Sunday, August 28, 2022


Orchids flowering

Hi readers,


To those of you who are new to the blog, welcome!


It’s been a busy few months, as spring and summer tend to be at Living Low Acre. I plan to have a new post up by the end of September. In the meantime, I’m picking pawpaws from the pawpaw patch, gathering the black walnuts that fall onto our yard from the neighbor’s tree, and taking a bit of a break after harvesting the potatoes and planting that bed with greens and roots for harvest in autumn.


While you’re waiting for a new post, please check out the post my friend and fellow archdruid Dana O’Driscoll put up on her blog about my garden. She visited while on her way home from Dancing Rabbit, an ecovillage in northern Missouri. While she was here, she interviewed me on my garden and the ecological art of living low that is reflected in the blog’s name. Please enjoy the beautiful pictures she took while you learn more about the garden design and how it’s worked out, and why we live low.


Thank you to everyone for reading, and meet you here again sometime in September!

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Learning from potato onions

Daffodils in peak bloom

In the last post, I discussed the two different conversations I’m having with potato onions during this growing season. In one of the conversations I’ve asked the onions to compare survival from spring planting versus autumn planting. I’ve hypothesized that spring planting will result in a higher percentage of plants surviving to harvest and for that reason a higher yield. In the other conversation I’m asking potato onion seeds that Lisa Brunette’s plants produced last year to teach me how to grow them. Both the onions and the seeds have made a first response to my questions.


On November 10 of last year I planted seven rows of 1.5 to 2 inch diameter potato onion and four rows of three different varieties of garlic, mulching all of them with fallen maple leaves. In early March I removed most of the mulch, because I have found from previous experience that if I do not remove most of the mulch then, most of the onions die. As best as I can tell, death results either from rotting before sprouting, or from the leaves of sprouted onions failing to grow above the mulch layer before the energy of the bulb is spent. If I do not mulch after planting in autumn, most of the onions die over the winter from frost-heaving (being pushed above the surface of the soil). Frost-heaving is the bane of lower Midwest winters. Highly variable temperatures during winter cause the soil to freeze and then thaw multiple times before the final thaw in early spring. The mulch keeps the onions from frost-heaving, but it can also cause them to rot through excessive moisture or prevent the leaves from emerging before the energy of the bulbs is spent.


The photo above is the potato onion bed on April 5. The onions I planted on March 6 are closest to the camera and are not mulched. Farther back, in the mulched area, are the potato onions and garlic that I planted last November. While it is not obvious in the photo due to the camera angle, it is clear from looking at the bed that almost every onion I planted in spring is growing well. However, a substantial number of the autumn-planted onions have failed to produce any leaves as of today. Because I know how many rows I planted in autumn and in spring, and I know I planted 8 onions in each row, I know how many onions have so far failed to produce leaves. In the area planted in November, 14 out of 56 onions planted have failed to produce leaves (25%), while in the area planted in March, 4 out of 128 onions planted have failed to produce leaves (3%).



Meanwhile, on March 3 I planted the potato onion seeds that Lisa Brunette gave me. You can see the seedlings that have resulted in the photo above. They are the long thin leaves on the left side of the flat. Later this month I will transplant them into one of the garden beds so they can grow on. I didn’t plant all of the seeds in case something went wrong; the remainder are being kept in the freezer for planting next spring.



Lastly, the photo above shows the flats of seedlings that I will plant in the garden over the next several weeks.


Until next time, enjoy life!

Monday, March 7, 2022

The 2022 garden conversations


One of our largest snowfalls of the winter, on February 4


Each year, as I reflect on how the garden answered the questions I asked of it the previous season, I consider what I would like to learn from the garden during the upcoming growing season and how to design the garden accordingly. Here’s what I am asking the 2022 garden to teach me.


Back in early 2021, when I was forming the garden design to answer questions about using wood ashes to re-mineralize garden soil, I did not realize that the garden would also ask and answer an entirely different question: what does it really make sense for me to grow in a backyard garden at this time of my life? Each year the garden asks at least one question of its own, and in fact I expect it to do so because it is a living system embedded in a nested series of larger living systems, just as I am. I didn’t expect it to be that particular question, however, even though each of the last few Augusts I have had it arise. But this past August the squirrels hit me over the head with it when they ate every kernel of every popcorn cob. The series of four posts on backyard garden reality was my way to understand and answer that question. I took those answers to heart when I designed this year’s garden.


To be specific, I realized that having now answered to my satisfaction the approximate size that a garden would need to be to provide marginally enough food for one vegan adult for one year in this climate, I can let go of that work and have a sensible backyard garden that leaves me more time for my other interests while providing Mike and I with a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits during late spring, summer, and autumn along with some stored and preserved foods in winter and spring. That means I will no longer grow corn or pumpkins in my backyard garden. By not growing corn I have only six beds that need to be dug and re-mineralized before planting and that need some level of weed control during the growing season. It may still be that six beds is more than I want to grow, so one of the questions that I am asking this year is how the six bed garden design fits in with the rest of my life. If the past few years are any indication, August will answer that question for me.


This also means that I will have three beds that were formerly set aside for corn that I can plant to something else or let revert to a mix of mowed plants. I’m still mulling over possibilities and not yet ready to commit to a particular design. I would like to have more flowers and more herbs in this part of the garden, but I need to do some more thinking and research before I make any decisions on what to plant.


I do know that I will remove the current raspberry plants, and I have already planted a different variety in one of the three beds that held popcorn last year. The current raspberry plants show evidence of plant disease in lowered yield and poorer quality berries than in past years. The old raspberry bed will become one of the beds with herbs or flowers or whatever else I decide to do with the three beds no longer growing corn. The strawberry bed still is producing a good yield of high quality berries, so it will remain in place for 2022.


Meanwhile, the six vegetable beds will be mostly the same as in past years, but I am posing a few questions for the garden to answer. One of them concerns replacing the bush cowpeas with a bush lima bean variety. For the past couple of years I have grown a pole lima bean, but it flowers late enough that most of the beans do not mature before frost. Meanwhile, the bush cowpea plants are too tall and flop over onto the neighboring beds. This year I am trialing a bush lima bean that is supposed to grow to only 18 inches tall and may mature more quickly than the pole lima bean as the dry bean crop. I’ll grow a yard-long bean that I have grown before and liked as one of the two pole bean varieties. Yard-long beans are the same genus and species as cowpeas. This means I will grow four different kinds of legumes, all different species that don’t cross: snap (green) and yard-long pole beans, bush lima beans, and an edamame variety of soybeans.


I’m asking two questions of the potato onions, a type of multiplier onion. I plant them as bulbs, with smaller bulbs growing to a larger size and larger bulbs dividing into several smaller ones. As the summer solstice approaches the bulbs go dormant. When that happens I dig them up and let the bulbs dry. After they dry I split up the clusters of bulbs and sort all the bulbs into 4 size classes. We eat the largest ones (2 inches or more in diameter) at that time, reserving the remainder. I plant the 1.5 to 2 inch diameter onions in one-third of the bed I have allotted for them in late October or early November and the 1 to 1.5 inch diameter onions in the remaining two-thirds of the bed, mulching them with autumn leaves to prevent them from frost-heaving. We then eat all of the remaining onions, which have been mostly the smallest ones, less than 1 inch in diameter. In early March I remove the mulch from the potato onion bed and allow them to grow until they go dormant and the process repeats. This is the procedure I learned from the company I bought starter bulbs from, which claims that autumn planting leads to larger bulbs than spring planting.


I enjoy growing these onions; as plants I find them appealing, I plant them at a time when they do not conflict with other garden duties, the bulbs have the strong onion taste characteristic of yellow onions that both my husband and I like, and in theory I could grow enough of them to provide a significant fraction of our onions. However, many to most of the 1 to 1.5 inch diameter onions rot and die before harvesting. If we are to have enough onions to make a noticeable dent in our onion purchases, I need to figure out how to plant them so most of them will grow and be harvested.


Last year I read Kelly Winterton’s publications on potato onions. He practices spring planting in his Utah location and says they do better planted in spring than in autumn where he lives. He also soaks the onions in bleach before he plants them, which he claims leads to better survival and larger bulbs. As a result I decided that this year I would plant the 1.5 to 2 inch diameter bulbs in autumn and mulch them as in the past, using them as a control, but I would hold the 1 to 1.5 inch onion bulbs in storage in the basement until the soil thaws in March and then plant them. The first question was if they would survive that long without sprouting; I’m pleased to say that the answer is yes. On March 6 I planted the open space in the bed with 1 to 1.5 inch diameter onions using the same in-row and between-row spacing as I have in the past. The next question will be how well they yield with spring planting. My hypothesis is that even if individual bulbs don’t grow as large, the overall yield will be larger because a smaller percentage will rot before harvest.


Even though Winterton recommends soaking in a weak bleach solution prior to planting, I won’t try that this year. If I change two things – planting date and presoaking – I won’t know which one, or both together, might have caused any changes that I may observe. If the garden tells me that spring planting leads to a higher yield, I’ll consider an experiment with presoaking in 2023.


In the 20 years that I have grown potato onions, none of them have ever gone to seed. I didn’t know that they could produce seeds until my friend Lisa Brunette at Brunette Gardens shared a link to Winterton’s publications with me. Winterton has had potato onions produce flowers and seeds, so he has learned how to grow them from seed and developed new potato onion varieties from some of those plants. Last year some of the potato onions that Lisa grew produced flowers and seeds, and she has very generously shared the seed with me. I’ve started seeds for both of us so that they may teach me how to grow them, sharing the plants that result with Lisa. I’m sure the seeds will be happy to receive your well-wishes for good germination and growth! I’ll share what the seeds teach me with all of you in turn.


If I have enough wood ashes to use to re-mineralize the squash-family and bean-family beds, I’ll use them and urine to provide nitrogen, to test how that combination works for those two plant families. Mike and I did not use the wood stove much this winter, so I will not have as much wood ashes for re-mineralization as last year.


That’s all for now. I wish everyone a happy spring!

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

What the 2021 garden told me


Almost a gallon of strawberries - and there were more after this picking


Now that I have all the data for the 2021 garden, it’s time to learn how the garden answered the questions I asked it last year.


Let’s start with comparing the soil test results from the soil sample I took in March 2021, before the growing season began, with the samples I took when I began re-mineralizing the garden soil in 2013 and with the samples taken in 2019 and 2020.



Notice that the soil re-mineralization program has greatly reduced the deficiencies in sulfur, phosphorus, and calcium since 2013, as Steve Solomon indicated that it would do. This is very encouraging indeed, as it suggests that a few years of attention to re-mineralization produces a balanced soil that grows plants with balanced nutrition. The phosphorus deficit in 2021 was low enough that I could meet it by applying about two and a half pounds of wood ashes to each bed, well under the maximum of five to ten pounds recommended by the Missouri Extension Service, and I had enough wood ashes on hand for the entire garden. Calcium and potassium were already present in more than sufficient quantity, and magnesium was slightly deficient; the wood ashes contain more than enough magnesium to remove that deficiency. I still needed to add a little gypsum to address the sulfur deficiency. Although it seems to me that wood ashes might contain some sulfur, I haven’t found an analysis of wood ashes that includes sulfur. Unless and until I can answer that question, I’ll continue to add gypsum. The amount needed is small, four ounces per bed, and gypsum is widely available and cheap.


Based on that information from the soil I asked the garden to answer the following questions.

·      For the spring greens/roots beds, I used cottonseed meal to provide all of the nitrogen and only enough wood ashes to meet the magnesium deficiency (about 2 ½ ounces of wood ashes for a 100 square foot bed). By doing so the crops would have sufficient nitrogen to meet their needs and not risk an excessive amount of magnesium. I used the phosphate rock that I have used in past years to provide the rest of the phosphorus for remineralization. This bed would tell me something about the overall growing conditions for spring, so that I could compare the rest of the beds to it.

·      For the autumn greens/roots bed I used cottonseed meal to provide all of the nitrogen and about 3 pounds of wood ashes to supply both magnesium and phosphorus. This allowed me to ask about the effect of using wood ashes to supply all of the phosphorus to some of the same crops as in the spring roots/greens bed, albeit under different weather and daylight conditions. By using cottonseed meal rather than urine in this bed I hypothesized that the yield of roots would be higher than it was in 2020, since cottonseed meal does not seem to stimulate production of leaves to as large an extent as urine does.

·      For the bean-family, squash-family, and popcorn beds I used cottonseed meal and about 2 ½ pounds of wood ashes. By doing this I could compare the results to 2020, when I used urine but not wood ashes, and to earlier years when I had not used either.

·      For the nightshade-family bed I used urine to supply all of the nitrogen and about 2 ½ pounds of wood ashes to supply all of the phosphorus. The plants in this bed responded very well to urine in 2020, so I chose this to be the one bed in which I used the full amount of both urine and wood ashes, asking the garden what the effect of using both of these in the same growing season would be. If there were unforeseen issues with using both in their full amounts I could minimize the damage by limiting the beds to which I applied the combined treatment.



Below is the yield data for all of the crops I grew in 2021.



Let’s start with the spring greens/roots beds. Note that yields were generally lower than the best previous, but not out of line with some previous years. I think that weather issues contributed to the lower yields. While April skewed cool and wet, we experienced cool and dry weather in May. June was warmer than normal and quite dry until the last week of the month. Since the majority of the time these crops were actively growing was dry, I suspect that I under-watered the garden, leading to lower yields than I might otherwise have observed.


The autumn greens/roots bed under-performed compared to the best previous year. Again I think that weather issues contributed to the lower yields. Excessively hot weather began after I direct-sowed the crops, resulting in spotty germination, and continued through October. In addition, we received lower than average precipitation in September, October, and November; in fact, it was the third driest November on record for St. Louis, Missouri where I live. I have noted before that during hot, dry growing conditions autumn greens and roots yield consistently lower than when temperature and precipitation are closer to average, and 2021 followed that pattern. Importantly, yields were at least as good as during other hot, dry autumns, suggesting that adding enough wood ashes to supply all the phosphorus did not negatively affect the yields.


For the popcorn beds, squirrels ate every kernel of every ear long before they were ripe, thus I cannot compare yields with wood ashes to yields without them. Mike took advantage of his hunting license to harvest several squirrels once the season began, so at least we did eat a little of what they ate. The damage had already been done by that time, so the most I can hope for is that the squirrels we have already eaten, and any more we eat before hunting season closes, reduce the population enough to reduce their feeding in 2022.


Among the crops in the bean bed, the ‘Super Marconi’ green pole beans under-performed compared to 2020, most likely because I failed to provide them with enough vertical poles and horizontal strings to allow them to climb properly. Some of the bean plants sprawled on the ground as a result, allowing beans to rot and be eaten by other critters before I could harvest them. I believe that had I set up the tower properly, the plants would have yielded about as well as the 2020 plants did. On the other hand, the cowpeas yielded much better in 2021 than in 2020, although not as well as a different variety planted closer together yielded in 2017. This suggests that the wood ashes did not have a negative effect on bean-family plants.


Yields in the squash beds were less in 2021 than in 2020, when this bed received a steady supply of nitrogen via urine, but not out of line with previous years. The cucumbers, zucchini, and summer squash plants all died early compared with 2020. Winter squash, on the other hand, yielded better in 2021 than in 2020. I took more care to pick the winter squash as it ripened in 2021 than I did in 2020, which may explain some of the yield increase. The results suggest that the wood ash application did not negatively affect the yield compared to most years prior to 2020, while urine applied steadily over the growing season as in 2020 appears to increase yields compared to a one-time application of cottonseed meal.


Yields were excellent, on par with the best previous yields, for all the eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes (nightshade-family crops) except for the ‘Old German’ tomatoes. This suggests that urine to supply nitrogen and wood ashes to supply phosphorus can be applied together, and that this combination works as well, at least for nightshade-family crops, as does the combination of cottonseed meal for nitrogen and phosphate rock for phosphorus. I’m very encouraged by this result! It means I might be able to supply almost all of the nitrogen and minerals that the garden soil needs to produce nutritious food with urine and wood ashes, two materials we produce here at home and that would otherwise be lost to the biogeochemical cycles that sustain life here on Earth.


Looking at the fruits, the only fruit that yielded well in 2021 was strawberries. Dry weather during harvest kept the berries from rotting and gave me no excuses to avoid the labor of harvest. Unlike the pawpaw and persimmon flowers, the strawberry flowers survived the late April freeze. So did the young apples. I was really looking forward to a good crop of all three apple varieties … but well before they were ripe, the squirrels showed up and decided all of the apples, and what few persimmons formed, belonged to them. And they made good on their decision. They deigned to leave us a handful, or maybe they didn’t notice them. As for the raspberries, the plants seem to have weakened; they didn’t form as many berries as usual. Raspberries are prone to diseases that reduce yields, so I think the garden is telling me that if I want to keep eating raspberries, I need to provide it with some new plants.


That’s it for now. The next post will be what I’ll ask the 2022 garden. See you then!


Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Backyard garden reality revisited, part 4: sensible backyard gardens for temperate climates


In the previous post I concluded that because of constraints on land, time, and storage space, and because of the eating problems that can develop from a monotonous diet, my complete diet design for a vegan diet in my climate isn’t practical. Let’s take a look at the various factors feeding into its impracticality and on that basis decide what kind of a backyard garden better fits reality for most people in temperate climates.


One of the reasons the complete diet garden meme has gotten as much traction as it has is because the organization that first developed and promoted it, Ecology Action, is located in Willits, California. The USDA has developed zone maps to show the average minimum temperature of any part of the US. The coldest USDA zone found in Ecology Action’s zip code, 95490, is 8b, with an average annual minimum temperature of 15 to 20F / minus 9 to minus 7C. Much of it is in zone 9a, with an average annual minimum temperature of 20 to 25F / minus 7 to minus 4C. For comparison, I live in zone 6b, with an average annual minimum temperature of minus 5 to 0F / minus 21 to minus 18C.


December 2021 was St. Louis’ third warmest December on record, with a minimum temperature matching zone 9a portions of Willits’ zip code. For the entire month I harvested greens from my outdoor garden because it didn’t get cold enough to kill them. If it had dropped to zone 8b conditions I still could have harvested the hardier greens like kale and arugula during the entire month. If I could leave many plants in the garden until they begin bolting in spring as Ecology Action can in Willits, that would save the time otherwise required to harvest and process them for storage as well as the space and cost requirements of storing them. Those of you who live in climates where you can garden year round in open gardens can grow a larger fraction of the foods that you eat with a lower investment of time than required where I live.


The choice of a vegan diet was a bigger factor in making the garden design impractical, however. Cultures in cold-winter areas include animal foods for calories, protein, and fats because animals can be processed, stored, and eaten during cold weather when plants are mostly dead or dormant. Most cultures in temperate climates raise and/or hunt animals for meat along with practicing gardening and agriculture for plant foods. Cultures with very short growing seasons rely heavily on animal foods. Animals convert plant foods that we cannot eat, like grasses, into animal flesh that we can eat. Because Mike and I eat animal foods for protein, I do not need to grow a high fraction of protein-dense crops in my garden. Not over-eating animal foods and buying them as often as possible direct from area ranchers, or from a grocer who buys them direct from area ranchers, keeps the cost reasonable and supports the local economy.


Including large areas of dry corn and dry beans, plants that don’t produce a lot of weight per unit of garden area, in the complete diet design increases the size of the garden and the work associated with it. In a complete diet garden corn and dry beans are included because even though their harvested weight per unit area is low, their calories and protein per unit area are high. Vegans and vegetarians include large quantities of grains and dry beans in their diet to provide them with enough calories and protein, and omnivores also eat grains and dry beans. But there is another option for growing grains and dry beans other than in small backyard gardens.


Grains, especially corn, and dry beans don’t need the daily attention that a garden with lots of different kinds of vegetables does. In my hot-summer climate, as long as corn is planted when the soil temperature suits it (late April and throughout May), it germinates and grows tall rapidly. It can outgrow shorter weeds and still be productive. The ears dry down at about the same time so it only needs to be harvested once. If it’s grown at the right spacing it can be grown on the water that rain provides. Dry beans need a little more attention but not that much more. This is why, when you drive through the US Midwest, you’ll see vast fields of corn and soybeans between towns and cities but no fields of, say, lettuce or tomatoes, except in very small farms at the edges of cities. The same holds true for cultures with much less fossil fuel energy-dependent farming methods such as the Amish. Drive through the Amish areas of Ohio, for instance, and you’ll see a patchwork of fields of grains or beans and pastures for large animals extending between the houses. Near the houses you’ll see gardens of mixed vegetables and perhaps some fruit trees, and you might also see a chicken coop or beehives or other small animal housing. The large fields are worked with horse-drawn implements, while the mixed gardens near the house are grown and maintained with human labor and their products go straight to the kitchen for eating or preserving. This mix of field agriculture, small home gardens, and animal husbandry is common within cultures in temperate climates. It allows for a combination of human and animal labor to grow vegetables, fruits, grains, and animal foods with little if any contribution from fossil fueled tools. The Amish enjoy a wide variety of plant foods over the growing season and beyond because their home gardens and fruit trees include a wide variety of plants that reward time and attention. They can also provide most of the calories, protein, and fats that they need from their fields and animals. Anyone who lives in a temperate climate and is interested in growing a large fraction of their food is well advised to study their example – and to remember that the Amish live with fewer material goods than most of us and swap time spent at corporate jobs, the daily commute, and the internet and tv for time spent in fields and gardens and on housework, on child and elder care, and on small home-based businesses.


Another consideration that favors fields of grains and beans away from trees and greenbelts is reducing losses to mammal pests. My entire 2021 crop of popcorn was eaten by squirrels long before any of the ears were ready for harvest because my yard and the nearby yards have many large trees that provide squirrels with shelter and food. The squirrels probably considered the popcorn a source of variety in their diet. I don’t have enough clear space around the garden to discourage squirrels from entering it for fear their predators will find and eat them first. But a farm can be set up with such a clear space surrounding the fields. The bigger the field is, the less likely that any mammal predator will cause significant yield losses. My vegetable and potato crops, on the other hand, have little trouble with predators – other than me, of course.


For those of us like Mike and me who live on urban and suburban lots, it doesn’t make sense to grow enough grains or dry beans to make a big dent in our calorie or protein needs. Even if we have enough land for it – and most of us don’t – the nature of our lives doesn’t reward the time and effort required. Grains and dry beans are easy to find at a reasonable cost at grocery stores. The Asian grocers in the St. Louis region always have 25 and 50 pound bags of rice and 4 pound bags or boxes of dry beans and peas on hand. Other ethnic grocers carry different kinds of bulk grains and dry beans. Online sources of bulk grains and dry beans are also available.


Putting all of this together, it suggests that the best way to garden in a back yard is the way that people have gardened in them all along: growing high value vegetable and fruit crops for fresh use and/or preservation in small plots that offer the gardener a chance to work in harmony in nature while allowing time for the rest of the gardener’s life. Depending on the gardener’s time and interest and the conditions of the available space, a backyard garden might contain only a few crops that the gardener especially enjoys growing and eating fresh, such as tomatoes. It might include specialty crops or special varieties of more common crops that the gardener cannot obtain at the grocery store or through farmers markets, such as those used in particular cuisines. It might be sized for preserving certain crops by canning, drying, fermenting, and/or juicing or wine-making. It might be something like my own garden, which provides a wide variety of crops during most of the growing season for primarily fresh use or low-tech storage. And so on. The backyard garden isn’t a substitute for a farm but a supplement to it that can give its practitioners high quality, high nutrition, delicious fresh vegetables and fruits produced at home, where they can be lovingly cared for and enhance the gardener’s life through working with nature as well as through the enjoyment of eating what is grown and its positive effects on health.


In the next post I’ll share my 2021 gardening results and what questions I’ll ask the garden in 2022.