put on. Nor does even well weighted down or staked netting keep out all the birds … and some of those birds will die before you can remove them. And then you have to figure out how you are going to get into the net to get the ripe fruit. My advice on bird netting: skip it. And don’t bother with scare balloons or any of the other bird “repellents” being promoted to gullible growers. Take a deep breath and accept that the birds will eat more of the blueberries than you will. Maybe all of them. If you’re lucky, the neighbor’s mulberry tree will have ripe fruit at the same time your blueberries are ripening and the birds will spend enough time in the mulberry tree to leave you a few half-ripe blueberries to eat. That’s the only time I’ve ever eaten any blueberries from my plants. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


I have both the native serviceberry, a large shrub to small tree, and one of the smaller shrubby species that are grown in parts of Canada as a cold-tolerant fruit crop. Both species bloom early and are very pretty in bloom but don’t bloom for long. I like the taste of the few fruits I’ve been fortunate enough to eat, which ripen about the time the strawberries finish, but the birds like them at least as much as I do and eat the vast majority of the fruit. If you plant it, plant it for the spring show of flowers and for the birds. As long as you don’t expect to eat any of the fruit yourself, you’ll be happy with serviceberries.

 Nanking cherries

Nanking cherries are shrubs in the same genus as cherry trees. They make fine landscape plants with their attractive white flowers and red fruits. You may harvest some cherries from if you catch them just as they ripen, before the fruit-eating birds have looked up from the nearest mulberry tree long enough to notice that the Nanking cherries are also ripe. The cherries are small enough to preclude eating out of hand (they have inedible pits just like their larger cousins), but they can be juiced and the juice makes a good wine. My shrubs did fine until the severe drought of late spring and summer 2012. The following year all three shrubs died. Possibly they would have lived had I irrigated them the previous summer, but I chose to focus my irrigation efforts elsewhere, and I decided not to replant them in favor of fruits that do better in my conditions.


This fruiting shrub has earned a place of honor in my heart, yard, and diet. These spreading, 10 to 12 foot tall shrubs leaf out early in the spring but don’t flower until late May or June, long past any danger of frost. The showy white flower clusters stand out since no other shrubs or trees bloom at this time. Best of all, the small red-black berries of the native elderberry make a delicious deep red wine, and although the birds do eat them, they will do so at a leisurely pace, allowing you to harvest enough for 2 or 3 gallons of wine from just two shrubs. If I only had enough room for one kind of fruiting shrub, this is the one I would choose. But the fruit isn’t tasty to eat out of hand, and it takes time and patience to pull off only the ripe berries on each cluster (there will always be some unripe berries to avoid picking). Still, if you decide you don’t want to bother harvesting them, the birds will happily do so, and you’ll still have the beauty of their flowers to enjoy. Or you could make elderflower wine from the flowers, if you can bear to remove them.

Mini-dwarf and columnar apples

If you want to have apples but don’t plan to stay in the same place past 10 years or have minimal space in which to grow them, consider the columnar apple trees or the mini-dwarfs. According to the nursery catalogs I receive, these will begin to bear within a few years. Dwarf apple trees may also bear well in this time frame; check with the seller to be sure. My apple trees are all semi-dwarfs and didn’t begin to bear well until they were 10 or so years old. I’ll discuss them in Part 3.


Mike is very fond of ripe pears and I like them too, so I planted two pear trees, one ‘Seckel’ and one multiple-cultivar tree. Soon I ran into the first problem: maintaining the multiple-cultivar tree so all four cultivars grafted onto the truck grew reasonably well. Pear trees would much rather send all their resources to only the highest-up cultivar, as my tree proceeded to do. For those of you who only have room for a single pear tree and need the multiple-cultivar trees to allow for cross-pollination, you must do a better job than I did to properly prune the tree to force it to devote resources to all of the cultivars.

Don’t think that just because you have enough room for two single-cultivar trees that will pollinate each other, you will harvest many sweet juicy pears. Most pear cultivars are very susceptible to fire blight, a bacterial disease that spreads rapidly during the warm, wet spring weather that we are prone to. While the ‘Seckel’ pear has not been affected too badly, the multiple-cultivar pear is nearly dead from this disease. Only in the dry and hot spring and summer of 2012, during which I noticed very little fire blight infection, did I get a large enough crop of pears from the tree to be worthwhile. And squirrels have proved willing to take more than their share of the pears. My advice: unless you live in a place with a dry growing season and you’re willing to irrigate the trees, leave the pears to others. 

Peaches, plums, and apricots

While I grew the pears more for Mike than for myself, I grew peaches, plums, and apricots for me. A ripe, juicy peach is one of the best gifts of summer in my opinion, and having apricots and plums, delicious in their own rights, would extend the availability of fresh home-grown fruit. My trees were bearing by the time they were 5 or so years old. Of the two peach varieties I planted, the dwarf peach tree died young while the white-fleshed cultivar is still alive and fruiting. All of the apricot and the purple-leaved plum trees (you can see the purple-leaved plums in the photo above) are in good shape. I’ve also grown the smaller native American plums.

Sadly, none of these trees have lived up to my hopes for them. The culprits include late frosts that kill the flowers and hence the fruits, brown rot afflicting most of the plums and peaches, a caterpillar that finds the area between the flesh and the pit to be its favored abode, and squirrels and birds eating most or all of the fruits before they ripen. Some of the the native American plums sport vicious thorns and all of mine produce sour fruits. You might be luckier with the stone fruit trees than I am if you are careful to remove all the fallen fruits (to reduce brown spot and perhaps the caterpillar attacks) and if you can protect the trees against late frosts or they are not of concern where you live – and if you don’t have squirrels or birds who are looking for an easy snack.


I have grown both the native, shrubby American hazelnut and the European hazel tree. The shrubs come into bearing within 2 to 3 years, the trees a few years later. If you don’t have squirrels you will find these shrubs and trees will happily bear nuts for you. On the other hand, if you have squirrels, they will harvest the nuts for you, and the squirrels around here do not believe in sharing the harvest. A few years back I removed the hazel trees to allow more sun to reach the nearby apricots and pears. The American hazels earn their keep by screening the view of the lots next door and providing shelter and food for all the other lives in the yard, plus the autumn color, shown above, is attractive.

Part 3 will take a look at some fruit and nut trees that take a longer time to bear but are so worth it when they do.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

An Opinionated Person’s Guide to Growing Fruit and Nuts, Part 1

Strawberry plants (left) and raspberry canes (right) in my garden on 3 June 2019

I’ve written a lot about growing vegetable plants, the crops most people think of when they consider growing some of their own food. Most vegetables can be grown most places in temperate climates as long as you know the characteristics of your growing season and how to use them to figure out when to plant and how to grow the vegetables you want and what varieties do best for the length of your growing season. But humans do not live by vegetables alone – or at least Mike and I don’t. One of the reasons we moved to this place 17 years ago was to have room to grow our favorite conventional fruits like strawberries, raspberries, peaches, pears, and apples as well as native fruits like persimmons and pawpaws, along with nuts such as hazelnuts, pecans, and chestnuts.

Upon moving here I used the book Gaia’s Garden, supplemented with information I gleaned from the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Missouri Department of Conservation, and our state Extension Service, to design a plan that included as many of these crops as I thought I could fit into the yard. Now it’s time to share with you what worked for me and what didn’t, what I liked well enough to grow if I had to start over in a new place and what I wouldn’t bother with. May it be useful to you (or at least amuse you).

What makes growing fruits and nuts different from growing most vegetables is that most fruits and all nuts I know of are perennial plants that take a few years to a decade or more to bear well. If you’re lucky, someone planted fruits or nuts on your property years ago so they are bearing now, and all you need to learn is how to maintain them and when and how to harvest them and use the harvest. If you’re like me, however, you move to a lot that doesn’t have a single fruit or nut bearing plant on it. You may already know that you won’t be there for long enough to grow trees, but you might wonder if you could grow strawberries. Or you might want to grow certain fruits or nuts but wonder how long it will take them to bear and if so, if you’d get enough out of them to bother. So I’ve divided the guide into multiple parts. In Part 1, I’ll discuss which fruits or nuts I would grow if I were expecting to move elsewhere in 5 years or less. In Part 2 I’ll discuss the ones that take more than 5 years to bear a good crop, and in part 3, the ones that don’t bear well for a decade or more after planting.

If you’re going to make the best use of my opinionated views, you need to know what my growing conditions are so you can make adjustments for your conditions. For newcomers to this blog, my husband Mike and I live in the northeast corner of St. Louis County, MO, the county that surrounds the city of St. Louis wherever the Mississippi River doesn’t. In general, we experience rather cold but changeable winter weather. The USDA says we are in Zone 6 and the last few winters have matched this with the lowest temperatures between -10F and 0F, but even in December and January high temperatures occasionally reach the 60s or 70sF; highs can also be well below freezing, as the Zone 6 designation suggests. More typical winter highs are in the 30sF to 40sF. With the wide swings in temperature, we usually experience a number of freeze-thaw cycles during the winter. This can be harder on plants than where the soil freezes in autumn and stays frozen until spring.

Spring and autumn also feature widely varying temperatures as warm and cold fronts parade across the region, with severe thunderstorms not uncommon during spring and the first half of summer. The last spring frost is usually sometime in April while the first autumn frost is typically sometime in October for a growing season of about 180 to 200 days. Summer is reliably hot. We don’t have wet or dry seasons but we do tend to get less precipitation in winter than in the other seasons. We get droughts some years but they usually do not last longer than a few months. We can also get prolonged periods of heavy rain during the growing season, as in 1993 and again this year, which may lead to saturated soil conditions that can damage or kill roots of perennial plants if it lasts long enough.

As to the particulars, we live on a loess hill, thanks to glaciers. Loess hills look like what you would imagine a series of ocean waves look like if you flash-freeze them in place. The soil is silt loam and it’s very deep, 40 inches or more to bedrock. With this soil and our being near the top of an east-facing slope, even in years with the heaviest rain like this year the soil never gets waterlogged for long. The flip side, of course, is that it can also dry out rapidly, though not as fast as a sandy soil would. This is a good area to grow fruit trees; there are still a few old apple trees down the street from us that we think date from when this was still rural farm country.

Annual fruit crops

While the majority of vegetable and root crops that are grown in temperate climates can be started, grown, and harvested within a single growing system, the list of sweet-tasting fruit crops that can be grown in this way is very short. (I specify sweet-tasting because some of the crops we use as vegetables, such as tomatoes and squash, are fruits botanically.)

The most commonly grown annual fruit crops are the various melons. Up until this year, I hadn’t had enough success with any melon to be worth the space the plants needed in the vegetable garden. But this year I struck gold: ‘Missouri Gold’, to be precise. I grew two plants of this muskmelon on this A-frame trellis in a 16 square foot space and harvested 8 melons weighing about 20 pounds total over a month-long period! I’m not sure why I was successful this year when I hadn’t been in the past, but it could have been a combination of the right plant spacing, mineral-rich soil, the trellis, and plenty of water from the excessively rainy summer we had, something I will discuss more when I make my report on the 2019 garden. At any rate, assuming you get the right varieties of the right kind of melon and grow them under the proper conditions for your area (in my experience they like lots of water and well balanced fertility), melons are probably the best bet for good annual fruit production. That’s assuming you like melons, and we do; that’s why I’ve kept trying to grow them for 17 years. The best part about growing melons is that you can pick yours when they are actually ripe, when they taste much better than the pathetic excuses for melons that most of the grocery stores in this area offer. I’d forgotten how good melons are till I tasted the melons I grew this year.

An unusual fruit crop that I have grown as an annual is ground or husk cherry (Physalis pruinosa). Like tomatoes and peppers, it’s in the nightshade family, and it’s grown in the same way that tomatoes and peppers are. The plants are shorter than sweet pepper plants but much wider and more sprawling. I tried growing them in cages but they grew wider than the cages could handle. The half to three-quarter inch fruits are borne singly inside a papery husk like those on tomatillo or Chinese lantern plants. Wait till the fruits turn their ripe golden yellow color to harvest and eat them; do not eat any unripe (green) fruits as the seed catalogs assure me the results are highly unpleasant. The husk becomes papery when the fruit inside is ripe; it may open up and drop the fruit on the ground at this stage.

Similarly to cherry tomatoes, each plant can provide a lot of fruit in a single growing season. The fruits are reasonably tasty, quite sweet and with a hint of pineapple flavor. But I didn’t like the short and sprawling nature of the plants, which makes it hard to find the ripe fruit that falls on the ground. If you cannot get down on your hands and knees to find the ripe fruit, this is not a good plant for you. While its flavor is pleasant enough, and I would figure out ways to use it if it were all I had, I don’t like it as much as the other fruits I grow. A few years of working with it were enough for me; I no longer grow it.

The Fedco seed catalog also offers a related plant, Cape gooseberry (P. peruviana). They say it’s a larger, more upright plant (3 to 4 feet tall) with larger husks and fruits. That would make it easier to grow and to harvest from. They claim that the variety they offer, ‘Ambrosia’, lives up to its name. It’s a tender perennial in warmer climates and requires a much longer season of 115 days to ripe fruit. I’ll let you know if I try it.

Those of you who live in places with cooler, longer growing seasons than mine may find some of the other nightshade family fruit crops grow well for you in a single growing season. Baker Creek offers seeds of several species.

I grow melons using the same soil re-mineralization process that I employ to grow vegetables, in among the vegetables in their beds. I had very little trouble with insect pests this year on the melons or, for that matter, any of the other squash family crops. This has not always been the case. You would do well to watch for the pests and diseases that you get on cucumbers or squashes, as they might also take a liking to your melon plants. When I’ve grown melons on the ground, unidentified mammals have eaten the fruits before I could. Growing them on the trellis seems to have kept the mammals at bay. In the few years I grew ground cherries I didn’t notice any issues with pests or diseases.

Fruits that yield well in 2 to 3 years

If you expect to be in your current location in a temperate climate for something like 3 to 5 years, you might consider strawberries or the various cane berries. Strawberries and all the cane berries I know of are members of the rose family. Most of them are widely adapted and perennial in most of the temperate climate zones, though you should check that a particular species and variety is hardy in your conditions before trying it. All of the ones I know about grow well under the same conditions that vegetable plants like (a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight). I grow two of these, strawberries and raspberries, each in its own dedicated bed in the fenced area where I also grow vegetables and corn, as shown in the photo at the top. I move the beds on a long rotation, 5 to 10 years, when I notice the yields beginning to drop. I re-mineralize the soil before I plant strawberries or raspberries in a new bed, but I haven’t added any more minerals to the soil for the remainder of the time the plants occupy the bed.

Both strawberries and raspberries are very productive in my conditions once they are three years old or older. Last year I picked 15 pounds of ‘Heritage’ raspberries and 28 pounds of ‘Earliglow’ strawberries, the most of any other fruit I grew that year except for apples. Both are delicious (in my top 5 favorite fruits) with many uses in the kitchen, and they can be harvested for about 3 to 4 weeks. Whatever diseases and pests may be present aren’t affecting them enough to bother me, and I have moved runners from an existing bed to another bed when it’s time to rotate them, although the catalogs say that this can cause a buildup of pests and diseases. Because they readily propagate themselves they cost less to buy than fruit trees and bear much sooner. Raspberries are harvested from a standing position at a convenient height for adults and older children alike, as the hours I spent eating from my grandparents’ raspberry patch as a child will attest.

On the negative side of the ledger, their runners will overcrowd their bed and spread into adjoining areas, so they require more active management over the growing season than fruit shrubs and trees. Perennial weeds like to hide in strawberry beds and are difficult to remove once they are present. You have to pick strawberries from your hands and knees because the plants are short and the ripe berries hide among the leaves; it takes me over an hour to thoroughly pick a 100 square foot bed of strawberries at the height of the season. Raspberry canes are prickly; they need some kind of support to keep them upright enough so you don’t have to pick up the prickly canes with your hands in order to harvest them, and you must keep up with training them onto or into whatever support system you use or they will rapidly outgrow their allotted space and support system. And both raspberries and strawberries have tough root systems that aren’t fun to dig out whenever you decide it’s time to convert their current bed to something else. Still, the high yields of delicious fruit keep them in my garden year after year.

I’ve recently taken to mowing the entire strawberry bed about a month after harvest ends. This is something I learned about from an organic gardening book. Mowing the bed removes the old leaves, allowing the plants to grow healthy new leaves. It also makes it easier to see and remove annual and perennial weeds or runners that crowd too closely together.

As for the raspberries, ‘Heritage’ is an ever-bearing variety so I used to leave the year-old canes to fruit the following spring and then pick from the new canes in the autumn. Finding that the birds took entirely too much interest in the spring berries while much of the autumn crop fell to frost, I now prune out all the old canes during the winter, so only this year’s canes fruit, primarily in August between the elderberries and the autumn-bearing fruit trees. The birds take less of an interest in the August crop, perhaps because they are finding other kinds of foods more to their liking. This leaves most of the crop for Mike and me and we take full advantage!

The last fruit that I’ve grown that fits in this category is grapes, specifically the ‘Concord Seedless’ variety. This is a table grape rather than a traditional wine grape, but we like it for both eating and making wine. I have never fertilized the grapevine, although it was mulched when I first planted it. Once you get the hang of pruning the vine (I use Barbara Damrosch’s instructions), grapes are easy to grow – but it’s not easy to protect the clusters of grapes from birds. Only one year did I get enough grapes for eating and wine-making. This year we didn’t get to eat any of the grapes. Unless you are prepared to protect the clusters from birds, I suggest growing something else.

In Part 2 I will opine on several fruiting shrubs and one shrubby nut, the hazelnut, that I’ve grown, or at least tried to grow.

Monday, July 22, 2019

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

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

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


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

Washing dishes

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What if … ?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

2019 garden science: homegrown nitrogen

Dogwood blooms, trees leaf out: spring!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 1, 2019

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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