Sunday, July 3, 2016

The decline may not be permacultured, part 2

As I noted in a previous post, I think that while some of the techniques that are presented under the label of permaculture design may have a place in easing some of the difficulties that we’ll encounter as cheap energy sources dry up and the U.S. continues in its decline, I think it’s best to learn those from books and by doing rather than from the permaculture design course. In this post I’ll discuss my reasons for that belief, using the article I critiqued in that post (“Hellstrip Polycultures” by Frank Raymond Cetera in the August 2015 issue of Permaculture Design, abbreviated as PcA/PcD in this post to account for the years it was published under the title of Permaculture Activist before the 2015 name change) and other resources promoted under the permaculture label to look critically at the design course and what seem to be common habits of thought among its graduates and its teachers.

One of the points I raised in the previous post is the lack of understanding of the functions of and constraints upon the tree lawn within the current ecology of the city that the author of the article displayed. Since one of the major goals of a permaculture design course is to raise attendees’ awareness of the patterns of energy and resource flow through the area under design, I wonder how well that objective is met in practice. How could it be that a course which claims to offer a good grounding in and understanding of ecological processes apparently failed to transmit an understanding of the city as an ecological system? It should not be difficult to understand why planting a tree lawn with tall, sprawling, dispersive plants next to a busy street on one side and a narrow sidewalk on the other does not make good ecological sense for pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, police, and residents alike. Even if the author of the article was unaware of the functions of and constraints on a tree lawn, the editor of Permaculture Design, who has been working with permaculture design for many years, should have caught the problems and not published the article as it appeared. Why didn’t that happen?

One possibility lies in the history of permaculture. Back in 1974, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed a framework for a sustainable agricultural system based on multiple types of crops, many of them perennials, which are claimed to support each other similarly to the ways that plants in ecosystems like forests, woodlands, and prairies support each other (from the preface to Introduction to Permaculture). They coined the term “permaculture” as a shorthand for “permanent agriculture.” From the beginning, growing food and other useful plants in polycultures in which the plants are supposed to provide for each other’s needs has been a central aspect of permaculture.

However, because much of permaculture design deals with making major modifications to landforms for water and energy harvesting to support large-scale perennial cropping, and because in temperate climates such as most of the U.S. tree crops are the only perennials that are commonly grown for food, permaculture design in the U.S. seems to have focused more on tree crops and perennial plantings for larger semi-rural and rural properties than it has on the different needs and ecologies of cities and suburbs. Mike’s and my one acre lot, because it is located in an inner suburb of a major metropolitan area, has more in common with the 1/8 acre lot we used to own in a nearby inner suburb than it does with the semi-rural to rural properties that Mollison, Holmgren, and many other permaculture teachers and authors live on, have written about, and/or seem to be most familiar with. It doesn’t make much sense to learn about swales as water control and harvesting structures, for instance, if the only bit of land you have control over is your 1/8 to 1/4 acre city or suburban lot. Instead, it could be a lot more useful to learn about how to capture and use water from your roof cheaply and effectively. But you don’t need a permaculture design course to learn about that. Search “rain barrel” or “rain garden” on the web, and you’ll learn everything you need to set up your own rain barrels and rain gardens (including this post). And you don’t need a computer or Internet access at home if your public library provides that.

What if you rent your property? Even if your property has a little land, say 1/8 to 1/4 acre, your landlord may not want you to plant anything on it. Even if that isn’t an issue, you may not want to put much money or time into permanent plantings or the various tools that you would need to plant a garden if you don’t know how long you will live at that location. Many renters live in multi-story buildings without access to anything more than a community garden bed, if that. Under these circumstances, permaculture design for plantings has little to offer. On the other hand, there are many books and websites on growing vegetables in containers or on small pieces of land such as community garden beds and in small backyard spaces. A few hand tools will suffice to work a small vegetable bed or garden or a container planting. Again, no need for a permaculture design course when your local library has or can get for you the books that you’ll need, and websites like this blog as well as state extension services and local gardening organizations have information that can help vegetable growers decide which approach makes sense for them.

The emphasis on polycultures in permaculture design has a lot to do with why the author of the article chose the plants that he did, I suspect. This emphasis on polycultures - groupings of plants that are supposed to supply each others’ needs and put each others’ outputs to good use - has been a part of permaculture design from the beginning and continues to have a prominent place in PcA/PcD as well as in books on permaculture design. The best polycultures are supposed to use mostly perennials to supply human foods and other needs as well as the needs of the soil microorganisms, birds, pollinators, and other animals in the area. They are intended to imitate plant communities of a mature ecosystem that would exist in the area without human intervention. The author of the article I critiqued is one in a long line of permaculture designers to design a polyculture for a particular environment, in this case for a tree lawn.

Considering that permaculture has been around for 40 years and that polycultures are one of the aspects of design that has been emphasized for that entire time, I would think that permaculture designers would have a good-sized list of well-understood polycultures appropriate for various ecosystems by now. But such a list doesn’t seem to exist in practice. I’ve not seen it in PcA/PcD, though the Spring 2016 issue advertises a plant database that is claimed to allow designers to build their own polycultures and plant guilds. Many permaculture books describe how to design polycultures to fulfill the goals of the designer. But after 40 years, with tens of thousands of graduates claimed for all the design courses that have been offered, I would expect that at least a few good polycultures that work with temperate climate plants would be well known within the community of permaculture designers, written about in books and discussed in PcA/PcD as examples for others to learn from. John Wages, editor of the May 2014 issue of PcA, seemed to expect the same thing when he called for articles on stacking functions (the jargon permaculture designers use for the interactions among a group of plants that meet each others’ and the designer’s needs) for that issue. In his Editor’s Edge column, Wages wrote, “While we had hoped to see detailed examples of landscape designs that incorporated a high degree of multifunctionality, only a few such articles appeared.” I haven’t seen them in other issues of PcA/PcD, nor in the permaculture books that I’ve read. Why is this?

One possibility is that it’s harder to design polycultures for temperate climates with plants we are used to eating for food and can grow in small urban and suburban spaces than permaculture designers suggest. Dave Jacke’s and Eric Toenmeier’s Top 100 species list as published in volume 1 of Edible Forest Gardens, for example, includes very large trees like pecans and hickories, which are too big for the vast majority of urban and suburban lots and require many years to grow to bearing age. Persimmons and pawpaws, more suitably sized trees, do make the list, but they still require several years to reach bearing age and few people are familiar enough with the fruit to want to grow the trees. Pears also make the list, but most are subject to fireblight, which has ravaged my two pear trees. Hazels are the right size for urban and suburban yards, but squirrels get nearly all of the hazelnuts in my yard. Raspberries, elderberries, and blueberries all make the list, but birds usually outcompete me for the first and third, and the second needs to be cooked or made into wine and is unfamiliar to most people. Groundnut provides an edible tuber, but it’s highly expansive in my yard, the tubers don’t taste as good as a potato, and they leave a nasty latex-like substance coating the sides of the pan they are cooked in which is quite difficult to remove. I wouldn’t care to eat any of the herbaceous plants they list in large quantity, though small amounts of the edible ones are a nice change. It’s worth noting again that the vast majority of the plants I and most people eat are the standard grain, tuber, and vegetable crops, none of which are perennial in St. Louis. I have many of the Top 100 plants in my yard and value them, but more for the diversity they bring to the land and to the other beings here than because they are a big part of my diet. I get a lot more food out of my vegetable garden, filled as it is with annuals and biennials and organized for easy planting and care rather than on interactions among the plants themselves, than I do from the remaining 95% of the yard. Since permaculture designers don’t seem to have lists of polycultures suited to various ecosystems to offer to potential students, once again I encourage people with an interest in this area to read books on the topic (in my opinion, the best one for those of us in the eastern deciduous forest biome of the U. S. is Edible Forest Gardens) and start trying designs of your own. And if you come up with some that work well, share them! Meanwhile, as I’ve documented in numerous posts and will continue to share in future posts, a well-grown vegetable garden combined with any small or tree fruits of interest that you have the space to grow and the inclination to properly care for will provide you with more nutritious food in a shorter period of time and for less cash outlay than will a polyculture built on perennial crops suited to small urban and suburban spaces.

Permaculture designers might retort that they have much to offer beyond land design. If so, I wish they would discuss and document more of it, in more detail, than I’ve seen in PcA/PcD or in the permaculture books I’ve read. For instance, given how much housing stock exists that desperately needs cheap energy-efficient retrofitting, I would think that after 40 years permaculturists would have developed well-tested plans for such retrofitting and published the results in books, PcA/PcD and other magazines, and on blogs for themselves and others to implement. With very few exceptions, however, I haven’t seen anything like this. Bob Waldrop recognizes the importance of the issue, to his credit, and discusses his and his housemates’ retrofit of their Oklahoma City house in his e-book iPermie. Unfortunately, you have to slog through 416 pages of bloated, overheated, inelegant prose before you get to the chapter with this information, and even then he doesn’t offer enough details to make it easy to reproduce what he did, nor does he offer documentation on how much energy he and his housemates used before and after the work was done.

A quick scan through the last two years of PcA/PcD reveals just one article on home energy use, by Peter Bane in the Winter 2014-15 issue. While he does give a description of how he and his partner make use of a combination of fossil fuel and solar energy sources along with conservation to deal with fluctuations in energy flows during the year in their Indiana home, again he provides almost no data on how much energy they used before and after making some of the changes he describes, nor does he tell us how to make similar changes.

One of the few issues of PcA to deal with appropriate technology is the Winter 2013-14 issue. While it does describe some interesting technologies, there are no articles about using demand reduction (like changing thermostat settings and dressing properly for them) or retrofitting (sealing, adding insulation, and so forth) to reduce energy consumption in existing buildings, a hot topic, for good reason, in the appropriate technology resources from the 1970s. These are among the most effective changes that most of us can make, yet permaculture designers almost completely ignore them, preferring to discuss cool but un-permitted (in most cities) technologies like rocket mass heaters and building new eco-houses out of cob, straw bales, and the like in the exurbs or rural areas. But it’s almost certainly the case that changing to more energy-conserving habits plus a good energy retrofit of existing housing will end up saving more energy than even the most energy-efficient new construction when the energy embodied in the materials from which the new house is made (even a cob or straw-bale house includes plenty of high-energy industrial materials) are taken into account. While John Wages pays lip service to the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s in his Editor’s Edge column of this issue of PcA, it appears that most permaculture designers have little use for this body of cheap, practical, and tested knowledge on how to live a low-cost, low-energy life.

This brings me to what I think is most problematic in the article by Cetera that I critiqued in part 1 and about the writers in PcA/PcD in general: their employment of the left-wing version of the Rescue Game. As John Michael Greer notes, to play the Rescue Game we must fill three roles: Victim, Persecutor, and Rescuer. The victim, in Cetera’s case the people in the neighborhood for whom Cetera claimed to create the garden, suffer by being deprived of space and other resources in and by which to grow their traditional foods. (I’m not arguing this isn’t the case; instead, Cetera will use this fact in a way that won’t solve the problem but rather perpetuate it.) The persecutors are the City of Syracuse code enforcement officers, and more generally the city power structure and corporate capitalism, although unsympathetic passersby and those who are unwilling to volunteer to help him in his game also fill the role at times. The rescuer is Cetera himself, though he also considers himself a victim, as when the code cops crack down on his overgrown front yard. The article reads like a classic of the genre as Greer describes it. Cetera’s sympathy for the victim does not flow in the direction of growing or helping them to grow the food and other plants they want in a safe and appropriate location. That would stop the game. Instead, he used his survey as a ruse to get what he wanted all along: a polyculture of his own design in a highly visible location, created with financial and labor help from others rather than paying for it and doing the work himself. It’s no surprise that he didn’t win election to the Syracuse city council: if he had, he’d have to play the role of Persecutor.

While Cetera’s article is a particularly clear example of the left-wing version of the Rescue Game, PcA/PcD writers as a whole are no stranger to the game. It underlies the magazine and the permaculture “movement,” as they like to call it, the way soil underlies my vegetable garden (hence the many years the magazine used the word Activist in its title).

Most of the permaculture designers who write for PcA/PcD are trying to support themselves, in part or in whole, by offering design services to the general public and/or by teaching classes in permaculture design. However, the members of the public who can afford to pay for the services of a permaculture designer are, for the most part, members of the salary class. As a group, they fit into the Persecutor category of the left-wing Rescue Game. If they know of permaculture at all, I suspect they realize they are being cast as Persecutors. Why would they want to pay money to people who clearly don’t like them, even if they do recognize that their high-consumption lifestyle has no future and want to make the kind of changes that permaculture design at its best has to offer? Similarly, the people who can afford to pay for the permaculture design course, and to take off two weeks from work and to travel to and from the course location, are most likely to be salary-class folks rather than the people most permaculture writers claim they want to help the most. The contradiction between designers’ stated ideals and the reality of the situation likely plays a large role in the lack of inroads that permaculture design has made in the culture at large.

That leads to a more subtle point: that permaculture designers of today, in their attempt to market themselves and their knowledge base to the salary class, have to turn themselves into believers in the Religion of Progress, if they aren’t already. This is why they spend more time on talking up things like straw-bale and cob houses than they do about lessening overall energy consumption by simple measures like changing thermostat settings, dressing for using less energy, and caulking and weatherstripping existing housing. This is why Peter Bane, in his otherwise decent article on his household’s energy usage patterns in the Winter 2014-15 issue of PcA, makes the mistake of claiming that a hybrid car would be more energy efficient and a better use of his limited capital than a solar water heater. A hybrid car, after all, is new and technologically cool (even if it’s used) than a solar water heater. A hybrid car looks more like the renewable-energy version of the shiny new future that’s waiting for us if only we can get the powerful on board with it than does a solar hot water heater, with its smell of the miseries of the 1970s energy crisis and the economic contraction that followed. But note that the hybrid car requires ongoing and repeated public spending on energy and materials to keep up a road system for its use, not just one private spending on the car itself (actually, more than one, since the batteries only last a few years). The solar hot water system does have an embedded energy cost (much less than the car, however), but once it’s up and functioning, it costs very little further to use or maintain. This is why permaculture designers ignore the appropriate technology movement for the most part: it challenges a core belief system, the Religion of Progress, held by them and by the people who they want to teach and to purchase their services. And it’s why I think that the decline may not be permacultured: unless permaculture designers get this and work to change it, their principles and practices might not survive the grind of relentless decline.

That doesn’t mean that the design process or melange of techniques that come under the names of permaculture design and practice are useless. If those who promoted them spent most of their time on practicing them and telling us what they learned, rather than trying to get the rest of us to hire them to design our properties or to take courses from them so we can then try to get others to hire us or buy from us, I think we’d know a lot more about what works well and what doesn’t. Those who do practice and write about what they learn, like Chris at Fernglade Farm, have a lot of great stuff to say about what actually does work and what does not. I suggest that the best way to find out what is of value from permaculture design and practice is to try it ourselves, with the help of a few good books and blogs. Besides Jacke’s Edible Forest Gardens, I suggest Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables, Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, and Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook for readers in the eastern U. S. Holmgren’s book has broad applicability and Jacke’s is the best for the design process itself, but readers in arid, subtropical, tropical, and northern climates will want to supplement these with books specific to their climates. But unless you have plenty of time, money, and curiosity and you are comfortable with the left-wing political agenda, or you want to make a partial living from being a permaculture designer or teacher yourself, I suggest steering clear of permaculture design courses. In this field, doing it yourself is the best way to learn and to preserve what works against the pressures of decline.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The decline may not be permacultured, part 1

This post and the next take a critical look at the way that permaculture design is promoted and practiced in the US. While certain techniques presented in the permaculture design course may ease the difficulties of life during an age of decline, I see evidence that those who learn permaculture through the design course rather than on their own may come out of the experience less well prepared for the realities of decline in some respects. I think that people who want to explore the possible applications of permaculture design to the current situation will do better to spend their money on books and and their time on putting ideas they glean from the books into practice as opposed to taking the permaculture design course.

While I have not taken the permaculture design course, for reasons that will be covered in part 2 of my critique, I have read every issue of Permaculture Design and its predecessor magazine Permaculture Activist (PcD/PcA), the magazines published by permaculture teachers in the US for each other and those who have taken the standard 72 hour permaculture design course, for the last 17 years. Thus I am reasonably familiar with the ways that those who teach and take the course understand its uses and promote it to the public and each other. I have also read some of the books published by teachers of permaculture design, such as Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison, Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook, Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden, David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, and both volumes of Dave Jacke’s Edible Forest Gardens. I used the first edition of Hemenway’s book to design the property Mike and I live on when we bought it 14 years ago. Since then I’ve modified the design based on observations of the yard combined with insights from Holmgren’s and Bane’s books. I have also learned a lot about the ecology of the eastern broadleaved forest from Jacke’s books. But I find much to critique in the way permaculture design is presented to the public and taught to those who take the design course. Without serious consideration to some of these issues, permaculture designers may find they and their techniques have little relevance to life in decline.

While I’ve been finding PcA/PcD less interesting and less relevant to my own work and life for the past few years, it was one article in particular that crystallized my decision not to renew my subscription, which expires this month, and to write this critique. It exemplifies everything I find wrong with permaculture design as a self-described movement and what that means for the challenges it faces as the long decline continues.

That article appeared in the August 2015 issue of PcD, on page 15. It’s entitled Hellstrip Polycultures. The “hellstrip” of the title refers to the narrow strip of soil between a street on one side and a sidewalk on the other side. In St. Louis these are called tree lawns, because the plants that are most likely to be present on them are a mowed “lawn” (more precisely, a mix of grass and various other plants most people call weeds) and perhaps a tree of some sort.

The author of the article, Frank Raymond Cetera, lives in Syracuse, New York. Based on the author information presented at the end of the article, which states that he is a member of the Northeast Permaculture Design Business Guild among other affiliations, I infer that he has taken the standard 72 hour permaculture design course and intends to earn at least a portion of his living as a permaculture designer. He was running for the Syracuse City Council on the Green Party ticket in 2015 and is active with other left-of-center organizations as well.

In the article, he describes how he (and perhaps others, although that is not made clear) decided in 2012 that it was a good idea to “grow food on the grassy edge between concrete and pavement,” the “hellstrip” of the title. He raised $500 through a micro-grant to fund his project. With the intent of using plants native to the homelands of people living in the neighborhood, and after developing, distributing, and analyzing a survey to decide on those plants, he designed a garden incorporating sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), currant shrubs, a dwarf apple tree, and an herbaceous understory consisting of bunching onions, garlic, oregano, cilantro, and galinsoga for planting in a nearby “hellstrip.” He discusses his experiments in leaving his front yard and “hellstrip” uncut and snipes at the code cops who served him with a code violation as a result, claiming that these and similar code violations friends of his received would not have been served if the properties were located in the university neighborhood. Nor was this his only swipe. The neighbors who expressed misgivings about the design as it progressed into implementation and the people who criticized him and his co-planters for leaving a half-finished project also got called out for not pairing their criticism with offers to volunteer to help with the project. He also noted that “[t]he original idea to plant sunchokes as a replacement tuber for jicama has been changed due to their habit of creating an impenetrable visual screen,” that galinsoga is commonly seen as a weed in upstate New York so “ ... we will have to be diligent in education opportunities ...” and that they had had a five-foot apple tree snapped in half from vandalism and another crushed by a snow plow. Still, he seemed to hardly notice these setbacks, gushing instead about how well the 2015 spring planting work party had been attended by meshing it with a March Against Monsanto Rally and Parade.

To understand what is wrong with this article, from failure to pay attention to the way that city ecologies function to disregard for feedback Cetera received through the course of the project, let’s begin with understanding the ecological role of the “hellstrip” in urban environments (yes, it has one, and that role is better described by the St. Louis term “tree lawn,” which I will use for the rest of the post). Then we’ll be in a better position to understand where Cetera went wrong and, in part 2, why this is relevant to the permaculture movement as a whole.

For those of us who use sidewalks for their intended function of walking from one place to another, the tree lawn serves as a buffer zone between us and the dangers presented by motorized vehicles and their occupants as they pass by us on city streets. This buffer zone not only protects us from being hit by vehicles, but if it is wide enough, it protects us from being drenched by spray from puddles of water and by wet, slushy snow thrown by vehicle tires toward the sidewalk. If you have spent enough time walking on a sidewalk, you have likely encountered at least one driver who deliberately drives past you in such a way as to spray you with water or slush, or who leans out or allows a passenger to lean out to grab your behind or to verbally harass you (all of these have happened to me at some point in my life). For a walker, a sidewalk with a wide tree lawn between it and the street serves as a primary defense against hostile actions like these.

When our walker is ready to cross the street, she needs to have the longest possible view of all the traffic on both sides of the street, so she can gauge the speeds of the vehicles and their distance from her, allowing her to cross when it is safe to do so. She also needs to be able to see what she is walking toward, in order to avoid various other hazards that may confront her as she moves across the street and onto the sidewalk on the other side. Whatever is on the tree lawn, then, needs to allow her the unobstructed view that she needs to complete her trip safely.

Motorists would rather the tree lawns and sidewalks go away entirely and extra traffic lanes be constructed in their place. To walkers, sidewalks are their roadways, and the wider the tree lawns are, the better they separate walkers from potentially dangerous cars and hostile drivers. To the city government which is tasked with their creation, maintenance, and replacement, tree lawns are one of the many compromises between competing needs that are characteristic of representative democracy -- and like the others, they have to be funded out of a budget that has too many demands on it. Thus, while tree lawns are constructed by the city, their plantings are maintained by the resident whose yard lies on the other side of the sidewalk from it. The city government uses its property maintenance code to ensure that the tree lawn plantings allow for unobstructed visibility, protecting drivers and walkers from each other.

With all this in mind, the functions of plantings on the tree lawn are easy to understand. If a tree is planted in the tree lawn, it should be pruned up high enough that tall people can walk under it without leaves or branches touching them and so it provides enough visibility for safety. An ideal tree won’t drop messy fruits that stick to walkers’ footwear or attract stinging insects or stink like gingko fruits. It won’t drop hard, rounded seeds like sweetgum balls or nuts that can act like ball bearings, causing walkers to trip and hurt themselves. Trees which produce copious amounts of pollen are also best avoided, as pollen can get in hair or on clothes and cause much discomfort to passersby who are allergic to it. Often these design constraints lead to tree lawns that are all lawn. The lawns, or multi-species plantings (“weeds”) passing as lawns, should be mowed often so that walkers crossing them can see all potential hazards in all directions and can avoid getting their feet wet from dewy or rain- or snow-moistened grass or get bit by ticks that might be hanging on to a plant stem, waiting to latch onto an unwary walker. Mowing the plants on the tree lawn is also the easiest and least time-consuming way for a resident to maintain a bit of property that doesn’t belong to him but which the city forces him to maintain via property management codes backed up with financial penalties and even jail terms for noncompliance.

Anyone who lives in a city for a reasonable period of time and who walks, drives, or pays taxes has all the experience needed to understand and work within these constraints. It is thus jarring to look at Cetera’s initial design, with its disregard for the functions of the tree lawn and the constraints attending to them. Let’s look at the design more closely to better understand how it fails.

To begin with, as Cetera admits, the border of sunchokes next to the street will form an impenetrable screen during summer and fall. I wonder if Cetera grew sunchokes or studied the information on them closely before including them in his design. Did he not understand their growth habit? If he did, does he not walk or drive and therefore not understand the seriousness of blocking views of walkers and drivers of each other? Nor is this the end of his ignorance about sunchokes. With the apparent exception of one cultivar that sets all of its tubers (the edible portion) underneath the parent plant, it’s impossible to harvest all the tubers each plant produces. Any bit of tuber left in the ground will regenerate itself the next season, rapidly creating a patch too crowded to yield good-sized tubers, and even harder to see through than the previous year. Further, the tubers range well beyond their intended borders, so he’d soon have tubers entangled in the roots of the currants and apple tree included in the design, further decreasing visibility and competing with the tree and shrubs for nutrients. Finally, the tubers don’t taste that good and they cause considerable intestinal bloating and gas discharge, as we have learned from Mike’s and my efforts to incorporate them into our menus. Sunchokes makes no sense in a design for a tree lawn or for a public garden intended to provide a food familiar to nearby residents.

Another problematic plant in the design is the currant shrubs. Like the sunchokes, they will obscure the view that vehicles and pedestrians have of each other. They have some additional disadvantages as well. Birds will find them an excellent perching spot. Anyone who has a fence, trees, or shrubs under their control and is at all observant will notice that the result of birds perching is seedlings of various unintended plants growing underneath the perches. In my yard, these include bush and vining honeysuckles, euonymous, mulberry, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy. The vines and the mulberry root deep and are difficult to remove should they become established, and the poison ivy causes rashes to those unfortunate enough to come in contact with it. Furthermore, currants aren’t great for raw eating, and there may not be many people who want to take the time to process them into jelly or jam. If Cetera meant to include a shrub in the design that makes tasty fruit that is familiar to most people and can be eaten raw or processed in various ways, a blueberry would have been a more sensible choice, though it would also accumulate unintended seedlings under it.

Then there is the galinsoga which Cetera includes as a component of the understory. As Cetera mentions, it’s considered a weed by most people, including the horticultural industry in Missouri. I understand that many folks in Cetera’s neighborhood consider galinsoga part of their cuisine and his inclusion of it in the design shows respect for them. But still, why go out of your way to include a plant in a quasi-public place that many people know best as a weed and attempt to eradicate when it shows up uninvited in their yards? The comment about needing to educate the people who call it a weed hides behind it a contempt toward those folks and their actions that will do little to make Cetera welcome in the power circles of city government that he was attempting to join.

Beyond the plant choice issues lie other questions. Who has responsibility for maintaining the planting to remove bird-sown and other weedy seedlings, keep the sunchokes or their replacement (the author says he will try oca as a replacement tuber) controlled, and sort out any other issues that the various plants may have with each other or that they may present to people who are affected by them? Who has responsibility to water the planting when there is insufficient rain? Who has the right to harvest from the planting, and when can they do so? What happens if disputes arise around these issues - who should those disputes be brought to, and how are they to be handled? Who ensures that the plantings are defended against vandals? What happens should the plantings be damaged by a snowplow or by other sorts of accidents? If the plantings need to be removed or changed for various reasons, who makes those decisions and who will fund and do the work? The impression I have from the article is that none of these questions were considered prior to the design and initial installation of a portion of the planting, and he doesn’t discuss any of them concerning the redesign and further planting in the spring of 2015.

Regarding the code violations being directed against him and his friends, my own experience of living in low-income areas since 1989 indicates that he and his friends were able to keep their lawns uncut for longer than anyone would who lives in a wealthy area. This is best appreciated by traveling through different parts of town on the same day during the growing season. Whenever I do this, I am always struck by the fact that I see no lawns that have gone more than a week without being cut in the wealthier parts of the greater St. Louis area, versus, for instance, my own street, where at least one homeowner had not cut the lawn for several weeks until the code cops came through for the first time this season. No wealthy person would tolerate an uncut lawn on their street - it’s an indicator of poverty - and the code cops will not hesitate to enforce any such complaints made. In a poor area, on the other hand, there are too many uncut lawns and other code issues to allow for the rapid responses that are characteristic of wealthy areas. There are legitimate reasons to gripe about differences in the way governments treat residents in poorer versus wealthier areas, but this isn’t one of them.

Beyond the particular problems I have noted with this article, it illustrates in microcosm many deeper issues within the permaculture movement as I see it reflected in the pages of PcD. In Part 2, I’ll take a look at those and what they suggest about the permaculture movement’s probability of survival within the constraints of decline.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Presentation on Growing Organic Vegetables in Summer and Fall

Just a quick note: I am giving a presentation on Growing Organic Vegetables in Summer and Fall on June 1, for anyone interested in attending. Here's the link:

Mike's and my yard will be on the 2016 Sustainable Back Yard Tour on June 12. Here's the link for that event:

If you go to either event, introduce yourself to me!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Finding soil amendments in bulk quantities

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 4, 2016

Perennial plants and a promise produce a new project

The first daffodils of spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The 2016 garden: a year of transition

Snow crocuses announcing the impending end to winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 14, 2016

What I learned from my 2015 garden

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

2015: the summary

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

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

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

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

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

2015 in detail

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

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

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

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

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

Onions, leeks, and garlic

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

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

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

Cabbage-family crops, spring

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

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

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

Cabbage-family crops, fall

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

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

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

Lettuce and sunflowers

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

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

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

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

Beets, carrots, and parsnips

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

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

Squash-family crops

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

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

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

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

Nightshade-family crops

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

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

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

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

Sweet potatoes

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

Beans and peas

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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