As the "Ask the Expert" columnist for Virginia Gardener magazine, I receive emails from readers not just in Virginia but throughout the southeast. One common theme from among the letters this spring is an interest in straw bale gardening. This gardening method uses straw or to a lesser extend, hay bales, as both raised garden bed and the soil itself.
Bale gardens begin with clean bales free from weed and grass seeds. Good choices for bales include alfalfa, wheat, oat and rye. Straw is preferable to hay because it has few, if any, seeds that can inadvertently sproud inside your new garden. Square bales are preferably to the large rolls like you see pictured here. I didn't have a photo of square bales since all around my Virginia farm, the countryside is dotted with the huge hay rolls like you see here!
Find or buy a square bale and get ready to garden. Like any vegetable garden, your straw bale garden will need six or more hours of bright, direct sunlight each day to produce good veggies. It's a good idea to spread a layer of cardboard under the bale to prevent weeds or grass from growing up into the bale itself. Put the cut side up, and make sure the wire or twine is tight around the bale to keep it together.
New straw bales have to be conditioned to start a garden. It's a process similar to compositng. For details on how to condition a straw bale, see this article in the Green Bay Press Gazette.
After conditioning, you can plant your vegetables. Since hay or straw doesn't provide all the nutrients your plants need, be consistent in your fertilizing regimen. A soaker hose with a timer set to water your new plants will keep them happy and healthy, too. Straw and hay bales don't hold water as well as ground soil, so watering is a must. The timer will keep you from forgetting to water and accidently killing your plants.
For more information about straw bale gardening, see:
Roses can be tricky to grow in Virginia. I haven't had much luck with them, frankly. I can get them to grow well for a season, perhaps two. Then blackspot and Japanese beetles take their toll and I'm rose-less once again. The rose trellis in my garden remains as a remnider of hopes dashed, but the climbing roses are, alas, long gone.
The exception to the rule, however, is this rose. I accidently picked it up at a local discount store. I felt sorry for it. It had one little pink flower peeking over the rim of the pot. I bought floribunda or polyantha "The Fairy" and two hybrid tea "Sophia" roses. Among the three purchased that day, "Sophia" hangs on by a petal and "Fairy" is taking over the garden.
Below you can see "The Fairy" pink rose in my garden this spring. The lavender border adds additional color and fragrance.
When I first began researching this rose, I thought it was a floribunda. Then further research uncovered it as a polyantha. Polyanthas were hybridized in France in the late 1800s, and although they were quite popular when they were first unveiled to the public, their appeal has waned until now, only a few varieties like "The Fairy" are grown. That's a shame, because among all the roses I have killed - er, tried to grow - in my garden, the polyantha rose has been the most reliable performer.
This rose has a low-growing, shrub format. The branches are compact, with small leaves and abundant clusters of small rose flowers at the ends. There isn't much fragrance to speak of, but the flower color is good, and they last a long time.
Best of all, polyantha roses are highly resistant to black spot. This one in particular, although troubled by some blackspot each June, seems to shrug it off. Ditto for the Japanese beetle invasion which strikes around Father's Day and lasts until the Fourth of July in my garden, a two to three week insect hell that leaves my roses tattered and shredded.
I don't do much with this rose except prune it back a little over the winter and remove some of the spent foliage. Mostly I prune it to keep it from spreading too far over the pathways and scratching people as they linger to examine the garden.
If you're trying to grow roses in an area prone to blackspot, try a polyantha or floribunda variety that's proven to be naturally resistant to this disease. It beats spraying your rose bushes daily with fungicides, and they offer an attractive garden plant.
The other day, a close friend said wistfully, "Your vegetable garden looks so pretty."
"Why can't vegetable gardens BE pretty?"
"Oh," my friend said. "You know...they have to be productive."
It's time to rid ourselves of this crazy notion that if something works well and is productive, it must be ugly. Who wants to look at an ugly garden? My kitchen windows look directly out onto my back yard and my raised bed vegetable garden. I want beauty in the front of my house and at the back.
Old-timers knew a thing or two about planting vegetable gardens for function and beauty. The old-fashioned kitchen garden, or potager, mixed herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers for potpourri and medicinal uses into a pleasing array of useful plants. Today, I've recreated this look in my flower garden by mixing perennial herbs in among the borders. Many visitors ask what the purple flowers are in the back and surprised when they learn it's culinary sage. Lavender is unmistakeable in the rose garden border, but it provides dried flowers for potpourri after it's done perfuming the garden and feeding bees and butterflies. Form and function, beauty and usefulness easily coexist in the plant world; it's people who impose artificial distinctions upon the natural world.
How can you create a more beautiful vegetable garden? A few tips:
Plant marigolds around your tomatoes. Not only will they add a splash of color, the strong marigold scent repels tomato hornworms.
Mix herbs into your perennial garden and flower borders. Many herbs bloom beautifully, and you can harvest them for recipes, teas and other projects, too.
Try growing edible flowers such as nasturtiums. Fun, taste and beauty all in one plant!
Use colorful decorative markers instead of prosaic plant labels for your vegetables. During the winter months, I spray painted flat-faced rocks a gaudy gold and painted vegetable names on them with black draft paint. I had all the supplies on hand, and now I have fun, glittery rocks instead of boring old white plastic markers. I've seen spoons stamped with plant names, forks holding stamped can lids, and other clever ideas at craft sales. Challenge yourself to make even the useful beautiful.
Think of vertical gardening as a challenge to your aesthetic sense. Use metal or wooden trellises, arbors, and columns to grow climbing vines of peas, beans, or squash.
Plant vegetables with colorful leaves such as red leafed lettuce next to spinach. You can enjoy both in a salad, and the ruby leaves next to the emerald spinach look so pretty in the garden.
Keep your garden mulched and weeded. Nothing spoils beauty like a jumble of weeds, and besides, they steal valuable water from the soil.
I hope I've inspired you to take a closer look at your vegetable garden with an eye towards beauty and function. Plants provide both beauty and usefulness, so why shouldn't we when we design with plants? Make your vegetable garden beautiful this year.
From My Garden: Pictures
Brussells sprout leaves in the rain....
Purple chives dance among radish leaves, red and green leaf lettuce.
My vegetable garden. Cat (in the background) optional!