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.

Common Creativity

When Thing1 was still a pea-picker, he hunched over his Matchbox cars for hours, watching their wheels and gears as he drove them around carpets and vitas he created and telling them their stories. I wish I had written them down because sometimes I think he needs proof as to just how creative he is. I think a lot of people do.

Thing1 is about to turn twenty. He knows how to fix cars and program computers. Anyone who watched him studying the movements of cars as a toddler would say it pretty accurately predicted his mechanical aptitude. 

His love of discovering how things work, however, often translates him putting high value on common sense and things that can be proven. When I tell him of the spaceships he conceived and drew, of the stories he told, he answers, “I’m just not all that creative anymore, Mom.”

Yesterday proved him wrong, and this time I got the photos to prove it. 

When Thing1’s college closed, his first action, over our strong objections, was to go job hunting. He received two offers as soon as the state closed down both businesses, but his employment history from the previous year earned him the ability to collect benefits during the pandemic (he wasn’t eligible for the stimulus because he’s too much of an adult and too much of a dependent to fall into any category the government considers visible).  He’s saving some of that money but, still a teenager for another two months, money can burn a hole in his pocket. 

Thursday he announced he was buying a hammock to use at school when it reopens. Then he announced he’d like to test drive at home. He asked the Big Guy and then me if we could think of any appropriately socially distant pairs of trees from which to hang it and, despite being surrounded by trees, we just scratched our heads.

Friday, Thing1 and Thing2 traced our normal route around the house, making incursions in to the forest when this or that pair of trees sparked their interest.  They showed us a few ideas, but the Big Guy and I just couldn’t see the right trees for the forest.

Saturday, Thing1 disappeared again and then took his machete and power saw to the woods behind the house. We heard some hacking and then a familiar buzz. Thing1 came back to assure us that the tree he’d taken down had been punky and about to fall anyway and then to invite us to the clearing he’d made. The Big Guy and I started our usual afternoon route and went to where the boys were waiting, Thing2 dancing from foot to foot to show us Thing1’s work.  

The boys had found a perfect opening into the forest and created a more defined path to a pair of trees that, somehow, the Big Guy and I had missed the day before. Thing1 had felled one tree and cleared some rosy bush between the two that would support his hammock. Then he indicated the tree-filled slope leading down to the river that will be the view for anyone sitting in the hammock.  

Thing1 had pulled a paradise from the mass of trees and rosy bush. When the hammock arrives, he’ll assemble it and give credit for the completed project to his common sense. I’d like to think that it was actually good old fashioned common creativity that helped him identify the perfect spot to meditate on the question.

Walking to Paradise

Lawnchair Psychology

The weather experts kept pushing back the storms’ arrival time yesterday, so we decided to get the chicks out of their indoor enclosure and into the outdoor tractor for a little playtime.  We still get some cold nights, and they’ll go outside full-time when we hear more clucking than peeping. That can’t happen soon enough for all of us because the difference in environment between even a lovingly maintained indoor enclosure and fresh green grass is stark. 

We’ve paired down our flock to a manageable seven. The Big Guy cleans the tank out every other day, and they have room to do gymnastics in there, but, in the tractor, they can actually fly a little. In the tank, they eat their medicated baby food — they’ll go to plain old cracked corn not too long from now. In the tractor but they’ve discovered the joy of chasing and chomping bugs. They get to play “who wants to tease the cat?” When they get tired, they find a sunny spot for a little meditation.

From past experience, we know all this roaming and bug eating makes delicious eggs with rich yolks. And, even though I don’t claim to be a chicken psychologist, from my lawnchair, the outdoor chickens, much like outdoor kids or cats or dogs, just seem happier. 

Everybody’s All Americauna

The chicks are really starting to feather out, but there’s still enough fluff that we only let them outside when the sun is strong enough to counteract any cold.  Yesterday, we let them play outside while their enclosure was cleaned, and they cavorted and experimented with running up the gangway and then jumping off. Katie sat nearby, whimpering when she thought they were going too high. I was sitting by them most of the time, but they were far more interested Katie and even the cats.

There don’t seem to be any mean girls in the group, and I wondered if they just get along because they don’t know any other clique.

We started with a dozen and then, knowing our coop isn’t big enough for all of them, the Big Guy took a few over to a neighbor in exchange for some eggs from her grown birds.  The neighbor was happy to have the new little ones and assured the Big Guy they would fit right in. At first I was thinking she must not have any mean girls either, but then I remember the one thing I’ve always loved about chickens.

It’s that, for the ladies anyway (not so much for the roosters), it doesn’t matter if you’re a Rhode Island Red, a Barred Rock, an Americauna, a newcomer or hatched in the same bath, or even an over-protective dog. If you’re willing to hang out for a game of ‘how high can you fly,’  you’re part of their flock.

Organically Grown

Somedays the wind is howling around the mountains. Other days, the sun is pointing out every new bud in the forest. Even when it’s grey and the back section of our trail is more pond than path, though, at four o’ clock, at least one kid and one adult will ask if we’re all ready to walk. Our walks have attained the ritual sacredness of communion, and, even though they are peppered with swear words when the boys argue about whose turn it is to chase the frisbee into the increasingly green rosy-bush, there is serious communing going on.

The walk around the house is about a tenth of a mile. Thing1 has a goal of getting his parents to do 30 laps walking and then running. I’m treating it as physical therapy for my ankle and, on days when my lungs allow it, have managed 10 laps with a few passes through the garden to talk to the peas and carrots. The Big Guy, waiting for a knee replacement, is less focused on the number of laps than on just walking with the boys. 

The kids will do two laps for each of ours, deliberately tossing the frisbee into the woods or at each other’s heads. Thing1 and the Big Guy will talk car repairs. Thing2 will talk music and life.

We don’t see each other for most of the rest of the day. Thing1 is finishing up classes from college online until late at night. Thing2 has class in the morning and then has creative projects. I write and study, and the Big Guy reads. There’s an implicit understanding that, while we are locking down, we need to have our physical and mental separate corners.

Vermont’s governor is slowly relaxing restrictions that have helped keep our infection rate down, but, with high-risk people in the home, our family won’t relax the current routine until we see evidence of a prolonged absence of a second or third wave of infections. As the rest of the state returns to normal, I’m grateful for these organically grown rituals that keep us close but not constricted, knowing they’re about to become even more important.