Straw Bale Gardening

cbandi
By cbandi on Wed, Mar 27, 2013 - 1:21pm

Here is a link - hope it works - to a New York Times Magazine piece (Home and Garden section March 20, 2013) on vegetable gardening using cheaper-than-dirt straw bales. Looks good enough for me to try it this year!

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/garden/grasping-at-straw-a-foolproof-vegetable-plot.html?pagewanted=all

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13 Comments

RNcarl's picture
RNcarl
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 13 2008
Posts: 382
Three Years!

Hi,

I have been straw bale gardening for the last three years in Eastern NC Zone 8a.

It works, no weeds and plants are at shin level.

here are some pics:

2011

 

2012

Long skinny boxes to the right of the photo held the straw bales. Tomatoes did even better. I will try to find more pictures.

for 2013 those beds will turn into "wicking" type beds.

~ Peace

RNcarl's picture
RNcarl
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 13 2008
Posts: 382
Straw Bale prep per request

Well,

Here is the short version to "prep" - Organic folks beware.

 

PREPARE THE BALES

You’ll have to prepare the bales to make sure they’re past the initial heat of decomposing. With the proper fertilizers and water your straw bale should warm up to a temperature of about 100 degrees. As in many gardening techniques, there are proponents of several different methods. You can prepare your bales by just keeping them wet for three to four weeks prior to planting. If you prefer a more proactive approach, here’s one widely recommended method.

 



Days 1-3: Water the bales thoroughly and keep them damp.



Days 4-6: Sprinkle each bale with a 1/2 cup of a high nitrogen fertilizer like ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) or ammonium sulfate per day, and water it well into the bales. If you’d like you can substitute blood meal for the nitrate.



Days 7-9: Cut back to 1/4 cup of fertilizer per bale per day, and continue to water it in well.



Day 10: No more fertilizer, but continue to keep the bales damp.



Day 11: Stick your hand into the bale. If it has cooled down to less than your body heat, you may safely begin planting as soon as all danger of frost has passed.



Organic gardeners often follow a similar method to condition the bales, substituting a natural fertilizer such as fish oil or compost tea.



PLANTING

You can grow plants from seeds or transplants. To sow directly, top dress each bale with a couple of inches of seed starting mix and water in well. To transplant, use your hands or a trowel to make a crack in the bale for each plant. Add a little commercial potting mix around each plant. Do not use soil from your yard! It could spread diseases, bacteria and weeds to the bales. Place the plant down to its first leaf, and gently close the crack back together. Fertilize and water as necessary as your plants begin to grow. Don’t let the bales dry out, you may need to water more than once a day in the beginning. As the bales begin to decompose, they will hold more water and you should be able to water less frequently. A soaker hose placed over the tops of the bales is a great way to gently deliver water to your plants.

 



There are a number of great online sites for further information, cultivating tips, and conversations about straw bale gardening. Gardeners love to share their tips, triumphs, and tragedies. You’re sure to find some great stories as you do your armchair gardening planning this winter.

 



CREDITS (photos and otherwise): Our sincere thanks to Kent Rogers, a.k.a. “strawbaleman” for generously sharing his advice and some photos of his garden. If you’d like a completely entertaining post, where people ask about every question on straw bale gardening you could probably think of, go to “40-42.com” It’s a great place to start.

 

Kent Rogers recipe is what I follow for bales. There are versions of this theme that still all end the same way. Here is a post from the 40-42.com website that Kent made a few years ago on how to process the bales. I prefer the organic way:

ACF: BLOOD MEAL is what you should be using as a nitrogen source, not BONE MEAL.

Not sure if yours was a typo or not. If it was BONE MEAL, then discontinue using it. No need to waste it.

BLOOD MEAL: about a cup/bale every other day starting on Day 3 or 4.

 

The bales need to cook (decompose) and when they are in the process of cooking, the inside becomes very, very hot. Like 140 degrees F. or higher The internal temp should fall below 100 degrees F. otherwise you risk the chance of cooking the roots of your transplants.

The above author also says the the bales take more water than a regular garden. I don't think they take MORE water, but I do think that they take the SAME amount of water.... sort of. The goal is to water the plants until the bales shed the water. Yes, in the heat of summer, that may mean daily watering. The good thing is that it is almost impossible to over-water the bales. The bad thing, is that the bales really shouldn't dry out.

I have also found that the bales don't last more than one year and that is why last year I put the bales in raised bed boxes. They decompose nicely to become the base for the following year. I think after about three years, the boxes will be full and be a great traditional raised bed!

Doug and others that have asked for a posting, I hope this helps!

~ Peace

 

Doug's picture
Doug
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 1 2008
Posts: 3159
Thanks so much

You guys have really got my garden juices flowing, even though there is still snow on the ground here.

Thinking about the resources I have available without leaving my property.  I have straw bales, chicken manure and some already composted material.  I use straw bedding for my chicken coop.  I build up considerable piles of combined straw and manure from cleaning the coop which I have used as mulch/compost to good effect.  In cleaning the coop I can separate out much of the manure mixed with chicken feed that has been scattered about, from the straw.  (Chickens are messy)  I'm thinking I can use the manure/feed to apply to the tops of well watered bales now that will begin the composting in time that I can plant my seedlings (already growing in seed starter trays) in 1-1 1/2 months.  I've got a space on the south side of the house already picked out that I've been wanting to change use of for a while.  It's a sheltered spot and I could easily cover it with something if there is a frost/freeze after the first of May.

Questions:  1.  Is that enough time to compost the manure to prevent burning the plants?  2.  Would the manure/feed mix provide the needed nutrients so that I would not have to supplement with stuff from the garden store?  3.  How about if I add compost that is already well seasoned?

I'll check out your links to see if I can get some answers there.

Thanks again guys,

Doug

gillbilly's picture
gillbilly
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 22 2012
Posts: 423
Thank you!!

My thanks as well Rncarl. My wife and I are going to give it go this summer and you've answered a lot of my questions already. As we get up and running I'm sure I'll have more. Really appreciate it!

Love the pics too

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
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Joined: Dec 13 2009
Posts: 1988
aged chicken manure

Doug,

You are quite right to want to age chicken manure before adding it to your garden. When I was growing up, we used to age it a year before working it into our soil. Anything earlier than that would burn our plants.

Wow, that takes me back. Our nextdoor neighbors, who lived on a blueberry farm, had Rhode Island Reds - about a dozen of them. They had an adjoining 8-ft fence around the chicken yard (I believe the eggs would be called "cage-free" nowadays), and the chickens used to sometimes get out. It was my job, as a child, to round up any escapee chickens out of the woods (read 'swamp') down the hill behind our house. Not my favorite chore. I'd tell my mother, to her face, that it was time to get the damn chickens again, and she just sighed and never corrrected my language.

The nextdoor neighbors with the chickens' surname was "Damm." So we had our Damm neighbors, with their Damm chickens and their Damm goats and the whole Damm family. I think I enjoyed being able to swear and get away with it way too much.

RNcarl's picture
RNcarl
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 13 2008
Posts: 382
Pointers
Doug wrote:

You guys have really got my garden juices flowing, even though there is still snow on the ground here.

<snip>

Questions:  1.  Is that enough time to compost the manure to prevent burning the plants? 

2.  Would the manure/feed mix provide the needed nutrients so that I would not have to supplement with stuff from the garden store? 

3.  How about if I add compost that is already well seasoned?

I'll check out your links to see if I can get some answers there.

Thanks again guys,

Doug

Doug,

Wendy is right about seasoning the chicken poop if you are going to add it to an active garden. However, in straw bales to "season" them, the "green" or "hot" chicken poop would be fine. That should get the bales really cooking. What is required is a high nitrogen fertilizer to get the inside of the bales cooking.

So to directly answer yor questions:

1. 1 1/2 months should be long enough to season the bales. once you plant in them don't use green chicken poop. 

2. Remember, the goal is a balance of NPK and trace elements. A seasoned bale should provide what you need. I have found that if you plant tomatoes or peppers in the bales, you may get "bottom rot" from a lack of calcium. As you have the time, add well crushed egg shells as you season the bales, that may help. It will give the shells time to break down. Adding them after the plants are in, does no good.

3. I also "cheat" and plant the transplants in a couple good handfulls of compost or garden soil. For some reason I just can't give up there needing to be some "dirt" in there although it really doesn't need it.

lastly, the bales need to be really tight. A loose bale won't work as well and as it begins to decompose, it will fall apart too fast and the plants will fall over. Last year, with the bales in the raised beds, they decomposed so much that I added soil toward the end of the season. The tomato plants were over six feet high!

RNcarl's picture
RNcarl
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 13 2008
Posts: 382
Some inspiration

Here are some pics of lsat year's straw bales:

Cukes and squash

'maters (that's tomatoes for us yankees)

Other raised beds

I have found that you can plant much more densely in bales or even raised beds for that matter.

I introduced weeds into my beautiful raised beds and bales because I rushed some not quite ready compost and basically turned a nice weed free plot into a plain old garden spot. Time to get busy and reclaim my "printing press."

Doug's picture
Doug
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 1 2008
Posts: 3159
Thanks again

I was so stoked I put the bales where I want them, watered them down, laid down a walking path between them and put some mostly frozen compost from last year (including chicken manure, straw and egg shells) on the bales.  Then I hauled in firewood, pruned the cherry tree and added compost to a 'lasagna' pile in the garden.  Actually I put it on the snow where I'm pretty sure the pile is.  I was snow blind at the time.

Now the boy (home for Easter) and I are going to catch a flick.  It's a good day so far.

Doug

Thrivalista's picture
Thrivalista
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 5 2011
Posts: 60
Choose your straw bale source carefully

"Many farmers and home gardeners have reported damage to vegetable and flower crops after applying horse or livestock manure, compost, hay (and straw), or grass clippings to the soil. The symptoms reported include poor seed germination; death of young plants; twisted, cupped, and elongated leaves; misshapen fruit; and reduced yields....these herbicides pass through the animal’s digestive tract and are excreted in urine and manure. They can also remain active in the manure even after it is composted."

Excerpted from: http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher/programs/ncorganic/special-pubs/herbicide_carryover.pdf

More at link.

Aminopyralid and its chemical cousins are persistent herbicides used to supress broad-leaf weeds in pasture, but they also inhibit germination and growth of peas, lettuce, and other garden favorites.

~~~

Gorgeous bale garden photos, thanks! I'm going to talk to DH about using this method to build our beds up to an easier working height, as suggested here.

RNcarl's picture
RNcarl
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 13 2008
Posts: 382
Oh My!

Thanks for the heads up. 

I got my bales from lowes last year because it was suggested to use "straw" instead of hay. I think the idea is less weed growth from the hay.... I didn't have any weeds  nor did i encounter poor growth during the active season and you can even see in one photo where the wheat grass began to grow. I just gave it a hair cut or pulled out the loose strands of grass. 

To comment on the "pass through" you bring up a very good point. I try and grow "organically" meaning I do not introduce chemicals into my growing cycle.... But, I wonder how many chemicals get introduced indirectly. Have we crossed the threshold of there not being a chemical free garden?

Now, before I have to get thronged for using treated lumber for my raised beds, I must say that I lined them using a double layer of 6mil poly on te soil side - just incase. 

I too was inspired so I went out this pm and weeded two of the beds and finally planted my lettuce starts. 

RNcarl's picture
RNcarl
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 13 2008
Posts: 382
cooking this years bales

Well,

Just an update on this year's bales. I ended up putting 6 of them behind the two long narrow raised beds.

I have been adding blood meal (nitrogen) and bone meal (added calcium for the tomatoes) per the instructions above. I bought my tomato plants today and I thought I would just check the inner temp of the bales with my trusty meat thermometer before I transplanted them.  Boy, am I glad I did! 120-125F. across all six bales! I will have to wait till the temps drop to 100F. or less.

Granted, I am excited to get them started, down here I an more than a week behind.

In 6 bales laid end-to-end, three at a time it is a total of about 16-17 feet. I will plant 18 plants - 3 per bale and they will do great! I will also plant a dozen or so marigolds per run to ward off the tobacco worms. It works!

I will post pics tomorrow.

cbandi's picture
cbandi
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 13 2011
Posts: 9
Keep On Growing!

Glad to see so many postings - and useful information - on SBG.  RNcarl, thanks for sharing your experience with us!  I got five bales, conditioned them using Miracle Grow (highest value of nitrogen [26] I could find), added a trellis and started transplanting yesterday.

Everyone I speak to about it is intrigued by - if not outright sold on - the concept.  I'll post some pics soon.

Thrivalista's picture
Thrivalista
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 5 2011
Posts: 60
Free DIY nitrogen source

So...y'all know humans are terrific nitrogen producing machines, right? And that if you're healthy, your urine is sterile? And that you can dilute it 1/10 before using to water plants at the soil level. You could also use it to add that nitrogen boost to the bales to get them cooking. Save's on the $, chems, and plastic bottles.

Tuck a jug with a tight-fitting lid discretely behind the toilet, where squeamish guests won't notice it. Some playful types label their jugs "Liquid Gold".

Just sayin'.

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