People have been talking about straw bale gardening for years and, I admit, I haven’t really paid much attention. It’s not that I wasn’t curious about the idea. It just wasn’t on the top of my list of things to try until recently when I got the opportunity to talk with Joel Karsten about his new book Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding.
Karsten isn’t just another gardener talking about straw bale gardening. He invented straw bale gardening. That’s right; he came up with the idea for a growing technique that has now become an international sensation. And it all started when he was a kid growing up on a farm right here in Minnesota.
Farmers, he told me, have no need for piles of wet, unruly straw. So when a bale would break open for one reason or another and get rained on, his family would push it up against the barn to break down over time. “I always noticed that those stacked up, broken bales would have the biggest, tallest weeds growing out of them, so I knew there was nutrition in there,” Karsten recalls, adding that he didn’t think much more about it until 15 years later.
By then, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota, and he and his wife Patty had just bought a house in Roseville. After looking forward to gardening at their new home, they were disappointed when they realized that their whole lot consisted of little more than construction debris in which nothing was going to grow well. Then, Karsten remembered those straw bales. “And I thought, what if I just line those bales up and try growing vegetables in them as they decompose?” he recalls.Read More»
I read a lot of gardening books, and though most have something to offer, many just cover the same old ground in one way or another. So I was happy to find a copy of Michele Owens’ book, Grow the Good Life: Why a Vegetable Garden Will Make You Happy, Wealthy, and Wise, at the library recently. It was a rainy, cold weekend and I’d heard good things about the book, so I planned on curling up on the couch with it, and a couple of others I picked out. As it turned out, those other books just lay there unopened on the coffee table because I couldn’t put Owens’ book down until I finished it.
If you’re not familiar with Michele Owens’ garden writing for Organic Gardening and other magazines, you can get a good understanding of who she is and what she believes in by checking out her blog posts on Garden Rant, which she founded a few years back with a handful of similarly smart, funny and straight-talking garden writers. As a former political speech writer and author of several best-selling business books, Owens is keenly aware of the need to do her research before writing and throughout the book she cites the work of many horticulturists, ecologists, microbiologists and others. But all these facts do not a snoozy tome make because she is adept at interweaving studies, facts and figures with her own passionate commentary as an experienced gardener who loves plants, nature and growing vegetables.
Because she’s married to a journalist who covers climate change, Owens gets a dinnertime update on just how much stress our warming world is putting on agriculture all over the world. This understanding, coupled with a love of good, healthy food, drives her to motivate people, everyone, not just gardeners, to grow at least some food in their own backyards. Sure, that will help relieve some pressure on the world’s food supply, she writes. But growing things to eat is also just a joyful, uplifting thing to do; just ask anyone who has ever grown even one tomato plant in a pot on a balcony or back patio. There really is nothing like being able to walk outside and pick something you’ve grown yourself and pop it in your mouth, or serve it up for dinner.Read More»
There’s a lot to love about the Minnesota State Fair, but the contests have always been on my Top-10 list. Across the fairgrounds, everything from pies and jellies to seed art and orchids compete for praise and ribbons. Standing in front of the brightly lit cases and displays, it’s not always clear why one chocolate chip cookie beat out another, or why the dahlia on the left is superior to the one on the right when both were displayed singly in empty Michelob bottles.
But when you get to the Horticulture Building and enter the vegetable room, things become much more straightforward . Sure, there is still some head scratching to do over the difference between, say, the award-winning red potatoes and the losers. But it is immediately clear how the winner of the “Largest Scalloped Squash” contest nabbed that title.
And the same is true of the “Largest Banana Squash” and the seemingly vast yet strangely uncrowded category of “Largest Squash (other than banana or scalloped).” The rules are simple: You are the biggest; you win. Giant pumpkins don’t have it so easy. In the world of pumpkins of unusual size, weight is what matters, and the biggest pumpkin isn’t necessarily the heaviest.
I know this because I just finished reading Susan Warren’s Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever. If the subtitle sounds hyperbolic, let me assure you, it isn’t. Warren, who is a deputy bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, spent a season with a handful of the many enthusiastic and, okay, obsessive people who grow giant pumpkins all over the world.
Dick and Ron Wallace, a father and son team who have been growing giant pumpkins in Rhode Island for years, are the main duo we get to know. But there are other endearing growers at the center of this book, and Warren followed them all as they endured bugs, heat, rain, lightning, rot, ulcers, varmints, foaming stump slime, financial pain, jealousy, heartbreak and more in hopes of growing the world’s heaviest pumpkin in 2006.
It sounds weird, I know, but the ups and downs of the growing season were so suspenseful, I honestly couldn’t wait to get to the end of the book and find out who wins. Now all I need to do is check to see if there are any giant pumpkin weigh-offs going on around here yet this season. If I’ve missed them, I am definitely going to get to one next year. The results of the 2012 Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth weigh-offs are still coming in. But you can check them here if you’re interested. In 2011, Jim and Kelsey Bryson of Ontario won the world record with a pumpkin that weighed in at 1,818.5 pounds. Check out of photo of them and their otherworldly pumpkin here.
Peaceful people, I’m telling you what: By the time you get to the point in “Turn Here Sweet Corn” where Atina Diffley is fighting to defend her Eagan, Minnesota, farm against Koch Industries’ attempts to run a crude-oil pipeline through it, you’re going to want to get yourself a pitchfork and help her and her husband Martin stand their ground.
Published by the University of Minnesota Press earlier this year, Diffley’s memoir is often billed as a David vs. Goliath tale, an inside look at organic farming and a love story combined. That’s an apt description, but readers will likely gravitate to the thread that draws them in. What kept me turning pages was the love. Love between Atina and Martin, love of growing healthy food organically, love of the land and other loves more difficult to define.
“Turn Here Sweet Corn” may have been the words Diffley read on a roadside sign when first visiting Martin’s Gardens of Eagan farm. But those words could just as easily be read as a term of endearment coined by a farmer for his/her love. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Diffley thinks that too as this is no ordinary memoir, and it’s no farming primer either. Warm and lyrical, Diffley’s writing is enviably good by any standard.Read More»
Years ago, when I was a news reporter at a weekly paper, an editor yelled in my face that I wasn’t fit to be a journalist because I was too easily “spun.” It wasn’t the first time this guy had wigged out at my inability to see the world in the same black and white way that he did. But it was the last. Maybe I am easily spun. I didn’t deny it. I prefer to think, that I can usually tell the difference between someone who is selling something and someone who is offering their informed opinion—whether I agree with them or not.
Sure, it does mess with a well-defined story idea when research and sources don’t take you in the direction you thought you were going to go. But that happens sometimes. In fact it happened with this story I’m posting here, which is a longer version of a recent article I wrote for Norther Gardener magazine about using weeds as soil indicators.
I have read and heard for years that weeds can be good soil indicators, and gardeners who understand what their weeds are saying can remedy soil problems accordingly. “Read your weeds,” people often say. I never paid the idea much mind. But last summer, after hearing that advice for what felt like the zillionth time, I decided to look into it.Read More»
I’ve read that you can always tell something is wrong with your worm bin if your worms try to escape. Too much acidity, heat from decomposing food and other organic matter, excessive dryness or moisture——there are a lot of things that make worms want to flee. I don’t know what happened in my bin, but last Wednesday morning I went down to the basement to check on the worms and was horrified to find most of them plastered to the underside of the bin’s plastic lid.
Not wanting to squish anyone, I carried the worm-covered lid upstairs to the kitchen along with the rest of the bin. Deadlines were pressing, but I couldn’t just let the worms suffer. So I made myself a cup of coffee, put on an old Smith’s CD (because nobody puts an upbeat spin on misery quite like Morrissey) and sat down on the kitchen floor to sort worms into a separate, clean container.Read More»
The publishing world has changed a lot in recent years, and if you haven’t already seen one, book trailers are one of the many things publishers are asking authors to make these days. When Timber Press asked Jeff and me to make a trailer, we were happy to oblige.
The only problem was our mutual love of toilet humor turned out to be a bit over the top for the folks at the University of Minnesota where Jeff is a professor. So after a couple of attempts, we finally came up with a trailer that’s gross, but still tame enough to get a thumb’s up.
Amy Stewart at Garden Rant was kind enough to post the trailer after she watched it this week. Thanks, Amy! Go here to see Amy’s post on Garden Rant and here’s the video if you’d like to see that, too.
Timber Press, publisher of my new gardening book with Jeff Gillman, “Decoding Gardening Advice: the Science Behind the 100 Most Common Recommendations,” asked me to write a few blog posts for them this month as part of a special promotion for the book.
Here’s a link to my latest post, which includes a before/after photo of my front yard. It makes my back hurt just to look at that picture!
Not surprisingly given the book’s title, I wrote about gardening rules and how a lot of them don’t matter as much as people say they do. And then, well, some advice is best taken. I learned that the hard way and I imagine I’m not done learning that lesson. I hope you’ll check my post out here.
If you don’t already grow your own food, the gorgeous photos in this book alone will make you want to. But what I enjoyed most about The Heirloom Life Gardener was Jere Gettle’s wise, warm voice, which made this book read like a conversation with a longtime gardener friend who knows way, way more about seeds than I ever will.
Dubbed “the Indiana Jones of Seeds” by New York Times Magazine, Gettle is well known in organic gardening circles for running the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company with his wife Emilee.
Their book, written with Meghan Sutherland, offers a lot of great hands-on advice for growing 50 different heirloom vegetables, as well as tips for disease control and seed saving. (Check out page 203 for great visuals on saving tomato seeds.) But there are also a lot of fascinating stories about things like how plants got their names, how certain vegetables became popular and, of course, how Jere developed his passion for heirloom seeds.Read More»
Even if you are not a hobby farmer, don’t know any hobby farmers, and have never dreamed of being a hobby farmer, you’ll still find a lot of worthwhile information in Michael and Audrey Levantino’s new book, The Joy of Hobby Farming: Grow Food, Raise Animals, and Enjoy a Sustainable Life (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011).
Tired of the hustle-bustle life in San Francisco’s Bay Area, the Levantinos were thrilled when Michael’s company offered him a job opportunity that took them to lush Virginia. Though they’d never dreamed of owning a farm, when a 23-acre farm “found them,” they bought it and learned the ins and outs of how to run it.
When I decided to write my October column on garden-related books you might want to check out during our impending (and far too long) winter, I had no idea I would be writing it on a warm, 75-degree evening just a couple of weeks before Halloween. But I figure I’ll do it anyway because, well, this is Minnesota so all hell could break loose tomorrow and you might be in need of a good book while waiting for your neighbor with jumper cables to help you start your frozen car!
I’ll begin by warning you that there are several memoirs in the bunch, but then I’ll make it all better by assuring you that these aren’t the sorts of memoirs where disheartened divorcees run off to third-world countries to find love and enlightenment. No, no. (Ack.) These are memoirs packed with dirt and critters and plants. At the top of the list is, “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. I found out about this while reading one of my favorite gardening blogs, Garden Rant: gardenrant.com.Read More»
I just finished reading Amy Stewart’s book “The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms,” and I thought it was fascinating. You know how you always hear that soil is healthy and in good shape when you dig into it and find a lot of earthworms?
Well, that’s true! They may be deaf, blind and spineless, Stewart writes, but earthworms have a tremendous impact on the soil. As they move about consuming soil and decomposing matter like bits of leaves and pooping it back out as “castings,” earthworms literally change the composition of dirt so it can do things like absorb nutrients and hold water better. Research has shown that the most beneficial fungi that boost plant growth often increases dramatically when earthworms are around.Read More»