Straw Bale Garden Update: Success!

straw bale garden

Ladies and gentleman, straw bale gardening works. I left town for a week earlier this month and, during my absence, the vegetables in the straw bale garden exploded in size. The Tromboncino squash on the left, is threatening to envelop the entire yard.  The tomatoes are equally vigorous and covered in ripening fruit.

straw bale garden zucchini

Zucchini is on the menu.

While it takes an input of outside resources in the form of straw and fertilizer, straw bale gardening is a great solution for beginning gardeners or for those cursed with bad soil. And the skunks that have decimated my previous vegetable gardens are unable to get up on the bales.

I’m considering trying another straw bale garden during our winter season. And I’m also pondering building boxes to put the bales in to make the garden look a bit neater.

Compare the straw bale garden to the depleted raised beds in our front yard:

depleted vegetable bed

I’ve talked to a lot of people about straw bale gardens since we started ours. Some things I’ve heard from other gardeners:

  • Some straw bales may be contaminated with herbicides. Do a bioassay before planting. Here’s some instructions (scroll down to the end of the article).
  • One gardener I met did not know that the bales need to be prepared by adding nitrogen–you can’t just plant straight in the bales.
  • Once the bales have been prepared you need to add fertilizer periodically. I’ve been adding fish emulsion every two weeks.

How is your straw bale garden?

And thanks again to Michael Tortorello whose article “Grasping at Straw” inspired us to try straw bale gardening.

Pierce Disease Resistant Grape Vines for Southern California

Pearl River Grape

Pearl River Grape–slightly critter chewed, but still tasty.

At the risk of counting our chickens before they’ve hatched, I think we finally have grape vines that are immune to Pierce’s disease. Pierce’s disease is a fatal condition spread by sucking (and sucky) insects known as sharpshooters. Once a vine get it there is no cure. Pierce’s is why your glass of California wine may one day be genetically modified.

Over the years we’ve lost too many vines to Pierce’s to count, so I’m relieved to say that the ones we have seem to be immune or at least very resistant to Pierce’s and are now producing fruit.

LA County’s plant pathologist spent a half hour on the phone with me a few years ago telling me about how Pierce’s disease works. He told me not to even think about planting a vine in Southern California that is not immune to Pierce’s. After so many failures I decided to follow his advice. Here’s the vines we ended up with:

Vitus Californica
This monster has completely covered an ugly chain link fence. One of my garden duties at this time of year is beating it back, otherwise it would swallow our house and the neighbor’s. For some reason it has never produced any fruit (I think it may be male). From the Las Pilitas Nursery website:

California grape is a deciduous vine to 30′. If this grape has no support it will make a nice groundcover and can cover a large greenhouse in 4-5 years. It has clusters of small edible grapes. Bees love flowers. It grows along streams and in seeps throughout much of central and northern Ca. We’ve seen it in the Sacramento River bed, along the Sierra foothills and on I-5 at the Grapevine. It has done fine here and in coastal gardens. It likes regular moisture but not to be wet and full sun or a way for it to get to full sun.
Vitis californica tolerates sand, clay and seasonal flooding.

Vitus Californica ‘Roger’s Red’
We picked up this vine from the Theodore Payne Nursery to cover the arbor in our backyard. Roger’s Red puts on a showy display of red leaves every fall. And it has produced abundant fruit this year. One source I found noted that this vine is “highly resistant” to Pierce’s. From the Theodore Payne website:

Jerry Dangl at U.C. Davis has recently conducted DNA analysis of Vitis ‘Roger’s Red’ and has determined that it is a first generation hybrid (F1) between the native V. californica and a wine grape (Vitis vinifera) cultivar known as ‘Alicante Bouschet’. This grape, ‘Alicante Bouchet’, is unusual in that it has both red skin and red flesh – most red grapes and red wine gets its color from the skin only.

Pearl River
This mysterious vine came from the equally mysterious Papaya Tree Nursery. The talkative and knowledgeable owner of Papaya Tree said that this vine is immune to Pierce Disease, and it appears that he is correct. We’ve had it for several years now and there are no signs of disease. We got our first delicious grapes from this vine this year. From the Papaya Tree Nursery website:

‘Pearl River’ is a very vigorous producer of first quality grapes that reach up to 24% Brix(Sugar). They are seeded but the flavor and aroma is so strong that most prefer it to seedless varieties. A unique advantage the ‘Pearl River’ grape has over most other varieties is it’s immunity against Pierce disease . . . Although technically classified as a table grape, top quality award winning specialty wines have been made with this variety.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you live in sharpshooter country (warm parts of the US and Northern Mexico) consult your local extension service and find a list of Pierce Disease immune varieties that will work for your area.

Annie’s Annuals and Perennials

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The artist Sandow Birk once did a show depicting a fictitious war between Northern and Southern California. If that war were to be fought by plant nurseries, the forces of Northern California would have us, down here in the Southland, badly beat. There’s a few good native plant nurseries here, but that’s about it. There’s nothing quite as spectacular as Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, located in Richmond on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay.

Entrance display. Photo: Annie's Annuals and Perennials.

Entrance display at Annie’s. Photo: Annie’s Annuals and Perennials.

Annie’s was one of the stops on the Garden Blogger’s Fling, where we got to hear Annie Hayes herself talk about her business. She noted that most retail nurseries get their stock from distant, centralized wholesale nurseries. An outbreak of late blight disease in tomatoes back in 2009 demonstrates that centralized nurseries are a great way to spread plant diseases over wide areas.

Annie’s specializes in riotous color. Many of the spectacular gardens we visited on the Fling sourced their plants from Annie’s. And in addition to unusual and rare ornamental plants, Annie’s has a great selection of edibles. It’s first time I’ve ever seen Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) outside of a book.

I had to keep a tight grip on my credit card to prevent myself from buying plants I had no way of getting home on my bike. The good news is that Annie’s does mail order. And she’s got a bunch of tutorial videos covering topics such as container planting and plant combinations. As we begin version 4.0 of our back yard garden, I have a feeling we’ll be ordering plants from Annie’s.

Disclosure: we’re always happy to write about businesses we like and support. We did not get any compensation or free items from Annie’s.

Defining a Garden’s Purpose

Organic Mechanic's Garden in San Francisco

Organic Mechanic’s Garden in San Francisco

I’m an idiot when it comes to garden design. To up my skills in this department I attended the annual Garden Blogger’s Fling last week, which took place this year in San Francisco. Thankfully the Fling did not involve sitting in a sterile hotel conference room. Instead, we boarded two buses and took a look at fifteen spectacular gardens in the bay area over three days.

I’ll share the gardening lessons I learned over a couple of posts. But if I could take away only one lesson it would be this: every garden has a purpose, but great gardens have clear and beneficial purposes.

Continue reading…

Farm Hack

farm hack

Farm Hack is an innovative blog that synthesizes high tech and low tech in the service of growing food and community. The blog is run by the National Young Farmers Coalition. While geared towards agriculture, many of the posts will be of interest to backyard gardeners. Recent subjects include a project to develop an infrared camera to monitor plant health, smartphone tools for farmers and open source appropriate technology resources. It’s exactly this kind of innovation that gives me great hope for the future.

Thanks to Tommy Berbas for the tip.

Are You Gardening on the 4th?

thistle

In the garden today? I just got back from a three day tour of San Francisco Bay Area gardens and will be reporting on that trip soon. In the meantime, I’ve put up over 600 photos from the “Garden Blogger’s Flinghere.

Above is a bee visiting a striking plant at Sunset Magazine’s headquarters. Unfortunately, I did not get the name of the plant. Bragging rights go to the person who names it in the comments . . .

The tale of the worm bin celery

parsley flower

This is related to my recent post about our flowering radish. It’s a tale of botanic dumpster diving and another reason why you should let your food plants go to flower when you can.

Last year I threw the crown (which is to say, the bottom) of a celery plant in my worm bin. I probably should have chopped it up for the worms’ sake, but I didn’t. Later, sometime in the fall,  I rediscovered the celery crown. Instead of rotting in the bin, it had sprouted leaves and looked surprisingly vigorous. So I pulled it out and popped it into an empty space in one of our raised beds.

I didn’t have much hope. Celery doesn’t like our climate much, and I consider it one of those plants which is easier to buy than to grow.

To my surprise, the plant did quite well, though it did have a feral quality to it, despite its mild domestic origins. It didn’t grow fat, moist stalks which can be used to scoop up peanut butter. It grew stringy, dark green stalks which tasted powerfully of celery. It made excellent stock, and chopped into fine pieces, it was good in soup, too. Since I don’t eat much raw celery, this suited me fine.

All winter long I used this plant as the basis of my cold-weather cooking–chopped onions, carrots and celery in the bottom of every pot. It was a real treat not to have to buy celery for such a long time, and to have that flavor available whenever I wanted it. I should add that the leaves were just as flavorful as the stalks

As a side note, I’ve heard of a breed of celery made to work precisely this way, called cutting celery, but I’ve never grown it intentionally. The celery in this post looks very much like my homegrown “cutting celery.” Perhaps commercial celery wants to revert to this?

Months later, the hot weather arrived, the celery started to bolt (that is, send up flower stalks). When a plant bolts, it puts all its energy into flowering. At that point, its not much use to us as food. I was sad to lose my bottomless celery supply, but I was excited about the flowers.

Pollinating insects love celery blossoms. Actually, they adore the whole family of plants to which celery belongs, called Apiaceae or Umbelliferae (which I tend to call Umbrella Fae, which is wrong, but right in my head). This family includes carrots, celery, dill, coriander, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc. If you can let any of this family bloom in your garden, do.

The parsley flowers grew almost as tall as me, and they were surrounded by clouds of tiny insects every day –shy, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name.

I love to let things go to flower and seed in the garden, because it is a way of giving back to the rest of nature. Flowers for the insects, seeds for birds. And by giving back, you help balance your garden. We’ve had significantly less issues with destructive insects since we learned to let our garden go a little wild.

Sadly, this celery never got to seed, because it collapsed under its own weight one day. Its thick, hollow stalks folded and the head of the plant fell to the patio.  I had hoped to save a little seed and try to grow a plant the next year from scratch. But now I’m thinking I’m going to throw a whole crown of celery in the worm bin this fall, and hope this happens all over again.

collapsed parsley plant

Watering 101

standing water in a bed

This is watering 101. Those of you who have been gardening for a while have probably learned this the hard way. Those of you just starting out may find it helpful.

Soil lies.

It looks wet, but it’s bone dry a fraction of an inch beneath. Or it looks dry on the surface, but it’s actually quite wet below. Or it’s wet, but only for one inch down.

The only way to find out if you’ve watered your garden enough is to stick your hand into the soil and make sure. You can’t garden without getting your hands dirty.

This is one reason why one of the most common questions, “How much do I water?” is one of the hardest to answer. The answer will vary, depending on your soil, the weather, the method you use to water, how often you water, and what you’re growing. In the end, you just have to use your hands and your common sense to figure it out. There is no formula.

In the picture above, you see the surface of the soil in one of our raised beds. This is imported soil, the kind that comes in bags. It doesn’t hold water in pools like clay soil does, it doesn’t sink in fast as it would in sandy soil. It’s actually pretty tricky to water because it seems like it should sop up water well, but I think all the organic matter in it actually slows absorption.

At any rate, I’d been watering this bed for some time with a sprinkler hose, waving it back and forth until I got bored. The water sunk in at first, then started to pool on the surface, and the pool lasted for a long time. At this point, a beginner might think she’d watered enough, but I’ve been fooled often enough before.

I reached down into the bed and scraped at the soil. A fraction of an inch beneath the wettest area, the soil was still perfectly dry. That’s what I tried to capture in the picture below–see all that dry soil? It was just beneath the surface of the puddle.  I wasn’t done watering.

dry dirt under water

In general, you need to be sure that the soil in the bed is evenly moist.  Not soggy and soppy, not dry, but pleasantly moist and springy. Over-watering can be problem as much as under-watering. If you know your soil tends to hold water, it may pay to dig before you even start watering. You may find you don’t need to water at all.

In a regularly watered bed, the deeper you dig, the more retained moisture you are likely to find, but the first few inches dry out fast. Older, deeper rooted plants don’t mind this so much if the top dries out, because they can reach deep for water, but if you’re dealing with young or shallowly rooted plants, you have to be very careful with the first five inches or so. Don’t trust your eyes. Trust your hands.

Radish Surprise

radish close

A volunteer radish–I think it is a daikon–sprouted up in a little clear pocket of our yard. We let it go, ignored it. It grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Usually a radish is harvested early, so we never see how big they can get.

This one got huge, then burst out into hundreds of tiny purple flowers. Hummingbirds, honey bees and all sorts of flying insects visit it all day, every day. It has become one of the queens of the garden.

The picture below is horrible. The radish plant really is quite pretty,  the equal of any ornamental flowering shrub–but as bad is the picture is, it gives you some scale. See the bales of our straw bale garden behind it?  I think it must be pulling water from there, which accounts for its size and longevity. It’s gone a little past its prime now– a couple of weeks ago the blooms were thicker.

By the way, radish blossoms are tasty food for people, too.

radish flower

Straw Bale Garden Tour Part I

In this vide we take you into the backyard for a tour of our straw bale garden.

We started rotting the bales in late April by adding blood meal. In May we added a balanced fertilizer and started planting the bales. In the video you’ll see the veggies we planted in early June.

The soaker hose you see comes from Home Depot. I’m pretty sure it is this stuff.

Every other week I add some fish emulsion to a watering can and hand water the plants to make sure they have enough nutrients.

Leave your questions in the comments.