Sunday, June 3, 2012

How to Make the Most of Your Straw Bale Garden

It's been a while since I've done a straw bale gardening post. I get emails from time to time and I always reply to comments left on old posts, but those don't show up on my blog so I thought I'd take a few minutes and document some of the common questions and comments I get on straw bale gardening.

As always feel free to leave any additional questions in the comment section and I'll do my best to help you out!

First up...

How many plants can I put in each bale?
I have pushed the limit many times with the number of plants. Except for not having the room I needed to move around in my garden, I've been able to get away with putting more plants in that I was taught to do.

Here is a visual of how I get 54 plants in my 17 bales:

As you can see I use the sides of the bales sometimes and even the edges depending on what the plant is. One year I grew zucchini out of the sides of the bales. I couldn't give them away fast enough they grew so fast.

Another visual on how to layout a garden can be found here.

I see you use wire instead of tomato cages. Why is that?
Tomato cages don't stay standing by the end of the season when the bales are starting to sag from decomposition.  Concrete reinforcement wire is cheaper (6 feet is enough for 4 plants and only costs $7 instead of $10 for one tomato cage)

It's taken me a few years to figure out the art of installing the wire. Here is what I've learned:
1) Don't install the fencing until your bales are conditioned (It only gets in the way)
2) Put the wire just off of center so you can put your plants in the center and still be able to tie the plant to the wire. (Target dollar aisle has rubber coated wire that works really well for this.)

3) Zip-ties work really well for attaching the wire to the posts.
4) Smaller pieces of wire can be used instead of stakes for peppers. (see end bales in first photo). I simply cut it to allow part of it to poke into the bales & support itself.

How many fence posts do I need? 
I have found that when it comes to holding the wire up that serves as my trellis for tomatoes that I need a post at least every four bales to keep it sturdy. If I don't have a need for a trellis I can get away with no posts. The way I have things grouped this year I have a four bale section that isn't staked on  one end and it's doing just fine.

Does it matter which side of the bales to face up?
I have always positioned my bales so the cut side (the side that looks like drinking straws) is facing up because that is what I was taught. This year I did a little of both just to see if it mattered. It doesn't. It was just as easy to pry the bales apart for planting and the watering is just as easy.

You call your conditioning method organic but do you know what Melorganite really is?
Concern noted. At the time I felt that their product was better than chemical fertilizers because per the website, "Organic nutrients are "stored" in complex organic molecules until soil microorganisms break them down and "release" the nutrients for plant use. Regular synthetic fertilizers are chemical-based and need to be watered in."

In an effort to make sure I'm using the very best products to grow our food I experimented with Blood Meal as my only nitrogen source in two of my tomato bales.  I used 1/2 cup per bale on the days I was suppose to apply the 34-0-0. I'm happy to report that those plants are keeping up with the others so next year I'm going to take the plunge and only use blood meal since it is allowed in certified organic gardens.

If you have any other questions please leave them in the comments and I'll answer them in another post.

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  1. Thanks you! Very helpful! Do your sweet potatoes do well in this? What about pests like moles/voles? I'm assuming they can get into this as easily as they can into the ground? We can grow sweet potatoes, however the voles don't leave us much to eat. ;-)

  2. Thank you. I saw your first post on Dave's Garden Forum and am glad you kept experimenting. We are in the Northwoods, have a garden that tends to flood and are excited to find a means of planting before the garden dries out. By the way, I recently heard in an interview with Joel Carsten, a Minnesota author who published a book on straw bale gardens, that he plants potatoes in first year bales by cutting 2 slits into the side of a bale and pushing a seed potato into each slit to about the middle of the bale. He gets good results without having to pile old compost/straw onto the top, though I suppose it could be done to increase yield like in the old tire stacking days. Please continue to post your research. We are right behind you! Sandy

  3. How did your all blood meal straw bale garden turn out? My own bales have done really well but this year I'd like to be all organic. Thank you.

  4. I had just as much success with the blood meal nitrogen source as I did with the previous methods of conditioning. We have sinced moved to a house with two tennis court sized gardens so I won't be planting in straw anymore, but if I did, I would definitely use the blood meal method again!

  5. Nicole mentioned voles and moles. I would think you could put down some sort of wire screening under the bales to block their access; if so, that would make this a good solution! It would be far easier to put down screening then place bales on top than to dig and line an area with screening or chicken wire or whatever.

    MamaBear, love this. I have some areas where the previous homeowner put down gravel or lava rock repeatedly for years. It has worked its way into the soil for several inches. I don't have the time to excavate all the rocks; I have tried over the last couple of years, and I make very little progress for hours of work.

    I'm going to plop hay bales right on top! You have enabled me to plant way more food! (Though I can't do this in areas visible from the street due to HOA regs. But hey, I'll take what I can get!)


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