May 11, 2014

Adventures in Straw Bale Gardening

I'm not a gardener by any means. Even in the most loose sense of the word.  I don't like the sun.  I don't like the heat.  My mother used to make me help her pull weeds as a teenager.  I don't know which I hated more at the time... her or the weeds.  The first experience I had planting a garden was helping my mother when I was 9.  She let me plant the zinnia seeds.  I sprinkled them in a line and then she yelled at me for doing it wrong.  Clearly, gardening was not intuitive.  Or a great child-rearing activity.

So, fast forward 8,000 years and I've matured.  I have kids of my own.  I am starting to care about what I eat.  I get the idea a few years ago that I should know how to grow my own food, but I'm a busy mom with a jillian jobs and a back that aches all the time.  Gardening?  Bah.

Heirloom Cucumbers
Fast forward three more years and I'm reading about square foot gardening and straw bale gardening and I cannot set aside the persistent drive to grow some of my own food.  But I'm also realistic about taking on too much.  I've learned my lesson dozens of times over.  My passion and confidence dictate that I must DO IT BIG.  Reality leaves a wake of half-finished projects set aside because someone needs help with homework or housework or clients need things or I just want to finish that really good book before my library expiration date.

This year I gave myself permission to do something small.  Straw bales.  Six of them.  I fell in love with the look of straw bale gardens.  It seemed so manageable, and cheap.  About $22 for the bales and I already had soil and fertilizer.  Another $15 for organic heirloom seeds.  No tilling.  No weeding.  No kneeling and bending.  It seems like an adventure that was fairly risk-free.

I set the bales up with space all around them so I could get to the plants from all sides.  I thought maybe they would need the room.  Or I would need the room.  Honestly, I have no idea what I'm doing.  I'm just doing it.  I needed to finally just DO something about gardening to break the ice.  Hello, gardening, nice to meet you.

The buckets and ice chest are for water collection.  We catch rain water from the gutters and when we run out of that we fill the buckets from the hose and let the chlorine from the water outgas before putting it on the plants.  I don't know if it makes a difference but chemicals are chemicals and less is better.

Ants. Ants. More ants. And more ants. And still more.
We have a ton of ants.  Everywhere.  There are mounds and mounds and mounds of ants.  Ants are in the bales.  I think that's okay, but I have no idea.  "Ants are aeration," sayeth my mother.  Today I saw an ant carrying something red that I hoped was a chigger.  Maybe ants are removing chiggers from my yard.  One can hope.

I read somewhere that you are supposed to plant your tomatoes deep, like halfway bury them.  I have no idea if this is true, but in the parking lot of the grocery store I mentioned this to an old-timer who nodded and said it was definitely true.  It's hard to know what is true.  People make things up.  The Internet lies. But also people are wise.  And also the Internet knows everything.

My mother likes to quote Deuteronomy 19:15 which says, "on the testimony of three witnesses the matter should be established."   So I ask her, I ask the Internet, I ask the old guy in the parking lot.  They all three think tomatoes should be planted deep, so that is what I do.

They seem happy, the tomatoes, and already have blooms.

Everything else I planted as seeds. The lettuce came up first.  I planted an heirloom mix.  I love all types of lettuce and it will be a surprise what comes up.

I have pangs when the seed package tells me to thin the seedlings.  I know it must be done for the health of the ones I don't pluck but it seems wasteful and cruel in a way.  The neighbor busted me cheating.  I plucked a tiny seedling and instead of throwing it on the ground I tucked it into the side of the straw bale.  He squinted his eyes at me and asked what I was doing.  I told him I was thinning the lettuce and he looked at me sneaking the seedling into the side of the bale and said, "Hmph."

Okay, I know it's ridiculous.  I know it's going to die, but I'm giving it every chance to survive.  And, strangely, today both the seedlings I stuck in the side of the bale are growing.  So, take that neighbor.  He's an entomologist anyway.  What does he know about lettuce?

When the carrots first came up they looked like weeds, but now they have crinkly tops that look like carrots are supposed to look.  Not that we ever see that in the local grocery store where everything is bagged in plastic.

Lemon Thyme
I read you can plant things in the side of the bales so I bought a plant called lemon thyme.  I broke it into two pieces and planted one in each bale.  The bales are very difficult to dig into and I didn't do a very good job planting these.  One half made it; one half did not.  Every day I look at it and think "that thing is going to fall right out of the side of that bale."  But it hasn't yet.  Which proves that even when people do things half-assed it can sometimes turn out okay.  Not that I recommend that method.  Do your best, really.  It's better than later bragging that you did it half-assed and it worked out by accident.

The only really alarming thing is the mold I found today.  Some kind of mildew or mold.  The Internet says I shouldn't worry about it.  The Internet also says I should be VERY worried about it.  My mother doesn't know.  I re-read the passage in Deuteronomy again just to make sure it said "testimony of three" and not "testimony of two, none of whom seem to agree."

So in the meantime, I sprayed it with a mixture of baking soda and oil mixed with water because that didn't seem like it would hurt anything.  And I'm waiting for additional testimony.

In the meantime, feet up.  It's Mother's Day.


  1. This is a fun read. I didn't know anything about straw bale gardening, and I love the wry humor.

  2. Yea for trying something new! I tried growing a few things in a tiny space last year but I think the rabbits feasted on all of it. Sigh.

  3. Hopefully the rabbits are too short to reach the top of the bales. Although it's been so wet the last few days the bales are sprouting mushrooms. I'm not sure what to make of it. Thanks, to you and Steve both for stopping in and commenting. I've been away a while and it's good to be "home."


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