By Catherine Winter
Those of us who have always dreamt of abundant food gardens have likely had pretty grandiose ideas about what we’d like to cultivate. When I moved to this house, I looked at the land around my home and imagined it brimming with all manner of fruit trees and berry bushes, and lush gardens practically spilling over with cucumbers, tomatoes, and pumpkins. Damn, was I wrong.
You see, this house is right on the mountainside, which means that there are only a couple of inches of (poor) soil before I hit solid rock, and the tall trees around the property stop sunlight from reaching all but a few choice areas. I put some raised beds in those spots, but the tender plants I tried to grow ended up being obliterated by inclement weather. Needless to say, after four growing seasons, I have a pretty solid idea about what will and will not grow on this property, in my frustrating, cold, downright infuriating 4b agricultural growing zone.
Rather than being discouraged by the fact that I will never be able to grow a decent tomato or melon here, I’ve learned the invaluable lesson that working with the land I have is far easier on both my wallet and my heart than fighting with it. I could have spared myself a lot of heartache if I had followed the number one rule of permaculture and observed my land for a full year before planting anything, but sometimes eagerness and enthusiasm drown out common sense. Live and learn, right?
Raised beds are a great option in our area, but the wet summers and long, cold, snowy winters wreak havoc on wooden beds, requiring them to be rebuilt every other year. I have a gorgeous, large hugelkultur bed for my medicinal herbs, but that took a few years to build up with classic lasagna gardening techniques, and I need something quicker and easier for this year’s garden. The solution? Straw bales.
Straw Bale Gardening
These are great because you can just plop some bales in an area that get a fair amount of sunlight over the course of the day, and get gardening. You don’t need to put any effort into building raised beds (although it’s not a bad idea to brace the bale sides in some way, since they can fall apart over the season as they decompose and get squidgy), and the very process of their decomposition creates nutrients for whatever you grow inside them. The decomp process also creates heat, so you can plant seeds earlier than you could in a standard earth bed.
The key is to ensure that you source your bales from an organic farm, otherwise you’ll just end up contaminating your land, your food, and your own body with the pesticides and other poisons that have been sucked up into the straw. Once they’ve been placed in position, they just need to be soaked daily for a couple of weeks prior to planting to condition them. Some people just use water, but the consensus seems to be to add a fair bit of fertiliser when soaking so there are tons of nutrients available to your growing plants. This is especially important for heavy feeders like squashes, brassicas, and melons.
Grow for Your Zone!
As mentioned earlier, I’ve learned what will and won’t grow well on my property, in this frigid little zone with a crazy-short growing season, so I’m focusing on plants that I know will thrive. Leafy greens such as lettuces, spinach, and chard grow well, and as long as I keep cloth or mesh over them so the cabbage moth caterpillars don’t obliterate them, brassicas such as broccoli, kale, tatsoi, and collards can thrive here too. We’ll often get colder snaps right into June (even had hail last July!) so I need to make sure I only grow hardy plants that won’t fall apart with inclement weather.
I’ve learned my lesson about attempting to grow tomatoes or eggplants, so I’m aiming to try to grow some pumpkins, zucchini, onions, and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and beets instead. Sturdy, stubborn plants that won’t shriek and wilt at the first sign of imminent danger. Interestingly, peas and beans also thrive here, so I’m going to cover my gazebo in climbing varieties and let them go nuts.
I’ll be planting hardy sunflowers, amaranth, and popcorn around the garden’s periphery, as well as the usual pollinators and repellents such as borage, calendula, and milkweed. I’ve been scattering native wildflower seeds all around my property for a few years now, so there’s a startling amount of asters, ox-eye daisies, bachelor’s buttons, echinacea, lupines, and vetches around, and I’m happy to say that I have never seen so many bees in one place as I have seen in my garden over the last two summers. It’ll be interesting to document this year’s garden to see what thrives and what falls apart, so hopefully I can share gems of information with the rest of you so you can learn from my successes as well as my failures.