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.

Erik Talks Straw Bales on C-Realm Radio

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KMO with his new straw bale garden.

Instead of producing our own podcast this week, I had the honor of being on C-Realm Radio in Vermont, hosted by my favorite podcaster (and, as of last month, radio host) KMO. The topic is straw bale gardening. KMO talks first to straw bale garden expert Joel Karsten. Then I chime in enthusiastically on the topic. I’m followed by gardener and artist Lauren Blair. We’re all sort of an opening act for an entertaining 1990s era recording of Terrance McKenna thoughtstyling about “linguistic objects”.

One interesting point that Karsten raises is the issue of persistent herbicides in straw bales. He says its not a problem to worry about. I suggest doing an bioassay to rule out the possibility so, in a way, we contradict each other. Karsten may be right, but I need to do some more research on the subject. If any of you know if persistent herbicides, such as Clopyralid, Aminopyralid, Aminocyclopyrachlor and Picloram, are still an issue for gardeners, please let me know in the comments.

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.