Failure — 2016 Edition

The F-word. It happens. Even if we had the benefit of hands-on mentors, we’d still experience failure. We’ve had a number of failures this year and we’d like to share them with you. In addition to avoiding our missteps, you’ll benefit from hearing the solutions we’ve found.

Greenhouse Tomatoes

img_1734We have squirrels here and last year they got almost every one of our tomatoes. I thought I could outsmart them by growing tomatoes in my greenhouse and putting screens on the windows. Technically speaking, the squirrels didn’t get any of my tomatoes in the greenhouse, but that’s because they never set fruit. Although the plants were started early, grew well, put out flowers, and were pollinated, we only got a cherry tomato or two from the nine plants in the greenhouse. I suspect the culprit was too-hot nights. Tomato plants like an evening temperature to drop into the 60s for optimum production. In the greenhouse, even with the vents open, it was always in the 70s or higher at night. In contrast, the few tomatoes I grew outside of the greenhouse did set fruit. Next year we’ll go back to our most successful strategy: grow tomatoes outside under a canopy of deer netting.

Aquaponics Near-Disaster

img_1735Next to me as I write is a 50-gal. fish tank and 4-ft3 grow bed. In short, an aquaponics system turns fish poo (ammonia) into plant fertilizer (nitrate), so the fish in the tank fertilize the plants in the bed above. They are connected by a water pump and flushing mechanism. I’ll spend more time talking about this in the near future, but I almost didn’t get this project off the ground. We debated whether to put the aquaponics setup in the basement or on the second floor. The former was safer but darker and the latter was brighter but any leak would spell disaster for the house. Prudence won out and the system was sited in the basement with the addition of a 12-watt grow light. This was extremely lucky as the half-barrel grow bed failed the third night. The 55-gal. barrel had been sawed in half and set on its side to form the bed. The walls weren’t strong enough to hold dozens of gallons of water and they buckled some time in the night. I awoke to find a soggy rug and 20 gallons of missing water. Luckily no fish or plants were harmed and I was able to put a wooden brace around the rim. The system is now functioning smoothly, but had it been placed on the second floor, I would have had to replace the floor, plaster ceiling, and other water-damaged items (not to mention the social capital I would have to rebuild to take a second try at this project).

Potatoes, Yet Again

I love potatoes. They are versatile tuber and they grow large quantities in small spaces. At least, that is the idea. Again this year I have only grown enough potatoes to replace my seed stock. The first year we grew potatoes, they were in a north–south line, which graded from full sun to shade. The full-sun potatoes died and the well-shaded ones grew well until August. Since then, I’ve planted the potatoes in shade because of the intense summer heat in Saint Louis. Each year the potatoes do well until August, when they whither, regardless of any shading. This year appears to be no different.


Growing mushrooms is a central technology that we’re trying to cultivate. They’re a great food and people have been growing them for centuries. Most modern mushroom operations have a sterile room to propagate the fungus, but we’re looking for low tech alternatives. Oyster mushrooms can be grown with a minimum of equipment and simple sterilization techniques. Unfortunately the ideal growing conditions for fungi are the same for bacteria and I’ve lost about half of my attempts have ended in smelly, slimy messes in my basement. I’ve had a little success, though, and will keep refining these practices until they are straightforward and user friendly.

One thought on “Failure — 2016 Edition

  1. Good to know my disasters aren’t unique and only perseverance prevails. Guess its time to throw out the dead trees and keep adding to the survivors. Food Forest design in the making, formerly disheartened stall.

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