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!



  1. Congrats on your success with the nightshade family! We had a really good crop of tomatoes as well, our first tomatoes, which we planted directly into spent pea vines after the harvest of both shelling and snap peas.

    1. Thank you, and I'm glad you had success with your tomatoes as well!