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.

Planting Apple Trees With Derek

May 26, 2022

I meet some interesting folks at the Dane County Farmer’s Market. Derek’s family runs The Flower Factory stand, a couple blocks down from my stand.

Derek stopped by one Saturday last year and we got to talking. Turns out we have similar interests in permaculture and have read some of the same books, including Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard.

Mr. Shepard talks about starting apple trees from seed, which is always going to be interesting because apple trees from seed are always a hybrid of their two parents. If you want a known variety of apple tree, you need to graft it onto another tree or rootstock.

Derek mentioned he had started several apple trees from seeds, but wasn’t sure if he would find space to plant them. I had been thinking about planting apple trees, as my son and I love to eat fresh apples every day they are in season, and pigs love apples.

A plan was born to trade apple trees for meat, we just had to wait until spring. Well that time came last Sunday as you can see by the photos. 16 apple trees planted next to our pig pasture.

My Dad even got in on the act, hauling water on his ATV.

Derek, like me, is a curious person. We look forward to eating some of these hybrids. Maybe we’ll have the next great apple. Even if we don’t, I’m sure me and my son and the pigs will enjoy!

Hi Matthew,

As promised, here’s the list of the apple trees that we planted at your farm. I have the maternal line as a D number, and then the apple variety that I collected seeds from after it. It will be interesting to see how much variation is within a maternal line. 

Going North to South

D30 – Wolf River
D27 – Hudson’s Golden Gem
D34 – Turley Winesap
D30 – Wold River
D34 – Turley Winesap
D13 – Caville Blanc d’Hiver
D34 – Turley Winesap
D28 – Pink Perl
D35 – Buford’s Red Flesh
D30 – Wolf River
D26 – Snow
D26 – Snow
D26 – Snow

The Great Compost Delivery of 2020

November 15, 2020
When I conceptualized the idea of a compost delivery back in the spring, maybe I didn’t think I would survive to fall!  When the time came, it was more difficult than I had imagined.

We hadn’t had the tall sides on my Dad’s old 1992 Dodge diesel truck in over 10 years.  Rust had corroded the slots the sides fit down into, so we had to get out our little Oxy acetylene torch and cut away the rust before we could fit the sides in.

Then I loaded the truck full of compost and watched the tires squat.  My trepidation grew.  Was I going to make it to Madison?

The next morning I took off on my route.  Did you know there are websites that will help you plan the best route if you have multiple stops?  Bonus discovery.

I drove slow, 50 mph on the way up because I was worried about the weight.  But I made it!  Everyone was home and helped unload their order.  Thank you!

I think that will be my one and only compost delivery.  I always have compost though, so if anyone would like to come to the farm and pick some up for your garden, you are welcome to it.  

UPDATE: Taking orders for delivery every other Saturday to Madison. Next date December 5th.  Email Matthew with order and/or questions: oakgrovelane@yahoo.com. Thank you!

The Power of Yes

July 27, 2020



We always eat well, but these next two weeks are remarkable.  It’s sweet corn season!



Above is a corner of my sweet corn field I carved out for my friend Jeremy.  He grows tomatoes, eggplant, and cowpeas, and the rent he pays is all we care to eat.  This is the third year we’ve said yes to this arrangement and its delicious!

UPDATE: Taking orders for delivery every other Saturday to Madison. Next date August 22nd.  Email Matthew with order and/or questions: oakgrovelane@yahoo.com. Thank you!

2020 Spring Tillage: Compact Model

April 1, 2020



Saturday morning Dane County Farmer’s Market closed due to Covid-19.  Making biweekly trips to Madison for meat drops.  Next delivery April 11th.  Contact Matthew for more information: oakgrovelane@yahoo.com.  Thank you!

For those of you with a small backyard, we also have compact models of our popular biological tillage machines.  For an economical price, you can have your backyard tilled without using fossil fuel.  And a bonus: most likely your neighbors’ yards will be tilled as well.  Everyone in the neighborhood will know who you are!


Piglets are very mouthy, chewing on everything.  While they are learning, observing mom, it also helps prevent baby pig anemia.  Sows’ milk is deficient in iron, so the swine industry recommends injecting iron into piglets when they are 1 to 2 days old.  When piglets are on dirt however, there is no need, as you can see these noninjected piglets don’t appear to lack for anything.

Piglets are also born with eight baby teeth, two upper and two lower on each side of their mouth.  These teeth are called needle teeth, I think because they are so sharp.  I’ve had piglets break the tough skin on my finger with their needle teeth.

I’m not sure what the function of needle teeth is, but the piglets do use them when they fight with each other. Sometimes they fight over space at the udder.  Sometimes it appears they fight just for practice.  I’m pretty sure that is what caused the abrasions on these two bold piglets in the photo below.





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.


Sweet Corn!

July 31, 2018


One of life’s four great pleasures, according to Garrison Keillor, our sweet corn is ready.  And it is good!

We tried a new variety this year, an augmented supersweet, and the corn is not only undeniably sweet, but large.  The ears pictured above are 22 and 20 rows around.  Hu-u-u-ge!

Next Saturday will be the last chance you have to try some, as we will be sold out after that.


June 11, 2018



Welcome visitors!  Welcome especially to the people I’ve met at the Dane County Farmer’s Market.  Thank you for your interest.

I’ve often been asked, “Why, Curiousfarmer?”  I don’t remember how I came up with the name ten years ago for what I thought would be an agriculture blog, but it seems to fit.

Obviously I’m a farmer, and curious in my own odd way, but who isn’t, right?  

The way I think of “Curious”, is the way I approach life.  With an open mind, observing, seeking to understand.  At least that’s what I’m striving for on my best days.

And “Curious”, is a natural way to live life.  Think about how we start life as infants.  Babies are almost exclusively curious.  Observing, seeking to understand, communicating their needs, and then growing and processing while they sleep.

The way we farm gives us ample opportunity to observe and be curious.  Often, I realize I’m in the middle of a unique experience I may never experience again.  

My Father, who is in his 70s, was discing his fields this spring and he observed for the first time in his life, a Snowy Owl.  I’ve never seen one.

The Snowy Owl was resting in the disced field as it migrated north.  Eventually it flew off, but the experience sure made his day of discing more interesting.



The above photo shows a weedy area where round bales of hay had been stored.  My friend Jeremy asked if he could have a little area to expand his tomato production as he has a small yard in Madison.  Jeremy is also a curious guy, and is always up to something.

He planted and staked 16 tomato plants, using hay as mulch.  He has named the project, “No Fuss Tomatoes”.  

Some of the tomato plants he grafted a top onto a stronger root.  Like I said, Jeremy is a curious guy.  I’m hoping he documents his “No Fuss” tomato experience and shares with us on this blog.

I set up a rain gauge near the tomatoes and was surprised to see this gelatinous substance on top of the soil.  What is it?  I had never seen anything like it.

I’ve figured out what it is, but if any of you would like to guess, especially those of you in the Madison area, I’ll give a free pork product of your choice to the first correct guess.  Pick it up at market.  Sorry, long distance readers.

I would like you to like and guess on our facebook page as Daniele is managing that social media.  Send Daniele a message with your guess.  Good luck!




Spring 2018: Farm Update

May 1, 2018



Braden finished his movable chicken pens and I helped him move his broiler chickens out to pasture.  We have had the coldest April on record, so there isn’t much pasture, but the chickens seem happy in their new home.

Braden put his own spin on a Salatin style, movable chicken pen.  I hope to post with more detail in the future.  The pens are moved daily to fresh pasture.  The pen is keeping the predators away from the chickens, and the chickens are really thriving.  He is still planning on having freshly frozen chickens for the May 26th market.



I helped Daniel rototill the garden and she has started moving her indoor started vegetables outdoors, and also started direct seeding some of her crops.

I rototilled the sweet corn plot and plan to plant next week if the soil continues to warm. We should have delicious sweet corn around the first of August.



Winter/Spring farrowing has gone well, and I have lots of healthy feeder pigs.  My fall-calving herd has wintered well on our home-raised hay, and are chomping at the bit to get on fresh pasture.

Cattle aren’t particularly smart, but they are masters at body language.  They know exactly what it means when they see me repairing electric fence.  I’m sure they are salivating as much as when Pavlov’s dogs hear a bell.


Electric Fence for Piglets

October 24, 2014








My goal is to have more animals on pasture, more of the time.  This was supposed to be a celebratory post about how I am accomplishing this, but now it’s the middle of October with cold rains and mud, and I’m starting to appreciate the concept of confinement.

The piglets are four to ten weeks old.  Old enough to wean, but I didn’t need to rebreed the sows yet, waiting until November in order to have March litters.  So I wanted to wait, but the piglets were starting to turn into gremlins.

Hence, the low electric fence you see in the photo.  It runs along my driveway keeping the piglets “confined” to sixty acres or so on the south side of my farm.  In reality, they probably only use about six acres surrounding the two acres which their moms are confined in.  I’m taking advantage of the piglets’ natural inclination to stray only so far from their moms.

I gave the piglets their own shelter in the sweet corn patch and their own feed and water.  They really started eating grain, but continued to nurse and graze and eat other stuff like pumpkins.  They were doing very well, with the biggest ones weighing over fifty pounds.  They were so big in fact, a litter of ten was unable to all fit around their mom’s udder.

But I started having some problems.   The sows began to come into heat, (they were cycling to breed), at about eight to ten weeks into their lactations.  Interestingly this is about when our cows return to heat after calving.

A single electric fence separated the sows and litters from the gestating sows and Taiphan, the boar.  Until they came into heat, the single electric fence had  been enough to keep them apart.  But the desire to mate must have caused one sow to go through the fence.  The boar was too rough with her, and I found her the next morning barely able to walk.  So I put the sow into a recovery pen, essentially weaning her litter.

That litter, and the other big piglets found a way to go through the cattle lot and into the barnyard where they started desodding the yard very quickly.  The cold rains made mud, which they tracked into their feeder.  It started to look a lot less like piglet nirvana, so I made the decision to wean and house the piglets in a hoop barn.




After bedding the hoop barn with straw and hay, I made a run from the lactating sows pen to the hoop barn, and in 24 hours had all the sows locked into the hoop barn.  I put an electric fence across the gate opening at sow height, allowing the piglets to come and go as they pleased.

The next morning I shut the gates and all but three piglets were in the hoop building.  I caught the three piglets with my hydraulic trailer and then sorted the sows out of the hoop barn and they were weaned.  Below you can see a photo of a sow and different ages of piglets in the hoop barn.

The piglets are doing very well in the hoop barn.  They are warm and dry.  They have food and water.  They have straw and hay to manipulate as they please.

But I’m conflicted because they are no longer able to run where they please, dig, graze.  It’s a tradeoff and balancing act, something I’ll have to continue to work on as I strive toward my goal of more animals on pasture, more of the time.