Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A tale of two gardening methods

After my last post a gardening mentor contacted me with some suggestions on how I could improve my gardening practices (many thanks to my mentor!). As a result I’ve revisited the discussion on soil re-mineralization in Steve Solomon’s book The Intelligent Gardener (TIG), comparing it to the gardening method espoused by Ecology Action in the eighth edition of John Jeavons’ book How to Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV). In this post I’ll discuss what I’ve learned and how I will respond.

As part of my overall goal to grow a complete diet in a small area I have dedicated the last two years to developing a better understanding of my garden soil and its contribution to the goal. To do that I take soil samples at the end of the gardening season and have them analyzed for a range of major and minor nutrients and certain other parameters that affect crop growth. With the results from the analysis and using the information on soil mineral balancing in TIG I develop a plan to add organic fertilizers to the soil to address any deficiencies found by the soil test. By keeping track of how each crop that I grow fares over the course of the season and comparing that to how that crop fared before I began to re-mineralize the soil in 2013, I can determine what, if any, positive changes occurred as a result. I take the soil samples at the end of the growing season instead of shortly before it begins because my soil often does not thaw before early March, yet I should be planting spring crops as the month ends. Taking the samples in early March leaves insufficient time to prepare and mail them, have them run and receive the results, analyze the results to determine the soil prescription, and purchase and receive any needed fertilizers in time to add them to the earliest plantings.

The soil sample taken at the end of the 2014 gardening season shows calcium and magnesium at their target levels, compared to the deficiency of calcium and excess of magnesium found in early 2013 before two years of re-mineralization. In TIG Solomon notes that soil with a proper ratio of these two minerals has better structure. I felt that for myself when digging beds for the summer crops in 2014. Soil that had been quite sticky before is now easy to dig using an ordinary shovel and my middle-aged muscles. I can dig a 100 square foot bed in 1 1/2 hours versus around 4 hours before re-mineralization.

When my mentor contacted me I had worked out a fertilizer mix to re-mineralize in 2015. After sharing that information and the soil test results with him, he made some suggestions for my consideration. One of them was to add manganese sulfate to parts of the garden but not to others, to see if a deficiency in manganese relative to iron might be affecting certain crops.

The more important information he shared regarded nitrogen. As organic matter is eaten by the soil microorganisms, they release nitrogen in a form that plants can use. My mentor felt that many plants would grow better if they received more nitrogen than was present in the organic matter already in the soil and the compost and fertilizer mix that I had applied in 2014. Because I live in an area with hot summer days and nights, which leads to high microorganism feeding activity and rapid depletion of their food sources, the amount of cottonseed meal I included in the 2014 mix did not provide enough nitrogen for the needs of many crops. In 2013 I had added three quarts of cottonseed meal to each 100 square foot bed per the discussion in TIG. That at least doubled the amount of nitrogen available in each bed compared to using only compost, and yields increased in many cases. But I had been concerned about creating a dependence on imported nitrogen. In 2014, accordingly, I reduced the amount of cottonseed meal I added by 1/3, to two quarts per 100 square foot bed, while keeping the amount of home-generated compost constant. I noted that yields went down for many crops compared to 2013. My mentor suggested using four quarts of oilseed meal in the 2015 fertilizer mix as well as the 1/4 inch thick layer of compost that I normally add to keep nitrogen levels high enough for strong growth.

He also pointed out that because I have light soil (TCEC less than 10), meaning not much clay or humus present in the soil to hold onto the minerals that I apply to it, I might try side-dressing long season crops such as fall cabbage, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn with another dose of the fertilizer mix every 6 weeks or so. TIG uses the analogy of clay and humus as the soil’s pantry. My light soil has a small pantry, insufficient to provide mineral meals to crops that remain at the dinner table for a long time. Occasional replenishing of the pantry will keep them growing strongly the whole season. Accordingly my mentor adjusted the quantities of soft rock phosphate and potassium sulfate for the 2015 fertilizer mix about 1/3 lower compared to what I had calculated. Lower-demand, short-season crops should still receive enough minerals to yield well. The long-season, higher-demand crops will get what they need with the extra dose of minerals and nitrogen from side-dressing. Assuming all else is equal, therefore, I hypothesize that by using the modified complete fertilizer mix on all beds and adding another dose to the long-season crops about 6 weeks or so into their season, yields of most crops, especially the long-season, higher-demand crops, should increase in 2015 versus 2013 and 2014.

HTGMV’s gardening method, which I had attempted to follow for over a decade, emphasizes growing grain crops in about 60% of the garden space. The grain crops provide two yields important to the method: the straw, which provides the carbon needed to produce enough compost to spread a layer 1/4 inch deep on the entire garden, and concentrated calories for the gardener, in the form of the seed grain. The grain crops, as well as special root crops that yield well and have a high amount of calories for their weight, form the backbone of a garden grown according to this method. HTGMV emphasizes this calorie gardening and its focus on increasing the weight per unit area obtained from these crops because of its concern with increasing human population and decreasing area of farmlands. Growing a higher yield on a smaller area addresses both of these concerns.

When I read the material on potassium in TIG, however, I began to wonder if HTGMV’s method might have a flaw that they do not acknowledge. TIG points out that the least expensive way to increase agricultural yields is to increase the amount of potassium in the soil relative to the other minerals that plants use. A potassium-rich soil can grow plants with high amounts of the carbohydrates, sugars, and fats that provide calories. However, other minerals are required to make the proteins, enzymes, and vitamins that we need for optimum health. In Solomon’s opinion, if potassium is just a little bit scarce relative to the other major and minor plant nutrients, the yield (weight per unit area) of the food grown will be somewhat reduced, but the plants will make the highest concentration of nutrients in proportion to the calories they contain. Hence he targets for less potassium relative to the other nutrients in order to grow nutrient-dense food. Nutrient-dense food, he feels, makes for healthier people, so he is willing to trade off some yield in order to grow the most nutrient-dense food that he can.

A goal common to both gardening methods is to build and maintain what each considers to be the proper levels of and balances among soil minerals. To do that you need to know what the levels of the various minerals are and, if they are not in balance, how to safely move them in that direction. Accomplishing this goal begins with collecting soil samples and sending them to a soil testing service. Gardeners often submit soil samples to their state extension service, but extension services typically provide only a restricted amount of information on the minerals in highest quantity. Thus both HTGMV and TIG recommend dedicated soil testing services for soil mineral analysis. Timberleaf Soil Testing, the soil testing service recommended in HTGMV, requires the purchase of two different test suites on each sample, the Basic Soil Test and Trace Mineral Soil Test, to obtain levels of all the minerals tested for by Logan Labs, the testing service recommended in TIG, at more than twice the cost of testing done by Logan Labs. The Basic Soil Test that you must buy from Timberleaf includes several other kinds of tests that are not mentioned in TIG or done by Logan Labs, one factor in the increased cost. Another part of the increased cost is accounted for by Timberleaf’s also providing some individualized information on what kinds and how much fertilizer to use to bring the soil into balance as well as individualized information related to the parameters they test for that Logan Labs does not. Logan Labs does not provide any soil information beyond the levels of the minerals, the soil pH, the organic matter level, and the TCEC, nor does it provide information on how to remedy the deficiencies in the cost of its basic test. However, someone who wants to follow the re-mineralization program in TIG but does not feel confident enough to convert Logan Labs’ soil test results into amounts of fertilizer to use to remedy deficiencies can subscribe to OrganiCalc at $9.50 per year to obtain that information. Put the cost of Logan Labs’ soil test and a one-year subscription to OrganiCalc together and you have still spent less money than the equivalent tests and information from Timberleaf.

HTGMV and TIG differ in the depth of their discussions of soil fertility and the range of potential materials with which to remedy patterns of deficiency and excess. The discussion of soil fertility in HTGMV is brief and sketchy, compared to the extensive and detailed discussion in TIG. HTGMV does not discuss what the target levels of each nutrient should be and that information is not provided on Timberleaf's website, while TIG discusses two different sets of mineral targets and why a gardener might choose one over the other. Further, compared to the wide range of potential nutrient sources given in TIG because of differing soil types and resultant patterns of mineral deficiencies and excess, HTGMV offers a very restricted range of nutrient sources to remedy deficiencies. Many organic fertilizers that were recommended in earlier editions of HTGMV are no longer recommended “because of potential problems with disease, pesticide residue, or heavy metal toxicity” (page 74). Unfortunately, that leaves out inexpensive and readily available sources of organic nitrogen such as oilseed meals and a wide range of fertilizers approved for organic farms to address differing soils and their needs. TIG acknowledges that oilseed meals from conventional farms may contain traces of pesticides and may be produced from genetically engineered seeds. All of us need to examine the various factors pertinent to each fertilizer material that might be appropriate for our soil and make the best choices we can from the limited information we have available. TIG prefers to offer a broader range of potential fertilizers, allowing us to weigh the choices involved and then make our own decision on what to use.

Suppose we find that we need to import a range of organic fertilizers and oilseed meal to up nutrient levels enough to grow nutrient-dense crops as described in TIG, or the more restricted range of fertilizers and nitrogen sources that HTGMV recommends to fulfill whatever its soil mineral target levels are. Both methods have as a goal importing the fewest resources from outside the garden and say that following their method will move garden soil in that direction over a period of years. Both methods have as a goal growing good yields of high-quality produce. Is there a basis for making a choice between them? I cannot give a definitive answer to that question although the discussion above highlights some of the factors that I think are relevant to that choice. As I’ve noted before, I only had one soil test done on my potential garden space in the decade I’d been gardening it before beginning re-mineralization. While I’d been following various aspects of HTGMV’s method, I had not done it as rigorously as they suggest; I never followed all the steps in the same year. I haven’t used Timberleaf’s soil testing services so I don’t know how its target levels and results might differ from Logan Labs’ and TIG’s. What I do know is that after over a decade of imperfectly following HTGMV’s method, yields were declining in many cases and none were increasing. Insect pressure and disease problems were increasing for some crops. After two years of following TIG’s method imperfectly (not giving long season crops sufficient nitrogen), insect and disease pressure has declined and yields have stayed the same or increased.

Ecological sustainability, a concept at the heart of HTGMV, needs to be understood in the broadest possible way. Focusing too intently on growing the most food in the smallest possible space as the answer to the problem of increasing human population and decreasing farmland area may not allow us to consider how everything interacts to produce that food and the impact that food has on our health. For instance, if we are producing less nutrient-dense food as a result of focusing excessively on increasing yield (weight per unit area), we may need to eat more of that food in an attempt to obtain the nutrients we need. If that’s the case, even if someone following TIG does not obtain as high a yield as someone following HTGMV, the latter may find she needs to increase the size of her garden in order to eat the same amount of nutrients as is produced by someone following TIG’s method on the same soil.

Considering the discussion above, I plan to optimize yield and nutrition by following TIG’s method as well as I can over the next several years. TIG suggests that as the soil minerals approach closer to the target levels, it might be possible to greatly reduce outside inputs while maintaining mineral levels and balance. After just two years I have been able to reduce additions of calcium and sulfur. As I learn how much it will be possible to reduce inputs to my own soil I will also gain enough information on yields obtained from this method to begin to sketch out minimum-area garden plans that will work for our soil and climate. And, of course, I’ll post what I learn here.

Discussions of garden methods have their place -- and so do concrete plans. In the next post I’ll discuss the concrete details of new tools, new procedures, and new crops for the 2015 garden.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What I learned from my garden in 2014

Two years ago, John Michael Greer posted A Wish List for Krampus to his blog TheArchdruid Report. After describing three technologies that he suggested would make the transition to a post-industrial, low-energy future a little less difficult, he asked his readers with scientific and engineering backgrounds to make suggestions of their own. To offer extra motivation, he set up a contest: formulate a post discussing a problem we’ll need to deal with or a solution to one of the challenges facing us as we undergo energy descent, post it by November 1, 2013, and he’d consider it for inclusion in a book of the best such entries. We, his readers, called it the Krampus contest after the post’s title.

Around this same time I was considering a worrisome trend in my vegetable garden. For the past few years I had noticed declining yields and an increase in pest and disease issues. I wanted to understand what had happened and what needed to change. With the Krampus contest as motivation it was a good time to re-invigorate my garden and my gardening practice by applying the scientific method to this challenge and and showing other people how they might do the same. Since I’d been working with Ecology Action’s method of gardening for over a decade and had David Duhon’s book One Circle which proposed sample minimum-area plans to produce a complete diet on a backyard scale, I could grow the crops featured in the plans to find out how well the proposed plans met the conditions, personal and environmental, that I deal with. Since I suspected that one cause of my garden’s languishing might be an imbalance in the soil mineral profile, I had a hypothesis to test, and with the help of Steve Solomon’s newly published book The Intelligent Gardener and a soil test I would know how to re-balance the soil minerals. Not only would the yield data that I collected help to determine if a complete-diet garden could be grown in the greater St. Louis area in the space suggested by Duhon, but by showing my work -- by using the scientific method to formulate a hypothesis about soil re-mineralization and then testing the hypothesis against the data that I gathered -- I could become a better gardener and show other interested gardeners how to do likewise. And in the process, I might improve the garden soil, the vegetables that I grew from it, and the health of the two people eating those vegetables.

This post was my entry for the Krampus contest. This post applied the same method to the other crops that I grew in 2013. While the contest did not elicit enough entries for the book to be pursued, taking part in it proved valuable to my gardening practice. Thus I continued my gardening science project in 2014 with new hypotheses and promised to publish yield data and evaluate the results at the end of the growing season. It’s that time, and here they are.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the scientific method, it starts with a problem that you’d like to solve. In my case, I want to know if either or both of two of the complete-diet garden plans that Duhon proposed in One Circle can be grown successfully here; more specifically, can I obtain the required yields for each plant in the garden designs? In order for the gardens to be grown in the space Duhon allots for them, the yield (weight per unit area) of each crop grown in them has to meet Ecology Action’s mid-range yield. Most of the crops I had grown had not achieved this yield most years, thus the specific form of my question.

In order to apply the scientific method to my question, I put it in the form of hypotheses, statements that can be evaluated by data such as yield (weight per unit area) of the harvest, insect damage, and taste which I collected for each crop that I grew. Gardens are living systems so the garden and the larger living system in which it is embedded asked and answered some of its own questions. As a gardener-scientist, my task is to look at the data that I collected, not only in light of the hypotheses I formulated to guide the work, but also to understand the questions that the garden asked and answered and how those interacted with the hypotheses. Doing this well will allow the garden and me to work together to grow delicious food in a way that respects the soil and its life, the lives of the other beings that share this bit of land, and the larger cycles that the land and its inhabitants participate in.

Let’s look at some natural events that shaped the garden in 2014. Our last spring frost occurred on April 15 and the first fall frost occurred on November 1 for a growing season of 198 days, about average for this area. April, May, and June were warmer and wetter than normal while July was cooler and drier than normal. August overall was warmer and wetter than normal; however, while the first half was cooler than normal, the second half (and the first week of September) brought the hottest weather of the season. Once the heat passed, the rest of the growing season was cool and wet. Before factoring in any of my own questions, then, we can hypothesize that weather conditions in 2014 might favor spring and fall crops over crops that require a long period of hot weather and might favor crops that prefer wetter over those that prefer drier growing conditions. We can also hypothesize that crops that compete well against disease might be favored over crops that compete less well against disease, since wet growing conditions tend to favor many diseases that affect vegetable crops.

Besides the weather factors, some personal factors affected my gardening in 2014. As I noted in this post, I spent more time at lawn-mowing during May and June than I have done in previous years. This reduced the time I spent weeding to the point where some of the spring crops failed from being out-competed by weeds. The increased weed growth required me to spend more time than usual preparing each bed for cropping, slowing down planting, until around the end of June when I learned how to use a scythe to hack off weedy growth rather than trying to hoe off tall weeds. Then I found out that I could dig the root-filled bed much faster with a shovel than with a broadfork. However, soon thereafter I spent three weeks away from home on family business. By the time I returned home at the end of July, I faced garden triage. I responded by ensuring that the full-grown spring crops needing harvesting got it and that the fall crops got planted, thinned, and weeded on time, leaving the long-season summer crops that I had managed to plant to face the weeds on their own and leaving the remainder unplanted for lack of enough growing days left for them to mature.

Because I suspected that my garden soil was not properly balanced for minerals and that the imbalanced minerals might be a major factor reducing the yields I have been able to achieve, I have focussed on evaluating how yields have responded to efforts to properly balance the minerals in the soil during the past two years. The hypotheses I made for the 2014 garden before the season began, based on my continuation of the soil re-mineralization work, were:
            1. Pest and disease pressure will be no worse in 2014 than in 2013;
            2. The taste of those varieties that I grow every year will show further improvement over that observed in 2014; and
            3. Yields will increase, or at least not decrease, for those varieties that I have grown in the past.
In each case a positive answer would suggest that soil re-mineralization had a positive effect on that particular crop. If enough crops responded positively I would consider continuing with the soil re-mineralization program in 2015. If, however, some or most of the answers were negative I might reconsider if soil re-mineralization would be beneficial in 2015. Note that I need to account for any effect of the weather and personal factors on yield as well. All these factors will figure into the discussion of individual crops and the overall results.

I also performed small trials for some crops, in some cases testing different varieties, in others different spacings, to look at how those changes affected yields and tastes. I’ll also mention what I learned from these trials in the write-up for particular crops.

In Table 1, below, I give the 2014 planting data for the crops that are included in two prototype garden plans that provide a complete diet from the book One Circle; they are in turn based on the work done at Ecology Action and described in their popular gardening guide How to Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV). The first two columns show the crop and the variety grown. Because the garden plans in One Circle depend on the methodology and crop spacing in HTGMV, I have included the spacing suggested by HTGMV for each crop in the third column. The fourth and fifth columns indicate the spacing I used and the date of planting for the year in which I obtained the highest yield for that crop prior to 2014. This data is important because in nearly every case I grow at wider spacing and in a square or rectangular grid rather than HTGMV’s triangular grid and because planting at the optimal time is required to obtain the highest possible yield. I used the highest previous yield I’ve obtained in order to assess the hypothesis about yield changes resulting from re-mineralization.

I also grew a number of other crops, because we and many other people like them and because some of them may eventually become part of my own complete-diet garden plan when I have enough reliable yield data to make an attempt at a design. Table 2 shows the same information as Table 1 for these other crops.

Table 3 gives the yields, in pounds per 100 square feet, that I obtained for the crops included in the northern version of One Circle’s complete-diet garden plan. The assumed yield in the second column is from One Circle and corresponds to the mid-range yield given in the HTGMV edition in print at that time. Duhon assumes that a gardener of intermediate skill who follows HTGMV’s method should be able to obtain the mid-range yield. Thus he uses the mid-range yield to derive the area required for each crop in his complete-diet plans. The third column is the best yield I have obtained for that crop before 2014; the fourth column is the 2013 yield; and the fifth column is the 2014 yield. Where necessary I have shown the variety for which I obtained the measured yield. 

Table 4 gives the yields for the crops included in the southern version of One Circle’s complete-diet plan. 

Table 5 gives the yields obtained for all the other crops I grew in 2014 that were successful. For the crops in Table 5 the assumed yield is the mid-range yield from the 8th edition of HTGMV.

With all this data at hand, let’s look at the hypotheses I made before the growing season began, to see how the garden answered my questions.

1. Pest and disease pressure: as in 2013, I noticed little of either, remarkable for a year in which disease pressures would be expected to be high due to excessive rainfall and humidity for almost the entire growing season. One variety of tomato, ‘Rose’, succumbed to disease in August, but all plants of each of the other three tomato varieties remained alive and producing until the first fall frost. All the pepper plants remained alive and producing till frost, as was true in 2013 and a marked change from high pepper plant mortality for a number of years preceding 2013.

2. Taste: I did not notice any further taste improvement in 2014 for those varieties that I grow every year - but neither did I notice any worsening of taste.

3. Yield: this is dependent on a multitude of factors considered in the posts describing the 2013 results. Among these are weather, soil moisture, spacing, mineral levels, weed pressure, pest and disease pressure, planting date, and variety grown. While some of these are within the control of the gardener, some of them are not. Some of those that could be controlled might not be controlled for various reasons, such as the personal factors that affected my garden this year. Assessing the yield hypothesis, then, requires a close examination of the planting information, the yields obtained, and the weather and personal factors that might have affected each crop. Thus I’ll discuss each of the crops that I grew in 2014 separately, starting with those in Tables 1, 3, and 4 (the crops used in One Circle’s complete-diet garden plans) and then those in Tables 2 and 5 (everything else I grew in 2014).

Garlic: note that the yield of the variety grown in both 2013 and 2014, ‘Inchelium Red’, increased by a factor of 3 in 2014 versus 2013 and is now the same within experimental error as the best yield previously obtained. I consider this as a yes answer to the yield hypothesis because my care of the garlic patch differed little in the two years and weather patterns were favorable both years. Note that a different kind of garlic first grown in 2014, elephant garlic, yielded at One Circle’s assumed level despite the wider 6” plant spacing I use. I do not know if elephant garlic has a similar nutritional profile to other kinds of garlic, but I do know that we liked its taste as much as ‘Inchelium Red’. I plan to grow a larger area to elephant garlic in 2015 for further evaluation.

Sunflower seeds: the crop failure was due to too-old seed not germinating. I plan to grow a small area in sunflowers in 2015 but will need to consider how to protect the seeds against bird and squirrel predation.

Potatoes: although the growing season was favorable for temperature, excessive rainfall, excessive weediness, and a late harvest may have reduced the 2014 yield. In addition, the latest revision to Steve Solomon’s soil re-mineralization program, available here, suggests that the soil for growing potatoes might need to be balanced differently from the rest of the garden. I will consider doing that in 2015. I found it surprising that the closest spacing produced the best yield, but then again the best yield I have ever gotten (for a different variety) was for the even closer HTGMV spacing. This suggests growing at the 12” spacing in 2015. I might trial another late-season variety against ‘Elba’. It’s worth noting that ‘Elba’ stored very well; the potatoes remaining at the beginning of December were as firm and tasty as those we ate just after harvest. I stored them in an open bushel basket in the coolest, darkest part of the basement.

Onions: the 2014 growing season weather was favorable for onions, plus I chose intermediate-day varieties (a better match to 39N latitude than long-day onion varieties, I suspect), planted them at the right time, weeded them a couple of times before I had to attend to family business, and harvested them at the right time. The yields of both red and yellow onions were double that of 2013’s red variety. While still not close to the assumed yield, at least it has improved. If I planted at the closer HTGMV spacing the yield might improve further but the extra time required to plant and weed at such close spacings makes that impractical in my opinion. The yield of potato onions also improved in 2014 versus 2013 for the same spacing and now meets the best previous yield. Thus the yield for potato onions answers yes to the yield hypothesis, while the yield hypothesis cannot be assessed for red and yellow onions because I grew different varieties in 2014 versus 2013. We liked the taste and size of both the red and yellow varieties and they are storing well with very few lost to rotting or sprouting; they will become my new standard bulb onions.

Turnips: the much higher yield for 2014 compared to 2013 is most likely due to the better fall growing conditions and more timely planting, thinning, and weeding in 2014 versus 2013. While the 2014 yield is still below my best yield, the best yield was obtained with rows grown half the distance apart. It may be worth doing that in 2015.

Parsnips: the crop failure in 2014 appears to have been due to low germination in the seeds used. I tried a different seed supplier for some of the biennial crops I grew in 2014 and noted poor germination in many of them. I will use a more reliable seed source for this and other biennial crops that I grow in 2015.

Sweet potatoes: this crop failed due to excessive weed pressure choking out the crop. I did not weed them at all, not noticing that the plants grow slowly at first and need to be weeded until they are well established.

Peanuts: this crop failed due to rabbits eating it while I was out of town.

Leeks: the seeds arrived too late to start in a flat and had to be direct-seeded to the garden, with spotty germination the result. I also let them get too weedy over the summer. Still, the yield was about the same in 2014 as in 2013, which at least does not negate the yield hypothesis. Because of the spotty germination in 2014 and the wider crop spacing I cannot compare the 2014 yield with the best yield I had previously obtained for this variety.

Looking at the crops in Tables 2 and 5, among those whose yield improved in 2014 compared to 2013 are arugula, sweet peppers, winter radish, and winter squash. In the case of arugula and winter squash, the 2014 yield also exceeds the previous highest yield. The 2014 yield for hot peppers also set a new record but that variety was not grown in 2013 so the yield for those two years cannot be compared. Some crops yielded about the same in 2014 compared to 2013; these include cucumbers, the spring crop of ‘Bronze Arrowhead’ lettuce, spring and fall bok choy, and snow peas. All these crops either support or do not contradict the yield hypothesis.

Now let’s look closely at the crops which appear to contradict the yield hypothesis, to see if other factors from the 2014 growing season can account for the reduced yield compared to 2013.

Of these, tomatoes stand out. The yield in 2014 was about half that of 2013. I think this can be explained by the cool, wet July and early August weather, conditions less favorable to tomatoes. The yield for both varieties in 2009, another year with a cool, wet summer, was the same within experimental error to the 2014 yield, while the yield for 2012 for ‘Arkansas Traveler’ was a little higher than that for 2013, a year with a similarly hot and dry summer. Thus I suspect that the reduction in yield for 2014 versus 2013 was largely accounted for by the difference in weather conditions. (For the paste tomato, the very high yield in 2012 may have been due to caging rather than staking the tomatoes. Caged tomatoes generally yield more per unit area but shade neighboring crops more.) The new variety I tried, ‘Pale Perfect Purple’, looked good and tasted good, but not good enough to earn it a permanent spot in my garden.

For broccoli, my 2014 planting plan was too complex; I found it difficult to tell what variety most of the plants were once they grew large enough to touch. While I was away I told Mike not to record the harvest data, since he would be unable to attribute it to the right variety. The 2014 broccoli yields are too low due to this error, thus the yield hypothesis cannot be assessed. Nor can I assess differences among the varieties.

For bok choy, all the plants of the ‘Chinese’ variety bolted in spring before they achieved any size. ‘Prize Choy’ plants also bolted but later, after they had sized up, so they provided usable food at about the same yield as in 2013. A couple of the fall-planted ‘Chinese’ variety also bolted but none of the ‘Prize Choy’ plants bolted; yields were about the same within experimental error. I’ll continue to grow ‘Prize Choy’.

For spring lettuce, ‘Anuenue’ bolted before I could harvest half of the heads, compared to 2013 when I harvested all the heads before they bolted. Checking weather data for both years during June, the critical month for the lettuce harvest, both years were wetter than normal; however, for temperature, June 2013 was average while June 2014 was warmer than normal. Thus, weather may account for the lower yield. I found that ‘Jericho’ tip-burned too much, thus I will not continue growing it. We liked the butterhead lettuce I grew, ‘Butter King’, and I may grow it again next year. The highest-yielding lettuce in 2014 was ‘Pablo’; as a pretty, long-standing lettuce with a good flavor, it has earned a space in my garden. I think reducing the growing space for spring lettuces to half that of 2014 will result in a much higher proportion of lettuce eaten before it bolts.

The fall lettuce garden failed. There was little germination and rabbits ate what few plants grew. I rarely have success with fall lettuce seeded directly to the garden, probably because the soil is too warm in August. In 2015 I’ll try sowing seeds for the fall crop to a flat held in the basement in early July, bringing the sprouted plants out to a shady location to grow on and planting decent-sized seedlings to the garden in August.

The weather patterns noted above for spring lettuce may have affected cabbage similarly. For both 2013 and 2014 ‘Golden Acre’ cabbage yielded twice as much as ‘Early Jersey Wakefield’ and was ready to pick at about the same time. Thus I’m switching to ‘Golden Acre’ for summer cabbage. For fall cabbage, ‘Early Flat Dutch’ started on April 10 and transplanted to the garden on April 22 with just two true leaves resulted in excellent heads harvested during the second half of August, a time when I had no other leafy greens available. I’ll grow it again and may try an even later variety as well.

For the peas, I think not weeding before or after planting reduced the potential yield in 2014. Pre-sprouting the peas helped (I may not have gotten any peas without those extra few days to grow through the weeds) but the support system I tried did not seem very effective. I have an idea for a better support system to try in 2015.

For zucchini, I think I grew more plants per unit area in 2013 than in 2014, but I did not note that specifically on the data sheets I keep for each crop. I need to keep closer track of how many plants I grow per unit area for these and winter squash. Also, zucchini may have been negatively affected by the cool, wet conditions of July and early August when most of its fruits set, while the winter squash, which was planted later and flowered later, may have benefitted from the warmer conditions of the second half of August and early September.

For squash, I only planted ‘Waltham Butternut’ as I ran out of time to prepare the bed for the other variety I planned to grow. And I did not plant the squash until much later than I had planned. Even so, the yield beat the previous best and the quality of the squashes is excellent.

For cucumbers, the trellising system seemed to perform well enough, but I think I can improve it in 2015. The melon crop failed yet again; the vines succumbed before they ripened a melon. I did not have time to prepare the area that was to grow the watermelons.

For popcorn, the yield in 2014 will be poor. Because I did pre-planting preparation on three different days but planted all the beds on the same day, the effects of excessive weed pressure are apparent. In the bed prepared first the weeds had almost a week’s head start on the popcorn seeds, while I planted the bed prepared last on the day after it was prepared, with the middle bed in between. I did not weed any of the beds all season long. The result can be seen in the photo at the top, in which the harvest is grouped by the bed in which it grew. The largest harvest by far is from the bed planted a day after preparation (the group of cobs on the far left), with the smallest harvest from the bed planted a week after preparation (the group of cobs on the far right). This is a clear indication of the negative effect of excessive weed pressure on yield and overwhelmed the influence of any other factor on the yield for popcorn. Similarly, I did not weed the dry bean bed at all after planting the seed and its yield is likely to be negatively affected, based on the volume of the harvest compared to the volume from past harvests. I did not grow black-eyed peas or soybeans due to running out of time to plant them while there were enough days left in the season to grow them.

For winter radishes, I grew at double the row spacing in 2014 and planted three weeks later compared to the previous best year, so it is not surprising that the 2014 crop did not manage to attain the previous high yield - but it did beat the 2013 yield, which I suspect is primarily due to favorable fall weather and timely weeding and thinning (the same factors that resulted in the high yield for arugula). I did not anticipate that daikon radishes would yield so much better than ‘Red Meat’. I’ll still grow ‘Red Meat’ because it is both pretty and tasty, but I will also grow daikon radishes. I’ll also strive to plant both kinds of radishes earlier as this might be key to obtaining higher yields.

The eggplant, carrot, and beet crops failed due to weeds shading them out. All three of these crops grow slowly and need timely weeding to produce well, which I did not provide. Rutabagas grew well until late summer, when they rotted. They probably need to be planted in late July so that they mature in cooler fall conditions.

Overall, then, it appears that soil re-mineralization had enough of a positive effect on enough crops that I will consider continuing re-mineralization in 2015. Putting the results for both 2013 and 2014 together and combining that with some other changes in the garden and my gardening practice since the beginning of the project suggests I’ve learned some things pertinent to the larger goal of growing a complete diet in a sustainable way that I will discuss in the next post.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Off with their heads: mowing and trimming with the European scythe

County property maintenance codes require us to keep grassy areas on our property mowed to 6 inches (15 cm) or less in height. Even though I have worked to reduce the amount of our acre (about 0.4 hectare) lot that falls in this category, much of it still requires at least occasional mowing during the growing season. The front yard and the portion of the property surrounding the vegetable gardens require mowing most often: the front yard because code officials can see it from the street, the part surrounding the vegetable gardens because it receives nearly full sun.

For several years I have wanted to try using a European scythe to mow the lawn. I’d bought and read The Scythe Book by David Tresemer, a paean in homage to the scythe, but also more than a little intimidating. On the one hand I could score serious saving-the-earth points by using nothing but a stick and a blade to mow the lawn. On the other, the book offered more romance than practical information, at least the sort of information that a not-mechanically-inclined person like myself could understand.

This past spring, I realized it was time to overcome my fear and learn how to mow with a scythe. I found Scythe Supply’s website and decided on the best scythe blade for mowing our property. Mike measured me as directed to determine the proper dimensions for a scythe to fit me. I chose a scythe outfit with a bent snath (the stick) and a 26 inch TOPS blade.

When the outfit arrived I read all the literature that came with it. I wish I could say that the literature helped me understand how to adjust the position of the blade relative to the snath (pages 15 to 18 in The Scythe Book) and how to mow, but it didn’t. All I could do was set up the scythe the best I could and start mowing.

It did not take long for me to realize that not only did I not understand how to set the blade at the proper angle, but I also did not understand how to swing the scythe. The pictures and words in the book did not translate into bodily knowledge. Eventually I remembered that Scythe Supply offered a DVD on mowing techniques. With a sigh, I realized this was something I’d need to learn by seeing if I were to learn it at all and ordered the DVD.

It was seeing how to mow and how to peen and sharpen the blade that turned me into a mower. After setting the blade as directed in the video I started mowing again. Now I understood what David Tresemer and Peter Vido (Vido wrote the addendum in the second edition of the book) meant, why they and others scythe. I scythed for a couple of hours, immersed in the joy of the process. When it was time to peen the blade, I stopped and looked at how much I had mowed during that time ...

And I understood why reel lawnmowers and gasoline-powered lawnmowers exist and why I’d never seen anyone use a scythe to mow a lawn. Scything is a wonderful activity, the most pleasant way to mow a lawn that I have tried. It is also, however, a slow activity. A scythe cuts very close to the ground, and at least at this point in my scything career, it cuts less evenly than even a reel lawnmower, points against it for people who like carpet-like lawns. But the scythe did cut tall grass as easily as short grass, and it cut the plantain flower stems and other stringy weeds that a reel mower cannot cut.

With some regret I laid aside the scythe as lawnmower. Instead I considered if there were other ways to use a scythe to accomplish tasks that I had previously done with gasoline or electric tools. For instance, could it mow the tight space between the ends of the vegetable beds and the fence around them? I tried that but found that the blade was too long for the width of the space. Back to Scythe Supply’s website to see if I could buy a shorter blade. The shortest blade it offered that I could use on my bent snath was an 18 inch ditch blade. I thought perhaps I could use the ditch blade to mow both between the veggie beds and fences, so I bought one. It is shown in the photo of my scythe at the top of this post.

The ditch blade proved to have many good uses. For one thing, it could mow a mature cover crop like crimson clover or the three foot (about 1 meter) high stand of grass and weeds I pretended was a cover crop on vegetable beds I had not had time to plant. In the past I’d hoed off the weeds on vegetable beds before digging them, a step that could require several hours for beds I don’t prepare for planting till early summer. Using a scythe allowed me to complete that step in an hour or less no matter how tall the weeds grew. If I hadn’t found any other good uses for a scythe, that use alone made it more than worth the money I’d spent on it.  But that wasn’t all! The ditch blade mowed off errant cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) stems in the peony bed and parts of the front yard. It mowed off hazelnut and indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) shoots that I would have needed to cut with long-handled pruners if I had waited till next spring to remove them. It mowed off poison ivy and honeysuckle vines working their way across the narrow strip of yard on the west side of the house. Finally I could get rid of the electric string trimmer!

By September, with fall planting done and no large harvests to deal with, I started looking more closely at how and where the grass was growing in the back yard. The trees I planted the first couple of years after we moved here are now much taller than I am and their canopies are beginning to touch. While grass still grew between the back edge of the vegetable garden and the tree line and from the tree line to the neighbors’ fences, it had slowed down and was thinning out. Where the tree canopies met, very little grass remained, with violets now the primary herbaceous cover. Perhaps mowing with the scythe might be an option after all. Inspired, I switched to the grass blade and mowed. Mowing was still slow, although it became somewhat faster with more practice. But I now realized that because the back yard is not visible to the code enforcers, I could compensate for the slowness of mowing with the scythe by mowing less often. I would only need to use the gasoline-powered mower in the sunniest part of the yard, the grassy area surrounding the vegetable beds, and then only from May through September when the warm season grasses that predominate in that area grow. When those grasses don’t grow, the reel mower mows nearly as fast as the gasoline-powered mower. Best of all, as the trees continue to grow, they will further reduce the coverage and strength of the grass! I should be able to use the scythe and reel mower more often, and the gasoline-powered mower less often, each year. Using the right tool in the right place at the right time, observing how the grass grows and adjusting to it instead of just mowing everything out of habit, and owning up to and changing my expectation that grass should look like a green carpet all the time, has allowed me to reduce use of a fossil-fuel-powered mower (and eliminate use of a fossil-fuel-powered string trimmer) in favor of the human-powered scythe and reel mower.

Would a scythe make sense for you? Well, it depends (you knew I would say that, of course). Based on my experience I’ll make suggestions, but please don’t take what I say as the final word. You need to consider your particular situation and do some research to determine if a scythe makes sense for you.

I think most people who use a string trimmer for trimming rather than for lawn mowing could replace their string trimmer with a scythe. In fact, I don’t know why anyone would prefer to use a string trimmer over a scythe. The scythe trims about as well, doesn’t require fossil fuels or plastic string, weighs much less, doesn’t stink or vibrate during use, and you can maintain it yourself. For this purpose the TOPS blades or ditch blades are likely the best choice. If you’ll be trimming woody seedlings or shoots I suggest a ditch blade. I think shorter blades are more practical for trimming but you can read the information on blade choice on Scythe Supply’s website to determine the right size for your situation.

For lawn mowing a scythe is most practical when the lawn area is wide enough for a full swing of the scythe, free of  excessive numbers of obstacles like shrubs or outdoor furnishings, and either small enough that you can mow it in the time available or large and invisible enough that you need to mow only occasionally or can get by with mowing only part of it each week. Scythe blades swung properly cut a wide expanse. My swing cuts over a 6 foot (2 meter) wide row. Ideally you walk a row the length of your lawn swinging the scythe in the same direction and with the same width, then move over and scythe the next row from front to back in the same direction. Any place where there is an obstacle, you need to mow in a circle around the obstacle. This slows you down. You also need to take care that you don’t swing your scythe blade into obstacles, to avoid damaging the blade. As an example, I spent an hour scything an area of about 625 square feet (about 59 square meters) with several obstacles in it. Had there been no obstacles I might have been able to scythe about twice that area in an hour, and it might have taken even less time than that if I had scythed early in the morning as Tresemer and Vido suggest rather than in the afternoon. If you don’t like the look of the swaths of mown grass you will need to rake them up after you mow. I left them in place and didn’t think it hurt anything.

For gardeners, a scythe can be used for mowing cover crops as I have done. This winter I plan to try mowing the prairie in the back yard with the ditch blade to keep tree seedlings and vines under control. I think it will mow dead perennial stems as well.

If you are interested in scythes but have not seen anyone using them, I recommend viewing the videos on Scythe Supply’s website or checking on YouTube for videos of mowing with the European scythe. For those of you who decide to purchase a scythe, study the information on Scythe Supply’s website carefully to determine the best choice of snath and blade(s) for your situation and to size the snath correctly. I chose to buy an outfit and added the sharpening service and a blade cover to that order, a choice I recommend to anyone new to the scythe. If you want more blades you can order them at the same time or later on. If I had known how helpful the DVDs on mowing techniques and peening and sharpening would be I would have added the DVD combo to my first order. Those of you who find and can view some good YouTube videos may learn everything you need to know about mowing and sharpening from them, in which case you won’t need the DVDs.

You’ll need the peening jig and whetstone (included in an outfit) in order to keep your scythe blade sharp. Mike attached the peening jig to a wooden workbench in our basement and I stand up while peening the blade; it works fine this way. Those of you who do not have a suitable workbench could attach the jig to a piece of wood, or you could buy the peening log offered by Scythe Supply.

Now that the growing season is over, it’s time to evaluate the results from the 2014 garden science experiment. After that I’ll return to the human-powered tools series, specifically to the tools I find most useful for gardening. See you later!

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!