High Plains Garden Update Part 1 – The Straw Bale Garden

This our first time ever trying straw bale gardening. We had a raised bed, square-foot, extended season garden when we lived up in the high-altitude Rockies. Last June, when we moved to the High Plains, and the property had no garden set up yet, we knew we would need to do a lot of research and try to figure out the best way to garden in this new, surprisingly different, climate. After a lot of research, and taking into consideration our time constraints (as we are working to build up a lot of the farm all at once) and financial restrictions (due to trying to build up a lot of the farm all at once), we landed on a plan that has us trying a straw bale garden this year and transitioning it to a raised bed garden next year, using the decomposed bales as a foundation for filling the beds under the compost.

Last fall, we laid down cardboard, laid out our bales (in a way that is not the suggested way in the straw bale garden book, but is a more efficient use of space). And then we left it for the winter.

Since we have always done extended season gardening by using hoop tents and Wall-O-Waters (WOWs), we decided to try that here as well. It made things interesting due to the fact that you need to prep the bales before you can plant in them.

To use straw bales as a garden, you must first prepare the bales by getting them to begin composting inside, thus creating food for the plants. A straw bale all by itself does not contain food for plants. But by adding fertilizers and water repeatedly you can make the bale begin to break down and compost, providing food for the plants. The book has a suggested 12-day schedule for preparing your bales, and it says that you can plant up to 2 weeks earlier than your average last frost due to the heat in the bales. To get the bales breaking down you need somewhat warm temps, and we wanted to try prepping them in early March so we could do our extended season gardening methods. But at that point we were still getting freezing temps every night and were having storms come through that would be below freezing for a few days at a time. So we didn’t know if it would work, but we decided to jump right in and give it a try.

We watched the weather predictions and waited until we saw a 6-day stretch with daytime temps in the 50s and nighttime temps in the 20s and no precipitation. Then we started the process. By day 6 the bales were starting to smell somewhat, which is a good sign of composting happening. Then a storm on days 7-9 stopped our process and froze everything solid. Day 10, as the snow was melting off, we noticed that some bales were melting off in the middle before the sun even hit them – suggesting that there was some composting going on inside of them creating heat.

As we continued our prepping schedule, starting back on day 7 instructions even though it was now day 10 (we didn’t do any prepping during the storm), we noticed that there definitely was some inconsistency across the garden as to which were composting and which bales weren’t. The areas that were in the shade part of the day were not breaking down as well as the ones getting consistent sun, which makes sense, especially with the cold temps. And some bales were still quite frozen from the storm. Again, we weren’t sure if starting so early was going to work or not, but we pressed on. We did day 7-10 prep instructions, and then got another 2-day storm that stopped us. It took a couple days for things to warm up again after the storm, and then we did the final 2 days of prep, and then it was time to plant.

We used purchased planting mix soil on top of the bales for planting the types of seeds the book suggested needed some soil on the bales, and we planted away. We brought out seedlings from the grow lights inside and got them in the bales. We protected everything with hoops and WOWs and sat back hopefully watching to see how this would all go. The seedlings started to grow.

And then the wind came.

Spring brought crazy wind “events” that even the old timers had never experienced in this area before. We had days on end of sustained 60mph wind coming strong from one direction. For over 6 weeks we were averaging 4 days of this wind every single week. It was crazy. It destroyed our hoop tents, knocked over all the WOWs with seedlings in them, and for lack of any better way to describe it, “mummified” the seedlings by drying them out through their stems and leaves. Despite the fact that the seedlings had plenty of water, their root systems were not developed enough to make up for the loss of moisture through their stems and leaves due to the constant wind. It blew away over an inch of all the soil we had put on the bales where we had planted seeds, and took the seeds with it too. We rebuilt the hoops and tried new ways of stabilizing them three different times, only to have them destroyed over and over again. We finally gave up. By early May our garden was a sad mess of dead plants and lost hope. We had a couple of tomatoes and one pumpkin plant survive it all, though by then they were dried, mummified stems with one or two sad leaves left. We didn’t know if they would come back or not.

Meanwhile, I had started new seedlings indoors as I had seen the rest get wiped out. The winds finally seemed to be done and gone, so we started fresh again. We fertilized the bales once, to give them a boost, and started planting seeds and seedlings. It was very slow going. The seedlings survived, but didn’t really grow much. We fertilized again a couple of times over a few weeks, trying to give the bales a boost of nutrition for the little seedlings. But they still struggled. And we could NOT for the life of us get any seeds to sprout. We did it just as the book said with the soil on top, but nothing would sprout. Hundreds of carrot, beet, spinach, lettuce, turnip, and kohlrabi seeds were planted and never sent up any sprouts. In my container garden the seeds were sprouting, so we know it wasn’t a problem with the seeds themselves. It seemed to have something to do with the bales. We continued to battle through May and June, with seeds not sprouting and seedlings not growing (but not dying either). We also had planted onion plants and potatoes in both the straw bale garden and other gardens. The potatoes and most of the onions in the other gardens have done very well, but all the onions and potatoes died in the bales. So by June, we were having some success in other gardens, and little to no success in the straw bale garden.

Finally, at the beginning of July, we started to see some progress and turn around in the bale garden. We still had terrible germination of beans, and no germination of any of the root veggies nor leafy greens. But the tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, melons, cabbage, and cucumbers have taken off and are doing very well. We are battling a ton of grasshoppers, aphids, squash beetles, and other pests in all our gardens – soil and bales. So far we are winning, and hoping to continue that progress through the season and have something to show for it come harvest time.

We have harvested a couple of cabbage and a couple of purple beans from the straw bale garden, plus one beet (only two germinated out of about 50 that were planted). In the other gardens we have been able to harvest rhubarb, scapes, garlic, kitchen herbs, medicinal herbs, peas, onions, and a couple of strawberries (we are pinching most blossoms to get the strawberries established as it is their first year).

I have no idea whether our bale garden issues had to do with our strange spring (we heard a lot of people that had been gardening for years say they were having a really hard garden year this year). But it couldn’t just be that because we are seeing a difference with the plants that were planted both in the soil gardens versus the bale garden. Obviously the wind set us back, but after that the continued struggles are confusing. It might have to do with us trying to prepare the bales during the cold weather so early in the year. I don’t know if it was the nature of straw bale gardening itself. But it definitely seems like certain veggies do better with straw bale gardens that other veggies do. That has been our experience thus far. We will see what the rest of the season brings us as far as the straw bale garden goes, and update you as we see, in case any of you are considering a bale garden.

Meanwhile, we have built our first raised bed for next year’s garden and will be planting it, along with our cold frame, over the next few weeks with the hopes of a small fall/winter garden. I will share more about that in Part 2 of our High Plains Garden Update.

One Year!!! Building a Homestead Vs. Moving an Existing Homestead to a New Location

It has been a longer break than expected…but I am back at the computer, ready to share what has been going on.

From 2012-2021, we built our dream of a homestead on a small 3-acre property in the high-altitude Rockies. It was a lot of work, but realizing a dream usually is. Last summer, we moved that little dream homestead to a 30-acre property in the High Plains of Colorado. We knew moving a homestead to a new location would be a lot of work, but we figured it would be similar to the work we had put in for the last 9 years building our homestead. We were wrong – it is SO much more work!

Don’t get me wrong – we have been so blessed by this move and are loving our new, much larger, homestead, and all the opportunities the new space gives us. But we are so, so, so much busy-er than we expected. Thus, the absence from the blog.

When we built our previous homestead, for the most part, we added things one-at-a-time and were able to do the work maintaining what we had while adding the new project in – generally one new project at a time. This new property had some infrastructure – buildings, fences, etc. Which have been very helpful and we are very grateful for what it came with. But most of it is not set up in a way that works for the livestock we have and the way we like to manage the livestock. So, while we are trying to maintain what we already have (the daily chores of feeding, watering, cleaning, milking, weeding, repairing damage to buildings and fences), plus spring birthing/hatching season and all the extra work that brings, not to mention life outside of the farm, we are also trying to build infrastructure that works for our animals and how we like to manage them and build vegetable and fruit growing infrastructure and get gardens going. And it is not a one-project-at-a-time thing as we add new aspects like it was when we originally built our little homestead. Everything is at the top of the priority list fighting for its spot and everything needs to be done right now (well really, yesterday) because we already have all the livestock and they need what they need. Add to that learning a new climate and environment, and learning how to help reverse the damage that this property has sustained to its soil and ecosystem. Oh, and don’t forget the fact that we moved a large family into a small house and have needed to find and make ways to manage human housing as well. And…well folks…there just are not enough hours in the day.

We are so excited and hopeful about this new adventure. And that helps us face the exhaustion and days where we just feel so very overwhelmed. And doing this all together as a family makes it fun and unites us in new ways as well. It is fun brainstorming together when we need to solve a problem or are dreaming about a new something. Everyone is so creative and has great ideas on how to accomplish things. We are very happy and surprised at how much we have accomplished in just one year…even with a to-do list that never ends. So it is good – but not easy. Long days, short years.

As we are celebrating one year at our new farm, I thought I would make some time to jump online and give a blog update on what is going on around here. There is so much it is going to be a long post, just talking about what is going on outdoors, let alone indoors. So I will keep this one to just the outdoors.

Hoof Stock

The sheep and goats had a very productive birthing season. They birthed 19 babies (5 goat kids and 14 lambs) – which is a very large amount for us considering our average year before was about 4-5 babies with our biggest year before this being 9 babies. We had our first (and second) set of triplet lambs ever born on our farm. We also had a set of triplet goat kids. Three sets of triplets! We were also very blessed in that every single ewe and doe got pregnant and gave birth except the smallest ewe lamb from last year. We did not expect any of the ewe lambs from last year to get pregnant, but they all did except one. All of the lambs and kids survived and are thriving well.

We have been continuing to improve and build more fencing for the hoof stock pastures and pens and have also been building some more shelter for them. Ultimately, we need a nice big barn, but that is down the road a bit, so for now we are working to make sure they have adequate housing for what we need in the moment.

We are continuing to work on intensive grazing the ewes and lambs to bring life back to our soil (we don’t have the infrastructure to get the rams out on pasture yet). We are able to graze them on small sections of about 1/3 of our property by using electronet fencing. We are working on building a moveable shelter, which will bring that area up to more than half the property that will be able to be intensively grazed by them in small grazing portions. The pasture is very fragile, especially due to the windy, dry spring we had. It is all much shorter than it was this time last year. So we are being careful to move the sheep as needed to not over-graze it.

We are utilizing the fact that goats can be staked-out to graze some of the areas that are unreachable by the ewes and lambs with the two adult does. The area that they are on was grazed by the ducks last year, and as you can see (in photo below) it is in much better shape than the pastures (in photo above). So the grazing we did of the ducks last year really added a lot of nutrition to the soil and helped it along. Someday, we hope the whole property will be healthy and green.

Ducks

We have the ducks out grazing again this year. We are using the duck tractors we built last year, along with electronet poultry fencing.

We only have some grazing right now. One hen hatched two ducklings for us earlier this spring. It was her first time and she made a few mistakes, thus ending with just two ducklings, but I am sure that the experience will help her do better next time.

We were not set up for duck setting and brooding when she decided she wanted to set. So she set and hatched in a big plastic dog crate. Which worked fine, but we were wanting something more permanent for duck setting and brooding. We have since then been able to build a little broody duck house and pen from some building scraps we had around the farm. Another one of those infrastructure things we needed to do that I was discussing above.

We have another Muscovy hen setting now. She decided to set in the corner of the duck coop, so we left her there. The other hens are leaving her alone and letting her do her thing.

We decided to set up the incubator inside with some duck eggs in it to supplement for loss. We also have a hen setting, and I set up the second incubator with some eggs to supplement her hatch as well. So we have two incubators going right now.

Chickens

As I said, we have a hen setting – our ten-year-old Silkie hen, Eve. She has set and hatched 1-3 clutches for us every year since she started laying. She is an excellent broody hen and we are so glad we have her. She is small and can only sit on 6 standard eggs. But she can easily raise 10-12 chicks, especially in the warmer summer weather. So we have the back-up eggs in the incubator to increase the hatch and give her plenty to raise for us.

We don’t like free-ranging our chickens for several reasons. BUT we do like putting our chickens to work and giving them nutrition similar to free-ranging. We like to have our chickens live in our barnyards and stalls and work through all the compost and stall waste, eating bugs, grubs, seeds, etc. It keeps the stalls free from maggots in the deep bedding and helps our compost become black gold much faster. The new farm was not set up in a way for us to keep our chickens in the barnyards like we like to. We were able to build a coop and pen for the standard size chickens last fall that made it possible for us to dump the compost into their pen so they could work through it.

That has been working great. We clean out the stalls and dump it in there and we bring all the kitchen and garden scraps to it as well. They dig through it and work it. We pile it back up, they dig back through it, repeat…until after about a month or so it is pretty well broken down and then it goes into the “more composted” compost pile and we bring them a new load to work through. It keeps our feed bills down in that they eat a lot less when they have compost to work through. It is physically and mentally healthy for them. And it creates compost for the garden faster than when we just pile it all up.

But we ultimately want to get chickens living in each of our barns and barnyards with the hoof stock. The bantam hens have been living in a little backyard-type coop and haven’t been able to free range or even work compost since we moved here. It was fine for the winter, but we were really happy to get them set up to live out in the ewe barn so they can dig through those stalls and have a better diet and mental stimulation. We just built a little coop and hooked it to the fence.

They seem very happy with their new set up. They have a ton of space compared to the little backyard coop they lived in all winter. And all the bugs, grubs, seeds, etc that they can find.

Guineas

Last summer we got Guinea keets in hopes that when they grew up they would keep the snakes backed off from the house and barn areas. We had a lot of rattlesnakes last year and wanted a natural solution to the issue. We had heard Guinea hens would help keep snakes away and we were very excited to try it out.

Thus far it seems to be working. We have only seen two snakes (both bull snakes) and they both were way out away from the buildings and main housing area. So, it seems that the guineas really do help keep snakes at bay.

Gardens

Gardening at the new property has probably been the biggest challenge of everything we have done so far. We had the “windiest spring on record since 1981” and no rain. We had day-after-day of wind for weeks. We had 40-60mph sustained wind all from one direction for hours on end. It wreaked havoc on our seedlings, any seeds we planted, and our season-extending tents and WOWs. It was a rough spring for the garden.

The wind has finally calmed down, and we have gotten some rain in the last three weeks or so. Many seedlings died, hundreds of seeds never sprouted or died as tiny sprouts. But, some seedlings have survived, some were not out in the garden yet at the time of all the wind, and some seeds are finally starting to sprout. It seems like everything is way behind where it should be, but such is life.

We did not have the resources last fall to build the raised-bed main veggie garden that we plan to build. So we decided to use straw bales this year, giving us time to gather more resources and creating a foundation of decomposing straw for next year’s raised bed garden. The straw bale garden suffered the worst with the wind. Some stuff is starting to come back and we are nursing it along, but it has not done great so far.

We have also been plagued by mushrooms. The straw bale method book talked about mushrooms coming as part of the composting process, but made it out to be a one week or so and then they will be gone type of thing. We have been dealing with mushrooms for over a month and it looks to not be ending any time soon. They uproot the seedlings and push out the seeds we plant before they can sprout. Frustrating.

It is still early in the season. We are grateful for a much longer growing season than we used to have in the mountains. There is time for the wind-wrecked stuff to recover and produce. And we are hopeful it will.

The container gardens are doing much better than the straw bale garden thus far. The container gardens include planted containers we brought from the old homestead here, containers we built and planted last year, and some containers/raised garden beds that were already here when we moved in. We amended the soil in them, built them up or repaired them, and have been using them.

Most of the containers are kitchen and medicinal herbs. But there are also some fruits and veggies in them. We have harvested and enjoyed chives, rhubarb, garlic scapes, and peas already from the container gardens.

Garlic Scapes

The apple tree and some strawberries survived the winter. But then they were killed by the winds. The gooseberry bushes look to also have been killed by the wind – but it is unclear on those. Such a bummer. We hope to add more fruit trees and bushes in the future. But for now, there is enough on the list to get to that fruits will have to wait.

Overall, a very productive and very busy spring. We are learning, expanding, and enjoying the new farm.

2022 Garden Plans

We have been gardening for about 17 years now.

It has become a normal part of life and how we eat, so much so that this last year when we moved and couldn’t have a garden right away it was quite an adjustment. We have been anxiously dreaming about gardening here at the new farm, and we have been doing a lot of research to try to decide HOW we are going to successfully garden here.

As I talked about in this post, we don’t really believe in using just one specific garden method. We have found that combinations of methods that address the specific challenges and strengths of our specific microclimate are the best way to go. The new farm is in a very different microclimate than what we gardened in up in the high-altitude Rockies. So we are doing our best to learn and make plans that will hopefully be successful. We have talked to a lot of locals and heard their stories of failure, and some stories of success as well. And we have been reading a lot of books – some that we have read before, which we are reading from a new perspective, and some new ones too.

The challenges we are facing are:

Sand – not sandy soil…sand. Just sand. No nutrition. Won’t hold water.

Salty Water – our well water has high sodium levels. We have done a lot of research and talked to experts and locals and have come up with a lot of differing opinions on how big of a deal this is – or isn’t. Some people say don’t ever think about watering plants with it, you will kill them because it will clog up their roots and they won’t be able to drink. Others say it is totally fine, no big deal, water as much as you want. And then there is every opinion in between, along with a lot of ideas of how to manage it.

Dry Drought Conditions – it is very dry and has been for a very long time. There are not a lot of natural water sources anywhere nearby.

Wind – Very strong wind that will knock over a tomato cage, tomato and all, or rip a garden cover fabric off and send it to Kansas.

High Temperatures – We spent most of July and August this year above triple digit temperatures. Almost every plant withered and died in the intense heat and sun. But it isn’t like some other hot places, where we can plant during other seasons because we do have an actual winter here with a lot of freezing temps from Oct to May.

Pest Bugs – We noticed this last year after we moved here that the area is unnaturally high in pest bugs and low in beneficial insects and bug-eating birds. There are some reptiles and amphibians, which I am sure help a little, but the few plants we brought with us from our last farm were very quickly decimated by pest bugs.

So, here is the plan we have come up with to try to make a productive garden at the new farm.

First, we picked our area and have started building a snake-proof garden fence. We have a lot of rattlesnakes here and a lush, moist garden would be a place they would be very happy to hide in during the heat of the summer. I do not want to risk any of us getting harmed while gardening. The area we chose is north of a building. I know…totally wrong…don’t garden on the north side of a building…it is too cold. But we specifically chose the location because of the heat we went through in the summer. We are hopeful that being on the north side of the building will help the plants handle the heat better since they will get some afternoon shade from the building and the fence. Plus, I like the location for other reasons as well. It has a water spigot right there (not that we have fully decided how to handle water, but it is right there once we decide), plus our rain barrels, and is easily accessible and in a central location. So it will be easier to care for.

This is just the first veggie garden, we plan to do a second one in the future to add even more space – feeding 8 people from a garden, plus seed saving, means you need quite a bit of garden space…but, one thing at a time.

Next, due to the soil issues, we know that we are going to have to bring in soil and build the garden up, not down into the ground. We have quite a bit of compost from our farm, but not enough to put in an entirely new garden and fill it deep enough. And we can’t afford to bring in soil this year. So, to bridge the gap so we can garden this year and still be working towards building raised beds, we are going to start with a straw bale garden.

We have never done a straw bale garden before. But, by using this method we will be creating a base layer for the foundation of the garden beds, and it will give us another year to create more compost and save up to buy some soil. It also is supposed to be good for dry areas, and we are in a drought. So hopefully the straw bales will keep the moisture better and the plants will stay cooler and happier.

Due to the gravel and weeds in the area we wanted the garden, we decided to lay down a double layer of cardboard (we saved all our packing boxes from the move last year) to cover the entire garden area. This will keep any weed problems down, and will decompose over time.

Then we set up our straw bales. We will plant in them, using the methods described in the book “Straw Bale Gardens Complete” by Joel Karsten. Over the year they will decompose and next year we will break them up and spread them out. The cardboard and partially decomposed straw will give a nice base layer for the garden soil and compost to come in and be built up on.

Like I have said, we don’t stick with just one method. The book suggested laying them out in single lines of bales, short sides touching. But we have long been intensive, square-foot planting type of gardeners, and we just couldn’t waste all that space on walkways instead of plantable area. So we put our bales long sides together. Hopefully this is not a mistake. We are also planning a lot of our planting in a square-foot type way, while also taking into consideration what the book says a bale can handle as far as amounts of each plant type per bale. And we also do a lot of vertical gardening, so working those concepts in with the straw bales is another thing we are working on.

We are also attempting to extend the seasons, like we always have, by using methods from the book “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener” by Niki Jabbour. It could be tricky to do this, since we have to prep the bales to get them to start decomposing and we are not sure how early in the season the bales will prep well. But we are going to give it a try. We will be using hoop tents over the bales to extend the season, along with Wall-O-Water covers. Both are methods we have used a lot in our previous gardens. Not sure how it will go here with the wind and such. We are also building our first cold frame in the next month or so, and that will be filled with regular compost and soil. We will add more cold frames in the future, but getting at least one going for this year is a must.

We will see where this takes us. We are taking some risks, but there are always risks, and we would rather jump in and learn from mistakes than never try anything new. So here we go. We will be finishing up the snake-proof fence and building the trellises over the next couple months and then “let the garden season begin!” and we will see how this goes.

Meanwhile…it is covered with snow. 🙂