Monday, March 3, 2014

Gardening for peanuts



Each year I grow something I haven’t tried before. Often it’s a new-to-me variety of a crop I already grow. In these cases I’m looking for a variety that we might like better, that may yield better or be more pest or disease resistant, or might be processed in a different way. Sometimes I try a new crop and have to learn how to grow the crop as well as how to process it. In 2013 one of those crops was peanuts. The results were good enough, and the crop is rarely enough grown in gardens, that a post on how I grew and processed them is in order. I’m planning to devote more space to them this year, and perhaps some of you will want to try them as well.

I chose the variety ‘Tennessee Red Valencia’, available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, based on the information in an article on growing peanuts from the April 2006 issue of Growing for Market. The author, Pam Dawling, recommended it for its 110 day growing season, its high productivity, and its willingness to produce with little to no hilling (pulling loose soil around the plants). SESE offers five different varieties of peanuts in its 2014 online catalog.

Peanut seeds are sold in their shells; remove them from the shells as you plant them. Somewhere I read that you should retain the skin around the peanut seed as you plant it, and I did so. On June 3 I planted 2 to 4 seeds each in spots 1 foot apart, planting two rows of peanut seeds two feet apart in the middle portion of a bed that had had peas planted in the outer portions in spring. I didn’t record how deep I planted the seeds but it was probably an inch or so. Dawling suggests planting them 2 inches deep and 12 inches apart in the row, with rows spaced 30 to 36 inches apart, and planting them when the soil is 65F at a depth of 4 inches for three consecutive days. John Jeavons suggests a spacing of 9 inches each way for peanut plants in the 8th edition of How to Grow More Vegetables, a spacing too close for hilling the plants. I decided to plant the peanuts far enough apart so I could hill them up but closer together than Dawling’s spacing, and compare the yield I obtained to the yield figures in Jeavons’ book.

I chose not to inoculate the peanuts when I planted them because I was curious to see how they would grow without that input. If you want to inoculate them, make sure to buy inoculant that says it’s for peanuts. The bed used for peanuts was one of the two that did not get the 2013 fertilizer mix designed to remedy the mineral deficiencies in my soil, one of which was calcium. Dawling says that for peanuts the soil should have a pH of 5 to 6 and if calcium is deficient, gypsum should be added. That’s because gypsum will add calcium without increasing the pH. I would only add gypsum if the soil is also deficient in sulfur, but that is based on the re-mineralization I have been doing. Dawling has years of experience growing peanuts to back her recommendation.

As Dawling notes, peanut seedlings resemble pea or clover seedlings. She says to hill them up when they are about a foot tall but not to disturb the soil after they begin to flower. I don’t remember how tall mine were when I first hilled them, but I think I hilled them up twice. My record sheet indicates that I first saw flowers on July 7, a little over a month after planting. Peanut flowers grow downward to peg themselves into the soil, where the seeds develop. Since I couldn’t see if seeds were forming I put my trust in the plants and left them alone to develop.

On October 16 the weather was cool and the soil was moist. The plants had had over 130 days to mature seeds. So I dug the peanut plants and their pegs out of the soil with a garden trowel. I was delighted to find multiple peanuts had pegged from each plant! As I removed each plant I pulled the peanuts off the pegs and piled them in a basket. It didn’t take long to do and was pleasant work.

Dawling discusses the proper drying of peanuts at some length due to the danger of aflatoxin developing if the peanuts should mold. She recommends drying them quickly, in the sun if possible or using a fan to blow across them if it isn’t sunny. Because I harvested only about three pounds of peanuts (wet weight), I spread them in a single layer on a window screen that was propped up on both ends so air could circulate under and through the peanuts as well as over them. I did not use a fan to aid drying. I chose not to wash the peanuts before I dried them, thinking that might reduce the chance of their molding. I left them on the screen for several weeks to dry before I put them in a plastic one gallon container for storage prior to roasting. The peanuts appeared to be free of mold, at least any that I could detect by eye, and none developed during storage. The yield of dried peanuts was 5 pounds per 100 square feet, compared to Jeavons’ yield figures of 4 pounds for beginning gardeners, 10 pounds for more experienced gardeners. Not bad for the first year of growing them!

A few days ago I set aside a pint glass jar that I filled with dried, unwashed peanut seeds for planting this year. I then used our sun oven to roast the remaining seeds without washing them first and without salting them. The sun oven’s temperature was between 300F and 350F while the peanuts roasted. It took 25 minutes to roast them fully. Mike says he would prefer them to be salted but they still taste good. I think they are delicious as they are!

This year I’ll do two things differently that I think will improve the quantity and quality of the final product. First, I’ll fertilize the bed with the same mix I use on all the beds. As with the other crops, I hypothesize that a proper mineral balance will improve the yield and/or flavor and/or disease resistance of the peanuts. Second, I’ll wash those that I roast prior to roasting them. Mike thinks that soaking them in salted water, then roasting them, will result in the salted product that he prefers, so we will treat one batch that way and roast another batch washed but not soaked in salted water and compare the results.

I found that peanuts are easy to grow and delicious, plus they provide a higher proportion of fat and protein for their weight than most garden crops. That makes them a valued part of my garden and our diet.  If you try them, let me know what you learn!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What I’ll discuss with my garden in 2014



In the previous post I discussed the questions I’m asking my garden soil to answer in 2014. This post discusses what I want to learn from the crops I’ll be growing this year.

Last year’s dialogue with my garden suggested that re-mineralizing the garden soil brought positive results even though I did not make the best choice for materials to use in the fertilizer mix. Most notably, pest and disease pressure seemed less last year. Regarding this year’s re-mineralization effort, I hypothesize that pest and disease pressure will be no worse than in 2013. I also hope that flavor of those varieties whose flavor I know well will show further improvement, and that yields increase, or at least do not decrease, for those varieties I have grown before. If this happens, it will be more evidence that proper soil mineral levels are one of the keys to raising a lot of delicious, nutritious food in the small spaces that Ecology Action’s work claims is possible. I hope that as the garden soil improves it will need little if any added minerals and organic matter beyond the compost I make. However, I think it will be a few years before the soil can answer that question.

In the meantime, last year’s results suggested that I need to make some improvements in my gardening technique. These include ensuring that I plant crops closer to the times when I’ve obtained the highest yields in past years, not shading the peppers and eggplants with taller crops, reducing spacings for some crops in order to boost the yield per unit area to levels in past years, including a control variety for all crops I grow, and reducing weed pressure. I hope that the crimson clover cover crop will help to reduce weed pressure, although I will also have to make sure it does not shade out low crops. For the other goals, I kept each in mind as I drew up the planting plan and seed starting schedule for 2014.

Another change I will make this year is to avoid using triangular spacing. It takes longer to plant this way (at least for me it does), especially when I transition from one crop to another with a different spacing. Also it is harder to determine the exact area planted to each crop. Instead I will allot the various crops about the same amount of space per square foot but use rectilinear spacing. In this way I hope to give each crop the room it needs and have a more accurate knowledge of the area it is using, allowing a more accurate measurement of yield per unit area.

Here’s what I’m planning to grow and how in 2014 to allow the garden to answer some of the questions that last year’s results suggested I ask it this year.

Dry beans, black-eyed peas, and soybeans. Last year I learned that I must trellis the dry beans in order to keep the bean pods off the ground. This year I’ll grow ‘Midnight Black Turtle’, a favorite variety from past years, and trellis it in some fashion. I’ll also trellis the ‘Queen Anne’ blackeyed peas and plant them earlier, hoping to get higher yields. I’ll pre-sprout the ‘Asmara’ soybeans, a variety eaten as edamame (harvested green, boiled in the pod, and squeezed out of the pod to eat), plant them earlier, and trellis if needed.

Beets and carrots. I reduced the area devoted to carrots and am only growing one variety, ‘Danvers 126’, this year as we may have enough carrots remaining from last year’s crop to last through spring. For beets I am growing the same area and varieties, again because the stored crop should last through spring.

Bok choy and spring cabbage. I hope to get these crops sown and transplanted at the proper time so they grow to their full potentials. I plan to trial a different variety of bok choy against ‘Prize Choy’ which I have grown for several years. I will grow the same two spring cabbage varieties.

Broccoli. This year I’ll grow three different open-pollinated broccolis: ‘Green Goliath’, ‘Nutri-Bud’, and ‘Atlantic’ to compare them for yield, flavor, and pest resistance. The first has been the highest-yielding to date, the second is the one I grew last year, and the third is new to me. I’ll grow them in the spring only and strive to get them sown and transplanted at the proper time. If the fall cabbage does well (see below) I will likely try a fall broccoli crop in 2015.

Fall cabbage. I haven’t tried a crop of fall cabbage for storage in the past because harlequin bugs have killed any cabbage-family crops I tried to grow through the entire summer. Instead I have sown kale and collards in August for fall crops. However, I have been dissatisfied with the yields I have obtained, and we have not used them as effectively as we would stored cabbage. Nor do kale or collards survive winter reliably in the open garden. This year I am taking a chance on raising long-season storage cabbage varieties ‘Brunswick’ and ‘Early Flat Dutch’. They will have to be sown into flats or pots in April and transplanted to the garden in early June in order to mature by the end of October, about when the growing season ends here. If we don’t have a summer-long heat wave and associated drought as we did in 2012 and if the harlequin bugs don’t suck the life out of the cabbages before they can mature, we’ll be rewarded with cabbage for sauerkraut, slaw, and stir-fries during at least part of the winter. And if this effort is successful, I’ll probably devote a larger area to fall cabbage in 2015 as cabbage has become our staple winter green vegetable.

Cucumbers and melons. I need to trellis these and plant them earlier to get a better crop. I’m trying three different melons this year to see if I can get a ripe melon out of any of them, a feat that for some reason has remained beyond me.

Parsnips, onions, and leeks. This year I will grow parsnips, onions, and leeks in the same bed as all three are crops that should be planted by early April here. At that time the soil is cool enough that the parsnips should germinate well. I’m trying ‘Andover’ parsnip this year. I’ll grow ‘Giant Musselburg’ leek, the one that has yielded best for me. I’ll grow two intermediate-day onion varieties, ‘Australian Brown’ and ‘Bronze D’Amposta’, to see how they yield, taste, and store. In addition I’ll grow ‘Noir de Russie’ scorzonera in this bed to see how we like this as a root crop.

Lettuces. I don’t plan to try any new lettuces this year, just make sure I get them planted at the right time for both spring and fall. I will also start lettuces in mid-September for an overwintering crop on the glassed-in front porch. Last year’s overwintering crop, started at about the same time, is doing very well (you can see it in the photo above). We’ve already enjoyed some of the crop and I will pick more soon.

Peas and peanuts. For these I am growing the same varieties as last year. However, I will be certain to pre-sprout the peas before planting them, and I will rig up a trellising system for them. I’m devoting more of the space in this bed to peanuts and less to peas since the peanuts store well in ambient conditions.

Popcorn. This year I’ll plant all the beds on the same date so the corn pollinates well. I have diatomaceous dust on hand in case some critter decides to sample the crop before it is ready. Perhaps a mouthful of dust will discourage further pilfering.

Potatoes. I’m planting ‘Elba’ at three different spacings across the bed and will measure the yield for each spacing separately, in order to determine the best spacing for my conditions. I’ll also try some sort of fencing to keep the plants within bounds. I acquired a potato planter and look forward to planting potatoes from a standing position!

Peppers and eggplants. I re-designed the bed with these crops to reduce shading by too-close neighbors. I’ll also increase the space allotted to each eggplant to 2 square feet and trial ‘Rosita’ against last year’s ‘White Beauty’. For peppers, I’ll grow two varieties of sweet peppers and two varieties of hot peppers, ‘Serrano’ and ‘Trinidad Scorpion’. I’ll try wonderberry this year, another crop in the same family that is supposed to grow only about two feet tall, instead of ground cherries. I’ll trial ‘Purple’ tomatillo this year but allot 4 square feet to each plant rather than last year’s 1 square foot.

Winter radishes and turnips. This year I’ll try a daikon radish, ‘Japanese Minowase’, in addition to ‘Red Meat’ and ‘Round Black Spanish’. I’ll also commit to sowing and weeding all of these crops at the proper time to achieve full-sized roots.

Squash. We did not think as highly of the taste of ‘Sweet Meat - Oregon Homestead’ as its re-selector, Carol Deppe of Fertile Valley Seeds, does. We do not find it sweet, rather it tastes bland although the texture is good. I don’t know if this reflects taste differences between her and us or growing conditions that did not bring out the best in this squash. Nor is this squash storing as well as ‘Waltham Butternut’ does in our basement, admittedly a little cooler than Deppe thinks is ideal for squash storage. This year, I’ll try a different maxima, ‘Guatemalan Blue’, and grow the butternut as well, comparing the two for taste, yield, and storage ability. I also plan to start the plants in late May or early June, as most people do in this area, to learn if they can better withstand squash bug attack when grown in a better-balanced soil.

Sweet potatoes. This year I’m devoting an entire 100 square foot bed to this crop. Half I’ll plant to ‘O’Henry’ assuming I get sprouts off some of my stored crop. I’ll trial two different kinds of orange sweet potato against it for taste, yield, and ease of growth and harvest.

Tomatoes. This year I’m trialing one new tomato variety, ‘Pale Perfect Purple’, against ‘Rose’ and ‘Arkansas Traveler’. ‘Rose’ is much like ‘Brandywine’ in size, shape, and taste but more productive for me. I don’t grow it every year because its tomatoes can be hard to get off the vine and can split but I like it well enough to grow it once in awhile. I’ll grow ‘Hungarian Italian Paste’ for paste tomatoes.

Watermelon and luffa gourd. I’ve been wanting to try ‘Blacktail Mountain’, a small, early watermelon, for years and decided this year is as good as any. I also will try growing luffa gourds and making sponges from them.

With a garden plan and seed starting schedule in hand and onion seeds already started in flats, spring is not all that far away -- snow on the ground and a low of -1F this morning notwithstanding. I hope this year brings a good harvest for all gardeners!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What the soil told me in 2013, and my response

In my continuing effort to become a better gardener, I’m conducting a scientific dialogue with my garden, as I described in this post from last year. I want you all to be clear about what it means to conduct a scientific dialogue. It doesn’t mean imposing my will on nature, trying to control it. As if I could! Nature is far more powerful than I am and than humanity as a whole is. At the same time, the process that became known as the scientific method contains within it a way to work with Nature as an equal partner in the dance of life. When we use the scientific method in that way I refer to it as a dialogue with Nature.

Of course Nature doesn’t speak English or any other human language. When we conduct a dialogue with her, we must ask her questions in a form she can answer. Then she answers in her own way, and we must translate her answers into our own language in order for us to understand and best respond to her lead in the dance. Fortunately, some people through the years have learned her language and written books to help the rest of us translate her language into answers to the questions that we asked, as well as answers to the questions we didn’t know we were asking and other information she chooses to give us. We can put this work to appropriate and respectful use in our dialogues with Nature.

In this post, I reported on what I learned from my garden as a result of the 2013 dialogue. One of the questions I’d asked the garden to answer was if soil re-mineralization would indeed reduce soil mineral excesses and deficiencies. In order to understand the answer she gave me in the form of the December 2013 soil test results, I had to re-read Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 9 of Steve Solomon’s book The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense Food. Solomon has learned how to translate soil test data from Nature’s language into English and he very generously and capably shares this knowledge with us. With that background, I think I understand what my garden soil is telling me and how to respond in 2014. I will share that with you here. Perhaps it will inspire some of you to conduct a dialogue with your soil and in the process learn some of Nature’s steps in the dance of life.

First, let’s look at differences in TCEC (a measure of the soil’s ability to hold on to various elements found in positively-charged forms), pH (a measure of whether the soil tends acid or alkaline) and organic matter percent between the April 2013 test, before re-mineralization, and the December 2013 test after re-mineralization and at the end of the growing season. They are shown below.

                        TCEC      pH         Organic matter, %
Apr. 2013        6.91        6.40        3.99
Dec. 2013        7.54        6.70        4.04

Solomon explains that the larger the TCEC, the more of certain vital elements needed by the soil microlife and by plants to build and maintain themselves can be held in reserve, ready for plants to draw on when needed. (For more detail, you’ll need to read Solomon’s book -- which I hope everyone who wants to grow a better garden will do.) It appears that the TCEC is slightly higher at the end of the year versus in early spring. While that is encouraging, because I also tested lawn soil near the vegetable garden at both times, I noticed that the TCEC of the lawn soil also increased, and by about the same amount. While I applied compost to the garden (one of the things that increases the TCEC), I did not apply it to the lawn. Thus the TCEC must have risen due to something that happened equally to both lawn and garden. I suspect the slight rise in TCEC was a result of the cooler, wetter conditions during the 2013 growing season compared to the 2012 growing season. Organic matter, which accounts for some of the TCEC, burns up less in a cooler, wetter season than it does in a hotter, dryer season. This points up the importance of a control -- in this case, lawn soil -- in understanding the subtlety of Nature’s dance moves.

The pH is still in a good range for vegetables, though it should not rise any farther. I need to keep that in mind when I develop the soil prescription for 2014. The organic matter percentage is the same within error (the error level in soil testing is about 10%, says Solomon) and not too far from the maximum of about 4.5% that Solomon suggests, in Chapter 9, is possible for the St. Louis region.

The major lesson from this part of the soil test report is that if the TCEC and organic matter level can be brought up a little, allowing more of the minerals I add to attach to organic matter and clay in the soil and thus remain available to plants throughout the growing season, the crops I grow might be more nutritious and delicious than they are now. How to do that is the question.

Now let’s examine how much of each of the elements known to be important for plant growth is found in the soil before and after re-mineralization, to learn how Nature answered that question. We’ll look at the four major positively charged elements -- calcium (Ca to chemists), magnesium (Mg), potassium (K), and sodium (Na) -- first. The question at hand is whether there is an excess, deficiency, or neither of each in the soil and how re-mineralization affected that. Thus for each test date I report the difference between the level of that element as found by the soil test and the target amount for that element as calculated using the Acid Soil Worksheet in Solomon’s book. A minus in front of the number reported means a deficiency; a plus means an excess. Units are pounds per acre which is approximately equivalent to grams per 100 square feet.

                          Ca         Mg         K          Na
Apr. 2013        -198        +86        +47       -14
Dec. 2013        +55        +83        -80        -24

Before re-mineralization the garden soil showed a deficiency in calcium, which is now remedied within the 10% error level. The previous excess in potassium is now a deficiency. Magnesium is still in excess, while sodium is more deficient than it was in spring.

These results suggest that the first priority, getting the calcium level up to the recommended amount for good growth and nutrition, was accomplished. I had hoped that this would reduce the excess magnesium, which is not reflected in the test results. However, I did notice that the soil itself seems to be less sticky than it did last year, the effect I’d hoped would happen with more calcium and less magnesium in the soil.

Two important elements that are found in negatively charged forms in the soil, sulfur (S) and phosphorus (P), were deficient in both the April and and December 2013 reports, in about the same amount. It is the humus in the soil which holds onto these elements and from which plants draw them as needed, not clay and humus both as is the case with the positively charged elements. Note that the soil organic matter level, a rough proxy for humus (humus is the end stage of organic matter decomposition) did not change from April to December. This suggests that in order to get the levels of sulfur and phosphorus high enough to remedy the deficiencies over time, I should strive to increase the level of humus in my soil to the extent possible.

As for the remainder of the elements on the soil test report, all of which occur in a positively charged form in the soil, manganese (Mn) and iron (Fe) remain in excess. The previous deficiency in zinc (Zn) is now an excess. Copper (Cu) and boron (B) remain deficient.

With these results in hand I pondered what the soil was suggesting should be my next move in the dance: developing a soil prescription for 2014 that would reduce the magnesium excess and increase the levels of potassium, sodium, boron, copper, phosphorus, and sulfur without throwing the pH out of balance. Using Solomon’s Chapter 7 and the Acid Soil Worksheet as my guides, I started with the easiest elements to bring to balance: K, Na, B, and Cu. The amount of each material given is to be added to a single 100 square foot bed. For those of us used to English units, there are 453 grams in one pound.

K: 191 grams (6.7 oz) potassium sulfate
Na: 69 grams (2.5 oz) sea salt
B: 11 grams (2 tsp) borax
Cu: 21.2 grams (1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp) copper sulfate

Calphos (soft rock phosphate) will be used to remedy the phosphorus deficiency. Adding enough to erase the deficiency also adds a little calcium, but that does not concern me. Within the 10% error level that much added calcium will not throw the soil into enough excess to exceed the measurement error.

Remedying the sulfur deficiency required more thought. The potassium sulfate and copper sulfate both bring in some sulfur, but not enough to remedy all of the deficiency. At first I planned to remedy the remainder of the deficiency with agricultural sulfur. Doing that would not introduce more calcium, as opposed to using gypsum (calcium sulfate) to remedy the deficiency. But then I re-read pages 165 and 166, where Solomon discusses how to remedy excesses of magnesium, potassium, or sodium. He says to first add enough agricultural (not dolomitic) lime to resolve any existing calcium deficiency, then add gypsum in sufficient quantity to remedy the entire sulfur deficit, even though it appears that calcium will then be in excess. He says gypsum will neither increase pH (which I don’t want to do), nor does it always increase calcium to sufficiency, but it will reduce excesses of Mg, K, and Na. Last year, in contrast, I chose to add only enough agricultural lime to meet the reduced calcium need after the calcium from the gypsum was taken into account. That may be why only the excess in K was reduced by December, not the excess in Mg, and why the deficiency of Na increased. Gypsum will knock off these elements in the order of Na first, then K, then Mg. I think that because I did not add as much agricultural lime as I could have last year, the calcium level was not sufficient to knock Mg off its attachment sites.

This year, since no calcium deficiency exists, I’ll add enough gypsum to erase the sulfur deficiency. With calcium in (apparent) excess already from the addition of Calphos, I’ll not add agricultural lime this year. I hypothesize that the end-of-2014 soil test will show a reduction in the magnesium excess and a further improvement in soil texture. Thus, to remedy S and P, for the same square footage as before, I’ll also include these in the 2014 soil prescription:

S: 276 grams (9.7 oz) gypsum
P: 773 grams (1 lb 11 oz) Calphos

To best use S and P I need to increase the humus in the garden soil. Well-made compost would be the cheapest and most local source of humus. However, having read Chapter 9, I may as well admit that my compost is not the best it can be. So I considered how I might be able to add more humus. When I read the 2014 Fedco catalog and saw that their Organic Garden Supply division offered Menefee humates, I decided to try that as a possible way to increase humus content. The catalog suggests using 6 to 10 pounds per 1000 square feet in several applications and to incorporate it into the soil surface. Since this material is new to me I will add only a half pound to each 100 square foot bed this year. I hypothesize that it will increase the organic matter level slightly, but more importantly, it will reduce the deficiencies in S and P at least slightly in the end-of-2014 soil test.

It remains to add some nitrogen, in the form of seedmeal, and trace elements while I can still easily obtain these. Solomon suggests a gradual reduction in the amount of seedmeal added each year, as the soil comes into better balance and is better able to supply all the nitrogen the plants need. Last year I added three quarts of cottonseed meal to each 100 square foot bed. This year I’ll add two quarts and observe how the plants respond. For the trace elements, I’ll again add one quart of kelpmeal to each 100 square foot bed. I’ll also add three 5 gallon buckets of my compost to each 100 square foot bed, the current recommendation of Ecology Action and about the same amount as Solomon suggests adding. Since organic matter level did not change in 2013, it appears this is enough compost to maintain the organic matter level. Compost itself is a minor source of minerals from decomposed plants and the soil that came into the pile along with them.

As part of my effort to reduce weeding work and maintain a plant cover on each bed throughout the year, and because all of these materials work best within the top six inches of soil, I’ll broadcast them on the soil surface in 2014 rather than dig them in with a broadfork as I did last year. For each bed, then, I’ll first measure out the cottonseed meal, then add the humates, kelpmeal, and all the fertilizers except for the borax, mixing them thoroughly. For those beds that already have crimson clover (my cover crop of choice) or onions and garlic growing in them, I’ll first sprinkle on the soil prescription mix, then the compost. For beds that are mostly weed-free but don’t have any desired plants growing on them, I’ll put down crimson clover seed between the mix and the compost. For those beds that need major weeding, I’ll weed them first, then proceed as for a weed-free bed. If  I treat all the beds as soon as the soil thaws in March, the soil prescription and compost should work their way into the top six inches of the soil with time and as I make furrows for seeds and dig in and harvest plants. The crimson clover will, I hope, reduce the growth of weed seeds by covering the soil before, between, and after the desired crops in each bed. It will also reduce erosion by wind and water action.

Oh, and the borax? For that, I will dissolve borax in a quart of hot water first, then dilute that quart with enough water to fill a two gallon sprinkling can. I’ll water that into the bed after everything else has been added, and then water with another can or two of plain water. With so little needed and with its dissolving so well in water, this is the easiest way to add borax with no risk of overdose. Following it with plain water will encourage it to sink into the soil and wash it and the rest of the added materials off the clover and onion leaves.

So much for the soil. How about the rest of the garden? Well, that’s the subject of the next post!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Learning from mistakes



The photo above shows you that I make mistakes and the consequence of one of them. This post is about that particular mistake, why I made it, and what I’ve learned from it that might help one of you someday.

We happened to be out of town the week that proved that the St. Louis metro region can still experience temperatures below 0F. In a previous post I discussed that the last time the temperature dropped that low at the official NWS weather station was in 1999, which seemed to put us in USDA climate Zone 7 rather than Zone 6 as is shown on the latest zone map. Being in Zone 7 would allow for a somewhat wider range of plants to grow here than being in Zone 6 does. On the other hand, I didn’t discount the possibility that we could again see temperatures falling below zero F. Good thing. For about 30 hours, from about 2 a.m. on January 6 through about 8 a.m. on January 7, the hourly temperature data points were all at or below 0F. The official low was -8F. It may have been a degree or two cooler at our house; it often is.

Before we left home the potential for this kind of cold spell had become clear. It presented me with a dilemma. I wasn’t concerned about the plants outside, even the tea plants, because we were also predicted to receive several inches of snow, enough to cover them and thus insulate them from the worst of the cold. All the outdoor plantings I currently have can withstand Zone 6 conditions. It was the plants on the glassed-in, south-facing front porch that I worried about, especially the frost-sensitive plants like the geraniums and the clivia. The glassed-in porch on our previous house had dropped below 20F when the outside temperature dropped below 0F. I thought it possible that this porch could do so as well. Temperatures that cold could kill the clivia and geraniums and possibly harm the citrus trees as well. Should I bring those plants in the house where they would be safe as long as the electricity stayed on, but which would be difficult in some cases due to their size and weight? Bringing them inside would mean I’d have to leave them inside till March because they would lose their adaptation to the slightly-below-freezing conditions they had already withstood and could reoccur. Plus we did not have enough available sunny window space for the geraniums, and the citrus would have to be kept on the floor of the guest bedroom, keeping us from using that space. Or should I leave the plants on the porch, risking their deaths, but saving a lot of effort and giving me a good test of just how hardy they might be? I opted for the second approach except in one case: I brought the smaller of the two clivia plants inside the house. This clivia grew from a seed from the larger, nearly 20 year old mother plant. It’s small enough to keep inside the house the rest of the winter, and it provided insurance in case the mother plant died. Before we left, I moved the flats of lettuces as well as the satsuma tangerine, the Bearss lime, and the hanging basket of begonias on top of the east row of 55 gallon drums, then covered the drums and the plants on the floor next to the drums with row cover. On the west side of the porch, I draped old sheets over the clivia and the larger citrus plants. The clivia sits on one of the 55 gallon drums, the citrus plants between the drums and the west window. I hoped that freezing water might provide just enough heat to keep that clivia alive and keep the temperature around the citrus plants within a range they could withstand.

When we returned home, as soon as I opened the porch door I smelled frozen leaves. Uncovering the plants confirmed what my nose told me. Both florist geraniums and the rose geranium were dead. The photo at the top shows the frozen clivia leaves. Most of the Bearss lime leaves were curled up and brown; the Meyer lemon and navel orange leaves were still green but curled up. Looking at the maximum-minimum thermometer, I discovered that the temperature had dropped to 18F at one point. It was probably colder near the floor. No wonder the geraniums died and the clivia froze. I hadn’t realized the porch could get that cold.

However, there were some pleasant surprises as well. The young satsuma tangerine, purchased just a few months ago, looked as good as ever, as did the lettuces and dill. The kumquat appeared to be mostly undamaged. The tea plant on the porch as well as the tea plants outside show no damage. Most astonishing of all, while the tops of the begonia plants on the porch frosted, the new leaves below them appear undamaged.

Thinking over what happened, I realize that I need to alter what kinds of plants I can keep on the porch if I want to leave them there all winter long. Citrus plants like satsuma and kumquat that can take temperatures around 18 to 20F are fine to leave out all winter long if they are covered during the coldest weather. However, Bearss lime is rated hardy only to 28F. I’ll have to bring it, or its replacement if it dies, into the house during the coldest part of winter. As for the clivia, I think the best thing is to keep a smaller replacement plant going once the mother plant gets so large I no longer want to move it. (The mother plant may not be dead -- its base looks OK under the wilted leaves -- but time will tell.) I plan to purchase a replacement for the rose geranium, but I’ll make certain to leave a space inside for it during the coldest part of the winter. I’m also looking into other plants that can take temperatures into the teens that might be candidates for life on the porch.

Another possibility is to better shield the plants from cold weather. Row cover works better than old sheets to protect plants; I’ll get some more of it. Covering the windows as well as using the row cover would also slow heat loss, and I will be looking into what might be available.

Heating the porch on the coldest nights enough to keep it just above freezing would be another option, but I don’t plan to do that. I don’t want to spend the money or be responsible for the attendant pollution. Keeping plants on the porch only makes sense to me if they can stand the conditions the porch offers them.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Taking stock of 2013

As the end of the year approaches, it's a good time to report on a few updates to previous posts and to consider what I said I'd do this year in light of what I actually did. At least I hope to do that, if my computer and Blogger effect enough of a truce to allow me to complete the post.

When I wrote this post on how Mike and I keep phone service costs low, we did not have a cell phone. I admit I felt somewhat smug about it. It was a small way for us to resist creeping digitization and its requirement to be available to anyone at any time as well as a cost saving and environmental benefit. However, it became clearer every time we traveled out of town that pay phone availability has diminished too much to not have access to a cell phone when we are traveling. Since Mike's mother had given us a couple of her no-longer-used cell phones to recycle properly, we charged one of them up, determined that it worked, and now buy 30 minutes of phone service every three months so we have a phone to use when one or both of us is away from home. We don't need or want text service so we don't pay for that and it is a dumb phone since we can get access to the Internet through library computers when we are away from home. It adds $40/year to our phone costs, an annoyance but the cheapest way we know of to have phone service when traveling. And we did not have to buy a new phone to get service.

I discussed our continuing use of obsolete computers in this post. It probably shouldn't surprise me that not long after I completed the post, the Mac SE's monitor image started to develop a waviness that I understand is common as it ages. Apparently there is a fix, but because it involves opening the case I have been reluctant to make the fix, or to put it more precisely, to ask Mike to open the computer and make the fix. So far I have been able to ignore the waviness and it tends to lessen after the computer has run for a half hour or so, but I do not know how long I have before the fix will be required to see the monitor image.

Meanwhile, the OS that this computer uses grows more obsolete. While the computer itself works fine, browsers for Internet access are a major issue. TenFourFox is the only one being maintained and it doesn't seem to be working well with Blogger. I've experienced considerable frustration getting the last few posts put up and I'm still not sure how I got the previous post up. It may be time to look for a somewhat less obsolete computer that doesn't require wireless service. Or else time to write posts at home and put them on a jump drive so I can post them from the public library's computer.

In this post I discussed the gutters Mike hung on our garden shed so we could collect rainwater. The tank filled by late October so I could use the collected water when I planted the garlic and potato onions. All was fine until the first four inch snowfall earlier this month. Yes, I'd forgotten to take account of the effect of snow sliding off the shed roof onto the gutters. The gutters are now on the ground, where they will stay until April. Unless we come up with a better system, we'll put up the gutters up in April, about the time the growing season starts, and take them down when the growing season ends in November.

Now that the updates are done, let's take a look at my goals for 2013 and see how they compare with what we actually did.

Reducing the impact of drought: because we had much above rainfall through the end of June, I confess to not being as motivated to research into swales and add mulch to the perennial beds as I should have been -- especially since we experienced a flash drought in late summer and fall. But we did add the gutters and downspout to the shed roof and started collecting rain in the 500 gallon tank. Call this one a partial success, with plenty left to do this year.

Creating a shaded place for summer sitting and cooking: we accomplished this with a sturdy tarp made to hold down loads on trailers, which we attached to the conduit framework over our existing patio. It proved to be sturdy enough and well enough attached to not be damaged by the close approach of the May 2013 tornado. Later in the summer we purchased a barbeque pit that is large enough to roast a turkey in; Mike roasted one last month over charcoal and a little fruitwood and it was delicious. He also built a rocket stove which so far is only a partial success (we need to use it more so we learn its peculiarities). But since we now have the basics of a summer kitchen, we accomplished this goal.

That's enough for today. Sometime in the next month I'll post my goals, garden and otherwise, for 2014. In the meantime, have a peaceful and pleasant New Year!


Saturday, December 14, 2013

What my garden told me: results of the 2013 garden dialogue


Back in May I posted about using the scientific method to conduct a dialogue with my garden in my effort to learn to work more skillfully with Nature’s patterns. While I want to grow a lot of food in a small space (and perhaps inspire some of you to do the same thing), I also want to leave that small space better than I found it. In order to do that, I have been conducting an informal scientific dialogue with my garden for the past 15 years. In the linked post I discussed how I use the scientific method to help me become a better gardener as well as the particular questions I asked my garden to answer this year. Now that most of the harvest is in, it’s time to find out what my garden told me.

In early 2013 I had learned about soil re-mineralization and its beneficial effects on gardening from Steve Solomon’s 2013 book The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense Food. The result was that the major question I asked my garden to answer this year is, what effect would proper soil mineralization have on the yields that I am able to obtain? I wanted to know the answer to this question because I am trying to grow a larger fraction of the vegetables that Mike and I eat, and some evidence suggested that lack of a properly balanced soil mineral base might be one issue that is keeping the yields I measure lower than what appears to be possible.

To help answer this question, I had a soil test done by the laboratory Steve Solomon recommended early in the gardening season and used the process in his book to develop a complete organic fertilizer tailored to remedy the mineral deficiencies in my garden soil that the soil test revealed were present, as I discussed in this post. Then I formulated a set of questions for the garden to answer in 2013, in the form of hypotheses that I thought were reasonable to expect from a more appropriately mineralized soil. The hypotheses were:

            Yield, defined as pounds harvested per 100 square feet, should increase for those varieties I grew in 2013 that I have also grown in past years, or at least not decrease.
            Those minerals that were in excess in my soil at the start of the gardening season should show a reduction in excess, and those minerals that were deficient should show a reduction in deficiency, by the end of the growing season.
            Varieties that I have grown in past years might have improved flavor and/or improved pest and/or disease resistance this year.

Besides these questions, I also grew several new varieties of vegetables to see if the new varieties offered any improvements versus the ones I have grown in the past.

Now that most of the rest of the harvest is finished and the 2014 seed catalogs are hitting my mailbox, it’s time to finish the analysis so that I can decide on the questions I’d like answered in 2014. Because some of you might be interested in the data (not to mention checking to see if my analysis is correct), I’m reporting it below. But many of you just want to know the conclusion. So for you, a summary of what my garden told me:

Yields were affected by many different factors, but in the few cases where the effect of soil re-mineralization could be clearly discerned, it was positive.
Taste was mostly not affected, but a few varieties seemed to taste better. Pest and disease pressures were reduced compared to previous years.
The effect of soil re-mineralization on post-season mineral levels is unclear and will require a lot of thought to determine what the soil told me and how to respond.

This year’s results were sufficiently positive that I’ll re-balance the soil minerals next year and see what my garden tells me as a result. No doubt I’ll ask other questions of my garden in 2014. Once I’ve formulated them, I’ll put up a post or two on what my garden and I will be discussing in 2014.
___________________________

Now for those of you who want to see all the data and my analysis of it, and for those of you who might be considering if you want to ask your gardens some questions in 2014 or make use of my results in your gardens, keep right on reading. It’ll be a long post so you might want to have your favorite long-post-reading beverage at hand.

While you read the following, keep in mind these different aspects of the art of scientific dialogue:
knowing what questions you want to ask;
knowing how to set up the dialogue so the garden gives you the answers to the questions you asked rather than to some other questions you didn’t realize you asked till the end of the season; and
figuring out what questions you, the garden, and the larger environment asked that you weren’t aware of or could not have known at the start, and how those questions affected your ability to answer the questions you wanted to ask.

Because I’m working with a living system that is inherently powerful and unpredictable and that is connected to a far more powerful and unpredictable environment, I have to accept that the garden and the environment will ask and answer some questions of their own which may hinder how well some or all of my questions can be answered. Among those questions this year were the effect of a hot, dry fall on the fall lettuce, which prevented my obtaining an answer to the question of which of the lettuce varieties I tried to grow did best in the fall garden.

As I expected, I did not ask the question about yields as skillfully as I could have because I allowed too many other controllable aspects of gardening to vary. Among those, I did not include controls (varieties I’ve grown in the past) for some of the crops that I grew, and I did not plant some crops at the same spacing as I did in the year in which I had the highest yield. Since not all varieties perform the same even when everything else is held constant, not including a control often prevented me from determining if the yield in 2013 increased for that crop. Similarly, since yields depend on crop spacing, in those cases where I changed spacing for a control variety I could not determine if the yield increased in 2013. Such is life. Since I didn’t decide to ask the question about the effect of soil re-mineralization till I had already planned out the garden, purchased seeds, and started some of the plants, I knew that I didn’t design my garden trials as well as I could have to obtain the answers I wanted. But I still grew lots of food and enjoyed myself and learned a lot from my garden. And as they say, there is always next year.

Back to learning what my garden told me. I’ll address the three big questions I asked it in turn.

Question #1: did soil re-mineralization result in increased yields?

The best way to answer that question would be for everything else – weather, planting dates, crop varieties and spacing, added compost amount and composition, and so forth – to be exactly as it was in previous years, with only the soil fertilization added to each bed changing. The weather varies a lot from year to year and that inevitably affects how well I can answer any gardening question. In addition, I have changed crop varieties, spacing, and planting dates for some of the crops that I have grown over the years and changed how much compost is added to each bed, as well as other (sometimes unintended) changes. In order to disentangle effects due to re-mineralization from effects that might be due to some other change, I’ll start with a table of the previous highest-yielding varieties of various crops along with the varieties that I grew this year. I’ll include the recommended spacing from the 8th edition of the book How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons, the spacing and planting date for the year in which I got the best yield previous to 2013, and the 2013 spacing and planting date.

Table 1. Planting information for highest yielding crop varieties and varieties planted in 2013.
Crop
Variety
HTGMV spacing, inches
Past spacing, inches
Past planting date
2013 spacing, inches
2013 planting date
Dry bush bean
Midnight Black Turtle
6
In-row 6, between-row 6
5/18/09


Dry bush bean
Beefy Resilient Grex (F4)
6


3 seeds planted in each spot; in-row 12, between-row 12
6/12
Beet
Cylindra
4
In-row 4, between-row 4
4/15/12
In-row 6, between-row 6
5/17
Beet
Sugar
7
In-row 6, between-row 6
5/23/11
In-row variable, between-row 12
5/17
Bok choy
Prize Choy
Not given
12
Sown 2/28/10, TP 4/24
12
Sown 2/15, TP 5/13
Broccoli
Green Goliath
15
15
Sown 2/1/06, TP 4/14


Broccoli
Nutri-Bud
15
15
Sown 2/7/12, TP 4/19
15
Sown 2/15, TP 5/11
Cabbage
Early Jersey Wakefield
15
15
Sown 2/1/06, TP 4/14
15
Sown 2/15, TP 5/11
Cabbage
Golden Acre
18


18
Sown 2/15, TP 5/11
Carrot
Danvers 126
3
In-row 4, between-row 4
4/15/12
In-row variable, between-row 6
5/17
Corn, flint
Cascade Ruby-Gold
15


In-row 12, between-row 12
6/24, 6/27, 6/28
Corn, pop
Unknown yellow
15
In-row 12, between-row 24, 3 to 4 seeds per spot
6/21/09


Eggplant
White (store-bought)
18
In-row 12, between-row 12
Planted 5/11/12


Eggplant
Black Beauty
18


In-row 12, between-row 12
Sown 3/13, TP 5/22
Eggplant
White Beauty
18


In-row 12, between-row 12
Sown 3/13, TP 5/21, 5/22
Garlic
Inchelium Red
4
4
Planted 11/16/99
In-row 6, between-row 6
Planted 11/10/12
Leek
Giant Musselburg
6
6
Sown 2/1/06, TP 4/14/06


Leek
Bleu de Solaize
6
6
Sown 2/3/12, TP 3/29
In-row 6, between-row 12
Sown 1/22, TP 4/24
Lettuce
Anuenue
12
9
Sown 3/7/11, TP 5/7
9
Sown 3/13, TP 5/13
Lettuce
Bronze Arrow
12
12
Sown 3/7/11, TP 5/7
12
Sown 3/13, TP 5/13
Lettuce
Pirat
9
9
Sown 2/28/10, TP 4/23
9
Sown 3/13, TP 5/13
Onion, multiplier
Potato
Not given
6
Planted 11/26/05
8
Planted 11/10/12
Onion, bulb
Dakota Tears (yellow)
4
In row 6, between-row 6
Sown 2/28/10, TP 4/8
In-row 6, between-row 12
Sown 1/22, TP 4/24
Onion, bulb
Rossa di Milano (red)
4
6
Sown 2/3/12, TP 3/28
In-row 6, between-row 12
Sown 1/22, TP 4/24
Pea, shell
Little Marvel
3
In-row 6, between-row 6
Sown 4/3/12
In-row 6, between-row 6
Sown 4/5
Pea, snow
Blizzard
3
In-row 6, between-row 6
Sown 4/3/12


Pea, snow
Oregon Giant
3


In-row 6, between-row 6
Sown 4/5
Peanut
Tennessee Red Valencia
9


In-row 12, between-row 24, 3 to 4 seeds per spot
Sown 6/3
Pepper, sweet
Carolina Wonder
12


In-row 12, between-row 12
Sown 3/13, TP 5/21
Pepper, sweet
Italian Frying
12
12
Sown 1/27/07, TP 4/30
In-row 12, between-row 12
Sown 3/13, TP 5/21
Pepper, sweet
World Beater
12
In-row 12, between-row 12
Sown 2/4/08, TP 4/30
In-row 12, between-row 12
Sown 3/13, TP 5/21
Potato
Elba
9


In-row 12, between-row 24
Planted 5/1
Potato
German Butterball
9
In-row 12, between-row 24
Planted 4/18/11
In-row 12, between-row 24
Planted 4/30
Potato
Rose Gold
9
9
Planted 4/7/06


Radish, winter
Black Spanish Round
Not given
In-row variable, between-row 12
Sown 8/13/08
In-row variable, between-row 12
Sown 8/16
Radish, winter
Red Meat
Not given
In-row 6, between-row 6
Sown 7/20/09
In row variable, between-row 12
Sown 8/16
Squash, summer
Benning’s Green Tint
15


In-row 12, between-row 48
Sown 7/12
Squash, winter
Lady Godiva
18
In-row 48, between-row 48
Sown 7/6/09


Squash, winter
Sweet Meat – Oregon Homestead
18


In-row 24, between-row 48
Sown 7/3
Squash, winter
Waltham Butternut
18
In-row 48, between-row 48
Sown 7/2/11
In-row 24, between-row 48
Sown 7/11
Squash, zucchini
Dark Green
18
In-row 36, between-row 48
Sown 6/20/09


Squash, zucchini
Costata Romanesca
18
In-row 48, between-row 48
Sown 5/23/12
In-row 12, between-row 48
Sown 7/12
Sweet potato
Ivis White Cream
9
In-row 15, between-row 24
Planted 6/21/08


Sweet potato
O’Henry
9


In-row 12, between-row 48
Planted 5/29
Tomato
Arkansas Traveler
18
In-row 12, between-row 12
Sown 2/17/12, TP 5/12
In-row 12, between-row 12
Sown 3/13, TP 5/22
Tomato
Hungarian Italian Paste
18
In-row 12, between-row 12
Sown 2/17/12, TP 5/11
In-row 12, between-row 12
Sown 3/13, TP 5/21
Turnip
Purple Top White Globe
4
In-row variable, between-row 6
Sown 8/16/08
In-row variable, between-row 12
Sown 8/16

In the table above and in the rest of the post, HTGMV refers to the 8th edition of How to Grow More Vegetables. HTGMV suggests planting on a triangular grid to maximize overlap of the crowns of the plants at maturity. The HTGMV column gives the spacing, in inches, to use for each crop according to the Master Charts in HTGMV. The Master Charts do not differentiate potato onions (a perennial onion that splits into smaller bulbs, grown by planting single bulbs in mid to late fall) from bulb onions, thus there is no entry in the HTGMV column for potato onions. Winter radishes are not differentiated from salad radishes and bok choy is not shown in the Master Charts so these also lack entries in the HTGMV column.

Table 1 shows that I now plant most varieties at a different spacing than HTGMV suggests and often in rows, sometimes short rows across the width of the bed (my beds are all 4 feet wide by 25 feet long), sometimes long rows down the length of the bed. Note how much farther apart I plant many varieties now than I did in the year when I got the highest yield, and how much some of the sowing and planting dates have changed. I’ll talk more about that when I discuss the yield results shown in Table 2 below.

Table 2. Possible yields from HTGMV, best previous yields, and 2013 yields. All yields are given in pounds per 100 square feet.  The HTGMV column shows possible yields using the HTGMV method of gardening, based on Ecology Action’s research. They suggest beginners use the low number for planning and comparison purposes, good gardeners the middle number, and excellent gardeners with favorable climates and soil the high number. The next two columns are the best previous yield I have obtained with a variety and the yield I obtained for that variety in 2013. An asterisk shows harvests that have been completed but not yet weighed, thus yield data is currently unavailable.
Crop
Variety
HTGMV yield
Previous best yield
2013 yield
Dry bush bean
Midnight Black Turtle
4 / 10 / 24
12

Dry bush bean
Beefy Resilient Grex (F4)
4 / 10 / 24

*
Beet
Cylindra
110 / 220 / 540
34
104
Beet
Sugar
91 / 182 / 364
141
179
Bok choy
Prize Choy
Not given
182
121
Broccoli
Green Goliath
26 / 39 / 53
76

Broccoli
Nutri-Bud
26 / 39 / 53
12
40
Cabbage
Early Jersey Wakefield
96 / 191 / 383
167
77
Cabbage
Golden Acre
96 / 191 / 383

156
Carrot
Danvers 126
100 / 150 / 400+
122
187
Corn, flint
Cascade Ruby-Gold
11 / 17 / 23+

*
Corn, pop
Unknown yellow
11 / 17 / 23+
16

Eggplant
White (commercial strain)
54 / 108 / 163
151

Eggplant
Black Beauty
54 / 108 / 163

50
Eggplant
White Beauty
54 / 108 / 163

57
Garlic
Inchelium Red
60 / 120 / 240+
39
12
Leek
Giant Musselburg
240 / 480 / 960
107

Leek
Bleu de Solaize
240 / 480 / 960
96
34
Lettuce
Anuenue
75 / 150 / 300
90
113
Lettuce
Bronze Arrow
75 / 150 / 300
89
52
Lettuce
Pirat
75 / 150 / 300
104
68
Onion, multiplier
Potato
Not given
78
33
Onion, bulb
Dakota Tears (yellow)
100 / 200 / 540
44
18
Onion, bulb
Rossa di Milano (red)
100 / 200 / 540
54
34
Pea, shell
Little Marvel
25 / 53 / 106
17
10
Pea, snow
Blizzard
25 / 53 / 106
17

Pea, snow
Oregon Giant
25 / 53 / 106

5
Peanut
Tennessee Red Valencia
4 / 10 / 24

5
Pepper, sweet
Carolina Wonder
68 / 136 / 204

48
Pepper, sweet
Italian Frying
68 / 136 / 204
126
99
Pepper, sweet
World Beater
68 / 136 / 204
83
54
Potato
Elba
100 / 200 / 780

75
Potato
German Butterball
100 / 200 / 780
35
38
Potato
Rose Gold
100 / 200 / 780
111

Radish, winter
Black Spanish Round
Not given
123
15
Radish, winter
Red Meat
Not given
120
32
Squash, summer
Benning’s Green Tint
75 / 150 / 307

39
Squash, winter
Lady Godiva
50 / 100 / 350
87

Squash, winter
Sweet Meat – Oregon Homestead
50 / 100 / 350

71
Squash, winter
Waltham Butternut
50 / 100 / 350
47
22
Squash, zucchini
Dark Green
160 / 319 / 478+
44

Squash, zucchini
Costata Romanesca
160 / 319 / 478+
36
313
Sweet potato
Ivis White Cream
82 / 164 / 492
74

Sweet potato
O’Henry
82 / 164 / 492

64
Tomato
Arkansas Traveler
100 / 194 / 418
647
500
Tomato
Hungarian Italian Paste
100 / 194 / 418
948
458
Turnip
Purple Top White Globe
100 / 200 / 360
101
9

Knowing what the garden told me about yield for each crop I grew, I have to translate what it said into answers to the questions I asked as well as the questions I didn’t realize I was asking and that the garden and environment asked. To do that I need to discuss a number of factors that can affect yield in addition to soil re-mineralization. Then I’ll look at each crop in turn to tease out the different effects.

Crop Spacing. There is a complex relationship between spacing and yield. Crops that are planted too close together compete for nutrients and thus don’t yield as well on a weight per unit area basis. Increasing the spacing increases yields, but only up to a point. Once the spacing gets so large that some of the soil minerals go un-utilized by the crop, yield begins to decrease. HTGMV’s suggested spacing is supposed to be that for which yield is highest for each crop. Table 1 indicates that I have tended to use wider spacing than HTGMV suggests for many crops. This in turn suggests that my yields will tend to be low for those crops.

Planting date. Crops need to be planted at the time when the weather patterns are favorable for their growth and development. In general, that means that crops that like cool spring weather should be planted in late March or April here, while plants that need many weeks of warm to hot weather should be planted in May or June and crops that need cool fall weather should be planted from June through August depending on their maturity date. Examination of Table 1 suggests that in some cases I planted too late in 2013, based on both generally accepted planting dates for this area and the planting date I used in the year of highest yields.

Crop variety. Gardeners and farmers find that some varieties are better adapted for their conditions than are others. In general, the better adapted a variety is, the higher yield it can give, other factors being constant. In other cases certain varieties are larger or smaller than other varieties of a particular crop wherever they are grown. A larger variety planted at the same time and at the same distance might be expected to yield more than a smaller variety, unless excess competition becomes a factor.

Shading. Some of the crops I grew, notably the peppers and eggplants, were shaded by more-vigorous crops grown next to them. Shaded crops will not yield as much as their less shaded or un-shaded counterparts.

Nutrient demand. Some crops do not need as much nutrition as do others. Steve Solomon includes a table of low, medium, and high demand vegetables on page 16 of his book Gardening When It Counts. All else being equal, proper soil mineral balance might be expected to have the biggest positive effect on high-demand veggies and the least on low-demand veggies.

Weather conditions. Excessive heat, cold, rain, or drought compared to what is experienced in an average season can reduce the yield of crops susceptible to their effects. In 2013 spring proved to be cool and wet. June and July tended cool and wet while August through October were warmer and dry. Late August through September was excessively warm and dry, with negative effects on fall crops.

With that in mind I will look at each crop to consider how the various factors may have affected the yield I obtained in 2013 compared to past years.

Beets. The yield I obtained is somewhat higher in 2013 than in 2011 while I harvested the same number of sugar beets per unit area this year as 2011 according to my records.  That suggests that soil re-mineralization may have had a mild positive effect on this low-demand crop.

For ‘Cylindra’ beets, even though I used row planting, I got about the same number of beets as I would have if I had used HTGMV’s triangular planting pattern and suggested spacing. Planting in rows is much easier so I plan to continue to do so. The yield of ‘Cylindra’ may have benefitted most from growing the beets more thickly as I harvested about three times as many beets this year per unit of space, and the yield increased by a factor of three as well.

Bok choy. Table 1 shows that I planted bok choy about three weeks later in 2013 than in the previous best year. Because the St. Louis area has very short springs followed by hot summers, spring-planted crops have little leeway in planting date to obtain the best yield. The reduction of yield this year may be due to late planting and perhaps stunted growth resulting from the three months between seed sowing and transplanting versus the two months generally recommended and done in the best-yielding year.

Broccoli. Another crop I planted late and after too long in the seedling stage, which may have lowered yield in 2013. However, varietal differences in yield cannot be ruled out as a possible factor in the results in Table 2. To learn this I would need to grow both broccolis the same year with all else held constant. Note that the yield of ‘Nutri-Bud’ broccoli increased by a factor of 3 in 2013 versus 2012, despite being planted late in 2013 versus at the correct time in 2012. Since broccoli is a high demand crop that would be expected to show a significant increase in yield with proper fertilization, this seems to be evidence of the beneficial effect of soil re-mineralization on its yield.

Cabbage. The 2013 yield of ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ cabbage is strong evidence of the deleterious effect of late planting, as I have planted this variety at the same distance for many years. Interestingly, ‘Golden Acre’ cabbage had double the yield of ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ despite the planting distance being larger and other factors the same. I will grow both cabbages again next year.

Carrot. I harvested about twice the number of carrots per unit area in 2013 as in 2012, so the increase in yield in 2013 may be attributable to that rather than soil re-mineralization, as carrots are a low-demand vegetable.

Eggplant. Eggplants are a medium-demand vegetable so one might expect that they would have yielded better in 2013 than in past years. Comparing 2013’s two varieties to the ‘White’ eggplant of 2012, this year’s plants underperformed. However, the ‘White’ eggplant of Table 1 was a purchased plant, possibly a higher-yielding variety, as opposed to the two open-pollinated varieties I grew from seed in 2013. The purchased eggplant was also much larger than my homegrown seedlings, which may have allowed it to start yielding earlier. Still, of the several other open-pollinated varieties of eggplants I have grown in the past, none yielded as well as this year’s two varieties. Thus soil re-mineralization may have had some benefit on yield, especially considering that ‘Black Beauty’ has a reputation for low yields.

Since our hot, long summers should favor eggplants I have wondered why my eggplants have not performed closer to the mid-range yield listed in HTGMV. A close perusal of the Master Charts suggests that I may have been overcrowding them. The suggested spacing in HTGMV amounts to about two square feet of space per plant while I have been allotting them one square foot of space per plant. That fact, and the fact that the 2013 eggplants were crowded up against much taller tomatoes and may have suffered from excess shading and competition from them, may explain the rather low yields this year.  A good test of this possibility would be to plant some of the 2014 plants at one plant per square foot and others at one plant per two square feet and monitor the yield at each spacing. I will also ensure they are not shaded by taller plants.

Garlic, leeks, and onions. The beds with the garlic, leeks, and onions were planted before the soil test results arrived, thus they did not receive the mix designed to re-mineralize the soil. In addition, all of these vegetables were planted at a larger planting distance than in the years with the highest yields resulting in fewer plants per unit area, and the bulb onions were planted late in 2013. Thus I expected none of these to match the highest past yields, and none of them did. I planted next year’s garlic and potato onion crops at a 6 inch spacing, hypothesizing that the combination of soil re-mineralization and a closer spacing will result in higher yields in 2014 compared to 2013.

Lettuces. ‘Anuenue’ yielded slightly better in 2013 than its previous best year, ‘Bronze Arrow’ and ‘Pirat’ worse. ‘Anuenue’ is a later-maturing, long-standing lettuce developed for hot climates. That may be why it did better than the other two in a year in which they were planted later than is recommended for Missouri.

Peas and peanuts. The peas and peanuts were planted in a bed that was prepared for planting before the soil test results arrived, thus it did not receive the soil re-mineralization mix. In addition, the peas showed poor germination, perhaps because I did not pre-sprout them before planting. (I did not pre-sprout in 2012 either but that was a much warmer spring than 2013, reducing rotting due to cold soil.) Also, the peas sprawled too much due to my not supporting them. Thus the low yield in 2013 was not a surprise. I was gratified that the peanuts yielded as well as they did since it was the first year I grew them. I will grow them again.

Peppers. I expected pepper yields to be higher than they were because peppers are a high demand crop that would likely benefit from soil re-mineralization. However, the ‘Carolina Wonder’ and ‘World Beater’ plants suffered from considerable shading by taller crops on either side of them, while the ‘Italian Frying’ plants were less shaded. Its lower yield than in the best previous year may be partially attributable to being planted three weeks later and partially attributable to the shading it experienced. See below, however, for a different and noticeably positive effect of soil re-mineralization on the pepper crop.

Potatoes. The spacing used for the highest-yielding potato crop is equivalent to that recommended in HTGMV and is far closer than the spacing I use now, thus I did not expect to match the best past yield even if the plants responded positively to re-mineralization. I use the much wider spacing because of the sprawling nature of potato plants: it keeps them from shading nearby crops, and I can hill up the widely spaced plants. The result of note this year was how much better the yield of ‘Elba’ was than ‘German Butterball’. ‘German Butterball’ yielded 7.6 times the planted weight while ‘Elba’ yielded 15 times the planted weight! It also produced a few large potatoes per plant that were easy to harvest and it tasted delicious. I’ll be planting ‘Elba’ from now on.

Winter radishes and turnips. These seem to have suffered from excessively hot fall conditions and from my not thinning and weeding them in a timely manner. I planted them in the area where cabbage and broccoli had grown without adding more fertilizer, so there may have not been adequate nutrition left for them to fulfill their potential.

Squash. The low yield of ‘Bennings Green Tint’ doesn’t reveal that this was the first year after a number of years of trying that I got any of this squash at all. The very much higher yield of zucchini in 2013 is likely due to a combination of soil re-mineralization (it is a medium demand crop) and a variety well suited to my conditions. At first glance the planting date for winter squash appears very late for this area and suggests reduced yields versus HTGMV’s possible yields, but past experience has shown that earlier planting results in much less squash due to squash bug attacks killing the vines. However, I may try earlier planting again since other pest problems seemed less this year, a point covered more below. The ‘Sweet Meat’ squash yielded better in 2013, but the later planting for ‘Butternut’ may have had a negative effect on its yield.

Sweet potatoes. I planted the equivalent of 40 plants per 100 square feet of ‘Ivis White Cream’ in 2008 while I planted the equivalent of 25 plants per 100 square feet of ‘O’Henry’ this year, yet the yield of ‘O’Henry’ was not much below that of ‘Ivis White Cream’. Given this, ‘O’Henry’ made a better showing. I do not know if this is because ‘O’Henry’ was planted about a month earlier, because the larger spacing meant it had less competition, because it is a higher-yielding variety, or because of the soil re-mineralization (sweet potatoes are a medium demand crop).  I prefer to plant at the 48-inch between-row distance because it is easier to dig out the crop. But I might alter the plant spacing across the bed in 2014 and keep track of the yields of the different parts of the bed to get a better idea of the optimum spacing for ‘O’Henry’.

Tomatoes. While I did not see much difference in yield for ‘Arkansas Traveler’ from 2012 to 2013, yields were much lower in the six preceding years. I had trouble with disease affecting the plants in the wet years of 2008-2011 while 2012 was very dry, which I suspect greatly reduced disease problems that year and thus boosted yield. Compared to 2012, 2013 was a wet year so I was pleased that this tomato yielded so well, close to its best. ‘Hungarian Italian Paste’ yielded about twice as much in 2012 but it also yielded less in the six years preceding 2012 than it did in 2013.

Overall, therefore, where the effect of soil re-mineralization could be separated from other changes from year to year, the effect seems to be positive. However, I’ll need to pay more attention to plant spacing, planting dates, and varieties grown in future years to better answer this question.

            Question #3: effect of re-mineralization on flavor or pest or disease resistance

The most noticeable change in flavor was in the ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ cabbage. My notes say that this year’s crop was very sweet with none of the off-flavor that cabbage sometimes gets. I cannot attribute that entirely to soil re-mineralization because the weather was cooler and wetter than usual while it was growing, but a balanced soil may have contributed. ‘Anuenue’ lettuce also had excellent flavor with no bitterness whatsoever and the heads were very dense and crispy. I wasn’t as impressed with it in previous years, but the Fedco seed catalog does list these as varietal attributes. It may be that soil re-mineralization allowed it to reach its full potential as lettuce is a medium demand crop. At any rate I will grow ‘Anuenue’ again. ‘Bronze Arrow’ lettuce also seemed less bitter this year, but ‘Pirat’ lettuce seemed more bitter and I may look for a replacement for it. Otherwise I noticed no flavor differences in those crops whose taste I know well.

While I had hypothesized that I might have less trouble with harlequin bugs and squash bugs, I did not predict that cabbage moths would be less trouble, which turned out to be the case and was most welcome. I didn’t notice any harlequin bug problems as I sometimes have with cabbage-family crops after midsummer. The squash bugs did eventually show up but by the time they did, the squash had already set fruits. I think I had some squash borers also but they did not seem to be much of a problem. Overall pests seemed to be less of a problem in 2013, which I attribute to the re-mineralized soil since I know of no other way to explain this.

Over the past few years I have been plagued with one or more diseases affecting the pepper and tomato crops. This year every single pepper plant survived the entire season! Although yields were lower than the best I’ve gotten, they were improved over those of the past few years. All of the tomato plants of the two varieties in Tables 1 and 2 also survived the season. I think this can be attributed to soil re-mineralization since the wet conditions in May and June would have promoted disease as noted in previous wet years.

            Question #2: effect of soil re-mineralization on post-season mineral levels

After receiving the post-season soil test results and comparing them to the pre-season results, and while re-reading Solomon’s The Intelligent Gardener, I realized that I need more time to ponder what the soil told me this season. It’s a complex (and fascinating!) topic that deserves a post of its own. It may be awhile before I get to that post since I will likely write the post on the questions I’m asking the garden to answer in 2014 first. But I do plan to re-balance soil minerals in 2014 since wherever I could discern its effect, it was positive.