Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reel-ly mowing the lawn

This is the second post in a series discussing human-powered tools that I use. Here I’ll consider human-powered reel lawn mowers.

In the previous post I mentioned that Mike and I have a large property for a suburban area, a full acre (a little under a half hectare for those of you who use more sensible metric units). When we bought this place 12 years ago most of the property was covered with a combination of various lawn grasses and weeds, as are most urban and suburban lots in the U.S. With this much lawn, and living in an area with a property maintenance code requiring lawns to be six inches or less high, most people in the U.S. would either hire a lawn maintenance company to do the mowing or buy a riding lawn mower to maintain it themselves. We chose not to do either. Riding lawn mowers are expensive to buy, use, and maintain, require a lot of storage space, perpetuate dependence on motors and fossil fuels, and don’t provide beneficial physical activity for those people capable of it such as ourselves. Instead we bought a gasoline-powered rotary lawn mower, not self-propelled, the kind you have to push. It’s dependent on fossil fuels, it’s noisy, it’s potentially hazardous, and its vibration hurts my hands, but it’s less expensive to buy and maintain than a riding mower and because I have to push it, I get exercise while using it. As the trees and gardens I’ve planted have grown, I’ve been able to reduce the space needing to be mowed and thus the time needed to use this mower, but I still need to mow a third or so of the property often enough to satisfy code requirements.

Several years ago I bought a human-powered reel lawn mower that was advertised as able to cut almost any kind of lawn grass and could be set to a cutting height of up to 3 inches. Our lawn has a mix of cool-season grasses that reel mowers cut well and tough warm-season grasses that most reel mowers cut with difficulty if they can cut them at all. The high cut setting helps to keep the mower from jamming when it runs over twigs. With huge pin oak and silver maple trees in the properties on three sides of our lot, twigs (and branches, and sometimes limbs) find their way onto our lawn regularly. With the high setting most twigs and small branches can be mowed over without their jamming the blades.

To my disappointment, the reel mower seemed to be of limited use. It cut the grass and broad-leaved weeds in the front yard though not the sedges and stringy plantain flower stalks. But I found it so difficult to use on the warm-season grasses and quackgrass-infested portions of the back yard that I gave up on using it there, though I continued to use it to mow the front yard. Furthermore, the clips holding the handle onto the attachment posts on the reel assembly have a habit of popping off, and I once had to replace the entire handle assembly due to metal fatigue. To its credit, the company I bought the mower from has replaced all these items for free, though I would not again purchase a mower from them. We bought a sharpening kit, which Mike uses at the beginning of mowing season to sharpen and adjust the blades.

This year Mike must have adjusted the blades much better than in past years. While the mower was harder to push than it had been in the past, as I pushed it to the shed where it’s stored I noticed that it had cut the mix of warm-season grass and weeds despite it being over a week since the last lawn mowing. In past years the reel lawn mower had not been capable of cutting the grass and weeds in this area at the height they were then. Inspired, I kept cutting that part of the lawn. You can see the difference between cut and uncut areas in the photo at the top, taken on May 9th, about the time when the warm-season grasses start to grow strongly in this area. Maybe the key to mowing with the reel mower lay with proper blade adjustment. It was time to try an experiment: could I now cut the entire lawn with the reel mower?

By the end of June I had learned the answer: yes, but with qualifications. It turned out that not only do the blades need to be properly adjusted, but the lawn must be cut no less often than once a week during that time, the mowed rows should overlap a greater distance than I overlap rows mowed with the powered mower, and zoysia needs to be double-mowed with the reel mower I use (mow north-south first, for instance, then east-west). Mowing once a week with a gasoline-powered mower required about four hours; with a reel mower it required about eight to ten hours. Once the plantain flower stalks began to appear, the reel-mower-cut lawn suffered in appearance compared to the power-mower-cut lawn, but otherwise no difference in appearance was apparent to me.

From a physical-workout standpoint the reel mower won out over the gasoline-powered mower. I had no trouble bicycling up hills, for instance, during that time, having built up stamina from mowing the lawn. I also preferred using the reel mower to mow the entire lawn for its lack of vibration and noise, the reduced time and cost to maintain it and its not using fossil fuels, and because I did not need to wear steel-toed boots while using it, as I do when using the gasoline-powered mower. But the extra time I spent mowing the lawn had to come from not doing something else. In my case it came from not weeding the vegetable garden in a timely manner. As I’ll discuss in a later post, not weeding proved to have detrimental effects on vegetable crop yields and on the appearance of the vegetable garden. When I returned home at the end of July after three weeks away on family business to a garden taken over by weeds and a need to harvest potatoes and onions and plant fall crops right away, I realized I needed to re-think the best strategy for mowing our lawn. Mowing once a week in order to use the reel mower won’t work with the size lawn we have. I can mow every two or three weeks, even less often in a drought, if I mow with the powered mower as I have done in past years, but I wanted to reduce its use. Eventually I figured out a mowing strategy that reduces powered-mower use to a minimum. I’m back to using the reel mower where it works best, in the front yard. I use other means to mow the rest of the yard.

Reel mowers work best and are easiest to push when you cut the lawn often, so that only 1/3 to 1/2 of the grass blade is being cut each time. In the St. Louis metro area, that translates to no less frequent mowing than once a week from April through June and September through October as well if we are receiving normal rainfall. Less frequent mowing might work in the hot and usually drier months of July and August, especially for those of you who have bluegrass and fescue lawns. Reel mowers are most appropriate for those of you who have less than 1/4 acre (about 10,000 square feet) of lawn, to keep lawn mowing time minimized. The majority of urban and suburban properties are 1/4 acre or less, and many are 1/8 acre (about 5,000 square feet) or less. If your lawn falls in this size range and is all or mostly composed of cool-season lawn grasses such as bluegrass and fescue, I recommend ridding yourself of fossil-fueled mowers and getting a reel mower instead. Choose the best one for your needs from this chart. You can buy the reel mower from that site (I will if I need to replace mine in the future) or see if a retailer in your area carries it. Some big-box stores and smaller hardware stores carry reel mowers these days.

If your lawn is mostly composed of zoysia or bermudagrass, look at this blog entry for the best reel mowers to cut these tough grasses. Then consider carefully the size of your lawn and how much time you have available to cut it to decide if a reel mower is practical for you. I would not want to use a reel mower on a lawn of this type that was more than 5,000 square feet (about 1/8 acre) in size, preferably less than that. But you might think differently.

While reel mowers require less maintenance than powered mowers, they do need to be kept properly sharpened and adjusted. How often you need to do that, and how it’s done, varies among the different mowers. Be sure you know what to do and how often to do it, and what equipment is needed, for the mower you obtain. Some companies include the equipment with the mower. In other cases you can purchase a sharpening kit to do it yourself or take the mower to a sharpening service.

If your lawn has a lot of weeds like sedge and plantain which reel mowers do not cut well, you may want to consider ways to reduce the coverage of weeds, or using other human-powered tools to whack off those weeds after mowing is completed. A grass whip, weed cutter, or scythe are all possibilities.

Next post we’ll look at another option for mowing lawns and discuss the mowing philosophy that I worked out this summer.



Monday, May 26, 2014

Meditations on human-powered tools



April through June is my favorite time of year and also the busiest time of year for people in this area who have lawns or gardens to care for. In my case, with an acre lot which has less lawn than when we moved here but still more than I’d like, and with good-sized vegetable and herb gardens, lawn and garden care is my primary job for these three months.

While this post begins a short series on human powered tools, I wanted to include a few photos from the vegetable garden, where the 2014 garden science project is in progress. So far this year I’ve been able to plant everything at the proper time. Between that, the favorable weather, and probably the continuing good effect of proper re-mineralization, the spring crops appear larger and healthier than any I’ve grown in past years. To the left is the lettuce plot, with six different varieties. We ate the first lettuce of the season yesterday. It tasted delicious, no bitterness at all.


The ‘Golden Acre’ cabbages are the lower plants in the foreground of the photo above. I allow them 2 square feet per plant. Behind them are three different varieties of broccoli.

‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ cabbage is in the foreground, with broccoli plants behind. This cabbage is smaller than ‘Golden Acre’ so I grow them closer together, allowing 1 square foot per plant.

As I mentioned above, I’m beginning what I envision as a short series on human powered tools that I favor and how to use them effectively. A good book to read along with this series is The Human-Powered Home: Choosing Muscles over Motors by Tamara Dean. She discusses the physics and mechanics of human power before addressing various devices powered by human arms and/or legs, some commercially available, some made by various people and organizations for specific purposes, some as plans for building yourself. So far we’ve stuck to human-powered tools we’ve been able to buy new or used. I do have an idea for a human-powered leaf shredder percolating in my mind but I don’t know if or when we’ll try to make it happen.

Before moving on, please know that when I discuss using human-powered tools I am addressing only those people who are physically able to use them, or could with only a minor amount of exercise to build up sufficient muscle strength to do so. All thoughts I have on human-powered tools apply only to people who can use them. I’ll repeat this before each entry in the series because of its importance.

Those of you who meet the condition above may be asking yourself, why use human-powered tools when motor-powered tools are so readily available these days? Whether powered by gasoline, line current, or batteries, it seems possible to avoid using our muscles for almost any yard, kitchen, or household task as well as for transportation. Motorized tools are promoted on the basis that they save labor, as if the labor associated with using a human-powered tool is too excessive for physically capable people to consider doing. The ads also imply that the motorized tool is a real advance, part of the continued progress of humans toward a state of leisure. And in fact, motorized tools are faster and more powerful than the human-powered versions in every case that I’ll discuss. In a few cases the power advantage is significant enough that I continue to use the motorized version at least some of the time.

More often than not, however, motorized tools actually don’t save us labor, not if we include the labor required to obtain, learn how to use, maintain, and store the tool compared to the human-powered version. New motorized tools may be cheaper to buy than a new human-powered version, but over the life of the tool the human-powered tools I’ll discuss are cheaper to use. If you can find a good used version of the human-powered tool it will generally be cheaper than a new motorized version. This is one of the reasons that Mike and I prefer to use human-powered tools where possible.

Another problem with motorized tools is their use of fossil fuels, whether directly as gasoline or indirectly as fossil-fuel-generated electricity or as batteries manufactured and shipped with the aid of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel supplies are limited; we’ve already passed the peaks of cheap oil, cheap natural gas, and cheap coal. Price movements will likely continue to be erratic but upward over the long term and it may become harder for us to justify use of motorized tools as we find it more difficult to stay employed (one effect of passing the peak of cheap fossil fuels is slowed economic growth) and need to divert financial resources to keeping ourselves fed and sheltered. Mike and I prefer human-powered tools because they reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and the various costs associated with their use.

A third reason to choose well-designed and good-quality human-powered tools is because they promote health by getting us to use our muscles appropriately. Ironically, because we have populated our lives with “labor-saving” tools, many of us find we need to spend some of our precious time off the job getting exercise in ways that don’t make use of the power our muscles are generating.  Walking on tracks or using gym equipment exercises our muscles, but it takes time and costs money as well (the gym membership, the commute to and from the gym or track, specialized shoes and/or clothing). I don’t need these because I get plenty of exercise using human-powered tools while wearing clothing and shoes I already have, and at the same time I put the power generated by my muscles to good use.

In the vast majority of cases I can think of, human-powered tools are safer to use than motorized versions. Motors vibrate. I find the vibrations hurt my hands and arms in some cases, such as lawn mowers and string trimmers. Human-powered tools don’t cause this vibration-induced injury. The much slower speed at which blades of human-powered tools move make them much safer to use in most cases (a sharp knife might be the lone exception). Because most human-powered tools are safer, older children and teens can use them, giving them a chance to contribute useful work to their families and households. Motors have many safety issues, such as shock hazards, that are not present with human-powered tools. Often these are serious enough to recommend or require the use of specialized clothing, shoes, or accessories when using a motorized tool, adding to its cost and inconvenience. And motors are loud; human-powered tools are quiet. We prefer human-powered tools for all of these reasons.

Finally, I think there is a spiritual purpose to meeting as many needs as possible through human-powered tools. When I use the proper tool for a task and that tool is working at its best, not only do I get the job well done, but I feel good physically even if my muscles are a little tired. I also feel good mentally, knowing that I can do the work needed to care for Mike’s and my needs and wants at a very low cost and without contributing to the problems associated with fossil fuel use. In some cases, such as the first time I used a scythe to mow grass, I felt good beyond the ability of well exercised muscles, a well-done job, and the satisfaction of doing the job without fossil fuels and at minimum cost can explain. I felt a sense that I was doing exactly the right thing, fully alive, in tune with the earth and the cosmos.

When we use human-powered tools we feel deeply our power and our limitations. We work in concert with the animals, plants, and people around us; we can stop to listen to the birds, watch the breeze, smell the flowers, attend to families and friends and then return to our task. We work together with all life. Try them and find out for yourself!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Gardening for peanuts



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What I’ll discuss with my garden in 2014



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What the soil told me in 2013, and my response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Learning from mistakes



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 30, 2013

Taking stock of 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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