gardening: the good, the bad, and the ugly

I am fond of saying that my enthusiasm for gardening falls short of my actual skill. I'm forever trying to grow things with only a middling success rate. Sometimes I just get behind on watering, or the weeds take over, or the rabbits chomp what I planted, or disease takes hold, or I completely misjudge something like hours of sunlight or night time temperatures...any number of things can and do go wrong. Still, I'm learning. And the good thing about gardens is that you can keep on planting every year and ostensibly learn from your mistakes.

We've had several trees removed from our back yard in the last two years. We used to have 7 spruce and a giant silver maple. Two spruce died in the 2012 drought, and a few months later another spruce - the largest, weakened with disease - started tipping over and nearly destroyed the house behind us. Last year we had the silver maple removed, in part as anticipation for a major renovation we're hoping to do later this year, and in part because those trees are safety hazards; weak wood and sprawling branches make for an accident waiting to happen in the next wind storm. Of the four spruce that were left, two in the southeast corner of the yard looked so spindly and out of place, we had those out, too. Left with a whole lot more space in the yard (and a smaller bank account) and a good bit more sunlight, Stuart said "Garage?" and I said, "Garden!" (We also had our house evaluated for solar panels, but it turns out we still don't get quite enough hours of sun to make them worth the expense. Bummer.)

Even with all the extra hours of sun, the soil in our back yard is terrible. At least, I assume it is, given the weeds and tree roots that have been there for so long. Also, if we're going to have trucks and construction vehicles in the back yard, I didn't want to put in anything permanent until that project is over. (If it ever begins...but that's a whole 'nother thing...)

In any case, I've been hearing a lot about straw bale gardening and decided this would be a good year to give it a try. I got the book for Christmas, read it cover to cover, and in April I had a dozen bales delivered to my house so I could get started.

I thought it would be a breeze. The book tells you how easy it is, the website is the same. I've heard the author on the radio on a local station and everyone who called in raved about how well their straw bale gardens worked. No digging! No weeds! No disease! Plants are happy! At the end of the season you compost the straw and start with fresh bales the next year! What could possibly go wrong??

Well. I'm here to tell you that I am capable of screwing up any kind of garden, even the kind supposedly for dummies. 

When you get your bales, you need to condition them for about two weeks with water and fertilizer. When you do this, the straw starts to break down, making nice warm, fertile conditions for plants to grow. After the two weeks, you put some soil on top of the bales and put in your seeds or seedlings, keep them watered, and then the magic happens.

I started one row of bales in April, planning on a spring garden of lettuce, spinach, carrots and onions. By the end of May, we'd be feasting on salad! 

Or not. I followed the author's instructions exactly and nearly all of my seeds failed to sprout. The bales were wet, all right, but they were cold and didn't seem to be decomposing as they should. We had an unusually cold, wet spring, so I'm sure that had something to do with it. Also, I'd plant seeds and we'd get a downpour that would wash everything off the top of my bales. I'd replant, and it would rain again. Nothing had a chance to take root. If I'd been growing that stuff in the dirt, I suspect I wouldn't have had that problem. 

Then, the stuff that did come up was puny and stayed puny. Assuming a lot of nutrients had flushed out of the bales, I put plant food in the water, but it didn't do a whole lot of good. Below is a picture of the bale fail:

See all that grass? My bales sprouted. The grass grew happily where my salad didn't. 

Also, those bales are breaking down so much they were really starting to slump, so this morning I  chucked two of them into the compost. Live and learn, right? At least they should eventually make some good dirt.

I'm glad to say that the straw bale experiment hasn't been a complete failure. Planting seeds for a cool weather crop didn't work, but I saved two rows of bales for tomato, pepper and cucumber seedlings, and those are looking much better:

I also, on a whim, threw some compost (from MY COMPOST PILE BECAUSE I MADE DIRT ALL BY MYSELF!!) and sunflower seeds between the last row of bales and the neighbor's fence, and those are getting nice and tall. 

I've had some other garden fails in my yard this year. When we took out that big maple tree, I took several loads of mulch and dirt from the ground up stump and dumped it on my beds in the front yard. I had thought it looked like such beautiful mulch, but nothing much wants to grow there. I planted peas with inoculant to fix nitrogen into two beds and added bat guano and Purple Cow compost (that stuff is pricey but REALLY nice) to coax along some other plants that were looking awfully stunted. I think it might finally be paying off, but I wonder what was wrong with the stump mulch in the first place? Maybe it needs another year to break down first, I don't know.

Blah, blah, blah. I could go on and on and on about garden stuff. I often do, in fact. So I'll stop here and leave you with a picture of Anya, who has claimed some garden space in the front yard for flowers. We planted salvia (didn't come up), zinnias (they're puny but finally getting somewhere), cosmos (on top of the failed salvia) and there are some random volunteer sunflowers and Chinese broccoli, both reseeded from last year, as well. Last, we tried nasturtiums, which is a first for me. This morning, Anya went outside and discovered a brilliant orange bloom, the exact same color as a balloon she was playing with, so she had to compare the two and I got a picture:

Is all this effort worth it? We happen to live in one of the best places in the country for fresh produce. Southern Wisconsin has one of the highest concentration of small organic vegetable farms in the U.S. (or so I'm told), which could explain why the restaurant scene is growing and high-profile chefs are settling here. (Not like I can name any of them; we rarely have a chance to go out to eat.) We subscribe to a CSA, and if there is anything in season I want that didn't show up in our weekly box of vegetables, I can go to any number of nearby farmers' markets and buy it there. And yet, though I can  find and purchase fresh, delicious tomatoes so much more easily than growing them myself, I keep trying. Each year, I grow things to eat, determined to find more self-sufficiency than the year before.

It's a good thing I don't give up easily.


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