Monday, September 10, 2012


I know - you think everything goes perfectly in The Maven's garden.  Bugs never enter,weeds never take over and the yield is out of this world!  Ha! Fooled you!  I write because I have had all of that go wrong and more!  So here is the confession...
                                 I stink - I fail - I'm pathetic - at growing tomatoes.

I have put in 2 beds (100 square feet each!) of tomatoes and not had enough tomatoes to put any up!  Not enough for a single pot of spaghetti sauce!  I have watched my plants die from blight.  I have have seen all of the various fungi, leaf spots, molds and other tomato afflictions up close and personal.  Most disheartening is when I watch precious little green tomatoes sit on the vine for weeks, not ripening.  Finally, they commit vegetable suicide and fall to the ground to be eaten by the bugs.  Failure, failure, failure.

So why can I talk to you today about tomato growing?  Einstein said the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."  I think everyone should get to the end of each gardening season and be able to say - Well, that didn't work so well.  It means you tried something new.  You tried to solve last year's problem.

I had some new ideas this year that ended in epic failure.  But I had one new idea that has me excited. I had one new idea that will be a part of my garden for years to come.  I had one idea that gave me tomatoes!  Not just a few, mind you.  The picture shows only part of one day's harvest!  I have a handy dandy kitchen scale and weighed out 10 pounds of tomatoes in just one day!

For you science nerds out there - it is even a controlled experiment.  The messy result you see here is the straw bale bed.  I have another bed with tomatoes planted in the ground.  I added a tablespoon of Borax to each planting hole on both beds because I had decided that a boron deficiency was the reason for my sickly plants.  I did have a better yield in the standard bed than in years past.  But on the day I took this photo, I was unable to pick a single tomato from the standard bed!

That's the why - now the how - then we'll talk about who and when:
  • Place straw (not hay) bales in a line, square or whatever configuration you want.  
  • Sprinkle with fertilizer (organic all purpose is fine)
  • Cover with 3" of bagged compost - I used mushroom compost
  • Water heavily daily.
  • On about day 4, you should notice the bales heating up. This is from the active composting occurring. Last year, I stuck a meat thermometer in the bales and saw it go well over 100 degrees!
  • Continue to water.  About day 10, the bales should be cooled down.
  • Pull apart the straw and place in transplants.
  • Fertilize every other week with foliar fertilizer (more on that later)
  • Water generously through the season. Every other day during hot, dry times.  
Here are the benefits of straw bale culture:
  1. No tilling! No digging!  This would even work for renters - nothing but compost is left later!
  2. Solves weed problems without you losing your back muscles, commitment to organic practices or your religion!  I had an area at the back of the garden that was overrun with Bermuda grass. (Say grrr with me...)  I placed a thick layer of black plastic with 6 bales on top.  That area has now given me cantaloupes, stevia, thyme and a weed-free zone that will be my strawberry tower next year!  
  3. Solves reoccurring problems - like my pitiful tomatoes - that may be due to imbalances of minerals in the soil. The bales take your soil totally out of the picture.  (There will be more about how The Maven evaluates her soil problem)
  4. Very versatile!  You can grow tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe, basil, radishes, carrots, broccoli - pretty much anything but corn or potatoes.  
  5. Can be used to rebuild an old bed.  I placed the tomatoes in one of my oldest beds.  The soil got a rest and will be replenished as the bales break down
  6. Can be used to start a new bed.  2 weeks to start and a beautifully amended bed at the end of the season is a pretty good way to go.  
  7. Earthworms love it!  I spiked mine with standard fishing worms and some of my composting worms.  Anyone familiar with our Alabama or Georgia red clay is excited about lots of earthworms.  I'm pretty sure baby earthworms are issued hardhats before they venture out into our native soil!
So - if you are on the fence about starting a garden...maybe you could consider putting down 6 bales of straw next year and enjoy vine ripened tomatoes, gourmet baby squash, fresh basil and cantaloupes right from your own back yard!  I kind of think you'll never want to go back.  

Expect a lot more as I experiment with my own straw bales.  I plan to put one of everything in the back bed to see how it does until heavy frost.  I also expect to continue picking tomatoes until frost.  Happy sigh.  The Maven is truly happy.


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