Straw Bale Gardening

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 tending one of his straw bale gardens

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.

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Are All Home and Garden Shows Lame?

I admit it. I have Home and Garden Show envy. I read blog posts by gardeners all over the world who talk about the innovative gardening products and to-die-for plants they just saw at their local Home and Garden Show. (Most of them post great photos, too, so I don’t think they’re lying.) Inevitably, their exuberance makes me feel excited about going to Minneapolis’ Home and Garden Show, which is ridiculous because I already know that our local show is totally lame. Lame, lame, lame! Year after year, I go because I get free tickets with a garden magazine I subscribe to. And every year I walk away complaining about how lame it is that people have to pay $11 per ticket, $13 at the door, to walk around a hot, windowless arena packed solid with trade show booths offering the same array of stuff: granite countertops, gutters, expensive kitchen gadgets, hideous bathtub and shower inserts, outdoor gazebos, patio furniture, flooring and hot tubs. So many hot tubs—$16,000 hot tubs.

Didn’t spot this hot trend coming in 2013 did ya?

Seriously, they should pay people to attend this event. Or at least let people in for free: the hope being that once they’re inside folks will buy some mini doughnuts and cheese curds followed by copious amounts of beer. Enough beer to, say, allow them to throw down a credit card for a hot tub as big as a Volkswagen. “Ah, who the hell cares where we’ll put it, honey. Let’s just get it!”

Okay, if you’re not a local, you’re probably thinking: “Hey, it’s not like anyone is holding a gun to people’s heads to make them go to this home show thing.” But you’re wrong. There is a gun, and it’s called winter. In Minnesota, by the time March rolls around, most of us would pay any amount of money to go anywhere to see anything different than what we’ve been looking at for five months indoors. Add the word “garden” to the name of the event, and you’ve got yourself a crowd. Even people that don’t give a hoot about plants will fork over cash just to see something ALIVE, maybe smell some dirt, see some flowers. We are a desperate lot.

And they say there’s nothing new in gardening.

But therein lies the problem. There ain’t much Garden in our Home and Garden Show. Yes, there are some interesting gardening talks given by local gardening gurus, as well as some of my fellow master gardeners. But those are usually off in some airless side room far from the arena’s main floor. To see actual plants you have to thread your way through countertops and hot tubs and super-absorbant sponges to get to one small area in the back of the arena where mostly lesser-known landscape design firms have their displays. Some years are better than others. This year, though, was just plain weird. For reasons I am completely unable to fathom, there seemed to be some kind of TV show theme to the booths. This would have been bizarre no matter what, but why Fantasy Island, Miami Vice and Gilligan’s Island? Did the organizers of this event swear off TV in the 1980s? Are the TV shows of my adolescence already so kitschy they’ve actually become cool?

Were people worried that visitors would be bored looking at some dumb, old plants outside the context of a TV theme? I don’t get it. Do you?

Is it me? Or is this just creepy?

 

 

At least these guys had the sense to just make a poster.

 

 

Everyone wants a Gilligan in their landscape, right?

 

Smoke came out of this Gilligan’s Island volcano, which was kind of cool.

 

Who’s up for dinner on the ground next to some really hot rocks?

 

So, tell me. Do you have a good garden show in your city? If so, please email me a photo so I can live vicariously through you. Or, hey, maybe I’ll send them to next year’s local planning committee. They could use some ideas.

 

GMO Seed

Spring is just around the corner, which means ordering seeds and plants tops most gardeners to-do lists at the moment. I grow heirlooms and hybrids, so the pile of catalogs on our coffee table is out of control. Normally, I find ordering seeds a relaxing experience, but this year I’ve been mulling over a couple of issues that have made placing orders more stressful.

The biggest one concerns GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the need to avoid buying GMO seeds for our gardens, and you’ve probably seen at least some of the various lists going around touting  ”safe” seeds. Many people, including me, don’t want to buy seed that has been genetically modified. So I was happy to find out from my friend Jeff Gillman, a hort professor at the University of Minnesota, that GMO seed is not yet available to home gardeners.

Farmers have long been able to buy GMO seed, particularly for corn and soybeans, alfalfa and sugar beets. But, at least for now, that seed isn’t available to the general public so we can’t unwittingly buy them off the shelf or online—unless we pretend to be farmers for some weird reason. So where does the confusion come in? Well, maybe because you can mistakenly buy seeds from Voldemort, I mean Monsanto. And where there is Monsanto, we assume rightly or wrongly, there are GMOs.

How could you mistakenly buy from Monsanto? Well, as you may already know, the company has purchased many independent seed companies in the U.S. and abroad over the years. The biggest coup was in 2005 when Monsanto acquired Seminis, Inc., estimated to control more than 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and around 20 percent of the world market.

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Arizona’s “Junior Grand Canyon”

Why does life need a soundtrack? I wonder this all the time because, as you’ve probably noticed, you can’t buy groceries, shop for clothes, pump gas, eat a meal, ride an elevator or even go to the bathroom without some sort of musical accompaniment. Why is that? Are the designers of public spaces worried about what will happen if we are left alone with our thoughts? Do they suppose that we don’t have thoughts?

Or is it that people think we need music in order to conjure up the appropriate emotions for a given situation? This thought came to mind last week when my husband Mike and I were visiting my family in Arizona, and we took a short sightseeing cruise with my dad. We had just taken our seats aboard the Dolly Steamboat for an hour and a half nature cruise around Canyon Lake when the peaceful sound of paddlewheel against water was drowned out by Enya’s 1988 hit “Orinoco Flow.” Booming out of the boat’s crackling speakers, the song was both fittingly epic and completely cheesy in a not altogether disagreeable way. But why not enjoy the sounds of nature on the nature cruise? we groused to each other.

Canyon Lake (imagine Enya playing)

 

 Touted on the brochure as Arizona’s “Junior Grand Canyon,” Canyon Lake feels like an almost surreal oasis in the middle of the otherwise rocky, dry and cactus-filled Sonoran Desert. And it is, really, since the man-made lake was formed in 1925 when the Mormon Flat Dam trapped water from the Salt River. The steep canyon walls are the main attraction on the tour, and the boat’s captain explained how many of the rock formations we could see were the result of volcanic eruptions dating back as far as 15 million years. We brought along binoculars, hoping to see some bald eagles but, instead, we spotted several bighorn sheep defying gravity as they made their way along the face of the cliffs.

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Yes, Okay, Winter Has Some Good Points Too

“I think my garden looks great in winter, especially after a fresh snowfall.” That’s what Cindy, a reader in Wisconsin, said in an email she sent to me last week. As proof, she attached this magical, postcard-worthy photo of her yard.

 

As you can see, she is absolutely right, and I wrote her back right away to say so, and to ask permission to post the photo on my blog. Cindy wasn’t trying to boast. I think she just wanted to remind me that there’s more to winter than smashed ornamental grasses, buried outdoor furniture and yellow snow. And she did concede that, “It’s a little easier to landscape for winter in the country than in the city,” which it is for a variety of reasons.

Still, while urban dwellers like me aren’t likely to experience the kind of snowy backyard wonderland that our more outlying counterparts do, her kind note did motivate me to try to see more beauty in what has so far been a pretty ass-kickingly tough winter. So, let’s not focus on the loveliness of my own backyard, which includes this focal point by the driveway.

There’s a tamarisk under there somewhere.

Instead, behold this amazingly cool Christmas tree made of sphagnum moss and potted orchids and bromeliads that I saw at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum last week.

Outside at the arboretum and down by the lake near my house, there are these sights to behold.

 

Back inside where it’s warm, there’s fern frost on the bathroom window.

And a kitty sleeping on the dining room table in the sun.

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