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

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.

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.