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.

Make Magazine: Online and Free

Update: It appears that the archive was taken down at the request of the magazine shortly after I wrote this post. Thanks Sean for letting me know!

I was sorry to hear that Make Magazine and its parent company Maker Media are calling it quits. Founder Dale Dougherty promises to bring the concept back at some future date but until that time there’s some good news. You can access all issues of Make Magazine for free at Archive.org.
An article in Tech Crunch quotes Dougherty,

“We’re trying to keep the servers running” Dougherty tells me. “I hope to be able to get control of the assets of the company and restart it. We’re not necessarily going to do everything we did in the past but I’m committed to keeping the print magazine going and the Maker Faire licensing program.” The fate of those hopes will depend on negotiations with banks and financiers over the next few weeks. For now the sites remain online.

[Update 6/9/19: Dougherty tells me he’s been overwhelmed by the support shown by the Maker community. For now, licensed Maker Faire events around the world will proceed as planned. Dougherty also says he’s aware of Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey’s interest in funding the company, and a GoFundMe page started for it.]

I wrote an article on drip irrigation for Issue 18 and have to say that it was a pleasure to work with the Make editorial team. Unlike other publications I’ve written for, the editors at Make knew a lot about the technical details of the subject matter and worked hard to ensure accuracy.

Speaking of technical details, the only thing I’d change if I wrote that article again is that I would recommend 1/2 inch drip irrigation tubing instead of 1/4 inch in the interest of keeping things simple and reducing the need for multiple fitting sizes. I stand by the rest of my irrigation pontifications.

Stop Digging! The Benefits of No-Till and Cover Crops

Consider this research as one more nail in the coffin of tilling and double digging. Scientists at UC Davis took a look at how no-till practices combined with cover crops foster a diverse fungi community that “play important roles in nutrient mobilization, organic matter decomposition, carbon cycling and creation of soil structure.” While their research looked at commercial agriculture I think it’s safe to extrapolate their results to home vegetable gardens. The latest issue of California Agriculture sums up the study,

Symbiotrophic fungi expand the surface area of roots, allowing roots greater access to water and nutrients (in exchange for carbon). Fungi, however, are more sensitive than other microorganisms to physical disturbance. Adopting no-till as a conservation management practice eliminates or greatly reduces both disruption of fungal hyphal networks and redistribution of organisms and nutrients in the soil profile. Use of cover crops, meanwhile, provides more abundant and varied sources of organic carbon.

Let me just add that we really regret promoting double-digging in one of our books! The science it pretty clear about the benefits of the relationship between fungi and roots and the damage that tilling can cause to plant/fungi cooperation.

The complete study, “Cover cropping and no-till increase diversity and symbiotroph:saprotroph ratios of soil fungal communities” (behind a pay wall) can be found here.

There is Something Beyond the Straw Bale

Fig tree off the front porch.

As usual, when I blog about our small vegetable garden as I did on Wednesday, I neglect to put that small part of the food growing efforts at the Root Simple compound in context. To correct this unfortunate tendency, I’m thinking of hanging a framed portrait of Jacques Derrida, the patron saint of 90s nerd boys like me, over my computer to remind me that nothing exists outside of a greater context. What applies to literature also applies to vegetable gardening. You can’t grow vegetables without also considering their relationship to other plants, creatures and human beings.

Bale, pomegranate tree and mess I need to clean up. Please note the raccoon poop zone on the slightly subterranean garage roof.

Our vegetable garden right now is just one straw bale in the process of conditioning and our philosophy has always been that vegetable gardens need to be surrounded by a native “hedge row” that supports beneficial wildlife. We’re also fans of hardy and climate appropriate perennial fruits and vegetables–beyond that solitary straw bale we have a lot of edible perennial plants and a bunch of work to do to straighten out the yard after years of other priorities.

Site of future seasonal rain garden.

Towards that end, our landscaper, Laramee Haynes and crew are coming next week to clean things up, install a kind of seasonal rain garden fed by a downspout, fix the paths in the backyard, and install some sprinklers and a few path lights. In short, to do all the things we couldn’t do when I was taking care of my mom and when Kelly was recovering from open heart surgery. The end goal is to have a yard consisting mostly of native plants, alongside our mature fruit trees and a tiny vegetable garden that will consist of either a small raised bed or a straw bale or an alternation of both bed and bale.

The fruit trees, for those keeping score, consist of a fig, pomegranate, avocado and olive as well as a few stone fruit trees that we will likely remove since the squirrels get every single fruit. In the perennial vegetable catagory, there’s also a few artichokes that pop up here and there, prickly pear cactus and an indestructible stand of New Zealand spinach. When Laramee is done we’ll install a bust of Derrida made out of pre-chewed termite infested wood that will slowly be colonized and deconstructed by Los Angeles’ endangered carpenter bees.

Lastly, please enjoy this completely gratuitous kitten photo that has nothing to do with this blog post, vegetable gardening or Derrida unless all internet cat photos do, in fact, have everything to do with Derrida. Let’s skip that speculation for now and note that this kitten, currently being fostered by our neighbor Lora, is up for adoption and looking for a home in which to snuggle next to you while you read impenetrable tomes in your reading socks. Email us if you want to bring this grey cutie home.

Why I’m Growing Vegetables in a Straw Bale

before and after: straw bale garden

The straw bale garden I planted in 2013: before and after.

I suspect we’re not alone in having tried just about every way to grow a vegetables garden. In the lifelong quest for decent home grown vegetables we’ve tried the methods of every gardening guru with a book: biointensive, biodynamic, raised beds, pots, self-watering containers, straw bales and just plain old by-the-book science-based, extension service advice. Results have ranged from moderately successful to moderately tragic–mostly moderately tragic.

Over the years, our vegetable garden has shrunk from ambitious proportions to a tiny 3-foot by 8-foot raised bed filled with tired and expensive potting soil. This past winter (our best season for veggies here in Southern California) I didn’t even bother to plant anything as I was busy working on the inside of the house. Last summer we tried, unsuccessfully, to grow tomatoes (due to disease problems built up in the soil over the years).

So when it came time to ponder planting something for the summer I reviewed past efforts to figure out what gardening method was most successful. Surprisingly, the two best gardens I’ve planted in the past were either biodynamic or straw bale gardens. I think Rudolf Steiner’s quirky biodynamic technique works not because of any material benefit from his witchy potions, but simply because his philosophy demands that you to focus intent on the garden, thus making the act of gardening a kind of sacred duty. But, this winter, I’ve still got a lot of tasks to complete and don’t have time to develop either a biodynamic compost pile or, gasp, thoughtstyle my way to some new, alternative method of sacramental gardening.

So I decided to try straw bale gardening again. My last attempt, that I blogged about and even did a video of, worked great. If you’ve never tried it, the process is simple. You get straw bales, water them, add nitrogen in the form of either blood meal (organic) or urea (conventional) for a few days and then let them sit for a month while keeping them moist. For the details, download Washington Statue University’s instructions. Growing in straw bales is also a great solution for folks, like us, with lead contaminated soil.

The drawbacks of straw bale gardening are mainly environmental. You have to buy bales and nitrogen and import them in a CO2 spewing vehicle, unless you have a generously sized cargo bicycle. And in my last straw bale garden some of the tomato plants showed signs (a lot of leaves and not a lot of fruit) of too much nitrogen. On the other side of that equation I grew some truly monstrous winter squash, enough to feed all the inhabitants of a generously sized cult compound.

This time around I’m trying an inorganic approach, substituting the blood meal I used last time for urea. I’m curious to see if I notice any difference other than price (urea is a lot cheaper). Should I try it again, I’m thinking of building some simple wooden boxes to hold the bales and keep them moist in our hot and dry summer season.

My previous success with straw bale gardening is perhaps a lesson in the simple fact that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for growing vegetables. Given that we have limited space, contaminated soil and other priorities right now, straw bales make for an easy way to grow a few summer vegetables with a high chance of success.

When figuring out where and how to plant a vegetable garden we’ve got to include both biological and social considerations, i.e. we’ve have to consider both plants and people. If you’ve got more space, time to compost and healthy soil roll with that. If you’re in an apartment grow some herbs in a pot on your windowsill. If you’re a dilettante appropriate technology blogger with limited time for gardening and a long list of chores, a straw bale and a bag of urea might be the best way to keep the kitchen knee deep in pesto.

If you’d like to try straw bale gardening see Washington Statue University’s instructions. Michael Tortorello also wrote a great article about straw bale gardening, “Grasping at Straw” for the New York Times.