Tidewater Gardening - February 2013

Novel Ways to Garden


K. Marc Teffeau

A few years ago I switched from a traditional soil garden vegetable plot to raised beds. One of the main reasons that I made the move was that the garden area in the back yard was getting too shady because of the surrounding trees. I moved the raised beds to an area in the yard where the plants could receive more hours of direct sunlight.
Raised bed gardening is not a new practice. It has been around, in one form or another, for a number of years. An early proponent of this method was Mel Bartholomew with his book Square Foot Gardening. I remember back in the day ~ in the 1990s ~ when I was still with University of Maryland Extension, and was teaching gardening classes. I used to show a videotape from Organic Gardening magazine that featured a Chinese fellow talking about his raised bed gardens. That was back when video tape playback units had come out and the one that I had to lug around was the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
A fairly new vegetable gardening method that has developed a following is straw bale gardening. Rather than growing your vegetable plants in the ground or in raised beds, you grow them in straw bales above the ground. According to proponents of this method, straw bale gardening is a great option for people who have limited space to garden, have mobility problems, or where native soil is poor. Sounds like a good approach for those gardeners who have to contend with the heavy clay soils in the Bay Hundred area of Talbot County, for example.
Straw bales are placed on the ground and the vegetable transplants are placed inside the bale. The straw helps to keep the plants cool and it holds water. Weeding and harvesting can be done easily from a chair, stool, or one of those scoot-around four-wheel garden tractors.
You do not need a lot to get started with straw bale gardening. First, you will need to purchase straw bales. Barley bales are readily available in this area. You can use hay bales, but remember that they tend to sprout weeds.
One easy way to deal with the weed and grass seeds is to cover the bales with plastic in early spring. The hay bale will heat up and the weed seeds will sprout so you can pull them out.
The next thing you will need to do to the bales is condition them with fertilizer, nitrogen, blood meal or bone meal. A water source and soil or compost is also needed if you are directly planting seeds. A good way to water the bales is to use a soaker hose put directly on the bales.
It is important to decide on a permanent location for the straw bales. Once you’ve started watering them, you will not be able to move them as they will be very heavy. When planting in the bales, remember to place the taller plants on the north end so as not to shade the other plants.
To maintain a clean area, you can place the bales on sheets of plastic or newspapers. After you place them and water them, you proceed to conditioning. This process takes a few weeks, so you will want to plan ahead and do this before you plant. Bales held over from the year before will not need to go through this step.
To start the process, keep the straw bales wet for three to four weeks before planting. You can speed up the process by applying a fertilizer source to the bales and watering in. Urea (46-0-0) bone meal, fish meal, or compost can be used.
To determine if the bales are ready to plant, stick your hand into the bales to see of they are still warm. If they have cooled to less than your body temperature, you may safely begin planting.
You can grow almost anything in a straw bale that you can grow in the ground however, you may find some plants are easier than others. Root vegetables like carrots, potatoes and onions can be grown, but they have some difficulty. Plants like corn tend to be too top-heavy.
You can direct seed into the bales in soil that is level on top, or transplant vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers into the bales. It is recommended that you stake peppers and tomatoes in the bales to prevent them from falling over as they come to maturity.
Your plants will require more fertilizer than if planted in the garden. To provide the plants’ nutrition, feed them a compost tea or liquid fish emulsion once every other week when plants are seedlings, increasing the feedings to once a week as the plant grows. Check out the Internet and YouTube videos for more information and videos on how to plant a straw bale garden.
February is the time to start plants indoors for setting out later in the spring. Good examples are tuberous begonias that are set outside for summer-long flowering in pots, beds or hanging baskets. Start the tubers indoors during late February or early March.
Sprout the tubers by placing them, hollow-side-up, fairly close together in shallow, well-drained pans. Use a mix of equal parts perlite, sphagnum, peat moss and vermiculite; or chopped sphagnum moss and perlite. This should be kept damp (not soggy) in a shady window with a temperature no lower than the 60s.
Transplant the tubers to pots or baskets when growth starts, normally within 3 weeks. Place outside only after all threat of frost has passed.
Now is also the time to start slow germinating seeds such as alyssum, coleus, dusty miller, geranium, impatiens, marigold, petunia, phlox, portulaca, salvia, vinca and verbena.
How would you like to get a big jump on spring? You can brighten your winter home by forcing a number of spring-blooming shrub branches. Generally, it takes two or three weeks to bring to blossom such items as pussy willow, forsythia, Japanese quince, flowering almond, azalea, magnolia, European birth and red maple.
There are lots of things to consider if you are a perennial grower. Now is the time to think about managing your perennials in the garden this year. Delphinium and echinop will bloom again this fall if they are cut back to ground level after flowering this spring. Coreopsis, heliopsis and gaillardia should bloom again in the fall if seed is not allowed to develop in the spring.
For a full-sun border, try mixing colors of perennial coneflower and Shasta daisy with annual globe amaranth. Place the taller coneflower toward the rear of the bed and the Shasta daisies toward the front, with the globe amaranth mixed in between.
As a mid-winter project, why not grow plants from fruit seeds? Oranges, grapefruits, lemons, tangerines, and pomegranates may have viable seed. Try germinating them in a light potting soil mixture containing half peat moss. Keep seeds well watered and in a warm location. If seedlings fail to appear in six weeks, try again with new seeds. Citrus plants grown from seeds generally will not produce flowers or fruit, but they do have attractive shiny-leaved foliage.
Don’t forget your houseplants indoors. An interesting indoor fern to try is the brake fern, Pteris cretica. It grows better in a sunny window than most ferns.
Remember that once a month you should water your acid-loving house plants, such as gardenia and citrus, using a solution of 1 teaspoon vinegar to 1 quart of water.
Be sure to check plants on southern indoor windowsills. Low winter sun angles may cause scorching. You can also resume a fertilizer schedule for indoor plants in February, but NEVER fertilize a plant with dry soil. The fertilizer could burn roots that need water. It’s better to water plants a couple of hours before fertilizing.
Don’t remove mulch from perennials too early. A warm day may make you think spring is almost here, but there may be more cold weather yet to come. Also, remember to avoid walking on frozen grass and groundcovers during the winter.
Ajuga is especially sensitive to being walked on, and large portions can die back, leaving bare spots in the spring. The frozen leaves are brittle and easily damaged.
Even though there might be rain or snow, the soil dries out against the house under the eaves where rain rarely reaches. Be sure to water well during a thaw to prevent loss of plants. Plants require water during the winter to replace water lost due to wind desiccation and lack of rain or snow.
Happy gardening!

Marc Teffeau is the Director of Research and Regulatory Affairs at the American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, D.C. He lives in Preston with his wife, Linda.