Saturday, June 21, 2014

Straw Bale Gardening Update - Week 10. Progress and plant list.

The garden on the Summer Solstice.  The broccoli and potatoes seem to be growing the fastest these days.
Happy Solstice!  It's a comfortably warm high overcast day here in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California, and I'm trying to focus more on the warm growing days to come rather than the downhill trend of the light.  We had a lovely little Solstice Eve dinner party last night and it was heaven to be able to be outdoors lingering over our appetizers and cocktails, enjoying the light and warmth.  Coincident with the World Cup we chose a South American theme for our food and drink, and yes, it's true that Pisco Sours pair wonderfully with Peruvian ceviche.  Yummm!  And while the last course is seldom something I attempt, this dessert was absolutely killer and easy to make.

Much has passed in the garden since I last posted.  Shortly after putting up the fence we're pretty sure one of the 4x4 posts had a deer encounter.  Or vice versa.  One morning on my typical bathrobe garden patrol I discovered the deer netting in one corner was sagging, and the 4x4 post was wobbly and had a chunk missing from one edge.  WTH?  The fencing was not breached, just loose.  I had marked the enclosure all around with white flags as instructed, but it sure looked like a deer had knocked into it, and my discovery of a half eaten stalk of green grass on the wood chip covered ground next to the post confirmed that hypothesis.  My husband dug up the 2.5' long metal fence post stake we used to install the 4x4s and found that two of the four welds was broken.  Fortunately it was fairly easy to pry it up and he installed a new one and we're back to business.  As a precaution I bought some solar powered spot lights to illuminate the posts at night, and they're working great. 
This is the long stake that holds the 4x4 posts for the deer fence.  These are the two welds that broke from the deer encounter.  I bet he had a headache for a spell.
True to my nature I've been impatient with the rate of growth of the vegetables, and insanely check everything at least twice a day to see how they're doing.  When I look at photos from a few weeks ago I guess I can see the progress.  I've been feeding everything with organic fruit and vegetable food from the nursery, as well as aerated worm compost tea.  I take a handful or two of castings from my worm bin (where we recycle our kitchen scraps) and run water over them in a sieve over a 5 gallon bucket until it's about 3/4 full, returning the dazed and confused invertebrate helpers back to their bin.  I add a tablespoon or two of molasses and seaweed extract, and about a cup of fish emulsion.  Then I use either an aquarium air pump or my oxygen concentrator (with a bubble stone on the tubing) to aerate it for a day or two until a scum forms on top.  This is a food and beneficial bacteria treatment in one that I can water with or spray on the leaves.  It's a bit labor intensive and I have yet to do this for an entire season, but I hope to continue it and report good results in the fall. 

Sunny Delight squash may be the next eaten since the sugar snap peas have finished.
Heirloom tomato German Orange Strawberry is laden with fruit.
This Midwestern girl loves her potatoes.
Looking down the tomato row.  I've interplanted some kale here and there for lack of space.
What started as tiny little onion sprouts are now starting to hold their own.
Here's a list of the 28 different food crops we're growing in this 23' x 18' space in our Sunset Zone 15 garden, in the 12 bales and a few extra containers:

Heirloom tomatoes:  German Orange Strawberry, Isis Candy, Black Krim.
Other tomatoes:  Roma, San Marzano, Sungold
Swiss chard, dinosaur kale
Cucumbers:  Green Finger, Diva
Beans:  Kentucky Wonder pole, Spanish Musica pole
Potatoes:  Red Norland, Yukon Gold
Evergreen hardy white onion
Squash:  Sunny delight, Cocozella heirloom squash
Peppers:  Red Beauty bell, Golden Treasure heirloom pepper
American Flag leek
Marathon broccoli
Albion strawberry
Italian basil
Mexican lime

In containers on the deck I've got radishes, more basil, Improved Meyer lemon, Black Mission fig, and sugar snap peas.  Among the vegetables I've also got lobelia, marigold, Alba nasturtium.  My husband is also looking after some salad greens, corn, and additional chard and kale in a shadier area. 

Maybe next time I'll share a little about my worm composting setup and how I make the aerated tea.  How is your garden doing this year?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Straw Bale Garden Update: Week 7

I think I was recalling the bucolic vineyards in New Zealand that have roses planted at the ends of the rows.  Why not marigolds to attract beneficial insects?
 Things are really shaping up nicely now in the new straw bale veggie garden.  The bales would have been fine to plant in a month ago, but between work and life, I'm approaching this slowly.  It's not too out of whack for our coastal mountain gardening zone though, where we lag at least 30 days behind what's growing down in San Jose.  As of mid-May we're past any danger for tomatoes, but the true warm summer weather is (technically) at least a month away.

So what have we accomplished since the last time?  Everything!  Well, not quite.  I still need to put in the irrigation.  But I've installed the vertical structure for the tall things in two of the four rows of 3 bales where support will be needed.  There's a ginormous structure for the tomatoes made from salvaged aluminum conduit and wire fencing.  I did the prescribed straw bale garden fence using metal fence posts, a salvaged 2 x 4 top beam, and fencing wire for the beans and cukes.  I can tell you with certainty that the my new fence post driver is elbowing the leaf blower out of the top spot as my favorite tool.  That danged thing got a fence post in our hard clay ground faster than a speeding bullet - so much so that it's actually shorter than I'd like right now.  Get one - much safer than swinging a sledge hammer too.

Fence Post Driver.  Hole on the bottom, solid and weighted at the top.  Fits right over fence post and you'll never miss it when you swing.
Holy Tomato Tower Batman!!
Beans and cukes.
I ordered, assembled, and installed the metal deer fence gate, and got the final wall of deer netting up (with help).  My wonderful husband helped dig the post holes for the frame, and did the concrete.  The McGregor Fence Company makes a wide range of gates for their deer fencing products, and while I didn't get the deer mesh from them the gate is the bomb.  They have online videos of the assembly process and their customer service is great, and shipping is free.   I still want to install a permanent threshold under the gate as there is a gap big enough for a rabbit to squeeze through, and the same for the vertical gap where the gate meets the frame.

Planting in the bales was a learning experience.  Don't expect to gently part the fibers with your hands and nestle a plant in the straw.  These are very tightly bound bales.  The thing that worked best for me was my husband's dykes - pliers with long handles that have a fairly good biting surface.  I used the pliers to extract clumps of straw to create each planting pocket.  In doing this I found that the density of the bales varied widely.  But for each of them I needed the pliers to pull the straw out.  I discovered that just below the outer surface of the dry looking bales there was loads of moisture, which was reassuring.  I had been watering them with the soaker hose every day for about 15 minutes, and it was keeping them plenty moist.  Anyway, once I pulled enough out to fit a 4" potted veggie plant I put a handful of soil in the hole, inserted the plant, and used the removed straw to make a little collar around the plant.

The potatoes were planted about 2-3 weeks ago (late for around here, but I'm hopeful) and some very healthy looking leaves are already poking out of the tops of the bales.  At the same time I planted some onion seedlings, and for those I added a little more soil to help keep the very tiny sprouts moist until they got larger.

Potatoes - YES!
 And then my reward was to make it pretty, so I put some marigolds on the ends of the rows (on the side of the bale - apparently this works fine), and a few nasturtiums here and there to wander.  For me the sight of neat rows of edible plants is beautiful enough, but the flowers will make my early morning bathrobe-clad trips out there even more special.  Also on my list is to find four ornamental fence post toppers for the 4 4x4's holding up the corners of the deer fence.  Something fun.  Maybe glass obelisks?  Know anyone who blows glass? 

As soon as my muscles recover and I get some time I'm going to hook up the irrigation - I'm going to run 1/2" poly tubing supply lines to each of the rows where it will connect to the soaker hose segments. 

OK, that's the garden update for today.  Even though the hard part is nearly done I'll be posting updates as things grow.  I'm planning to make another batch of worm compost tea (the aerated kind) very soon, as liquid fertilizer is best for this gig and I'm keen to do it again.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Straw Bale Gardening Day 14 Update

 It's been two weeks now that I've been conditioning our straw bales for this year's vegetable garden.  Some of the bales have started sprouting grass, which I have read is common.  It won't be hard to pull out or trim once it's bigger.  For the past week or so I have not added any more fertilizer, but have continued to keep the bales moist with the drip hose. 

The temperature of most of the bales is now about the same as the ambient temperature, back down in the 50s.  I won't be planting in them for a while, as the safe date here in the coastal range for tomatoes is around mid-May, but I'm going to keep them moist and might see if I can get a little more decomposition going with one last shot of fertilizer.

Unknown heirloom climber. 
Meanwhile, a crazy old climbing rose I've got has no sign of life at all on the bottom 10' of cane (and there is only one), but the top has grown up into a small oleander tree and is hanging down over a walkway - it's quite charming don't you think?  I'm a sucker for those big lush blossoms, and the yellow is delicate and lovely.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Straw bale gardening, Day 7

Tonight it will be a week since Don delivered our straw bales.  Things are cooking along now as I loosely follow the bale conditioning process from this blog.  I'm keeping the bales moist and applying about 3/4 cup of ammonium sulfate very other day, and then watering it in.  Temperatures in the bales are varying a bit, with the lowest being around 90, and the hottest around 110 degrees F.  The bales are still very firm, and I can't imagine trying to plant in them.

I'm watering by hand after nitrogen application to make sure the crystals dissolve into the bales.  Then, for deep watering I'm using a temporary drip hose setup, to be replaced by a cleaner design later.

Temporary watering setup.
I'll admit right  now that I have not bought the Straw Bale Gardening book, and I probably won't, because I think my training as a Master Composter taught me the skills I need to get this going. The bale conditioning process is basically just "hot" (rapid) composting, which is a process where you add nitrogen to carbon, keep it moist as a wrung-out sponge, and aerate it periodically.  Aeration is something I do when I hot compost with dead leaves and grass clippings by turning it over, but is not possible to do with a straw bale because of it's tightly compacted form.  I may be tempted to stick the bales with my pitchfork at some point, just to see what happens.  I love science!

Anyway, what's going on in there is that a heat-loving family of bacteria called actinomycetes (a fungus-like bacteria found naturally in the environment) is multiplying and helping the decomposition process.  There are mesophilic bacteria that are most active from 70-100 degrees, and thermophilic bacteria that thrive from 113-160 degrees.  The bacteria have an earthy, forest floor kind of fragrance, and looks white or grey, like a fungus.  When these organisms are done decomposing the straw and the nitrogen (which won't be finished by the end of the 10 day conditioning period, but much later), there should be a rich humus replacing the straw.

With that scientific digression, here are a few things that are helpful to remember:
  • Keep the bales moist, but not dripping wet or dry.  Your mantra should be "moist as a wrung-out sponge".
  • Check the temperature with a composting thermometer (photo below).
  • Outside heat has nothing to do with this process - it can happen in the middle of winter, or even in a shady area.  It's a chemical reaction.
  • Make sure you add some form of nitrogen to the straw.
You can get a long composting thermometer like this at your local home improvement or garden store.
If you're interested in learning more about composting, here are some great links:

University of Illinois Extension Service
Santa Clara County Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission

My clematis this year are outRAGEOUS!   And yes, if you were wondering, they grow in a container on the deck, and I do fertilize them with worm poo...

 Now, off to the studio to melt some glass!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hot Times

Day 1 for fertilizer.  Things are heating up already.
Normally those words mean there are beads happening.  Soon, very soon.

Even though my glass melting addiction has dampened my enthusiasm for ornamental gardening, it hasn't seemed to lessen my desire to grow food.  And since discovering that we do have a fairly sunny area to do it, I've been dreaming of putting down some semi-permanent vegetable garden roots there.  This year I'm trying straw bale gardening, which appears to be picking up in popularity, based on the press.

My little sunlight experiment last summer managed to give us several batches of pesto, strawberries, some peppers and some onions, but it was painful to look at.  That weathered blue box on the right was my husband's childhood toy box, lined with pond liner and filled with potting soil. A veritable deer buffet.  A glass bead maker friend in the Midwest shared photos last summer of her amazing straw bale garden, so this year I had to try it. 

This was the experimental garden to see if there was sufficient sunlight in this area.
Her yield was phenomenal, and there was something quite appealing to the Iowan in me to see those rows of produce all nicely lined up.  Straw bale gardening is excellent for areas where the soil is too poor or hard to cultivate, which is my primary reason for trying it.  Much less work than tilling and building raised beds with gopher wire bottoms.  And as a Master Composter who loves to make hot compost (remind me to tell you sometime about stalking landscapers to get grass clippings), this is all just made of Right.

The bales arrived just as I finished laying down four rows of hardware cloth for gopher protection.
The bales (12) were delivered on Saturday evening - around here I was hard pressed to find anyone who would deliver, so I went with Brown's Ranch and Supplies, and the 75 year old owner himself showed up ready to rock and roll those bales.  I've read somewhere that 5 bales per person is about the right number, so 12 isn't that far off for our little family.  If you're in the area I recommend him, but be aware that in the Bay Area these are more expensive.  I think we paid around $15/bale, delivered.

All lined up.  Fence posts will be added at the row ends, with wire strung between.
The first day I soaked them with the hose for as long as I could bear.  They are so tightly packed it's doubtful to me that the water reached the center.  Thus begins the "conditioning" stage that will create the humus inside the bales that the plants will live in.

Today they got some more soaking and the first dose of nitrogen.  There is an organic and a non-organic method to this part - while I mostly prefer organic methods of fertilizing plants, in this case I just used the high test nitrogen (ammonium sulfate).  I figure it probably doesn't matter in the hot composting stage as all you're doing is reducing carbon and nitrogen to humus, but once the bales are planted I'll be using organic fertilizer for the plants.  You can also use blood meal for this, or any other source of nitrogen.

Tomorrow I'll just refresh the moisture, and then it's more fertilizer every other day for about 10 days.  So far it's nearly up to 80 degrees inside, and I fully expect it should get up near 160 at the peak. 

The deer fencing should arrive any day now, and I still need to get busy on a gate for the enclosure that will repel bunnies and a neater drip arrangement on a timer.  I'll keep you posted as it comes along.


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