Straw Bale Gardening Update

I think I’ve put a name to an all to common gardening experience. I’ve got what I shall, from now on, refer to as Tomato Disappointment Syndrome or TDS for short. TDS recognizes a unspoken reality of vegetable gardening: that for every lush and productive tomato plant there exists at least ten spindly, diseased specimens hiding in backyards.

Without careful soil stewardship, just the right amount of water and diligence about not growing tomatoes in the same place every year TDS will visit your household. Since I’ve had tomato disease problems for years I decided to grow them in straw bales this season as I did, successfully, back in 2013.

Unfortunately, my straw bale tomatoes succumbed to one of three possible problems:

  • Improperly conditioned bale. I may not have spent enough time adding nitrogen to the bale.
  • Root-bound seedlings.
  • Herbicides in the straw.

I’m leaning towards a lack of nitrogen caused by not following bale conditioning instructions carefully. Herbicides in the bale are also possible or some combination of all three of the above factors.

Allow me to also theorize, building on the foundation of TDS, that success in vegetable gardening is inversely related to one’s propensity to brag, write or boast about vegetable gardening on, say, a blog or social media account. Perhaps I should just shut up and take care of the soil or pay more attention to my bale conditioning efforts and cease the grandstanding.

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  1. Back when you posted this, I mentioned I had reduced my garden to three containers and a pumpkin. One was a SunGold tomato that is the poster child of Tomato Disappointment Syndrome. It started vibrantly green, put fruit on, then immediately looked kind of blighty and was going down hard. Yellow everywhere. In a fit of….well, just a plain old snitfit….I cut off every single yellow branch and leaf (a lot) and them hit them with the same awful blue (blue!) 20/20/20 fertilizer I give to my hanging baskets (while making other offerings and apologies to the organic gods). Lo. Behold. It sprang back to life and we’re getting a not-insignficant amount of fruit off of it. Maybe your fertilizer just is not blue-green enough (runs away! runs away!)

  2. As happens every year, my best tomato plants are the ones that I *did not* plant, and don’t particularly want to be growing where they are growing and mostly don’t take care of because I don’t actually want them. They are producing almost more than I know what to do with, and my tomatoes that I actually planted and lovingly tend to are small and slow and are only just starting to decide they might grow some fruit. I will continue to neglect my volunteers (because tending them would almost certainly kill them), and enjoy their fruits, and accept that maybe this is the kind of gardening I’m cut out for.

  3. I always ask about herbicide use before purchasing my straw bales.

    This year I found a grower that did not use herbicides or fertilizer on his wheat but did the rotation of goats and chickens in his fields before planting. My tomatoes were the best I’ve had. I ran a soaker hoses along the top of the bales every week for about an hour.

    I nitrogened the daylights out of them for two months prior to planting in them with compost tea and bone meal. I fed them rabbit poo during the growing season. By the time I finished with them the bales fell apart in rough compost (about 75%).

    • Thanks for the tips! Will try again and, as you put it, “nitrogen the daylights out of them.”

  4. TDS…So true and yet every year I convince myself to put at least one tomato plant in my raised bed and every year I’m disappointed. This year, our local farmers had great tomatoes but I only got a small handful from the carefully coddled one in my garden due to what I like to call CDS, or Chipmunk Devastation Syndrome. They’re the one pest I have trouble keeping out of my garden, even though it’s basically set up like Ft. Knox.

    • Ugh. If it’s any consolation, LA’s many rats got a hold of half of the small amount of tomatoes on my two plants.

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