At the Go Green in the city event several weeks ago in York, I displayed a version of a straw bale garden on Beaver Street, and in the back of my trusty yellow truck, Sunflower. The concept of straw bale gardening is simple and easy. This will take several steps and so I’ll list them here, in order.
Check out your yard or future garden site this week. Walk around and check it out. Is your soil rocky, or poor in nutrients? Is it full of weeds or garbage or lead paint? Is it LITERALLY AN ASPHALT PARKING LOT? I’ve got you covered in terms of being an amazing gardener, and the cure for crummy or even non-existent garden soil is Straw Bale Gardening! These are also extremely excellent garden experiments for those of us with knees that are not what they used to be. Bending is not as much of a chore as it usually is, and straw bales can even be double-stacked, to make it even easier to reach, and work at. As they wear down, they will be a bit mushy, but still be safe to work with as they morph into a large, undefined mountain of plants.
Feel if your future garden site is squishy under your feet, or how much sun and light it gets. Is it exposed to particularly strong winds? Perhaps you may want to reconsider NOT planting taller plants in that area, as they will grow in grace and beauty and get knocked down at fundamentally sensitive points in their growth cycle. Where does your water drain? Gardens can use a lot of water. It’s a good idea to have any water drains on your property pointed towards your garden, but not directly AT it. Forceful water can drown or even knock down plants in the garden as effectively as a strong wind, and depending on how well a traditional garden can, or will not absorb additional water, your plants may very well drown. I also check and see where my neighbors direct their rain spouts as well. NO one is allowed to drain directly into their neighbors property, technically swales used to exist in between older property lines, so that heavy storm waters would be drained there and allowed to flow AWAY from your building foundations. I always plant straw bale gardens where I know the water will accumulate, naturally, according to the direction of the natural or artificial grade of the land. Needing water can get expensive when you need it.
THIS is where you put your strawbale garden! Now put your strawbales EXACTLY where you want them to be for at least a year. Once these are moistened, they become very heavy and should NOT be moved. Place them with the straw pointing “up”, like a regular straw would be used for drinking. The whole point of this is that moisture and nutrients are trapped inside, and can travel up and down the straw bale like an elevator, going wherever needed most.
I let them completely warm up with the springtime weather, and when growing season approaches, its time to apply a hose full of water to each straw bale. Jam the hose directly into each straw bale, and let it run until the water finally starts to pour out. This will take a bit of time, and will take a lot of water, but is a very necessary part of the preparation process.
Now let the bales sit for a day, and then add granular fertilizer to them, adding up to 2 to 3 cups, per bale, over a period of 2 weeks. Add fertilizer, at 1 quarter cup measurements, increasing up to one half cup at a time, interspersed with serious bouts of watering. You can take a trowel to help sort of poke the granules of fertilizer deeper into the bale. The point of this is that straw is a lovely neutral base, basically a big wet sponge, when it is full of water. But it has NO potential to grow any crops until it is fertilized! And the straw acts exactly like a straw is expected to, allowing the flow of moisture to travel up and done. Now, you have a wonderful big fertile block of nutrients that is perfect for growing all sort of vegetables in your garden!
With the combination of warmth, moisture and time, the bales have indeed loosened up, and its now possible to use your trowel to force its way down deeper into the trowel a few inches or so, all over the top of it. When the two weeks are done and no fertilizer is left to be seen, now you take a bag of potting soil and spread up to an inch of it all over the surface of the bales. You want purchased potting soil and not your own regular garden dirt, because you want to avoid introducing weed seeds at all possible times.
NOW, you are able to add vegetable plants, by digging a hole into the loosened bale, no more than two per bale. Stake those plants, whether tomatoes, or eggplants or okra or peppers, on the top of the bale. Some of the stakes can be rather large, 5 or 6 feet in height, even. Lettuce can be planted and harvested in between the taller plants, and will grow quicker and be able to be harvested by the time the tomatoes are large enough to block out the smaller plants. Squash and pumpkins and cucumbers can be inserted into the sides of the bales, and so you can literally be able to plant all 5 exposed sides of this six-sided wonderful garden block of nutrients. Basically both plants and seeds will grow very well when this is prepared properly. And there simply is no better way to grow potatoes, ever.
When it comes time to choose what to plant, it’s usually a good idea to plant what you know you will consume at its freshest and healthiest state. Some gardeners plant for appearance, some for donations, some for long term storage, (squash) or its ability to can or freeze well. Some people strictly want fresh from garden to table. The basic question is, what do you like to eat? Does someone in your family have a sweet tooth? Enjoy pies and jams? Then plant some strawberries! There, that was easy. Rooted plants are easy enough now to purchase from nurseries, and pop into a freshly fertilized straw bale. Don’t forget flower gardens!
Weeds will be minimal unless birds add waste to them from above, or blow onto them. Have fun! Any specific particulars about trying out this new method can be gleaned from the fabulous book by Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens. Ask for it at your local library!
Next blog- Barrel gardens for City and Country Beautification!