What's not to love about straw bale gardening (assuming you can locate persistent herbicide-free bales at a decent price)? It removes the cost or preparation efforts of the planting medium used in copious quantities in container gardening. It provides a (theoretically) disease-free starting point. You can place them where the sun shines best. You can grow pretty much anything in them.
This is year 4 of my integration of straw bale gardening into my overall driveway lay out. Year 1 was the toe-in-the-water test in preparation for writing my book, with a focus on tomatoes, peppers and eggplants; year 2 was the big expansion into greens, herbs, squash, melons, beans, carrots, cukes, radishes, beets and potatoes, as well as tomatoes, completing my education sufficiently to finish the book. Year 3 was a bit of a pull back to exclusively tomatoes. The main things learned those first three years - that my side garden no longer worked for me (many of the bales were in there for year 2) due to significantly reduced sun and increased critter damage; that use of pre-started seedlings worked easily and superbly, but direct seeded crops needed some careful thinking (this was especially true of small seeded items like carrots, which dried and died due to insufficient attention to watering and an intense hot spell); that some crops worked better for me than others - all of which led to the selections for this season, year 4.
My 16 straw bales are all in the driveway (the side garden is now filled with a few fig trees, paw paw trees, and shrubby flowers such as butterfly bushes and beauty berries). Indeterminate tomatoes and a single basil plant in between occupy 8 of the bales, and the rest are split between dwarf tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, bush green beans and potatoes.
The basil and indeterminate tomatoes are largely flourishing. We've picked Cherokee Green, Cherokee Purple, Speckled Roman, Sun Gold and (later today), Egg Yolk.
I have one big disappointment - Nepal has Fusarium wilt and is a goner (thinking it was seed-borne), but oddly, the neighboring Red Brandywine is (for the moment, anyway), thriving. I just purchased a product called Mycostop that will be used to use as a root zone drench for that plant, as well as a cutting of Nepal that looks good so far and is in a large container.
The other main mystery is the Sun Gold tomato bale. Both plants consistently wilt in the heat, despite ample watering. The basil in between looks fine. Sun Gold didn't do well in a straw bale last year either. It is a mystery that I wish to solve; if anyone has ideas, please share them with me. Interestingly, I went out to take these pics and noted the two plants are pretty perky looking in our cool, morning rain. Weird!
The dwarf tomatoes in bales are kicking in well, at last....they were planted one month later than the indeterminate tomato bales and the seedlings were not in great shape by then, with significant early blight on most of the plants. Yet, they have all recovered and should provide a later tomato crop.
The cucumber bale is pretty astounding. I am using two cone-shaped 4 foot tall tomato cages secured using two 6 foot stakes set into large pots of spent potting mix behind the bales. The plants are healthy and flowering - they were direct seeded into mounds of potting mix, and are in full flower, with many small cucumbers coming along; the variety is our favorite, Diva. The foliage is starting to show signs of mosaic virus (yellow spotting) - it seems quite inevitable here for that to happen based on years of past experience.
The squash bale is remarkable - There are two "hills" of direct seeded Raven (zucchini) and Zephyr (summer squash), and I picked delicious samples from each hill at around 30 days from direct seeding. The plants are flowering and setting fruit freely, and there is no sign of mildewed foliage or effects of the vine borer. Fingers crossed!
The bush bean bale is so promising - the plants are vigorous, healthy, and loading up with flowers and small beans; I could do a small picking today, 37 days from direct seeding. A 3 inch layer of potting mix was spread over the bale surface and bean seeds planted at 3 inch intervals in 3 rows. We've not had fresh beans in many years...this is a vegetable Sue and I love, and so are very happy with how things are looking.
The potato bale is the iffy one, but was not really set up for success. I pre-started some small pieces of potato shared by a friend, and set the resulting tomato plants as deeply into the prepped bale as I could. It has been fearfully hot. A few of the plants are growing fairly well, and a few didn't make it. I am pondering planting some sprouting Yukon Gold into the bales in a few weeks, to see if I can grow them into the fall and hoping that cooler weather will provide some yield. The other option is to take a loss on this one, rethink my strategy for next year, and overspread the bale with potting mix...then use it to grow another bale of squash or beans.
Considering this was to be a small or no garden summer, Sue and I are ecstatic; this is shaping up to be one of our favorite gardens. Straw bales will be a growing element of future gardens, slowly replacing containers over time. In the next blog I will feature those plants growing in my many containers - peppers, eggplants and the majority of the dwarf tomato project work that I am doing this season. Stay tuned!