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.