Friday, May 29, 2015

Straw Bales DO Grow Food

Wide Bale bed growing keeping onions. 
I took some photos of the straw bale garden yesterday. So many of my neighbors keep asking how the straw bale garden is going. I'm as curious as they are. Since I last posted, I transplanted out the rest of my tomatoes, the peppers and eggplants, the zucchini and the tomatillos. I'm not really sure what to say when people ask how it's going. I don't have any reference. On the one hand, the plants are alive, and aren't getting eaten by gophers (despite ample evidence of gophers around the bales). On the other hand, they are growing differently than they do when planted in soil, which until now is the only way I have ever grown vegetables.

I'm not sure if I'm seeing the kind of growth and flourishing I'd like to see. I'm getting the sense that some of the bales maybe aren't as decomposed inside as I would like, but I don't know yet if this is important or not. I can't tell if I'm overwatering or under-watering. Sometimes the plants look dry and the bales don't seem that wet inside, but some bales seem very wet and too cold inside. For now, I'm going with trusting that the bales and the plants will figure it out, even if I am making mistakes.

One thing I'm unsure about is our water line. The author of the straw bale garden book uses soaker hoses to water his bales, but I'm using half-inch drip line, with emitters every 9 or 12 inches (depending on when I bought it!). It's possible that this type of water line doesn't provide enough volume to saturate the bales. 

It also seems like the root balls would like an easier substrate to move through, and that some of our bales more than others are very dense, and even with the decomposition that has started inside, they are fibrous and tight. In the tomatoes, especially, it seems that the plants above ground are reflecting contained roots in a way they don't when grown in soil. Drew suggested it might be the heavy winds we get in the spring. 

All this to say that this method and my use of it are a trial-by-fire experiment, and I'm enjoying seeing the results. There are many aspects that ARE working well: no gopher damage, very little weeding, no trouble with symphylans (a soil-dwelling organism that nibbles on growing root tips, stunting the growth of the plants), instant garden in the front yard, easy access for harvest, built-in trellis and support for row covers, and no need to water, since everything is on a timer. We've already eaten bok choi, broccoli, lettuce, radishes, and peas. Stay tuned! Scroll down for some more photos.

Other Wide bed, with fresh lettuce starts and broccoli and cauliflower.

New broccoli on the way

The pea bed: sugar snaps, snow peas, and shelling peas.

Two of three tomato beds: sauce, cherries, early, and slicers.

Eggplant and pepper bed.

Zucchini and tomatillo bed, soon to add cucumbers.

One lone carrot that made it from the initial planting.

Buttercrunch lettuce. 
Shelling peas, first time ever growing!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pesky-But-Nice Scotch Broom

That pesky, pesky scotch broom, it's so pervasive, and abundant, and downright invasive. Here is a clue as to why this is so: if you direct your attention to "Exhibit A", above, you will notice that this small sample of scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) branch is literally covered in flowers. There are probably more than a hundred blossoms on this one little piece.

Each of those flowers forms a seed pod, which, given the general characteristics of plants in the Fabaceae (Pea) family, contains approximately 6-10 seeds. After the seed pods mature, they dry out with the cessation of the rain. On a hot summer day, if you listen carefully to a hedge of scotch broom, you can hear a crackling that sounds curiously like a grass fire. The pods burst apart, throwing the seeds away from the plant. In this small sample in the photo, if there really are a hundred flowers, this little tiny branch will make 600-1,000 seeds!

This may have something to do with why our property was about 40% covered in scotch broom when we bought it! We are now nearly 10 years into managing this invasive plant on our place, and are clear it will be an ongoing project throughout the rest of our lives.

Fortunately for us, there are a few redeeming qualities of the yellow scourge. For one, the plant fixes nitrogen, which is a great boon for our wind-deposited soil. If you don't mind all those seeds spewing forth, it makes a great windbreak, and this time of year, it's like sunshine on a gray and cloudy day. And I have also discovered that it makes a decent yellow dye for my yarn project, Lost Coast Yarn. Scotch broom is closely related to French broom, a traditional yellow dye plant. It doesn't take much material to create  a good yellow. Though I won't be harvesting enough to make a dent in the crazy quantity of broom all over our land, I am clipping the most flowery branches to dry and to use as dyestuff. Here's to turning our waste-products into resources! Cheers!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

First Edibles of the Season

I just returned from a week away, but I snapped these pics before I left so I could show off my garden, in case anyone asked. No one did, but now I get to share them with all of you! 

Bok choi is an amazing plant. It cannot be stopped. It just wants to grow, and get to the part about making flowers and seeds. They really embraced this strange, grow-in-a-bale-of-straw lifestyle. For a little while before my departure, we juiced bok choi with apples, carrots and lemon, and made stir fry (yum). Several years ago, when we were daily bathing our cells in phytonutrients, we would make a half gallon of fresh veggie juice every morning with these ingredients, and drink it throughout the day. It really is refreshing and delicious and so good for you. (If you want more info about juicing, check out

Moving right along, we have the row of peas, which finally seem to be taking off, though no flowers yet. This row also has arugula, radishes, spinach, and lettuce, planted underneath the peas. I don't think the nitrogen had mellowed enough for the radishes because when I pulled them up yesterday, they had 4-10 rootlets, and were not one nice round ball. This often happens with carrots if they have too much N as well. Note to self:  bales are maybe not for root crops? The book says it's fine, but I'm not so sure.

Next we come to lettuce, looking very nice. We enjoyed our first head as a salad on the night I returned home, and there's a lot more out there. We are finding, again, that lettuce does prefer the overhead watering, so we might get a few misters to water these babies, to keep them luscious and un-leathery, as well as un-bitter. In any event, home-grown lettuce is always far better than store-bought, and we have gone too long without it.

Lastly, here is the next round of bales! In addition to these, there are three more next to the pea row. Most of these are going to be for tomatoes, and other summer crops. They are almost ready. I messed up a bit when I planted my tomatoes too early this year. I used to plant in February, until I realized that the ground was never ready early enough for the February starts. Better to plant at the March new moon. But being a little out of practice, since we skipped a lot of gardening last summer, I forgot this very important detail. Our tomato plants have been ready to get out of pots for several weeks already, but the bales are only now just barely ready. Learn and forget, learn and forget. Sooner or later, we'll be experts, but not yet!