Let's Get Dirty
A gardening blog for adults who still love to play in the dirt.
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By Penny Stine
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
I'm experimenting with a straw bale garden this season at home and at a community garden at Northeast Christian Church on Patterson Road. We hauled straw bales over the weekend, and I decided to set three of them up at home.
I have the perfect spot in my yard to try growing a small straw bale plot. Technically, it's not my yard - it's in front of my fence and I think it's part of the street easement, but my irrigation cistern and my mailbox both sit out there. For the past 12 years, I have been trying to make something out of that patch of ground. It's full of weeds, and because I once scattered a wildflower mix out there, it's also full of sunflowers and cosmos. I planted iris bulbs last spring, so this year, it has iris, too. The soil is not amended and I want to quit spending money or effort on the area because it's not technically my yard.
It does, however, get fabulous afternoon and early evening sunshine. When we installed our hoses for drip irrigation, I ran a hose out over the entire area. So the area has water and sunshine, making it perfect for a straw bale experiment.
From talking to Theresa Mizushima, who planted a straw bale flower bed in the demonstration garden at Bookcliff Gardens a couple of years ago, I think the biggest challenge will be keeping the bales moist enough in July.
I had a pile of silty clay that I shoveled out of my irrigation cistern this spring and didn't know how to dispose of it. The clay is really good for retaining moisture. A light went on!
Proponents of straw bale gardening say the bales must be conditioned before you can plant anything. Conditioning involves giving them a quickstart to the decomposition process. You want them to decompose over the course of the growing season, which will provide a nice, warm comfy home for your garden plant's roots.
You can find steps for conditioning a straw bale online. I ordered a booklet from a guy in Minnesota who teaches straw bale techniques and am following his steps. It takes 10 - 12 days to condition the bales, which involves soaking the bales with water every day, and adding a small amount of nitrogen fertilizer with the water on other days. The nitrogen merely helps to speed up the decomposition. Today is day four for me, which is a water only day, according to his recommended steps.
Part of the appeal of straw bale gardening is supposed to be the lack of heavy labor - like rototilling, digging, hauling loads of compost or shoveling a mound of clay. Given that I had that mound of clay and I thought it would help me to have a successful straw bale garden, I decided to shovel. I'm pleased with how it looks, and think it will look even better with something growing on the top of the bale. When I stuck my hand in the bale last night before watering, it was still moist. Yay!
I'm thinking sweet potatoes, potatoes, melons, squash and a maybe some okra in the bales.
By Penny Stine
Monday, April 30, 2012
I brought a tomato plant in a pot in last fall because it just didn't seem like it was ready to give up the ghost for the season. It produced a few little tomatoes in early winter and throughout the spring. It grew like crazy, and since it was on the lower shelf of a five-foot plant shelf, it sent tendrils up at least six feet in the living room.
I took it outside last week, gave it a week to get used to life outside and put it on the deck in full sunshine. I only broke a few of the branches. So now instead of growing six feet up, it grows five feet down to the ground from the deck. As long as those little blossoms turn into tomatoes, I'll be happy.
I was going to start transitioning my tomatoes, peppers and eggplant outside over the weekend, but decided it was too cold. With a forecast of 77 and sunny, I decided today (Monday, 4/30) was the day for them to begin experiencing the wonderful world outside. So before I left for work, I put all my trays of seedlings on the picnic table on the deck and gave them some encouraging words and water. They'll be in the shade today and tomorrow, and I might try to find a little sun for them to experience on Wednesday.
As you can see, the peppers and tomatoes are decent-sized and look like they won't go into shock when I transplant them. Two thumbs up to the grow lights I got from Lowe's and the bio-dome and plugs I bought from Park Seed. I can't get good starts using just a southern-facing window, but I'm happy with the plants I grew this year. I'll use both the lights and the bio-dome again next year.
By Penny Stine
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
I started both broccoli and cauliflower in the house this year. I'm not sure why, since both are fairly easy to start from seed in the garden. I guess I was just anxious to get started back in February or March.
After almost killing the cauliflower by putting them in direct sunlight before they'd been sufficiently prepared, I nurtured them back to health, hardened them off and planted both over the weekend.
Then I got curious about what both would look like as adults, since I'd chosen to plant a Romanesco Broccoli and Veronica Cauliflower. After doing a bit of research, I came to the conclusion that it's the same plant. Or almost the same plant. I got one seed from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds and the other from Park Seeds. The broccoli is supposed to be this old, Italian heirloom type of broccoli. The cauliflower is a new hybrid - of the old, heirloom Romanesco broccoli.
Both are supposed to form these curious heads with little pointy knobs that look like an alien life form. They're also supposed to be delicious - sweet, mild and nutty. Hmmm... now that sounds like someone's dear old granny.
I saw several recipes for preparing both and can hardly wait for them to grow.
So once again, I'm conducting my own gardening experiment to see whether the hybrid or the heirloom grow or taste better. The only problem is that they look identical and I didn't clearly mark ("oh, I'm sure I'll remember" I said to myself as I planted) which was which. And I've already forgotten, except that I know I planted broccoli in amongst the walking onion patch and cauliflower in this bed where spinach and love-in-a-mist is growing.
Wish me luck. Will keep you posted!
By Penny Stine
Friday, April 20, 2012
I'm not a big fan of rotilling my garden because I try and grow a year-round garden. I've always got something planted, seeds that may germinate and plants that may not look like much in the winter but are alive and well below the surface, like the rhubarb and garlic in this photo. Since I usually can't remember where I've planted anything or where, exactly garden perennials are growing, I don't want to rototill and disturb anything.
I took my camera when I went for a garden stroll to record what's happening in the garden in mid-April. It's further proof that I'm a gardener, not a farmer.
A gardener doesn't want a crop to come in all at the same time for harvest; she'd rather pick one or two things every day, starting as early in the season as possible. When you grow a garden, it's kind of cool to see spinach, columbine and bellflower all growing together in the same area.
Probably not a good idea if you're a farmer.
A gardener doesn't care if the seeds she planted in July (like these parsnips) for a fall crop don't germinate until March because her income doesn't depend on successful seed germination.
A gardener doesn't mind finding spinach scattered in four or five different areas because she's the only one who will be picking it.
A gardener can allow plants to reseed themselves and grow wherever they want to, like this fennel.
She can also plant an entire packet of seeds she's never tried before, hoping to see them grow and over winter (like the seed packet promised they would) and not mind that only two plants actually survived, like the tiny Nero di Toscano cabbage growing in the upper right hand corner.
When you're a gardener, it doesn't matter that you forgot you'd already planted parsnips in the area or that garlic chives are also growing. The more the merrier.
And this gardener likes to throw flowers in the middle of the garden, just to make it pretty.
By Penny Stine
Tuesday, April 17, 2012
People who grew up around here talk about picking wild asparagus on the ditch banks in the springtime when they were kids. I assumed that meant that asparagus was relatively easy to grow, so I bought some rootstock several years ago.
When I bought it, the prevailing wisdom said not to cut it the first year, so I let it grow wild and free. By the second year, the prevailing wisdom said it's best to cut it, beginning the first year, so some of my asparagus must have gotten wind that I'd mistreated it and it refused to come up. In fact, every year, I have fewer and fewer stalks of asparagus coming up.
Oh well, perhaps it's because I forget to pick them when they're perfect and let them get stringy and woody, like the one that doesn't fit in the frame of this picture.
I don't remember what kind of asparagus I bought, but it's a pretty purple color, which makes it hard to see against the early spring dirt. It turns green when cooked.
Although the really tall one wasn't worth eating, the other two were tender and delicious. Not exactly enough to make a meal, however.
So what am I doing wrong? I've got no idea, so if you grow fabulous asparagus by the boatload, please enlighten me.