Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Care and Feeding of Time Machines

The distinction between intensive and extensive food plant production discussed in last week’s post has implications that go well beyond the obvious. When you garden a backyard or a few acres intensively, you can spare the time, energy, and resources to do things you can’t do on an extensive farm of a few hundred acres, and the payback can be spectacular.

This week’s post is going to explore one set of these possibilities. I could be prosaic and give that set any number of labels, but half the fun of the Green Wizard project consists of pointing out the way that many of the possibilities open to us just now stray over the border into the realms of fantasy and legend, so I’ll use a slightly more colorful term for the approaches I have in mind. What we’ll be discussing, then, is the art of making and using time machines.

The gardener’s art, after all, requires a close attentiveness to time, and in particular to dimensions of time that contemporary culture doesn’t grasp as well as it should. We’re so used to thinking of time as an abstract numerical measurement – so many minutes, hours, days, or what have you – that it’s often easy to lose track of the fact that for living beings, time always has a qualitative dimension as well as a quantitative one. In the temperate zone, for example, four o’clock in the afternoon is a completely different time for living things in January than it is in August, and twenty days means something completely different for living things at one season than it does at another.

Skilled gardening depends on these qualitative differences. Most of the best gardeners I’ve ever known made it a habit to go out into the garden first thing in the morning and stand there, hands in pockets, doing nothing in particular except trying to get a sense of what the garden was doing, or ready to do, on that particular day. Most of them also had a collection of ground rules setting out the basic rules of garden timing, with wiggle room so they could be adjusted for the vagaries of weather and the like. Choosing the right time to plant particular crops, in particular, is a fine art, and usually ends up supported by traditional incantations that are handed down from generation to generation.

In the soggy Western Washington climate where I learned organic gardening, for example, it was the received wisdom that you had to get your peas in the ground by George Washington’s birthday in order to get a good crop. Where I now live in the north central Appalachians, in the same way, I’ve been told repeatedly by gardeners that it’s time to plant corn when the leaves on the oaks are the size of a mouse’s ear. Mind you, I don’t know for a fact that there’s an Appalachian Standard Mouse whose ears all the local oldtimers have carefully measured, but I’m not sure it would surprise me.

The differences between one time and another are crucial throughout the annual cycle of the garden, but they become especially so in the earlier and later parts of the growing season, when a few degrees of temperature one way or another can make the difference between successful germination and a failed crop, and the threat of an unexpected frost looms over the garden beds like Godzilla over Tokyo in a Japanese monster movie. That’s when gardeners wish they could somehow conjure up a couple of spare weeks of frost-free weather for spring planting or a spare month of good weather in fall to let some late-ripening crop finish its life cycle.

This is where the time machines come in, of course. Now of course we could call them “season extenders” or simply ways to stretch the number of weeks in which your garden can be productive, but why not go for the more colorful label?

There are two distinct approaches to the care and feeding of time machines, and you can use either or both of them in a backyard garden of the sort these posts are discussing. The first relies on the simple botanical facts that not all plants have the same response to temperature, and that crops with different seasons can overlap quite closely in an intensive garden without interfering with each other at all. The second relies on the equally simple botanical principle that temperature, not day length, determines the season limits for nearly all food crops, and cold – especially freezing cold – is the primary limiting factor over most of the temperate zone, so anything that changes the temperature in and around your plants changes their effective season.

The first time machine, as far as I know, was invented by a forgotten backyard gardener by the name of A.B. Ross, whose 1925 book Big Crops from Little Gardens I’ll be scanning and making available for apprentice green wizards as soon as time permits. Ross found that he could plant his garden in three shifts – “prior crops” of plants that germinate well in spring’s cool temperatures, “main crops” of plants that need summer heat to thrive, and “follow crops” of plants that can handle fall frosts when ripe – and do these three shifts in two rows, planted much more closely together than the ordinary garden practice of his time thought possible. His methods rely on intensive gardening methods – you couldn’t get away with them in a big field – but in their own context, they work very well indeed.

Here’s how it works. First thing in spring, as soon as the soil is workable, you prepare your garden beds and start planting rows of prior crops – snow peas, early radishes, curly lettuce, spinach, and the like – with three feet between each row, putting in a new row every ten days or so, so your harvests will be staggered and you won’t end up with too much of anything to eat at any one time. Once weather permits, you start planting your main crops in rows spaced midway between the prior crops, so they begin to grow while the prior crop is maturing. By the time the main crop is maturing, the prior crop is gone, and you’ve had time to work a little compost into the now-empty rows; that’s when you plant the follow crop for fall and winter – cabbage, kale, turnips, more snow peas and radishes, and so on. By the time these are ready to put on their full growth, the main crop has been harvested. The result is that you get three harvests out of one garden bed.

Ross worked the same trick within individual rows as well, training his plants up poles, for example, to minimize the amount of ground they shaded. The only later book I know of that refers to his method, John and Helen Philbrick’s Organic Gardening for Health and Nutrition, comments that “one sometimes needs a diagram of the plantings to locate certain plants in the jungle that is likely to result.” This has certainly been my experience; it’s the only gardening method I know that results in a vegetable garden as dense as a weed thicket or an old-fashioned cottage garden, not to mention one that bears continuously from late spring through the first couple of killing frosts.

The second way of building a time machine is a good deal more popular these days than Ross’ clever method. It relies on a principle that we’ll be applying repeatedly in these posts – the ability of simple technologies to turn solar energy into useful amounts of diffuse heat. If you’ve ever climbed into a car that’s been left in the sun for a few hours on a hot summer day, and yelped when your arm brushed against a vinyl seat heated to the sizzling point, you know the basic trick: a contained space with a transparent cover that lets sun in, but won’t let heat out, warms up very effectively in the sun’s rays.

That’s the trick that our second set of time machines use. There are any number of methods of applying it, starting with the cloche. What’s a cloche? A transparent, bell-shaped cover with an open bottom that you plump down on top of a plant in spring, before the weather warms. Sunlight streams in through the cloche and warms everything inside – the air, the plant, and the circle of soil within the edges of the cloche – but the heat can’t get back out anything like as easily as it gets in. You can spend a lot of money to get elegant glass cloches with or without little vents on top, or you can take ordinary 2-liter bullet bottles, strip off the labels, cut off the bottoms with a good sharp knife or a pair of snips, and you’re good to go. Cloches are especially useful when setting out seedlings early in the season, when the cold can hinder plant growth and there’s still some danger of frost; by the time the plants are well established and starting to bump up against the limits of the cloche, the weather’s usually warm enough that you can take them off, give them a good wash, and put them in the basement for next year.

The next step up from the cloche is the row cover. What’s a row cover? Imagine a cloche grown long and wide enough to cover a good section of a garden bed – say, eight feet long, two feet wide, and two feet high. Most of the ones I’ve seen and handled have a framework of wood or one-inch PVC tubing and are covered on the top and sides with clear sheet plastic; duct tape usually plays a role in there somewhere as well. You put it over plants you want to protect against cold and frost, just as you do with a cloche. If you live in a windy area, you’ll need stakes to keep it from blowing away; if you live in an area that gets hot sun even in spring, you’ll want to make sure things don’t get too hot for comfort under the row cover in mid-afternoon, and prop it up along one long side to let excess heat get out if this becomes an issue.

Ready for the next step? That’s a cold frame, which might best be described as a permanent row cover. Your standard cold frame has wooden sides and back, and a hinged lid on top, slanted down toward the southern side, that’s made of glass or transparent plastic; the front can be wood or glazing, depending on your preference; the bottom is a garden bed. The colder your climate, the more carefully you have to insulate the back and sides and weatherstrip the opening around the lid to get good results. Think of it as a sminiature solar greenhouse with access from the top and you’ve basically got the idea. Choose the location for your cold frame well, so it will get plenty of sun in winter, and you can get hardy crops from it year round.

The final step in the succession, the ultimate backyard garden time machine, is a solar greenhouse. This isn’t a simple project, and needs to be put together by someone with at least basic carpentry skills. If that’s you or someone you know, though, don’t hesitate, because a solar greenhouse in a good location can have spectacular payoffs, starting with a year round vegetable supply. If you can arrange to have it backed up against a south-facing wall of your home, for that matter, it can turn into a source of solar space heating – we’ll be discussing that in a later post.

The value of all these methods for extending the growing season, and making seven months do the work of nine or more, is simple enough when you remember that the system that supplies fresh vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods to your local grocery store is spectacularly dependent on an uninterrupted flow of cheap petroleum-based fuels and agricultural chemicals. It’s likely to be a while before supplies of bulk grains and dry legumes run short anywhere in North America, but a serious disruption in petroleum supplies – something that could happen for political or economic reasons with essentially no warning – could leave most people in the industrial world scrambling to get access to anything else. Having a thriving backyard garden that keeps you and your family comfortably supplied with vegetables is one kind of security; being able to teach other people in your neighborhood how to do the same thing is another kind of security, and both are worth having.


The two books referenced in this week’s post are A.B. Ross, Big Crops from Little Gardens, and John and Helen Philbrick, Organic Gardening for Health and Nutrition. The latter is readily available; the former is tolerably rare, and (since it’s long out of copyright) will be scanned and posted on the Cultural Conservers Foundation website as soon as time permits.

There are any number of good books on cloches, row covers, cold frames and solar greenhouses. Three books that have been mainstays of my library are Rick Fisher and Bill Yanda’s classic The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse, William Head’s Gardening Under Cover, and the predictably massive and detailed Rodale Press book on the subject, James C. McCullagh (ed)., The Solar Greenhouse Book. All three of these have detailed plans for solar greenhouses, and the latter two also cover some of the smaller species in the same family of time machines.


Joel said...

Succession planting can be done on an industrial scale in a few special circumstances. Some pumpkin farmers underseed with vetch, so that their green manure crop gets establish during the summer and helps suppress weeds, but is kept in check by shade until the canopy of geriatric pumpkin leaves opens up.

A good discussion of various methods can be found here. There are lower-tech season extenders, too, like placing stones near the stems of plants to absorb and retain heat, and placing frost-sensitive plants to benefit from the thermal mass of open water, existing masonry, or buried, damp and punky wood. Raised beds can be graded to the south. A no-turn compost pile can warm plants in the Spring, if it's built to run cold enough that its other benefits to young plants (CO2 and N) don't build up to toxic levels.

I've found that site to be a good place to ask advice, by the way.

The Onion said...

I have two of Eliot Coleman's books on winter and organic gardening and they are excellent volumes on the subject of moveable greenhouses. His philosophy is to be able to move the greenhouses seasonally to take advantage of various bits of weather and to avoid pest buildup in one particular spot. I'm surprised you haven't mentioned him. Being unpropertied, I have yet to put any of his stuff into practice, but hopefully in the next year or so.

Houyhnhnm said...

Bullet bottles, PVC tubing, and plastic sheeting--perhaps we need to start hoarding these fossil fuel products while most people still think of them as trash.


John Michael Greer said...

Joel, thanks for this info and the link!

Onion, I haven't read his books; like everybody else, I've only had time to draw a limited sample out of a very large field. One of the reasons I encourage readers to suggest their own favorite books is precisely to get recommendations like this one.

Houyhnhnm, bingo. I'll be talking about that in an upcoming post.

Sue said...

Let me tell you how much I have found your blog to be cool, fresh water in the desert of our consumer society.

I've just been online and ordered the book you mentioned last week (One Circle), which seems to be instock at Bountiful Gardens)

Can I ask you (or your readers) if you know of good season extenders in drier, hotter climates (where cloches and greenhouses are not required for the winter, but help is desperately needed to protect plants in hot summers and spring?) (I'm just going to check Joels' recommendation next...)

risa said...

Yes, we do hoard this stuff, just as H. suggests.

At our place we have beds three feet wide and fifty feet long, which often have t-posts at the ends and middle, strung with wire from one end of the bed to the other. These are for beanpoles to lean on, crossed, up which all the peas, beans, runner beans and cukes go. The sides of the beds are planted first, with spring things and potatoes. Then the middles, with trellis things, corn, and summer and winter squashes. We were told it's called "polyculture." Other folks definitely used the word "jungle." Whatever, it works! The mix seems to confuse plant predators, conserve moisture, and hold down weeds.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Sue,

We're also subject to hot summers in Australia. The useful things to keep plants alive and extend growing seasons in these conditions are to:

Encourage shading of your plants (even if the particular species recommends full sun). Have a look at the video on the permaculture institute of Australia website "Greening the Desert" and you'll see shading in action. It really does increase humidity in hot climates. Most instructions for plants seem to be written for temperate environments which can be rather misleading for other climates. I find the strong light here and hot winds blown in from the centre of the continent over summer are the most difficult aspects of gardening here.

Encourage the retention of water in the soil by building up the top soil layer. The more humus you have, the more water that your soil stores. In Australia, it is far more effective to retain water in the soil than in farm dams where the water evaporates.

Store water for the garden in above ground tanks. Because of the thermal mass involved in water tanks, water is unlikely to evaporate even on hot days.

What you should be aiming for in a hot enviornment is to reproduce the workings of a rainforest as this will extend your growing season and selection of plants greatly.

Good luck!

Paul said...

I just bought your book, The Long Descent. So beautifully written.

Please, turn these green wizard articles into a book as well, please. And soon. We all need to start. It is never too early to start.

What kind of suggestions do you have for occupations, area of the country, etc. for a family of modest means and limited mobility?

Paul said...

Sue, regarding season extenders in hot, dry areas, consider:

MULCHING with watering to keep the soil cool. Example, broccoli is a cool weather crop but can stand warmer air temperatures if the soil is cool and moist.

SHADING with trees or walls or trellises, growing plants under full or partial shade to protect from harsh sun and heat, growing on the northern exposure, etc.

DIGGING DOWN - Also, you can consider digging down. Look up Forestiere Underground Gardens.

disillusioned said...

“Dig for Victory” was Britain's WWII wartime home gardening (Victory Garden) initiative.

The wartime Ministry of Agriculture published a practical monthly “Allotment & Garden Guide”, highlighting issues, giving plot layouts, pest control advice and listing what work had to be performed that month.

//an allotment is a section of arable land assigned or alloted to individuals, for a small yearly fee. These remain in great demand //

Here is a synopsis of the “Dig for Victory” programme:

(nice picture - Q: how many legs has this man?)

and here are those monthly guide leaflets, lovingly prepped for the web:

(A: no, you're not going mad - it's a fake leg)

Wordek said...

"it’s time to plant corn when the leaves on the oaks are the size of a mouse’s ear"

Are you making fun of me?

John Michael Greer said...

Sue, thank you. I don't happen to know much of anything about gardening in hot dry climates, having never lived in one -- fortunately some of the regulars here have suggestions.

Risa, that sounds like a great arrangement! We've got an old iron-pipe clothesline setup in the back yard, and next year it's going to support our climbing plants.

Cherokee, thanks for the details!

Paul, I'm already putting the Green Wizard posts into manuscript form, though it's going to be a while before it turns into a book -- we've got a lot of ground to cover. As for your other question, that depends so completely on where you are, what resources you have, and what your interests and abilities are that it's impossible to generalize. Drop me a line sometime via info (at) aoda (dot) org and I'll see what I can suggest.

Disillusioned, this is great! The old wartime allotment guides are particularly good. Thank you.

Wordek, I'm just quoting what I've been told. As for the mouse that got a human ear cloned on its back, I've long felt that people who do that kind of animal research should be required to test their skills on themselves first.

Diotima said...

Excellent series of articles, John. Are you aware of Steve Solomon's Soil and Health library?

That might also be a good place to park the scan of the Ross book. Thanks for doing that, BTW!

flute said...

Don't forget the hotbed made from compost as suggested by Joel, or using fresh dung, e.g. horse dung. Combined with a frame on top this makes a "warm frame" for the earliest crops. Though you have to take care so it doesn't become too warm.

As for vegetable jungles, I find that in addition to the advantages that Risa mentions "confuse plant predators, conserve moisture, and hold down weeds" they also deter thieves. Thieves steal more seldom from my allotment than from my neighbours', because the jungle discourages the thieves simply by its messy appearance at a quick glance.
I have also planned my jungle so that the least attractive vegetables are the most visible and more attractive ones are more hidden. E.g. jerusalem artichokes along the front, sweet corn further back.

Orange Sky said...

Joel - your link to the permaculture forums led me to investigate 'hugelkultur beds' simply because I had to know what that meant. Wow! I have the wood, I have low fertility areas perfect for this method and I am ready to build up a few nice raised beds this fall. We have problems with moles disturbing the garden (particularly seedlings) and we have resorted to burying rabbit wire under our raised beds. The hugelkultur base of wood etc. should slow them down considerably, HA! As for season extenders, I am experimenting with some low tunnels this fall & winter. I am using Coleman's "Four Season Harvest" among other books for reference. I appreciate being able to access the group wisdom here!

Zach said...

I second the recommendation for Eliot Coleman's books -- we've found them very inspirational regarding season extension. My wife insisted on my building one of his cold frames right away. :) I suspect that in that mythical future time when I have my own small acreage to play with, whatever idiosyncratic method I arrive at will draw heavily from his books.

I'm also experimenting with his simple trellis design this year. It's worked fantastic for climbing beans; unfortunately the tomato jungle has pulled over its set. Back to the drawing board for next year...


Cathy McGuire said...

Excellent! This one really touched on some of my successes and failures with the garden. Your opening says what I’ve been struggling to put into words for a while:

We’re so used to thinking of time as an abstract numerical measurement – so many minutes, hours, days, or what have you – that it’s often easy to lose track of the fact that for living beings, time always has a qualitative dimension as well as a quantitative one….twenty days means something completely different for living things at one season than it does at another.

So true! And it’s at the heart of why “city folk” who start gardening are flummoxed by sudden failures – at least, I was! The need to assess a day, to take it as it is rather than to see it as we do manufactured items, ie: identical to the day before/after, is key to really helping the garden maximize the season. And when one’s work schedule (or even the lures of city leisure) get in the way, so much in the garden can be missed!

Re: First thing in spring, as soon as the soil is workable,
And that can be very early, if you’ve prepped your beds in the fall!! For those beds where I’m not planting over-wintering crops, I have piled up and dug in compost, and then covered the beds with mulch (generally black garden cloth that I got free from a friend – wouldn’t buy it) and in the spring, it is pre-dug and ready to poke in some peas!

Re:Most of the [cloches] I’ve seen and handled have a framework of wood or one-inch PVC tubing and are covered on the top and sides with clear sheet plastic; duct tape usually plays a role in there somewhere as well
I found flattened plastic tubing at a recycling place, and so clothespins work well, though now I see they have manufactured clips just for those cloche pipes. Your comment about being able to open/close it as temps change is very important – I’m convinced that global warming has increased the sudden shifts; I don’t remember having to shade/cover/shield my crops back and forth in temp extremes this much in the past decade.

To add to your comment about food security: even with available grocery food. I’ve noticed this year’s prices for fresh veggies are going up, up, up – no matter what “deflation” is doing, there are few “deals” on veggies – and, of course, they are not nearly as fresh as a garden produces!

With the new weather extremes, I would suggest gardeners be ready to use those cloche methods to shade the cool plants in a sudden heat (like OR sometimes gets in February) –
Drape the poles with sheer curtains and wet the roots of the seedlings (from a thrift store) – gives just a little relief from a sudden 80 deg day!

darius said...

Yesterday I attended the "Biochar Field Day" put on by researchers, field practitioners (grad students), and local farmers in conjunction with Virginia Tech and Appalachian Sustainable Development.

I had been out to this small farm (I'd guess under 5 acres) used in these trials before, when we (volunteers) erected a 30 x 100 high tunnel, which was done for $300 in materials' cost. Row covers are also important here in our shorter season and used on several farms I know of... and on my to-do list for next spring.

I was glad to see there was considerable side discussion of succession planting both in the fields and high tunnels much as you described, giving local farmers an extended season here in the Appalachian mountains, something I didn't much expect to see with commercial growers.

On the biochar trials: Va Tech Biochar Trials program has developed a working prototype pyrolizer that 'burns' waste poultry litter. 40% is captured to be used as heating oil, 40% becomes a fine powdery biochar, and the rest is captured as part of the fuel for the pyrolizer.

The university will publish the conclusions of the 2 year study soon, and they certainly have demonstrated success in their trials. The documentation will be good to have... so much of what we hear about biochar is only anecdotal evidence. World-wide biochar use, becoming quite popular in Third World countries, was discussed by the speaker from the International Biochar Initiative.

straker said...

I think greenhouses are going to be very important going forward not just for season extension but to mitigate the damage of "global weirding". Global weirding is resulting in harsh thunderstorms, flooding and drought patterns. Weather is moving to the extremes and shifting between them unpredictably. A greenhouse will shield plants from high winds and torrential rains, and will help maintain an even temperature throughout the prime growing season. It will also provide a structure to place shade-cloth on if necessary. I think everybody should try to get as much of their "kitchen garden" under a greenhouse as they can.

John Michael Greer said...

Dio, I am indeed, but the reminder doesn't hurt.

Flute, the anti-theft provision is a good point! I've also heard that raccoons are less likely to raid your sweet corn if it's all tangled up in bean vines -- they supposedly don't like the uncertain footing.

Orange, now I'll have to go and look up "hugelkultur."

Zach, I think tomatoes are on a rampage this year; ours destroyed the heavy wire tomato cages we'd been using in Oregon with perfect success for several years. Mind you, the ones back in among the corn and beans are fine, though it's a bit disconcerting to see a beefsteak tomato growing six feet up a cornstalk!

Cathy, all good points -- and of course you're right about shading plants in unseasonable heat.

Darius, the published results will be worth seeing. I look forward to it.

Straker, no argument there.

Luciddreams said...

I'm sure you are going to cover this at some point, but it's something I've been wrestling with for quite some time now. I have clay soil. Red clay soil that is proving to be good for making pots but that's about it. I don't make pots. I have amended my garden spot for three years in a row via bucket loads of compost, top soil, and garden soil bought at a local soil dealer. Now I have clay with organic material in it, but it's still sticky, clumpy, red clay good for pots.

You can forget about double digging in clay. Never mind trying to fork it. Good luck trying to till it in the spring or any other time. When it rains it stays a wreck way past your tilling window...usually. It seems to me that double dug raised beds are the only way to go for intensive gardening. I'm starting to think that I'd be better off digging a foot deep hole in my 500 square foot garden and then filling it with a truck load of good soil. That's what Steve Solomon did in his Tasmanian garden. I thought that surely I could fix the soil. The only other option I have thought of is to buy buckets of sand to till in in the hopes that it will break the clays tyrannical grip on unworkable clumps. Clay just seems to eat everything I put in it.

Don't get me wrong. I have had pretty good success growing in this amended clay, but you can forget about being able to put your hands in the soil. You can forget about ever having anything resembling tilth. If I would have just done what Solomon did when I started three years ago I would have spent less money and had a double dug raised bed garden three years ago. Any advice? Everything else just seems a mute point to me until I have descent soil to worry about such things as extending my season.

Steve said...

I also have to chime in to recommend Coleman's books. The Four Season Harvest has an outstanding illustration of the concept of time relative to plants in the garden - he charts the time to maturity for plants labeled with a certain maturation time, and it varies widely throughout the year. It also has some in-depth discussion about the factors affecting plant growth under protection, and it turns out that day length becomes much more important in the deepest dark of winter.

Anyhow, I just finished rebuilding my time machine with scrap wood and an old glass storm door salvaged from a job site. Nothing like planting the winter's harvest in August to get me thinking about preserving this summer's bountiful fruits and veggies. Thanks for another great post!

Laurie said...

Thank you for the very interesting post! I garden in the temperate and fickle Midwest (USDA zone 5), and so season stretching is very important here. I wholeheartedly second the recommendation of Coleman's book, Four Season Harvest.

One of the most successful season extenders for me has been to place container plantings against the south side of my house where the thermal mass of the cement foundation gives me over a week of extended frost protection in spring and again in fall. I also use a cold frame, but only for spring seedlings in flats over the cement driveway. Used in the late fall garden, it became a rodent spa when the chipmunks found they could tunnel into it and find no snow, and a warm sunny space filled with fresh kale for them.

I also work my garden "as soon as the soil can be worked" in spring, but the gardener must be careful about what that REALLY means. I once worked a bed as soon as it had thawed and I could physically turn it with a fork. This was too soon, and too wet. I damaged the soil structure in that bed so badly that I struggled with it for years afterward. Be careful!

For people who garden in hot dry climates, I highly recommend Brad Lancaster's book, Rainwater Harvesting for Dry Lands.

Thanks for a great series of blog posts!

sgage said...


I've mentioned Eliot Coleman's books here a few times. I really, really recommend him for New England gardeners - his season-extension techniques are very useful, and in any case he's based here.

I always encourage gardeners to find books by authors from their region - an awful lot of this stuff is Local Knowledge!

Joel said...

>season extenders in drier, hotter climates

I've seen video of gardeners in Botswana, who have built cloche-shaped shade/windbreak structures out of dry branches.

Coarse organic matter (scrap lumber, tree trimmings, palm fronds) can be buried, with enough "greens" to compost their outer quarter-inch or so. It's possible to dig down in order to do this, as in the German "magic mound" composting method, but it's also possible to build up from grade. A berm built this way can offer shade, and if built on contour, can interrupt runoff and allow more water to percolate into the soil. Soil to cover the organic matter might come from a trench immediately uphill of it (also, ideally, filled with mulch, as in "greening the desert"). In its second year and a few years beyond (depending on size and temperature), the rotting wood will hold quite a bit of water.

I've also had great success with planting at the edge of pavement, and encouraging roots to reach under the pavement for water trapped there during the rainy season.

Windbreaks, and either a deep organic mulch or a thoroughly-hoed "dust mulch" (Steve Solomon's term) that breaks the capilarity of the surface soil layer, can stop direct evaporation almost completely. Then it's a matter of weed suppression to conserve moisture.

It's also important to choose deep-rooted varieties, and to get them established while the soil is still moist. I've done this via irrigation, but it's easier to do so by transplanting or direct-seeding as the wet season is winding down. Strongly consider over-wintering your tomatoes and peppers, rather than treating them like annuals.

Lastly, cover crops can store a lot of water, and release it gradually as they decompose. Rather than tilling anything in, it sometimes works better to leave the root system to decompose in place, and use the aerial portions of the plant as mulch.

Ruben said...

JMG, could you expand a bit on Ross' spacing? Do all the rows end up being 1.5 feet apart? I am just trying to figure it out a bit, because I am using more of a square foot spacing, so my beets are three inches apart...

Joel said...

Quick note: my previous comment used the wordier "German magic mound composting" in place of the term "hugelkultur," which has been borrowed from the original German. It literally means "raised bed with plants growing in it," but is used by some permaculturists to mean "garden spot enhanced by large amounts of rotting wood."

gaias daughter said...

This is a bit off-topic but a while back, someone (sorry, I don't remember who!) posted a link to a website about encouraging black soldier flies in your compost and using the grubs to feed your poultry. I followed the link and found it to be *really* informative. I'm not sure the link got the attention it deserved, so I'm repeating for any who might have missed out the first time:

Kevin said...

I've just had occasion to observe plants' sensitivity to temperature. By the third day of a recent heat wave my indoor tomatoes apparently decided they'd had enough direct sunlight from the adjacent window and became horizontal tomato plants instead of vertical ones.

Though my local climate is relatively mild, I feel inclined to make a greenhouse. The challenge of it much appeals. It also provides a good opportunity to try some water catchment.

Hoarding "trash" has also begun to appeal to me, as per Houyhnhnm's remark on that topic.

Harry said...

What you’re describing is the home-growing I did as a child we had a small garden and a victory garden (allotment, we call them in the UK.)

I remember vividly my father and I replacing the old wooden greenhouses he’d build with a fancy new aluminum one, sliding doors, etc. We built it from the foundation up – a low brick wall, put together carefully with a level, a tape measure and cement, about eight feet wide and twenty four long – actually two times ten food greenhouses and a connection between them, fashioned out of spare bits, that held the potting bench.

My father worked minimum wage jobs all his life, so we grew most of our veggies. It's only now, facing a future of declining resources that I can see that it was not from a love of gardening that he did this, it was a love of his family and the only way he could put enough food on the table and be able to afford the little luxuries.

In my mind I regularly travel back to that time and place, marveling as I recall how much we produced from those rows of various plants. I remember some little tricks, like making sure the potatoes are not peaking up out of the soil where they’ll go green and how to pull just a few of the bigger ones out letting the smaller ones plump up a bit more.

Then there was the collecting of bags of leaves to compost from the local woods to earn pocket money. I used to add a few small stones so dad would believe I’d gather more than I really had (if he ever fell for it, I don’t know, but I tried.)

We heated our water with a coal-fired boiler behind the kitchen fireplace for washing, bathing and cleaning, laying the fire each morning was one of my daily chores before walking the couple of miles to school. (uphill, both ways, in the snow, of course.) That same hot water could be pumped around the house through copper pipes and convective radiators, with each room having a little valve so we could turn up or down the heating for that room.

Oh, but we were posh; we had a poured concrete bathroom with a bath, sink and airing cupboard that was great for seedlings. Plus, our toilet was just outside the back door, not up at the end of the garden like most of our neighbors so the chamber pot was only needed in the coldest of nights. Indoor plumbing was one of those luxuries we had because of the money we saved on food.

I’m 45 this year. This was the 1970’s in a run-down mining village in South Wales, where the economy was dependent on mining or supporting the mining - and many of those pits had already closed down.

So I’m not looking at the decline of industrial society, I’m looking at a return to the lifestyle of my youth. The future may not be as bright as yesterday, but it is still as bright as the future was to a little kid helping weed those rows of peas and carrots.

John Michael Greer said...

Lucid, in your place I'd do raised beds framed with wood, and let the clay function as subsoil. Also, have you thought of taking up pottery?

Steve, good luck with that time machine! It occurs to me that I ought to have taken a hint from Dr. Who and called it a TARVIS -- that's "Time And 'Rganic Vegetables In Season," of course.

Laurie, thanks for the hints and recommendations!

Sgage, and of course there's always the conversation over the fence with the neighbor who gardens.

Joel, many thanks for the info.

Ruben, yes, Ross' rows work out to 18" apart. Your beets would be 3" apart in his system, too, but the rows of beets would alternate with rows of other vegetables, which were timed either to finish growing when the beets were just getting started, or to start growing around the time the beets are harvested.

Joel and Daughter, many thanks.

Kevin, greenhouses have a lot of uses. If you live in a mild climate you can quite literally have crops coming in every month of the year.

Harry, thank you for these reminiscences. It's crucial -- especially for those of us who didn't grow up in conditions like these -- to remember that this isn't some kind of unimaginably bizarre lifestyle; it's something that a lot of people alive today either do, or have done. In a lot of ways, after all, the end of the industrial age is simply a return to normal conditions after a very abnormal time.

greatblue said...

Those hugelkultur beds reminded me a bit of keyhole gardens. There's a good video that shows African schoolkids building a keyhole garden here:

In the video, they add ashes, which seemed pretty standard, but I thought it was interesting that they use rusty cans to provide iron to the garden. I really like the idea of a garden at waist height!

I've got clay in some spots and sand in the rest, not much real soil, so I've been interested in gardens built on top of the ground. Square Foot Gardening has worked for me, but I'm definitely going to look into a hugelkultur bed next year!

tom rainboro said...

Crop protection. I can identify four needs - each needing a different material. First to raise the temperature and deter frost - glass or plastic needed. In practice I use plastic supplied for polytunnels. Second to keep off light frosts (e.g. from early potatoes) - use agricultural fleece, which is also useful for
keeping off insects like cabbage white butterflies. Third to keep off birds (and Jack Russells) - use wire netting, plastic netting or stock netting. Fourth to shade plants - use plastic horticultural shading material. The key to applying these materials is (permaculturalists look away now!) STANDARDISATION. All my row
crops are in rows of about 20 feet. So all the materials can be cut to these lengths. Then I cut lengths of high-tensile fencing wire to act as the supporting hoops and deploy the protective material by going over and
under each successive hoop. This system enables the protection to be set up, moved or taken down quickly. You don't have much time to mess around when trying to grow your own food! For my raised beds, each one made of 2 x 3.6m(?) lengths of softwood cut to form 8 foot by 4 foot beds (note metric/imperial switch!) I use agricultural metal stock-netting to form the supporting arches for the materials. I'd like to get to the point where the tops of the surrounds of the raised beds could have brass fittings to slot my netting into!
Here in the U.K. I would not advise anyone to buy these materials from a suburban retail garden centre - much too expensive. We have retail farmer's co-ops here in Devon (Mole Valley, Mole Avon and Cornwall Farmers) and this is generally where I spend some of my Saturday morning.
Locally here we seem to have some 'greenhouse people' and some 'polytunnel people'. I can see advantages of greenhouses but can't afford to set one up. Polytunnels are very versatile - you can apply various combinations of materials over the hoops.

Setik said...

Hello everybody. I grew up in highlands of Moravia (middle of middle Europe). Our family had few poor fields on hills in like 650-700 meters altitude. Soil is very bright, mostly consisting of sand and stone. A lot of stone. There was always a big heap of clear bleached stones along every old field. You could actually estimate the age of the field because of this human-made deposit.

Harvests were so poor I could never fully understand why local folks did not kept sheep and trees only and were not trading for the rest of supplies instead of this endless backbone killing struggle. More, talking with old timers my impression was, that before 20th century came to the country the only crop and reserves they could rely on was dried apples, pears, mushrooms, small potatoes and most importantly barrels and barrels of sour cabbage. Everything else was a hazard to depend on. So no legumes, no carrot, and grains while being croped each spring (in mixtures) were harvested with surplus only during good years. End most difficult thing to grasp - all cattle which was not taken from them, was deliberately sold to the cities below. Meat was on table like ten times a year during festivities in families doing really well.

All this was not because of the altitude I believe. It is not that bad. But because of "whim of Morena" (winter goddess of old Czechs) with habit to never decide for sure if she wants to stay away or to return back. There can be pretty nice weather in April but than snow and frost in new June. And no way to know.

So even buildings are made accordingly. All made from stone. All build close together forming squares to form a snow shelter in the middle (there are winters with two meters of snow in living memory still). So, as a little kid I naturally supposed all the stone for housing comes from fields around the village, right? After all, there were hundreds of tons of stones. What was my surprise when I was helping to rebuild a barn with old neighbor. We took a carriage and went for the stone far away from the village, to some long forsaken field in a forrest. So I asked why exactly are we not taking the stone from deposits along our fields? We could build twice that fast and it would clear new land.

And he told me we are not supposed to do it like this. Stone heaps are bringing better crop and we are not supposed to move them. They are keeping heat prolonging each day. Hence another time mashine. Low tech, ancient.

I believe it has to be used in Himalayas also and who knows were else. It would not be possible to harvest there without this.
Mr. Greer, thank you for puting this togeather. Your pages are being translated in our blogosfere with few weeks delay. Its very useful synthesis. Take care, Jan

flute said...

My garden is also on heavy clay, but I've managed to convert most of it into manageable garden soil.
However, just adding sand to clay is not a good idea, since clay+sand will create something close to concrete.
The trick is organic matter. Lots of it. Whatever you can find. Leaves, grass clippings, compost. I don't double dig my clay, just single dig in late autumn and let it rest over the winter. With enough organic matter, the earthworms will take care of making your soil better. They will also take care of the lower part of what you would otherwise double dig. In my experience...

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Luciddreams.

You sound like you're around my part of the world (by the clay and reference to Tasmania).

Most of SE Australia is clay and up where I am is no exception.

5 years ago it was like a yellow-orange-brown mass with the strength of concrete plus no top soil. However on the positive side, it does hold lots of water in the clay, but never on the surface (you can't have dams around here). Surface water was running off which was a drama.

I've been bringing in mulch by the truck load which you can pick up cheaply around here from the local council. It is sourced from composted green waste collected by the council. I don't think they know what to do with it.

However, 5 years down the track (and around 100 cubic metres of mulch) I now have top soil. The clay is much easier to work and holds even more water. Plants also seem to be able to break it up far more easily. I encourage deep rooted weeds such as scotch thistle and then slash them once they've flowered. The tap roots stay in the soil breaking down and they seem to provide even more nutrients, whilst the tops mulch down and eventually disappear.

You just have to keep working at it and build up the top soil. Of course if it is very compacted a quick solution may be bringing in a 20 tonne excavator and deep ripping it. But, remember to then cover it over with mulch or green manures to stop it drying out.

Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...


It may be worth mentioning (although some may find it a bit contreversial) that it's worthwhile planting lots of different things (because of global wierding) that you may have otherwise considered outside your normal climate zone.

For example, the locals around here say that you can't grow citrus here because of the cold winters. However, I have over 30 citrus trees going and they love it. They cope with the lot, harsh summers, brief snowfalls, minor frosts (about -1 degree celsius) etc.

I will state though that coffee trees will not tolerate snowfall. It was a sad day for an otherwise healthy tree. I'm investigating the greenhouses that you were speaking about for these little delights though). I think coffee beans may be a very useful commodity here.

Please everyone keep an open mind as you never know what is possible with your particular microclimate!

Good luck!

Blagroll said...

Re: Claysoil

If you have the resources, i.e. can buy in topsoil and material for raised beds, this is the easiest option. No need to dig at all, as the clay soil become the de facto sub-bed for the new topsoil as mentioned by the site author.

However, as an interim measure you might want to plant a green manure cover crop in the Fall with deep rooting plants such as alfalfa or forage rye with clover and common vetch for weed control. The former plants will do a wee bit of Fall/Winter gardening for you as they seek out weakness in the clay to spread their roots whereever possible, while the latter add nitrogen and organic matter to what will your sub-bed when you till them into the soil in spring. (You indicated that the land is hard to till, so you may not have this option.)

Which leads onto those, like myself, who are resource constrained (i.e. poor). The winter cover crop only can do some much with the clay soil I work. I've parcelled my small growing space into 6 sections. As well as winter green manuring, over the years I do a heavy duty mulching regime whereby a plot is covered with cardboard, which is thoroughly soaked, then covered with a thin cover of any manure I can get for free with additional bone, blood and fish meal (on sale in the Fall) sprinkled on top. This, in turn, is covered with 10 to 12 inches of moldy straw (again free) or saved leaves. This is thoroughly soaked until compressed down to about 6 to 8 inches and covered with a plastic sheet and weighed down with stones (I'm blessed with plently of stones). Over winter this melts, with a bit of luck and some hackneyed management, into humus. (Again, Elliot Coleman's books have good instructions, but don't be afraid to experiment and use what's at hand.)

Good luck

Also, apart from the normal farmer outstanding in his field jokes, I loved the metric of the intensive gardener who stands, hands in pockets in the comparative quiet of the morning, and just gets a feel for what the gardens wants on a given day. Having grown up in a farm environment, I know this metric but have completely lost it. I hope it comes back some day.

Simon said...

Try and get hold of some gypsum. It breaks down clay and lets the organic stuff do its thing. My wife turned an ugly subsoil bank into a thriving garden bed over two years using gypsum and mulching with seaweed.(In Tasmania as it happens)
Seaweed on its own is not enough. Not much is required, the bed is some forty metres long and 2 metres wide and the bag was no more than 10 kilos.
Be careful of mineral deficiencies, pay particular notice of the condition of the foliage for clues that all is not right.
JMG, most enjoyable reading and a pleasure to recommend to others. Thankyou.

Jim Brewster said...

Luciddreams, I'm also blessed with the red clay, though the top 6-12" is reasonably workable if I catch it at the right point in the drying curve. Fall is consistently the best.

I've double-dug some beds, brutal on the back but the results were spectacular: 12 foot sunflowers the first year. Four years later the pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) and lamb's quarters (Chenopodium album) still reach gargantuan proportions. This tells me that this clay, alluvial deposit of the Patapsco River, is probably very rich in minerals, so I should count my blessings. I'm letting lots of these deep-rooted weeds grow, then I'll compost the tops to recover what they've mined for me. Might even get a few walking sticks out of the deal. Also dividing and replanting Russian comfrey in various places for the same purpose.

I've also experimented with lasagna and straw bale gardening, and these might be worth a try. My results with bales have been mixed. I started with fresh dense bales in the spring, and for the first couple months growth was slow, and they required at least a daily watering. By mid-July things were much better established, but now most of my original bales are starting to seriously fall apart.

Just read Steve Solomon's Gardening When It Counts, and he generally doesn't recommend any form of "mulch gardening." I will continue to experiment with different methods, but I think I'll mostly relegate the straw bales to bed preparation for next year. Should be much easier than all that sod-busting, and if I can grow a few things on top, why not? Building soil on clay, it seems, is a long-term project, and looking for ways to work smarter-not-harder is an ongoing challenge.

Apropos to this week's topic, I have a leaky 45 gallon aquarium which will yield a couple good-sized panes of glass. Coupled with a half dozen straw bales they ought to make some nice quick and dirty cold frames. Once the derelict mini van in my driveway is no longer needed as a storage shed, there's even more glass for gardening, and safety glass to boot!

Ken said...

Concerning local old timer and their rules of thumb for when to plant what, try "The Works and The Days", by a Greek named Hesiod, for an early example. Some things never change.

Barry said...

JMG, thanks so much for posting The Archdruid Report and this Green Wizard series in particular. It brings back nice memories of my country childhood as I try to make my patch of the suburb blossom. Great comments to read as well. Anybody use the Foxfire series of books?

I hope you're covering raising chickens soon? Bees too? You and your readers may be interested in my coverage at That Crashing Sound of a visit with an old friend who who has a garden with free ranging birds and several hives. The eggs are terrific! I also met some nice friends of his, one an entomologist at Virginia Tech and the other a soil scientist, and together they run an asparagus farm that could probably be certified organic if they took the trouble. I'm about ready to flee the suburbs and see if they'll keep me as a hired hand!

tubaplayer said...

I was a bit late reading the post this week JMG. Fully occupied in the kitchen trying to preserve as much of nature's bounty for the winter as I can.

Your "hands in pockets" comment quite struck home with me, only first thing in the morning I have my hands full of goats, deciding where to put them for the day. It inevitably involves me physically restraining them from getting amongst the cabbages, beans, raspberry canes...

That also causes me to look how the cabbages, beans... are doing.

As ever I look forward to the next instalment.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

I plant greens and radishes every week from the begining of April until the end of August. Anything planted in September never reaches full size no matter how warm the weather is.

The plants may go to seed, but they will only be 4" tall. I believe that the decreasing amount of available day light has an effect on the size of the plants.

The amount of daylight at 45 degrees N is about the same now as late April. Planting in late April produces full sized plants. The temperature is typically cooler than what we have in late August.

Greg Reynolds
Riverbend Farm

LewisLucanBooks said...

30 tonnes of horse manure = 20 pineapples.

I mentioned the Lost Gardens of Heligan once before. And, the pineapple pits. Here's a bit of an update.

Funny how I read about this years ago (there's a book about Heligan) but what stuck in my head was the manure heated pits.

And, I saw, here in the Pacific Northwest, a small greenhouse that used the same concept of manure for a heat source to extend the season, but probably grow less exotic and more bountiful crops.

Judith said...

My first post after months of happy lurking! Thanks so much for creating this online community of apprentice green wizards. I have one question and one opinion to voice today. My question is whether anyone has tried making the edges of raised beds out of Tufftex polycarbonate panels, by cutting the 8 ft long panels into 2-3 foot sections (which would be 26" wide each, and would overlap) and planting them with the ridges running vertically? I'm thinking of trying this as I want to avoid wood (rot) and cement blocks (too much wasted space). Pricey, but they look like they may last quite a while, as they are designed for roofing.

I also want to bring something which is unsaid so far (I think) but probably on the minds of many of us, and that is the confusion/bewilderment/info overload factor when it comes to reading 20-50 fabulous recommendations on gardening every week in these comments. I know I'm not the only one who feels bewildered at times, and I want to let others know that this is to be expected. If we're aware that we're experiencing info overload, we're less likely to let ourselves feel defeated by this. I'm probably not the only ADR reader with a tendency to feel overwhelmed by all of this stuff. I've bought several of the recommended books, and am trying to be realistic about the fact that I haven't found the time to read any of them yet! A plea to remember not to beat ourselves up over these things, and not to let the "perfect be the enemy of the good". Off to do some picking and canning on this beautiful New England morning now.

Mary said...

In UMA's Master Gardener Program they recommended "Four Season Harvest" by Eliot Coleman. He grows year Maine! On low cost greenhouses, my notes say that PVC piping breaks down after a few years from the heat. And average life for plastic covering is 50 months.

For water -- either excess or not enough -- compost, compost, compost. And then mulch on top to hold it water in droughts/dry areas.

Luciddreams said...

I know I could continue amending the clay soil that I have. I do well gardening in the soil now, but I know that I'm not doing as well as I could be doing. I also know that I am limited as to what I can grow. I tried growing taters in the clay and was rewarded with a bunch of grape sized taters and a few apple sized ones. Trying to get those taters out of the ground was next to impossible and consequently I'm still finding some in the soil.

I have another plot that I don't have the money to amend. I will be slowly amending it over the years with whatever biomass I can find for free. Huglekulture sounds interesting. I think I'll try at least one bed in that manner. As for the kitchen garden, it's going to be raised beds for me. I've recently inherited 8 panes of tempered sliding glass door glass. I'm thinking of using the frames from the raised beds to affix glass tops on hinges as sort of a permanent cold frame. I was going to build a greenhouse with it, but I don't have the money for that now.

I think the best strategy is going to be to diversify my methods as best as possible to find out what works the best around here. That's the most important strategy I think. You have to experiment to find out what works for your particular pile of circumstances. This is all very much in keeping with what it means to be a green wizard in my opinion. That is where the true magic comes into play what with the bending of reality to successfully meet your will.

I want to successfully feed my family with as much organically grown food as possible. I also want that food to have the least amount of insect damage possible (which seems to be just part of organic growing..pull tomato worm out, cut around bad part and eat or preserve). While doing this I want to recycle and reuse as much material as possible so as to do what we specialize in...conserve energy. From what I can tell, what it means to be a green wizard...conserve and capture energy in all forms while seeking and preserving all data necessary to successfully assimilate strategies that will ensure the creation of a sane way forward.

I just read "The New Self-Sufficient Gardener," and I'm now reading "Fundamentals of Eclogy." what it means to be a Green Wizard is starting to take shape for me. Nothing could be more important at this juncture in time.

Penumbra said...

Thanks for another practical magic lesson.

I have used a version of your first method for years. I live in central Florida and growing season is not my main issue. Space however is,my plot is barely 9 by 13 and shaded by two buildings so I musy maximize my space usage. I have always planted using the 3 row succession method. However, instead of planting in reference to seasonal needs of temperature, I plant with an eye to maturity time and overall size. I plant small crops like radishes, onions and such very near my primary crop such as Tomatoes or Collards. The goal is to plant the larger and slower crop in the middle row and small and quicker ones in the rows to either side.

Actually I tend to plant many of the really small ones in patches at the feet of the main crop - but that is a diversion.

I just wanted to say that this method allows for a very successful method of intensive gardening. Even in the hot, humid shade encroached, micro garden I have managed to claw out of my urban lot.

Best wishes to you and all those you are leading on this journey.

psebby said...

I am thoroughly enjoying this Green Wizard series! As a long-time keeper of Whole Earth Catalogs and having always enjoyed a human-scale whole systems approach, these posts have been great.

I've got my ecology and mulching books, am printing out the Master Conserver docs, and will try out as many of the hands-on projects as I can. I especially liked your comment that "what you know is what you have actually done"... so true.
Thank you.

ChristineStone said...

I have tried using the plastic bottle cloches you describe, but unfortunately in my climate (South UK), the young plants suffered from botrytis (grey mould), from too much damp and no air circulation in the bottles. perhaps they work better in dryer cold environments.

Hal said...

I have to keep reminding myself this isn't just another forum for chatting about gardening. I certainly love to read others thoughts and share my own experience on the subject. The knowledge I've gained doing so is immense. However, there are probably a hundred online sites for doing that, in every specialty including many, many on the sustainable end of the spectrum.

What I'm here for is to immerse myself into the knowledge and lore I might need if I want to have a worthwhile store of information to pass on to others as we transition into a much more resource-constrained existence.

For my lifetime, I don't expect to terribly constrained. Though they might get a lot more expensive, I don't think I'll want for plastic hose, row covers, clear plastic sheeting, biological "organic" pest controls made in a lab somewhere, etc. If I needed it, there probably will always be some fool somewhere who would sell me a ton or 50 tons of topsoil, and deliver it for a fee.

I notice on a lot of the peak-oil aware sites there is a big interest in learning how to grow food. It seems to be a very primordial response to learning about descent, whether you take the long view or the apocalyptic one. It's no doubt not a bad thing to start thinking about providing for ourselves, and using all of the resources we have at our disposal to get our situation as productive as possible, as quickly as possible, is not energy wasted in my opinion.

But what I want out of this site, and what I have thus far gotten in spades, is the long view. Now when we strart looking at human-level technology, the questions I would ask are very different from what I would ask on one of those many other fora. How will our children's children do this or that thing? What pieces of knowledge can I pick up and begin playing with, even on a very small scale, that will help them? What sources of knowledge can I somehow capture and keep in a form that I can pass on to them?

I'm definitely no purist, and don't expect anyone else to be one, either. (Oh, the compromises I've made.) I don't think our descendants will be purists, either, but their options for corruption will be very different than ours.

Apple Jack Creek said...

The plastic pop bottle cloches don't work really well here, either, due to the winds we get. However, I drive past a lovely acreage on my way to work where they have a huge garden (which is looking fabulous these days, all green and big and full of flowers and veggies) ... in the spring, I saw rows of the big plastic water bottles for water coolers 'planted' in their garden. I believe they sawed off the bottoms and used them to cover the tomatoes. Because they are heavier and sturdier than 2L bottles, they'll stand still even in the wind, and because they are larger, you can get the base down into the dirt a good several inches without squishing the plant - and there's more room inside for air circulation, too.

Would definitely be an option if you had access to the bottles for a reasonable cost (I wonder if the water delivery people might be willing to give you the cracked ones?)

Joan said...

A couple of lessons I got from an old Down Mainer who also worked clay soil in an area of irregular weather:

First, for luciddreaming: you don't actually have to bury potatoes to plant them. Start in the fall by creating a new potato bed in a different place from last year's. No need to dig; just put down some cardboard mulch to kill the weeds. At planting time you go down to the root cellar, take the storage 'taters that have sprouts two feet long, and cut them apart so each sprout is free with its little bit of potato clinging to one end. Lay these in rows in your potato bed, end to end, and cover them with about a foot of straw mulch. The new spuds will form along the sprouts, on top of the soil rather than in it, and to harvest you just reach underneath.

One of the problems with raising stone fruit (peaches, plums, etc.) in temperate zones is that if there's an early thaw in February or March, the trees will flower and then winter will come back for another month or two and kill the blossoms. The solution is to go around the property with a cart or wheelbarrow when the thaw starts, gather up snow, and pile it around the roots of the trees. As long as their feet are cold, they won't be fooled by the warm air temperatures. They'll hold off blossoming until May or June when the apple trees do, and go on to bear a crop.

Post Carbon Pioneers said...

I have several time machines that I reuse every year. I haven't seen them mentioned here in the comments, but I wouldn't want to do tomatoes without them. I do have to pay for them, but my oldest are probably about 12 years old, and I finally threw one away this season because it just had too many holes. I'm talking about Walls-of-Water. They are a fantastic little concept which I dearly wish I had invented. Tubes of water in a teepee shape, protecting the plant down to a reported 16 degrees. I've tried to think how to make something similar, but I would need a plastic melter and a fairly thick mil transparent plastic. I also have been thinking about how to make something such-like after plastic isn't available, and the problem with transparency and permeability always gets in the way. But for now, me and my Walls o Water will be together every spring.

disillusioned said...

At some point (and we are yet to reach it) we are going to cook food that Green Wizardry has brought forth.

On this BBC program ( there was a demonstration - cooking a chicken.

A 100W bulb was surrounded by aluminium-backed foam insulation blocks (the 4" thick ones), forming a chamber about 20" each side. The prepared chicken was put in and left to cook, heated by the bulb.

After about an hour it was removed - it was fully cooked and completely edible (though not roasted).

All with a single bulb. Compare that power-usage to a typical oven.....

Focused energy is a great plus of electricity. The next step - not letting it be wasted.

I also favour using microwaves to heat, then allow items to (slow) cook by their own heat.

This is very effective, produces good results - and heat wastage is minimal.

If you have electricity, these methods are ideal.

Perhaps these comments are best left for another post.....

eatclosetohome said...

Don't forget thermal mass when employing a season extension mechanism. Small cloches and cold frames heat up very fast and can kill seedlings in an afternoon...the smaller your structure, the MORE ventilation you need. A pop bottle also won't hold heat for long into the night and your seedlings may freeze, anyway. I gave up on cold frames (michigan, zone 5) because of the endless fiddling required and the mediocre results. Most years my cold frame crop came in only a week or two before the regular early crops.

I have a small 8x12 greenhouse now, which does really extend the season, but if I we're doing it over, I'd look for something bigger - again, the thermal mass isn't there, and in April I have to put up shade screening or my seedlings get stressed in the heat.

Candee said...

Here,on another topic,is 4 open source mechanical projects us in gold car parts,among other things,to make things like a treadle generator.Kind of one answer to "how are my kids going to do things" with no oil

Zach said...

disillusioned wrote:

At some point (and we are yet to reach it) we are going to cook food that Green Wizardry has brought forth.

This is a crucial point!

Regardless of low-energy vs. high-energy cooking, the loss of traditions of home cooking is a critical thing.

For example, I know all about how kale is supposed to be a superfood, and I understand how it's supposed to work with fall gardening and season extension.

But, neither my wife nor I have any use for the plant! Neither of our family cooking traditions include kale -- therefore, it goes unplanted and unused in our gardens.

Multiply this by the multitude of potentially useful plants ... and then consider that we are a family that has spent some effort to maintain and recover the traditions of home-cooking with garden ingredients.

There's a lot of education involved in making use of the fruits of green wizardry.

Perhaps JMG is considering this for a future post?

One of my notions is that a person could do well preparing for gardening, even if they live in an apartment or otherwise have no ground to use, simply by haunting local farmer's markets and produce stores, armed with a copy of Joy of Cooking, and simply learning to cook and enjoy what is available.


Lynnet said...

I live in Zone 5 Colorado, with heavy clay soil and loads of heavy grass. I wanted to put a garden into the front yard, where we have some sun. After about a year of mulling it over, I sheet mulched the new garden bed with cardboard, topped with chicken bedding and spoiled straw, and top soil trucked in. I surrounded the bed with cement blocks turned on their sides, making 4 foot wide beds with openings for the wheelbarrow between.

Then I planted herbs and flowers into the little cement pots. They do need daily watering here, but they did great! The bees love to come to my garden. I have more mint, thyme, etc., than I can possibly use, and the flowers make it all pretty. I put wood chips on the paths between the beds, so I never have to step on the beds. This has been very successful. I put a second bed in this year. I will put gypsum on at the end of the season. Our water is high in minerals, and I don't want it to make the new bed into bricks like the native soil.

The previous owners had a garden bed in an area which is now the chicken yard. He rototilled every week(!) to keep down the weeds. You couldn't even put a spading fork into the soil in the summer; the tilth was destroyed. I've been rehabilitating that area for years now, never tilling. I let the chickens run on it. I let the weeds grow and then cut the stems and lay them down. We put all our grass clippings, and all our neighbor's clippings and her raked leaves onto it, year after year. It's slowly coming back to life. Still brick-like in August, but in midsummer it's pretty nice.

I use Ree-may or a similar plastic cover for tender things like lettuce: plant under it, water through it, all the way to harvest. I have also noted that if plants are sheltered from the western afternoon sun, they do much better. In fact, raspberries grow under my apple trees, with almost no water from me, and these are volunteers.

Joel said...

Hm...from these comments, I'm now curious what it would be like to nest a 3L bottle around a 2L bottle, seal the cut edges together, and fill the intervening space with water.

It wouldn't blow away, and it would add quite a bit of thermal mass, helping with both overheating and freezing.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Zach - neither my wife nor I have any use for the plant! Neither of our family cooking traditions include kale -- therefore, it goes unplanted and unused in our gardens.

saute in olive oil or butter,with a bit of garlic...yum!! said...

This has been the oddest year ever in my time of serious gardening. We tried the plastic row covers this last winter -- it freezes every night, gets down to 29 most nights between January and April -- but the winds were so strong they just blew off and the plants died anyway. The bottles wouldn't work because of the winds, either. So I have two old sliding glass doors I'm going to try to use, but we'll have to be sure to remember to take them off every day as it gets into the 60's during the day frequently.

The late frost that came in early May killed most of my January started seedlings, I ended up buying seedlings anyway in addition to starting my own.

What I did try differently this year was to plant things randomly together. Between the random plantings and the volunteer mystery squash, my garden beds look like a jungle! It does seem to help conserve moisture and keep down the weeds though. Mr. TF complains regularly about the messy look of the garden, but even he says it's very productive.

The problem with productive though is that we just really haven't gotten much harvest until very late in the season, and our total harvest will be small in comparison because of the weird weather we've had.

Ah well, I'll keep on mucking through. It's a good portion of what we eat so I really don't have much choice!

I've never tried kale, but we tried collard greens this year. Very, very happy plants once it got hot. We've eaten them once, and I'm going to try Risa's method of drying the leaves to crush up and put in soups over the winter. Google Stony Run Farm for more information on that if you're interested.

I think my biggest issue is that I simply don't have enough organic matter in my raised beds. So rather than try to extend my season this year, I plan to purchase lots and lots of manure and mix it into my beds. By spring they should be ready for new crops.

I do look forward to the scanning of that book though, JMG, to see how I can alter that for our use.


Jake said...

JMG, thanks for another great post.

For all you cold weather gurus out there, I could really use some advice. I'd like to construct some sort of greenhouse, but with a horrid list of requirements:

* It needs to be cheap, as I'm a student, and can only spare a small amount of money.

* It needs to be somewhat portable, in that I live on leased property, and I need the ability to tear it down at some point.

* Fossil fuel based supplement heating is a no-go.

And finally, the real kicker. We currently live in USDA Zone 4, at approximately 10,000 ft elevation in Colorado. We get vicious sub-zero temperatures, and often loads of snow. Incidentally, we've also not had one month without at least one frost this year (frost-to-frost growing season averages about 40 days).

Really, the solution to all of the above is "move", but that may not be an option for the near future. I've looked at hoop houses constructed of a PVC frame with contracting plastic for glazing, but I'm sure this isn't near good enough. There'd also need to be some sort of inexpensive, temporary foundation in place, as our frost line got down to 9 ft last winter.

Any takers?

Jim said...


I'm a long-time reader who has the Archdruid Report linked prominantly to my humble blog, but I rarely comment here because I'm mostly in complete alignment with your observations. However, and this is a bit off topic, I'm disappointed with the antagonism that seems to be breaking out between you and Rob Hopkins another thoughtful constructive human being with ideas relevant to our times.
Here's what I had to say it about it in response to a related comment posted at the J P Greenhouse website.

"There is no single right way to live, no clearly defined path forward from the here & now, where humantiy sits today, paralized by polarization, fear, anger, and finger-pointing.

Diversity of thought is as important to a human future as is the diversity of living species.

Rob Hopkins and John Michael Greer are two guiding lights in the darkness of our times, two deep thinkers whose ideas and methods actually complement each other in my way of thinking.
We do not all share the same capacities in how we interact with each other and there are countless ways forward to be explored.

My hope is that these two fellows, and I don't care which one started it, who have been such an inspiration to us, turn this conflict into mutually constructive dialogue instead of further descending into the kind of pissing contest we are so weary of between left & right radio pundents, between Republicans & Democrats, Christian & Muslim fundamentalists, right to lifers & pro-choicers, gays & straights, etc., etc., etc."

With all due respect,

Jim Otterstrom

Sara said...

As to you and Rob Hopkins
I am of the humble opinion that you two should publicly ignore each other, stop this bickering, and go to your rooms.
We have a lot of work to do and no room for this.

Mom Earth

John Michael Greer said...

Greetings all,

I'm sorry that I haven't had time to respond to most of the comments on this post -- too much to do, and the Green Wizards forum is also on the brink of going live. (Expect an announcement soon). As for the topic that everybody in the peak oil blogosphere seems to be talking about just now, though, yes, I've seen Rob Hopkins' blog post; I'm rather baffled by its tone, and the number of misrepresentations of my ideas it contains; I'd encourage those who insist that I've been bickering with Rob to go back through the last two months or so of posts and see just how much bickering of any kind has been going on here; I'll be responding to Rob's post in tomorrow's report. 'Nuf said.

Don Plummer said...

Re: JMG and Rob Hopkins--I'm curious too--what bickering? I haven't seen any bickering. I skimmed Hopkins' essay but haven't had time to read it in detail, so I don't know precisely what he wrote or what support he gives for his arguments. The post seemed to come right out of the blue, though. I wasn't aware of any serious disagreements and was very shocked that he would be taking this Green Wizard project to task. It seems to be right in line with what the Transition people are trying to accomplish.

Is Hopkins setting up a straw man? If so, that would be unfortunate.

WgS said...


I see your focus this week has been on maximizing the use of gardening
space over time, but I hope readers also look at the different
dimensions of space.

For instance, a friend of mine currently gardening in Senegal, just
showed me some photos of vertical gardens built from scrapped and
salvaged materials.

Basically, he's building plant hammocks from plastic sheeting
and/or mid-size containers strung on ropes which are then suspended
from poles. As you water top-down, it's an excellent way to conserve
H2O in areas where that is a significant concern. He says this works
really well with herbs, mints, tomatillos and lettuces. When I
mentioned the new-fangled topsy-turvy tomato planters currently being
marketed in the US, he smiled.

~Friend of the Roma ~

Cathy McGuire said...

I read the Hopkins article; I was pained to see his misinterpretations of the AD Report posts (at least, I didn't interpret the JMG posts at all like Hopkins did)and I find it ironic that while accusing JMG of setting up a straw man, Hopkins seemed to be doing so himself.

From what I can see, it's different ways of going about the same goals, and I was glad to see most of the comments under Hopkins' post that basically said, "stop bickering and realize you're after the same thing in different ways". Glad to see most readers felt there wasn't enough time in the day for this. But I know there are people in the world who love drama. ;-}

Luciddreams said...

Jake, I'm a novice gardener myself. However I found it interesting when I ran into the concept of using "hot-beds". From Jon Seymour's "The New Self-Sufficient Gardener."

"Dig a pit 18 inches deep, either in your greenhouse or where you intend to build a frame outside. Seven days before you want to plant in it, fill the pit with mixture of one part by volume of loam to two parts of fresh horse manure. Moisten this and step it down. After three days, turn it and, if it's dry, moisten it again. After four days, "case" it: that is, add six inches of good rich soil. Meanwhile, if your pit is outdoors, erect a frame over it. If it is in your greenhouse, of course you don't need to bother.

When you plant or sow in the bed in spring, it will provide moderate and steady heat for as long as it takes to force your plants to maturity a month early. During the summer, you can get a good crop of tomatoes as a second crop, and after that winter lettuces, before you dig out the manure mixture and put it on the garden to increase fertility."

I've never tried it, but I know compost can get hot. The idea is attractive to me because it's pretty close to free and sustained heat. Maybe you could play around with the idea. You could use bales of hay to case it and find some cheap glass for the top...say an old storm door or get the idea. Hope this helps you.

Jim Brewster said...

Re: resources for pre-industrial agriculture, I suggest two 20th century American authors who were both visual artists and both keenly interested in preserving agrarian tradition. Eric Sloane collected early American tools and wrote and illustrated many books detailing home and farm life in New England in the early 19th century. Most famous is Diary of an Early American Boy. Bob Artley grew up on a farm in Iowa in the 1920's and 30's and his books, like Once Upon a Farm, are full of detailed descriptions and illustrations of the times.

Re: kale. You have to remember it is more like a wild plant. This means it is less demanding and temperamental than its more refined relatives. It also means that mature leaves, especially in hot conditions, will be tough and bitter unless you cook them for a long time with appropriate doses of salt, vinegar, and fat. Pick them when they are young and they will be much better. Also a little frost makes them sweeter.

Re: JMB & RH, I don't think they should ignore each other. I think it is good that both are engaged in hashing out assumptions and ideas. As long as the exchange remains civil it can be extremely fruitful for both the Transition and Green Wizard paths. Sometimes what looks like a straw man is an opportunity for clarification.

Twilight said...

I had not heard of Rob Hopkins before, but I went and read his comments. Having done so, I would hope you do not waste much time in responding to it. It appears to me to be a bunch of misrepresentations of your positions combined with a lack of understanding about about what collapse means - in terms of historical examples and responses, the size and scope of the forces involved, and perhaps most importantly the times scales you are looking at.

One of the things people fail to understand regarding the time scales is that as individuals we won't live long enough to see how this turns out. We have to do our best, never knowing if it was right or not - but that means that all the naysayers and critics don't know either.

Follow your own path and don't get caught up in trying to defend your ideas. Many in the group of readers here have spent a fair amount of time trying to comprehend what is coming, and what you're doing is resonating with me and apparently a fair number of others. That's sufficient.

SophieGale said...

Jake: regarding cheap materials for a greenhouse...check to see if Habitat for Humanity has a resale store in your area. They carry salvaged building material and contractors' donated overstock. You may be able to pick up old storm windows, etc.

nepovim said...

Hi everybody, especially JMG.

1] I have one comment - due to climate change there is a risk, that old magic trick e.g. when to start with plant seeding will get outdated and not so precise as were in the past when they were formulated.

Does the Green wizarding somehow reflect that the "magic recipes e.g for seeding" will be different in upcomming years?

2) becuase in upcomming years there will be global transport more and more difficult, or about the luxurious plants e.g like tee or coffee in nothern hemisfere? Do you have some suggestion about growing such semitropical plants in cold climate?

I'm looking forward for next post


gaias daughter said...

nepovim wrote:
2) becuase in upcomming years there will be global transport more and more difficult, or about the luxurious plants e.g like tee or coffee in nothern hemisfere? Do you have some suggestion about growing such semitropical plants in cold climate?

There is a discussion of just that topic on Green Wizards: