Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming

Straw bales conquer garden problems

2016-8 straw bale 1, Susan Carlson, by Barb Gorges

Laramie County Master Gardener Susan Carlson shows off peas growing in her straw bale garden. The spruce trees protect the garden from north wind and the shade cloth protects the delicate lettuce in the rest of the garden from too much sun. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Aug. 14, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Straw bales conquer many garden problems.”

By Barb Gorges

Did the thought of the work involved in starting a vegetable garden keep you from having one this year? Did time for all that rototilling or digging in of compost never materialize? Or maybe you tried a garden in our clay soils and results were poor?

2016-8 Straw Bale Gardens cover

Straw Bale Gardens, by Joel Karsten, Cool Springs Press.

Susan Carlson, a Laramie County Master Gardener, can recommend a solution: straw bale gardening. Her stepson, who lives in Minnesota, brought her the book by Minnesota native Joel Karsten describing his miraculous method.

This is the second season Carlson has used rectangular straw bales for vegetables and her results look good. She also included flowers.

The idea is that a straw bale is compost waiting to happen. Before the growing season begins, over a couple weeks, you add water and a little fertilizer—organic or inorganic—and it will activate an army of bacteria. The bacteria break down the straw, turning it into just what plants need. Plants can be inserted into the bale or seeds can be started in a little potting soil placed on top.

The bale is like a container or raised bed held together with baling twine. You can set it anywhere, even on a driveway. You don’t prepare the ground underneath.

And, depending on how clean the straw is, you will have few weeds, or wheat or oat sprouts, that can’t be easily removed by hand. You’ll have more sprouts if you accidently bought hay—which includes the heads of grain—instead of straw, which is just the stems.

Straw bales might also be the solution to vegetable plant diseases that persist in soil. Gardeners are always advised not to grow the same family of vegetables (especially the tomato-eggplant-pepper family) in the same spot more than once every three years. You can start a fresh bale each year, although Carlson managed to keep her bales intact for a second year.

Carlson studied Karsten’s book, “Straw Bale Gardens.” Here’s what she did:

First, obviously, she found straw bales.

I checked a local farm and ranch supply store and their regular bale, about 3 feet long and 60 pounds, runs about $7. Avoid the super-compressed bales.

A bale bought in the fall from a farmer should be cheaper than in the spring, after they’ve had to store them all winter. In fall, you can put your bale outside to weather.

If you’ve had problems with mice or voles, as Carlson has, lay chicken wire or hardware cloth down first. Cut a piece big enough to fold up and protect several inches of the sides of the bale.

2016-8 straw bale 2, set up, by Barb Gorges

Carlson’s straw bale garden consists of five bales forming a u-shape. They are planted with (from left) haricot vert green beans, cabbage, a tomato, lettuces, petunias and edible pod peas. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Lay out your bale prickliest side up, and so the sides wrapped with twine not against the ground. Carlson bought five bales and formed them into a u-shape to fit within an area fenced to keep out her dogs.

Because she planned to grow beans, Carlson made a trellis as well. She wedged two bales, lying end to end, between two 5-foot steel “T-post” fence posts (about $5 each) and then strung wire at about 10 and 20 inches above the bales. She can add more wire if the plants get taller. Karsten recommends 14-gauge electric fence wire (but you won’t be plugging it in).

On the ground inside the u-shape of bales (or between your rows), Carlson laid landscape fabric. You could use some other material to keep light from germinating weed seeds, like a layer of thick straw, cardboard, wood, wood mulch, etc.

Next, Carlson “conditioned” the bales, starting about two weeks before our last frost date, which is around May 22, though you can start a week earlier because the bales form a warm environment.

The first step here is to find cheap lawn fertilizer with at least 20 percent nitrogen content as Carlson did the first year. Do not use one that is slow-release or that contains herbicides.

You can also use organic fertilizers, like bone or feather meal, or very well-composted manure, but you need to use six times more than the amounts given for inorganic fertilizer. The second season, Carlson said, she is having good results using Happy Frog packaged organic fertilizer, but using much less since the bales were conditioned once already last year.

The conditioning regimen begins the first day with a half cup of inorganic fertilizer (or six times more organic) per bale sprinkled evenly all over the top and then watered in with your hose sprayer until all of it has moved into the bale and the bale is waterlogged, writes Karsten.

The next day you skip the fertilizer and water the bale again. Karsten suggests using water that’s been sitting out for a while so it isn’t as cold as it is straight out of the tap.

Days three through six you alternate between fertilizer-and-water days and water-only days.

Days seven through nine you water in a quarter cup of fertilizer per bale each day. The bales should be cooking by now and feel a little warmer on the outside.

On day 10, add a cup of 10-10-10 garden fertilizer. The numbers mean 10 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus and 10 percent potassium.

Next, lay out your soaker hoses on top of the bales if you are going to use drip irrigation as Carlson has.

On day 12, Carlson transplanted one cherry tomato plant directly into the bale, wedging it in. Smaller plants are easier to plant than large ones and will soon catch up.

“Bacteria are breaking down the inside of the bale and making this nice environment,” said Carlson.

2016-8 straw bale 4 beans by Barb Gorges

Carlson’s Haricot vert beans. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Mostly, Carlson wanted a salad garden and so she started everything else from seed: edible pod peas, Haricot vert beans (a type of tiny French green bean), lemon cucumbers, broccoli, spinach and various lettuces.

She packed a couple of inches of sterile potting soil (not garden soil) into the tops of the bales in which to plant the seeds. The warmth of the composting straw got them off to a good start.

She added shade cloth overhead to protect the lettuces from too much sun and started cutting romaine and butterhead lettuce by mid-June.

Carlson also used shade cloth on the west side fence to keep the wind from drying out the bales too quickly.

And there you have it, a vegetable garden—or a flower garden if you prefer—ready to grow. All you need to do then is to garden as you normally would: enough water, fertilizer once a month, and pull the occasional weed that may sprout, or pick off any little slugs or insects.

Maybe because of our dry western climate, Carlson was able to use her bales this second year. The bales shrank a little so she patched the gaps between bales with bits of chicken wire on the sides and filled them with potting soil.

One question is what to do with the old bales. They are great compost for conventional garden beds. Carlson reached into the side of one bale and showed me lovely black soil. If you don’t have any conventional garden beds to add it to, someone else would be happy to take the compost off your hands.

“This isn’t the prettiest thing,” Carlson says of her straw bale garden, “but when it starts growing, you don’t even look at the bales.”

2016-8 straw bale 3, detail, by Barb Gorges

While most straw bale gardeners start with fresh bales each spring, Carlson was able to use hers for a second season. She pulled away a little straw on the side of this bale and discovered it is full of rich compost. A soaker hose keeps the vegetables watered. The green steel fence post is part of the trellis system. Photo courtesy Barb Gorges.



Container Gardening

Large containers

Large containers are for sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens gift shop.

Published June 23, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Contain your garden: You can grow plants in just about anything that holds dirt. But first, you might want to keep these tips in mind.”

By Barb Gorges

When it comes to container gardening, Marti Bressler has a bit of everything: window boxes, hanging baskets that adorn even tree limbs, and concrete urns filled with flowers.

window box

Bresslers’ carriage house has a window box.

Below a large window at the historic home’s carriage house is a window box. She plans to install more.

“I don’t see many people using window boxes,” she said. “I don’t know why not.”

Hidden around back is her husband Larry’s vegetable garden, also planted in containers. He likes making use of what’s available, including an old enamel cooking pot, a damaged trash can and plastic tote.

Marti said her sister, Judy Day, is also a fan of unusual containers, including old-fashioned laundry sinks.

Bresslers' containers

Marti Bressler enjoys using a variety of containers.

“I love containers, they are easier to take care of,” she said.

If this was the year you were going to grow your own vegetables or set out more flowers, and you still don’t have anything in the ground, never fear: Containers are here to save the day.

Local garden shops have plenty of plants left. It’s as simple as this: find a large pot, fill it with potting soil, pop in a plant and you too will have a splash of color and/or tomatoes within reach.

Container types

Anything that holds dirt will work—even an old cowboy boot or a wheelbarrow. But containers need drainage holes, so drill a few if necessary. Even if you have experience watering plants in containers without drainage, keep in mind Cheyenne is subject to sudden torrential summer rainstorms. You don’t want your petunias to float away or drown.

This year, I am growing my tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in large black plastic pots that were used by a nursery for growing trees and shrubs.

I was looking for saucers to protect the patio from staining. But I decided to do without—I don’t want the pots sitting in excess water and besides, the winter sun should be able to bleach out those water stains.

Note: If you need to protect your deck, you can use an old turkey baster to suck up excess water from the saucer. But otherwise, it is easier to place containers where draining water can seep into the ground.

Whether you use porous pots (clay, concrete, unpainted wood), or non-porous pots (plastic, metal, glazed clay, painted wood), consider aesthetics and utility.

Soil in non-porous containers won’t dry out as quickly. Plastic is lighter, easier to move when it starts hailing. But, as master gardener Kathy Shreve discovered, you may need bricks in the bottom to weight them so they won’t tip in the wind.

Size is important. Kathy reminded me larger pots don’t dry out as quickly. For annual flowers, you can crowd quite a few in one pot, but for vegetables, adequate root space is more important. The more root space, the more production. Tomatoes need soil that is at least 18 inches deep, said Catherine Wissner, Laramie County horticulturist.

Neither plastic nor clay winters well when left outdoors. Freezing and thawing cause cracking and disintegration. Larry Bressler said he paints clear sealer on the outside of Marti’s concrete containers.

On the other hand, I’ve had the same old oak whiskey barrel halves for nearly 30 years now, and they have never needed maintenance, though I suspect the bottoms have rotted out so I don’t move them. And I can over winter perennials in them.

You can mold your own hypertufa container from a mixture of Portland cement, peat moss and perlite. See this website for an excellent step by step illustrated guide:

 Container filling

Everyone warns against completely filling containers with garden dirt. Contained soil doesn’t provide plants what the open garden does.

On the other hand, garden plants, especially vegetables, need a little more than a soilless (peat and vermiculite or perlite) potting mix.

So, for my vegetable pots, I mixed in some leaf compost, about one-third to one-half of each pot, with standard potting soil. I did it like combining fancy cake ingredients: a little compost, a little potting soil, water, stir, repeat several times. I don’t have a place to use a shovel to combine piles of materials.

Unless your plants develop diseases, you shouldn’t have to replace the soil next year.

Many sources recommend putting rocks or stones at the bottom to improve drainage. I think that is only necessary if there is a chance that the bottom of your container will be sitting in excess water—or you need the weight.

 Container fertilizing   

Because so many containers are thickly planted for instant color, be sure to feed your flowers. Liquid fertilizers like compost teas or fish emulsion mixed in your watering can to the specified dilutions work well, as do time-release products like Osmocote. Marti told me she adds cow manure from the ranch to her containers every year.

If a white crust forms on the soil surface, you’ve been using too much chemical fertilizer and need to flush the salts out by over- watering your container and letting the water drain out and away, several times in the course of a few hours.

Container watering

One of Marti’s chief garden pleasures is the time she spends each day watering everything with the hose, giving her a chance to deadhead and groom her plants.

But for those who can’t be in the garden as often, there is the method I saw demonstrated by Stephanie Selig, www.patioplantsunlimited.

For her busy clients, she sets up a drip irrigation system. From the distribution tubing she leads the ¼ tubing up through a drainage hole in the container before filling it, and places an emitter on the end. Of course, to accommodate the tubing and make the pot sit level, you need some little feet to raise it up. Put a timer on your system and you might be good to go—even on vacation.

You know you are done watering your container when water seeps out the bottom. Don’t let your pot sit in a saucer of water unless the water will evaporate in less than an hour or two.

Container plants

When it comes to flowers, keep in mind the principles of flower arranging:

–Filler: Something tall like “spike,” a dracaena, is very popular;

–Thriller: Focal point of flashy flowers), and

–Spiller: Trailing petunias, ivy or vinca, especially for hanging pots.

In the vegetable realm, look for smaller varieties. The labels may point out which are especially suited for container gardening.

 Container placement

A container that is on wheels or not too big and heavy can be moved to where the plants in it get the right amount of sun and protection from the wind, without having to wait until next year to try a better location. And best of all, you can take your moveable plants inside on frosty fall nights.