Straw bale gardening is less work, inexpensive
Monday, May 10, 2010
When I thought about writing this column, I had in mind one of the techniques I have tried lately — mulching vegetable gardens with straw.
I first tried it after planting my dahlias and cannas in a large area of my former orchard. After they sprouted, I needed something to keep down the weeds and orchard grass and retain moisture in the soil.
A couple bales of straw (not hay) purchased at a local farm supply store filled the bill. I pulled the bales apart and spread a layer 3 inches deep between the rows of flower sprouts. I put the straw between the plants as well and watered it down well to keep it from blowing away. Although some grass did come through, I found it easy enough to hoe the clumps once a week.
Since this was reasonably successful last year, I also used the straw around my rows of potato plants. As the plants grew taller, I built the straw up around them, which protected the sprouting stems of the potatoes. I also put a good, thick layer around and under my zucchini and other squash plants. The straw layer kept the new growth out of the dirt so the developing fruits — yes, zucchini is a fruit — were kept clean and less likely to rot.
I do not recommend using straw to mulch roses and other tender plants for winter protection. Straw makes a wonderful home for mice, voles and gophers, complete with dinner at hand. There are better uses for straw.
I recently read about a method of growing potatoes right in the straw bale by cutting a groove down the middle of the bale, filling it with compost and planting the potatoes.
An interesting idea, I thought, but when I received my “Fine Gardening” magazine for June 2010, I was blown away by an article titled “Build a garden out of straw,” by Amy Stewart.
I won’t go into great detail here, but I do suggest you buy a copy of this magazine or go online to their website at www.finegardening.com to read the article and see the illustrations.
If you want to grow vegetables but don’t have the space, energy or ability to plow a garden plot and spend hours keeping the weeds out, this method is for you. Due to recent issues with my back (like surgery), I know my heavy gardening days are over. However, this idea was like a light bulb going on over my head!
Building a garden from straw is inexpensive; it’s also easy to care for and simple to put together. You only need four bales of straw, four large bags of compost and a sunny, south-facing spot in your yard. Put the bales together in a square, leaving a hole in the middle. I recommend putting a piece of chicken wire underneath the bales to keep critters from burrowing from below.
Sprinkle the bales with a granular organic fertilizer, top with 2-3 inches of compost, then fill the hole in the middle with loose straw topped with compost or potting soil. Root vegetables like carrots, beets, potatoes or onions will grow well here.
Before planting the vegetables, water the bales thoroughly every day for 10 days. Add a little liquid organic fertilizer, like kelp meal or fish emulsion, every time you water. This is a 10-day “cooking” or composting period that allows the bales to heat up and break down, getting them ready to accommodate the plant’s roots.
After 10 days, the bales have cooled and started to slowly decompose. Plant directly into the bales, using a trowel to pry holes into the straw. You can plant a variety of vegetables and herbs. Amy recommends using bushy dwarf varieties for plants like squash, tomatoes and cucumbers, but just about any vegetable will grow happily there.
Once planted, install a soaker hose or drip-irrigation system over the top of the straw-bale garden to make watering easier.
Water every day or two to keep the bales from drying out. At the end of the season after your crops are harvested, you will have a pile of rich compost to spread around the garden.
This sounds so easy I know I am going to want to install mine as soon as I get home from the hospital! I do encourage you to buy the magazine or look up the article as Amy has many suggestions and even a planting diagram to follow. Have fun. I certainly plan to!
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears regularly in the Home, Garden section. Gloria Kupferman is one of four columnists featured.
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