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.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

I have a new website

Well, it's not "new-new", but it's been updated for some months now.  Maybe you should check it out and let me know what you think?

Here's the link to my website:

Just a heads up - I've dropped the playswithfiredesigns domain for both web and email.  I have a Gmail address - my name at  It was awkward designing the new site, because at every step I found myself thinking, "this is just like my blog - why am I doing this again?"  Since Blogger updated their features a couple of years ago you practically don't need a "real" website, but it sure helps to have presence out there, so I'll keep it.  Maybe I'll try out their ecommerce tools too.

I went with Weebly for the hosting and web-building tool, and it was a piece of cake to build.  Pretty basic, but it'll do, and as soon as I find a new domain name host I can kiss G.D. goodbye forever.  Now I just need to get some more work to David Orr for shooting, so I can fill up the photo album.

Thanks for looking!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

1000 Reasons to Love Beads

The day is here and I am beside myself.  Late last year I learned that four of my images had been accepted for inclusion in the latest Lark bead book, lovingly curated by Kristina Logan.  If you don't know who Kristina Logan is you need to stop reading this post right now and click on that blue link on her name. Her work captured my attention immediately.

So anyway, to learn that my work was accepted was kind of a dream, a non-reality until the publication date came and I started hearing that people had received their copy.  I recently got mine and I am stunned.  One of my beads was even chosen to be on the spine of this amazing book.  David Orr did all of my photography for this and I am grateful for his help - his own attention to detail took my work to another level.

 Lark's 1000 Beads, with Kristina Logan, Juror.

Kristina and the editors at Lark have assembled a breathtaking collection of beads in a mindblowing range of media:  glass, polymer clay, metal, plastic, rubber, fiber, wood, paper, and more.  Unlike the prior books, this one is not just about glass.  There was meticulous care taken in selecting and arranging these photos to provide harmonious and thought-provoking transitions from page to page.

While I have never met Kristina, she has been a long-time glass idol of mine, and seeing what she's done in this book makes me admire her even more as an artist.  Looking through the book and seeing everyone else's work is also a wonderful reminder to me of the years that I've spent making beads, and the friendships I've made, and it makes me even more grateful for the many gifts I've received from my own personal exploration in the medium.  I smile each time I see someone's work that I recognize, and recall the times we've met, exchanged emails or Facebook posts, run into each other at The Gathering, or a local ISGB meeting.  And it reminds me of the very first Lark bead book I bought, when I was just starting out making beads, and of the hundreds of post-it notes I affixed to the pages, noting techniques I hoped to learn, and artists I hoped to meet one day.  I am so loving this journey.

Happy girl here.


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