Straw Bale Gardens

straw bale garden by Tasha Via

Tasha Via’s straw bale garden.

Michael Tortorello (who profiled us when Making It came out) is one of my favorite writers covering the home ec/gardening subjects we discuss on this blog. He had an article last week in the New York Times, “Grasping at Straw” on straw bale gardening. We’ve very tempted to give the practice a try in our backyard. Why?

  • We have lead and zinc contaminated soil so growing veggies in the ground is questionable.
  • We live on a hill and it’s easier for us to drag a straw bale up the hill rather than bulk or bagged soil.
  • Straw bale gardening is an old and tested practice.
  • Straw bale gardening comes with the endorsement of horticulture professor and noted garden myth debunker Linda Chalker-Scott.
  • The practice has been tested in dry climates like ours.
  • After the bale has decomposed you get compost you can use elsewhere in the yard.
  • I suspect that skunks will be less interested in digging in a bale (please correct me if I’m wrong here).

Now, if we had good soil I wouldn’t bother with the extra work of buying and prepping a straw bales garden. But, given the idiosyncrasies of our situation, it seems like a good solution. Frankly, I don’t know why we didn’t think of it sooner. Our thanks go out to Michael for reminding us of this possibility with his article.

The biggest possible downside with this method is that the straw may contaminated with a persistent herbicide, like Dow Chemical’s Clopyralid. This is a type of herbicide that is not broken down by composting. It’s not even broken down in an animal’s digestive track. It can linger in organic matter for a year or two, stunting the growth garden plants. (See Killer Compost).

Despite this risk, we’re going to go ahead and grow some food in bales anyway and see what happens. We’ll also be testing our straw.

So, off we go into another gardening adventure/research pit!

So have any of you tried, or are considering trying, straw bale gardening? How did it work?

Some resources on the topic:

strawbalegardens.com–the website of Joel Karsten, profiled in Tortorello’s article and the author of a book and a downloadable pamphlet on straw bale gardening.

Some tips from an experienced straw bale gardener at The Gardener’s Pantry

We’re going to bioassay (that is, test ) the straw from our local feed store. The Compost Gardener has good instructions for this. In our case, we’re doing the method where you plant beans in soil, and water them with tea made from the straw.

Washington State University–instructions for how to start a Straw Bale garden.

Is Urban Homesteading Over With?


It seems that we’re back in a period of irrational exuberance. I know because I keep hearing about people lining up to buy crumbling 1,000 square foot bungalows in dodgy Los Angeles neighborhoods for $1,000,000. History tells us that during these periods folks ditch their chicken coops and vegetable gardens and head to the mall to shop.

I hope I’m wrong, that during our next economic bubble people will be more sensible. And the fundamentals have not changed, specifically the uncertain future of fossil fuels. I’m not trading my trips to the feed store for a shopping spree at Hot Topic anytime soon.

So I thought I’d plug a few search terms relating to urban homesteading into Google Trends to see what is going on. This is, of course, highly unscientific–Google Trends may just reflect media generated interest, not what people are actually doing. Here’s what I found:

Backyard Chickens

Many urban homesteading activities are seasonal–in spring people start searching for information on chickens and vegetable gardens, so you’ll see upward spikes towards the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Judging from the results on “backyard chickens,” it looks like that it’s a trend that is growing in popularity. Some of this activity may be related to legalization efforts, but I’d like to think that it reflects a growing dissatisfaction with our industrial agriculture system.

Gardening

It seems that searches for gardening of all kinds–I tried “vegetable gardening,” “vegetable seeds,” “rose pruning” and “lawn care,” are down. I think this may reflect a demographic shift–an older generation dying off. We need to get young people gardening!

Bread Baking

No wonder I can’t seem to offer enough bread baking classes.

Bicycles


Cycling is down, but I’m sure this reflects disenchantment with Lance Armstrong and professional cycling.

Searches for “bike commuting” are up slightly.

It’s inevitable that media interest in home ec topics will decline when the stock market is up. Just remember how quickly vegetable gardens and chicken coops were abandoned in the 1980s. But I have a good feeling that the lessons of the last few years will stick better than they did in the 1970s. What do you think?

Extension Service Webinars on Organic Agriculture

extension service webinar home page

When it comes to doing research for articles and books I lean heavily on research based advice from our Cooperative Extension System. It’s a great resource. I just discovered a treasure trove of Extension Service webinars on organic farming practices that you can watch here: http://www.extension.org/pages/25242/webinars-by-eorganic. You can watch archived sessions or sign up to participate live.

While the webinars are aimed at small farmers, there’s a lot that gardeners can learn. Having co-founded a bread baking club, the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, I was particularly excited to watch the  webinar on ancient grains. I’m also planning on watching “Linking Cover Crops, Plant Pathogens, and Disease Control in Organic Tomatoes” and “NRCS Conservation Practices, Organic Management, and Soil Health“.

Time to cancel that Netflix subscription!

How to Remove Bees From a Tree

bees in a tree

The Los Angeles Fire Department responds to the North Hollywood bee incident. Photo: LAFD.

First let’s cover how not to remove bees from a tree. My beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson described an incident that took place this week in North Hollywood,

What happened was a HUMAN was cutting his tree down. It came down alright, with the bees that were in the tree. The bees didn’t expect or enjoy the trip to the ground. The home owner ran with the bees right after him. The bees found the neighbor’s dog and figured it was the dogs fault. The dog died of bee stings. The homeowner called 911 and the fire department came and foamed the bees. He then called a exterminator who sprayed the bees with some kind of poison. The exterminator told him he had to clean everything up because every bee with in 50 miles was coming to his backyard for breakfast in the morning. The homeowner caused this problem.

Kirk concludes by quoting George V. Higgins who said, “Life is hard. It’s harder when you are stupid.” Amen.

So how could this have been prevented?

  • Preventative tree maintenance. Hire an qualified arborist to keep your trees healthy.  A large cavity filled with bees is generally a sign of a diseased or damaged tree. The bees may be the least of your concerns. You could be looking at a large limb crashing down on your house. Judging from the news footage the tree the idiot homeowner decided to cut down himself appeared to have codominant stems. This probably caused a crack leading to disease which, in turn, led to a cavity to form. Perfect habitat for bees! This was entirely preventable with judicious pruning.
  • Leave the bees alone. If they are way up in the tree and not bothering anyone, take a chill pill.
  • Hire a beekeeper to remove the hive. What Kirk has done with tree hives is to come at night when all the bees are in their hive and wrap a screen around the entrance so they can’t get out. Next day he comes with a chainsaw and saws off the limb with the bees in it. Then he gives the log filled with bees away to someone who wants to put it in their garden.
  • Hire a beekeeper to do a “trap-out.” This is harder to do and takes at least six weeks. The beekeeper comes after dark and installs a one way exit for the bees. Next to the exit the beekeeper places a hive box with some brood comb (baby bees) in it. The worker bees leave but can’t get into their old home. They take up residence in the new box and make a new queen. If all goes well the beekeeper comes in six weeks and takes away the box. I took bees out of a kitchen vent this way and wrote about it in a blog post.
  • Know the difference between a swarm and a beehive. Swarms are how bees reproduce. Often they will land on a tree branch temporarily while they search for a permanent home (like a diseased tree). Swarms are usually harmless and will take off within a few days.
  • Lastly, if you enjoy poisoning and killing things, I suppose you can hire an exterminator. Just don’t try to do it yourself with a can of raid.

Growing Strawberries in a Self Irrigating Gutter (SIG).

self irrigating srawberry container

I got this idea from Larry Hall, who made a video showing how he uses gutters as self watering containers. In the first part of the video Larry shows how to use a gutter to supply water to a row of pots. In the second part he shows a two gutter strawberry growing system. I decided to build Hall’s self-irrigating gutter (let’s call it a SIG) to grow strawberries. Here’s how I did it:

With some scrap wood I made a support system for the two gutters–one gutter holds water and the other holds soil. I sealed the ends of the two gutters with silicon putty and secured the gutters to the wooden support with screws.

float valve in self irrigating gutter system

Next came my first trip to a hydroponics shop (there’s one on every corner in Los Angeles), to get a float valve. The float valve, similar to the one in your toilet, automatically fills the lower gutter with water as needed. I tried to fit the float valve through the end of the gutter but this kind of DIY bulkhead fitting is difficult to pull off. I ended up mounting the float valve above the gutter with a pipe strap, as you can see in the photo above. I cut the upper gutter around 10 inches shorter than the lower one so that I could access and maintain the float valve.

mesh cup

The second item I picked up at the hydroponics shop was a bunch of 3 inch mesh pots. These hang down into the lower gutter and wick water up into the soil. I cut circular holes in the upper gutter using a hole saw, and fit the mesh cups into the holes.

Next I filled the upper gutter with potting mix (note that with self watering containers you have to use potting mix, not regular soil). And all self watering containers need mulch of some kind–I just happened to have a roll of vinyl billboard material that my neighbor Ray gave me. I stapled the vinyl to the wooden gutter support and stretched it over the top of the soil. I cut holes and planted my strawberries about 8 inches apart.

rain barrel

Rain barrel. The white pipe on the left is an overflow pipe that drains to the street.

The float valve is connected to a rainwater barrel. You can read more about how this barrel is constructed in one of our older posts. Since SIGs need to be watered even when it’s raining, this is a perfect use for a rain barrel. I will have to fill the barrel with municipal water during our dry season.

Problems
There’s a lot of plastic here, specifically PVC, which is an environmental and health disaster. I have two questions–how much PVC is leached into the growing medium and how much of it would be taken up into the fruit? I don’t have an answer to either. If you know of science-based information (i.e. not Livestrong articles) on PVC and growing food please leave a link. Generally, plants do not take up toxins into fruit so I’m not losing any sleep thinking about eating a few strawberries grown in my small PVC SIG. I might think twice about eating greens grown in PVC.

The other issue is the use of peat moss as the growing medium. Peat moss is unsustainably harvested (see Horticulture professor Linda Chalker-Scott’s article on this). Coconut coir, in my experience works great, but not in self watering containers. If you know of a peat moss alternative for self-watering containers, please comment.

There might also be mosquito problems with the standing water in the lower gutter. This could be countered with a mosquito dunk.

strawberries in gutter SIP Advantages
I can now grow food in an otherwise useless space–the top retaining wall in our front yard (we live on a hill). I can also, finally, make good use of my rain barrel. I was also able to recycle a bunch of scrap wood and some billboard material. And, unlike hydroponics, no electricity or liquid fertilizers are needed. If this system works out I’m eying the top of our garage for more SIGs (our garage is at street level below the house–we look down on it from our front porch).

I think there’s also an opportunity for an entrepreneur to make a non-PVC version this gadget out of food grade material such as HDPE. With a custom design you could also enlarge the upper, soil container gutter as well as creating a sealed mosquito proof lower container. But you would have to sort out who owns the patent on self-watering containers.

And many thanks to Larry Hall for sharing this cool idea!

UPDATE 4/30/2013: One side of the strawberry gutter sprung a leak due to a poor seal on the end of the gutter. I was able to fix it. One thought about the design is that you should leave both ends open and the gutter ends accessible so that you can make repairs. And make sure to use a sealant appropriate for gutters.

Growing Your Own Food is Like Printing Your Own Money: Ron Finley’s TED Talk

Please take a moment and watch gangster/guerrilla gardener Ron Finley’s inspiring Ted talk. I first heard about Ron after he got busted for planting a vegetable garden in what used to be a weed strewn parkway. He’s gone on to plant many more gardens around Los Angeles.

The end of this talk really hit home for me, “Don’t call me if you want to sit around and have meetings. If you want to meet with me come to the garden with your shovel so we can plant some s**t.”

Amen.

Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomato

Matt's Wild Cherry

Matt’s Wild Cherry image from Johnny’s Select Seeds.

Permaculturalist Paul Wheaton was in our neck of the woods this weekend to give a couple of lectures. In his talk on “Irrigation Free Foodscapes” he mentioned a variety of tomato called “Matt’s Wild Cherry” that, as the name implies, is a wild-type tomato that grows without supplemental irrigation.

Many avid vegetable gardeners have probably had the experience of tomatoes that reseed and grow without care. In my experience these hardy rogue tomatoes are invariably on the cherry side of the tomato size spectrum. This makes sense as the tomato’s wild ancestor is much smaller than modern beefsteak varieties.

Matt’s Wild Cherry was obtained in Hidalgo, Mexico by Teresa Arellanos de Mena, a friend of  agronomy professors, Dr. Laura Merrick and Dr. Matt Liebman. Johnny’s and other sources describe it as a small current sized tomato that readily reseeds.

Johnny’s Select Seeds carries it, and I’m considering giving it a try to supplement the tomatoes that reseed themselves in our garden. Let us know in the comments if you’ve tried Matt’s Wild Cherry or have tried any other wild-type tomatoes.

How To Manage a Compost Pile Using Temperature

compost temperature chart

I’ve always been confused about when to turn a compost pile. Some people suggest lots of turning while others don’t turn at all. I built a pile in December using a technique I learned from Will Bakx, soil scientist and operations manager of Sonoma Compost. Bakx recommends keeping the pile between 131° F (55° C) and 163°F (72°C) for a period of 15 days. The only time you turn is when the pile starts to dip below 131° F or to prevent the pile from going above 163°F.

The technique is simple–all you do is take the temperature once a day with a compost thermometer and write down the result on a calendar. The graph above is the result that I got from a pile made out of horse bedding, chicken manure from our hens, plant materials, straw and brew waste from a local brewery.

The red area on the chart is the thermophilic temperature range (135° -160° Fahrenheit). The dip you see at day 15 is the one time I turned the pile so that I could keep it in the thermophilic range. Using temperature as a clue to when to turn the pile has a number of advantages:

  • You can make sure that the pile does not get too hot. Above 160° F  you start to kill off the thermophilic bacteria that decompose your pile. To decrease temperature you turn and add more carbon material and water.
  • Washington State University recommends subjecting all of the pile to temperatures above 150° F to kill potential pathogens. I’m fairly certain that, with the turn I did at day 14, all of the pile got up to 150°F.
  • Weed seeds are killed above 130°F–another reason to watch temperature.
  • Failing to get high temperatures can be an indication of too much carbon or a lack of water. To correct, add more nitrogen and water and turn.
  • A loss of temperature could indicate that the pile is going anaerobic. The solution is to add more carbon material and turn.

Once the pile has had 15 complete days over 131° F you just let it sit. Compost is done when it is dark, smells like earth and you can’t recognize the original ingredients. It will likely be several months before it’s ready to use. I’ve found that I need to turn the pile periodically and add water after the initial thermophilic period due to our dry climate.

The mass of the pile is a factor as well–I’ve found that it needs to be a minimum of one cubic yard of material to start with. So I save and scavenge materials that I can use to build a pile all at once. The small trickle of kitchen scraps we generate each day goes into our worm bin.

Despite the geekery with using a compost thermometer, I’ve found that this method saves labor. Back breaking turning only happens when it’s necessary.