Our New Straw Bale Garden–Part I

straw bale garden

Straw bales–ready to prepare. Pot in the center will be a solar powered fountain.

We’re going to experiment with a straw bale vegetable garden in our backyard, inspired by Michael Tortorello’s article in the New York Times.

The plan is to grow in the bales and harvest the resulting compost for use in permanent raised beds (that have yet to be built). We’ll keep growing in bales until we have enough compost for the beds.

The problems presented by our property–lead and zinc contamination and a backyard that is up 30 steps–make straw bale gardening a promising solution.

  • Bales and fertilizer are easier to carry up the stairs than bulk soil.
  • It will be cheaper than buying soil.
  • No lead and zinc.

I was also inspired by this attractive straw bale garden in Arizona.

It will be a garden that changes over time. I like the idea of watching the bales turn into compost and their gradual replacement with more permanent structures. I’m hoping that the view from the two Adirondack chairs that face the bales will be like a botanical Robert Smithson piece–a front seat on nature’s balance of entropy and creation.

The next step is to add fertilizer and water. We’ll document what happens so stay tuned.

Our Keyhole Vegetable Bed: What Worked and What Didn’t Work

keyhole garden bed

This is what our keyhole bed looked like yesterday just before I fed the remaining vegetables to our chickens and the compost pile. Ignore the large pot–that’s a future solar powered fountain that will be incorporated in a new vegetable garden we’re working on.

keyholebedoctober

Here’s what the keyhole bed looked like just after I installed it back in October. Note the compost repository in the center of the bed. I used straw wattle (available where professional irrigation supplies are sold) to form the sides of the keyhole.

keyholedecember

A month later in November a few seedlings were popping up. I had to robustify the skunk barrier (made out of bird netting) after repeated skunk raids.

What worked:

  • The compost decomposed nicely and seemed to attract insect life.
  • Stuff grew.

What didn’t work:

  • I didn’t make the bed high enough–more height may have helped prevent skunk incursions.
  • The compost bin in the center of the bed should have been sturdier. Skunks got into it eventually.
  • The cheap bagged soil I bought had a lot of wood chips in it. Brassicas did fine but other veggies did not appreciate the high carbon content of the bagged soil. It would have been better to make my own soil with high quality compost, but I was in a hurry.
clover

Clover in the keyhole bed did well and produced some pretty spring flowers.

Conclusions
Despite my mistakes, I heartily endorse the keyhole bed concept. I’d just make the sides higher and take more time putting the bed together. My neighbor Anne Hars layed her keyhole bed out more carefully and, as a result, it was more productive and more aesthetically pleasing. Part of the problem for us is that the keyhole shape, from a design perspective, didn’t work in the space we put it in. We’ll blog about the new veggie garden we’re putting together where the keyhole bed used to be in future blog posts.

Edible and Tasty Arugula Flowers

arugulaflowers

Our winter vegetable garden is just about finished. This week I’m going to tear out most of it and plant tomatoes and a few other summer veggies.

I may keep some of the arugula that has gone to flower a little longer. Why?

  • arugula flower taste great in salads
  • bees love them
  • arugula self seeds readily

The flowers, which taste like the leaves, are a reminder of my favorite time of year: arugula season. Each year I curse myself for not planting more arugula.

Do you have a favorite edible flower?

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.

Tracking the Mood of the Gardener

Swiss chard--January 2010

Swiss chard from the winter of 2010

A Root Simple reader I ran into this weekend took issue with my assertion that fall is the best time to start a vegetable garden in Southern California.

Thinking about it some more I think she may have a point. Some of you may have noticed that we have a new feature on the blog–if you click on an individual blog post you’ll see a list of related posts at the bottom. Looking at some of those older posts showed that I have an annual vegetable gardening freakout around November. Why? Two factors: freak heatwaves (that are common here in the fall) as well as skunk activity which is related to applying compost (they are digging for grubs). So it may be, in fact, better for us to delay planting by two months, at least in our central Los Angeles microclimate.

The moral of the story is that it’s valuable to keep records for your vegetable garden, specifically:

  • Planting
  • First and last harvest
  • General observations–taste, flavor etc.
  • Mood!

Gardening and human consciousness are very much intertwined. Our thoughts effect what happens in the physical world and vegetables are heavily dependent on our interventions. Looking back at old blog posts as well as reader comments have led to many insights. If you don’t already, keep a gardening diary.

So what kind of records do you keep?