Monday, 30 April 2012

A Beginner's Guide to Straw Bale Gardening

by Megan @ The Byron Life

Finally I can give Simple, Green, Frugal readers a run-down on what I have learned from my experiments in straw bale gardening over summer. So many of you encouraged me to give it a try, and I am so glad I did! Below is what I wrote on my personal blog last week, but I really wanted to share it here as another resource for the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op. Please add your tips for straw bale gardening in the comments below for us all to learn from :)

Last year, when we were living up in the hills and I was feasting upon home-grown fruit, collecting eggs and making up compost, I started researching how I could recreate some of this experience when we came back home to our own very small, heavily shaded and water-logged suburban backyard.

Previous vegetable and herb gardens had failed because of the poor drainage on our site, so I thought I would have to build a raised garden in the one sunny part of our yard that isn’t shaded out by established palms and trees or buildings, or stick to container growing. As I was researching raised garden beds online I came across the idea of straw bale gardening and it ticked all the boxes for me. I didn’t need to buy, or build, an expensive or complicated garden bed and then buy a tonne of soil to go in it and the height and structure of the straw bales themselves facilitated a natural draining process.  Over time the bales would break down and I would have more compost for my garden.

Five months on I can vouch for the straw bale gardening method. It has had its successes and failures, like any method, but it is something I would recommend trying if you find yourself in a similar situation of not having the right soil or space. The straw bale garden could also be made as an addition to your established veggie patch: you can grow more food and at the same time create mulch for your garden.

This was my first attempt at straw bale gardening.

And pictured here is the start of my second straw bale garden

I’m onto my second straw bale garden now, although the first one is still producing bits and pieces. When I set up the second one I set it up a bit differently to the first and it is doing well so I thought I’d share how I went about it:

1. The literature I’ve read says use straw instead of hay bales as the hay is made from grass and will contain seeds and you don’t want grass sprouting in your bales... However, I have actually used rose grass bales because the local grower assured me they were organic and were cut before seeding. He even showed me an example of a bale that was 12months old that had begun to compost down, but had no grass sprouting – I was convinced and I’ve got no complaints so far.

2. The bale needs to be tied up securely – that is going to keep the bale from breaking apart over time.

3. Place your bales in the right position in your garden to start with before hosing them down. Once they get wet you can’t easily move the bales because they get too heavy. Experiment with placement until you’re happy, then hose.

4. Once you have them in position, thoroughly soak them with the hose – and I mean drench them. If it rains – bonus!  With my first lot of straw bales I just hosed and watered in some seaweed fertilizer and then planted into them with some compost potting mix. However, I recommend “feeding” the bales a lot more than this to start with so your plants have everything they need to thrive. You could buy an organic fertiliser and water that in or you could go with my method which combines straw bale gardening with the permaculture-style no-dig garden method... read on!

The first layers of manure and paper

5. Once I put the bales in place I hosed them thoroughly, then I spread out a layer of animal manure on the top (horse manure as that was what I was able to get hold of at the time) and then I drenched the whole lot again with the hose so that manure soaked deep into the bales.

6. I then did a “lasagne” layering on top of this using paper (I used plain newsprint I had and also recycled newspapers and cardboard), followed by more manure, followed by compost and food scraps, followed by more paper, followed by a layer of mulch from one of the composted-down straw bales I had been growing from earlier, more paper and finally a layer of sugar cane mulch. I had about six layers, you could do more depending on what you have available.

7. Then I let it sit and stink to high heaven for a few days! (This was in summer and the horse manure was crazy stinky) And over the days I watered it some more to keep it moist. All up I let the bales “condition” in this way for two weeks before planting in them.

8. After hosing down your bales you will feel the heat they emit within a few days – it gets really hot in there as the straw starts its chemical reaction toward composting  - forgive me for not being able to describe this to you more scientifically than that. Have you ever seen a pile of lawn clippings “steaming” or felt the warmth of your backyard compost pile? Well, it’s the same process happening in your straw bales – all you need to activate it is water.

9. Wait until it cools down before planting – you don’t want to burn your plant’s roots. My bales heated up then cooled down with around about a week. You can feel how hot it is just by pushing your hand into the bale.

10. To plant your seedlings, just make a little space in the straw, fill this space or hole, with some potting mix and/or compost and plant your seedling in. Voila! A garden in a straw bale.

You can grow most veggies in the straw bales, but I’m not sure how you would go with very tall plants like corn, or root veggies like potatoes... I’ve had success so far with little tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and a variety of herbs including those enormous basil plants which have taken over this summer (and that is a good thing as I love basil). Now I have eggplant, Asian cabbages and lettuce growing... And, I have a surprise pumpkin! It sprouted after I put the compost and food scraps down on the bales and I let it grow. Very exciting.

Eventually your straw bales will compost down and you will need to start a new straw bale garden on top – or do what I’ve done and “recycle” all of that delicious mulch to use on top of the next straw bale garden.
As it composts, the bales will sink and darken and look a tad untidy.  If you don’t want the wild, messy look then maybe you could build a bed from timber or tin or stone etc and use the straw bale method inside the garden bed.  I’m thinking that will be my next move – to keep using the straw bale method, but do it inside a more permanent structure.

Once they do break down they provide such rich mulch, and mine were full of earth worms when I pulled a few bales apart – yay!

Hope this “how to” gives budding gardeners some ideas on how easy it is to start a veggie patch. I’m a complete beginner to this veggie-growing bizo, and I’ve got a lot to learn, but we have been enjoying fresh food from our tiny patch all summer. If I can do it, so can you!