Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Straw Bales in the Garden

I was hoping to try some different types of straw bale garden beds this year, since I've read a lot about it and found the possibilities to be very exciting. I'm still in the beginning stages of my first straw bale beds and am a little more ambivalent about it now. But I'll start at the beginning:

This spring I put an ad on Craigslist asking for moldy or weathered straw bales. Since they grow wheat here, and many people use the straw bales as insulation around their foundations in the winter, I was hopeful that I would get some response.

I did!

First someone called for us to pick up eleven bales. When we got there, they even hefted the bales into the truck for us!
This was wonderful, because while dry straw bales are pretty easy to move around for one person,  these bales were soaking wet, decomposing and very heavy- I'm guessing they weighed about 100 lbs each, since I could barely lift one side and only could move them by dragging them.

We got them home and dropped them off the back of the truck where we wanted them to stay.
This became the first two straw bale beds.

The first straw bale bed was just the bales, with the strings removed, and put into a 3' by 12' raised bed frame. That frame held 6 bales. Since the bales were already composting, I did not do the conditioning that many websites suggest before planting. I could tell the bales were composting because they were wet, heavy, growing mushrooms, smelled of decay, and were quite warm inside.

On top I put composted horse manure, and into this I planted some ground cherry seeds.  This was at the end of April. Just as these were sprouting, the first week in May, we got a late hard frost, and even though I covered them, many died. So last week I put in some other seedlings I had- broccoli, cauliflower,  brusssels sprouts, and some okra seeds. The okra is just now coming up, and the small plants are doing well.  

To plant the seedlings, I used a small garden trowel to remove the straw to make holes about twice the size I needed for the seedlings, and put in compost and the plants. I put the straw I removed  back around the plants in mounds, but not touching the stems. 

The next bed I made with the remaining bales was a free standing bed.  I found a source for as much free composted horse manure as I wanted, so the second bed was a compost well bed. The straw is the frame of the bed, and the 'well' inside is composted manure, straw, leaves and whatever else I had, all mixed and piled inside. 

I piled the compost, about half a truck full, on top and inside the bed. When it was first made, back in April,  it was mounded as high as I could get it without falling off. Now at the end of May,  it has settled and is lower inside than out. 

This bed was planted with tomatoes I had started from seed. These I put around the edges, over the straw bales. Inside I planted carrots. The carrots have sprouted, but have not grown at all. The tomatoes are slowly getting bigger.  I just added a couple basil plants. I tried to put some herbs on the sides, but they died almost immediately. The stems of the herbs got thin and brown like they do with seedlings when they have dampening off. This happened overnight. However, the basil plants I put in on top are doing fine. 

The first week in May, another person was super nice and dropped off about 20 bales of straw that had been outside all winter.  These bales got made into regular straw bale beds, and were planted with more tomatoes in two more beds, 

and some melon seeds in one bed and some squash/pumpkin seeds in another bed. The one remaining bale I planted with some peppers. 

You can really tell the older straw bale beds from the newer ones, because the old ones are really starting to soften and slump. Also, the first beds I took the strings off and put stakes on the ends to hold them together, since I was told the strings had rodenticide on them.  I left the strings on the last batch, since they didn't have treated strings. 

The plants are doing OK. Not gangbusters, but surviving.  Besides the dampening off problems of the herb plants, the seedlings planted on top didn't look healthy after about a week in the straw bales. They started turning yellow from the bottom leaves up, and generally looked peaked.  This meant they weren't getting enough nitrogen.  I thought that the large amounts of manure on each bale would be enough to feed the plants, but this obviously wasn't the case. I started pouring on organic fertilizer., mostly  diluted fish emulsion every day. 

Each application helped a little. Finally I cleaned out both chicken houses and put all the litter and chicken poop in batches into a large rubbermaid container, added water and put the resulting wet slop and liquid on the plants. This fresh chicken poop tea would have burned most plants, I think, but the straw bale plants loved it, and started looking fully green and healthy for the first time in weeks within a day or two after the chicken poop tea treatment.  They may actually be willing to grow a little more for me now. 

I'm not sure what to do to keep them going with such high nitrogen requirements.  The chickens only poop so much. I have some blood meal I could use next, I suppose.  
I've read that many people use Milorganite, as an organic fertilizer, I don't think I will. While it is organic in the sense that it is not a chemical fertilizer, it is not Organic, as in Certified Organic. It is treated urban people poop. I'm not against humanure, but I don't trust what people might put down their toilets along with the poo, like cleaners, old meds, and so on, to be good for my garden. I have a well, and try to be careful of what goes into the soil, since I'm going to be drinking whatever perks through it.  

And I think Straw Bale Gardening in general would be hard to do organically. The straw, to begin with is probably not organic and the nitrogen requirements are very high, and since the gardener is providing all the plant's nutrition, not the soil, I'm not sure the plants will provide a broad spectrum of nutrition themselves when I eat them, unless I provide that nutrition along with heavy amounts of  nitrogen I dump on each bale.  I may break down and buy some good quality GardenTone or something.  It seems odd that I have lots of compost from rabbits, chickens and horse manure available, yet this isn't enough. 

While people say that straw bales are the easiest way to garden, I am starting to feel like Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors.  I feel like they are constantly calling, "Feed me, feeeed mee".  

At least they all came so thoroughly soaked, rotted and wet through that they don't need watering more than once or twice a week. 

My only other consolation is that I'll probably get wonderful compost from them for next year's more traditional raised beds. 

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