Friday, June 11, 2010

My Attempt at Straw Bale Gardening

*WARNING:  Extremely long post ahead.  Some of you have been asking for this info--here it is!

So, call us crazy, but we are attempting something new this year by way of gardening.  We had originally decided that there would be NO garden this year, simply because weeds have overtaken the area, and we felt we should take a year to "spray" them away so that next year we could have more success with our garden.  However, one day while I was on Facebook, a mini-ad popped up, with a brief description about something called Straw Bale Gardening . . . well, curiosity got the better of me, and, while I didn't buy the book that the ad was wanting me to purchase, I decided to do some on-line research on this phenomenon of straw bale gardening.

The appeal to me was this: 

1.  Very little weeding involved . . . possibly NO weeding involved.  And for those of you who know me, weeding my garden is a problem for me.  I don't do it.  Therefore, my garden turns into a big garden of weeds instead of vegetables.  That is what my garden has basically consisted of for the past two years:  weeds.  But a garden with no weeds?  That immediately grabbed my attention!

2.  Less bending down to tend to your garden.  I'm not that old.  Yet.  However, I can see the benefit of this concept as well.  Why bend over or down if you don't have to?

3.  The use of bales.  Back in fall I suggested to my husband that we should make Pepper, our outside dog, a straw bale house for the winter.  We required about 25 square, straw bales . . . someone he works with happens to be one of the few farmers around here that produces square bales, so we bought about 25 bales for $25.00.  We built Pepper her "house", and guess what?  She never used it.  Come spring, she decided to start destroying her "house" and now we have straw all over the yard!  It's hard to get rid of!  She actually only destroyed one bale, so we had lots left to work with.  Some have been turned into the backstop for an archery/shooting range . . . the rest have become mine to do with as I please.  And, well, I pleased to turn them into a garden.

4.  Decomposing bales are apparently going to be good for the garden soil next year.  This is great news for us, because our garden's soil isn't the greatest.  Now we'll have a way to re-build our existing garden, using the composted bales and try to turn our garden soil into something that might be more productive.

5.  Higher yields.  Apparently straw bale gardens are fantastic at providing optimum growing conditions, thereby producing higher yields.  Of course that is appealing to me as well.  But, the jury is still out on that one.

Now, on with my pictures.  Before I go on, I must advise that if you really want to try this out for yourself, you should Google the topic first, because as of yet I have no proven results or my own success story.  This is just an experiment of sorts.
*I'll talk about the straw potatoes at the end of the post.

Step 1 is to line up your bales into whatever formation you wish to create.  I wasn't a participant in this, so Wayne decided to line them up in a straight line, almost smack-bang in the middle of our garden plot.

Step 2 is to water them for about 10 days . . . we used a soaker hose that ran for about an hour a day for 10 days.  Unfortunately, our hose clogged up from rust in our water . . . we have a high iron content and the water in our hose comes directly out of our well; I eventually resorted to watering each bale with a hose by hand, which, of course, took much longer.  I soaked them until water was seeping out the sides and out the bottom.  Notice that the bale is turned in such a way so that the "planting side" (top) is the area on the bale that is loose.  This part is so hard to explain . . . hopefully you'll understand what I mean when you look at my picture above.

Step 3 is fertilizing.  Basically, what this whole process is about is "cooking" your bales so that they begin to compost inside--very quickly.  I used a Miracle Grow Slow-Release 10-10-10 fertilizer.  If you look closely, you can see the little green fertilizer pellets in the picture above . . . the pellets have been working their way into the bales for several weeks now.  I sprinkled the fertilizer on top of the bales on day 11 of the preparation process.  Since then I have also watered the bales with a Miracle Grow that dissolves in water . . . I did this on about day 13 because I was paranoid that the slow-release stuff wasn't going to work.  Then Wayne informed me that over-fertilizing isn't such a great idea.  Oh well.  Hopefully it won't have been too detrimental to the process.

Step 4 is planting.  I covered each bale with about 2 inches of potting soil . . . there are specific details on what the make-up of this soil should be, but I didn't really pay much attention to that.  I just bought potting soil that included compost.  Once you have the soil spread out, you can plant your seeds directly into the soil and follow that with water on each bale.  What I remember from other websites that keeps playing over in my mind is, "Keep your bales wet.  There is no exact science to this.  Just keep your bales wet."  So, that's what I've been doing.  And with the tremendous amount of rain we've had lately, I haven't even had to water daily like I would if it were scorching hot outside.  What I planted in the soil was peas, cucumbers and various herbs.  You cannot plant "tubers" into bales (vegetables like carrots, onions, etc.).  Also, corn is too heavy for bales to handle, so I would not advise planting corn.

You can plant things in the sides of the bales as well.  This, I found more difficult to do.  In reality, I should have placed each see into a hole that I kind of dug out with my trowel . . . placed my seed into the hole and covered it with soil.  The covering with soil was the tricky part.  So, guess what?  Only three bales were planted properly . . . in the others, I just made my hole, stuck in my seed and watered the bale.  I'm not sure how that's going to work out for me, but only time will tell.  What I planted on the outside of the bales were things that grow vines . . . watermelon, pumpkins and cantaloupe.  I'm hoping they will spread out and cover a large area beside the bales so that I don't have to weed there. 

Something else I've seen done is planting flowers in the sides of the bales . . . this makes the bales look more attractive, but I didn't really want to spend $100 on annuals just to decorate my bales.  Perhaps if they were in my front yard or deck I might have considered doing that.

Instead of seeds, you can also plant vegetable seedlings that have already begun to grow.  This was, by far, the easiest part of this whole process.  Tomatoes, peppers and celery were planted into several of the bales. 

For these plants, you just insert your trowel to open up a "hole" in the bale, insert your seedling, which is already in soil and has rooted, and stick it into the bale.  Push the hole back into place and it's a done deal.  I did add more potting soil around each plant, but that's only because I had extra potting soil left over from when I planted my seeds.

I've had success with celery in my regular garden; I'm hoping it will fare as well in the bales.

For my potato patch I needed way more straw . . . so Wayne went in search of a large round bale; one of our neighbors was generous enough to give us one, which was fantastic!  These bales are huge and I have no idea how expensive they are . . . we were just so grateful for this great free bale.  The boys have had fun playing on it too, and they could hardly wait to "destroy" the bale for our potato patch.

The appeal of straw potatoes for me was, once again, based on the fact that straw helps to keep weeds from erupting all over your vegetable patch, including your potato patch.  The other thing, which I think is going to be so cool (that is, if this really works for us), is that straw potatoes come out clean when you harvest them.  They do not grow in the ground so therefore they are not covered in dirt.  Also, you can "rob" plants as soon as the potatoes begin to grow, eating them and harvesting them when they are different sizes.

So, here's what you do:  Get your seed potatoes ready for planting.  You can cut them . . . this will give you more plants, or, what we did this year was plant them whole.  I've never planted a whole seed potato before, but Wayne assures me that they will still grow even if they haven't been cut.  As long as they have eyes they will attempt to grow.

We placed our seed potatoes randomly on the ground, but you could arrange them into neat and tidy rows if you wanted to.  Each potato was then covered in about 6 inches of straw.  As soon as the potato plant begins to peek through the straw, more straw will be added.  This process will continue until the plants begin to bloom.  Apparently you can start looking for potatoes under your straw as soon as you see blooms, but they are definitely ready once the plant dries up (similar to how you know if you plant them directly into the ground). 

One other recommendation for this is to place straw over your entire potato patch, but we have not done this yet, simply because I want to wait until the plants have "popped up" and I can see where they are.  I will likely place more straw around the bales (to prevent weeds and create a softer gardening area) in a few weeks.

One last thing about this type of potato crop . . . after the initial watering (I watered each mound of straw lightly right after planting), you shouldn't have to water again, unless you have an extremely dry summer.  That is not the case here . . . it has been raining for weeks!

So, there you have it!  Perhaps some of the details I have provided regarding straw bale gardening are a bit unclear--I was just writing what I could remember from my own research.  I would advise that if you are serious about trying either of these methods, do your own research before you begin the process. 

I'll keep you posted on how things are progressing.  So far none of my seedlings have died (tomatoes, celery and peppers) and I actually have cucumbers, peas and herbs sprouting up from the bale.  Once the peas get large enough, I'll create something for the vines to climb on.  The other vegetables should be able to "hang over" the edge of the bales as they grow.  I'm not sure about the tomatoes; I may have to get cages for them.  Only time will tell.

One more thing you should know about this, if you do try a straw bale garden . . . grass likes to grow out the top of bales, so if you don't like that part of it, the grass needs to be trimmed with a scissor.  I have yet to do this, but I think I will be as soon as the weather turns sunny!  Also, a sign that your bales are doing what they're supposed to is the growth of mushrooms out of the tops of the bales.  At first I freaked when I saw all the mushrooms growing from my bales, but after researching what I thought was a problem, mushrooms growing turned out to be a good sign.  Maybe I am doing something right!


Ryan and Melanie said...

happy gardening:)

Kari said...

Can't wait to hear more about this!
Growing up we would put the grass clippinngs between rows and around plants -- kept the weeds down and moisture in. I guess the concepts are similar!\
PS the word verification is weedusa!

Anonymous said...

This is cool Kim--and very interesting. I am anxious to see how it all turns out and I'm glad you'll keep us posted.

Connie Inglis said...

I was that anonymous comment. Haha!

stacey said...

awaiting the results! this might be style!

Carmen said...

I've decided that I am not a gardener. I love fresh veggies, but I am horrible when it comes to weeding and general plant upkeep. Even plants in my house eventually die of neglect. I hope this works out for you - maybe it'll convince me to give it a go next year!

Lovella said...

Looking forward to hearing how this all turns out! Sounds pretty cool!