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?

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?

 

StrawBale Garden – Year 3

For the past four years, my Dad and I have kept a small garden. This is our third year to do the bulk of our planting in straw bales. You can read more about year 1 and year 2 here. I’ve written about the cost benefits of straw bale gardening here.GardenUpdate2

This year, we’ve moved our garden to the other side of our property, and, like last year, increased the number of bales we’re using. Currently, we’re up to 12 bales (at $4 a piece, that’s approximately $50 in bales w/tax). We’ve also go approximately $150 invested in the various plants (both vegetables & flowers), $20 in fertilizer, and $20 in a new water hose. GardenUpdate5

Since we moved our garden, we’ve also taken down a portion of our privacy fence. Dad and I saved the lumber from the fence and crafted these sweet sides to box in the bales. Now, instead of purchasing all new bales each year, we’ll end up with raised beds at the end of the growing season and will just have to add a few bales of straw to supplement the “dirt” for next year. GardenUpdate9

We also had someone illegally dump tires on our property – which we quickly converted to more raised beds (these will hold 2 cauliflower and broccoli plants each). In the bales we’re planting zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, and 2 types of tomatoes. In other beds we’ve got strawberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, and various herbs.GardenUpdate6

Plus, last year, we made the awesome decision to plant asparagus in a permanent in-ground bed – and this year they’ve really taken off! I’ve already harvested 20 spears and some are as big around as my finger!GardenUpdate3Yep, it’s looking like this will be a great year for gardening – assuming we make it through the Spring storm season unscathed…fingers crossed!

What all are you planting this year?

 

A Greener Garden

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I am so happy to report that despite the initial lack of growth, my home straw bale garden is finally starting to take off. We’ve been steadily soaking the bales with a mix of miracle grow and water, and friends, it has made a world of difference. We’ve even got a volunteer pumpkin vine overtaking one side. (Dad is anxious for some pies, I can tell you that.)NewTomato

Finally, after the initial harvest left us with lots of blooms but no fruit, our tomato plants are starting to produce mini tomatoes,SquashFlower

The squash is blooming like crazy,CucumberVine

And for the first time ever I was able to harvest a cucumber!CucumberI’d say that’s a win!

So, what have we learned this round of gardening? Plants need food – and when you don’t set the bales out to begin composting early enough, and you fail to prep them properly, you can surely expect to see it affect your harvest. In other words – add more fertilizer.

All that said, I doubt we’ll be harvesting any yellow squash, zucchini, or cauliflower from the bales this year. I just don’t think we got a good enough start to enable the plants to produce anything viable enough to harvest. Hopefully they prove me wrong, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  The cauliflower planted in the ground seems to be doing well enough – if we can get the slugs to lay off it. We bought a couple of bags of sand this weekend, and I’m planning to spread it around the ground beds to discourage the slug from eating our cabbage & cauliflower.

Do you know of anything else that’s good slug repellant? I’m trying to stay away from chemicals if at all possible. I’d love to hear your own garden updates, pest tips, and anything else you’d like to share about gardening in the comments 🙂