Straw Bale Garden: What I Learned

straw bale garden before and after

Straw bale garden–April on the left, November on the right.

The straw bale garden I started this spring has been one of the most successful vegetable gardens I’ve ever planted. In fact it’s still producing well into November. Here’s what I learned from the experiment:

  • Plants that suck up a lot of nitrogen, like squash, do well in a straw bale garden.
  • My tomatoes flourished but, due to the high nitrogen, made more leaves than fruit. I’m not saying you shouldn’t plant tomatoes in straw bales–results will be better than in poor soil, but it’s hard to regulate the amount of nitrogen when prepping bales.
  • Stake the bales. They will fall over eventually. I knew this but was too lazy to actually do it.
  • Straw bale gardens are a great option for those cursed by poor or contaminated soil.
  • I’ve got lot of bales to compost!

My future in straw bale gardening
I’ve decided to continue straw bale gardening on a smaller scale. I’m going to build some raised beds and fill them with soil, but I’m leaving room for two bales to grow nitrogen hungry crops, principally squash. I’m also planning on building a box to hold those bales so I don’t have to stake them every season.

Like most things in life it’s not an either/or proposition. You can have a conventional vegetable garden and save some space for straw bale gardening. I think the two compliment each other really well.

Why is My Squash Bitter?

"Long of Naples" squash

“Long of Naples” squash growing in our backyard.

It’s the bees.

Squash is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, one of the most difficult vegetables to save seeds from. Cucurbitaceae have both male and female flowers and lots of wild, inedible relatives. Cross pollination is what Cucurbitaceae want to do. If you want to save seed and you take the precaution of taping up the flowers, bumblebees and solitary bees can chew their way through the tape to get at the pollen. In short it’s really easy to breed a freak Frankensquash or Frankencucumber, which can actually be toxic.

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Have We Reached Peak Kale? Franchi’s Cavolo Laciniato “Galega De Folhas Lisas”

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I’ve heard murmurings of a kale backlash. Apparently, too many restaurants have kale salads and fancy city folks like us are losing sleep worrying what the next hip vegetable will be. I have a proposal. Let’s keep with the kale for awhile longer. I propose a Franchi kale “Galega De Folhas Lisas” as the new big thing.

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What Does Tromboncino Squash Taste Like?

Tromboncino as summer squash.

Tromboncino as summer squash.

The short answer (and short is the wrong word for this gargantuan squash) is that tromboncino tastes phenomenal as a summer squash and just ok as a winter squash.

Tromboncino, also known as zucchetta rampicante and Tromba d’Abenga (Albenga is a city on the Italian Riviera where tomboncino originates) is a cultivar of  Cucurbita moschata, a constellation of squashes that includes butternut squash. Trombonchino, as far as I know, is the only or one of the few squashes in the Cucurbita moschata family that is harvested as a summer squash

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What I’m Growing this Winter

Rucola Coltivata sel Ortolani K

Winter in our Mediterranean climate is when we grow cool season vegetables. It’s my favorite time of year here. The hills turn green, the smog blows away and we have that phenomenon called “rain” (hopefully).

As usual, I’m planting seeds from an Italian seed company, Franchi. Here’s what I’m growing:

Arugula “Coltivata Sel. Ortolani”
One can never have enough arugula. It’s my favorite vegetable. This year I’m trying Franchi’s arugula “Coltivata Sel. Ortolani.” Franchi sells both “cultivated” and “wild” varieities of arugula (confusing, since the “wild” varieties are actually cultivated). Cultivated varieties tend to be milder and less sharp in taste. I like them both. Franchi highlights certain varieties by featuring them as “Selezione Speciale” which is why I chose this particular arugula.

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Chicory “Pan di Zucchero”
I chose this chicory on the recommendation of Franchi’s West Coast distributor The Heirloom Seed Store, who had a booth at this year’s Heirloom Exposition. The owners of the Heirloom Seed Store, who run a farm in the Santa Cruz area, raved about this particular chicory. It’s a large-leafed variety that can be used in a salad or cooked.

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Radicchio and Chicory Mix: “Misticanza di Radicchi”
I’ve never gone wrong with Franchi’s salad mixes. The best damn salads I’ve ever had in my life have been made with these mixes.

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Mache “Valeriana Verte de Cambrai”
This is my first attempt at growing this cold tolerant weedy vegetable.

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Portuguese cabbage
I’m usually hesitant to grow cabbage due to pest problems. But I thought I’d give this unusual variety, that does not form a head, just for the novelty factor. It’s the primary ingredient in a traditional Portuguese soup called caldo verde, or “green broth.” This cabbage variety is also heat tolerant as it’s from southern Portugal which has a climate similar to ours. I’m hoping the open leaves don’t provide as much slug habitat as normal varieties.

If you grow during the winter (or are in the Southern Hemisphere) let us know what you’re planting this fall.

Dramm’s Breaker Nozzle: My Favorite Watering Implement

Dramm Breaker Nozzle

I can’t count how many cheap watering implements we’ve gone through since we bought this house fifteen years ago. Big box store watering widgets seem to last just a few weeks before heading to the landfill.

I think I’ve found a solution. During the Garden Blogger’s Fling I attended back in June there was a demo by a Dramm Company representative. What impressed me most at the demo was Dramm’s simplest products, the Heavy-Duty Aluminum Water Breaker Nozzle combined with their Aluminum Shut-Off Valve.

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The breaker nozzle provides a gentle shower, much like a Haws Watering Can and would be appropriate to use on seedlings and vegetables. The shut-off valve is extremely durable. Neither item has plastic parts. They are sold separately.

While a lot more expensive than those plastic watering wands at the big box store, I have a feeling that these two high quality Dramm components will last a lot longer.

A Hinged Cover for a Raised Bed Vegetable Garden

hinged raised vegetable bed

What’s another way of describing a raised bed vegetable garden? How about “feral cat litter pan,” “Skunk feeding troth,” or “Dog exercise pen?”

The solution to these problems? Netting or row cover. The problem is that vegetables need a lot of tending so you’re always pulling off and on the cover. And, inevitably, you forget to put it back on one evening and that’s the night a skunk goes on a grub hunting party.

This year I decided to create a hinged cover for one of my raised beds so that I can easily access vegetables without having to remove the bird netting or row cover each time I want to access the bed. I’ve found that I can remove the netting once the vegetables have matured.

To create the cover I made a frame with some 2 x 2 inch lumber and bent some electrical conduit pipe (and a piece of leftover copper pipe) for the hoops.  I put some gate hinges on the back, stood back and named my creation: Vegetable Guantanamo.

Eight Things to Consider When Saving Vegetable Seeds

seed saving

The directions for seed saving in our last book, Making It, almost got cut. Perhaps we should have just changed those directions to “Why it’s OK to buy seeds.” The fact is that it’s not easy to save the seeds of many vegetables thanks to the hard work of our bee friends.

That being said, Shannon Carmody of Seed Saver’s Exchange gave a lecture at this year’s Heirloom Exposition with some tips for ambitious gardeners who want to take up seed saving. Here’s some of her suggestions:

1. Maintaining varietal purity
Is the vegetable open pollinated or hybrid? Hybrid seeds don’t produce true to type. You can’t save and regrow the seeds of hybrids, at least not without a lot of complicated multi-generational outcrossing in order to create a new variety that produces true to type. [I'll note that I'm not anti-hybrid. The increased vigor of hybrids can be advantageous if you're having trouble in your garden.]

2. Know how the vegetable is pollinated
It’s much easier to save the seeds of self-pollinating vegetables such as beans, peas and tomatoes. Remember that bees can fly for miles–anything pollinated by insects have to be isolated or caged to prevent cross-pollination. And many vegetables have weedy cousins. Try to save the seeds of carrots without caging and you may get a carrot/Queen Anne’s lace hybrid that won’t taste good. And some supposedly self-pollinating plants such as tomatoes have rogue varieties that can be cross pollinated by insects.

3. Consider your climate
Bienneals require two years of growth in order to set seeds. If you live in a cold climate that could be a problem.

4. Population size
Serious plant breeders often plant a minimum of sixty plants so that they can choose the most vigorous for seed saving. And they’ll often plant just one variety to reduce the risk of crossing. One way around the population size requirement is to crowd source the problem and get a bunch of friends to grow the same vegetable.

5. Space requirements
Some biennials get really big in the second year. You’ll need to make sure they have space and won’t shade out other plants.

6. When to harvest
Fruits harvested for seed may need to stay on the plant for a long time. For example, eggplants that you want to save seed from need to be harvested well past when they’re still edible.

7. Prepping seeds
In general, seeds harvested when dry, such as lettuce need to be air dried before storing. Seeds harvested wet, such as watermelons, need to be washed with water before drying and storing. Tomato seeds need to be fermented in water for a few days before drying.

8. Storage
Moisture is the enemy of seed storage. Those packs of desiccant that come with electronic gadgets can be recycled and used in your seed storage boxes.

There’s no shame in buying seeds

In our small garden it would be nearly impossible to save the seeds of readily pollinated vegetables such as members of the Cucurbitaceae family. But it would be great to have varieties of vegetables adapted to our dry Mediterranean climate. Most seed saving operations use lots of fertilizer and water and the result is vegetables that are adapted, unsurprisingly, to requiring tons of fertilizer and water. Native Seeds/SEARCH is a notable exception. But we need more regional seed saving groups run by trained horticulturalists. In the meantime I buy seeds and stick to saving just the easy ones–beans, peas and tomatoes.

If you want more information about seed saving the bible of the subject is Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed.

How have your seed saving endeavors gone? What seeds do you save? Have you ever gone through the trouble of bagging seed heads or caging plants and hand-pollinating?

Vegetable Garden Note Taking

A page from Thomas Jefferson's garden diary.

A page from Thomas Jefferson’s garden diary.

My worst mistake in the fifteen years we have been gardening here in Los Angeles has been my shoddy note taking. Even though we don’t have frosts to contend with, it still can be tricky to figure out when to plant vegetables.

In a lecture I attnded at the National Heirloom Exoposition, Sonoma County gardening guru Wendy Krupnick had a simple suggestion for what to take notes on in your vegetable garden:

  • variety
  • planting day
  • first harvest
  • last harvest
  • comments

She suggested a minimum of three years of note taking.

If only I had this data! If there isn’t one already, someone should come up with a social note taking app for vegetable gardening that would aggregate information for each local microclimate. Leave a comment if such a thing exists.

And for more great gardening advice from Krupnick, check out iGrowSonoma.org. Most of the info is relevant even if you don’t live in Northern California.