Garden Journal – Straw Bale Update

When we moved to Vermont, our ZIP Code sat in a solid zone four. Now it is comfortably into zone five, and we set out seedlings a week earlier on Memorial Day weekend. Our day and nighttime temps can still be a bit bipolar, so when it looks like the nighttime lows will be below 40, I cover the tender annuals. Yesterday morning, however, I learned that, with straw bale gardening, less protection can be more.

The straw bale method involves conditioning the bales with plant food and water almost two weeks ahead of planting. This causes the straw to break down, and you are, essentially, planting your veggies in a compost heap. Like most compost heaps, the decomposing bales Start to “cook”. This means if you cover your tender annuals, like I did with the cukes pictured below, you need to make sure that they are uncovered as soon as the sun hits your garden. As you can see, I slept in a bit yesterday, and at least one of my little cukes got fried.

It’s still early enough in the season and hot enough outside that I can direct seed it to replenish, but I hate to sacrifice a soldier that was trying to serve me well.

By contrast, I did not cover the summer and winter squash or the tomatoes. Those plants were slightly bigger, and I had only so much material for protection. It was down in the low 40s on Saturday night and Sunday night, and I knew I was gambling.

When I walked out to the garden in the morning, however, this was the sunshine that greeted me:

I took a little trip to the back of the garden to check on the tomatoes, and every single one of them was getting ready to salute the sun:

The tomatoes do have weed block around them, but the real heat is coming from the bales.

Later in the day I went back to visit the garden –– I visit to talk to the plants and the bees in the nearby apple trees a few times a day – and while I highly recommend talking to plants and bees regularly for your mental well-being, my straw bales blessed me at the end of the day with a little botanical happy pill in the form of newly sprouted bush beans that I had direct seeded less than 48 hours earlier.

If I were to do the straw bale garden over again, I might set some of the seedlings out earlier and cover them for the first couple of weeks. The one caveat I have for other would-be straw bale gardeners is that, while the claim that you can’t overwater them appears to be true, the reverse is also seems to hold. You do need to check the moisture around your plants as you do with any gardening method.

So far, however, my plants seem to be loving the heat and the decomposing bales, and, as mentioned previous post, you can still sit to do your gardening.

Poem: Murder Most Foul

I’m thinning basil seedlings.
Eggplant, you’re next.
I’ve killed dozens of pepper shoots,
mourning the products of
seeds that worked so hard,
tossing them out the door.
Only the very best survive.
The cat runs by with a chipmunk who may escape her maul
but will more likely end up in the middle of the yard,
his entrails split over the new-cut grass while she,
without a trace of blood on her mouth
or guilt on her head,
returns to perch on her chair,
and watch me commit murder most foul.

Score One for Straw Bale

One of the quirks of Strawbale gardening is that, even though you don’t have to contend with perennial weeds that are real PIA to pull, conditioning bales of straw (made from cut grass) will generate weeds in your planting medium. You can smother it before it starts, but you will have to do some pulling as I did yesterday.

I’m trying to mulch as I pull so that it’s a one time deal, but since I’ve been sick most of the spring, bending at the waist to pull even a few blades of grass was mindbending I’m not in a good way. That’s how I discovered one of the other more beneficial quirks of this gardening method.

The basic steps of a straw bale garden our place, condition, and plant the bales. Some types of plants need soil on top of the bale before planting; others can go right into the conditioned straw. This year I had the kids do most of the placing – bales can be at least 35 or 40 pounds stone dry, but weeding is less glamorous. I made it even less so yesterday by having Thing1 bring a chair up to the garden after the weeding first bale literally benched me.

After stooping over gardens for the last two decades, sitting in a chair, weeding and mulching the second onion bed that was just the right size and height was not only not strenuous, it was downright enjoyable. Sitting, you get to talk with the cats and dog about what you’re doing (the cats still think you’re nuts), you get to take a look at what’s almost ready to be picked, and you even get to do a little meditating. Sure you get to meditate doing it the old-fashioned way, but being able to sit and do it it’s a big checkmark in the win column for Strawbale gardening this year.

P. S. I still highly recommend a nap when you’re done.

Snow Days

if you would asked me in February what Mother’s Day would look like, I would’ve told you we would be expecting to see Thing1, having finished his freshman year, coming home from school, And the four of us loading into the car for Mother’s Day brunch before I got started grading papers. I’ll probably write an IEP this afternoon before dinner, but that’s the only part of the plan still in place.

Thing1 is still upstairs sleeping off the tension from his last online exam. The Big Guy made me and Thing2 breakfast, and except for a brief trip to the garden, I’m spending the day writing in my study surrounded by my for babies. Will have dinner as a family later, and that, along with our daily walk through the melting snow will make it as perfect Mother’s Day is anyone could ask for, but my garden trip was a little gift too.

Traditional wisdom in Vermont put June 1 is the day to set up most siblings, but changing weather patterns have emboldened many of us. Mother Nature noticed, and sent us about 6 inches of wet snow Friday night, burying my recently planted greens.

I thought she might be trying to teach me a lesson that June 1 is planting day, but when I walked out to the garden I found another remind her in place. The spinach and kale practically smiled at the camera, and even the carrots couldn’t be prevented from peeking out through the snow. Frost and snow can slow growth, but it can’t stop it, not forever.

I Wonder What Would Happen

The great thing about having raised teenagers is that, when your perpetually adolescent cat puts his front paws up on your plant shelf and starts sniffing the various items that are ‘in his spot’, you know exactly what he’s thinking.

There’s a plum tree right outside my window, and the late spring has produced an explosion of blossoms (and hopefully plums) along with a squad of visiting chickadees. A chickadee chirp woke Jim up. He drew himself up into pounce position, turning his head this way and that as the chickadee hopped from branch to branch. Every few minutes he tried the cat equivalent of bunting — pretending to jump at his prey but not really doing anything.

Then the chickadee made a truly bold move, moving to a lower branch with a particularly lovely lunch of blossoms, and Jim had to make a move. I though he might forget that a window lay between them as he launched his front paws on to the plant shelf.

Instead he paused.

I let him sniff for a few minutes and could almost see the thought bubble above his head asking the classic question,

“I wonder what would happen if….”

In this case, ‘if’ was a temporarily forgotten chickadee as Jim tried simultaneously to move a hind leg onto the shelf so he could what would happen if he pushed the squash plant in front off the shelf. But, having watched Thing1 and Thing2 ask (and test) this question at various times about anything that could be climbed, blended, eaten, or flushed, I know when to let the experiment play out and when science is about to run amok.

I clapped my hands once . Jim’s hind foot returned to the poof and his gaze to the chickadee. The bird heard my clap, fluttered across the yard, and, for the greater good, scientific investigation was stymied.