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.

A Fennel Drinking Straw

I don’t get the straw thing. Why do all drinks served in restaurants have to come with a plastic straw? Don’t we have enough plastic trash swirling around our oceans?

While the drinking straw dates back to ancient times, the modern straw renaissance arises alongside the 19th century popularity of juleps and cobblers. Nineteenth century gentleman needed a straw to keep the mint out of their beards and they took to using humble stalks of rye grass. As rye breaks down quickly, some enterprising genius figured out how to make straws out of paper. In the 20th century straws evolved into the bendy plastic horror we’re all so familiar with. Ecological guilt led to a glass and stainless steel drinking straw trend during a brief period in the late aughts.

Our front and back yard have what I like to think of as fennel gyres that, just like those ocean plastic votices, just can’t be stopped. Having hollow stems, it occurred to me that fennel stalks might just be the ideal replacement to the ubiquitous plastic straw and could just spark the latest hipster trend. I vowed to give it a try.

As one might expect, a fennel stalk imparts a licorice taste to your beverage. Some might find this objectionable, like drinking toothpaste, but others might sense a cocktail opportunity. Dr. Google informs me that I’m not the first with this fennel stalk cocktail idea. Emily Han, a guest on episode 67 of the Root Simple Podcast, outscooped me back in 2013.

But perhaps, via crowd-sourced knowledge, we might make a vegetative drinking straw breakthrough. What other plant stalks could we replace all those plastic straws with?

111 Cardoons, Medlars and Hipster Toilets

On the podcast this week, Kelly and I read and respond to listener questions and comments about cardoons, medlars and Toto’s Eco Promenade toilet! Here’s some links to the topics we rap about:

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

110 A Report from the 2017 National Heirloom Expo

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On the podcast this week are three interviews I recorded at the 7th annual National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California in the first week of September 2017. The organizers of the expo, Baker Creek Seeds, hold a press conference in the midst of the fair and that gave me the chance to talk to some really interesting folks including:

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

A Celebration of Craft

Dave Miller at work. Photo by Josey Baker.

Dave Miller at work. Photo by Josey Baker.

The highlight of the National Heirloom Expo, for me, was running into three people who epitomize the value of dedication to a craft.

I’ve found that such craftspersons keep no secrets and are more than happy talk about techniques and tips. They are also, according to Matthew Crawford, an antidote to our culture’s narcissism. Crawford says, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,

The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. A washing machine, for example, surely exists to serve our needs, but in contending with one that is broken, you have to ask what it needs. At such a moment, technology is no longer a means by which our mastery of the world is extended, but an affront to our usual self-absorption. Constantly seeking self-affirmation, the narcissist views everything as an extension of his will, and therefore has only a tenuous grasp on the world of objects as something independent. He is prone to magical thinking and delusions of omnipotence. A repairman, on the other hand, puts himself in the service of others, and fixes the things they depend on. His relationship to objects enacts a more solid sort of command, based on real understanding. For this very reason, his work also chastens the easy fantasy of mastery that permeates modern culture. The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine.

The trio of craftspersons I ran into at the expo included a baker, a tomato farmer and a nursery owner. They share common qualities: humility, openness and an attention to detail.

The baker is Dave Miller who I helped bring to LA to teach a series of classes. Miller specializes in whole grain breads made from freshly milled local grain. Most “whole grain” loaves baked in this country are actually white flour with food coloring, sugar and a small amount of stale whole grain flour. Miller can turn wet, sticky whole grain lumps into perfectly formed, airy loaves with one deft flick of the wrist. He has the skill to build an empire the size of La Brea Bakery but is happy working at a smaller scale selling loaves at the Chico farmer’s market once a week. I think he’s the most talented baker in the U.S.

I also ran into tomato farmer and breeder Fred Hempel who was a guest on episode 79 of our podcast. Like Miller, Hempel has a humility that goes along with a sincere engagement with the natural world. Like Miller he’s more than happy to discuss his craft.

A third person I met at the festival is Alice Doyle, owner of Log House Plants a wholesale nursery in Eugene Oregon. In her lecture she went alphabetically through a list of edible plants she thought were interesting. By the end of the hour, I think she reached the letter “J.” I wished we could have had a few more hours to get to “Z.” And this is another quality of the craftsperson, a selfless enthusiasm that can turn a list of vegetables into something way more interesting than what passes for entertainment in our culture. I’ll see if I can get Doyle on the podcast.

We are, I think, entering a dangerous new age of extreme narcissism fueled, in part, by Silicon Valley tech bros who have figured out a business model based on self-affirmation. We need more people like Miller, Hempel and Doyle.