Monday, September 9, 2013

Straw Bale Gardening

I have been asked that by a lot of my friends!  For anyone who has tried it, it is the perfect solution for poor soil areas or anyone who hates bending and weeding a garden.
Living in an area where the abundance of pine trees drove me to finding an alternative to fighting with highly acidic soil, I came across an article about this method.  My experience is slightly different as the majority of articles say to only use straw bales. The price of straw in my area was $9 and up for a small bale whereas hay bales ranged from $2.50 to $4.00 each.  Giving that I am adventurous, I thought it couldn’t hurt to try!
I hope this will encourage people to try this method of gardening with positive results! Again, the bales I chose to use were HAY bales, not straw. Many articles say you should definitely not use hay as it will sprout.  Mine did not.  You may also find hay cheaper if it has already gotten damp as it can’t be fed to animals if it is damp (the mould it grows will poison them).  Farmers take great care not to have this happen, but uncontrollable circumstances do occur and you would be doing the farmer a huge favor by purchasing what would normally have to be destroyed.
Step one
The first step is to ensure the area you are going to put your bales receives the right amount of sunshine for the crop you are planting.  Watch your intended area for a couple days and note where you have full sun, partial sun, and full shade.  Once you place your bales and start the process, they become too heavy to move.  Be certain to know how your crops grow. For example, if planting vines like squash plan an area where the vines can travel as they root themselves along the vine as well.
Step two
Next, gather your supplies.  These include:
- Bales—straw or hay, dependant on price and your budget
- Tarps or heavy plastic
- Barbeque thermometer or any heavy duty thermometer
- Soaker hose
- Fertilizer (this will be used later and can be any type—sheep, cow, etc)
- Large pail/bucket
- Black dirt soil or any good bagged soil of your choosing
Place your bales in a way that allows you to reach the center of each of them when it comes time to plant and routine attention.  Ensure the ‘ends’ of the bales are to the side or water will just run through the bale instead of saturating the roots. This will mean that the twine/string will be lying on the ground.  If you want to plant root crops (carrots, radish, etc) place the bales in a square to allow you to fill the center with soil. The bales will keep the soil in the center boxed in.  (I don’t have a picture because I don’t plant root crops this way—yet!)
The bales in this picture are placed in rows of two wide by three deep.  I then placed a bale at the back between the rows. Pictured are twenty bales in total.  One bale will successfully grow six tomato plants or twelve pepper plants—basically the same spacing rules apply as a ground garden would.
Step three
 Saturate the bales with water—-at this stage, you cannot overwater them!  The water is essential to start the curing process. More details on curing will follow.
Soaker hose on bales
Over the course of the next two weeks or so, daily watering of the bales is essential. I would suggest a soaker hose be snaked over the top of the bales prior to make watering easier.
Step four
 Cover the bales with a tarp or heavy plastic after setting the soaker hose in place.  The bales must stay wet and allow the curing to happen.
Bales covered with tarp
I used pieces of firewood to keep the tarp from blowing off the bales. ***small dog inspection is purely optional.
If you do not have a soaker hose, you just have to flip the tarps back and water them daily for approx 20 mins or until they are completely soaked. This takes time but I can’t stress enough how important this stage is!!  The bales will start to cure as heat and water cause them to break down.  At any time you can start fertilization by making “garden tea”.   Half fill your pail or bucket with fertilizer and fill to the top with water. 
The fertilizer will stay at the bottom; you’re going to use the water from the top. It will be discoloured and smell slightly from the fertilizer—wear gloves if you’re squeamish.  This mix will be poured over the bales. Once the water runs out, the mud like fertilizer is still at the bottom of the pail.  Leave it there and refill the water.  Repeat the process over the course of the first week.  Any remaining fertilizer can be dropped on the tops of the bales (it will soak in eventually)
Fertilizer seeping through the bale
Step five
Daily for the next couple weeks, the temperature of the bales must be monitored. This is the curing stage.  Push the barbeque thermometer into the center of the bale as deeply as you can. During the curing stage, the bales will reach temperature in excess of 120F.  No worries about them catching fire, you’ve soaked them so a fire cannot start—that happens in barns when there is slight dampness and a bale starts to cure causing neighboring dry bales to ignite.
After the temperatures have peaked, they will drop. It is recommended to take the temperature at around the same time every day as they will naturally be hotter and cooler at different times with the heat of the sun on them.  It doesn’t matter what time you choose, just be consistent with the time.
As tempting as it may be to experiment, it gets very hot and should you scratch your hand on the hay/straw, you’ll be inviting an infection from the necessary bacteria in the bale.  Once the bale temperature has dropped to around 80F, it’s time to plant.  Don’t rush it, or the roots of the plants will be burned by the bale heat.
Step six
Planting is relatively easy.  You have two choices—add a handful of soil or not.  Pretty easy choice!  Separate the bale slightly with a trowel/spade and drop in the soil (if you choose to) or the plant.  Push the bale back together and you’re done!
Plants in the bale with soil
Plants in ends of bale
Be creative!! The sides of the bales can be planted too!  I put jalapeño pepper plants in the ends of some, and squash in others. Vine plants are perfect for the ends and sides!
Now that all the hard work is done, water daily or turn on the soaker hose and watch your garden grow!
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June through August
At the end of the season, the bales can either be left in place to compost for a great base for next year, or taken apart and spread over your other gardens.  What I did was take them apart and used them as filler for raised beds that I made this year…..but that’s another story.