Posts Tagged ‘gardening’

Easy Pickings: Foraging on Farms

August 18, 2010

This entry is not about gleaning, which is picking over a field to pick up what the harvesters missed.  For information on gleaning in the present day, there’s an interesting if slow-moving documentary called The Gleaners and I.

Farm foraging is the practice of finding abandoned farms and searching their grounds for horticultural holdouts from the past.  Old farms are pretty easy to spot–the sagging barns, sun-bleached houses, and rusted sheds are a pretty common sight in the rural corners of the midwest.  Until recently, farmers lived where they grew, and kept kitchen gardens in addition to the fields, where they grew their main crop.  Although a garden bed can be completely weeded over after a month or two of neglect, some of the other garden plantings can continue growing a generation after the farm was shuttered.

On a recent hiking trip, my family spent some time passing though several abandoned homesteads.  Close to the houses, we found apples, good enough to eat out of hand (a rare quality in non-commercial apples) and big, sweet blackberries with very few seeds.  The apple tree was probably planted several decades ago as part of an orchard, and the blackberries had probably spread far from their original spot–they’re notoriously invasive.

I would expect that other farms still have asparagus patches, grapes, rhubarb, raspberries, gooseberries, and other long-lived perennials growing, long after their planters have moved on.  Other self-propagators, like sunflowers, Jerusalem artichoke, nasturtium, and squash may even be sprouting year after year.

Kitchen gardens were usually placed as close as possible to the house, to make it easy to harvest as necessary.  If the house is still standing, the garden should be easy to find.  If not, look for the foundation–it’s likely grown over with weeds, but should still be standing.  While you’re working around the foundation, don’t forget to look for those edible ornamentals, like roses and daylilies.

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Fresh Herbs Through the Winter

January 10, 2010

My brother in California has the luxury of a year-round herb garden.  For those of us in the Midwest, this is not a possibility.  Our short growing season leaves us either freezing and drying a crop of herbs in the summer for use throughout the winter months or heading to the grocery store once the snow covers the parsley.  These are not the only options, though.  With good timing and a few tricks, one can keep fresh herbs coming through a good part of the winter.  I still freeze ice cube tray after ice cube tray of basil pesto every August, but a few other herbs play a bigger part in my fresh winter eating.  I should note that I’m not a particularly sophisticated cook, so I’m only going to discuss the few herbs I use regularly; it shouldn’t take too much experimentation to apply some of these strategies to your favorite herbs.

Herbs as Houseplants
Though West Michigan’s sandy soil is ideal for most herbs, there are a number of major herbs that won’t survive our low winter temperatures.  The only solutions are to grow them as annuals or to over-winter them indoors.  I try to keep a rosemary plant alive every winter, and have made it as far as March, but I’ve got a good feeling about this year.  I started it as a seed in the early spring, and have it in a pot on the windowsill now.  It’s not too big, as you can see from the picture above, but it’s good for the occasional snip of piney flavor.  If it survives this winter, I’ll replant it in the garden, then re-pot it in the fall.  I’ve also heard of people growing bay laurels (for bay leaves) in pots, and over-wintering them indoors.

An ideal candidate for this sort of treatment is mint—in a yard as small as mine, I can’t just plant mint in a border—it’d creep across the yard (and the neighborhood) in a single growing season.  To prevent this, I keep it in a pot to contain the invasive underground shoots.  In the fall, the pot comes indoors for midwinter juleps or tabulleh.

A slight variation works for parsley.  It’s a biennial, so in its second year, the leaves get tough and it flowers.  It’s inedible the second year, so usually, gardeners dig up their parsley every year and start over the following spring.  You can get a few more months of production from your parsley by potting it up in fall and bringing it indoors.  If you wait until it gets too cool, you run the risk of your parsley going into second-year mode, so do it early.  Don’t bother saving the parsley to replant the next year—compost it when it goes dormant or sends up a flower stalk.

Herbs as Bulbs
The only bulbing herb I grow is chives, but I imagine this would work for any bulb.  I use the same method as you would to force flowering bulbs—pot up the bulbs in fall, subject them to a few months of “false winter” (cool weather, either in a garage/crawl space/attic or in the fridge), then bring them into a warm, sunny room to re-sprout.  The chives send up new shoots within a few days, and can be clipped for several weeks before the bulbs start to wear out.  I always have several pots waiting out in the garage to keep a supply going all winter.  In the spring, I usually give the potted bulbs to friends who are starting an herb or ornamental garden.  Of course, any landscape could always use a few more spikey purple chive blossoms.

Fresh Herbs, in Situ
Finally, some herbs retain enough of their flavor compounds through the winter to be dug up and used as it.  Thyme is especially good for this.  We have some along the house, and whenever I’ve got a pot of stock going, I can dig down to it, clip off a few stems, and throw it in.  Oregano will also put up with this treatment.  Think of it as “winter pruning” if it makes you more comfortable.  The flavor isn’t at its peak, but it’s probably comparable, if not superior, to home-dried leaves that are a few months old.

Whether you’re eating locally year-round (and getting sick of roots and squash) or just looking for a little fresh flavor to get you through the winter, coaxing your herbs into providing a crop for you in the winter is a great way to bolster one’s faith in the spring.  If you have success with any herbs not mentioned here, please let me know in the comments section.

Scouting the Wild Asparagus

November 6, 2009

I’ve been building up a patch of asparagus in the backyard, but lately I’ve been seeing it growing wild just about every time I take the highway.  I started out taking mental notes of where each patch was, but I’ve given up—it’s all over the place, so I’m assuming I’ll be able to find some come spring.
This is an ideal time to locate a patch, though.  In the spring, the sprouts are just a few inches tall and impossible to find without coming within a few feet of it.  In the summer, when it has bushed out, asparagus blends into the other greenery.  In autumn, however, it turns a particular hue that stands out from the bleached-out stalks of the other roadside plants.  It’s hard to describe, and doesn’t really photograph well, but it’s a bit yellower than the straw-colored grasses.  It also has what Euell Gibbons (author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the inspiration for this article’s title) calls a “Christmas tree shape”—kind of a lacy pyramid.  If you don’t know of anyone who grows asparagus who can give you a peek at the full-grown plant, I’d seek it out.  You might even be able to convince a farmer’s market vendor to let you take a look at their fields.  Once you get a look at it, it’ll be easy to spot, even from some distance.  I’m hoping that the bushes are as easy to identify in the spring, after they’ve been under the snow for a few months.
Lately, I’ve been seeing it along highways, with one patch growing literally at the intersection of the two biggest highways on this side of the state.  In the past, I’ve found it growing along rivers, and friends have told me of patches near the Lake Michigan shores, but the highway side is the best place to start looking.
I’ll put up a proper post once I’ve found, picked, and prepared some in season, but I’ve been seeing it all over and thought I’d spur my regular readers to start seeking it out.

Cooking from the Garden, 9-13-09

September 13, 2009

We had a very cool summer, so a lot of the stuff in the garden took a long time to ripen.  Tomatoes and peppers are just coming in now, about a month late.  On the other hand, I was able to harvest broccoli all the way through August, so maybe it’s a wash.

Tonight’s dinner featured a lot of vegetable produce, and I haven’t been posting much, so I thought I’d put it up.  I started with pizza dough in a cast-iron pan.  Topped it with sliced fresh tomatoes, green peppers, yellow Swiss chard, red onion, garlic, herbs, cheese, and turkey sausage.

Garden Pizza

It was really good, but as far as presentation goes, I should have put more of the vegetables on top–all those colors, and nothing to show for it.  The tomatoes kind of steamed under the cheese, rather than roasting, so they were wetter than I’d like, but it was still delicious.  The cheese, dough, sausage, and onion were store-bought, and all the vegetables came from the garden.

Home-grown Vegetables Hall of Fame III: Garlic

June 21, 2009

I covered the process of growing garlic last year, but recently saw the garlic flower buds for sale at the farmer’s market.  I had been putting them in floral arrangements (the pointy curlicue shapes make for a beautiful, if pungent, addition to bouquets), but didn’t know they were edible.

These flower buds, called “scapes”, come out in June here in Michigan,.  I cut them off above the top leaf.  The pointy, swollen flower head is too tough to eat, so it’s really just the stems that are edible.

The online recipes I’ve found for scapes advise that I “cook them like green beans”.  For my first attempt at cooking them, I just steamed them for a few minutes at ate them out of hand.  They were delicious–garlicky, but much milder.  They were also very difficult to eat, due to the spiral shape.  Since then, I’ve chopped them and added them to stir-fries or pizzas.  They were not quite strong enough to substitute for garlic, but they are good on their own terms.  I’m still looking for ideas for how to use them–send recipes if you’ve got ’em!

Homegrown Vegetables Hall of Fame II: Leaf Lettuce

June 1, 2009

Sometime between when I was a child and the present, the world at large made a leap from iceberg lettuce to romaine.  Back then, every family had a volleyball-like, pale green head of iceberg lettuce in the refrigerator crisper.  Nowadays, the only times I see iceberg lettuce is at the Taco Bell or in a wedge salad.
This shift is understandable–iceberg lettuce is devoid of nutrition and flavor.  Romaine is able to hold up to heavy dressings and gets great ratings as  “leafy green”, one of the foods most people don’t eat enough of.  However, this shift in lettuce preference skipped over my personal favorite–leaf lettuce.  It’s easier to grow than either iceburg lettuce and romaine, and offers a far greater variety in form than either.  I can see why it doesn’t work as well on a commercial level–each head is a lot smaller than either iceburg or romaine lettuce, and it probably doesn’t transport as well, but for the home gardener, it’s ideal.

Growing Lettuce

Lettuce is a cool-weather crop, and will flower and set seed when it gets too warm.  In Michigan, I can usually get lettuce from my full-sun garden until the end of June.  If I start it in a cold frame, I can put it in in March, and start getting some thinnings in April.  A 4 x 4 area provides a few salads every few days through May and June, depending on weather.   This year, I’ve got some transplants and some grown from seed in the same bed, and they’re pretty indistinguishable at this point–next year, I’ll probably direct-seed them all.

Mulching is beneficial on two fronts–it keeps the soil moist and keeps the soil from splashing on the plant.  Lettuce likes a damp soil, and will wilt in hot, dry weather.  A good coating of mulch keeps the water in the soil from evaporating.  Mulch also keeps the soil in place through sprinkling or rain, as the leaves can get sandy otherwise.  Mulch with caution, however:  slugs love to eat lettuce, and too much mulch will give them the cover they need to destroy your crop.

Lettuce works well when planted in combination with other plants.   I’ve interplanted it with carrots, as the long and narrow carrot roots do not interfere with lettuce’s more shallow roots.  I’ve planted it between rows of corn, with the corn protecting the lettuce from the summer sun and extending its season.  I’ve also planted lettuce in a spot where I intend to plant a hot-weather vegetable–tomatoes or peppers, for example–as the lettuce will get pulled out when the hot-weather plants need the space.  There is some overlap in growing seasons, but the peppers/tomatoes don’t really get growing until the lettuce is past its prime.

I’ve had mixed results growing a fall crop of lettuce.  Timing is crucial–if you get it in too soon, the hot weather causes it to “bolt”, get bitter, and go to seed.  Plant too late, and the seedlings never develop.  I haven’t got a foolproof technique yet–I try it every year, and some years I have better luck than others.

Eating Lettuce

The first time I have to buy lettuce from the store (usually around November) is the most disappointing trip of the year.  After several months of right-out-of-the-ground lettuce, even the freshest grocery store offerings look tough, wilted, and bruised.  Fresh, home-grown lettuce is truly a luxury.  There are recipes for lettuce slaw and lettuce soup, but I’ve never needed them–a frilly leaf or two on a sandwich and a big salad are the only ways I’ve used lettuce.  We always offer to bring a green salad to the early-summer, bring-a-dish-to-pass events, too.  A few green onions, a shredded carrot, and a hardboiled egg, all topped with chive blossoms or pansy flowers, make for a very impressive, I-grew-it-myself salad and seems to go over well with most audiences.

Local Food Restaurant Review: The Electric Cheetah

May 11, 2009

I don’t have any way to track where my readership lives, so I don’t know how helpful it will be to review a local restaurant, but it certainly fits in with the purpose of this weblog.  For those of you in the Grand Rapids area, read on.  For any non-local reader, look forward to my upcoming entries on Stinging Nettles and Rhubarb.

The Electric Cheetah is located in the rapidly gentrifying area around Wealthy and Madison in downtown GR.  Wife and I ended up there after the restaurant we intended to go to was packed with a near-hour wait.  As we were looking at the menu, the very extroverted host ushered us in and let us know it was the Cheetah’s second day in existence.  As a result, they were using a “soft menu”, so we only got to choose from about half of what they intend to offer.
He also let us know that the restaurant was housed in a LEED-certified building, with a green roof and runoff going into what they intend to be a backyard garden.
Traffic was light, as it was late in the evening, so the staff was very attentive and eager to explain the restaurant and food.  The menu and staff both described a rather vague commitment to the idea of eating locally, with one staff member throwing out 25 miles as the target radius from which they would buy their ingredients.  As it stands, there is not a lot in season in Michigan in early May, so there were a lot of food-miles in each dish.
Any restaurant with a commitment to local food has to find a balance between at least three factors—edibility, affordability, and philosophy.  It seems the Cheetah has leaned heavily towards the first two categories, with an adherence to local food practices on the back burner.  The food was quite good, and very “non-threatening” to a casual diner.  Wife had the grilled cheese with their house soup, a saffron-tomato bisque, and I had a chicken Caesar salad with sweet potato fries.  Prices were very fair, comparable to other restaurants serving similar fare.
Reading over our food selections should set off a few local-food alarms, though.  Tomatoes?  In early May?  Sweet Potatoes?  Saffron?  SAFFRON?  To have a house soup based on an ingredient that’s available for 2 or 3 months out of the year seems short-sighted when the goal is local (and presumably in-season) food.
To their credit, the romaine lettuce in my salad was grown in a hydroponic greenhouse a few miles outside of town.  The chef/presumed owner told me that himself; there was no indication anywhere on the menu where any of the foods came from.  I assume that the Parmesan cheese and anchovies were not sourced locally.
One very appealing feature of the Electric Cheetah is their milk-and-cookie desserts.  About halfway through our meal, our server asked us if we were interested in trying them.  We were encouraged to place our order then, as the cookies are cooked to order and served hot out of the oven.  I avoid flour-based sweets, but Wife enjoyed her cookies with organic milk immensely.
I would definitely recommend the Electric Cheetah to anyone looking for a reasonably-priced restaurant in the Wealthy Street area, but hesitate to endorse them as a source of local foods.  I’m sure they have great intentions, and I hope to see them realized, but some of their flagship dishes (the saffron tomato bisque and sweet potato fries, especially) seem unsustainable on a local level.  As a local food proponent, I’d like to see on the menu where the ingredients were sourced.

Homegrown Vegetables Hall of Fame I: Asparagus

April 22, 2009

Even if you don’t like asparagus, it holds a special place in the in-season/local eating diet.  After a winter eatng cellared roots, squash, cold-frame greens, and frozen or canned vegetables, asparagus is the first real vegetable of the season in Great Lakes states.  It’s an especially fun vegetable to grow, as it sticks out of the ground looking exactly like itself.  Unlike, say, tomatoes or cucumbers, which grow for months before they yield the familiar fruits, asparagus is recognizable from the moment it sticks out of the ground.

Growing Asparagus
Asparagus is a perennial—it regrows from the roots every year—which makes it a lot more work to get started.  The easiest way to get started is to purchase crowns in the spring.  Soak them in a bucket of water while digging a trench about 8” deep.  For best results, dig some compost into the bottom of the trench—you won’t be able to till this area in the future, so make soil improvements while you can.  It’s recommended that you spread out the roots at the bottom of the trench, but in my experience, the roots tend to break off.  I usually put them in on their side, as the crowns will grow into a position they are comfortable in.
When the crowns are in place, backfill the trench about half way and water well to settle the soil.  When the asparagus begins to peek out of the soil, continue backfilling and watering until the trench is filled in and the asparagus is growing above ground.  Keep it well watered and weeded for the first year while the asparagus gets established.
It’s generally recommended that you let the asparagus grow for two or three years before harvesting so that the plants can build strength and focus on root growth.  I was able to get a few spears in my second year (last year), but this year (year three) is the first time I’m reaping a real harvest.  I get a few spears (enough for a meal) every two or three days.

Through the harvest season, the spears will get thinner and thinner as the plant weakens.  When they get to be about the thickness of a pencil, leave the plant to grow out into a bush so that it can spend the summer “recharging” for next year.
My less agrarian friends are always surprised to see asparagus that has grown out—I don’t have any pictures ready to go, but it grows into what looks like a bush, 4’-5’ tall.  It’s a beautiful specimen plant, with a few disadvantages as a landscaping element.  First, it dies back to the ground every winter and, if consistently harvested, doesn’t fill in until June or so.  Second, being a tall plant, it can cast some dense shade on neighboring plants.  In the vegetable garden, it should be situated on the North side of the garden whenever possible so that it doesn’t shade out shorter plants.
In the fall, after the asparagus has faded to its golden autumnal color, cut it down at ground level.  Mulch it well to add nutrients for next year’s growth.

Eating Asparagus
Home grown asparagus compares favorably with the store-bought variety, with the added advantage of not having stood in a tray full of tepid water for a week or more in the grocery store.  You also get a lot more of the thick, fleshy sprouts, as compared to the straggly store-bought stems.  I’ve been rolling it up in sushi, stir-frying it, and making a risotto with it.  The less time it spends cooking, the better, and it’s pretty good raw, as well—the store-bought stuff isn’t so good this way.  It’s got a unexpectedly nutty flavor.

I’ve started some asparagus from seed, but that adds yet another year to the prep period before it can be harvested.  That will be entering year two this year, so I won’t be able to compare seed stock to root stock for another several years.  Planting asparagus is a commitment, but a well-established asparagus plot can yield for decades, and there is really nothing that can compare to the first fresh vegetable of the year.

Winter Greens, Part II: The Cold Frame

March 22, 2009

This entry is a follow-up to my article on sprouts several weeks ago.

I planned on being able to post digital pictures before I wrote this, but that’s not happening.  In addition to sprouting various seeds, some home-grown and others from the store, I add fresh local vegetables to my winter diet through the use of a cold-frame.  I have had less than spectacular results, and a few meteorological mishaps, but the idea is worth sharing.

In my last entry, I gave a plan for an insulated straw-bale cold frame.  This year, I didn’t get enough bales before winter, so I used an alternate design–a variation on a hoop house.  I picked up about 75 ‘ of concrete reinforcing mesh–sort of an industrial-strength chicken wire with 6″ holes–to make tomato cages and a compost bin.  With the 15 or so feet I had left over, I made two sections that arced into a half-circle shape, about as wide as one of the beds in my garden.  Each section was cut to leave 6″ lengths of wire sticking out on the ends, which I stuck into the ground to secure the frame.  This left me with a wire tunnel, about 5 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 3 feet tall.  I was able to get some greenhouse-grade plastic (leftovers from a local greenhouse) to cover my frame, and weighed down the edges with some fist-sized rocks.  This left me with a miniature version of the full-sized greenhouses you’d see at a commercial-scale nursery.

The cold frame collects and retains solar energy, resulting in, well, a “greenhouse effect” that keeps the plants within at a much warmer temperature than the outside air.  Though this would only add a week or two to the life of warm weather plants, like peppers or tomatoes, it can keep cool-weather plants alive through all but the coldest Michigan winters.

Fall and Spring Planting in a Cold Frame

I stuck with cool-season greens in the fall, such as leaf lettuce, bok choy, and spinach, planted in the early fall or transplanted a little later.  These go more or less dormant when the weather gets cold, but the cold frame keeps them in a harvestable state through most of winter.  There isn’t a lot of growth, so your stock dwindles as spring approaches, but it’s a great way to keep some fresh and local food on the table all winter.  With no disrespect to the other two winter-long green vegetables, it’s way more interesting than kale, and far more versatile than brussel sprouts.

In spring, the cold frame is more of a head-start than a long-term plan.  Around the time I’m planting pea seeds, I pull out the rest of the winter greens from the cold frame (there’s usually not much left, and what’s left is starting to toughen up and flower), and plant a new crop.  This year, it was spinach, bok choy, leaf lettuce, and very early carrots.  The additional heat and humidity from the enclosed cold frame will give them several weeks of extra growing time before the open-air garden is ready to be planted.  I’ve sited the cold frame in the place I’m putting this year’s peppers, which won’t be planted until early summer, so most of these plants will have a chance to mature before the peppers go in.  I’ve considered putting the peppers in a few weeks before the last frost, hoping that the cold frame would give them the shelter and warmth they would need, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk.  I’m not sure how cold it can get in a cold frame, particularly at night.

Cold Frame Problems

Weather rarely cooperates with cold frame construction.  I’ve had my plastic sheeting blown off completely, despite weighing down the edges and clipping the plastic to the frame.  I’ve also had the entire thing collapse under the weight of snow and ice, crushing the leafy plants underneath.  Also, since the plastic sheeting is impermeable to rain, it can get desert-dry inside of a cold frame when all the ground moisture is frozen.

Access to vegetables is another problem.  With rocks weighing down the edges, water sometimes pools and freezes, making it hard to lift the plastic sheeting and reach in to harvest.  The 6″ access holes are also an obstacle.  I’ve adopted a “mass harvest” mentality, getting a week’s worth of greens in one go, just to simplify things.

Once spring starts to warm up, it can get very hot inside a greenhouse.  Think of a car parked in the sun with the windows up–opening up the cold frame on those warm, sunny days is a necessary inconvenience.

Weeds that are growing in the space where you’ve set up your cold frame are also able to take advantage of the microclimate, so they often spread throughout the winter.  Finally, keeping a bed in production all year takes a lot out of the soil, so your cold-frame bed should be refreshed with compost or fertilizer more often than others.

Possible Improvements

I’ve considered a number of options that I haven’t followed through on yet.  The first–instead of using weights to hold down the plastic, I’ve seen cold frames with trenches dug along their edges, with the edge of the plastic sheet buried under a few inches of soil.  This would hold it down a lot better, but would make it much harder to get into the cold frame.

Another modification would be to put it in so that it straddled two beds, with a path down the center.  I’d have to crawl in from the end (the taller a cold frame is, the less efficient it is, as heat rises away from the plants), but I wouldn’t have to reach, and I’d be able to bury the edges as mentioned above.

I’ve saved up a bunch of dark-colored laundry soap jugs, which I intend to fill with water and use as heat collectors.  The dark colors will absorb solar heat through the day, then release it at night.  Each jug takes up valuable square footage in the cold frame, though.

I may use a few stakes next year to reinforce the wire framework–I’ve never had a collapse before, but this year’s heavy snowfall brought the whole cold frame down.  It’s an easy enough fix, and I could have saved a few plants.

So far, using a cold frame has been more art than science, but it has kept in in the garden throughout the winter, and kept me out of the produce section of the grocery store for several weeks beyond the end of my garden’s regular season.  I’ll be building another straw-bale frame next year, provided I can round up enough free straw bales, but I’ll build another wire-frame hoop house as well, just to see if I can do any better.

The Giving Bale

February 19, 2009

With the first snowmelt of the year, I was reminded of the huge score I managed to pull a month or two ago.  I’ve got nearly a dozen straw bales in the backyard that I picked up from behind a church by my favorite library.  They were used for a pumpkin sale in October, and I checked in with them regularly while I worked up the courage to ask if I could take them.  It would have been great if I had asked immediately following the pumpkin sale, because by the time I picked them up, they were waterlogged and frozen together.  It took a great deal of effort to get them into the old hatchback, and I had to use a prybar to get two of them apart.

Even in an urban area, bales of straw aren’t too hard to come by–I’ve picked them up from curbs after people used them as harvest-themed decorations on their porch.  They’re incredibly useful in the garden, and I thought I’d run through the four seasons of straw bales in the garden, starting in the fall, when it’s easiest to pick them up.

Autumn

After they have exhausted their decorative usefulness, straw bales can be useful structural elements in the vegetable garden.  They can be used as ultra-insulated walls of cold frames or hot beds–I’ve arranged them into a rectangle around a few cold-season crops, like lettuce, spinach, or bok choy, and covered the opening with a plastic sheet to keep them available for harvest well into late fall.  A similar structure, filled with fresh horse manure and topped with potting soil, could keep warm (through the fermenting and decomposing manure) through the winter, providing you with fresh lettuce all winter.

I’ve also used straw bales to build a temporary compost bin.  After stacking them into a workable structure (usually a squarish shape, one bale by one bale, with the corners overlapping a little, two bales tall), I fill the center with yard and garden waste, which is usually spilling out of my over-filled compost bin in the fall.  A bit of high-nitrogen material, such as kitchen waste, manure, or grass clippings, will speed decomposition.  I let a good rain get it adequately damp, and put another bale or two on top to cover the opening.  This heavily insulated pile will continue cooking longer than my open-air bin, and when I build it on a garden bed, I can pull away the bales and spread the partly-finished compost in situ.

Bales can also be broken up into mulch, and a thick coat of coarse straw spread in the fall can protect topsoil by slowing and absorbing rain and melting snow  .

Winter

Straw’s insulating qualities are even more important in the winter.  The cold-frame and hot beds build in autumn will continue producing into winter, and there are other uses, as well.  A structure similar to the compost bin can be build for root storage, with layers of carrots, beets, turnips, or rutabegas piled inside and separated with layers of loose straw.  I haven’t tried this method, as I’m not producing enough food to store during the winter, so attempt it with caution.  I’d advise lining the inside of the bale-house with chicken wire to keep out rodents.

Whole bales can also be used to insulate tender plants through the winter.  I grow artichokes, which are not cold-tolerant enough to survive a Michigan winter, but keeping them well-insulated and close to the house seems to work.  If you keep parsnips or carrots in the ground though winter, covering them with strawbales will make harvest a little easier, at least until everything freezes solid.

Spring

Cold frames can be replanted, and hotbeds can have the spent manure dug out and replaced for a fresh start.  Hotbeds are a great place to start seedings, as bottom heating encourages germination.

As seedlings sprout, cool-season plants can be mulched with straw to supress weeds, keep the soil cool, and prevent mud from splashing up onto your leaf crops.

A muddy garden path is easily remedied with the generous application of straw.  I’ve laid it down a foot thick down the middle of the garden so that I could wear my dress shoes out to the compost pile.

If you turn your compost heap in the spring, chances are it’s a heavy, waterlogged pile.  If you’re not ready to spread it, restack it parfait-style with a 4-8″ layer of fluffed straw every foot or so.  This allows oxygen into the pile, and hastens decomposition.

If you’re into nature, there’s some delight in watching the birds steal straw to build nests.  It’s not quite so delightful to find mice using your straw as a nest, but I’ll avoid that digression.

Summer

By summer, last fall’s straw bales will have started to decay, and the string used to hold them together has probably deteriorated to the point that you couldn’t pick the bale up if you wanted to.  They can be used in place, or broken up for mulch.

When I plant corn, I lay on a thick, loose layer of straw.  This keeps the sun off the soil, so I wait until it’s warmed up, but it seems to prevent birds from pulling up the seedlings.  The corn is determined enough to push through a few inches of straw.

If spring’s hotbeds have cooled sufficiently by melon-planting time, put a few melon plants in each one.  The recently-decomposed horse manure will retain a lot of water and provide the plants with the rich soil they need to produce.  If you have any bales placed on the ground sideways (with the individual straws running perpendicular to the ground), you can poke a hole in them for tomatoes.  If regularly fertilized, they do well with their roots digging into the consistently moist, decomposed straw.  Some of the shorter varieties won’t need staking, as they can spill over the sides of the bale.

When the soil has warmed enough, straw is an ideal mulch.  A well-rotted bale can be pulled apart in “pages”, the thick, matted masses of straw.  These pages are laid down between rows of plants, and are pretty well impenetrable to weed seedlings.  Established weeds will push through, but the shady, moist soil under the straw makes it a lot easier to pull these out.  The straw breaks down very slowly, so it’s ideal for retaining moisture, preventing the rain from washing away soil, and slowing the breakdown of organic material.  By midsummer, my entire garden is covered in a thick layer of straw.

By the end of summer, I’ve usually worked through the straw I’ve collected, regardless of how much I started with.  If I’m planting a fall crop, I’ll clear a bed of straw and add it to the compost pile, where it adds carbon and bulk, absorbs water, and admits oxygen.  If I’m leaving the bed alone after summer harvest, I won’t clear the mulch until the spring.  I occassionally have to pull up some wheat sprouts–from seeds stowing away in the straw–but they don’t put up much of a fight.  Should I ever get the rabbits I dream of, I’ll feed the sprouts to them.  I may sing the praises of stealing your neighbor’s bags of leaves in the fall in a later entry, but I’m comfortable starting my tribute to high-carbon organic mulches with straw.