Our Straw Bale Gardening Experiment

by Marty Fisher, EMGV

After three painful years of crop-destroying diseases on our beloved heirloom tomatoes, my husband and I decided to give straw bale gardening a try.

I had tried grafting—attaching an heirloom scion onto a hardy root stock—for two years with some success, but it was a long, painstaking process, and we still weren’t getting the yields we enjoyed in the days before the dreaded fungal, viral, and bacterial diseases took over in our garden. We also tried disease-resistant tomatoes like Early Girl, Better Boy, Celebrity, Sweet 100, etc., but we missed the complexity of flavors and variety of colors of our favorite heirlooms like Carbon, Amana Orange, Green Zebra, Pineapple, Lucky Tiger, and more. We also tried removing the lower branches of our plants to keep them away from disease spores in the soil as well as spraying with copper sulfate—it all seemed a lot of work for a limited return on investment!

I started researching straw bale gardening in January, thinking it offered the advantage of a sterile environment for the tomato plants as well as the effect of a raised be d. I found a book written by the man who pioneered the concept, Joel Karsten. He came up with the idea after observing healthy, vigorous weeds sprouting in old straw bales on his family farm. He began experimenting with vegetables, and over decades, developed the techniques for gardening with straw bales. Since then, he has published two editions of his book, Straw Bale Gardens, and has spoken all over the world about what is touted on the book jacket as “the hottest new method of veggie growing.” The book contains a wealth of useful information, plans, diagrams, and more.

Our first task was to find straw bales—they must be wheat straw bales, not hay. They are not cheap, especially given the size of our garden. The best price we found was about $6 a bale. We inquired about delivery and were told by several farm supply stores that they sell the bales at a loss or break-even and were not interested in delivering them. So, several pick-up truck trips later, we had lots of bales on our garden site. 

The next step was placing and conditioning the bales, a process that takes 10-12 days. Conditioning should be started two weeks before the average last frost date. 

Although I had reservations about the fertilizer recipe given in the book, we decided to just follow the instructions and evaluate the results. Over the conditioning period, fertilizer and water are applied to the bales according to a day-by-day schedule. My reservation concerned the recommendation of nitrogen-rich “traditional refined lawn fertilizer.” Instructions are also given for organic nitrogen sources, but this seemed more complex, and we followed the conventional method. Fertilizer is sprinkled over the top of each bale, and water carries it deep into the bale, starting the bacterial process of breaking down the bales to release nitrogen.

On Day 10, the instructions call for one cup per bale of 10-10-10 general garden fertilizer, watered in. 

Planting can begin on Day 12. A little sterile potting soil can be used to anchor the plant in the straw bale, but all the nutrients and growing medium the plants will need are contained within the conditioned bales. Adding garden soil or compost could introduce fungal spores to the sterile bales.

Results  

Our concerns about using lawn fertilizer were confirmed over the spring and early summer: TOO MUCH NITROGEN! Our plants quickly became enormous, with fewer blooms than normal. They also began to shade out the eggplants and herbs that we had planted beside the tomato plants. We added a phosphorous- and potassium-rich fertilizer and gradually the plants started to have more blossoms and bear fruit. We also noticed that plants growing in straw bales require more diligent watering. Karsten recommends placing soaker hoses on top of the bales, controlled by a timer. 

In researching this article, I found an N.C. Cooperative Extension Service article (see “Hay” Bale Gardening link below) that recommends a different conditioning method. It calls for simply watering the bales for three days. On Day 4, you add 2 cups of dolomitic limestone and a half cup of ammonium sulfate, and water it in. On Days 5-9, you add more ammonium sulfate, followed by a cup of 10-10-10 or 8-8-8 on Day 10. Planting commences on Day 11.

This year we did lose a few plants to “the *%#* fungus,” our common term for fungal, viral, and bacterial diseases including early blight, late blight, fusarium wilt, tomato spotted wilt, various cankers—you name it. My husband also sprayed the plants with copper sulfate as a preventative. 

Overall, we deemed the straw bale gardening experiment a success. We canned, made salsa, roasted, sliced, and froze plenty of colorful tomatoes to get us through the winter. We plan to try it again next year using the Extension Service-recommended fertilizer recipe.

I also plan to graft tomatoes again next year after taking this year off. And, I’ll give some of the newer disease-resistant varieties a try. Some I’m particularly interested in include Iron Lady, described as “super resistant,” and Mountain Magic, which was developed by Dr. Randy Gardiner, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University. Apparently, some breeders are also developing disease-resistant heirlooms, including two old favorites of mine, Lemon Drop and Mr. Stripey.

This was our first harvest this year–it got better after we adjusted the fertilizer.
Good old fashioned canned tomatoes! Heirlooms make the jars so colorful.
Tomatoes growing in straw bales in our garden. In addition to diseases, we also battle squirrels, hence the large cage under construction.

All photos taken by Marty Fisher.

Sources

Straw Bale Gardens Complete, by Joel Karsten

Understanding Tomato Varieties:
https://lee.ces.ncsu.edu/2019/05/understanding-tomato-varieties/

How to Grow Better Tomatoes
https://forsyth.ces.ncsu.edu/2018/05/how-to-grow-better-tomatoes/

Grafting for Disease Resistance
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/grafting-for-disease-resistance-in-heirloom-tomatoes

Blight Resistant Tomato Varieties Worth Growing
https://www.growveg.com/guides/blight-resistant-tomato-varieties-worth-growing/

“Hay” Bale Gardening
https://pamlico.ces.ncsu.edu/2013/05/hay-bale-gardening/

Getting Back to Basics

September is synonymous with school. So, this week we are getting back to basics with a post that defines foundational gardening terms. The better you understand these terms and phrases, the easier it will be to identify, select and care for plants in your landscape.

Growing season:  The period between the beginning of growth in the spring and the cessation of growth in the fall.

Hardiness zone:  Expressed as a number and letter combination from 1a to 13b, the US Department of Agriculture has assigned a zone to every geographic area of the United States based on the average annual minimum winter temperature. Tags on plants sold commercially often identify the zone(s) in which the plant will grow.   

Microclimate. Climate affected by landscape, structures, or other unique factors in a particular immediate area.

N-P-K:  Acronym for the three major plant nutrients contained in manure, compost, and fertilizers. N stands for nitrogen, P for phosphorus, and K for potassium.

Coreopsis major, blooming along roadsides now, is a native perennial hardy in zones 5a to 9b. It attracts butterflies and songbirds and is deer resistant. The flowers are large (for coreopsis) and the stems are tall. Photo by A. Laine

Annual: Plants started from seed that grow, mature, flower, produce seed, and die in the same growing season.

Biennial: Plants that take two years, or a part of two years, to complete their life cycle. By freely reseeding, a biennial plant may seem to come back year after year, but you are actually seeing new plants.

Perennial: A plant that lives more than two years and produces new foliage, flowers, and seeds each growing season. Tender perennial:  A perennial that is not tolerant of frost and cold temperatures. Applying a winter mulch can help it survive It may die off above ground and regrow from the roots.

Woody perennial: A plant that goes dormant in winter and begins growth in spring from above-ground stems. Herbaceous perennial: A plant that dies back in the winter and regrows from the crown in spring.

Exotic: A plant of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized.  Naturalize: The process whereby plants spread and fill in naturally.

Native plant: A plant indigenous to a specific habitat or area. Nativar: A plant that is a cultivar of a native plant. Cultivar: A cultivated variety of a species. Propagation of cultivars results in little or no genetic change in the offspring, which preserves desirable characteristics.

Integrated pest management. A method of managing pests that combines cultural, biological, mechanical, and chemical controls, while taking into account the impact of control methods on the environment.

Invasive. Growing vigorously and outcompeting other plants in the same area; difficult to control.

Noxious weed. Weeds that have been declared by law to be a species having the potential to cause injury to public health, crops, livestock, land, or other property. Noxious weeds are very invasive. There are 124 plants in NC that meet the legal criteria.

When a gardening term has you stumped, refer to the glossary chapter of the Master Gardeners Handbook for a definition – there are hundreds of entries — and a small dose of continuing education.

— A. Laine

Resources & Further Reading

Glossary Chapter of Master Gardener Handbook: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/glossary

Find your plant hardiness zone:  https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, 2012. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Noxious weeds in NC: https://plants.usda.gov/java/noxious?rptType=State&statefips=37

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/coreopsis-major/

September: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMG

Well, here it is … September! Some of y’all have been waiting for this since last October. For many, it is the beginning of your favorite time of the year—warm days, cool nights, lower humidity, winding down the summer garden … hurricanes. Enough contemplation! There is still much gardening to do this month. Let’s get to it.

Fertilizing
With the exceptions noted under “Lawn Care,” you can take your fertilizer and stick it in an air tight container and put it away until Spring.

Pruning
NOPE!  Fuggeddaboutit. If you must exercise your pruning tools go remove underbrush or unwanted saplings or something. Stay away from your landscape plants.

Spraying
Stuff to look for and where to look for it:  Wooly adelgid on Hemlock, spider mites on other coniferous evergreens, lace bugs on Azalea and Pyracantha and tea scale on Euonymus and Camellia.

A note about Lace Bugs. They will be active all year anytime the leaf surfaces are warm enough (e.g. about 40 degrees). Being diligent now will help keep them at bay after you have cleaned and put away your sprayer. Also, Azaleas planted in sunny places will have more lace bug issues than those planted in shade.

Spray Peach trees and Nectarine trees for Peach Tree Borers.

Maintain your rose program.

Be watchful in your Fall garden. Many insects and diseases are more active in the Autumn; They like this weather, too.

Weeds to be controlled this month:  Trumpet Creeper, Bermuda Grass and Blackberry.

Only spray if necessary.  Spray as little as possible. ALWAYS READ THE LABLE!

Lawn Care
September is the best time to seed and/or reseed a Tall Fescue lawn. Loosen the soil in bare areas and cover any areas larger than one square foot with wheat straw.

Apply lime and fertilizer as recommended on your FREE SOIL TEST.

Do not fertilize warm season grasses (e.g. Bermuda, Centipede, Zoysia). Fertilizing them now is like giving sugar to your kids at bedtime. They get real active much to their (and your) detriment.

If you missed the August window to treat your lawn for grubs, it is still open until the middle of September.  After that the little buggers quit feeding and go to sleep for the winter.

Propagation
You may dig and divide spring flowering bulbs now. Daffodils will be especially appreciative of this activity and will show it in the Spring.

Other Stuff to Keep You Outdoors on Gorgeous Autumn Days
Mulch shrub and flower beds.

Clean up and put away sprayers and other gardening equipment that won’t be used again until Spring.

Get your houseplants ready to come back inside. Break it to them gently by bringing them in for a little while each day. Be sure to rid them of insect pests before they come in for good.

If you do not have a fall garden, (What do you mean you don’t have a fall garden?!?) then it is time to chop, burn or toss dead vegetable plants. Burn or toss, especially if they had disease or insect issues.

Checkout the local garden center for spring flowering bulbs you can’t live without (or just covet a whole lot).  October and November will be the time to plant them. You know, “Shop early for the best selection.”

Find a good trail and take a hike. Take your kids or grandkids to the park. Read a book on the deck or patio. Get out of the house with any excuse you can come up with.

See ya’ in October for leaf season.

An Upcycle Garden Idea: Build a Living Wall

By Wendy Diaz, EMGV

The first time I remember seeing a living wall (or vertical garden) was along ‘Museum Mile’ in Madrid, Spain on April 2010 (see photo 1). The green wall was designed by Patrick Blanc, a French botanist famous for creating vertical gardens in Europe1. I was intrigued and took several photographs because I just couldn’t believe the scale of this immense beautiful patterned wall covered in very healthy and vibrant plants. It did not seem possible that so many plants could be so healthy on a very narrow vertical surface and it did not even cross my mind at the time to attempt a vertical garden at home. 

Photo 1 Living Wall designed by Patrick Blanc along Museum Mile in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Wendy Diaz April, 2010

Then, I attended a Durham Garden Forum Talk at Duke Gardens on February 20, 2018 by Leslie Herndon of Greenscapes, Inc.2 and she inspired me to think about attempting a scaled down version of vertical gardening using, among other things, nothing simpler than a wooden pallet. All any home gardener needed was a little inspiration, and in my case, my husband to help me lift and assemble the required materials. I decided it was something I wanted to try doing and I had just the spot. The idea for the location presented itself last fall when I cut down the wisteria in my backyard (see photo 2), on the east side and backyard of our property, as part of my ongoing plan to remove all invasive species from my yard. It left a bare hole (see photo 3 and 4) between two remaining support posts of an old children’s fort my husband built many years ago.  We decided to hang the pallet from the cross board between the posts to provide a screen in the backyard until my newly planted cross vine spread. 

Photo 2 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) before removal in my back yard. Photo taken November 5, 2018 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 3 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) stems after cut-back. Photo taken November 11, 2018 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 4 Hole in landscape between two support posts after Chinese wisteria removed. Two birds enjoy the new space created. Photograph taken November 12, 2018 by Wendy Diaz

Materials 
Oak pallet
Staple gun and staples
Three coffee bean bags burlap, no holes
Potting soil (about 1 cubic feet)
Scissors or knife to cut burlap

Plants
Sedum (spreading variety)
Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides)
Basil
Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum)
Caladium

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money so I split some of my houseplants, propagated some basil, used some extra caladium bulbs I saved from last year’s frost and uprooted some ground-cover sedum from my yard. I did purchase the coleus and salvia. I already had a small wood pallet left over from a recent bathroom renovation.

I went to the Scrap Exchange and purchased used coffee bags for $2 each and borrowed my husband’s staple gun. I cut the coffee bags along their seams for a single layer and cut out a space in the bag for the center post of the pallet and wrapped the bags around each wooden plat to make a pouch for the potting soil and stapled it to the boards (see photo 5 and 6).

Photo 5 Bottom right hand corner of Hanging Garden with burlap wrapping to make plant pouches. The rabbit is curious. Photo taken April 13, 2019 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 6 Side view of burlap coffee bag wrappings. Hanging Garden also provides a perch for birds. Photograph taken May 6, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Initially, we used two stainless steel screw eyes to hang the pallet but it almost touched the ground (see photo 7) so my husband raised it to the first notch on the side panels and screwed it to the cross beam between the support posts (see photo 8). My husband had to secure the posts with concrete due to the weight of the oak wood pallet and wet soil. It took just over a month to for the plants to fill in (see photo 9).

Photo 7 Initially the Hanging Garden was suspended by two screw eyes but it was too close to the ground and my sedum would not be able to trail over the edge of the bottom pouch. Photograph taken on April 13, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Photo 8 Hanging Garden secured to cross beam between two support posts about 1 foot above the ground surface. Plants were placed in three layers on April 13, 2019. Photo taken April 24, 2019 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 9 Plants are thriving in Hanging Garden and most of the pallet is covered with plants. Photo taken July 25, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Leslie Herndon recommended an Internet search on the words “DIY Living Wall” to get some ideas and see other projects. She also recommended fabric stapled to the back of the pallet to protect the wall but because we were suspending it from old support posts, I decided to try to achieve the reversible affect and hope the plants would grow in front and back (see photo 10). After a few months, plants grew out of the back, though not as fully due to shade and the burlap covering. I now call my living wall the Hanging Garden and it achieved my purpose of providing a screen and filling in the hole left by the wisteria vine. In the end, my Hanging Garden became the most thriving part of my backyard during our heat wave in July and a focal point looking out our picture window. I am well pleased with our efforts.  

Photo 10 View of shaded back of Hanging Garden in the morning. Photo taken July 30, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

In Hindsight
One of things that I will do differently next time is to install an automatic watering system because we had to hand water the shallow soil pockets twice a day to prevent wilting in July. We would also put more concrete in the hole of the north support post because it is now leaning with all the weight of the established plants. Next time, I will not plant salvia (not enough sun at this location) and I would place basil in the top pouch of the pallet and try some coral bells. Maybe next spring I will arrange plants to make a geometric design with common plant textures and more colors and even add a nonliving accessory as recommended by Ms. Herndon2.

I am not a professional and my first attempt wasn’t a work of art nor to the scale of a Patrick Blanc creation, but it surpassed my expectations so I am going to replant it next year!

Photo 11 Photograph taken July 30, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

References:

  1. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/07/09/495905421/hot-dry-madrid-aims-for-a-cooler-greener-future
  2. https://www.greenscapeinc.com/gallery/commercial-property-gallery/retail

More reading:

  1. http://www.greenroofs.com/projects/
  2. http://www.greenscapeinc.com/blog/how-much-do-living-walls-cost
  3. http://www.verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com

Growing Well at the Community Garden

Continuing our topic of What’s Growing Well in the Garden, Kathryn Hamilton and Charles Murphy share stories of their successes. Both of these Extension master gardener volunteers garden at the Briggs Avenue Community Garden. They maintain their own individual plots as well as assist the community with bigger tasks. Charles minds the orchard and Kathryn minds the composting. — Andrea, Blog editor

Kathryn’s awesome year

I have had an awesome garden year. Beginning with snow peas planted in January and harvested through May, and including winter crops (cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli) harvested through the beginning of May. The summer, though not nearly through, has been equally robust. I have totaled 191 pounds of produce. This does not include what was given away at the garden before I got to weigh it. Some of the summer highlights: 107 pounds of cucumbers; 9.6 pounds of mostly Japanese style eggplants, 17.3 pounds of zucchini, and 36 pounds of tomatoes, as of today. A new crop of cucumbers has been seeded along with a new set of zucchini, four different kinds of string beans, and snow peas which are on their way from the seed house.


Peppers lead the pack for Charles

I have had consistent good results with peppers of all sorts – green and purple bells especially, mild banana peppers and really hot cayennes – for a number of years. All my plants were set out as seedlings in April, and are producing well in mid-July.

Peppers, like many garden plants, prefer loamy, well-drained soil and the raised beds at Briggs work well. Frequent watering while seedlings are growing is good, as is a light application of a low-potency (e.g., 5-5-5 or 5-4-5) fertilizer as the plants reach mature size. Mature plants like water, but will tolerate dry conditions for longer than some other veggies, and are less susceptible to hot weather damage with temps in the low to mid 90s like we have had for the last two weeks. Bells show rich green, or other (purple, yellow) colors when ready to pick and can be used even when they are medium size. The banana peppers mature as light green fruits three to five inches long, and cayennes will turn red, but are just as spicy before they change color.

A typical picking of peppers and eggplants. Harvest every 4 to 6 days for best results. Photo by Charles Murphy

The peppers I’ve grown have had less pest damage, e.g., Japanese beetles, etc., than most of the garden crops, and tend to be low-maintenance. I’ve also had good results with the “Ichiban” variety of eggplants (caution: they are susceptible to a variety of predacious critters, so watch them closely.)  Regular watering, light fertilizing and regular cutting of fruit at six to seven inch lengths help to keep healthy plants producing longer. Peppers and eggplants co-exist in the same bed quite well, though it is a good idea to rotate planting sites from year to year.   

Other success crops for me include English peas and cucumbers. This year I put in pea seeds in early March, and could have done that earlier, expecting a mature crop in late May to early June. The variety I chose was listed as bush type on the seed packet, but I prefer to set up a trellis for the plants to climb. That makes harvest easier, and keeps pods off the ground. I chose a medium-size fruit cucumber variety (don’t remember the name), and set seedlings out in early May. Cucumbers don’t like cold weather, so wait until after last average frost date to plant. Trellised them, again to make them easier to harvest and to keep fruit off the ground. Cucumbers peas and peppers need  regular harvesting to keep fruit production going.

Learn more about vegetable gardening in central NC: