Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Late Summer Harvest

It's been a good year for gardening in Seattle, at least in my garden.  Thanks to great new tools* and Steve Solomon's recipe for homemade fertilizer, my house has been swimming in home-grown vegetables all summer.  I'm fortunate that a friend lets me garden a 300 square foot plot behind her house.  Here's a photo of part of today's harvest; various kale/collards, zucchini, tomatoes and the last of the pole beans:

Perfect for the Eocene diet.  

It's no secret that I like potatoes, especially growing them.  Potatoes are a lot of fun to grow, and they're more productive than any other garden crop in terms of calories harvested per area of land.  My friends know that if they just don't encourage me, I'll eventually stop talking about my potatoes.  Last year, my potatoes did poorly, and I had to suffer the indignity of driving past Western Washington's lush potato fields every few weeks on my way to Anacortes, so I was determined to be the Scrooge McDuck of potatoes this year.

With potatoes, you never know what you're going to get until they come out of the ground-- that's the excitement and anxiety of it.  The season is over, the vines have all died back, and you'll either find a profusion of large round tubers, seemingly floating unattached to anything in the soil around them, or you'll find a bunch of runted grape-sized nuggets barely fit for a snack. Here's what my garden fork dug up from about a quarter of my potato beds this year:

A five-gallon bucket 2/3 full with russet potatoes-- about 15 lbs.  Not bad.  They taste better than their parents did.  Must be the terroir.  Next up: Yukon Golds. 

Gardening in Seattle has its advantages and disadvantages.  The main disadvantage is that it doesn't get hot enough to grow heat-loving crops well.  I grow tomatoes (see above), but mostly cherry tomatoes and they didn't really start producing until about three weeks ago.  The main advantage is that it doesn't get very cold in the winter, so it's possible to garden year-round.  In particular, hardy greens like kale, collards, cabbage and arugula overwinter well.  This year, we planted an unreasonable amount of kale and collards, so we'll be dining on them all winter. 

* A sharp scuffle hoe by Rogue Hoes, a sharp Japanese hand hoe, and burlap sacks as weed-suppressing mulch.  These take most of the work out of weeding.


LeonRover said...

Those spuds look good enough to eat, Stephan.
And the tomato are like those my Father used to grow - that authentic tomato smell only found in a greenhouse.

Would you call yourself a Tubero-Paleo eater?

I myself am Lacto-Tubero-Paleo and on occasion Legumino-Lacto-Tubero-Paleo.

Good eating.


Chris Wilson said...

Nice harvest Stephan. I'm going to use Solomon's fertilizer recipe this year (have you read his book, Gardening When it Counts?). We'll see how it works down here in Florida- I should be putting in the beds this weekend..


pawpaw said...

Thanks for the pic of quality food from modest spaces, and the joy of producing it. Root/tuber harvest can be like searching for Easter Eggs several times a year. I fondly remember the day as a child when visiting the trial grounds of Park Seed Co, in SC, and saw how much more could be grown in our bioregion, that we weren't trying at home. They were finding (or rediscovering) plant germplasm suited to our very hot, humid south. Regional seed companies often have veggie variety trials, and field days to show off what excels locally. In your area Stephan, Osborne Seed in Mt. Vernon, and Territorial Seed in OR, feature veggies that thrive on the west side of the cascades, and the Osborne catalog notes those selections that work well around Seattle, such as bulb onions that dry down early and quickly. Their vegtrials blog worth checking for inspiration; wish I could be at a field day. Osborne and Territorial fall/winter seeds also work well for me, as my SE winters are similar to your PNW ones. Many more US households could enjoy fresh veggies year-round, through genetics and season extension techniques. Local farmer markets feature farmers who've cracked the code of winter veggie production (but ask what's local).

Gretchen said...

Stephan, Kale and collards will produce in the winter even in cold regions. I have gone out to my garden when it was well below freezing and snapped off some frozen kale leaves. They were fine. Even got a few the next May, although they weren't too tasty.

"I was determined to be the Scrooge McDuck of potatoes this year."

Will you burrow through them like a gopher, throw them up and let them hit you on the head, as Scrooge does in his money bin?

bentleyj74 said...

Thanks for this! We are looking at a move to WA state in the next several years so feel free to post abundantly about which crops work out for you best and what the climate supports :)

Scrooge McDuck = priceless.

gallier2 said...

Gretchen, Kale is called "winterkehl" in Germany and is harvested only after it got frost in winter. It loses its stringency and bitterness that way.

gallier2 said...

Just to contend the nitpickers that may appear, the "winterkehl" is dialectal German (Saar region), the high-german term is "Gr√ľnkohl".

Dawn said...

Burlap bags to suppress weeds -- I'll have to try that next year.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Slainte,

I eat a lot of tubers and legumes, and a bit of dairy.

Hi Chris,

I haven't read that book, but I have read "Gardening West of the Cascades", which is where I got his fertilizer recipe. I'd be cautious about using his recipe in your area-- I think it was developed with maritime Northwest soils in mind. Good luck!

Hi pawpaw,

I wasn't familiar with Osborne seed company, so thanks. I but most of my seed from Territorial.

Hi Gretchen,

You asked "Will you burrow through them like a gopher, throw them up and let them hit you on the head, as Scrooge does in his money bin?" Yes, that's the idea! Thanks for the info on kale, I didn't know they were so hardy.

Hi Bentley,

I've had good luck with potatoes, pole beans (Blue Lake and Helda), zucchini, delicata squash, cabbage, and all greens except spinach. Cherry tomatoes do OK. Peppers, eggplant, and large tomato varieties aren't very productive here, and don't even bother trying to plant melons.

Hi Gallier,

That's amazing. Kale and collards do get sweeter after a freeze, although I find that the kale I grow is always less bitter than what's in stores. I'm particularly fond of collards and Lacinato/dinosaur kale.

TanyaL said...

Beautiful vegetables, and thanks for the link to your eocene diet post. I'd forgotten about that, it was great!

And thank you for the blog as a whole. I have read, and often re-read, many of your posts, and learned a lot over the years.

Burn said...

Nice potatoes! I love potatoes too, in part due to your work haha, and this year was my first year growing them. Unfortunately I did it completely wrong and I dug them up in mid July way before they were ready. I only got a few small ones but man were they delicious. Next year will be better for sure!

Exceptionally Brash said...

Nice-looking harvest! Solomon is a rockstar, but his main formula doesn't work in all soils. Personally, he wouldn't bother farming on clay soils, and the formula isn't well-suited for alkaline soils. Interestingly, Solomon's early farm was very close to me, and he followed the Alan Chadwick method, with disastrous results. The Chadwick and Rodale methods will not work for many, and Solomon will tell you why.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Brash,

Solomon has harsh words for a number of alternative gardening systems. I think they can work well in some situations, but they may not be ideally suited to the maritime Northwest. One of the things that bugs me about all of these systems, including Solomon's, is that they rely critically on outside inputs for nutrients and in some cases organic matter.

I'd like to develop a system that doesn't require much outside input (i.e. is sustainable) if possible. The only way to make this work in the long run is to appropriately compost "humanure" and urine and use it in the garden, because otherwise you're continually removing minerals from the soil and flushing them down the toilet (thus requiring the addition of soil minerals via fertilizer). This idea is unpalatable for most people, but ultimately it's how nature works and it's the only way to be sustainable. It's also totally sanitary if done correctly.

I agree with you that Solomon's fertilizer mix won't be ideal on all soils, however it has worked wonders in my own garden here in Seattle. I amended the garden with a large quantity of composted horse manure two years ago, and it made virtually no difference-- only when I used the fertilizer did my plants start to thrive.

Alex said...

Stephan, a system that meets your wishes is "Grow Biointensive", which produces all inputs on site. Humanure is used to grow compost crops. See:

Chris Wilson said...

Hi Stephan and Alex,

Yes, the COF blend recommended by Solomon makes some assumptions about the soil- mainly that it's a blank slate, which is probably more true here in Florida than up by you ;) For my situation, I'm worried about overliming, which is easier to do on a sandy soil and will mess up your micronutrients, and even phosphorous big time. So, I'll probably test my pH, and lime based on that and just leave it out of the blend.

I've thought a lot about the possibility of no-input agriculture. I've read all of Jeavon's stuff, and his 60%(grain+compost crops, e.g. wheat)-30%(root crops)-10%(veggies) formula for apportioning gardens to grow food and fertility together. Basically, I don't buy it.

In the first place, you have to get your organic matter and available nutrients high enough to sustain productivity under intensive planting. This unavoidably requires a period of ample inputs, and then his 60-30-10 breakdown allegedly maintains the organic matter and nutrients (sans what is removed and elminated in human waste, obviously).

There are no data backing this up, so we only have their word that it works at all. I expect it to *not* work in an environment like mine, where your rates of organic matter mineralization are extremely high, and you have a sandy soil which doesn't allow carbon to be sequestered inside macroaggregates, or otherwise physically stabilized.

A lot of strategies for reducing inputs in agriculture are really only viable at the bigger farm scale: low/no-till, green manuring/cover cropping, perennial systems (there is great work being done on neo-hybrid hazelnuts and chestnuts for intensive MidWestern ag), integrating grazing animals on cropping land (to recycle residues, cover crops, etc.), and ley farming (alternating perennial pasture with annual cropping). Pasture cropping is another promising strategy in which annual grains are drilled directly into rangeland or perennial pastures, utilized for grazing, and then harvested. It requires the right environment, good timing, excellent water management, and decent fertility levels.

At the garden level, I think that exploring cover crops and green manures, and putting beds to rest in perennial grass regularly, are the best strategies for reducing demand for inputs of organic matter and minerals. This generally requires more space than most people are working, because you can't have everything in production at the same time...

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Chris,

I just read John Jeavons' book on that very subject. I may try to double dig a bed this year but it feels daunting!

Hi Alex,

Sounds like gardening where you live will be a challenge. I'm giving cover crops a serious try this year. Field peas, rye and vetch. Once they grow, I'll cover them with leaves and burlap and let the whole thing sheet compost until planting.

I think there's no getting around the fact that sustaInably producing large amounts of food in most areas requires a lot of land.

Jane said...

Has anyone here tried soil remineralization?

'John Hamaker ... was influenced by books such as Bread From Stone, which showed plants grow better in soils generated by mimicking natural soil-forming processes that take millennia, such as the advance and retreat of glaciers scouring over the Earth’s crust, or rock weathering of volcanic lava. ..

'According to his writings, in 1976, Hamaker spread rock dust on part of his 10 acres (40,000 m2) in Michigan. The following year, his corn produced 65 bushels per acre, compared to yields of under 25 from other local farms, and also tested higher in many minerals. He calculated that remineralizing the soil with river, seashore, mountain and glacial rock dust, would enable American agriculture to produce four times as much food or the same amount with a 25% reduction in cost, without the need for pesticides or chemical fertilizers.'

Rok Osterman said...

Hi Stephan,

have you looked into Sepp Holzer's work? He may have some ideas how to grow warm-environment vegetable in your area. ;)

Chris Wilson said...

Hi Jane,

Maybe my affiliation with a land-grant agronomy department biases me, but I'm skeptical of some of the hype surrounding remineralization. I think it's a fascinating idea to play with, and the principle is intriguing. I do think that soil's get depleted of trace and micro-minerals over time, but I don't see how adding glacial rock dust could sky-rocket yields, or have other dramatic short-term effects.

For instance, the claim that Hamaker got 65 bu/acre versus his neighbors 10 is suspicious (I grew up in Michigan).
Both numbers are unreasonably low, even for 1976. 10 bushels per acre is laughably low, and indicates widespread crop failure for some reason. I don't have county records (where was this?), but I'd check those to see if this claim has any factual basis whatsoever.

For reference, when we're not having drought, SE MI should be producing about 160-180 bu/acre currently (with intensive chemical ag).

If you can get your hands on some rock flour, try it! Just make sure there's no contamination (heavy metals or radioactive issues).


Jane said...

Hi Chris
Thanks, that's very helpful. I didn't realise those yields were so extremely low. I looked up the weather in Michigan in 1976/7 and found this
.. showing that 1977 (the year Hamaker grew his corn) was one of the driest years on record. The previous spring was apparently the wettest on record. Might that explain it? (I'm a biologist but no gardener)

BTW Hamaker's neighbours' yields were 'under 25' bushels, according to the article, not 10. Still astonishingly low.

Do you think kelp meal is better than rock dust? I looked up Solomon after you mentioned him and he says 'Some rock dusts are highly mineralized and contain a broad and complete range of minor plant nutrients. These may be substituted for kelp meal, but I believe kelp is best.'

Exceptionally Brash said...

The "Biointensive" method more recently popularized by Jeavons is exactly the type of system that Solomon frequently rants about. I suggest going on over to the soil and health library and reading Dr. Albrecht. Very interesting stuff!, and pretty much ignored by the ancestral community.
Now as for inputs, I believe that Solomon's recommendations are for short-term. Once you get the soil in balance, minimal or no inputs are needed. Then again, Solomon's rejection of certain soils from the start makes it unworkable for many blessed with different conditions.
The trouble with organic farming in general is that much of the methodology comes from Rodale and Co., perfected in PA soils, which aren't anything like other places. So, double-digging into crummy soil doesn't buy you much.
You might experiment with adding locally-sources seaweed to remineralize your soil.
I suspect that you are blessed with wonderful soil, but somewhat minerally-depleted from the rain.

Exceptionally Brash said...

Horse manure is low in minerals, and lowish in nitrogen unless you get the barn sweepings. In the east, it is usually straw, and the mix is wonderful. Out here, it is mostly wood shavings. Urine-soaked shavings start out hot, and then run out and need an additional boost of nitrogen and another year of composting before being helpful. I don't know what lines the stalls of the animals in your area, but you might do better if you just pee on your compost.

Chris Wilson said...

Hi Jane,
Good find with the NOAA data!
They do back up that there was a terrible drought that year. Below I respond a little more in depth (apologies for the length)

My reasoning is this:

1) In a drought, water is really the most limiting factor in crop production, so the key to the observed difference (if it was accurately reported) has something to do with this.

2) to weather a drought and obtain higher yields the soil's water holding capacity must be higher (humus, clay content). I'm assuming Hamaker didn't simply irrigate ;)

Therefore, the difference is undoubtedly due to this. Unfortunately, soil is a very heterogeneous 'natural body'. Without a baseline and many more details, we don't know if Hamaker had inherited a better soil for weathering drought, or if it was due to his application of rock flour.

The case for the latter seems weak and runs something like this: the rock flour application caused the organic matter to sky-rocket and so by the next year his content of stable, water and nutrient retaining humus was significantly higher.

However, this is impossible without a substantial addition of organic materials. Even if soil microbes thrive when rock flour is added, they cannot create humus out of thin air (little to no net autotrophy there). Indeed, simply stimulating the microbes without organic additions is a recipe for *decreasing organic matter*.

Now I admit there's a lot we don't know.

My interpretation is that Hamaker had a soil that was already higher in organic matter (and had very good structure and tilth), and possibly was in a lower position in the landscape where water tables were higher.

The rock flour may have indeed been a help, but single-handedly cannot explain such a discrepancy. Therefore, his calculation of higher yields that are possible overall with rock flour application is off-base.

It's going in the right direction, in that much of conventional agronomic practice is optimizing yields under "optimal" conditions, and we need to think more about system resilience.

Sorry about the ramble, but I see a lot of this kind of ad hoc reasoning based on anecdotes in the alternative agriculture world (which I dearly love). I see my role as playing skeptic to some of it, while advancing the underlying agenda which is usually sound...


Chris Wilson said...

Hi Jane,
I just looked up data on corn yield for Michigan in the USDA NASS database. In 1977, the average was 85 bu/acre, and in 1976 it was 69.
So, in retrospect, Hamaker's yields are not remarkable compared to state-wide averages. His county may have been harder hit by drought, though.

Again, I don't want to discourage you from applying glacial rock flour, or something similar. I do want to encourage you to do a simple control experiment. And post your results with treatment and control!


Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Rok,

I hadn't heard of him, thanks.

Hi Brash,

I've never tested it, but our soil here seems pretty loamy to me. I think it is decent soil, texture-wise, but it's pretty depleted of certain minerals and so not suited for vegetables until amended. I'm going to double dig my raised bed this spring and see what happens. I may also get a broadfork and see how that goes on the bigger beds. I need to add a fair amount of organic matter to all my beds- the soil is becoming compacted.

I'm trying the Interbay mulch method this winter, have you heard of it? My version is going to be planting cover crops (rye, crimson clover and vetch), letting them grow for a while, then cutting them down in late fall, mixing with dry leaves and perhaps coffee grounds, leaving it all on the surface of the beds and covering the whole thing with burlap for the winter. It will supposedly be composted by late spring and improve the soil.

I honestly don't know who to believe about biointensive. It must work somewhere, otherwise I don't see how there could be so much enthusiasm about it. I trust Solomon, but he seems to like holding strong opinions sometimes.

Jane said...

Hi Chris
I see what you mean. If water was limiting, and it must have been to account for the low yields, the rock dust doesn't seem able to explain Hamaker's results.

I looked him up again and found the following.

John Hamaker's corn study
Glacial moraine gravel dust spread on 10 acres.
In an area of sparse rainfall and dry summers, and with no irrigation, the corn produced 65 bushels per acre, compared to yields of under 25 bushels per acre from other local farms.
Independent analyses revealed the following increases in nutrients, compared with the same type of corn grown with chemical fertilizers nearby:
28% more protein
47% more calcium
57% more phosphorus
60% more magnesium
90% more potassium.

Now if this is true, I think it's interesting. Chemical fertilizers should provide all the potassium and phosphorus the plant needs, of course. How did Hamaker's corn contain so much more?

The only explanation I can think of is that under drought conditions, chemical fertilizers which do not supply trace minerals can actually be toxic to the plants. How does that sound to you?

Exceptionally Brash said...

If gardeners have pretty good soil deep down, biointensive will probably work pretty well for them. Solomon's experience with it was in the San Fernando Valley, and he did not have the same soil and climate conditions as Jeavons and others.
I hadn't heard of the interbay method, but read up a bit on it and it looks like something that will work well for you. People are moving more away from digging and amending, and allowing the fungal systems to proliferate, and this method seems to do that.
This type of covering does not work as well for me, since things never stay cool and moist for long.
This season, I have started heavy mulching to combat soil depletion due to the heat. It does seem to cut down on soil damage, and has the added effect of fooling others into thinking things are being tended. But, it does not break down well, and does not add to the fertility of the soil, and may even squander what is contained in the mulch.
Ingham and others recommend getting the whole soil microbial environment correct, and that might work better in her area. I have farms/gardens in several spaces, including SB, and the conditions there are quite different. In SB, they can get the moisture with fog, even if it doesn't rain for quite awhile.
You might want to pick up an old copy of Ruth Stout's book. It is a hoot!, and a wonderful classic.
I have some friends who are successful with pit composting for new areas. Instead of regular double-digging, they dig a square pit, sheet compost in it, then cover it up with soil and mulch. The next year, they plant a tree or use it as a new plot.

Chris Wilson said...

Hi Jane,

The increase in mineral levels is indeed intriguing (again, I wonder how the sampling was done...)
A number of practices could potentially explain them, including the glacial rock flour I suppose.

Chemical NPK fertilizers may harm micronutrient status in the long-term in a number of ways, some of them better characterized than others. Short term effects are harder to explain IMO, but my thoughts are as follows:

In general, it is known from isotopic tracer studies that most applied nutrients go into various soil pools before being taken up by plants. The effects of adding nutrients to these soil pools, in chemical salt form, are not fully known, but it generally accelerates nutrient cycling, and has been shown in some cases to shift microbial composition or at least gene expression. Elaine Ingham says that adding more than 100 lbs/acre of *any* chemical salt hampers the microbial foodweb directly (through osmotic action).

These soil pools, and their cycling of nutrients, are, in turn, largely mediated by the *soil biota* (the ~1500-4000 lbs/acre of bacterial and fungal biomass + higher trophic foodweb that a healthy, productive aerobic soil has).

Purely chemical exchanges between plant roots and soil surfaces have been overemphasized. So we have to understand how enriching the soil pools with a mineral form of a nutrient effects this complex ecosystem, and unfortunately our knowledge isn't good enough yet.

Whether drought exacerbates the potential toxicity of chemical NPK is hard for me to say. It could be true, because it may increase the negative "salting" effect (i.e. osmotic potentials disrupting bacterial cells, etc.).

In all this story, I'm still not sure where glacial rock flour fits in. Did it cause a dramatic increase in microbial biomass and function? If so, how? Is it sustainable outside of increasing the active organic matter fraction?

This should be easy to test in controlled experimental conditions, and also in the garden.

Again, I urge you to try it in your garden, but try to pair test beds with reasonably matched controls in which you plant the same things at the same time. Get your soil foodweb tested (plus a conventional soil chemistry test) before and after the rock flour goes on, so you have a good baseline comparison too.

It may be a little extra money and effort, but the returns to our knowledge could be large. Too many alternative ag folks come up with 101 reasons why they can't do even loosely controlled experiments like that-- this rubs me the wrong way when you have 'expert' consultants running around recommending all this stuff without having once done such an experiment. Home gardeners with a basic background in science could potentially contribute a lot to this movement!


Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Chris and Jane,

I'm trying to understand this exchange you're having. Many gardeners use various rock dusts in the garden to add mInerals, includIng limes, greensand and others. They're used as slow-release mineral sources. Is there something special about this gravel dust in particular?

Chris Wilson said...

Hi Stephan,

Yeah, the glacial rock flour is an unusual amendment. It is a fine sieved product from gravel quarries that are mining mixed glacial deposits. These deposits are usually quite rich and diverse mineralogically. Often, soils that were formed recently on top of such glacial deposits are notable for their productivity and quality - so the idea is to add some of this glacial mojo to any soil...

Since it is of very fine particle size, the idea is that microbial action can more readily solubilize the minerals it does contain to restore fertility. But it is not particularly rich in any particular plant nutrient, nor does it possess any liming power (no carbonates generally)- so it's not like adding lime, rock phosphate or greensand.

Another interesting historical anecdote about glacial flour keeping soils healthy comes from the Hunza valley (I believe McCarrison extolled the health of traditional Hunzakut), where traditional agriculture irrigated with glacial melt-water that was so loaded with this almost colloidal mineral material that it left a fine dusting on the surface with each irrigation.

Needless to say, none of this has been documented particularly scientifically. It's a fascinating concept I've run into several times, and have wanted to test myself but never been able to...


Stephan Guyenet said...

Thanks Chris, that's interesting.

Tierney said...

Stepenh- where do you find burlap sacks? Is there a place you can find them free or cheap? I am always looking for free mulching stuff :)

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Tierney,

If you live in the Seattle area, some hardware stores carry burlap coffee sacks for cheap (e.g. Stone Way Hardware). There's a company in the area that buys up all the coffee burlap now and sells it back. Generally $1 per bag.