Monday, February 3, 2014

Gardening in Straw Bales? What a great idea!

Nothing quite beats the taste of fresh, homegrown vegetables that I can just step out the door to pick, and go straight to the pot while the warmth of the sun is still in them. I quit years ago trying to grow veggies here because all I was doing was feeding the local wildlife, but I may try once more, keeping the deer at bay with repellents and hoping the descendants of the groundhogs that we trapped out a couple of years ago don’t move back in or the raccoons claim it for their own.

I am intrigued by straw bale gardens, and since my only true sunny spot is within the root zone of a huge black walnut, I think I can grow my veggies above the ground where they won’t be poisoned by the juglone in the walnut roots that is anathema to most vegetables, and at the same time maybe control the critter invasion. We already grow tomatoes and peppers in pots, but I would like to have radishes and lettuce in spring, and especially kale, spinach and chard for smoothies and salads. Maybe even a few early peas, green beans and potatoes, but those are my choices; apparently you can grow most any vegetable and some flowers this way.

I have a space at the end of my small fenced herb garden, about 10’ x 15’, where now there is only a patch of multiplier, or winter onions. I have those in another spot also so I won’t miss that patch, and I think I can get 4 or 5 straw bales in there. I’ll get my bales in February from a local garden center, so they can sit there until planting time and “condition”, or compost slightly, which takes approximately 2-4 weeks, depending on rainfall. If you are lucky, you might get some old bales in the spring from a farmer or garden center that have been sitting outside all winter, and are already partly “pre-conditioned” for you.

The idea is to plant the seeds or plants directly in the tops of the bales. Some sources like to open up holes in the tops of the bales and put some potting soil in there, others prefer to plant directly into the composted straw, where they grow like, well, weeds! The straw holds moisture, and as the insides of the bales decay, they provide a rich growing medium for your plants.

A spot that gets at least 6 hours of sun a day is needed to grow veggies. Since you aren’t digging in the ground, straw bales can be placed anywhere, one or many, even on a patio or driveway. Arrange them in rows with cut sides up, the strings or baling wire on their sides; on landscape fabric if making a garden on a lawn area to keep grass and weeds from growing up into them.

Two weeks before you are ready to plant, wet and fertilize the bales for 10 days to start composting the inner straw. For the first 6 days, put 3 cups of organic fertilizer on each bale every other day, watering the bales thoroughly. Every other day, water the bales. For the next three days, put 1 ½ cups of organic fertilizer on each bale and water. On the tenth day, put down 3 cups mixed with phosphorous and potassium (bone meal 50-50 with wood ashes is great) and water in. If you stick your finger in a bale, it should feel hot and moist. Keep moist until ready to plant.

When planting seedlings, use a trowel to separate the straw into holes and add some potting soil to cover any exposed roots. If planting seeds, cover the bale with an inch or so of soil and sow directly into this seedbed. The roots will grow down into the bale.

While you are at it, stick some herbs or annual flowers into the sides of the bale to make it pretty. I think I'll try some strawberries in the sides of mine.

A soaker hose can be laid across the tops of the bales for easy watering. A trellis can be rigged with t-posts and wire to support tomatoes, pole beans, or peas. We may use short posts and a wire to support a row cover to keep cabbage moths from laying eggs on the kale and to prevent rabbits and robins from eating the young plants. I’m going to repurpose some old sheer window curtains but you can buy floating row covers at a garden center. Nylon window screening works well too. They’ll need to be held down with boards, bricks or something to keep them from blowing off.

An internet search on “straw bale gardening” will net lots of information, or there is an excellent book, Straw Bale Gardening, by Joel Karsten. It can probably be found at a local bookstore. If not, they can order it for you or you could find it on Amazon.

Experiment with us. We’ll learn it together!
Joplin Globe column, Speaking of Gardens: February 2, 2014


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