5 May 2010
In The Garden With the Fluvanna Master Gardeners
By Irene C. Burke - Fluvanna Master Gardener
Fluvanna County Extension Office: 434.591.1950
Straw bale gardening? What will they think of next? Actually, straw bale/mortar home construction is a big industry. In the garden, straw bales are big, too.
Straw (not hay) bale gardening is a low-cost solution to raised beds that make their own compost. The farmer calls them square to distinguish from round bales; so be sure you make that clear when inquiring. Those round bales are enormous at 4 feet high and weigh more than one gardener can handle.
Two-string, square straw bales are usually 18x18x30 inches, weigh 33-60 pounds and cost $1.50-$6 depending on delivery options and material. In the Eastern U.S., youll find wheat and barley bales, often advertised as clean, bright, dry and weed-free straw. Ask about synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides used on the straw. Steer clear of those who cant tell you what was used, especially if you intend to grow food crops in your straw bale garden.
An 18-inch depth wont significantly reduce leaning over or crouching. Though touted as easier to manage than in-ground gardens, youd have to stack two bales to avoid bending.
However, raised beds and straw bales will eliminate tilling and digging, a definite advantage where dense clay or rocky soil, challenge your strength and determination. Add a bale on top every other year for a raised bed that keeps rising or haul last seasons bale remnants to the compost pile and begin afresh. Remember to remove plastic twine but leave sisal or jute to rot.
If you redistribute the straw to the compost pile or use as mulch, you dodge crop rotation, an especially important factor if your gardening is confined to the one area on your property where there is enough light to grow the typical American vegetables: bush beans, cucumbers, eggplant, tender culinary herbs (basil, dill and parsley), lettuces, peas, peppers, squash, and tomatoes.
Though you cant do root crops like turnips, carrots, or beets, you can plant potatoes. Corn and other top-heavy vegetables arent good candidates. Let tomatoes ramble over the side, otherwise staking must be stout and sturdy to avoid tipping.
Keep burrowing critters at bay by spreading chicken wire or hardware clothe beneath the bale garden, though worms and other beneficial soil microbes will be attracted if the straw lays on bare ground.
The water they absorb makes them particularly heavy so position the bales in their permanent location before soaking for two hours each day for 10 days. The bales will heat up, then cool down before they're ready for planting. Add no fertilizer.
Spread a 3-inch layer of compost or ordinary garden soil when planting from seed. If you're using transplants, soil wont be needed. Dimensions are the same as for in-ground planting. Do not crowd.
Simply pry apart the straw for a hole the depth of the seedling root ball; insert the seedling, then tuck the straw about the plant and water.
Throughout the season use soaker hoses most mornings to maintain moisture. You'll be delighted to learn that the straw suppresses weeds, although some wheat may emerge here and there. Just pull the sprouts.
Hauling and positioning the bales is the hardest part of this garden, but certainly preferable to battling clay and stone. Come harvest no one can argue with the easy bounty.
TIP OF THE WEEK
Redistribute mulch with firm raking, after downpours on steep slopes, where typically the finer mulch is washed further down, while coarser pieces slam against the topside of shrubs and trees. If left in place, the heavy mulch will distort the shape of a shrub or plant.