2020 experiments with staple crops

January 17, 2021

As the spring of 2020 took its pandemic-crimped shape and grocery stores emptied of various basic items, I resolved to expand our plantings as a sort of Victory Garden for the times. In the previous post I described reclaiming a box of sprouted red potatoes from the basement in the early spring, which produced some good-sized tubers before the Fourth of July, and we had a good harvest of our main potato crop as well. I also experimented this year with other staple-type crops; results are summarized below.

The spot I used had been a chunk of gently north-sloping land alongside the driveway. Years ago I put up a sign at the end of the drive saying ‘wood chips wanted’. Nothing happened for several weeks, and then suddenly about 100 cubic yards of chips showed up one afternoon, from a crew that was clearing somewhere nearby. We gradually pulled from the pile, a wheelbarrow or trailerload at a time, to mulch the garden and other plants around the place, to the point where the piles diminished and rotted and started to grow up in weeds and sod, So this spring I spread the remaining chips around, tilled the area with a 5′ PTO tiller, and fenced it in, enclosing perhaps a thousand square feet or a bit more. The underlying soil is perhaps a foot of very finely packed silt overlying a prodigious depth of remarkably coarse beachlike sand.

Dry Beans

We’ve always gone through a lot of black beans, and I remember when I was a kid we grew dry beans of various types (including large spotted ones I remember as ‘Jacob’s Catalog’ beans), and even had an 8×8′ square room to hang and dry them in a shed that was known as ‘the bean room’, so on the spur of a moment I figured to give it a shot. For seed I used the organic black beans we buy in bulk, first soaking a small handful (maybe half a cup?); then I planted a 25′ row of newly turned ground. I didn’t have bean inoculant and didn’t think to put on the clover inoculant that I had, so they were on their own for nitrogen fixation. They didn’t grow spectacularly by appearance, but did set pods and dry down partially in the row. As they started to die back I cut them off with pruning shears to avoid pulling out soil and rocks (as suggested by Carol Deppe), tied them in bunches, and hung them under a porch to dry further. Later in the fall I thrashed/threshed them in a metal trash can, winnowed with a box fan, and recovered pretty much exactly a quart of nice black beans, weighting out at 716 grams. If the row spacing were 2.5′, this corresponds to 123 grams per square meter or 511kg/1100lb per acre. Online I see the label on a bag of Goya dry black beans, stating the energy content of black beans as 150kCal per 44 gram serving, and at this rate my little row turned in a productivity rate sufficient to feed 2.3 adults per acre. In a national comparison, it appears that the biggest bean-producing area in the US is in northeastern North Dakota, and this source shows ~1500lb per acre dryland or ~3500lb/acre irrigated in North Dakota (using narrower row spacings and presumably plenty of soluble Haber-process nitrogen). So 1100 lb/acre from a spur-of-the-moment experiment yielding subjectively scrawny looking plants doesn’t seem like a bad result for a first try. One of these cold weekends I’ll make a nice pot of chili using them and some of the frozen corn we grew.

Corn

The main expansion of our staple crops this summer was in corn. After a successful experiment several years ago growing fedco’s Wapsie Valley field corn in a patch inside the orchard fence in Five Islands, I resolved to plant a sizeable patch in the newly enclosed garden area of about 750 square feet. I also tilled and reclaimed our old strawberry bed, amounting to about 600 square feet, which had gone over to grass and weeds, and we planted this in sweet corn. Both sites sloped gently but consistently to the north, so we arranged the rows diagonally cross-slope with a gentle curve to match the lay of the land, which turned out to be a good move. I planted the field corn after soaking the seeds and letting them germinate a bit, and used a 32″ row spacing. I don’t remember the timing, but it was a bit after the oak leaves were the size of squirrel’s ears. When the plants were 8″ or so I thinned them in the rows, though perhaps not enough. For side-dressed fertilizer, an experiment I alternated rows between our own screened compost and ‘pro-grow’ commercial organic fertilizer; I don’t remember the dosing but I did read the bag and do some math. For the compost I put maybe a drywall bucket on each row. As the plants grew I ran the BMX-bike wheelhoe cultivator down the rows and raked the loose soil up around the plants in rows, which turned out to be a good thing.

Here’s a photo of the field corn at about the point where it was emerging; the salvaged potatoes are in the foreground along with some extra broccoli in pots, and the single row of beans is between the potatoes and the corn. The sweet corn is in the lower bed hidden behind the near solar panels. The window sash tents have summer squash under them.

Kelsey planted a big crop of sweet corn in the lower bed, three different maturity types that I bought at the feed store in Windham. She used perhaps a bit wider row spacing and leaving the plants closer together within the rows, and it worked out fine. I believe I dosed the sweet corn with both compost and pro-gro, though not a particularly heavy dose of either. It was all knee-high well before the fourth of July, and as needed I irrigated both patches overhead using the oscillating lawn sprinkler arrangement I described in the previous post. Here is the sweet corn from the north, with the field corn between the solar panels and the back of the greenhouse; the tall stakes that accept the oscillating sprinkler setup are visible in this and the previous photo:

While overall the summer was dry, sometime just as the sweet corn was starting a tropical storm blew in, with several inches of heavy rain and a strong southeast wind. Here the differences between the field and sweet corn became apparent. While a handful of stalks of the Wapsie Valley corn were leaned over into the neighboring row, the stand was largely intact. On the other hand, large swaths of the sweet corn was lodged almost all the way down in a chaotic mat, though the plants gamely re-oriented their tops vertically and still produced a decent crop. There were a few small washed spots from the massive flow of rainwater, but nothing a shovelful of soil couldn’t patch – all in all the terraced rows did their job and preserved the soil. I thought I planted plenty deep enough, but the field corn put out weird alien-like root fingers just above the soil even though I hilled it up substantially with a leaf rake a couple times; it occurred to me that if I had planted in slight hoed depressions those strange root things might have taken hold and further stabilized the stalks.

Like strawberries, over the course of the harvest the sweet corn went from a revelation to a treat to a bounty to a chore; To Everything There Is a Season. We ate plenty right out of the pot, kept cooked ears in the fridge for a snack, and froze several gallons of cut kernels for winter. As each variety wore itself out I cut it down in place (using a sharp chef’s knife as a machete; though I lived in fear of hitting something hard an nicking it, in practice it worked well) and raked up the pieces for the compost pile. As summer went on the field corn started to brown up and the ears to dry; at some point Z and I started harvesting a row at a time into marked paper bags for the fertilizer experiment. I dried the ears on the attic floor, and cut and piled the stalks so I could replant the area in rye and red clover. Chopping them became a chore; I ended up laying them in the back of the truck with the thick ends backward and attacking the pile with a brush knife on a Stihl clearing saw. This turned out to be loud, heavy, nerve-racking work, as I was loathe to hit the bed or tailgate with the spinning brush blade so I had to repeatedly pull the mass of wet stalks backward out of the bed once I’d cut it off short. It would have been preferable to either chop and rake them in the field like the sweet corn or get a functional chipper/shredder (more petroleum, or maybe REbus?), but I got it done, and it did result in a large compost bin that steams on frosty mornings from the life within. Here we are gathering the knife-cut sweet corn, headed for the compost:

Regarding the fertilizer experiment, at one point when the stalks were around head-high there appeared to be a visible difference in height and color between the compost and commercially-fertilized rows, but this became less apparent later on. It was more apparent in the crop yield, where particularly in the middle of the bed the ears seemed smaller and wimpier in the compost rows. After leaving the ears to dry in the attic until early January, I reassembled Holly’s antique cast iron corn sheller to the pedal power stand and shelled out the corn, one row at a time so I would have some datapoints to compare the compost to the ProGro. One problem with the sheller is that kernels fly off at high speed in every direction; in contrast to the hastily-assembled setup we used at Cider several years ago, I put a bit more time into it. I used a thick flitch of applewood for the structure, and made a decent see-through enclosure using scrap 8mm twinwall polycarbonate left over from the greenhouse project. (The grain mill is in the foreground; the idea is that the plywood platform can be slid off the T-slot frame and reversed to mill flour, but in the end it’s kind of cluttered so I will probably make a separate plywood base for the grain mill)

The new setup allowed me to capture the grain from each row and clean out the sheller between rows. I then weighed using a kitchen scale and put all the data in a spreadsheet. The overall yield of the plot was 28.1kg for 729 square feet of garden area (plus 1kg of chicken-grade grain and 6kg of cobs). The yield of prime grain corresponds to 1680 kg per acre overall; however there was a marked difference in yield between the compost rows and the ProGro rows. The rows were not all the same length, so I normalized per foot of row, and calculated on an area basis (the row spacing was 32″). The compost rows yielded an average of 1250 kg/acre, while the ProGro rows yielded an average of 2120 kg/acre. According to a Bob’s Red Mill package, cornmeal yields 140 Calories per 38 grams; at this rate the corn plot grew food at a rate sufficient to feed 8.5 people per acre; the breakdown was 6.3 people per acre for the compost and 10.7 people per acre for ProGro. It appears that the national average corn yield (heavily fertilized) is around 180 bushels or ~4600kg/acre, able to feed 23 people per acre (if people ate corn rather than pork and whatnot).

The difference in yield between the compost and ProGro rows is clearly visible in the graph. (The rows run more or less east-west and the first row is to the south; the 10th short row got both compost and ProGro). There seems to be a general trend of lower yield in the middle of the bed for both fertilizer types; this could be related to the soil, which was not entirely uniform, or possibly greater sunlight at the edges, though the first row to the south had nearly the lowest yield. That row may have been competing with the dry beans and some sunflowers the kids planted to the south, or it may not have been sufficiently reached by the sprinkler, or who knows what. There were a couple rows in the middle where the yield on the compost rows was noticeably poor; many plants did not produce an ear and those that did were gimpy and weird. Given that this was unimproved soil that had been under a giant pile of woodchips for a decade, I am going to assume some deficiency in the soil that wasn’t compensated by the fertilizer. I shelled out the corn on a rainy day so the weights above are before winnowing; on the other hand I went at each ear pretty scrupulously with a spoon gouge (hi Brandon!) to eliminate any partially chewed or moldy kernels, so there’s probably another kilo or two I still need to sweep up off the shop floor and grind up coarsely for the neighbor’s chickens.

I thought perhaps I didn’t thin ruthlessly enough given the limited fertility; however there’s no sign of this in the data; if anything yield seems to be higher with more plants per foot in the row, though if you squint at the data you could imagine that row 10 was spaced too tightly.

I think I remember Gene Logsdon’s book saying that 100 bushels per acre was a reasonable goal for open-pollinated organic corn, and we’re at 66 average on the first try. Given that this was raw soil and we haven’t done so much as a single soil test or cover crop, I’m not going to feel too bad about the subcommercial yield here. Pretty much every part of the process of growing field corn is fun, particularly the shelling, which is amazingly easy and satisfying – I’m confident that with one person to pedal and one person to feed, the bike-powered sheller could process well over a ton of grain per day. I expect I’ll come back to growing field corn from time to time and keep puttering with the techniques.

Winter Rye

In another unplanned staple crop experiment, after having some grading and smoothing work done around the yard the previous summer, I planted rye and clover in the fall of 2019 to stabilize the soil for winter. There were two small plantings, one of southerly aspect but heavily shaded by trees, and the other more open but steeply sloping to the north. I had meant to mow down the rye in the spring, but as the events of 2020 unfolded with flour shortages in the groceries I decided to let it grow, and at least in some places it made a nice-looking stand, though thin and weedy in others. After it browned in midsummer I cut it down with my grandfather’s scythe, and gathered the cut stems in a large tarp which I wrapped and hung with light rope from the porch ceiling like a giant lumpy slug.

Over the course of the summer and fall I tinkered with a pedal-powered threshing contraption, consisting of a horizontal shaft oriented concentrically inside a 5-gallon bucket, with various choppers and flails on the shaft, vaguely inspired by this farmhack video. While we demonstrated the possibility of pedal threshing, in these socially-distant times I soon resorted to a fractional-horsepower 1800rpm induction motor borrowed from a wood lathe. The thresher did function ok, separating the grain with good yield, but it was slow, cloggy, and not entirely satisfactory overall. I was keen to have a continuous, flow-through process rather than batch mode, but with the horizontal shaft there was little (besides the pitch angle of the internal wooden beaters and the draft angle of the molded bucket) to progress the grain and chaff through and out. I think if I were to incline the whole flow arrangement at 30-45 degrees from the horizontal it would feed better, perhaps at some cost in grain yield. The fundamental issue seems to be that I am relying on a statistical process of chaotic whirling around as opposed to a systematic scrubbing or shredding action to reliably separate the grain from the heads. I’ve since done some online research into what the innards of an actual threshing unit look like, and the rotating part is surprisingly crude – variations on a theme in a rotating drum or cylinder with metal pegs or bolt heads sticking out. The subtlety seems to be in the ‘concave’, a slatted metal screen that envelops the cylinder and disposes the stems and heads against the cylinder while allowing the threshed grain to escape through the screen as it is threshed. The flow is sheetwise circumferential around the drum for a fraction of the circumference; there also seems to be subtlety in the airflow and various recirculation mechanisms to give partially threshed material a second pass through the threshing mechanism. For my purposes, it would seem that axial flow would be easier to tune in a hack-y development mode. Anyway, here are views of the inlet and outlet ends of the bucket mechanism I used:

As with the beans, I winnowed the rye using a window box fan and screened the remainder to get clean grain. All in all I extracted about 8 pounds of rye grain from what appears on google maps to have been around .05 acre, with perhaps another 2 pounds in a contractor bag of unthreshed grain that I saved for future experiments. This amounts to a pretty thin harvest on the order of 200lb/acre; in the plains it appears that 20-40 bushels per acre (1,100-2,200lb/acre) is typical for rye, though it appears to be considered something of a marginal crop there and may not get much attention. I won’t beat myself up too much over this unintentional crop on poor soil, but it would be interesting to see what can be done with reasonable effort. As noted above I planted the field corn patch to rye and clover after the harvest, and the area is now a cheerful low mat of green, so we may get a better experiment next year.

At some point Z got his hands on an ear of dry corn; he was really excited about it so I didn’t take it away from him; for anyone concerned about data integrity, the data points for row 10 should be a touch higher…

New Year’s Day 2021; composting diapers

January 10, 2021

On Friday the 1st the temperature briefly crept above freezing, and I took advantage to compost the diapers that have been accumulating since we shut off the irrigation system in the fall. Somehow it often seems convenient to do this process on holidays; I wrote about it last summer on July 4. In winter this involves stretching out about 200′ of hose from the utility sink in the blue room, and then quickly draining it afterwards before it gets too cold. Anyway, here’s the setup:

The wooden double compost bins were inspired by Holly’s much more elegant system in Somerville; I made these from untreated pine boards Dave had sawed in Five Islands. The near one has two 4′ boxes and is our general household and garden compost; the far one is a bit smaller and I use it for the brown diapers and only spread that compost under trees etc.

The process is pretty simple; I throw some dirt or aged compost in the brown trash can, start the hose running in the can, and dump in the liners a few at a time. Then I mix the contents with a pitchfork (we rip each liner lengthwise when we put them in the cat litter buckets, which allows the dessicant to flow out easily when mixed). I then bail the resulting slurry into the compost bin using a drywall bucket, stirring and mixing in layers with typical compost makings, including fallen leaves, garden cleanup rakings, and household scraps. The resulting pile cooks down quickly, fills with legions of vigorous pink worms, and becomes nice compost in just a few weeks of non-freezing weather.

Unfortunately the company that makes the liners (g-diaper brand) seems to have succumbed to the pandemic global logistics chaos, and is no longer distributing in the US. AC laid in a store early last year, and hopefully they last us until Z is out of the diaper stage, but there are other systems that appear similar. 18 months in I still strongly recommend this system for folks with big gardens who would otherwise buy in soil fertility.

On the use of land

December 31, 2020

At some point in college I came by a copy of Michael Pollan’s first book, Second Nature, about gardens and humans’ relationship to the natural world.  I may have stolen it from my parents’ coffee table, or found it lying around the cozy, fervent MIT cooperative where I lived.   Having been raised by former NOLS instructors on tofu, Thoreau, and Edward Abbey, and on the other hand undertaking at the time an intense education in technology, quantitation, and innovation (electronic paper, 3D printing, underwater drones, implanted medical devices…), the book stuck with me (‘planted a seed’, you might say), and played a part in leading me to these apple trees, this blog, and this post.

Briefly, ‘Second Nature’ presents contemporary environmental thinking about land as a sort of absolutist madonna/whore dichotomy between a few remaining preserved gems of ‘pure’ wilderness and the surrounding matrix of ordinary, ‘degraded’ territory, and Pollan pronounces this absolutist distinction barren – both literally and conceptually.  As an alternative he sets forth the garden as a more fruitful metaphor, both for feeding ourselves and for thinking about interactions between humans and the natural world.  Re-reading after over 20 (!) years, the book is thoughtful, engaging, and still has a good argument to make, one that resonates with my life.

Certainly Wilderness was a guiding star of my youth.  Though my parents were raised in or near cities on both coasts, they met high in the Rockies as mountaineering instructors, and mixed in among the ordinary homesteading tools there were strange artifacts about – wood-handled ice axes, oval carabiners, and hanks of rattle-stiff old goldline. Practically before we could walk, my sister and I had full-sized Kelty framepacks waiting for us, and I remember the pride of finally being (marginally) big enough to carry mine.  Many summers we road-tripped to Wyoming to hike high into the mountains, disappearing across the continental divide where sometimes we’d go a week without seeing another party.

And since my parents ‘settled down’ pretty far off the beaten path, my sister and I grew up two miles from the nearest other kids, as part of the broader back-to-the-land movement which was in conscious opposition to the industrial practices of modern life.  Growing up this way I came to see wilderness as Real, bracing and constant against the artificiality of television, plastic toys, and social cliques.  The mountains we trekked through offered arresting beauty in reward for skill and hard work.  The rock is enduring, the weather uncaring, the alpine trees strong and patient. Wilderness offers a tough but objective test – you either keep your gear dry or you don’t, you make it over the pass or you don’t, and the consequences flow directly from the nature of unvarnished reality. In wilderness it’s clear that the universe doesn’t care about you, but it’s fair and its rules are legible – in that way it’s far superior to junior high.

But, you can’t cultivate a rock.  You can’t eat a view.  As a species we are 7 billion people, ten thousand years down a one-way experiment in intensive food-making, culture-building, and technology-refining, and we’ve been pretty darned sophisticated at it for thousands of years.  For who we are, wilderness is an education, perhaps a vacation, but not a career – while it’s certainly a nice place to visit, we just can’t live there anymore.

Where we live is the industrial economy, and how we live there is mechanized agriculture and massive flows of energy.  The surface experience of modern life in the developed world often obscures this – our skills are transferrable, our communities virtual, our finances digital.  But this is, if not an illusion, an epiphenomenon of the stability, specialization, and efficiency of the underlying physical systems.  Until we upload our consciousness into silicon (as the Singularity squad devoutly wishes), we remain stubbornly physical creatures – to see this clearly look no further than last spring’s run on toilet paper.

The toilet paper thing is a sort of nervous joke, but I mean this in a broad and serious way. We don’t actually have a post-industrial society; we just got so efficient at manufacturing buildings and cars and appliances and electronics that as a society we have enough bandwidth for many of us to toodle around with apps and stuff. Nor in physical terms do we actually have a post-agricultural society – we just got so efficient at agriculture (efficient in economic terms, by using a ton of fossil energy) that we had enough extra wealth/calories to build an industrial society.  The foundation of the information age is hyper-efficient manufacturing, and the foundation of industry is hyper-efficient agriculture, and the foundation of all of it is cheap energy. And the fact that the environmental impact of our lives is largely hidden by offshore manufacturing and high-voltage transmission lines does not make it go away.

Grappling in a real and quantitative way with human environmental impact seems to be what Second Nature is missing. Published two years before Pollan’s book, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature introduced the US mainstream to concrete and present reality of global warming.  But Pollan doesn’t engage materially with climate change, or really with other large-scale environmental problems. Perhaps this is because he leans so heavily on the crisp dichotomy between wild and impacted land, which was at the very moment of his writing being ruptured by the all-permeating reach of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Pollan was right that wilderness is not a solution for sustaining 7 billion people, and that necessarily the way forward is to thoughtfully cultivate our world (enough of it to live on).  But his book has precious little to say about actually producing sustenance. After a promising beginning among the truck farms of Long Island, the book takes long excursions into the social class implications of rose varieties, the moralistic overtones of compost, and the excesses of seed catalogues, and in the end seems to be more about aesthetics than substance, more about landscaping than actually producing food, fuel, or fiber.  His primary concern seems to be how a well-read suburbanite can display his good taste.

This disappoints me because I believe that the actual physical substance of how we live matters.  To be sure, what we feel and proclaim matter also – aesthetics, symbols, and statements move minds, but minds are also subject to myopia, hypocrisy and wishful thinking.  Rock-bottom physical reality matters at least as much, because all the while as we think and symbolize and post and upvote, inexorably we eat, we heat, we travel (or used to), we buy, and we build, and the effects are real, quantitative, physical. Our microprocessors require electricity, our fingers quit typing much below room temperature, and our lofty professional and aesthetic goals are stubbornly dependent on a pound dryweight of bread, butter, and beans, daily with scant interruption.  We remain tied, physically and therefore ethically, to the land.

Where then should we live, and how should we live there?  Where? There’s no point getting prescriptive about it; we are 7.6 billion now, we take up a lot of space already, and this Covid time is no season to encourage folks moving around.  We should live in our communities.  Urbanites have their own clear paths to low-impact living: density, bicycles, and a thoughtful diet go a long way. For those of us who live in the countryside, the risks and possibilities are broader.

I live in Maine.  Because our state has the lowest population density east of the Mississippi, many of us live on sizeable chunks of land.  While most people in the developed world externalize the environmental impact of their lives, still land and sunlight are the ultimate sources of our sustenance, and the impact does not go away just because we can’t see it.  So for those of us fortunate enough to own acreage, it’s worth thinking about how our land could sustainably produce some of the basic stuff of human life.

I have written much here of my frustration with the consumer model of citizenship. Not that I want to live as a survivalist, guarding a field of turnips with an assault rifle, but nor am I satisfied to be merely a specialized cog in the global industrial machine. Because my life impacts the planet, because land and nature are the ultimate source of our sustenance, and because I have land, I am interested in stewardship.  Because the path humanity is on is not sustainable, I am interested in experimenting and modeling other paths – ways to be productive, physically, of vital goods in a sustainable way and at a meaningful scale.

I say ‘experimenting’ because generally this sort of project won’t make a whole lot of conventional financial sense; it’s more like a hobby with a larger purpose. Why? Food is cheap, real estate is expensive, and the cash economy is lucrative. When a small buildable lot of an acre or so sells for $50-$100k,  basically nothing (except cannabis) can be done agriculturally to match the economics of development.  Still there is a sadness in old farms going to forest or to subdivisions. To be sure, when the railroads spread across the nation, it made economic sense to move production of grain and beans from rocky New England farms to Ohio, Illinois, and Kansas, but nothing came to replace the vitality that went out of the places then. But should the gods of the market dictate next that the staff of life should move on further, to be produced entirely in Brazil or Mongolia, will we then clothe Iowa in condos, and keenly await the grain ships as the Romans did?

In this modern first-world life, our food, shelter, warmth, transportation, and electricity all come from the global economy, which is 80% fossil-powered.  Our land lies fallow as we heat our homes with petroleum, eat supermarket food grown with Haber-process nitrogen, and build with lumber trucked in from Canada or beyond. Those of us with the freedom to choose should contemplate instead how we might do better by thoughtful use of our land. What practices can I take up, such that if if my neighbors and my bioregion followed suit, the result would be a stronger community, a more vital countryside, and a gentler impact on the broader world? What sustenance and beauty could we bring forth, and what might that do for our health, our communities, and our planet?  Food for thought in 2021…

Reflections on a summer of serious gardening

November 15, 2020

Ever since landing in Arizona I’ve gardened where I could, but this summer the stars aligned, and I applied myself to it more seriously. While I’ve complained about the limitations of backyard gardening as a response to hard times, the underlying instinct is surely sound, and obviously I feel it myself. In redoubling my efforts, my goals were to:

Broadly speaking it was a great year. Below are some notes and thoughts on what I learned, organized by vegetable crop; I hope to do a post on my experimentation with staples soon.

As usual we grew quite a lot of potatoes. It’s not for any logical reason I can tell; new potatoes in summer are delicious, but we grow more than that – I think it’s for the joy and symbolism of it. The plants are so happy and vibrant-looking, and digging them up is like discovering Christmas presents. I started in late March or early April with a box of wizened, shrunken red potatoes that got away from us and started sprouting in the basement. As an experiment I dug a trough in some of the newly tilled ground, stuck in the sprouted potatoes, and tented over them with used window sashes. They got off to a slow start, as it was occasionally still snowing that eraly in the season, but even the ones that were outside the glass tent re-sprouted eventually after the first tips got blasted by frost. The bulk of our crop we planted back in the main garden using seed potatoes from the garden center or fedco. They don’t need much attention besides hilling and diligently picking the beetles (or an application or two of spinosad, which I use on occasion). The kids love digging them; Z got right into it and put them in the bucket while I turned the soil with a fork.

Strawberries I think we’re starting to get the hang of; we grow them because they are delicious, luxurious, and not actually too much work. I used to think of them as finicky but at least in our soil they go quite rampant, taking over the aisles and nearby beds and continuing to grow late into the fall when hard freezes have flattened lesser plants. This year in the early spring J&K transplanted some runners into new beds near the greenhouse, including a shovelful of soil with the plants (‘strawberry sod’?) and they took off and produced a decent crop. Toward the end of the season the berries get small, and it got to be a bit of a chore to pick and freeze them, which is good I think in that it reminds us that we don’t actually want everbearing strawberries, and For Every Thing There Is a Season. They need to be weeded diligently, but the biggest problem is waxwings pecking the ripe fruit. In the past we have used floating netting, but sometimes the birds get under it and thrash themselves to death, which is less than pleasant. This year I criscrossed flash tape above the beds instead, and it seemed to be mostly effective and less work.

Fresh greens are a big part of why we garden. This year that started early with lettuce, kale, and spinach from the greenhouse, and we (Kelsey mostly) did pretty well at succession plantings (out in the beds, not in the greenhouse) to keep us in salad fixings throughout the summer. For me the big discovery of the season was broccoli raab. I grabbed a packet at O’Donals or somewhere early in the year, and was amazed at how much faster it grew compared to other greens, how free it was from worms and bugs, and how it would hang in for a good while before flowering and going to seed. The rest of the crew here is less excited about the bitter greens flavor than I am, but I will continue to grow it for its vigor and sheer enthusiasm.

Continuing on the brassica theme, I had resolved to grow a lot of broccoli this year, since it’s nice fresh and we also use a lot of it (mostly bags of frozen from TJs) – I hoped to freeze a bunch for the winter. We started some in the greenhouse and transplanted out a dozen or so, and they did OK, with the majority producing a respectable medium-sized head followed by side shoots the rest of the summer. I think I planted them too close together, and they would have benefitted from more compost. I ended up freezing a couple gallon bags of florets, but ended up feeling that I could have done better. We had some extra healthy-looking seedlings in the greenhouse that I couldn’t bear to ditch, and we were already fully planted out, so I put them in large (5 gallon?) plastic pots we had lying around, mixing in compost at as much as 50%. These did OK but probably would have done far better had I planted one or two to a pot instead of 5 or so. The meta-lesson is not to be sentimental about seedlings – as it is written, Many are Called, but Few are Chosen.

I also planted some cauliflower that acted strange; it eventually grew heads but they were heavily interspersed with green leaves, such that it was kind of a dissection project to eat it. I should probably think ahead and order from Johnny’s or Fedco rather than trusting a garden center seed rack next year. We grew kale as usual, and it did well as usual; Kelsey also grew a big bed of collards of which they may have eaten a few meals, and Holly in Somerville grew a kohlrabi the size of a football. As the season winds down and colder weather sets in the brassicas grow on me; even after 17F there are still some broccoli florets hanging in there, and I wish I had some brussels sprouts. I’ve started my winter salad regime of shredded red cabbage, grated carrot, and kitchen-window alfalfa sprouts; maybe next year I’ll plant some cabbages. The biggest problem with brassicas is the little green worms; one theory to try for next year is to plant them all in a row to facilitate a more disciplined application of Bt.

One of the meta-lessons of garden planning and meal psychology is that early-season stuff like kale and chard quickly lose their appeal when the midsummer vegetables come in. A frank acceptance of this might have us harvest and freeze these crops en masse as the zucchinis etc. start to come in, and reuse the space for a succession crop.

The value of succession plantings become clear this time of year, with the sturdy holdouts offering cheer as everything else dies back. Carrots and spinach seem to be the most robust, surviving a hard freeze that withered most of the lettuce and chard. We did a pretty good job with successive plantings of both, and are harvesting them still. We tried likewise with beets as well but could have done better; we discovered along the way that goldfinches peck the leaves to the point of destruction.

Alongside the carrots and spinach the leeks are also green and hearty, and we’re pulling them as needed. They grow easily once started, and grocery-store leeks are $2.50 each, so despite their modest aspect, they definitely counts in the luxury category. Regardless of means, I would have a hard time putting $15 of anything in a humble pot of soup, so growing them in profusion feels like a particularly snug form of wealth. The only change for next year is we should have planted them deeper to make the white part longer, though Holly says we should just roast the green parts with salt and oil – I tried it and they were OK; I found myself keeping a container of them in the fridge and chopping them into e.g. fried rice to good effect. In other allium news, Kelsey grew the usual bed of garlic and started some onions from seed; they seemed to falter (perhaps from the drought) but eventually caught on. I also planted a bag of onion sets that did a bit better; we always use up however many onions we grow, so if we come up with good technique we could scale it up.

I enlarged the garden early in the season, and upgraded the fence as time went on this summer. The construction now consists of 5/4×6 PT decking set edgewise and buried 1-2″ below grade, with economy cattle panels from TSC set above it, screwed to 4×4 PT posts on 16′ spacing. This construction replaces an amalgam of slabwood, chicken wire, plastic netting, and untreated tree trunks we originally put in, which had rusted and rotted into the ground over the last 10 years. The fence is a bit extravagant, but we spend a lot of time up there and it’s a pleasure to use. I can run the BMX-bike wheelhoe right up against the boards on the inside. That wheelhoe has been a revelation; with it I was able to keep the entire ~1/6 acre from growing up in weeds with 10 minutes here and there. For finer work I used a regular straight hoe and a small Japanese hand-weeder that my mom gave me; Kelsey uses a small Korean hand plow.

The edgewise decking at the base of the fence similarly resists the string trimmer on the outside, and the cattle panel is good for trellising crops, allowing us to use the soil right up to the edge of the garden. In exposed places I’ve strung three strands of 17ga steel fence wire above the cattle panels to discourage deer, and I lived in fear that we would get coons in the corn and I’d need to add an electric element, but thankfully they never found us.

As the weather warmed and the crops started to come in I had less time to put the finishing touches on the fence, and as a result my crop of butternut squash was badly damaged by woodchucks; as is I got maybe half a bushel and we have a bunch still in the freezer from past years so we’ll manage fine for pies. We also grew the usual zucchini and summer squash, and as usual it produced well before getting nasty with mildew and beetles. The revelation this year in cucurbits came from a garden-center packet of light-green pattypan squash; I planted one hill of these and it took off like a rocket. It spread out into a jungle maybe 12′ in diameter that produced an absurd amount of squash, and unlike the single-threaded zucchinis it had a persistent branching habit that survived several attempts to cut it back out of the aisles. Also unlike zucchini it seemed unfazed by the bugs and mold, and produced continually until the weather got cold. With the warm dry weather we also managed to grow some quality cantaloupes and a few watermelons, trellised along the garden fence.

Other crops reliably did their thing – tomatoes, green beans, sugarsnap peas, etc. Southern Maine was dry this summer, and we irrigated a fair amount. We have a pretty good system now, using the sort of oscillating lawn sprinklers that have a bow-shaped metal tube with a series of jets pressed into it. The sprinkler is screwed to a short piece of decking, with a rectangular wooden tube about a foot long screwed to the underside of the decking. The tube slots down over a wooden post driven into the soil, setting it at about head-height, above the tomatoes and peas. The garden is long and narrow, so one sprinkler can manage the entire width of the garden, and six or seven posts allow us to move the sprinkler to successively water the entire area. Kelsey also does a fair amount of hand-watering, which keeps the weeds down in the aisles, and we have some drip tube here and there.

I think that about covers my ‘lessons learned’ from a summer of serious gardening – we’ll see what next season brings…

Independence Day 2020, composting diapers

July 4, 2020

We had a quiet but productive Fourth today, including the ceremonial digging of the first new potatoes, which we ate for dinner together with the first of the broccoli and some mini bok choy.  The corn is far past knee-high, the strawberries are winding down, and the zucchini are coming.

One of the things that has contributed to the good garden this year is a much greater quantity of compost, which we have on account of the diapers I’ve been composting since last summer.  We’ve been using the ‘g diaper’ brand, which consists of a cloth shell, a waterproof rubber liner, and a disposable/flushable/compostable insert with the magic dessicant in it.  Thanks to the Georgetown Mall I have some kitty litter buckets with close-fitting lids, and we keep separate ones for yellow vs. brown, ripping the paper skin to free the dessicant. ( We do use one disposable diaper per night, as the compostable ones definitely don’t seal as well or hold as much.  These are theoretically biodegradable, but I’m skeptical and haven’t tried it out.)

Once a couple buckets full accumulate, I put them in a ~20 gallon rubbermaid trash can, add a couple scoops of dirt or compost, and fill the can with water from a hose to completely hydrate the dessicant.  I stir the resulting mess with a manure fork, let it sit for a few minutes, then bail it into the compost bin, mixing with wood chips, weeds, grass, leaves, planer shavings, etc. – whatever we have around.

The yellow ones I compost directly into our regular compost bin, a dual 4’x4′ wooden box that I built inspired by Holly’s very trim setup in Somerville.  The brown ones have their own smaller dual wooden bin, where I will give it plenty of time and then spread under some trees or something.

Based on my experience I would highly recommend this approach to diapers.  The diapers themselves don’t actually add that much volume to the compost, but they do add nitrogen, and they inspire me to collect a lot more organic matter to put into the process.  The bins are full of worms and other wriggly life, the piles compost quickly, and the resulting compost is dark brown, smells fresh, and the plants seem to love it.  There is no sign of the paper or the dessicant particles in the finished compost.  Because the vegetable matter feedstock we use varies widely in size, I screen the finished compost through half-inch hardware cloth, which separates out the avocado pits, corn cobs, stubborn vegetable stalks, etc. to go back in the bin.  I then put the screened compost up in dogfood bags until it’s needed.

Not half the calories, but half the frequency

June 20, 2020

One of the long-time obsessions of this blog is the tension between my interest in physically producing the basic stuff of life, and my engineers’ grounding in quantitative realism regarding which measures might be scalable across our society.  The latter has led me to the conclusion that it’s not realistic (neither terms of available land nor available time) for the vast majority of Americans to grow any significant fraction of their own food.  So close to a dozen years ago I wrote a post titled ‘Not half the calories, but half the dollars‘, suggesting that a reasonable goal of serious home gardening might be to focus on fresh specialties and luxuries with market value equivalent to half the food dollars of the homestead.

While we still grow our share of potatoes, winter squash, and the like, our shared garden definitely leans in this direction – top-quality tomatoes, basil for quarts of pesto, fresh strawberries, and the like – and in Kelsey’s case an increasingly impressive assortment of flowers.  I’ve also learned how to grow shiitake mushrooms from oak logs harvested in our woods, and there’s nothing like frying up a pound of them for breakfast to make a person feel the culinary wealth.  But in the time since the coronavirus arrived in force in March, it’s become clear that home gardening is also a great way to reduce the frequency of trips to the grocery, at least in season.

We’ve leaned into this strategy as the spring progressed.  After looking at them sitting in a pile for ten years, we finally turned the stack of glass sliding door panels Joshua salvaged into a trim little greenhouse, and grew lettuce and spinach even while the late snows this spring piled up on the windows.  I brought my 5’ PTO tiller from Five Islands, turned over our old grass-choked strawberry bed, and prepared a new ~1ksf garden where a huge pile of wood chips had been rotting for most of a decade. Z and I have gradually patched together the fence to enclose the entire garden, and we are now at the stage where we have more lettuce and other greens than we need, the strawberries are producing heavily, and the peas, broccoli, zucchini, and new potatoes are not far behind.  The corn is on track to be knee high well before the fourth of July.

I gather we’re not alone in this new focus; the garden center just down the road has been mobbed every time I’ve gone past.  While there simply isn’t enough space in the typical suburban yard to feed the family that lives there, by carefully selecting varieties, using Eliot Coleman-style season extension, and buying a lot of shelf-stable staples in bulk, it may be possible to eat well while reducing the frequency of trips to the grocery by half or more.

At this point I’ve been to Trader Joe’s once since February (and spent close to $600), and I’ve been averaging Hannafords about once a month.  If we got some laying hens and were willing to use powdered milk, we could probably get it down to once a quarter.  We really aren’t eating that differently either – normally my soup and bread-making would slow down this time of year, but I’ll probably keep at it. The primary differences are less fresh fruit (until the strawberries started), and until the garden kicked in I missed the big tubs of fresh baby spinach I used to buy, but those probably weren’t that ecologically sound anyway.  I was already buying sprouting seed by the pound, and windowsill sprouts combined with grated carrot and thinly-sliced purple cabbage makes a pretty good salad.

Book Review: String Too Short to be Saved

February 16, 2020

Not this Christmas but the one before, my parents gave me a memoir called String too short to be saved, first published in 1960 by Donald Hall, and I finally find some time to read most of it this winter.

The book describes Hall’s summers as a boy, spent with his grandparents on a small dairy farm in New Hampshire  in the 1930s.  The writing is good (turns out the author is also a former Poet Laureate of the US), and there are many heartfelt and beautiful passages, but the mood is persistently elegiac to the point of being depressing.  His grandparents are aging and struggling to maintain the farm, the agricultural economy is in terminal decline, and the colorful cast of characters around them are in varying states of decay which Hall paints unflinchingly, without cheap gestures toward redemption.  

Perhaps this is appropriate.  It has always struck me when I drive back roads in northern New England that many communities more than a few towns inland from the ocean appear to have had their best years long ago, with collapsing barns, peeling paint, and sleepy main streets.  But it had not occurred to me just how long ago those best years might have been.  Inland rural Maine and New Hampshire grew up around agriculture, but railroads opened up prime farmland to the west by the mid 1800s, and the industrial revolution pulled the population to cities and factories. The young people left, the old people died, and the fields grew up in birches and pines.  A passage from the book captures this diaspora:

“The hurricane of 1938 blew the pines over, and the great trees crushed the camps, the church, the meeting hall, and the ice-cream stand.  Soon after, the war took away the young men.  The dance in the evening ended, and the play which the young people put on. Old Home Day became a Sunday afternoon in August, when the old people met in the yard of a church.  When Old Home Week was established by Governor Rollins in 1899, these old people had been young… Old home week was the time for returning to the place you had left; even in 1899 the country was emptying,  By 1949 most of the survivors…didn’t even know they had an old home.”

And as go the rural areas, so go the small cities that once supported them.  Hall’s book reminded me of an essay by Paul Krugman from a couple years back, The Gambler’s Ruin of Small Cities. Krugman notes that while small cities served an obvious function when the foundation of the economy was farming, they had to reinvent themselves in various ways when industrial agriculture depopulated their surroundings.  With constant, accelerating waves of change driven by technology and globalization, many may eventually run out of luck – particularly if they are in cold, inaccessible places, without the benefit of a university or attractions to draw tourists.

I grew up in the woods, and I’m attached to the idea of people producing the vital substance and sustenance of life by engaging the natural world around them.  But I’m also an engineer and a realist; I know that technology and economics drive the changes that poets then write about.  Is it too much to hope that a transition to clean wind and solar power, which are by their nature as diffuse as loam and timber, could bring new life to rural northern places?

Grift, niche, scale

January 28, 2020

The more fortunate we are, the truer it is that we create the world through our actions.  Once we understand the scientific reality of emissions-driven global warming, and accept the moral responsibility to do something about it, the next question is, what to do?  And for those of us who are engineers, the further question arises – what to work on? To answer these questions, it helps to think about which solutions could actually be the change that we need to see in the world? – that is, which solutions can scale?

Ever since environmental awareness became a mainstream concept, there have been lots of ideas about how people can do their part – from composting household scraps and sorting recyclables to the self-serving notices in every hotel that we can save the planet by re-using linens.  My biggest beef with these ideas is their innumeracy – the idea that a right-thinking citizen can do their part by hanging up a towel, when their share of the emissions from the flight that brought them to that hotel could easily run a thousand times greater than the impact of the laundry.

As I pointed out in the previous post about the massive scale of human energy use, modern civilization consumes an absurd amount of energy to deliver the basic goods of our lives, and most peoples’ ‘environmentalism’ doesn’t recognize or grapple honestly with that fact.  In his phenomenal online book, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, David MacKay similarly pokes this innumeracy, which lets people think unplugging a phone charger or carrying around a re-usable straw is an effective response to environmental challenges, while they flit about in jets, rumble around in SUVs, and eat a bloated western diet.

So what does work?  The question must be answered on a couple of different levels.  At the individual level, each person’s emissions and environmental impact is relatively straightforward to estimate, and it’s hard for me to knock anybody’s well-targeted efforts to reduce them.  Further, environmental sensibility, financial thrift, and physical fitness are often in very close alignment, a point repeatedly made by early-retirement blogger Pete Adeney., who points out that joy- and health-improving life choices can often save 75% of both cost and impact.  In a world where superhuman quantities of nearly-free energy are vomited out in every direction, this is not a surprise.

And so for instance a plucky, mechanically-inclined tribe (and small industry) has sprung up to collect used fryer oil from restaurants, react it with industrial glycerine to form a bio-derived fuel that is a fair (in fair-weather) facsimile of diesel, and use it to drive around (often in classy old Mercedes station wagons).  And my parents are clothed and shod essentially for free by the high-class leavings in the help-yourself shop at the Georgetown Mall – ‘satisfaction guaranteed, or twice your garbage back!”

Clever hacks of this type are admirable, and hard to knock.  But they are what I would call ‘niches’ – moves that are smart and efficient, but fundamentally can’t scale, because they depend on the massive inefficiency of the mass market of energy and stuff.  Free lightly-used name-brand apparel is only available because people in Georgetown buy and discard a ton of clothing, and fry-oil biodiesel only works because industrial agriculture has driven the cost of food down nearly to zero.  If everyone tried to adopt these practices, the supply would quickly dry up – that’s what makes them niches.  Similarly, hunting deer for meat in overpopulated suburban landscapes is a niche – highly economical and environmentally sound compared to industrial farming, but if everyone tried to adopt the practice, soon there would be no deer. And despite my attachment to it from the days of my youth, wood heat falls in this category as well – even at maximal sustainable production, the energy output of US forests could not heat US buildings.

Worse, there are also certain practices and products that are touted as environmentally beneficial but are actually useless or harmful.  Given the marketing cachet of environmental values, these I would term ‘grifts’.  The most egregious examples are the transparent ‘run your car on water’ sidebar scams that pop up every time the price of motor fuel spikes, or the sleazy ‘energy saver’ capacitor boxes that are marketed to save 10-35% on electric bills.  But green-tinted grift is everywhere.  Basically the entire bottled water industry falls in this category when any environmental claim is attached (e.g. recycled plastic in the bottles), since tap water is safe, often purer, and produces vastly less emissions than bottled. I described biofuel as a niche above, but as it tries to scale it becomes something else – according to some analysis, the huge US corn ethanol industry produces more emissions than it saves, and could be considered a giant environmental grift fueled by poorly designed subsidies; reportedly Brasil’s sugarcane ethanol industry is better.  And I would put most eco-themed travel in the grift category, when marketed internationally – whatever benefits may derive from locally-sourced produce and organic spa treatments are swept away in a category-five hurricane of airline industry emissions.  Local food itself is sometimes grift, particularly where fossil-heated greenhouses are used to grow low-calorie, high-value produce under LED lights. In order to figure out whether something is an improvement or a loss, you need to Do The Math.

What we really want are practices, products, and energy systems that can scale – that is, their benefits hold up even when adopted across the entirety of industrial civilization.  Niche technologies like biofuel fails this standard, because even if we turned all of our food into fuel we could not run our current fleet of vehicles (not to mention that 7 billion people would have nothing to eat).  Growing delicious tomatoes in one’s front yard is a delightful hobby, but except for those with huge lots and extreme zeal, it cannot materially reduce the dietary climate impact of its practitioners.  There is not a hard and fast line between niche and scale solutions; no one approach or technology will solve all our problems, and larger niches might end up as some of the smaller climate wedges – for instance, we might ask whether carefully-sourced biofuel might power a smaller, more efficient air transport industry.  The point is that we should focus most of our attention on approaches that are big enough to matter on a global scale.

In terms of generation of useful energy, historical data shows that clean power sources can scale at least to a material extent.  Hydropower already has scaled – to about 17% of global electricity supply. Further expansion in the developed world is limited by site availability and environmental impact of dams, but last I checked it’s still growing rapidly elsewhere – for better and for worse.  In the time I have been in the clean energy industry, utility wind turbines have scaled from nothing to about 7% of the US electricity grid (and similar numbers globally).  Solar is further behind, at around 2.5% of global electricity, but growing fast (on the order of 25% CAGR).  Nuclear has historic scale, but as a long-term, centralized, base-load technocratic solution, it is a poor fit to these times of tepid government investment, dynamic energy markets, and fear-driven public conversation.  Nor do I hear its proponents grappling honestly with the weapons proliferation implications of a massive global buildout.

For clean power to continue scaling, storage technology must scale likewise to manage the intermittency of wind and solar; similarly electric vehicles must continue their growth across another two orders of magnitude.  Fortunately our industry is tackling this challenge head-on, and market demand is strong.  Onward and upward!

 

 

Energy Enlightenment and the Better Angels of our Exotherm

January 10, 2020

When I was a kid, my mother always had a shelf of serious popular science books, and among the authors represented was Stephen Pinker, a Harvard professor and linguist.  I’m not the language zealot that she is, but I kept track of Pinker, who has come to prominence in the last 10 years for a pair of books about violence and the well-being of humanity.  In the first, (The Better Angels of our Nature) he argues – with reams of data – that violence has declined drastically in modern times, and explores some causal themes. In the second (Enlightenment Now) he further demonstrates a remarkable, consistent, and progressive improvement in the material, social, and intellectual well-being of humanity, and argues that that the primary cause of this improvement is the rise of Enlightenment values, including science and humanism, which took root in Europe in the 1700s.  

I am basically convinced with respect to the decline of violence and improvement in quality of life.  Two thirds of Enlightenment Now consists of a train of short chapters presenting data to show how longevity, health, wealth, knowledge, freedom, crime, safety, happiness, etc. have improved drastically in the last two hundred years.  It’s not a subtle book, and its triumphal tone is an odd fit to the mood of our times, but there’s a ton of evidence to support the argument that if one was forced to choose a time and place to be dumped – Rawls-fashion – into the world, ‘right about now’ would be a pretty good choice. Pinker does grapple with the existential risks of climate change and nuclear war, and acknowledges they are real.  Unsurprisingly, he argues that reason, science, and humanism are our best tools for overcoming them, and I agree.  

I am less convinced of the Enlightenment as the cause of this dramatic improvement.  I am not a historian, but my amateur sense is that there have been a lot of smart people working out principles of philosophy, logic, and the intricacies of the natural world for at least a few thousand years.  But something else started in the 1700s, accelerated sharply in the 1800s, and then exploded globally in the 20th century: the development of techniques to burn fossil fuel to liberate immense quantities of energy.  This suddenly enabled humans to perform useful tasks at superhuman scale, and I believe it is a much more powerful force than the achievements of any cohort of philosophers.  If this is true, it has serious implications for the future of the benign trends that Pinker celebrates.  

To understand the force of this argument, the reader will need a quantitative sense of energy at the human (and superhuman) scale. This is an essay that I have been meaning to write for some time, both because it ties together many of the themes that captivate my personal and professional interest, and because I believe the average citizen doesn’t understand how profoundly energy fuels and enables every aspect of life, both primitive and modern.

In simple terms, energy is a property that provides the ability to do work.  Work has a specific technical meaning, but for practical purposes it means roughly what blue-collar people think it means – for example, energy must be provided to do the work of hauling water from a well, pushing a vehicle along a road against the resisting force of aerodynamic drag, or driving a flow of electric current through a filament to create light.  Energy comes in a number of forms (kinetic, thermal, chemical, potential, etc.), and humans use it both to do physical work and to perform chemical and industrial processes, heat or cool buildings, cook food, etc. This diversity of uses reflects the fundamental importance of energy, which extends to our physical bodies – like all organisms, we require energy to survive.  Food is the fuel that allows our bodies to do work, and without it we quickly die.

Energy is universal and quantitative.  Universal because it cannot be created or destroyed, and because its various forms can be interconverted, subject to natural laws and practical limitations.  Quantitative because it can be measured, and certain tasks absolutely require a defined amount of it. If it requires 10 units of energy to get my electric car to the top of the hill, and my battery only contains 8, the car will predictably stop short of the summit.  

The proper scientific unit of measure for energy is the Joule (J), which is a tiny amount – about as much as is released when a sandwich falls off a table and hits the floor.  An iphone 5s stores about 20,000 J of electrical energy, an Oreo™ cookie contains about 300,000 J of food energy, and a gallon of gas releases about 120,000,000 J of thermal energy when it burns.  Because the joule is such a tiny amount, we have other practical units of energy that civilians are more familiar with, including the kilowatt-hour (kWh), which is equal to 3.6 million Joules.  

Is a kWh a large amount of energy, or a small amount?  The fascinating answer is: both, and this starts to get at the point I’m trying to make.  

On one hand, it’s a relatively piddling amount in modern terms, equivalent to the thermal energy in a few tablespoons of gasoline.  In a few minutes I can tap a kWh effortlessly from the outlet under my desk, and the most amazing thing is that Central Maine Power will only charge me fifteen cents for it.  

On the other hand, on the scale of a human body, one kilowatt-hour is a formidable quantity.  Imagine pushing a car up a steep grade for over a mile – that’s a kWh. I could pedal an apple grinder bike all day and struggle to deliver a single kWh worth of energy.  In fact, our entire pedal-powered cider operation with four bikes may only be delivering around 1-2kWh over the course of a Saturday – that’s less than 50 cents worth of energy at electric utility rates.  

To bulk up our intuition about energy at the human scale, it’s helpful to understand a related concept, Power.  While it is common in the civilian world to mix up Energy and Power, the concepts are related but distinct in an important way.  Specifically, Power (in the engineering sense), is simply the rate at which energy is delivered. If one joule is delivered per second, this is described as a 1 watt flow of power. So an old-fashioned 100W lightbulb consumes 100J of electric power per second, most of which is wasted as heat; a modern LED bulb might deliver the same amount of light while consuming only 15 J per second.  If the old-fashioned bulb is operated for one hour (3600 seconds), in total it will use 360,000 Joules, or 0.1kWh.  

It turns out that if you ask the average healthy non-athlete to pedal a bicycle (or climb a ladder, or some other efficient means of producing power at a sustained pace), you find that a human body can only deliver useful work at a rate of about 100W over a period of hours, and significantly less on average, since we require hours of rest and sleep.  And for hundreds of thousands of years, that was pretty much all the energy we had.  The Bible says “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground” and back in the day that was pretty much the size of it.  The great majority of people foraged or toiled in fields to grow crops, and they did it pretty much their entire lives.  

Naturally the proximal source of that energy was the food they ate, but its ultimate source was the sun, which powered the photosynthesis that stockpiled that energy in the crops and livestock in the form of sugars, fats, starches, and the like. This was a serious limitation, because photosynthesis is relatively inefficient at turning sunlight into stored energy.  According to Wikipedia, typical crops are only about 1% efficient in turning the sunlight that strikes a field or forest into biomass, so it takes a lot of land (or a lot of time) to produce a given amount of usable plant energy. In many climates (e.g. deserts) the conversion is many orders of magnitude less efficient.

As a result, for millennia our ancestors were fundamentally limited by the strength of their bodies and the relatively modest efficiency with which crops could turn sunlight into food and fuel.  What about beasts of burden? The more fortunate among our ancestors had access to an ox or perhaps a horse, which can deliver a modest multiple on the power of the human body. But like humans, draft animals were solar-powered, and their calorie needs were likewise multiplied – a horse or cow required the output of several acres of land for its fodder, and this land could not be used to grow food for humans.  

Of course beasts can be eaten as well as worked, but here again, the amount of land required to feed a person on meat is far more than the cropland required to feed them directly on plant-based foods, which is why meat was (and probably still should be) considered a luxury.  

Worse, the most productive staple crops require cooking (more energy) to be readily digestible, and cooking was likewise done using wood, which required still more land.  Firewood supply was limited in the more populated areas – google ‘coppicing’ or ‘pollarding’ to get a sense for how the supply of precious renewably-grown combustibles was husbanded in those times.  Using land to grow fuelwood traded off against using the same land to grow food crops.  

If energy is universal and quantitative, and energy for humans comes in the form of food, it should be possible to relate the amount of food we eat to the amount of work we can do.  The typical human diet contains about 2000 Calories per day; the Calorie is an archaic unit of energy equal to 4180 Joules. So 2000 Calories is about 8,400,000 Joules or 2.3 kWh. To put our diets in Power terms, I am delighted to discover that typing “2000 Calories per day in watts” into Google yields the following:

2000 (kilocalories per day) =

96.8518519 watts

That is, we eat food energy at an average rate of about 100 watts, and this sets an absolute limit on the amount of physical work we can do; in actuality we’d be lucky to deliver 100W of work for 8 hours per day, with the other ⅔ of the calories given over to the business of living.  And because food is fuel, serious endurance athletes need much more – up to 8000 Calories per day.

To sum it up, in pre-industrial times our ancestors lived ‘land to mouth’. Life went along this way for hundreds of thousands of years, and though it changed in appearance and intensity with the invention of agriculture, the same fundamental limitations were in place. At best, people carefully husbanded a limited ‘working capital’ of stored foods, livestock, and standing timber; however, despite primitive tools it was all too easy to over-exploit the productive ecological base and get in an ugly situation, as Jared Diamond details in cases including Easter Island, Greenland, and others.  Life was nasty, brutish, and short in the myriad ways described in the ‘before’ section of Pinker’s books.

But things started to change in a serious way when people discovered that they could tap ancient energy reservoirs of stored sunlight.   For a fascinating early example, I recommend an online article called “Medieval Smokestacks: fossil fuels in pre-industrial times”, on the subject of peat as an energy source.  Peat is the remnants of plant matter that accumulates over millennia in wetland areas, protected from decay by the lack of oxygen – this is actually the first step in the much longer process that forms coal. Peat can be cut, dried, and burned to liberate thermal energy, and the author, Kris de Decker explores in detail how unique circumstances enabled the people of the area that is now the Netherlands to mine and burn massive prehistoric reserves of it, and thus to liberate themselves from the limitations of their annual allotment of sunlight.  The Dutch also mastered the craft of building windmills, which provided mechanical energy to complement the thermal energy from the peat. As a result, they were able to power an impressive array of proto-industrial activity, including glass, brick, ceramics, ships, sugar, salt, soap, spirits, and textiles. 

The ability to mine and burn fossilized plants changed the game for the inhabitants of the Low Countries in a material way.  By the 1600s, the per-capita annual consumption of peat amounted to about 16 gigajoules per person per year, or about 500W of continuous thermal power, compared with the 50W or less of labor they could manage on average from their own bodies.    And soon this region became far wealthier than neighboring regions, with 60% urbanization compared to the 10% urbanization of the surrounding areas less favorably endowed with peat. Sadly, the peat reserves were eventually depleted, and this combined with competitive coal-fired industrial production from the UK knocked the Netherlands from their perch – by 1820 the country was down to 38% urban population.  

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, the real fossil-fired revolution was spinning up.  Natural deposits of coal had been in limited regional use for hundreds or thousands of years for metalworking and local heating in coal-bearing regions.  But starting around 1700, a sequence of tinkerers, blacksmiths, and engineers invented and refined the steam engine – a machine that used energy liberated by burning fuel to create hot, pressurized steam.  That steam could be used to do work – initially to pump water, which was of great value in draining mineshafts and enabling more coal and other minerals to be extracted. But by around 1780 the engines were coupled to flywheels and rotary shafts to drive mechanized equipment that had previously been confined to locations with available water power.  The most prominent steam engine inventor was James Watt, who produced a uniquely efficient engine; the scientific unit of power was appropriately named for him. (Watt also devised the unit ‘horsepower,’ equal to 746W, as a product rating tool.  He sandbagged a bit so his customers wouldn’t be disappointed; the average horse could deliver somewhat less than 1hp on an ongoing basis).

To say that the invention of the coal-fueled steam engine was a runaway success is a vast understatement. By tapping an immense store of fossilized sunlight, it removed the limitations of plant-fueled musclepower and the vagaries of wind and water power, and catalyzed a chain reaction of growth, wealth, and innovation.  Pumping water from mines greatly increased the availability of fossil fuel and minerals. Engines ran blowers for blast furnaces, rolling mills, and a blossoming array of machinery that advanced manufacturing on every axis. In the early 1800s steam engines were adapted to power ships and to transform the rudimentary railways used in mining operations, making fast, convenient transport of people and goods possible.  In the following century, convenient liquid petroleum fuels replaced coal, compact internal combustion replaced bulkier steam engines, and mechanization spread to agriculture, with displaced farm workers taking jobs in manufacturing. An immense fossil-powered chemical industry sprang up, devising among other miracles the Promethean ability to turn air and water into nitrogen fertilizer, solving a major problem in agriculture (thanks to Holly for the book recommendation). And steam power found new life in giant turbines used to generate electricity, literally bringing light and entirely new axes of wealth and convenience – and eventually the information technology that allows me to write and publish this post.  

The power that fossil fuels deliver is amazing in both qualitative and quantitative terms.  For the reasons described above, in medieval times the average person’s access to mechanical power averaged scarcely 100W from the combined efforts of humans, beasts, and a scattering of weak water-powered mills, and perhaps a couple hundred watts of carefully-husbanded firewood.  (see discussion at http://www.paolomalanima.it/default_file/Articles/ENERGY%20AND%20POWER.pdf).  By the dawn of the enlightenment, the leading economy of Europe had access to an average 500W of thermal power per capita from burning peat alone.  By 1900, citizens of the UK consumed on average over 2500W from burning coal alone. And in 2016 the average American consumes a whopping 10,000W of primary energy continuously.  This continual torrent of energy enables the amazing material abundance and variety that most of us enjoy, and the everyday superhuman miracles of modern life: I wrote the first draft of this essay in an airplane seven miles above the surface of the earth, blasting effortlessly across the continent at nearly the speed of a thunderclap. 

Is the amazing global surge in quality of life primarily due to philosophical advances, or is it primarily the result of discovering a singular lode of stored energy? It’s not that enlightenment values are irrelevant to the amazing advances in quality and quantity of life that humans have enjoyed over the last 200 years.  I am a huge fan of science, reason, and humanism, and I’m convinced that they have contributed in a central way to the technological progression outlined above – although it seems that early on a surprising number of advances were made by trial and error rather than systematic study and application of scientific principles.  But any discussion of improvements in quality of life over this period that doesn’t recognize the immense increase in available per-capita energy that fueled and enabled those advances is missing a critical insight.  

 I think the answer to this question really matters.  If Enlightenment philosophy really is the driving force, then it could be reasonable to expect that challenges around the sustainability and environmental impact of burning fossil fuels will look like minor matters when viewed from the future. In that case, energy historians of the future will conclude that while we used these fuels because they were available and convenient, had they not been there, we would have readily developed other sources of energy nearly as good, and industrial civilization would have developed more or less at the same pace.  According to this view, fossil fuel depletion and malign climatic influence are technocratic issues that can be expected to sort themselves out in due course. There may be some minor changes related to the transition to other sources of energy, but the transition can be expected to happen naturally as a result of market forces, and doesn’t pose a fundamental danger to the modern quality of life.   

But if, on the other hand, the quality-of-life advances are primarily the result of massive increases in per-capita availability of useful energy, then there is a real danger that the peace, prosperity, and broad-based human flourishing of the last 200 years are highly contingent results of a temporary windfall.  If so, their depletion could easily reverse those advances – just as the black rock desert goes back to the lizards and ants after the Burning Man festival. If benign progressive trends are primarily a result of a one-time windfall, a bonanza of nearly-free energy unleashed over the last 200 years, then an unwind over a similar span of time is likely to be less than congenial to those who think the arc of history bends inevitably toward justice.  If it taps out significantly faster, then all bets are off. Archaeologists point us to civilizations that have fallen; elaborate complex cultures that have disbanded, with their advanced knowledge lost to the nomads who camp in the ruins.

It doesn’t take much of a disruption of the material and economic flows of modern life to deflate the progressive instincts, long-term thinking, and warm-hearted embrace of diversity that Pinker celebrates in his book.  The 2008 financial crisis was mild by historic standards, but it severely blunted the flow of capital toward forward-looking clean technologies, and unleashed an ugly undercurrent of intolerance in the body public.  For those of us working in the clean energy industry this was strikingly clear, with strong popular and investor interest washed away in a torrent of underwater houses and ‘pocketbook issues’.  

The previous, more severe economic crisis of the 1930s came in an energetic time of plenty, yet it concluded in a global nightmare of genocide that ended in a nuclear arms race.  If fossil fuel depletion starts to bite faster than clean technologies can comfortably replace them, or if the global impact of carbon emissions relentlessly drives millions of refugees from major coastal cities, I have a hard time believing that the advances Pinker credits to enlightened principles will be secure.  

If this is the path we are on, then successfully executing a rapid, global transition to clean sources of energy is of supreme importance.  The growth of solar, wind, and other scalable clean technologies must continue and accelerate consistently. Energy storage and load shifting/management must both advance without a hiccup, and the electrification of transport must displace fossil fuel as quickly as clean capacity can be added to the grid.  Liquid fuels should be reserved to particularly thorny technical challenges like air travel, which may need to be curtailed until significant advances can be made in renewable fuels or the volume- and mass-efficiency of clean energy storage. With political leaders abdicating responsibility in the face of the greatest civic challenge in generations, it appears to be up to engineers and Swedish highschool students to lead the way to an enlightened future.

A philosophy of outbuildings

December 21, 2019

My family seems to have a thing for outbuildings.  It’s not that unusual here in Maine, but still I think we take it to an extreme.  Starting from sparse ledgy ground, over time the homestead where I grew up came to include ten useful, non-decrepit structures.  You could chock this up to my father’s love of building buildings, but my maternal grandparents’ property has 12 buildings (including outhouses), most of which he did not build.  So I seem to have the gene from both sides.

Outbuildings provide capacity (both volumetric and functional), but take time and resources to build, they take up space (physical, mental, visual), precluding other uses, and they require maintenance.  So they should be planned and managed carefully.  I’ve mulled this over, and here hope to articulate principles toward an optimal philosophy of sustainable outbuildings.

A small outbuilding should be portable.

My mother is a writer.  When my sister and I were small and tended to make a racket, she needed a place to get away to focus on her work, so my father built a trim 8’x8′ Writing Shack in the woods east of our house.  It had no foundation, siding, heat, or electricity, but my folks were used to that, and at the time my mom wrote with a fountain pen. It had nice big windows of used plexiglass, overlooking the Little Sheepscot river through the trees.

Later when we grew up and spent less time at home, for a while the Writing Shack sat idle.  Then, at some point we were in need of a dry place to store sails and paddles near my grandparents’ dock on the ‘other side’, so we lowered it onto skids and dragged it half a mile to the head of the dock, where it sits to this day, serving its new purpose admirably.  Its floor framing is made of untreated lumber, but it has always been held well up off the ground on concrete or PT blocks, and its roof has large overhangs.   My father may have replaced the asphalt roofing once, but otherwise it has needed little in the way of maintenance.

I believe the family record for moving and repurposing a building is four placements.  My grandparents originally built a handsome 2-holer outhouse for use with the Upper Cabin, and it stood for 30 years or more in the woods on or near the site of the big barn where we make cider.  When they built a year-round house with plumbing and moved up in 1983, the outhouse sat idle (excepting the occasional power outage), so at some point my father hauled it across the island and set it up at a spec house they were living in.  Later it moved to the homestead where I grew up, the holes were boarded over, and it served as a tool shed for Jake’s arborist tools.  Most recently it migrated to Bay Point, where it was fitted with a handsome set of double doors to serve as a small farm stand.

The large end of the small outbuilding category is fuzzy; the Upper Cabin itself moved to make room for my grandparents’ house.  It being 16’x24′ with cedar log siding and a long porch, that was a bit of a project, but fortunately it was built as a kit in 8′ wall sections, so it could be taken apart with some labor.  I was too young to remember exactly how the move was done, except that at some point my grandmother’s small bulldozer stuck fast in the mud at the new site (now within the orchard fence), and every come-along on Georgetown Island was borrowed and pressed into service to winch it out ahead of a hard freeze.

All the time I was growing up, the Upper Cabin served as sleeping quarters for my many cousins when they came to visit the grandparents.  Its missing outhouse became something of an issue, so at one point I built a small one-holer, entirely from used materials, diagonally planked for strength and with a treated lumber undercarriage.  That outhouse was itself moved as the orchard expanded, and the move was simplicity itself given the small size and sturdy construction – the small excavator bucket fit nicely through the open front door, lifting it cleanly off the ground and on its way.

At this point I hope that the value of portability in small outbuildings is amply demonstrated.

[Dave points out that small, light portable buildings tend to blow over in a strong wind, and should be anchored down, e.g. with earth screws.  The profusion of disposable portable buildings has made these screws a thing that can be found used or cast off in rural areas of late.]

A large outbuilding should be large.

As illustrated above, one of the issues with outbuildings is that they sometimes get in the way of later, more ambitious plans.  It’s a shame and a waste to tear them down; that’s why it’s important that they be movable.  What about buildings that are too large to move?  In that case I believe they should be built large, substantially larger than the initial primary use would dictate. That way you won’t wish you’d made it bigger later on, and won’t be tempted to glom a bunch of sheds or ells onto it, which is inefficient in terms of materials, makes the space less useful, and starts to look busy after a while.

This is an essay about outbuildings: non-insulated utility structures that will not be heated routinely.  I definitely don’t advocate for making a primary residence larger than necessary.  A larger house will use more energy (holding construction methods constant), and these days new home construction runs into the hundreds of dollars per square foot.  On the other hand, an unheated utility structure won’t consume any energy to speak of, and at least using our typical methods of construction can be built quite economically using locally-harvested timber milled on or near the site.

As an example, when my parents were contemplating the design for the (big, older) cider barn near the orchard, I knew that they were moving from the old homestead with a ton of utility buildings chock full of stuff, so I encouraged them to make the new barn big.  While they were skeptical, they had a lot of lumber around (I think a particularly tough winter had delivered a large pile of salvaged logs for the sawyer), and they settled on a fairly ambitious design, 36×60′ with a Corbusian forest of posts, a drive-through center aisle, and stand-up lofts running along either side.  Everyone was happy with the result, and before long the building was full of lumber, tools, staging, cider equipment, free boats, and more lumber.

The original concept for the barn included livestock, and separately they had it in mind to build a sugarhouse, which could also serve as a ciderhouse to keep the beverages separate from the manure.  So last winter they quickly whipped up another barn, this one 26×50′, in this case open inside from wall to wall.  Again the lumber was mostly salvage logs (the hemlock trees on the island have been decimated by microscopic wooly adelgids), and the building is a delight, with a rustic but airy feel.  I have no doubt but that it will soon be full.

One potential disadvantage of large outbuildings is the challenge of maintenance, which could easily get expensive (if hired out) or intimidating (if attempted on weekends).  This brings me to the next topic.

All outbuildings should be economical but built to last

Conscious or not, the thoughtful builder of a building makes a statement.  “This building is right and proper for this site.  It is worthy of the space, time, materials, and energy it takes up.  It deserves to be here, and those who come after will be grateful for it.”  Here I am channeling the spirit of Wendell Berry, that righteous old judge of rural places and uses, and in that spirit, every decision in design and execution is a balance between durability and economy.  Too fancy or too large speaks of ostentation and waste, while too small and cheap depresses the spirit and stinks of disposability.

What does this mean in practice?  Naturally it will differ from place to place, according to the local climate and materials, but in our climate, rot is the enemy, and the first defense is large overhangs.  By carrying rainwater well away from the walls and underpinnings, they extend the life of the building, and for single-story structures may eliminate the need for siding – a further economy.  Naturally, there is a cost in added wood and roofing, but I believe this is well worth it, at least up to the comfortable cantilever capabilities of the materials of construction.

Next, the underpinnings of the building should be well up away from soil, leaves, and duff.  This is easier said than done, for it is the fate of outbuildings to be neglected.  Years of leaves will pile up against the uphill side of a low-set building, and soon the tendrils of fungus are at work.  So too the splash of rain from the eaves is relentless at turning siding into moss.  Accordingly, buildings should be set well up off the ground – and all the more in the case of lazy owners, or buildings (e.g. boathouses) that by their nature are rarely visited.

For permanent structures this is most economically done with sonotubes filled with hand-mixed concrete – like the homestead I grew up in. This is expedient, durable in good soil, and moderate in the use of emissions-heavy concrete  – in fact, the $4 bag of sakrete should be considered one of the wonders of the modern fossil-powered economy.  This construction also makes for ample dry-ish storage space underneath, particularly when built on a slope.  The primary disadvantages are a less-than-trim appearance, and non-suitability for garages and other grade-level applications.

Permanent grade-level outbuildings on the smaller side (e.g. garages) are typically built on a floating slab, or a conventional 4′ concrete foundation in the case of larger buildings.  The site should be well-graded, and the concrete well up above the ground.  This does not sit entirely easily with me; it appears that concrete production emits about 400lb of CO2 per cubic yard.  Taking slab, curbs etc. as an average of 6″ thick, that amounts to 7-8lb CO2 per square foot. The US vehicle fleet emits about 0.9lb per mile, so 1000 sq feet of slab-on-grade building emits the equivalent of driving about 8,000 miles – not obscene, but material in the context of trying to live a low-carbon life.

Concrete slabs are useful, but it’s not clear they’re strictly necessary in many applications.  I’m intrigued by the prospect of using pole-barn construction with sonotube piers extending well clear of the soil, to keep the posts dry.  The problem then becomes how to seal up the necessary vertical gap between the sheathing, to keep leaves and snow from blowing in, without setting up a situation where the soil heaves the building or buckles the siding.  The Kaufmans built a small barn in Flagstaff and used reclaimed polycarbonate panels from e-ink, set on edge just inside the inner surface of the vertical board siding to keep the snow and squirrels out; I bet something similar could be done with reclaimed trex decking or some other less exotic inert planking or panels.

Portable buildings can also be set on sonotubes, but this might be considered extravagant, and liable to leaving obstacles/eyesores if the building is moved.  A reasonable expedient is to set small portable buildings on some arrangement of rot-resistant blocks – reclaimed cement, pressure-treated wood scraps, suitable rocks, or the like, provided that the building can be jacked and blocked level from time to time to account for the settling and heaving of the soil.

Smaller portable buildings are traditionally set on, well, pretty much anything or nothing, but this is why they are often found rotting into the soil.  Pressure-treated timber can delay this significantly, but it’s not what it used to be, no longer containing toxic chromium and arsenic, and even now surely has a much heavier environmental footprint than locally-sawed, air-dried lumber from salvaged logs.  That broaches the subject of materials selection more broadly.

Materials of Construction

Here again, judgment must balance cost and environmental impact with longevity and low maintenance (again, it is the fate of outbuildings to be neglected).  I have not done a lot of math on this yet, and have instead gone on intuition.  I spray pounds of copper on my apple trees in the spring as an approved organic fungicide (as the soil test said I was light on copper), so I’ve considered it reasonable to use the modern copper azole PT judiciously.  Still, PT is kiln-dried, pumped full of chemicals, and trucked heavy up the eastern seaboard, so it’s probably best not to use it indiscriminately.

For general structural use, the clear choice here is pine/spruce/hemlock lumber, sawed onsite from salvaged logs by a roving Woodmizer and air dried.  For a classier building, cedar shingle siding is relatively local and maintenance-free for decades, however I am not sure how sustainable eastern cedar forestry is.  The trend on the land recently has been toward vertical pine board and batten, with the windows carefully cased and flashed.

Regarding windows, doors, and hardware, decades of connections in Georgetown and my father’s scorn for waste can usually turn up something that will work for a small building, often with added charm.  Those less fortunate might cultivate a friendship with a local ecologically-minded builder who does remodeling.

Roofing is again a tradeoff between time, cost, and longevity. Surely wood shakes are the lowest impact, particularly if harvested onsite and cut by hand, but in our climate they will quickly rot. With unlimited time, a retired purist might split out pine shakes with a froe, install them with stout stainless nails, monitor carefully for the end of life, and painstakingly remove and reuse the nails.

Absent such fundamentalism, in the shade and raked of leaves, a quality asphalt roof will last decades, and is most economical for new buy, but it makes nasty waste when removed, an unholy mix of petroleum, fiberglass, and gravel.  Painted steel roof is more expensive but attractive and long-lived, which should factor into the calculations, the useful longevity of the building being a goal here.  It appears that steel manufacturing produces about 1.8lb of CO2 per pound, and 26-gauge steel is about 1lb/ft^2, so a steel roof accounts for on the order of 2lb CO2 per square foot (higher for steep pitches).  The lighter weight of steel on straps compared to asphalt may be a boon for portable buildings. [Dave points out that in snowy climates, metal roofing will reliably dump hundreds or thousands of pounds of snow under the eaves of the building.  This should be considered in tight quarters, and when placing doors etc.]

In the extreme of longevity, used corrugated aluminum from retired chicken barns has been in service on the homestead for over 40 years with no apparent wear.  I have not priced aluminum new, but understand that it is too spendy for reasonable use on an outbuilding.  However, if one were to procure aluminum roofing used and install it carefully on a locally-sawn wood building with wide overhangs that’s protected from ground-level moisture, it might be the closest thing to a permanent, ecological outbuilding.

If I am condemned by fate and genetics to be a builder of outbuildings, the least I can do is to be thoughtful about where, how, and of what materials I build them.