Oh don't get me wrong – I still love to grow flowering perennials and I couldn't be without my pots of sunny dahlias, petunias and fancy coleus. But this planting season, the 'Call of the Edibles' was stronger then ever.
In the garden centre, I found myself gravitating to the vegetable starts; I kept my ears open for 'giveaway ' vegetable plants from friends and neighbours. These are all signs of 'The Change'.
I am like many gardeners who are interested in the potential of urban agriculture. I want to see what can grow in a city yard – given enough sunshine, water and attention. In June I felt real excitement when I set up my carefully-stored straw bales for another season of this alternative growing method.
Yes, typically you have to replace the bales each season. Since farmers make straw in the late summer and it's hard to find in the spring, I bought straw bales last fall and covered them with a tarp to keep it dry over winter.
Now, the conditioning process is key to straw bale success, Once again I followed the regimen of fertilizer inputs to get the bales 'cooking'. This decomposition within the bales gives off heat and supports great veggie growth. (See the Straw Bale Gardening page)
But there were challenges.
It rained and rained. It stayed cold. It rained some more. I wondered if the the fertilizer was just washing out of the bales; I worried that the bales would not heat up properly. I wondered when I could plant my tomatoes and cucumbers – both heat-loving crops – in the bales.
Like every gardener, I had to make a call and get those plants in! I was nervous the bales weren't ready, but when I saw mushrooms on the sides of the bales, I knew all would be well. As straw bale guru Joel Karsten says, the conditioning always works out in the end.
Here we are a good 3-4 weeks later and the tomatoes are growing tall, setting blossoms and fruit. They are doing well.
What I've learned this year...
Healthy tomato starts can have a good-sized root mass. To ease the plant into the bale without damaging those tender roots, I learned you can create a cavity by pulling out some straw, working until you have a generous hole. I added potting soil and 10-10-10 fertilizer to the hole before planting. (Thanks to Master Gardener Hazel B for demonstrating this trick.)
Metal fence posts are useful for holding the bale row together and for running additional wire to support tomato plants. Wire fencing makes a good trellis for cucumbers.
A bale garden is essentially a raised bed. When we had intense rains and my backyard flooded overnight, my tomato plants were high above the water. The same wouldn't be true had they been planted in a conventional garden. I read about this benefit; now I believe it.
So there you have it – Season 2 of the straw bale garden. So far so good.