Tag Archives: mulch

Five Trees in the Ground

My goal for the year was to plant an additional five trees in my yard.  Before spring the yard contained thirteen trees (1 elm, 1 sycamore, 1 maple, 3 yellow poplars, 3 Norway spruce, and 4 red oaks).  Over the years I have drawn out several plans to add to my trees.

However, the nursery stock this year was harsh.  I rarely saw a shade tree worth a second look and the conifers were wicked expensive.  Early in the season I was able to find a pair of Norway spruce for about $65 each.  This was an easy choice since I had a spot picked out:


Both trees really took to being planted and put on a thrush of new growth within weeks.  The weather this summer has been amenable to trees as well with well-spaced moisture and not too many blistering hot days.  Even the days that were hot lacked the combination of heat and sun that really seems to knock the stuffing out of plants.

Hopefully before the end of fall I can trim around the trees like the maple in the foreground of the picture above.  The surrounding mulched bed will not be planted with perennials like the maple.  Over the years the branches will spread to encompass the entirety of the mulched bed.  Also, this is just the start of what I have planned for this side of my yard.  See the disastrous “sport” court in the neighbors’ back yard?  Yeah, I do not want to see it either.  Next year is going to be a heavy year for trees.

Just this weekend I ran across a store doing a fall sale of container grown conifers for just $15 each.  Normally, I am not a fan of Colorado blue spruce as the species is over planted in eastern Iowa.  I could not turn down relatively good looking trees at a low, low price.  I picked up three and got to work finishing another planting bed where I am trying to take out all of the turf grass:


This part of my lawn is almost entirely sand.  The only soil, so to speak, is what came on the rolls of sod that were laid down and what I have added when planting trees.  The area has little soil fertility and retains very little moisture.  It is like a thin layer of soil, compacted, and sitting on a jelly roll pan.  If you pour out a bucket of water you can watch it flow downhill without really penetrating the soil.  While the rest of the yard can handle a period of drought—mowing the grass extra high and allowing clover to spread helps—this little corner dries out and dies.  I had considered top dressing the lawn in this area, but felt that it was a better use of space to plant trees and perennials, edge the area, amend the soil, and deeply mulch.  I will get to the edging, amending, and mulching next year.  I promise.

The only downside of all of this planting is that I have used up the contents of one of my compost bins.  There is some compost left and a few things that did not break down over the years, like the muslin bags used to steep grains during my homebrewing days, which will go into a mixture to improve soil health in the areas where I remove turf.  The other bin is fairly full, so in a year or so I should have a lot of nutrient dense compost to amend my sandy soil.

Sad Side Yard Transformation

I have truly struggled with my southwest-ish facing side yard. It’s where my two compost bins are located because the afternoon sun really heats things up and it’s a convenient trip from the kitchen to dump scraps.

My first attempt to bring some life and color to this space was a series of butterfly bushes. Epic fail. After the first year I lost one of the bushes. I replaced the lost bush, but by the end of year two all of the bushes were dead. I cut them to the ground and let the bed lay barren for a year while I thought about what I wanted to do.

My second thought was to build a hop trellis and grow some hops for my homebrew. My recent reduction in beer drinking and the subsequent stoppage of homebrewing made that an irrelevant idea. Back to the drawing board. Here is what I was left to work with:

Sad Side Yard

Why not vegetables? Since vegetables are generally annuals I would not need to worry about losing plants to the inevitable winter wind. It’s not a bed that people spend a lot of time looking at, so the aesthetic value of flowering bushes is diminished. Hmmm…..

The first challenge was removing the god damned river rock and landscape fabric. Seriously, this stuff is the worst. The rock just retains heat and provides no benefit to the plants other than keeping weeds down. The landscape fabric actually lets water run off rather than percolating into the soil and it traps dirt on top where weeds eventually take root making the landscape fabric irrelevant. Ugh.

With that dirty, dusty job done things went pretty smoothly. The dirt in the bed was fairly rich, but I still amended it with heaping handfuls on compost and coconut coir. In went three cherry tomatoes, three paste tomatoes, two sweet peppers, two hot peppers, two edamame plants, and four cauliflower starts. A thick layer of shredded cypress mulch on top finished everything off:

Happy Side Garden

What was once a barren and sad side yard has become a vibrant little garden. The picture above is a somewhat dated as the tomato and pepper plants are really taking off with the perfect mix of rain and sun we have been getting in eastern Iowa this spring.

Now imagine how much food we could grow if every house in America just converted one neglected bed alongside their home into a small vegetable garden. Amazing potential.

You Must Read— Straw Bale Garden: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding.

9781591865506Last week I posted a link to a post on Root Simple about straw bale gardens and I have watched as the concept has seen a lot of press online.  As I was perusing the book table at the Costco in Coralville, Iowa—which always seems to have one or two books on gardening that pique my interest—I ran across a copy of Joel Karsten’s Straw Bale Garden: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding.

It was an easy choice to grab a copy because this book has been on backorder at several outlets and my local bookshop does not have any copies.  Heck, I even went into Barnes & Noble to search for a copy which is something I am loathe to do recently because the store has become a showroom for Nooks.

Like people who cannot resist the siren song of fad diets, I am a fad gardener.  Whatever new idea comes along in gardening I am quick to think that it will revolutionize my outdoor endeavors.  Too often I end up disappointed due to my lack of diligence and the new method’s payoff being less than advertised.  Trust me, I am still hoping that upside down tomatoes will work for me.

So many of the benefits of this type of garden really speak to me.  First, the straw bales act like raise beds.  This makes the process of gardening easier because things are higher up.  I may not be old yet, but gardening is something I would like to continue well into my retirement.  Setting up a system that allows for this and learning the ropes now just means it will be more sustainable come my retirement in thirty-odd years.

By being raised up out of the ground the straw bales also allow me to utilized a part of my yard where water sometimes accumulates if the rains are heavy.  Granted, during the drought last year this was never a problem.  If I gardened at ground level with traditional tilled soil this area would be off-limits.

Second, the use of straw bales means that soil borne disease should not be a problem.  Why?  Because you replace the straw bales every year which means the soil borne pathogens are not present.  It’s like crop rotation by default.  Plus, the straw that is left over at the season’s end is like ready-made compost starter because it is already well into the process of decay.  You can utilize that material to build the soil quality elsewhere in your yard or neighborhood while starting the process over with new bales in the spring.

Third, the straw bales are your growing medium so the quality of your soil—whether poor or polluted—is not so critical.  My yard is essentially a sandbox.  If I dig down past the first few inches where grass has taken root the soil is pure sand.  It is great for drainage, but it sucks for planting.  Every tree I have planted takes extensive soil amendment to make the conditions livable.  Heck, I am going to spend a good part of this summer amending the soil so that it holds more moisture in case we end up with persistent drought.  Foregoing large scale soil amendment for a garden seems like a dream.

Fourth, potatoes.  Why potatoes?  It’s nice to grow tomatoes and herbs to make your own spaghetti sauce or grow peppers and garlic to spice up your food, but to really drive toward some measure of self-sufficiency and resiliency you need to produce calories.  Potatoes are a great source of calories, but the crop is problematic.  Repeatedly planting potatoes in the same soil will lead to an accumulation of soil borne pathogens and a decimating of your crop.  Potatoes also require well drained soil that is mounded.  Hmmmm, straw bales eliminate soil borne pathogens by replacing the growing medium annually and the bales are naturally mounded.  I know people who grow potatoes using stacked tires and a growing medium of straw and compost.  This process just eliminates the tires.

The biggest obstacles for the adoption of straw bale gardening are access to bales and reimagining the concept of what it means to garden.

Granted, I live in an area where Craig’s List has many postings for straw bales at a price that is on the low end of what Karstens describes in the book.  If you live in a more suburban or urban area this might be a real impediment, but considering how much soil amending will likely have to be done there is probably a zero net cost difference.

Reimagining what it means to garden is the larger obstacle.  There is something primal about the tilling or turning of soil in the spring.  It represents rebirth.  It’s a break from the long winter.  I get it.  But, there might be a better way and straw bale gardening is one of those options.