My Straw Bale Garden

Despite the best efforts of and repeated attempts by our Alaskan-sized mosquitoes to kill me, I am still alive. And gardening!

Gardening is something I have wanted to do for a long time and something I have failed to actually accomplish for a long time. (We will not speak of the bags of dirt that eventually decomposed on our front porch some years ago.) But last year, I finally, actually made a small attempt at it. It wasn’t terribly successful–some of which was my fault, some of which was the fault of the constant heat and severe drought conditions, some of which was down to the dog–but I learned a lot and decided to persevere.

I got a start a little later than I wanted this year–a combination of rainy weather and a cold snap  prevented me from getting my stuff set out–but I’m still within the planting season for the things I’ve put out, so I’m not actually behind.

I chose a different location this year for the vegetable garden. One, I wanted to go bigger and the little bed beside the sunroom only holds about 5 straw bales. (It’s now my herb garden. Pictures of that in a later post.) Second, our plants seriously wilted when the sun was on them–despite the fact that the area didn’t get direct sun until about 10:00-11:00 AM and it slowly went into the shade between 2:00 and 4:00 PM. No matter how much we watered them, they wilted every day and perked back up again as soon as they were in the shade.

Now, according to conventional garden wisdom, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and the like are supposed to need all day sun. But our plants didn’t seem to like that at all. And researching it this winter, I found that’s really a guideline more for the northern latitudes of the country where the angle of the sun is lower, so it’s less intense. It’s also not as hot, on average, and the hot days don’t last nearly as long. There are some gardeners who say that not only will summer plants be okay with just partial sun, but in southern areas, it’s necessary to limit the amount of sunlight to keep the plants from getting too hot.

For instance, when days get over 90 degrees and nights don’t fall below 75 degrees, tomato plants won’t produce pollen in their flowers. We went over 2 months last year with no days/nights under 70 degrees and pretty much every day was around 90 degrees. The drought made things worse because it was all sun all the time; never any clouds to provide some shade or cool breeze.

Something else I hadn’t considered until recently was that those plants were all planted against a light-colored wall, which meant that all the sunlight they got was amplified. (The concrete block portion of the wall behind them probably didn’t help either; it can hold heat and radiate it at night, keeping the air around the plants hotter than it would otherwise be.)

So, this year, I put my straw bales behind my house, next to the woods. They are against an open deck, not a solid wall, so there will be nothing radiating heat to them at night. They should get roughly the same amount of direct sun as before, around the same times every day, but there is no white backdrop reflecting a lot of light back on them. And instead of being across from our driveway–which is open, sunny, and the hottest place to be anywhere on our property–the plants will be across from the shady woods. But they are still in a corridor of our property that gets a nice breeze, which should help keep them cooler. The day may be 90+ degrees, but the air around my tomato plants should be down in the 80’s. (This is called creating a micro-climate. Most people make them so that their plants will be warmer–that’s how a family friend can have a large palm tree growing next to his log cabin in Middle Tennessee–but where you have hot temps, you may need to do things to cool your plants.)

We shall see how well things do this year. The fact that we’re not in a drought and aren’t predicted to have one this year will help, I’m sure. But this is why I said in my posts on being prepared that you need to garden now, when your life doesn’t depend on it, because gardening takes practice. You have to learn through experience what works (and doesn’t work) for your weather, your latitude/zone, your soil, your sun exposure, etc. Certain varieties may do better than others. A “summer” crop in northern zones may need to be a spring/fall crop in southern areas, and “cool weather” crops may grow all winter! Reading about gardening will only get you so far because just about all gardening manuals are written to be as generic and universal as possible, even though the continental United States has zones ranging from 2b to 11b. That is an area that goes from an average minimum temperature of -45 to an area that doesn’t get below 50 degrees. Logic dictates that gardening rules for Minnesota cannot be the same rules for Florida.

Making the Garden

After arranging my bales, I fenced them in. Why? Well, that would be one of those things I learned last year: the dog likes to rip up plants. I think I lost a total of three bell pepper plants to her (one pepper plant got ripped up twice; I wasn’t able to save it the second time around), the catnip, most–or was it all?–of the dill, I think another herb, and the watermelon plant. (It was replanted and it survived, but it lost the one melon it had started to produce and only ever produced one full-size one.)

The fence is constructed from plastic, step-in fence poles and, oddly enough, trellis netting. I found it on the discount rack at Wal-Mart for 50 cents per 5.5′ x 8′ package. You can’t get any fencing cheaper than that. It’s not like I needed to fence coyotes out of a chicken run; I just needed to deter the dog. Plus, if she ever gets to the point where I don’t need to fence her out, these can go back to being trellises.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “What on earth do straw bales have to do with gardening?” My friends, straw bales are pretty much the laziest, easiest way to have a raised bed garden! All you have to do is wet them and fertilize them. (And, honestly, these only got one dose of fertilizer; they got wet long before I used them, so they cooked all on their own, no fertilizer help required. I only gave them a good dosing of fertilizer a few days before planting to make sure they had nutrients in them.) Once the bales have started to decompose (and they are no longer hot in the middle), you can plant or sow seeds right in them. And at the end of the season, you can put them on your garden or flower beds elsewhere and they make great mulch. Last year’s bales are mulch for my herb garden this year and it not only looks good, but it holds in moisture so I don’t have to water my plants nearly as often. Plus, any residual fertilizer remaining on the straw goes to the plants in the bed.

I used a couple of trellis nets as actual trellis. This was partly to keep the dog from jumping into the garden from the porch, but mostly it’s to act as a trellis for the cucumbers and tomatoes. Last year’s cucumbers climbed up onto my porch by themselves and started to take over. Old garden hands will probably laugh at me, but I didn’t know cucumbers grew like that. I know my grandparents had cucumbers in their garden when I was growing up, but they never had any trellises. Either they had a bushy cucumber variety and I have a vine variety, or their cucumbers just trailed along the ground and I never noticed they were a vine rather than a bush like everything else.

This year, though, my cucumbers will have a proper trellis and we will control how much of the porch they overtake.

So here’s what the bales look like up close. Those dark spots you are seeing are mushrooms. Mushrooms are a good sign when you’re cooking your bales (i.e. starting the decomposition process) because it means the bales are decomposing. Last year, I had mushrooms on the bales the entire season–not just when the bales first started to cook. I also had these exact same types of mushrooms, even though I’m sure this year’s bales were sourced from a different source than last year’s. That means the spores are probably coming from our woods.

Using a garden shovel and my hands (mostly my hands), I pulled out a big plug of straw from the bale. If you prepared your bales correctly, the straw will be slimy and you should see white or black mildew-looking stuff on it (that’s more fungus). This is also good; that sort of thing will break down the bales and feed the nutrients to your plants.

The straw from the center of the bale may still be warm when you pull it out, but it should not be hot; that will cook the roots of your plants–especially any that are cool-weather. I had one bale that was hotter than the rest for some reason. I didn’t think it was dangerously hot, but I made sure to put a pepper plant in it; of everything I had, I knew the pepper plants like the warmest soil.

I made sure to save the straw I pulled out of the bales; it will get used as mulch in an herb bed. Also, if you find you pull too much out (it wants to come out in long flakes, but you will be trying to get a round hole), you can stuff some of the straw back in where you need it. It pretty well sticks to itself at this stage.

Next, I put some dirt in the hole I made, banking it up the sides so it was essentially a dirt-lined hole. For the pepper plant in the hot bale, I made a bit bigger hole and put more dirt in, hoping that the dirt will keep the roots off the hotter straw until the bale cools down.

The plant (this is a tomato plant) goes in next, then I fill in the rest of the hole with dirt and pack it down a bit. I don’t have to worry about compacting it too much; the roots have all the room in the world on the straw side of things. In fact, when I busted up last year’s bales, I found that my tomato plants had put roots all the way down through the bale. If it hadn’t been sitting on some old vinyl signage repurposed as landscape fabric, those tomato plants would have struck dirt.

This year’s bales are not sitting on landscaping fabric, so who knows how deep their roots may go?

Once the plant was in and the hole filled, I took some of the straw I pulled out and put it around the plant so that no dirt is showing. This works just like any mulch: it keeps the moisture in and helps insulate the plant’s roots so they stay a more constant temperature.

So, how many plants can you put into a bale? Well, that depends on what you’re comfortable with. Last year, I put two tomato plants and one bell pepper plant in a single bale and they were pretty crowded (although a lot of the crowding came from the tomato cages rather than the plants themselves). I have seen people with more densely-planted bales, but I don’t know whether my dense plantings were okay or harmful last year. I have the feeling that dense plantings in full-sun locations are not only okay, but preferable, because the plants help shade one another, keep their roots cooler, and trap more moist/humid air around them. However, my bales are not in the full sun, so I think it’s better that my plants have room to bush out and collect as much sunlight as possible. So I only planted two plants per bale this year (although if I had had more than 2 cucumber plants, I would have done up to four in that bale, the same as last year; they have plenty of room to spread out vertically).

You can also plant the sides of the bales. If I had smaller plants, like maybe lettuces or spinach, I would plant those in the sides of the bales. You can also plant herbs (although my herbs are now in a permanent bed). You don’t even have to put dirt in the holes (especially when planting something that won’t be there long, like leaf lettuce).

So, here is something else I learned last year: when it’s really hot and dry, you need to water the garden every single day. We’re not always home every single day. Also, I didn’t fertilize the bales like I should have once they got started because it was hard to do. You can’t get fertilizer on the plants, because it burns up the leaves (ask me how I know), but when they get big and bushy, it can be hard to get the jug of fertilizer in there to it.

Ollas can be kind of expensive. Click the picture for link to a website that shows you how to make them out of much cheaper terracotta pots. You can even fill them up automatically!

Enter redneck ollas. (Or, if you prefer, upcycled ollas.) An olla is old technology (2,000+ years old). It’s nothing more than an unglazed terracotta bottle that you bury in your garden and fill with water. The terracotta will slowly weep water, providing your plants with a constant moist (but not too wet) earth. When the ground is wet from rain, the water will not wick out of the olla, so you don’t waste the water or overwater your plants. It pretty much idiot-proofs watering your plants. And, depending on the size of the olla and how moist your ground is, you may only have to fill it once a week.

It works most efficiently if you put your plants in a circle and bury the olla in the middle, but you can use it however your garden is configured. However, it’s important to note that it’s best to plant the olla when you plant your plants. If you wait until later, when your plants are bigger, you will be digging down into their roots to bury it. This may not kill them, but it’s better not to take the risk; just plant your ollas when you plant your plants. Your plants will soon discover this reliable water source and they will surround it with their roots and be happy as little clam . . . plants. Happy clam plants.

So, what’s a redneck olla and how does it work?

I saved up some small plastic coke bottles, removed the labels, and used a pin to poke a hole in each “foot” on the bottom of the bottle. (There are five feet on a standard American coke bottle. Some bottles are tougher on the bottom than others, but all of feet are thinner at their edge, right where the plastic bends up to form the side of the bottle. It’s easier to put a hole there.) I got this idea from the internet, but other people poked holes up and down the sides of their bottles and said they needed to refill them every day or two (they may have been using 2-liter bottles, too). I didn’t want water coming out of my bottle that quickly, especially since I was planning on having 1 bottle per plant/2 per bale. So I poked a hole in the bottom of one bottle, filled it with water and tested it. I decided it didn’t drip enough, so I ended up adding 5 holes–one in each foot. This made a slow, but constant drip out of the bottom of the bottle. I also found that if there was any pressure on the side of the bottle (just the pressure from my grip), the water would squirt out like I was milking a cow.

Once my bottles were prepped, I hollowed out a little hole for the bottle next to each of my plants and stuck the bottom of the bottle in the bale.

Why didn’t I bury the entire thing? One, since the holes are only in the bottom of the bottle, the entire bottle doesn’t have to be buried. So why make extra work for myself?

Secondly, one of the drawbacks to the ollas is you can’t see how much water is left in them. Some people recommend sticking something like a surveyor’s flag in a cork and dropping it into the olla so you can tell where the water level is. By using clear bottles and leaving more than half of them aboveground, I can see where the water level is and can refill as necessary.

Thirdly, as I mentioned before, even a small amount of pressure on the sides of the bottle will cause the water to squirt out instead of drip out. I was afraid if I buried them completely, the straw would squeeze the sides; this way, there is little pressure on the bottle, so it should stay in drip mode.

Now, if we’re going to be gone for a weekend, I can fill the bottles and not have to worry about missing a day of watering the garden. I can also pull the bottles out, fill them with liquid fertilizer and stick them back into the bales to slowly–and safely–feed my plants.

At least, that’s the plan. We will see how well it works.

 You’ll be relieved to know that this project had appropriate supervision. (I’m just glad I don’t have any real plants in that planter yet.)

Here’s everything planted out. In the two foreground bales, there are 4 bell pepper plants. Starting on the back-right bale, I have 2 jalapeno plants, 2 cucumbers, a sweet banana pepper, 2 roma tomatoes, 2 Florida 91 tomato plants (a solidly average tomato in size, weight, shape, seed count, etc), then 2 more Roma tomatoes.

There is also an unknown plant growing out of the backside of the jalapeno bale. I found it when I was plucking a few grass weeds out of my herb bed. I picked it up and was about to throw it out when I said to myself, “Self, that looks like a tomato plant.” So I sniffed it. And then I said, “Self, that smells mighty like a tomato plant.” This was, after all, the spot where last year’s garden was and at the end of the season, like any good permaculture gardener, I pulled up my dead plants, tossed them into the bed, then broke up the strawbales on top of them. Some of the tomato plants had tomatoes on them that we didn’t harvest because they never grew to size or cooked in the heat before they every really ripened. So I was thinking to myself, “Self, this might possibly be a tomato plant.”

I didn’t want a tomato plant growing in my herb garden–there’s no room for it, so I took it over to my bales. I had fertilizer on top of the bales that hadn’t yet soaked in, so I just stuck the little plant into the side of the bale, where the fertilizer hopefully wouldn’t burn it. It’s still there a couple of weeks later and growing, so we’ll see what it turns into.

If you have any questions about straw bale gardening, ask below in the comments.

Update!

Okay, so I’ve said several times that I’m going to start blogging regularly again. But I’ve fallen off that wagon faster than I’ve fallen off diets. But things are sort of starting to calm down in my life, meaning I ought to be able to give up a lunch hour or two every week to make a blog post.

So, where am I and what have I been up to?

Firstly, my husband and I bought a house in January and moved to beautiful Polk County, TN, within sight of the Cherokee National Forest and the Appalachian Mountains, and 15 minutes’ drive from the Ocoee River, site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater kayaking course.

559-white-rd-se-oldfort-tn-37362-1

Not the actual view from our house, but just down the road from our place. We’re actually so surrounded by trees, you can just barely see a little mountain peak from our front porch.

It’s everything we’ve wanted in a house: no visible neighbors, a creek, plenty of woods, and more. It even has a shed on the back of the garage that’s just what my husband has always wanted for a blacksmith’s shop.

Unfortunately, it has no internet. But, unlike many of our unfortunate neighbors in the area, we actually have the ability to get cable internet–if we only pay to have it run to the house. We’re over 900 feet from the road, so that’s no small expense, but we’re hoping to have it done in the next month or two.

And, of course, there are a lot of other projects and improvements to do around the house. We’re actually still trying to get unpacked and figure out where everything goes. (Although I did make good progress on my craft room recently; it will be ready to use soon.)

Secondly, I’ve finished the proofreading of The Flames of Prague. I just need to order a proof copy, check the new cover and the formatting, and format the print book for ebook. We’re going to a big event in a couple of weeks, but after that, I should be able to get the final formatting done. So the publishing date for Flames is no later than July 31st!

Thirdly, I’ve been hard at work on medieval stuff, including finishing my illustrated medieval history! So look for me to start posting those again. I’m also going to start blogging more about my medieval projects because I want to showcase what I’m working on. And I’ve about been talked into doing some YouTube videos of 14th century hairstyles. (I just started teaching them as a class at our SCA events.) IMG_20160321_143701_889

Fourthly, we have a dog now. We were planning on getting one once we got fully settled at our new place, but she found us first. (Someone apparently dumped her out at the storage place on a night that was too cold for a short-haired pup and far too close to the highway. She now has our sunroom as her very own room and a 5 acre yard to play in.) Based on her coloration, confirmation, and temperament, we believe Zorra to be a black lab/smooth fox terrier mix. Her hobbies include finding trash we didn’t even know we had in the yard and bringing it up to the house, chasing cats, and barking at the cows, horses, and donkeys in the field next door. She loves fetching a ball more than anything. She’s about 6 months old.

Fifthly, I finally started that garden that I wanted to do X number of years ago (and had given up as a pipe dream). All of our stuff is looking good and we’re just waiting for our first tomato to ripen. Biting the bullet and actually doing the work necessary to have even a small garden was hard, but now that we’re over that hump, I don’t think it will be so hard to get started in future years. Even though we haven’t harvested anything yet, we’re really into watching our herbs and plants grow. I mean, I’m counting blooms daily just to see where we stand. I think once we start eating what we’ve grown, we’ll be well and truly hooked. I already have plans for expansion next year! (Not to mention we want to start planting fruit and nut trees this fall.) Up next: chickens!

So, now that we have our own place, we can settle down and start working on long-term and outdoor projects. It’s a lot going on, but it’s a lot to share, too.