Final Thoughts on Straw Bale Gardening Project of 2013

By Cyndy Crist

November 26, 2013

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato
Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomato

The straw bale that once hosted a Matt’s Wild Cherry heirloom tomato, four assorted basil plants, and four Empress of India nasturtiums now stands bare. In fact, at this very moment, soft snowflakes are starting to drift down on it. With the gardening season at a decided end in my northern garden, it seems like an appropriate time to share a few final thoughts about my first experience with straw bale gardening and about this year’s garden.

A Decided Success of the Straw Bale Gardening Project

I was very satisfied with my first-ever straw bale garden. Although I think the changing angle of the sun left more unripe tomatoes at the end of the season than I might have had if it had been in a slightly different spot, I still harvested a terrific number of tasty red orbs. As anyone who has read other posts of mine about growing tomatoes knows, I am a huge fan of Matt’s Wild Cherry. I love the small clusters of deeply flavored fruits it produces, and its indeterminate nature means that once it starts producing, it doesn’t stop until the first hard frost kills it off. In my straw bale, it grew at least as large as any I’ve grown in the ground, and I found it a little easier to harvest the fruit since the whole plant stood a couple of feet above the ground.

Nasturtiums in Straw Bale Garden
Nasturtiums in Straw Bale Garden

The only problem was that it grew so big that it eventually completely overwhelmed everything else in the bale. I harvested the basil early, since it was no longer getting any direct sun, and the nasturtiums didn’t produce many flowers toward the end of the season. Frankly, I had not chosen the best nasturtium for the bale, since I had hoped they would spill over the edges and cover much of the bale, but they never did. Next year, I think I’ll try planting sweet potato vines instead for the decorative element. Another straw bale in our neighborhood became a big rectangle of purple as the vines completely covered the golden straw. And I did get to enjoy the nasturtiums and basil before the Matt monster took over. As a result, despite this year’s outcomes, I’ll likely follow a pretty similar planting plan next year.

Strategies that Worked in Straw Bale Gardening

Matts Wild Cherry in Straw Bale Garden
Matts Wild Cherry in Straw Bale Garden

One thing that I think contributed to the success of my straw bale garden was that I tried at all times to keep at least one large watering can full of water and standing next to the bale. This meant that I didn’t have to take the time to drag a hose all the way around to the side of the house where the bale was placed whenever it needed watering. I think I headed off potential problems by always having moisture at the ready.

My huge tomato plant required several stages of staking to support its size and weight, but I found it easy to add more structure as needed. Since the tomato was already situated well above the ground, I didn’t have to worry about as much staking as I’ve used in the garden because there was little danger until quite late in the season that the branches would lie on the ground. At one point, I worried that my failure to put a larger cage in at an early stage in its growth would be a problem, but in fact my piecemeal approach worked just fine and the plant never suffered for its haphazard support.

I also did a better job of fertilizing the bale according to the recommended schedule than I had thought I might. Feeding my garden is frankly the garden task to which I most often fail to attend. Whether it was the newness of the project or the self-contained nature of the bale, it just seemed easier to remember to feed it regularly. I feel certain that following the appropriate schedule also contributed to the lush growth of the plant. I used organic fish emulsion, which was quite easy to apply as part of my regular watering.

End of the Season

Water Garden
Water Garden

And so another growing year in the garden is over. This was a year that kept Minnesota gardeners on their toes, with the weather varying from cooler and wetter to hotter and dryer than average. A wet spring meant that we were plagued by lots of mosquitoes, which always diminish one’s pleasure in the outdoors a bit, but it also helped bring an end (temporarily, as it turned out) to drought conditions. For reasons that are far from clear, much of the Twin Cities saw a huge drop in the Japanese beetle population, which meant that many trees, shrubs, and vines were spared the damage caused by their voracious appetite.

I was pleased to find a better spot this year for the water garden container that my sister-in-law gave me a couple of years ago, the one “up side” of the removal of an old, ailing elm tree from our neighbors’ boulevard. As a result, I got two flushes of blooms from both my yellow water lily and pale purple water hyacinth. Several shrubs that had sustained so much rabbit damage last winter that I was afraid wouldn’t survive came bouncing back. Sadly, like many Minnesota gardeners, I lost some favorites in my garden to late freezes and heavy, wet, late spring snows, including several unusual Hellebores, lambs ears, and most of my Brunnera. But, as a wise observer once said, the loss of plants in the garden just means one has some spaces in which to try new plants.

As I look forward to the 2014 growing season, and ending this post where I began it, I will definitely plant at least one, and perhaps two, straw bale gardens next year. I will definitely situate one where this year’s stood, and I will spend some winter planning time identifying other options. I’d love to be able to grow at least one more tomato and perhaps some shallots, green onions, or eggplants. I’d also love to grow some squash or melons, but I’m pretty certain that would require more straw bales than my little urban garden could accommodate. But I have a long winter ahead of me during which I can dream. And when is one’s garden ever more lush and beautiful than in one’s winter-time imagination.


2013 Finale to Straw Bale Gardening; and Thoughts on Late Summer Gardening

By Cyndy Crist

Straw bale with tomatoes in August
Straw bale with tomatoes in August (by Cyndy Crist)

I’m long overdue for the third and final update on my first-year experiment with straw bale gardening, and I’ve been mulling over plenty of other ideas for blog posts. But somehow it’s been hard to move myself from thought to action this summer, and I’ve been pondering why that is. I suspect there are several reasons, some of which derive from the challenges we all face as gardeners. In this post, I’ll share some thoughts about those, along with an update on my straw bale and a few other thoughts about late summer gardening. I suspect it may be a bit therapeutic for me to write  this, and I hope reading it will be useful for others.

Straw Bale Gardening Success

Nasturiums in Straw Bale: August
nasturtiums in Straw Bale: August (by Cyndy Crist)

Although this year has provided many garden challenges, my first attempt at straw bale gardening has been an unqualified success. My Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomato plant is as vigorous as any I’ve grown directly in the garden and it is producing prolifically. The nasturtiums are doing beautifully, though the variety I selected has not cascaded over the edges as I had hoped (reminding me that I need to do a little more homework before selecting plants next year). My basil plants are hanging in there, although they have been overshadowed by the tomato plant and so haven’t flourished as they might have given less competition for sunlight and space. But they’re surviving and I’ve been harvesting their leaves from time to time.

I have watered the bale regularly and fertilized it monthly as directed in “Straw Bale Gardens” by Joel Karsten, my guide for this garden adventure. I have seen no signs of pests, and since most Minnesota gardeners (myself included) have had a bumper crop of weeds this year, I have been delighted that the straw bale provides one garden space that has needed no weeding. I am so pleased with the results that I hope to plant two bales next year and have started thinking about where best to place a second bale. More on that shortly.

Filling in Gardening Gaps in Late Summer

Herbs replacing garlic space in late summer
Herbs replacing garlic space in late summer

Growing edibles that are best harvested by midsummer challenges the gardener to come up with ways to fill gaps created by late June or early July harvests. An additional challenge is the fact that many vegetables are difficult to start from seed and to maintain in the high heat of mid-summer, which can inhibit germination and hasten the demise of tender seedlings unless they are given extra TLC. This year, I met these challenges in two parts of my garden with plants purchased mid-season.

Specifically, in the space that had been filled with garlic, I planted two good-sized, container-grown herbs. Both the lemongrass and lemon verbena I selected are thriving and will add lemony brightness to dishes throughout the remainder of the growing season (and I’ll likely harvest and dry lemon verbena leaves to make herbal tea, or tisane, next winter). And in a pot that was originally home to an array of lettuces, first cut and eventually pulled as summer’s heat threatened to turn them bitter, I planted two basils surrounded by some sun-loving Portulaca. All are doing well. I had been saving a little space in which to plant some heirloom beet seeds, and if I get my act together soon, I should be able to get a good crop this year. If not, I will be saving the seeds for next year.

replanted lettuce & herbs in pot
replanted lettuce & herbs in pot (by Cyndy Crist)

Taking Stock

Late summer provides a great time to assess how things in the garden have performed this year and to make some notes for next year’s season. And I can’t emphasize enough the importance of creating a record of those thoughts, since I inevitably find that the ideas and challenges I was sure I would remember from one year to the next are long gone from my memory by the time I need them. In fact, keeping a garden log to record plant purchases, locations, and performance is always a good idea, though one I pursue more sporadically than I would wish.

One thing I have noticed this year is the changing pattern of sun in my back garden as a tree in our neighbor’s yard right has grown. Although I had thought they were going to have it removed before this year’s growing season, it remains in place and is, I think, the primary reason why my garlic cloves were disappointingly small this year. Fortunately, I can plant garlic this fall in the afore-mentioned space in which I may shortly plant beets, an area that gets more sun. Since rotation of crops is recommended, this change is advisable anyway, and because beets are a vegetable said to be able to tolerate some shade, I may plant any beet seeds remaining from this year in the space in which I planted the garlic last fall and see how they do.

If you’re thinking about trying a straw bale garden next year, this would be a good time to start thinking about where you might want to place your bale(s) next year since they have to be settled into their chosen home before being conditioned and planted. As mentioned earlier, I’d like to try planting two next year and will do some measuring to see if moving a clump of small daylilies will give me enough space to put two bales side by side. If that won’t work, I’ll scout around for another space. I’ve been impressed by a bale in our neighborhood that’s situated in a boulevard and now beautifully covered with purple sweet potato vines, creating a beautifully colorful mound. I’ll try to open my mind to an array of possibilities if my preferred location won’t work, keeping in mind that adequate sun and ease of watering are essential factors to consider.

The Vagaries of Nature

Color in the shade garden
Color in the shade garden (by Cyndy Crist)

Mother Nature always seems to delight in throwing curveballs at gardeners, creating conditions that vary so much from one year to the next that we’re not always sure how best to proceed. One year drought conditions send us digging for ideas about what to plant that requires little moisture and the next we’re fretting about which the adequacy of drainage in the face of seemingly endless waves of rain.

In Minnesota, the 2013 growing season has been most notable, I think, for the very long, cool period through spring and well into June. As a result, many gardeners are seeing few ripening tomatoes, peppers, melons, and squash in their gardens, and there are lots of reports of disappointingly small heads of garlic. By contrast, this year’s conditions have been just right to produce terrific peas, lettuces, beans, and other vegetables that thrive in cooler daytime and nighttime temperatures. Our successes and failures – or joys and disappointments – are good reminders that we need to “go with the flow” and accept defeats along with victories.

Overall, gardens teach us nothing if not patience, and they remind us of the limits of our control over anything in the natural world. We can follow all the best advice and learn from our own and others’ experiences when we plan and plant our gardens. We can amend soil, water properly, watch for emerging pests and treat them in ways least likely to damage our plants and the beneficial insects upon which they may depend. But we can’t determine temperatures or rainfall, nor can we control what our neighbors choose to plant that may shade our gardens nor protect our gardens from careless applications nearby of chemicals to control weeds or insects. And then there are the insect invasions that ebb and flow, the weather conditions that are all too conducive to fungal growth, and the disturbing absence of the pollinators upon which we depend for flower, fruit, and vegetable production.

All we can do is make our best efforts to use good horticultural practices in our gardens, share what wisdom we have with friends and neighbors as appropriate, be open to learning from the experiences of others, be patient with ourselves when our actions don’t match our intentions, and hope for the best. I guess those are good rules for living as well. I’m still trying to cultivate them, in and out of my garden.


Straw Bale Gardening: Chapter Two

Straw Bale Garden
Straw Bale Garden – Early Summer (by Cyndy Crist)

( by Cyndy Crist)  My experiment with straw bale gardening continues, and at this time I can report “so far, so good.” Here’s a bit more about what I’ve learned about getting started with straw bale growing along with an update on my own little bale.

What to Expect in the Early Stages of Straw Bale Gardening

Straw Bale Garden - early
Straw Bale Garden- Early Summer (by Cyndy Crist)

As my 17 day conditioning period was drawing to a close (the timing recommended for those using organic fertilizers), I was pleased to discover that it was easy to stick my finger into the top of the bale. Clearly, the conditioning was working! When I started to plant (more on that shortly), I was a bit concerned that the insides of the bale still looked like straw, but after consulting my guide, “Straw Bale Gardens” by Joel Karsten, I learned this was as it should be. He says that the bale will “continue to cook” and that in this stage it offers a “plant seedlings’ paradise.” I was relieved.

I was also briefly concerned to discover a light layer of mold growth on the top of the bale in some spots. Although this didn’t seem surprising, given the required deep, daily watering and this spring’s gray and wet conditions, I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a sign of trouble. According to Karsten, it wasn’t. He says that the growth of molds and/or mushrooms is natural and that, based on his consultations with medical professionals, this isn’t a problem for most people. Since the bales are not in enclosed areas, the wind will carry away most spores. He also says that any mold that does grow won’t last long given how rapidly straw decomposes. Mine seems to be gone already, so that’s one more potential worry laid to rest.

Because our air temperatures this spring have been pretty consistently below average, I suspect my bale isn’t heating up as quickly as it might have some years, but I’m certain it’s still warmer than the soil. Karsten recommends watering with warm water, so I have tried to keep a large watering can full and have primarily used that for my watering, but the cool air temperatures haven’t allowed it to warm up much. In general, Mother Nature has been giving me plenty of assistance in the watering department, and although I’d love to be out in my garden more than I’ve been able to be, I do appreciate the help with my bale watering tasks!

Since my bail is fairly close to one set of neighbors, I was a little concerned about possible odors. Karsten suggests that by about day six, a “sweet aroma will begin to emit from the bales” and says that neighbors can be reassured that the smell doesn’t last long. I was aware of a bit of an odor from my bale once or twice, but it wasn’t unpleasant, and I suspect the cool, wet weather may have limited the odor just as it slowed decomposition. In any event, this potential problem never materialized.

Finally, I noted that some of the straw was germinating, sending up little grass-like blades. This may mean that my bale is not actually straw, since Karsten suggests that hay is sometimes mistaken for and/or sold as straw and that a key difference is that the hay will sprout growth while straw will not. The growth I got was far less than what is pictured in the book, however, and since I bought it from a very reputable garden center, I’d be surprised if it’s something other than straw. In any case, he says any such growth won’t last long, and in my bale, the growth was pretty minimal. I just plucked any green sprouts out and I don’t anticipate having any problems going forward.

My Straw Bale Garden is Now Planted

Straw Bale Garden - #3
Straw Bale Garden – #3

I was really excited to reach the planting stage, and my bale is now planted. I ended up planting it in stages because I wasn’t able to get everything I wanted at the same time. On the first day, I planted my tomato – my favorite heirloom, Matt’s Wild Cherry – in the middle of the bale with six Empress of India Nasturtiums along the sides and front. Later, I planted four basils – one Aristotle, one Red Rubin, and two Sweet – between the tomato and the nasturtiums.

The planting was very easy, since the top layer of the straw was pretty well broken down and the inside had clearly begun to be loosened by the process of decomposition. I was able to keep the soil around each transplant largely intact, so I didn’t need to use any soil to fill in, but Karsten suggests using a handful of sterile planting mix to cover exposed roots if needed. He reminds readers not to use garden soil since that can introduce weed seeds that otherwise will not be present in the straw. He also notes that, if needed, a small amount of straw can be removed to accommodate a larger root ball, but I didn’t need to take that step.

And Now, Maintenance of the Straw Bale Garden

Straw Bale Garden #4
Straw Bale Garden – close up (by Cyndy Crist)

With my straw bale fully planted, I can now move into a normal maintenance phase. I’ll water regularly as needed, be attentive to any signs of insect infestations and disease (I will be especially watchful for the newly arrived basil downy mildew), and fertilize the bale on a monthly basis throughout the growing season (for organic growers like me, Karsten recommends using foliar fertilizers like fish emulsion or kelp emulsion).

I’ll also watch to see if any critters are attracted to my mini garden. I’m certain that rabbits won’t be able to reach the plants on top and hope they won’t be drawn to the nasturtiums once they’re tumbling down the sides. Squirrels may be another matter – they seem to be able to tackle any and every outdoor challenge! But I haven’t noticed them bothering any of these plants when I’ve grown them in the ground, so I’m hoping they’ll leave my bale garden alone, too. Finally, because I seem to have loosened one of the pieces of twine tying the bale just a bit when I moved it into place, I’m going to pay attention to the bale’s stability and will fasten some garden edging around it if it starts to come apart too soon.

Resource on Straw Bale Gardens
Resource on Straw Bale Gardens

Now, if Mother Nature will sweep away the clouds and give us some extended periods of warm sunshine, I feel certain my new little straw bale garden will really take off. And gardeners like me will applaud her as well! I’ll check back in with you in a few weeks to let you know how things are going.

Amazon link to Joel Karsten’s book: Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding

Straw Bale Gardening: First in a Series of Three Posts

By Cyndy Crist

Resource on Straw Bale Gardens
Resource on Straw Bale Gardens

I don’t know if this is true where you live, but here in the Twin Cities, straw bale gardening is taking off big time. Nurseries are finding it difficult to meet customer demand and articles are popping up in various media about something that for many of us is a new way to grow. As an urban grower with very limited growing space, I’m intrigued by this approach and have decided to give it a try this year. Here’s the first of what I expect will be several posts about my first attempt at straw bale gardening.

Getting Started with Straw Bale Gardening

Despite my enthusiasm, I decided to be wise and try just one bale this year. But I want to do it right, so I also decided to buy the book, Straw Bale Gardens, by Joel Karsten, the person who seems to have first developed this approach. A farm boy who missed gardening after moving to the Twin Cities to attend college and start a career, he experimented with straw bales after buying a house which proved to offer poor growing conditions. He has now collected what he learned from years of experience into a guide that can be used by those with enough space for a single bale as well as those wishing to create a whole straw bale garden. The book is clear and concise, and I think it was a wise investment.

Straw Bale Pre-Conditioning (by Cyndy Crist)
Straw Bale Pre-Conditioning (by Cyndy Crist)

Once I had read it, my next step was to determine where to put my bale. Although I’ve lived and gardened at this house for many years, I realized that I needed to pay a little more attention to the amount of sunlight received in the several spots I had in mind before choosing one. Karsten cautions that it is important not to move the bale once its conditioning has begun (more on that in a minute), so for several days, I checked periodically to be sure I had a good sense of how much sunlight each spot would get across the arc of a day, including some guesses about how the light would change as trees leaf out and the sun’s path shifts in the sky.

Because preparing the bale for growing requires deep and regular watering, and since one never knows whether rainfall will be sufficient to give plants the moisture they need throughout the growing season, it was also essential to consider how easy it would be to get water to the bale before settling it in place. As a result, I dragged the hose out of the garage sooner than I ordinarily would in the spring, hooked it up, and pulled it off the reel to be sure it would reach even the most “remote” spot.

Conditioning the Straw Bale

straw bale conditioning
Straw Bale Conditioning (by Cyndy Crist)

Once I had confirmed a location for my bale and moved it into place, I was ready to start the conditioning process. This consists of a specific pattern of fertilizing and watering the bale in order to prepare it to host plants. The book clearly describes the process and summarizes it in a chart, so it could hardly be easier to follow – in fact, the only little challenge is keeping track from day to day of where one is in the process (I wrote my start date by the day one description in the book). Since the fertilizing starts on day one and because the amounts of fertilizer to be used and total conditioning time vary by fertilizer type, it is essential to decide up-front whether to use a “conventional” or organic product. I plan to grow edibles in my straw bale, so I decided to purchase a bale from an organic grower and to use organic fertilizer.

I am now one week into the conditioning process that, for organic growing, requires 15 days. This is essentially a process of sprinkling on fertilizer and watering one day, only watering the next, and continuing to alternate these steps for a week before a few days of daily fertilizing and watering, and finally planting. Ideally, I might have started the conditioning a couple of days sooner than I did in order to be ready to plant over Memorial Day week-end (the timing often recommended in my neck of the woods as being safely past the last frost), but I’m not really concerned. One of the advantages of straw bale gardening is that the bale warms up more quickly than the soil in a garden bed, a particular advantage for plants like tomatoes and basil that sulk if planted in cool soil. As a result, when I am ready to plant, my vegetables should get off to a good start.

Other Steps and Strategies for Straw Bale Gardening

The book offers other ideas for success in preparing for straw bale gardening, such as setting up soaker hoses if that will be essential to growing success; providing supports as needed to keep multiple bales firmly in place and/or to secure plastic sheeting or other covers or protections; and garden designs and plant selections. It also provides information about options for fertilizers and strategies for planting seeds directly in the straw bales. In short, it’s a good resource that I’ve already consulted multiple times, but there’s plenty of good information on the web about growing in straw bales for those who don’t want to add to their gardening library.

I think I know what I’m going to plant in my straw bale, but I still have a little time to finalize my plan. I’ll let you know what I end up planting and how things are going throughout the growing season. For now, I’m excited to be well on my way to a new way of growing!

2013 Heirloom Tomato and Pepper Varieties at HeathGlen’s Farmers’ Markets

Heirloom Tomato Varieties - Gourmet Black

It’s sometimes difficult to sort through the staggering array of tomato and pepper varieties available in today’s markets.  I try to help my customers at the market by asking a series of questions, focusing on lifestyle and ultimate use of their tomatoes.  Do they make a lot of salsa?  Are they at the cabin and away from home a lot?  Do they entertain and want beautiful color and variety in their salads?  Are they into DIY and want to dry, can or pickle their tomatoes?  Are they novice gardeners and want the best chance of success?  Etc.  In addition to the questions, I post signs with photos of the heirloom tomato and pepper varieties available this year (2013).  Even if you are not a customer, these signs may help you organize your thoughts on varieties.

Heirloom Tomato and Pepper Varieties for 2013:

The following photos are signs I use at the markets, and they are organized by color and/or type of tomato primarily because these categories are easiest to explain to customers at a busy market.  For more specific information on size, growth habit, flavor, and disease resistance see this post which gives more in-depth information (*note that the previous post is for 2012 varieties, so a few varieties on the signs will not be listed).  Here are the 2013 signs:

Best Tomato Varieties for Early Tomatoes and/or Best for Disease Resistance:

Early Heirloom Tomato Varieties or Disease Resisant Varieties

 Best Heirloom Tomatoes for Making Sauces or Growing in Containers:

 Early Heirloom Tomato Varieties or Disease Resisant Varieties

Best Main-Season Tomatoes for Slicing & Fresh Eating (i.e., think BLTs):

Heirloom Tomato Varieties - Main Season Slicers

Best Beefsteak-Type Heirloom Varieties (think BLTs and bragging rights – generally later):

Heirloom Tomato Varieties - Beefsteak Types

Heirloom Tomato Varieties – Gourmet Black Varieties:

Heirloom Tomato Varieties - Gourmet Black

Best Heirloom Tomato Varieties – Sweet Orange Varieties:

Heirloom Tomato Varieties - Sweet Orange

Best Heirloom Tomato Varieties – Mild Yellow & Tangy Green:

Heirloom Tomato Varieties - Mild Yellow and Tangy Green

Best Heirloom Tomato Varieties – Gourmet Striped:

Heirloom Tomato Varieties - Gourmet Striped

Best Variety of Cherry Tomatoes (Heirloom & Hybrid):

sign - cherries (464x640)

Best Pepper Varieties – Hot & Spicy:

Pepper Varieties - Hot & Spicy

Best Pepper Varieties – Sweet:

Pepper Varieties - Sweet

There you have it for 2013 varieties.  Some are new to me and being trialed, but most are tried and true in Minnesota.

Share some of your favorites?  I’d love to hear about the varieties you liked or loved, as well as the ones that didn’t do it for you for whatever reason.

Thanks, and I hope you’re finding these posts helpful.