Water Holding Capacity, Soil vs. Straw Bale Garden

August 9, 2022
Straw Bale Garden, August 2022

Three inches of rain from midnight until 6 am, with most of it coming hard between midnight and 2 am, and I’m happy to report most of it soaked in!  2022 is the year I truly learned to appreciate the water holding capacity of soil.

Clearly my straw bale garden was going to be superior to my wife Isabel’s garden.  How could it not be?  I read the book.  I looked at the beautiful photos.

Weeds are an ongoing struggle in Isabel’s garden.  If the book is correct, I should have nary a weed in my straw bales.  The only thing that concerned me was how much the Joel Karsten, the author, talked about a watering system for the straw bale garden.  

Mr. Karsten recommended a soaker hose running the entire length of the straw bale garden and run daily on a timer, so as to never forget watering.  I figured I could turn the water on and off myself, but I did install a soaker hose when I made my straw bale garden.

And boy am I glad I did, as you can probably predict, straw bales don’t hold on to water very well, and the garden needed daily watering.

Isabel’s garden on the other hand thrived without daily watering.  Its good soil, and the previous fall I covered with a thick layer of homemade compost.  

I come away from the experience with a greater respect for the water holding capacity of soil.  And I know whatever I can do to improve my soil’s capacity, the better I’ll be able to grow things, because I never forget the saying, ‘Water is the best fertilizer.’

We farmers spend a lot of our energy thinking about the minor details, probably because we’re bombarded by advertisers trying to sell us on the minor details.  But its important to remember that no product we can purchase is as valuable as an inch of rain at the right time.

If I can improve my soils to hold more water, essentially I’ll be getting water at the right time, when its dry and the plants need it.

So I’m super happy to see very little runoff this morning, creeks aren’t up, the water is soaking in.  With these 3 inches of rain we probably have enough water for the rest of the growing season.

I probably won’t do a straw bale garden next year.  It doesn’t make much sense when you’re blessed with as good of soil as we are.

Isabel’s Garden, 2022
Straw Bale Garden, 2022

Here is another photo of the straw bale garden. You can see I’ve given enough water as the bales are breaking down. The only thing that did really well for me is a couple of the tomato plants.

I traded meat for plants with my DCFM neighbor Mark this spring. He’s got some good stuff and I’m really starting to enjoy some black cherry tomatoes. But as usual, the best thing from this whole experience is what I’ve learned.

Revelations aren’t free.

Frost Seeding Red Clover

March 16, 2022

UPDATE: Taking orders for delivery every other Saturday to Madison. Next date: March 19th.  Email Matthew with order and/or questions: oakgrovelane@yahoo.com. Thank you!

I felt like I was sprinkling Tinkerbell dust as I drove back and forth across an old hay field, Monday, March 14th.

I used our broadcast seeder, pictured, to frost seed Red Clover early in the morning before the sun muddied the soil.

We like our hay and pastures to have a mix of grass and legume.  Grasses use nitrogen from the soil to grow.  Legumes, with the help of bacteria near their roots, are able to pull nitrogen from the air and deposit into the soil.  So legumes and grasses grow really well together.

Plus, cattle love a mixed sward so they can choose their bites based on whatever cattle base that decision on. 

And we like making hay that is a mix of grass and legumes.  Legumes are usually higher in protein.  And grass dries faster, and cushions the legumes so their leaves don’t fall off as much when baling dry hay.

When we plant into a tilled field with our single disc grain drill, we plant alfalfa as the legume.  Alfalfa is the most productive of the legumes in our area.

But when we frost seed, I prefer Red Clover over Alfalfa because Red Clover germinates easier than Alfalfa.  As I’m writing this, my BS sniffer is going wild.  I realize I’ve never experimented with this and it would be easy to do.  I will experiment with this in the future!

Ok, the real reason is Red Clover is half the price of Alfalfa and its difficult to spend money when you are sprinkling seed on top of the ground and it feels wasteful.  

I’m not sure why, as that’s how Nature plants most seeds, but we Farmers like control, and sprinkling on top of the ground feels more like a Faith based activity!

I’ll try to remember to update you on this project as the season progresses.

Trying Some New Things

April 28, 2021

I purchased a silage tarp to prepare a seedbed for our sweet corn field. I’m hoping weeds will germinate under it, and then after I remove the tarp, I can plant into a cleaner soil.

We manage our sweet corn without heribicides or pesticides and weeds can be a problem.

Later, I plan to use the tarp to cover round bales of hay.

I was also inspired by a book, “Keeping Bees With a Smile,” which promotes natural beekeeping. The author claims an apiary can be started and maintained with wild swarms.

So I’ve installed a swarm trap and am looking forward to see if it attracts a swarm of honeybees.

Swarm trap

If the swarm trap works, I know I’m going to feel bad for the native pollinators as some people fear that the European Honeybee with their huge numbers, may limit the nectar resources for the native pollinators.

So I drilled some holes in a log I’m leaving in a conspicuous place to see if I can get some native bees to nest.

UPDATE: Taking orders for delivery every other Saturday to Madison. Next date May 8th.  Email Matthew with order and/or questions: oakgrovelane@yahoo.com. Thank you!

Peas and Oats

June 14, 2020


Planted April 6.  I replant our annual Pig Pastures in the spring and they are ready to graze in 6 weeks.

These photos are from a paddock that is 9 weeks after planting.  The peas are flowering and the oats are heading out.

This year I also planted an understory of Red Clover and Bluegrass which will come on later if the pig don’t root too much.

UPDATE: Taking orders for delivery every other Saturday to Madison. Next date July 11th.  Email Matthew with order and/or questions: oakgrovelane@yahoo.com. Thank you!


Farming Quote by Eisenhower

April 6, 2020


“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

It may not be easy, but it is heaven on Earth for me.  

Spring always seem like a miracle, but this spring’s new births are especially welcome.  


I marvel at the promise of a seed, all the instructions it needs, packed tightly inside.

All I do is drop them on the soil, and in a few weeks, luxurious green!

Seeding Compartments Grain Drill

Saturday morning Dane County Farmer’s Market closed due to Covid-19.  Making trips to Madison for meat drops every other Saturday.  Next delivery April 25th.  Contact Matthew for more information: oakgrovelane@yahoo.com.  Thank you!






2020 Spring Tillage

March 24, 2020


Think spring!  We are anticipating summer sweet corn and a big garden this year.

These lactating Chester White sows are doing some of the spring tillage work for me.  I turned them into this new area today.

Their neck muscles are incredibly strong!  One of the first things a swine herder learns is to keep their sorting panel low, if a swine gets their nose under your panel, you and your panel will be airborne with a flip of the head.


Spring Seeding and Disc Golf!

March 29, 2019


Spring has sprung!  Two months of cold, snow, ice, rain, and flooding, and Mother Nature has wrought her miracles again with warm sun and drying winds.  The ground is dry enough to drive on, so I frost seeded a bag of red clover today.

Earlier in the week we entertained a special guest.  Derek Tonn is trying to be the first person to play 2,000 different disc golf courses.  If you don’t think that’s possible, there are over 6,000 courses in the United States alone.

As a reference, I’ve played 78 different courses, which is great, but my course is the 1,498th course Derek has played.  Its reassuring to meet someone crazier than myself.

Picking Corn

October 18, 2018



Had a good time picking corn with my Father the old fashioned way.  Dad said he used this New Idea corn picker 50 years ago to pick seed corn.  My Grandfather and his brothers owned a seed corn business years ago.

When my family moved to Wisconsin in 1975, my Dad was able to take this machine which was considered old even then.  He modified it by putting on a sheller attachment so you will notice the corn is shelled off the cob as it enters the wagon.

Even though its old, it works great.  Its tough to get parts, though.  And its slow.  We only picked about an acre per hour.




We used this machine all through my childhood until we got our first combine.  Recently we have hired our neighbor to combine our corn.  Big machine, very fast.

Probably too big to fit through my woods as this field of corn is mine and is difficult to access with today’s large machinery.  I didn’t want to have to cut trees to get a combine in, so we put our New Idea picker back in use.  They didn’t really think the name through, I guess.

Thankfully the corn was only 18% moisture so I was able to put it in a bin with a fan and will blow air through it to dry it a couple of points more.  That along with weekly use should keep the corn in good condition.  If it was wetter, or I planned to sell it, I would have used gas to dry it down to 15% which is the industry standard.


Spring? Green!

June 3, 2018

DSCF2982 2


Spring is the shortest season in Wisconsin.  I should be used to it by now, but the transition from winter to summer, startles and amazes me every year.

The first outdoor market of the season, April 14th, was so cold, I wore insulated bib overalls which I only used once all winter because they are so warm.  Memorial Day weekend,  only 6 weeks later, was in the 90s F with high humidity.

Plant growth explodes.  April 20th was the last snowstorm of the season, falling on little green growth.  Now, on June 1st, forage is waist high.  One more paddock to graze and the cattle will have been over everything once.  I’ve been moving them every 5 days.

It feels like I’m behind on everything, with too much forage.  But if you don’t have too much forage on June 1st, you will definitely have too little on August 1st when the weather turns dry.

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The top photo is of my Phoebe girl, a twin I helped get started in life.  She always comes over to get a scratch from me.

The next two photos are of two year old steers, who will be butchered this summer.  The background shows yearlings and fall calves.  And green, beautiful, beautiful green.

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Annual Pollinator Mix, Black-Eyed Susan

September 21, 2017


I am singing the praises again of the Annual Pollinator Mix from Lacrosse Seeds.  If you want a splash of color in your annual pig pastures, this is a practical way to do it.

I also experimented with a perennial prairie planting, which is considerably more expensive.  I purchased a pound of the Native Pollinator Mix for about $200 and have yet to see any of those plants flower.

Wanting to see quicker results, I picked up a couple pounds of Little Bluestem and Black-eyed Susan from Agrecol Seeds in Evansville, Wisconsin.  The Black-eyed Susan did well, pictured below.

I’ve mowed the weeds in my prairie a few times this summer and am excited to see what grows there next year.  My interest is growing in all the different native pollinators.

Everyone talks about the plight of the European Honeybee, which isn’t even native to North America, but I care about everybody else.  For example, how about this fella on the Black-eyed Susan.  I can’t even figure out what he is, but he’s cute.  He’s fat and orange.  He is what I imagine Cupid would look like if he was an insect.