Planting the Straw-Bale Garden – Year 4

The week I got back from Ecuador (back in April), my Dad and I planted our strawbale garden – and man has it taken off. Before I share some progress photos and stats (scheduled for next week), I thought it might be fun to run through the basics of this year’s spread. StrawBaleGardenPlanting2015_ - 2

After last year’s boxed in beds, we still had loads of great compost ready for planting – unfortunately, as compost tends to do, it had shrunk quite a bit. So, to bring up the level of the beds, we supplemented the compost with 2 additional strawbales that had been setting out all winter. We shredded these bales and stuffed them in the boxes where more dirt was needed. Afterwards, we topped the boxed beds with a thin layer of garden soil to help stabilize the new plants. In these boxes, we planted 6 tomatoes, 4 cucumbers, and 3 yellow squash.

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And, like last year – and every year we’ve been strawbale gardening – we doubled the size of our beds. Last fall we bought 14 bales and set them out parallel to the boxed in beds. They composted all winter, and were prime for planting this spring. In these, we 3 zucchini plants.

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The tomatoes and yellow squash have taken to their new homes brilliantly, and the boxed in beds are quickly converting to actual soil-filled raised beds, which is the long term goal. 

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All in all, it’s looking to be a very promising year in the garden. And I’m super excited to start harvesting tomatoes – BLT sandwiches are calling my name!

Have you planted a garden this year?

 

Garden Planning 2015

In a few short weeks Dad and I will be planting our next straw-bale garden. And, in keeping with our tradition, we’re planning on doubling in size from last year. Back in the fall, we bought 15 bales and set 12 of them out to begin composting over the winter. We’ll use the remaining 3 bales to supplement last year’s garden beds.

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Now, as the spring teases us, I get to start the fun part of the Winter Gardening- the planning! But, before we dive in, let me give you a quick run down of what the garden looked like in 2014.

Planted in Straw-Bales:

  • 8 tomato plants yielding 475 tomatoes
  • 2 yellow squash plants yielding 21 squash
  • 1 zucchini plant yielding 5 zucchini
  • 4 cucumber plants yielding 82 cucumbers

Planted in Raised Beds

  • Carrots – lots planted, not as many harvested.
  • 1 watermelon plant yielding 3 watermelons
  • 1 cantaloupe plant yielding 5 cantaloupes
  • Several strawberry plants producing at least 4 quarts of strawberries
  • Several 2 and 3 year old asparagus roots producing at least 4 bundles of asparagus spears
  • 6 cauliflower plants yielding 6 heads of cauliflower
  • 6 broccoli plants yielding 10 heads of broccoli

All in all it wasn’t a bad year. We had some hiccups – but we’re in a better place because of them. For 2015, we’re looking to eliminate the cauliflower and broccoli (easy to plant, produced a lot, we didn’t eat any of it – no need to grow it if we’re not going to eat it). We’re also looking to increase the number of watermelon and cantaloupe plants and switch out our strawberry variety. The strawberries we planted were very bland and had a watery taste. We’re hoping to find a stronger fruit with a heartier berry.

We’ll be sticking with 8 tomato plants, but we plant to spread them out a bit more – they were packed pretty tight last year which was pain when it came to harvesting. We’ll be doing the same with the cucumber – spreading the plants out and allowing more room for them to vine. The asparagus are doing fantastic where they are, and we don’t plan on making any changes to their bed – which is full – so if we plant more, we’ll have to find an additional area to plant them in (but you won’t catch me complaining. I love asparagus).

Finally, we’re going to augment the soil for the carrots – doubling the depth from approximately 6 inches to 12 inches. We had a ton of tiny carrots, but they never fully matured. I think the soil was a big part of this – I don’t think they had anywhere to go. I’m also going to prune them back quite a bit this year. Last year I just spread the seeds and let them go – no culling – which led to overcrowding and malnourished plants.

That’s the plan so far, anyway. Do you have a garden plan for this year? Have you started to think about what you’ll be planting in a few weeks?

 

5 Steps to Winterizing Your Straw Bale Garden

I’ve written about my Straw Bale Garden system several times over the past couple of years, and I swear by this method of gardening. I’m telling you, if you have the blackest thumb out there, the worst soil, the smallest space, you should give straw-bale gardening a try.  You can read more about my gardening successes and methods here, here, and here.

We don’t actually do much to the garden in the winter. Come September, the growing season is usually over (though this year we were harvesting tomatoes on Halloween), and we just let the plant run their course. There are a few easy steps we do before shutting completely down for the season though, and I thought it might be fun to share those with you. Below are our 5 easy steps to winterizing a straw bale garden.

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1. Trim, Cut Back, Pull Out

Remove dead foliage, prune perennials as needed, and make room for a new crop in the Spring. Clean up and clear out.

2. Fill In

Straw bales shrink drastically as the season progresses, and you’re likely to find some big gaps in your beds come Fall. Take a moment to fill those gaps with additional straw or potting soil – if you’ll fill at the end of the season, the new straw/soil can compost all winter and continue to create nutrients for your spring planting. This is also the time to add new bales if you want to expand your garden, or your old bales have completely fallen apart (which can happen – before we boxed our bales in, we were buying new bales each season.)

3. Water Down

Give your new and old bales a good soak. You’re at the end of summer, it’s likely been dry and hot and now the growing season is over – this watering will give the winter composting cycle a bit of a jump start and help the bales in their decomposition and nutrient building.

4. Let Set

Walk away. Seriously – walk away from the bales. Leave them alone the rest of the winter. Let them compost and absorb the winter – let the snow but nitrogen into your spring garden, let the rain soak in the sponge-like bales, and just let them set. When you come back in a few months, ready to plant a new crop, your bales will be primed and ready (I do recommend you give them an initial fertilizing boost prior to planting – read more here)

5. ReEvaluate

Last but not least, reevaluate your garden. What worked? What didn’t? What do you want to change for next year? Take notes and then put the notes away for a few weeks. Rest. Let yourself enjoy the winter. Then, a few weeks before you need to prep the next growing season, pull out your notes and revisit your thoughts. Make any last minute changes to the plan, and let your green thumb loose.

That’s it! Easy huh? That’s what we’ve found to best work for us and while I’m sure there are many other things we could be doing to the garden in the cold months, we’d just rather not. These 5 steps really are all we need each year in order to have a good start for the next crop – and why mess with what works?

For those of you who garden but don’t straw bale garden, do you have any special prep you do over the winter?

Canning Tomatoes: A How to Guide

It’s pretty safe to say we’ve had a bumper crop of tomatoes this year – over 320! And, while I love a good garden tomato freshly sliced and salted, there’s just so many you can eat before you realize you’re on the verge of burning out and still not making a dent in the crop. So, in order to save the tomatoes, and still have some garden fresh tastes long into the winter, I opted to can most of our crop. Canning is a bit time consuming, but well worth the effort, especially come January when you’re snowed in and really just want a warm, hearty soup. At that point, there’s nothing better than being able to pull out your own garden’s produce and whip up a bowl of pure comfort.

To can, I follow the super simple steps my Grandmother taught me:

  1. Find a large stock pot and fill it 3/4 full of water
  2. Place pot on burner and turn heat to medium-high
  3. Add tomatoes to the still-cool water, until the pot is full and the tomatoes still have a bit of room to float aroundTomatoCanning_3
  4. Boil tomatoes until their skin cracksTomatoCanning_2
  5. Remove tomatoes from water and let them cool a bit (We had so many tomatoes that we boil in batches until all the tomatoes have cracked open)
  6. Peel and core the tomatoes
  7. Drain the water, put the peeled/cored tomatoes back into the pot (for diced/crushed/pieced tomatoes give them a rough chop before dropping back into the pot)TomatoCanning_1
  8. Add a tablespoon or so of salt and simmer the tomatoes for about 15 minutes
  9. In the meantime, get out your sterilized jars and can lids.TomatoCanning_4
  10. Bring a small saucepan 1/2 full of water to a simmer. Drop the sealing lids in the hot water for a few seconds to soften the wax.
  11. Once the tomatoes are finished simmering, pour them into your sterilized jars. Fill only to where the threads begin on the jar’s top.
  12. Wipe the mouth of the jar clean, top with a waxed sealing lid, and loosely screw on the rim.
  13. Let the jars sit until you hear that classic “pop” indicating that the jars have sealed.
  14. Once cool, store your now canned tomatoes away in a cabinet for use later.
  15. If you have any jars that failed to seal, store those jars in the refrigerator and use them within a couple of weeks.

Note, there are several ways to can, some call for additional processing. This is the method that works for me. And so far, I’ve gotten over 10 quarts of tomatoes canned and ready for the winter.

Do you can anything from your garden?

Dallas Arboretum & Botanical Gardens: A Quick Photo Tour

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Last week I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Dallas for a work-related workshop. I flew in Monday and had the entire afternoon to explore Dallas before the workshop began on Tuesday. Before leaving, I scouted out several area attractions online and narrowed my options down based on proximity to the airport, proximity to my hotel, and amount of time required to see the entire attraction. Normally, I seek out a live theatre production or museum first. And, while Dallas has so many live theatre options – none of them had a show going that would fit my available time while I was there….super disappointing. Knowing that, I went back and forth between the Dallas Zoo, the Perot Museum, and the Arboretum & Botanical Garden. The zoo had some recent storm damage and closed exhibits – taking it off the list; the Perot Museum reads more like a children’s museum online with lots of reading exhibits (think posters on the walls type of displays) – which took it off the list; leaving the Arboretum. Being halfway between the airport and my hotel didn’t hurt, either.Dallas_03

The Gardens were beautiful – all decked out for Autumn with tons of pumpkins, mums, and other cool-blooming flowers. Not to mention, the squirrels were going crazy stocking up on pumpkin seeds and nuts. Dallas_07 Dallas_09 Dallas_06 Dallas_08 Dallas_05 Dallas_02

There were also a ton of monarch butterflies stopping by on their way to Mexico. Dallas_10 Dallas_01Overall, I’m happy that the Arboretum won and had a good afternoon wandering around the various gardens.

Have you ever been to the Dallas Arboretum – or an arboretum in general? Do you know of any other great attractions in Dallas?

 

Summer 2014: A Straw-Bale Garden Update

We have an incredibly mild summer in Northeastern Arkansas – and the straw-bale garden has been booming because of it. As I said back when we first planted the garden, this year we moved the location of our straw bales to an area that gets full sun all day. That simple change has made a huge difference in our yield.GardenUpdateS2014_5

Unfortunately, the tomatoes and carrots are the only plants still producing, but despite the loss of the cucumbers and squash, we still had an abundant harvest. I’m fairly sure that the mosquito sprayer, paired with inadequate spacing on my part, is what finally got the cucumbers & squash. Next year we plan to add another 12 bales and have an entire row of tomatoes and then 1/2 a row of cucumbers and 1/2 a row of squash – spacing everything out more and better supporting all of the vining plants.GardenUpdateS2014_1

Thankfully, other than major sprawling from the vines, we haven’t had any real problems with the garden this year. Both the cucumbers and squash produced a ton before finally croaking, and we were even able to harvest some broccoli and cauliflower this year – a first for us. I can confidently say that each year since we first started straw-bale gardening, we’ve seen nothing but improvement. This is still the easiest gardening method I’ve ever tried and the most bountiful.
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So far this growing season, we’ve harvested:

  • 172 tomatoes
  • 12 carrots
  • 21 yellow summer squash
  • 5 zucchini
  • 3 watermelons
  • 4 cantaloupes
  • at least 4 quarts of strawberries
  • at least 4 bundles of asparagus spears
  • 80 cucumbers
  • 5 heads of cauliflower
  • 10 heads of broccoli

That’s more than double what we harvested last year.
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Last night alone, I picked nearly 30 tomatoes. Seriously, I love a good garden-grown tomato & we are up to our ears in them! I’ll be canning the majority of our harvest and plan to share my canning process soon. I also did a bit of pickling with the cucumbers, but honestly, haven’t found that golden recipe for awesome pickles just yet. If you’ve got a favorite pickle recipe, I’d love to know what it is! Mine turn out much too sour or the vinegar is much to strong….
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How is your garden? Do you have any plans for Fall planting?

 

A Trip to the Farmer’s Market

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This past Saturday, our local Farmer’s Market opened for the season, and, after realizing that we talk about going all the time but never really go, Dad and I set our alarms for wayy too early on a Saturday morning, loaded up the cooler, and set out for the market. FarmersMarket4

To say I was surprised by the variety of goods for sale would be an understatement. It’s early for the growing season here in Arkansas, and I really hadn’t expected many vendors – at best, I’d hoped to buy a few bunches of asparagus to supplement what I’m harvesting at home. But you guys, I was blown away. They had the traditional produce vendors, sure, but they also had vendors selling homemade sausages, hamburger meat, steaks, lotions, vegan soap, jewelry, birdhouses, and the list could go on forever. The vendors outgrew the facility – It was amazing!FarmersMarket2We bought a ton – and we left so much more behind. They had so many beautiful flowering plants, great looking vegetable plants and herbs, and some pretty rad birdhouses (I was seriously eyeing a white gourd birdhouse like this one – I just couldn’t figure out how you would hang it…. maybe next time). They also had some delicious smelling homemade bread and a large variety of jams and jellies to go with it.

FarmersMarket3At the end of our hour-long trip, our haul included: 3 bundles of asparagus, 1 lb pork sausage, 1 lb hamburger meat, 2 beef tip steaks, 2 loaves of apple bread, 1 huge bag of kettle corn, 1 nutella bread roll, 1 raspberry cinnamon roll (my breakfast), 1 fried apple pie (Dad’s breakfast), 1 loaf yeast bread, 1 loaf sourdough bread, 1 loaf of parmesan garlic focaccia bread, and 2 quarts of local strawberries. So awesome.

Do you have a local farmer’s market? What’s your favorite/most unexpected thing to buy there?