Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Finding soil amendments in bulk quantities

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 4, 2016

Perennial plants and a promise produce a new project

The first daffodils of spring

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The 2016 garden: a year of transition

Snow crocuses announcing the impending end to winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 14, 2016

What I learned from my 2015 garden

Once again in 2015 I put on my garden scientist hat and went into the garden to plant, observe, ponder, harvest, weed, curse, and wonder. Like any year, it had its highlights, its low spots, and its head-scratchers. Here I’ll let you all in on the fun (it was fun, sometimes, when it wasn’t exasperating) while trying to keep it fun for you to read. Am I up to it? If you read on, you’ll soon find out.

2015: the summary

For the past three years I have been conducting a scientific experiment in my vegetable garden to determine how the garden responds to soil mineral balancing as described in Steve Solomon’s book The Intelligent Gardener. I based the amount of the mixed amendments that I used in 2015 on the discussion I had with a gardening mentor, as I mentioned in this post, and followed the planting instructions for potatoes that are also discussed in that post. In addition, in 2015 I increased the amount of space I allowed for some crops to match more closely to the semi-intensive spacings in Solomon’s book Gardening When it Counts, and I trialed some new crop varieties and planting procedures. But I didn’t do one thing that my gardening mentor had also suggested. Because I hadn’t purchased enough cottonseed meal in early spring to use for side-dressing, I was unable to side-dress the long-season, high-demand crops as he had suggested.

With that said, here’s a summary of garden performance in 2015

1. In general, crop yields remained the same or increased compared to the past two years. For a few crops yields increased by large factors. A few crop yields decreased compared to previous years.

2. The primary reasons for the year’s overall good results appear to be enough nitrogen (except in those cases where I should have side-dressed the crop but did not), starting seeds for the fall leafy greens crops inside and transplanting out seedlings, and attention paid to planting at the proper time and prompt weeding along with the ongoing soil re-mineralization program. Rabbit predation and excessive rain at the wrong time or no rain at a critical time seemed to be the main reasons behind lowered yields.

For those of you who enjoy digging into the details behind the summary, make yourselves comfortable and let’s start digging!

2015 in detail

The most remarkable feature of 2015’s weather was the amount of rain we got. St. Louis set a new record yearly rainfall of 61.24 inches in 2015. That included the setting of two new monthly rainfall records, for June (13.14 inches) and December (11.74 inches). Besides excessive rain and associated humidity, June also was warmer than normal and much cloudier than normal.

Otherwise, after a cold February and early March, the rest of March was warm and about normal rainfall. April was wet and on the warm side, May was warm and on the dry side. July and August were drier than normal overall (although the first half of August was wet) and about normal temperatures. September and October were both warmer and much drier than normal, while November was warmer and wetter than normal. The last spring frost was on April 4, a little earlier than usual. While we experienced a very light frost on October 18, it didn’t have any noticeable effect on the garden. The first fall frost that made a difference wasn’t until November 20, three weeks or so later than usual. Overall, it was a longer and warmer than normal growing season, with a wet spring and early summer and a dry late summer and fall.

The spreadsheet on the four pages below compares the 2015 yields with the best yield I have obtained so far for each crop type I grew in 2015. I’m using the English system of units because that’s the system used for everyday purposes in the US where I live.

The first two columns on each sheet give the crop and the variety. The next three columns show the date planted, the spacing used, and the yield for the best year’s yield previous to 2015. The next five columns give the data for each crop variety planted in 2015. From left to right these are the date planted, the spacing, the total area planted to that crop, the weight harvested from that area, and the yield calculated from the previous two columns and expressed as pounds per 100 square feet. In some cases I grew different varieties of a particular crop during the best year compared to 2015, so in those cases data is given only for the year that particular variety was grown. The final column has brief notes for some crops.



I think it will be easiest to delve into the details if I group crops together into families, since crops within a family tend to be planted and harvested around the same time and have similar needs.

Onions, leeks, and garlic

I grew two intermediate-day bulbing onions in 2015, both raised from seeds. One reason for the decrease in yield in 2015 compared to 2014 was that I planted the rows twice as far apart in 2015, so I only planted half as many seedlings. I also started the seeds and planted the seedlings a little on the late side, so the onions may not have sized up as much as possible under the best of conditions. The best of conditions was not what they experienced in 2015 with the excessive rain in June, when the onions were bulbing. Some of the crop rotted in the field. Finally, the dill I planted next to the end of the red onion area grew huge in the fertile soil and fell over onto the onions close to it, shading them excessively. I was probably lucky to get as many bulb onions as I did in 2015.

Like the bulb onions, the leeks were started and planted late. In addition, the 2006 leek seedlings were planted much closer together (6 inches apart on hexagonal spacing versus 6 inches apart in rows planted 12 inches apart in 2015). A large fraction of the yield decrease in 2015 is likely to result from that. Another issue was that I planted cilantro in the fertile soil next to the leeks, not realizing that the cilantro would grow huge. The cilantro plants proceeded to fall on top of the leek seedlings, shading them excessively. But the leeks that I did get were huge!

Potato onions, like shallots, split into a cluster of separate bulbs as they grow. The cluster is harvested, allowed to dry, then split into separate bulbs for kitchen use. The bulbs look and taste like yellow onions. Potato onions and garlic are fall planted, grow during fall and spring, and are harvested in early June in these parts. I had decent but not complete survival of the potato onions over winter since I mulched part of the plot too late, after the soil had frozen and then partially thawed. Luckily I acted fast enough in June to get the whole plot harvested in between rains and before the really heavy rain fell in the second half of the month. The wet soil may have cut down some on the yield in 2015 relative to the best years but I still got more than enough of these crops.  In fact, I planted much too large an area to potato onions in 2015; we have far more than we’ll use. I planted about half that area to potato onions this past November for 2016.

Cabbage-family crops, spring

In this part of the US these crops are planted in spring to mature in summer or in late summer to mature in fall or early winter. The three of these that I plant as spring crops for summer harvest are cabbage, broccoli, and bok choy. With the good spring and summer weather (warm and plenty of rain!), cabbage and bok choy did especially well. The cabbage yield was a little lower in 2015 than 2013, but I planted it farther apart in 2015 so I grew fewer plants. The 2013 cabbages averaged 2 to 3 pounds each while three of the four 2015 cabbages weighed 4 to 6 pounds each! The fourth cabbage would have weighed about the same, but it began to rot so I had to harvest it two weeks ahead of the other three. All four cabbages were delicious!

I also tried planting storage cabbages in the spring to mature in fall but they rotted in late summer. Based on the success of summer-sown and fall-planted bok choy as noted below, next year I’ll do the same using an early maturing storage cabbage.

The spring bok choy crop yielded about the same as the best year. I don’t think it’s possible to do better than this here, because spring-planted bok choy inevitably bolts (flowers and goes to seed) in early June. But we like it very much as the base of a stir-fry, and it’s ready before lettuce or cabbage, so it is well worth growing in spring. This year’s broccoli was both a different variety and spaced farther apart than the best yield so its yield looks low in comparison, and it didn’t seem to size up as well as the best one I’ve grown.

Cabbage-family crops, fall

Except for bok choy, which I grow in both spring and fall, I grow a different set of cabbage-family crops in late summer and fall. These include turnips and winter radishes and leaf crops such as arugula, kale, and mustard greens.

Turnips and radishes are always direct-seeded. Success with them is highly dependent on their not being a heat wave in the first half of August, when I need to sow them in order for them to mature before winter. This year worked well in that regard, and I watered them often enough during the dry weather of late August through October to bring them along nicely. As a result both kinds of radishes yielded as well as they ever have. Note that ‘Red Meat’, a beautiful and tasty round winter radish that stores well, yielded about as well as the previous best year even though I planted the rows twice as far apart in 2015. As for turnips, despite planting the rows twice as far apart in 2015 I harvested twice the yield of the best year! In both these cases I think the generous amount of nitrogen available to them, aided by warm fall weather, helped them bulk up - and in the case of the turnips, sweeten up as well. They are the best-tasting turnips ever!

Of the leaf crops, years of experience has shown me that only arugula yields well when it’s direct-seeded in late summer, although in theory the other crops should work that way. I don’t know why direct-seeding doesn’t work well for these crops, but I do know that starting bok choy seeds in the basement and transplanting the seedlings in late summer produced a good crop in the past. So this year I direct-seeded the arugula and started seeds for the others in the basement. Actually, I started the seeds later than I should have. A mid-July start would have resulted in larger kale plants that would have withstood the late August and early September heat, as I mentioned in this post. But the bok choy responded extremely well to this method, besting the previous best yield by nearly a factor of 5! If I had known the bok choy would have done this well, I’d have planted much less of it. Bok choy does not store long in our makeshift root cellar and our refrigerator isn’t large enough for that much bok choy. Even giving a good portion of the crop away, we had to eat as much of the rest of it as fast as we could and leave the mustard greens, kale, and arugula in the garden. Because November and December were so much warmer than normal, we still had those to harvest until a few days ago. Both arugula and mustard greens would have had a best-ever yield if we hadn’t left them to freeze while we were eating up the bok choy. Next year I’ll grow more fall storage and kraut cabbage and less bok choy!

Lettuce and sunflowers

Although it may not seem like it, these two crops with very different growth habits and uses are both part of the aster plant family. I’ll discuss lettuce first.

Since lettuce bolts in heat and increasing day length and cannot survive our winters, I grow it the same way I grow bok choy, as a spring and fall crop. The spring crop is always started in flats and transplanted to the garden. We usually eat some of the heads before they mature so the yields are not as high as they would be otherwise, and this year it was some of the ‘Bronze Arrowhead’ plants that we chose to eat early, reducing its yield compared to the best year. Otherwise I think I’m at about the maximum spring yield I can get under our growing conditions. I liked ‘Kalura’, the romaine lettuce, very well. It’s the first romaine lettuce that has done well for me.

I find that lettuce won’t grow at all if I direct-seed it in August. Since I’d had some luck with lettuce that I started in the basement and planted out as transplants in 2008, I tried doing that in 2015. I probably started it about 2 weeks too late for maximum yield, but I was very pleased to get acceptable yields of the three lettuce on the spreadsheet, especially as warm and dry as it was in September and October, weather not to lettuce’s liking. In 2016 I’ll start the lettuce seeds in the basement in mid July and plant them out as transplants again.

The most important thing to know about the sunflower crop is that I got a crop. It’s not shown on the spreadsheet because I haven’t separated the seeds from the heads yet. But I was able to act ahead of the birds to get a yield for the first time ever! As I’ll discuss more in a future post, obtaining yields of oilseeds like sunflower is important if we’re to have a possibility of subsisting mostly on what I grow.

Beets, carrots, and parsnips

I plant all these as spring crops because, similarly to the lettuce and cabbage-family crops, they do not germinate and grow well, if at all, when direct-seeded into hot August soils and weather. In 2015 all started growing well in the favorable spring weather conditions, and I got a decent yield of beets considering that the rows were twice as far apart as during the year of the best yield. I’d have gotten a good yield of carrots as well, except that the local rabbits decided that carrot greens were what they wanted to eat in early summer. Although I have a short fence around the garden, it isn’t much of a barrier to rabbits, as their feeding on the carrot leaves proved. As a result the roots couldn’t bulk up, if they survived at all. I’ll have to think about what to do to reduce rabbit predation in 2016.

As for parsnips, I got them to germinate and grow well for the first time. But most of the leaves died by late summer and new leaves didn’t appear until October, when it cooled down. The first of the three rows that I harvested, in late November, produced only skinny roots. I’ve seen locally-grown parsnips so there is some way to grow them well here, but for as few parsnips as we use compared to beets and carrots, I’m happy to leave parsnips to the farmers in the future.

Squash-family crops

Of these I grew melons, cucumbers, zucchini, and butternut squash in 2015. Regarding melons, once again I failed to get any, not even from the hybrid melon that I tried. That’s it. I’m done with melons. Let the professionals grow them; I’m happy to support their successes.

Part of the reason for the reduced zucchini yield in 2015 compared to 2013 was excessive shading of the zucchini plants by the pole beans planted just to their south. There may have been another factor too, like having more plants in the same space in 2013. But no matter, I got zucchini to use in our summer salads.

I am not too concerned about the low yield of zucchini last year because we got more than enough cucumbers to make up for it. Besides setting a new yield record for the cucumber variety I show on the chart (growing the rows half as far apart in 2015 had a lot to do with that), I grew a second variety that yielded almost as well. We liked ‘Homemade Pickles’ a little better so that’s the one I’ll keep growing.

I’m not sure why the butternut squash did worse in 2015 than 2014. Fewer plants may have been part of the reason. The 2015 plants also seemed to give up and die earlier than they usually do, maybe from the excessive heat at the end of August lasting well into September.

Nightshade-family crops

In 2015 I grew potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, and ground cherries from this family. Of these, I won’t grow the last two again: the plants sprawl too much, overwhelming the nearby plants that I cared more about, and we don’t use enough of either for me to want to bother with them again. I’m close to that point with eggplants as well, though with them it’s because I can’t grow the plants well enough to get much of a yield. I may try two to four eggplants once more this year, if I find space for them. They might do better with a boost from side-dressing, but as I explained, I didn’t end up doing that in 2015.

It’s easy to grow tomatoes here, as 2015 proved once again. I might have gotten higher yields from side-dressing, but even without it we get plenty of tomatoes. The yield from ‘Arkansas Traveler’ would have been higher if we hadn’t missed out on several tomatoes due to being out of town. ‘Black Prince’ had an intriguing taste but the tomatoes tended to rot before they were ripe. ‘Red Pear’ is a large Italian pear-shaped tomato that is fine for sauce but didn’t have a good enough taste to eat out of hand.

The extra nitrogen from the increased amount of cottonseed meal at planting time combined with nearly perfect weather from a pepper plant’s viewpoint resulted in an excellent pepper harvest. We seemed to have a never-ending pepper supply from July through October! All varieties had a best-ever year. ‘Jalapeno’ is bigger and heavier than ‘Serrano’, which explains part of the astounding yield increase for hot peppers. We ended up with 17 pounds of fresh jalapeno peppers, far more hot than we could use. We gave some away and I fermented some of them into hot pepper sauce, but we still have three gallon bags of hot peppers in our freezer. I won’t grow more than two hot pepper plants in 2016, if I grow them at all, and I won’t side-dress them because I don’t need them to be more productive. It might be interesting to see if side-dressing increases the sweet pepper yield even more. We’d find a use for extras.

As for potatoes, I had hoped that by following my mentor’s directions I’d have a better harvest in 2015. But potatoes may have suffered from the excessive rains in June more than most other vegetables. If I’d grown an early variety that matured in June, I’d probably not have harvested any potatoes. Because ‘Elba’ doesn’t mature till late July to early August, there was time for the soil to dry and the plants to set potatoes during the drier weather in July.

Sweet potatoes

These are members of the morning-glory family and like morning glories, they grow during the summer. As I explained in this post, two of the varieties I grew in 2015 suffered from vole predation. The surprise was that the third variety, ‘Hernandez’, had much less vole damage compared to the others and a much higher yield. All three were grown in the same bed. I don’t know why voles might prefer certain varieties, if they do, or if there was some other reason that the ‘Hernandez’ sweet potatoes were largely spared from vole predation (they were on one end of the bed). Since ‘Hernandez’ also proved to taste as good or better than the others, I’ll grow more of it in 2016.

Beans and peas

In 2015 I grew both shell and snow peas, which are spring-planted crops. Once again I planted them too soon and without pre-soaking or pre-sprouting them, and once again spotty germination resulted. But I still got a crop of each and did about as well as ever with the snow peas.

I grew a dry bush bean and two pole green beans in 2015. For some reason rabbits decided to munch on the bush bean plants but not the pole bean plants. By the time I noticed the rabbits’ work, the plants didn’t have enough time to set and mature a big crop. But I attempted to control predation anyway and got a small yield for my trouble, enough to save as seed for a future year’s crop.

Both of the two pole beans grew well and gave a good crop, considering how few and far apart the plants were compared to the best year. I hadn’t had a good crop of pole beans since 2009, so it was quite satisfying to have them again. Of the two varieties, Mike and I both preferred ‘Musica’, a flat romano type that remains tender to large sizes. We had more beans than we needed so I’ll reduce the pole bean area in 2016.

I grew two kinds of cowpeas. One, ‘Queen Anne’, is a bush type that produces white seeds with a black eye, what most folks in the US call black-eyed peas. I was alert enough to pick the patch multiple times and that resulted in a good yield. This crop might have yielded better with more rain or with watering, but I chose not to do the latter, instead concentrating municipal water on the greens and root crops during autumn. It also would have yielded better if I’d planted it at the beginning of June.

I also grew a pole type whose whole pod is eaten, similarly to green beans. It’s excellent stir-fried. The late planting and larger spacing compared to the best year has a lot to do with its yield being low in 2015, although we still had as many pods as we could use since it and the green pole beans were ready at the same time.

Popcorn

2015 was a critical year for the popcorn crop because the last year I had enough plants to save seeds from for replanting was 2012. Because corn seeds start losing their ability to germinate after 3 or 4 years, if I wanted to keep saving seeds, I needed to get a good yield in 2015. Plus we were about out of popcorn to eat.

Things started out well with the first two beds planted by mid June. Then the rains really set in, delaying the planting of the other two beds by another two to three weeks. The lack of cottonseed meal meant that I didn’t side-dress this high-demand, long-season crop.

Because the planting dates for each bed were different and the last two verged on too late to get much of a yield, I harvested and weighed from each bed separately. While I haven’t finished shelling out the popcorn from the last two planted beds, it was obvious from the sizes of the separated piles of ears that the yields from those beds will be much less than from the first two planted beds. And not only were the last two beds planted late, but the ears in those beds were developing during the very dry conditions of late August and September, yet I chose not to water the corn beds. Low yields for the two latest-planted beds were what I expected and what I obtained.

The low yields of the two best beds in 2015 compared to the 2009 planting can’t be explained on the basis of the planting dates. A number of factors may contribute to it. One factor might be the overall drier weather of July through September in 2015 versus 2009 and the fact that I didn’t water the 2015 crop when the rain stopped doing it for me. Another might be inbreeding depression. It’s recommended that corn seed not be saved unless you have a population of at least 100 to 200 plants, and more plants is much better. My plantings are at the low end of the recommended size. The result of saving seeds from too few plants is plants that grow progressively shorter, have fewer ears per plant, and mature later. While it seems to me that the plants are about the same size, have about the same number of ears, and mature at about the same time as they have in previous years, the ears seem to be shorter. Is that inbreeding depression or lack of enough moisture or fertility? I’ll find out the next time I grow popcorn. This year I had well over 200 plants and saved seeds from the best 100 ears for my seed crop. Hope that’s enough, but it might not be. Some year I may have to start over again with new seeds.

I have more to say on the implications of this year’s results, but that will have to wait for a future post.

Thursday, December 31, 2015


It’s New Year’s eve, one last opportunity for a post during 2015. I may as well take advantage of it.

From December 26 through 28, we had one of the heaviest rainstorms in St. Louis’ history. As much as 9 to 10 inches of rain fell across portions of the metropolitan area, oriented in a band running roughly northeast to southwest. We were within that band, as was the official weather station. As a result three new rainfall records were set, one for the most rain on any day in December (4.87 inches on the 26th, which is the third highest daily rainfall total measured for St. Louis), one for the most rainfall in the month of December (11.74 inches), and one for the highest yearly rainfall (61.24 inches in 2015). With the soil wet to start, almost all the rain ran off into the rivers, creating major to record flooding. The Meramec River, which defines the southern border of St. Louis County, was especially hard hit, with several locations on the river in St. Louis County breaking their old crest records, set back in December 1982. Interestingly, it was the 1982 crest which inundated Times Beach, one of the towns along the Meramec, spreading dioxin-contaminated road dirt all over the town and prompting its eventual demise. Back to this year ... three separate interstate highways had closures this morning due to floodwaters on the roads. One of the local meteorologists says that’s a first. Luckily we live on high ground, far from all those issues.

But in other ways we are as affected by the weird El Nino winter weather as everyone else. The photo at the top shows that our earliest daffodil leaves are already growing. I would not be surprised if this happened in January. In fact it is typical for some daffodil leaves to show up above ground sometime during January when the soil has a chance to thaw. But I cannot remember seeing daffodil leaves in December before. The soil hasn’t frozen yet and it shouldn’t for at least another week given the forecast and how wet it is (as water freezes it gives off heat). I still have mustard greens and arugula in the garden, which we’ll be eating now that we’ve eaten all of the stored bok choy.

Speaking of the garden, the next post will begin my recap of our garden year. For now, suffice it to say that overall it was the best ever. Give me a couple more weeks and you can read all about it. And a few more weeks after that, I’ll let you know what the garden and I will be discussing in 2016.

A very happy New Year to all of you!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Other options to reduce fossil fuel use in heating season


In my previous post, I discussed how heat leaves your residence and some low-tech, low-cost ways to persuade it to hang around with you for awhile longer than it would have otherwise. In this post, the last of my series on keeping warm with minimal fossil fuel use, I’ll discuss some more costly modifications you could make to your residence to hold heat inside longer or to generate non-fossil-fueled heat.

Since all of these involve extensive and expensive modifications to your residence, I doubt that they will be within the means of a renter to undertake without cooperation from the landlord. If you rent and find any of them intriguing, you can try to persuade your landlord to adopt one or more of them. In some cases, if the work has to be done on your rental anyway, you may be able to influence a decision toward adding a more energy-efficient version than the landlord had in mind.

For those of you who have come to expect me to promote low-cost ways of doing things, it might seem odd that I am devoting a post to discussing ways that are outside of many peoples’ means. However, I have reason to do so. Besides being able to help those of you who may be contemplating any of these projects to have a better chance of getting what you want out of it, some of you might suddenly find yourselves with the means to do them. Perhaps you receive a bonus from your employer. Or you might receive an inheritance; we received two inheritances within a five year period and chose to devote most of each to doing several of the modifications I’ll discuss. Or you might receive unexpected income from another source.

Few people who come into a sizable sum of money seem to entertain the idea of spending it on something so prosaic and, dare I say, dull as improving the energy efficiency of their residence. They might choose instead to buy a new car or house, or travel someplace they’ve never been. Or they might decide to put it toward education, their own or a relative’s. Or they might invest it into something that is supposed to make them more money over time. Or they might choose to pay off debts. In fact, if it were me and I had debts, I’d pay off the debts first and only then consider other possibilities with any money that remains. But I will advance an argument for why you might consider putting energy efficiency work onto your list of what to do with unexpected income.

If you have a savings account or any small investment such as a certificate of deposit and if you are old enough to have had these for more than 10 years, you have no doubt noticed that the interest rate these earn is much less than it used to be. As John Michael Greer wrote, there aren’t many bankable projects left out there, not much left to invest in that can grow enough to offer the interest rates folks enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s. Once you fully grasp this change, you will realize that it can make more sense to spend excess cash on ways to reduce your expenses over the long term than it does to invest it at the pitifully low interest rates being offered by the safer investments. And that’s exactly what the projects that I’ll be discussing can do for you. Furthermore, even though the payback time on some of these projects may be many years, as soon as they are completed you will reap the benefits: a less drafty, more comfortable place to live and lower heating (and in some cases, cooling) costs to boot.

Let’s look at each project individually, attempting to separate the help from the hype - for in some cases, there may be more of the latter than the former, sad to say.

New entry or storm doors

In the previous post we learned that doors can leak cold air into our residence and how to reduce that with weather-stripping and caulk. But that isn’t the only way they might be responsible for winter discomfort. Just like walls, doors can lose heat by conduction when cold outside air cools them down and they then cool the inside air, or from radiative heat loss to the outdoors. They may also be ill-fitting beyond the point where weather-stripping can help. Because of this, new entry or storm doors can make sense as an energy-saving home improvement.   

When we were researching this two years ago, we decided not to replace two of the three entry doors into our house despite their worse performance compared to a new Energy Star rated entry door. However, one of our entry doors was actually a flimsy interior door, which we chose to replace with a proper entry door for security reasons. Unless you plan to replace the entry door for other reasons I do not think replacing entry doors is the best use of your money. We didn’t spend the extra money for an Energy Star door on the one we did replace.

On the other hand, if your storm doors are old and not well fitted or weather-stripped, as was the case with ours, our experience is that replacing them does make sense, as long as the replacement doors are properly made, sized, and installed. If you don’t have storm doors on all your entry doors and you can afford to buy good-quality storm doors, I recommend them. We are well pleased with our new storm doors. They seal much more tightly against air leakage than the previous doors did, cutting down on draftiness and the resultant discomfort. The new doors are glass on both the top and bottom halves, with the top half sliding down when desired, allowing a screen to roll down in its place for ventilation. They allow more light into our house compared to the previous doors which were metal on the bottom half and as much ventilation as the previous doors when we want it.

New windows

Hardly a week goes by that we do not receive an ad urging us to replace our windows with “energy-saving” gas-filled double pane windows. Having had this done on both the houses we have lived in (once by us, once by the previous owner), I have learned about the big drawback of these windows that the ads don’t tell you about, except in the small print you probably won’t read: the seal that keeps the gas inside eventually breaks, allowing the gas to leak out. Once this happens, air will leak in to replace the gas. That air has moisture in it, which will then condense out onto one of the interior window surfaces whenever weather conditions allow that. In our experience, that is most of the time. Now you have a cloudy window you cannot fix, except by replacing it. Guess who benefits? Companies that sell you these windows don’t offer a lifetime guarantee on the seal, because it doesn’t last long enough. The seal on most of our windows has broken by now. We haven’t replaced these windows and don’t expect to, although if we ever change our minds, we’ll replace them with high quality single-pane windows.

Years ago I was on an e-list of old-house restorers and residents. A popular topic was what to do about the wooden windows that come with many old houses. After years of little or no maintenance, they often fit poorly, or may not open, or the glass may be broken. The consensus of the experienced home restorers was that it is better to repair these windows than to replace them. I suggest that you consider spending your money on a properly done repair job if you have old wood-framed windows. Either you or your contractor should replace any broken glass and re-putty all the way around each piece of glass. The sash cords and locks should be repaired and the wood refinished or repainted if needed. Then do the simpler fixes suggested in the previous post to cut down further on air infiltration. You could also install storm windows during heating season if they still exist (many older houses included storm windows that were put up for the heating system and stored during the rest of the year) or make them yourself if you are handy, or see if you can purchase them if you can afford to do so. But if you really want to replace your windows, look on the Energy Star web site to learn about the best products for your region.

New central heating plant

Another well-advertised high dollar fix is replacement of your current central heating plant with a highly energy-efficient version. We have replaced old, inefficient (50% or less efficiency) natural gas furnaces in both this house and our previous house with 90+% efficient units. Both of the furnaces were over 20 years old and near the end of their useful lives.

Whether or not replacing the central heating unit in your residence makes sense depends on several factors. If the unit is at or near the end of its useful life, then replace it with the most energy-efficient unit you can afford. Check for Energy Star listed units; they are more efficient than other units in their class. If you have sealed and insulated your residence, you may be able to use a smaller unit than before, saving you money. If, however, your unit still has a lot of life left in it, spend your money instead on whatever maintenance schedule is recommended for it. Doing so will ensure that it runs at its peak efficiency, and keeping it in place as long as possible reduces the energy use and pollution associated with making a new unit. Our furnace contractor says that because he has properly maintained our 13 year old furnace, it is in better shape than many units half its age.

Home performance audit

I mentioned in the previous post that while you can hunt for all the different places where air leaks into your residence yourself, there are specially trained and equipped folks who can do this for you. The specialty is called home performance. These folks will do a home performance audit, using procedures such as a blower door test to find all the places where air leaks in and IR cameras to look for places where heat escapes out due to inadequate insulation. They may or may not do the work to fix problems that are found. If they do not, they may offer recommendations on contractors to do the work, or you may have to find them yourself.

We had a home performance audit done on our house in 2005. Our auditor also did the sealing and insulation work that the audit suggested should be done. It was very effective; our house is no longer drafty and it requires only about half as much natural gas to heat the house to the same temperature as it did before the work was done. It was also very expensive, requiring most of one of the inheritances to be completed. I think the most cost-effective approach is to hire the auditor to do the audit and then do the recommended sealing and insulation work yourself, and you may have to do it this way if you cannot find a contractor to do it for you.

Adding wall insulation

As Greer points out in his book Green Wizardry, wall insulation is more difficult and expensive to add after the fact than is attic insulation, although if you are replacing the drywall or other inner surface of the wall anyway, it makes sense to add insulation before re-surfacing. Similarly, if you are replacing the exterior siding of your house, you can add insulation before the new siding is attached.

The only kind of insulation you can add to wall cavities without removing the interior surface is a blown-in product. You’ll need to make holes large enough for a blower hose to penetrate through the wall into each wall cavity along the exterior walls, so you will have extensive patchwork and repainting to do after the insulation is added. We had this work done on the recommendation made by our home performance auditor. Since we’d not painted the walls and they needed it, the patchwork and repainting was not a barrier for us. Although you may be able to rent the equipment to blow in recycled newsprint or denim insulation and you can buy the insulation in the usual big-box stores, I am not sure that this sort of thing can be well done without proper training. Our contractor had difficulty getting the machine that blew in the insulation to work properly. Greer says he has heard mixed reports about the effectiveness of blown-in insulation. In our case the results seem to have been positive. I am not sure the insulation has remained dry since the only way to apply a vapor barrier would be to paint the now-insulated wall with a vapor barrier paint. We did not paint the walls until 8 years after they were insulated. Our contractor did not mention this issue, which I think he should have. But on the other hand we have not noticed any problems that might be attributed to wet insulation in the 10 years since the work was done (which is not the same as saying there are no problems, please note).

Supplemental heat sources

In the previous post I mentioned space heaters as a relatively cheap source of supplemental heat. Other supplemental heat sources which may already be present in your residence or that you may consider adding are a fireplace, a wood stove, or passive solar heat sources.

If you have an existing fireplace, it may be wood-burning or use natural gas as the heat source (in the latter case, the natural gas burner is located among structures looking somewhat like logs, called gas logs). However, while a fire in a fireplace adds atmosphere, it is not an efficient source of heat, as most of the heat goes up the chimney. Worse, if you leave the damper open (and in the county we live in, if you have gas logs in your fireplace, the damper must be welded in the open position for safety reasons, as friends of ours recently learned), heat continues to escape through the chimney when the fireplace isn’t being used. If you have a wood-burning fireplace, you can cut down on heat lost up the chimney by using tight-fitting glass doors, and you can use cast-iron firebacks to radiate some heat back into the room.

The way to turn a fireplace into a serious source of heat is to put a fireplace stove into it. If you don’t have a fireplace but you do have a large enough open space for a wood stove, you can have one put in. But it is not cheap to add a good wood stove, whether a fireplace stove or a stand-alone stove. Besides the expense of the stove itself, there is the cost of the chimney and of installation of the stove and chimney, plus you will need to add a fireproof surface under the wood stove if your floor is not fireproof. Please have these done by someone who knows what they are doing and will do them properly! If you cannot afford a safe installation, whether it’s you who does it or someone else, you cannot afford a wood stove. Then you’ll need to obtain the wood, either by paying a high price for wood that is already cut to size and split or by getting the tools you’ll need to do some of this work yourself. The more you can do yourself, the less the wood costs, but the more time you have to put into it. You’ll also need to store the wood properly, preferably in a wood shed that will allow it to dry before you burn it or covered by a tarp. And you’d better know how to burn the wood safely as well. The book The Woodburner’s Companion tells you what you’ll need to know if you are considering adding a wood-burning stove to your residence.

After many years of mulling over the possibility of adding a wood stove, we finally had it done a year ago. The photo at the top of the post shows our stove in its place of honor. We got the stove from Arnold Stove and Fireplace and they installed it as well. I am happy to recommend them to anyone in the St. Louis area who is looking for a good wood-burning stove. We are very pleased with the stove, the installation, and the service we received.

The past two weekends we have burned wood for heat rather than using the natural gas furnace, getting a feel for how much wood it burns to keep the temperature in the living area in the upper 60sF to lower 70sF (around 20C or so) when the outside temperature is in the 20sF to the low 40sF. Because of the high efficiency of the stove, the amount of wood we burned was rather small. The radiant as well as convective heat from the stove felt better to us than the convective-only heat from the furnace. We also found that the stove warmed the whole house, though less so as distance increased from the stove as we expected. While we don’t expect to heat with wood every day, we both enjoy the extra warmth on the weekends and knowing that if the electricity goes out during the winter, we still have a source of heat.

As noted in this post, Mike recently completed a wood shed to store wood above ground and under a roof, to enable us to burn the wood as cleanly as possible, for safety and environmental reasons. The wood has come from either trees on our land or has been scavenged. Mike uses all hand tools to process the wood, including a human-powered hydraulic wood splitter from Harbor Freight that he’s been pleased with so far. The nearby big-box home improvement store has a powered wood splitter for rent, a good choice for someone who purchases a load of wood and wants to split it all at once.

A number of supplemental heat sources based on collecting and redirecting heat from solar radiation might be available to you, if your dwelling is suitably oriented. Greer mentions three of these in Lesson 26 of his book Green Wizardry, with emphasis on cheap, do-it-yourself versions. In this post I wrote about the sun room we had built into the existing front porch on the south-facing wall of our house. Please go to that post for more details on how it works.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Keeping warm with minimal heating: small-scale solutions

This is the third post of a four-post series on how to keep reasonably comfortable in a minimally-heated residence. It’s based on my and my husband Mike’s personal experience with a residence heated to 60-63F (16-17C) when we are awake, 50F (10C) when we are sleeping, in a place where winter lows can get as cold as 0F (-18C) and where the heating season lasts for close to 6 months. Some of you have colder winters, some warmer, thus some of what I say may not apply to your situation. But I think most of you who aren’t already successfully living in a minimally-heated residence will find something useful in at least one of these posts.

The first two posts considered ways to keep our body’s internal heat in and near our body for as long as possible. In this post we’ll widen our gaze out to our residence. I’ll discuss relatively low-cost, small-scale solutions (some very cheap, others less so).

Now that we are looking more at your residence, a divide opens up between what a renter can do and what an owner can do. While renters will find some of these solutions cheap and easy enough and with a short enough payback time that it makes sense to implement them, others may be out of reach. However, what you can do may be more than you think depending on the details of your relationship with your landlord. If you do not expect to be where you are for long, only the cheapest, fastest-payback options make sense. I’ll note those as we go along. On the other hand, if you rent half of a duplex, are on good terms with the property owner who lives in the other half, and you both expect to be there for several years, consider the possibility of asking the landlord to implement certain solutions that interest you but are beyond your ability as a renter to do. You might point out that, for instance, sealing air leaks will reduce utility bills, making the property more valuable over time.

Before I start, let me note that in a blog post, all I can do is touch on the various possibilities. You’ll need to do research to learn how to make them happen in your residence. Two books that go into much more depth than I can are Homemade Money by Richard Heede and Green Wizardry by John Michael Greer. You’ll also find how-to books at your nearby hardware store.

The three ways that heat leaves us

To explain how the solutions work to reduce your discomfort level in a cold dwelling, we need to look at the three ways that heat leaves you and yours. They are called conduction, convection, and radiation, for those of you who like to name your problems.

To understand conduction, grab a piece of cold metal. If your hand is like mine, it will immediately feel cold. The way that heat is leaving in this case is called conduction. In conduction, two materials at different temperatures touch each other; when they do, heat flows out of the warmer material into the colder one. In this case, it was out of our warm hand into the cold metal. To stop this form of heat loss, separate the two materials (drop the metal, but make sure your toes are out of the way first!).

If you notice that a cold draft is flowing around your feet, you are feeling the effects of convection. Convection is when one part of a fluid (a liquid or gas) at a certain temperature encounters another portion of the fluid at a different temperature and starts heat moving from the warmer to the cooler portion. The cold air that is leaking in around your doors or windows causes the warmer air around your body to cool down when the two encounter each other. The reason it’s your feet that feel coldest is because cooler air is more dense (heavier, in ordinary language) than warmer air, so the cold air tends to hang around near the floor, where your feet are.

Convective heat loss happens by another means as well. When the warm air inside your dwelling hits cold outer walls or windows, it loses heat to them by conduction. Once it does, the now colder air starts to sink down to the floor, pushing warmer air up towards the ceiling and cooling it down as they flow past each other and the warmer air flows past the cooler wall. If the warmer air is up close to the ceiling because of convection while you are sitting in your recliner closer to the floor, you’ll feel colder than you would if convection were not occurring.

To understand radiation, imagine facing a hot outdoor fire on a cold night. The front of you feels warm and toasty, but the back of you feels rather chilly. That’s because one of the ways that the fire warms you is by radiation: heat traveling directly from a hotter body (the fire) to a colder body (yours) without anything needed in the middle to carry it. In order for heat to transfer by radiation, the hotter body must be facing the colder body. Your back end isn’t facing the fire. Instead, it’s facing the night sky, dribbling its heat out to the cold night sky by radiation. Eventually you turn your back end to the fire to warm it up, till your front end feels cold. You can spend a long time doing this.

Inside a dwelling, you are most likely to notice radiative heat loss when you are in front of a window, because the outside is much colder than the inside. Few of us enjoy standing in front of a window on a cold night for this reason. But you are also radiating out heat to any surface in your residence that is colder than you are and in your line of sight, like the walls, ceiling, and floor.

Now that we know all this, let’s imagine how we can reduce heat loss by all of these means as much as possible. First, we’ll want to seal off all the ways that cold air can leak directly into wherever we happen to be. Since we’ll need at least one door to get into our residence and probably want at least one window, we’ll want to seat the door(s) and windows(s) as tightly against their frames as we can and seal the window and door frames to their surroundings. We’ll also want as few holes through the walls, floor, and ceiling as possible, and those we must have to be sealed to what surrounds them. Next, we’ll want to keep the walls, floor, and ceiling as warm as we can, to reduce heat radiating off our body to them and to reduce the temperature difference between them and the air in the room that starts the rising of hot air and sinking of cold air. We’ll want to make any windows as small as is compatible with a good view and as warm as possible, or have a means to cover the window when we don’t need it. We’ll want to keep the ceiling as low as possible so we can keep more of the heat where we are instead of where we aren’t. And, finally, making this space as small as possible will make achieving all these goals easier and cheaper. All we have to do now is look at the particulars of how to accomplish these objectives.

The energy woes of big rooms, high ceilings, and lots of windows

You may be wincing now if you live in a place with a large open living area with high ceilings and lots of windows (or you wince whenever you pay your heating bill). This is exactly the wrong way to set up a living space that you want to be comfortable under minimal-heating conditions. The high ceiling means the air you’ve paid to heat winds up there instead of near the floor where you are. The many windows leak more cold air than a small window or two would, plus they allow much more conductive and radiative heat loss than a well-insulated wall does. And the large size means that much more air you have to pay to heat.

Before fossil fuels hit the heating scene, large rooms with high ceilings were a rarity, reserved to only the richest folks. If you have been in a residence built in the 1800s or earlier in a temperate climate, you may have noticed that they usually consist of small rooms with low ceilings. People with more money had larger residences with more rooms, but for the most part those rooms remained small and often had a door that could be closed off to the rest of the house. Before central heating plants became common, some or all of those small rooms had their own fireplace. During heating season, the residents would gather in one room, start a fire, and close off that room to the rest of the house. This was a sensible adaptation to the lower heat energy available from wood than from fossil fuels. It was only when fossil fuels and the central heating plants that they supply became cheap and widely available that energy-wasteful designs like open floor plans, vaulted ceilings, and banks of windows could be incorporated into residences for the less-than-rich. It’s no coincidence that the vacation from energy reality of the last 30 years or so featured the widespread adoption of these energy inefficient features into new construction. While that may not have mattered when high-grade fossil fuels were cheap and plentiful, residences with these features are not well adapted to the poorer, lower-energy world that is taking over.

If you live in a residence like this, you have a few options. You could move to a place without these features, for instance. If you don’t want to or cannot do that, consider the possibility of not using that part of the house during all or part of heating season. Do you have a more sensibly designed room that is large enough to hold you and yours during heating season, such as a spare bedroom, den or office, or media room? Remember that houses not all that long ago, in the 1950s, made do with living or family rooms of under 200 square feet for larger families than most today. I have been in many newer houses that have bedrooms larger than this. If your family can gather in that room for the winter, you can drop the thermostat down to minimal-heating levels and then apply other strategies from this series of posts as well as good furniture choice and placement to make this room a comfortable living space. If you can’t do that either, applying the other strategies in this series of posts should help at least a little to make your large open space feel a little warmer than it otherwise would.

Locking out cold air

Cold air is constantly trying to force its way into your residence without so much as asking permission. Your job is to lock up as best you can against its efforts. Lesson 20 in Greer’s book offers a clear discussion on why to begin with sealing air leaks and where to look for them. Heede’s book has some drawings to help you find them as well. No doubt you can find videos covering this topic someplace on the Internet.

The best place to begin this work is at the door(s) leading into your residence from outside. Check to see if weather-stripping (the material that should be attached to the side, top, and bottom edges of the door) is present, and if it is, if it is in good shape. If not, it makes sense for everyone, even short-term renters, to install it. Payback time is probably a few months on this item, so if you do it at the start of heating season, you should have saved more on your heating bill than it cost you by the end. You’ll likely find a range of materials for the purpose at the nearby hardware store, along with books to explain how to install them.

Now that you’ve weather-stripped the door, take a look at your windows. Check for weather-stripping along the edges of the moving parts; if it’s not there or not in good shape, install some. Like weather-stripping on doors, this makes sense even for a short-term renters.

Now search for other places where cold air might be leaking directly into your residence, such as around the door or window frames, around the pipes and wires that pass through the various surfaces, through cracks and crevices, or between the ceiling and what is above it or the floor and what is below it. Caulk, along with pieces of foam for wider openings, will fix these leaks.

The effort level and cost for caulking will likely be larger than for weather-stripping. You can reduce the cost, as always, by doing the work yourself. I would use a lit stick of incense rather than a candle to find air leaks. Or you can hire a home energy auditor to do this work for you. This is a more expensive option that I’ll discuss more fully in the last post of the series.

Covering your windows

You’ll recall that windows don’t just leak cold air into your house; they also cause conductive heat loss (cold air outside cools the glass, which then cools off the inside air next to it) and radiative heat loss. The way to stop both of these is by covering the glass and sealing the cover.

One way to cover the glass is with shrinkable plastic films that you can apply to your window frame. Generally a heat gun, or perhaps a blow dryer, aimed onto the film will shrink it over the entire window frame. If you already have the blow dryer or heat gun and you don’t want to open the window during heating season, this is a quick way to reduce conductive heat loss, since the air between the glass and plastic doesn’t conduct heat well.

A better way to accomplish the purpose is with an insulated window covering of some sort. I direct you to Lesson 22 of Greer’s book for a fine discussion of various ways to cover windows. A handy resident can make either the hardboard version, for windows not to be used during heating season, or the fabric version for windows meant to be used during the day but covered at night. If you aren’t inclined to do it yourself and you have some money, you can check into commercially available window coverings that fit the criteria in Greer’s book, if you can find them. I haven’t yet added window coverings to any of our windows in our house but it is on my to-do list.

Failing that, if you already have drapes on your windows you could seal off the top, side, and bottom of the drapes to reduce heat loss by conduction and radiation; see Greer’s discussion for more details. If you have blinds but are neglecting to use them, closing the blinds at night should cut down on radiative heat loss through the windows.

Hats for your ceiling

Back in the first post in this series I pointed out that putting a hat on your head will make your feet warmer. The same principle applies to your living space: the equivalent of a hat on your ceiling will help to slow down the tendency of heat to rise up and out through the ceiling, making you, down there near the floor, feel warmer than you would otherwise. If you live on one of the lower floors of a multistory building, the warmer dwelling above you is the equivalent of a hat. If, however, your ceiling has an attic above it, the hat is insulation on the floor of the attic. If you don’t have any, or you don’t have enough, adding enough attic insulation is cost-effective, although with a longer payback time than the other modifications I’ve discussed so far. In Lesson 21 Greer suggests R-60 is not too much insulation if your winters are cold or summers are hot. I’d guess very few of you have that much attic insulation, even if you’ve added it since you moved in. When we had attic insulation added in 2005, it was the equivalent of R-44. I’d recommend at least that much for people in the St. Louis region and other places with similar climates. You can do the work yourself with minimal tools if you don’t have much money to spend, or hire it out if you have more money than time.

Renters might find it difficult to add attic insulation unless they are on good terms with real-person landlords. If you are, and you plan to stay in your rental for a few years or more, consider offering to do the work yourself. Perhaps the landlord could buy the material if you provide the labor. You could, of course, first ask the landlord to do the work, pointing out that it will increase the value of the space, but it might well be worth doing even if you have to do it yourself at your own cost.

Socks for your floor

Just as putting a hat on your head keeps your feet warmer, thick warm socks also help to keep your feet warmer. The residence equivalent of socks is insulation on the underside of your floor. Because gravity wants to pull it down off the underside of the floor, it isn’t as easy to install and keep in place as attic insulation. If you have a crawl space under your floor rather than a basement, you’ll have to endure doing the work in other than a standing position. And if your residence sits directly on a slab foundation or you live in a multistory building with a dwelling directly underneath, it won’t be possible to install floor insulation. However, if you can add it, it is also cost-effective. Greer suggests R-19 as a good level of insulation under the floor. A nearby hardware store should carry how-to books on adding insulation, or you can see what the Internet has to offer. See the discussion of ceiling insulation if you rent but would like to do this.

Clothes for your walls

Walls also benefit from added insulation, though because this is not a low-cost, fast-payback option, I’ll defer further discussion to the final post in this series. However, Greer suggests a different, low-cost means to cut down on heat loss through walls: fabric hangings. We can do better than the tapestries on the walls of medieval castles: we can make a larger version of an insulated window covering, including the vapor barrier, and hang it it from floor to ceiling, a few inches away from the walls. Lesson 22 in Greer’s book should give you an idea of what to do.

Long underwear for your pipes and ducts

If your hot water pipes or forced air furnace ducts run through an unheated space, such as a basement or crawl space, you can wrap them with insulation to keep the heat put into the water or air from leaking out into a place where it does no good. For more information, see Lesson 23 in Greer’s book and the how-to books in your local hardware store.

Space heating

Lots of different kinds of space heaters for supplemental heating are available, some of which are heavily advertised as allowing you to keep most of your house cool except for the room you are currently using. Whether it makes financial or environmental sense to use a space heater depends on the particulars of your situation. If your central heating plant is a forced air electric furnace and you do reduce the thermostat setting when you use an efficient electric space heater in a small space, you should save some money and cause a little less coal or oil to be burned. If, on the other hand, you have a natural gas forced air furnace and your electricity comes primarily from coal-fired plants, as is the case for us, you may not save much money by using a space heater and you may cause more pollution than you would have by keeping the whole house a bit warmer. This is a complex subject, not something I can do justice to in a blog post. But I suspect that space heaters are not the universal boon that their promoters suggest they are. If you use a space heater, be sure to follow all safety precautions appropriate to your heater!

In the final post of this series, we’ll look at a few worthwhile options for those of you who can afford to sink some money into work that will take several years or longer to pay back in the form of lower heating bills. It will, however, pay off in increased comfort at the same thermostat setting as soon as it’s completed.