By Cyndy Crist
November 26, 2013
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.
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
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
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.