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.


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!

4-Week Old Heirloom Tomato Plants & 10 Tips for Potting Them Up

4-week heirloom tomatoes in 4" pots
4-week heirloom tomatoes in 4″ pots

I’ve had a number of requests to show the growth stages of heirloom tomato plants and pepper plants, particularly at the 4-week stage.  The 4-week stage is fairly important, as that is typically when the seedlings are outgrowing their cells and need to be potted up into larger containers to continue growing strong and vigorous for their permanent bed in the garden or large pot.  Here are some photos of the 4-week growth stage of heirloom tomatoes and tips for potting up the seedlings.

Tips for Potting up Heirloom Tomato Plants:

  1. 4-week heirloom tomatoes still in flat
    4-week heirloom tomatoes still in flat

    As you get ready to pot up young heirloom tomato plants (or pepper seedlings), a better indicator of timing than the 4-week period, is to pot them up after they have two sets of true leaves (do not count the seed leaves at the bottom).

  2. Handle the seedlings by the leaves rather than the stems.  If you tear a leaf, the plant will still grow.  If you break the tender stem, the plant is ready for the compost pile.
  3. 5-week old pepper plants
    5-week old pepper plants

    I grow my initial heirloom tomato plants in 196-cell trays, and when it is time to pot up I take a butter knife and gently pop the plant out of the cell with the soil bundle (aka a plug) intact.  Have a 4″ pot ready with moist potting soil and make a hole with your finger in the center of the 4″ pot.  Place the seedling plug into this hole and gently press the soil around it to make contact with the roots.

  4. If you grow many seedlings in one container rather than in cells, you will need to tease apart the roots from each seedling and then place in the hole of the 4″ container.  Alternatively, you can snip off the weaker seedlings at the soil line and leave the strongest plant in the container to take advantage of the nutrients in the remaining soil.  Remember…don’t handle the seedlings by the stem!
  5. Newly potted up heirloom tomato plants may look limp and stressed the first day or two.  Don’t fret and do anything drastic like fertilizing them.  They will recover with a couple days rest in the same environment they were in prior to potting up.  Keep them out of bright sunlight for a couple of days.
  6. When potting the heirloom tomato plants up to larger pots, plant them a bit deeper than they were in the cell or original container.  Additional roots will form along the buried stem and give you a more vigorous plant.  You can cover the seed leaves and plant right up to the lower set of true leaves.
  7. Use the same potting soil that you used to start your seeds…not garden soil.
  8. Water the tomato seedlings in their cells or container well BEFORE you start to pot up.  Moist soil will cling to the roots and protect them from drying out.
  9. Depending on the weather and when you are going to put the heirloom tomato plants in their permanent bed, you may want to pot up a second time.  A good rule of thumb when deciding when to do the second transplant is to wait until the height of the seedling is three times the diameter of its pot (probably around 6-10″ tall).
  10. Trouble shooting:  If your heirloom tomato seedlings are getting tall and spindly, it may be related to:
  • the light source may be too weak or too far away from the growing tip;
  • the room temperature may be too warm (I keep my daytime temperature around 70 degrees and the night temperature around 50 degrees; or
  • you are using too much fertilizer.  Just use potting soil that already has fertilizer in it or use potting soil with compost.  Wait until they are outside before getting more generous with fertilizer.
April 19, 2013 in Forest Lake, MN
April 19, 2013 in Forest Lake, MN

This is the longest, coldest winter we have had here in Minnesota, and while my heirloom tomato plants and pepper seedlings are currently quite happy in their protected environment, they will be hurting soon if we can’t get them hardened off.  It is April 19th and 4″ of new snow on the ground, and still snowing!!  Ugh.  I haven’t given up hope that we will have a long warm summer, but spring is looking pretty doubtful.  As a farmer, you do learn to roll with the punches, but I have to admit this is getting pretty depressing.

Signs and Solutions of Nutritional Deficiencies in Heirloom Tomato Seedlings

Young heirloom tomato seedlings will often show signs of nutritional deficiencies in their leaves, and if you know what to look for you can remedy it fairly easily.  Whether planting your heirloom tomato in the ground or in a pot, starting off with a healthy plant is the best prevention of later diseases that commonly plague all tomato plants.

If your seedlings are compact and not leggy, have green leaves, and a short distance between each set of leaves (short internodes), you’re good to go.  If somewhere along the line before you’re ready to plant out in the garden your seedlings start to show signs of trouble, treating it right away will often save the health of the plant.

First Order of Defense when Starting Tomatoes from Seed:

If you are starting your own tomatoes from seed, there are 3 keys to preventing nutritional deficiencies:

  1. Use clean potting soil rather than garden soil.  You can purchase good garden soil from most stores.  Miracle Grow Moisture Control is a good one.  If you want to go completely organic with your potting soil, see this post for a formula.
  2. If you start your seedlings in a flat with small cells, or a small container, pot up your plants when they have two sets of true leaves.  I go from a 196-cell flat to a 4″ pot to the garden and it has been a successful gradation for 15 years now.  There is not much soil in a small cell, hence the nutrient supply is rapidly depleted from the growing plant.
  3. Carefully control your watering regime.  Dryness and water logging can both make it difficult for plants to take up soil nutrients.  I water the seedlings once a day or less, taking my cue from how dry the soil looks (i.e., if the soil is light in color, then water; if it is dark it is still moist and doesn’t need more water).  I also use an indoor watering hose to water, as you can regulate the amount of water you’re giving the little cells much easier than a watering can with a spout.  I’m currently using The Rumford Gardener GA1001 40 Foot Indoor/Outdoor Garden Coil Hose with Spray Wand, as it is the only one I could find.  It seems to work just fine, as long as you have the coil at a height higher than the nozzle.  My old indoor watering hose had a great nozzle that regulated flow better, but it is no longer available (I have to admit it was cheaply made and broke every other year but when it worked it was the best).

Symptoms & Solutions for Common Nutritional Problems in Heirloom Tomato Seedlings:

A.  Symptom:  Yellowing of lower leaves.

  • Probable Cause:  Magnesium deficiency or overfertilizing.
  • Solution:  Decrease the amount of fertilizer you are giving the young plants.  If you used the Miracle Grow Moisture Control potting soil, you probably won’t need any extra fertilizer until they are planted outside.  If you haven’t given any fertilizer, it could be a lack of magnesium and you can water with a weak solution of Epsom salts. Over-use of high-potassium fertilizers can cause magnesium deficiency, as plants take up potassium in preference to magnesium.

B.  Symptom:  Pale green leaves

  • Probable Cause:  Not enough light or a Nitrogen deficiency
  • Solution:  If the seedling is getting plenty of light (16 hours of light/day is good), transplant the seedling to a container with fresh potting soil that contains nutrients; mix some compost in with your potting soil to ensure a nutrient supply.

C.  Symptom:  Purple leaf-tints with bronze or brown leaf edges.

  • Probable cause:  Plant is overwatered or has a Potassium deficiency
  • Solution:  If you are not overwatering (see above tips), give the plant a dose of fertilizer that contains trace minerals or transplant to a new medium with compost.

D.  Symptom:  Reddish purple undersides of leaves, accompanied by slow or stunted growth.

  • Probable Cause:  Phosphorus deficiency due to cold soil or acid soil
  • Solution:  Soil that is too acid or too cold can make it difficult for the plant to uptake phosphorus.  Transplant to new soil and do not water with cold water.

Graphical Portrayal of Deficiencies:

The graphic below is helpful in pictorially describing the symptoms I outlined above.  Unfortunately, I copied the graphic a while back for my own information, and can no longer remember where it came from, so I am at a loss as to who to credit.  If anyone knows which site this graphic came from, please comment below and I will credit them.

Graphic of Nutritional Deficiencies
Graphic of Nutritional Deficiencies

Resource for More In-Depth Information:

A very in-depth look at deficiencies in essential minerals of plants can be found here.  Although Mr. Berry’s book is not focused on the young seedlings before they are planted out, he goes into great scientific detail on the causes and remedies of nutritional deficiencies in plants.  The most helpful part of his work might be the photos however.  They are great photos showing in detail what some of these deficiencies look like on the plant (fortunately I could not take these photos, as my plants have not succumbed to the diseases on our farm).

Comments and questions are welcome.

5 Tips to help with Tomato & Pepper Seed Germination

Newly Germinated Seeds
Newly Germinated Seeds

Although there are many factors to consider in growing healthy tomato plants from seed, getting the seeds to germinate in the first place can sometimes be tricky.  After 15 years of growing peppers and tomatoes for market, I’d like to share a few tips that have helped influence germination success at my farm.

1) Seed Viability Relative to Germination:

  • Shelf life:  Tomato seeds tend to last much longer in storage than most other seed (i.e., onions need to be purchased fresh every year).  Just make sure they were stored properly (cool & dry) and you should have around a 4-5 year shelf life for tomato seeds.  Pepper seeds are considered by most growers to have a 2-3 year shelf life.  Fedco seed company puts out an informative chart on saving seeds, which includes estimates of shelf life for a range of vegetable seeds.  Click here for Fedco chart.
  • Storage:  Humidity shortens the life of saved seeds more than any other aspect.  Make sure seeds have wintered over in a cool and dry environment (such as in a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator or freezer).  Dry storage at less than 65 degrees F will give you good germination results.
  • Vigor:  A number of online gardening sites explain how to test a few of your seeds for germination before planting.  Just be aware that even if your older seeds germinate, if they are too old or shriveled they may have a scant supply of food stored in their endosperm and the plants may end up weak and/or stunted.

2)  Seed sowing tips:

  • Potting soil can be fluffy with air and seeds need to make good contact with the soil in order to germinate.  Moisten your potting soil before placing it in the flat or container, drop the flat on the ground from a few inches above the floor to settle the soil into the container cells, and then make sure your seed makes direct contact with the soil.  I use a #2 pencil to lightly push the seed into the cell and then use the pencil to push a bit of soil over the seed with enough pressure to make sure it securely covered
  • Very fine seeds do not need to be covered, just press them lightly into the soil.  A few seeds need light for germination (check your seed packages for which ones).
  • General rule of thumb is to cover seed to a depth of three times their size.

3)   Water & Germination:

  • Water must be available to the seeds in order for them to germinate, but some air must also reach the seed for it to absorb the oxygen it needs.  I mix my potting soil with very hot water until it is damp but not soaking wet.  A good test is to squeeze a fistful of your moistened soil, checking to see if only a few drops of water squeeze out rather than a stream.
  • Check your flats daily to make sure they have not completely dried out.  If they become too dry, moisten them gently with a spray bottle.  Peppers, in particular, do not like to germinate in wet soil.

4) Timing & Temperature:

  • The length of time it takes for your seeds to germinate is heavily related to soil temperature.  Tomato seeds should germinate within 5-6 days if you can keep the soil temperature around 80º F.  Peppers take a little longer with a little higher temperature (7-8 days at 85º F). Remember this is soil temperature, not ambient temperature.
  • Speeding things along:  I usually get germination earlier than the standard charts predict by placing bottom heat under my flats using 100-watt light bulbs (see this post for my seed-starting setup).  A nice infographic on the relationship between temperature and timing of germination can be found here from Easy Homesteading.

5) Special Germination Tricks for Difficult Seeds

  • Pre-soaking seeds:  Soaking seeds in warm water overnight before planting helps to soften the seed coat and speed up germination.   Many seeds, even if it is not stated in their steps of seed germination, will benefit from pre-soaking.  I don’t usually pre-soak tomato and pepper seeds, but I always pre-soak parsley, sweet peas and nasturtium seeds
  • Scarifying seeds:  This refers to the process of literally damaging the seed coat, usually by scratching the seed with sandpaper and then soaking in water.  Some seeds (i.e., woody plants in the legume family) are so hard and well protected by their seed coat that the seedling is not able to break through it on its own.  Tomato and pepper seeds do not need scarifying, but some of the larger seeds with hard seed coats would benefit from this.
Seed-Starting Reference Book
Seed-Starting Reference Book


I have been starting tomato and pepper seeds for market now for 15 years.  The book that I found to be most useful throughout my adventure is The New Seed Starter’s Handbook, by Nancy Bubel.  This book is research-oriented, comprehensive, and provides the scientific rationale behind each method she promotes.  For more thorough information on the tips offered in this post, I would highly recommend Nancy Bubel’s book.