Monday, February 23, 2015

A Guide To Straw Bale Gardening Final Parts 3 & 4

Today we have the conclusion to A Guide To Straw Bale Gardening by my friend Melana MacLeod.
 Just in time, we should be able to start conditioning those bales soon :)

Straw Bale Gardening...Getting Ready to Plant -Part 3.

Ok, so by now you have conditioned your bales, they are lined up North to South like little soldiers! Awesome! Now comes the really fun part.....what are you going to plant?
Make a list of those veggies/fruits you want to plant. Visualize the SIZE of each plant. Do they usually "run" on the ground like cucumbers? If so these will be running "up" instead of "down". So your runners will be the tallest plants you have. Your tomato plants will most likely be your second tallest. Think about wouldn't want to plant cucumbers in front of your pepper plants or your bean plants because they will steal a lot of sun from them during the day. Plant your bales from the smallest plants to those that will be the tallest.
When you make those decisions you will need to trellis those climbing plants.....they need somewhere to go don't they? You'll need to add inexpensive posts at the ends of the bales so you can run your wire between them OVER the bales so your plants have somewhere to climb. The posts also help keep your bale together throughout the growing season. This wire also is good when you first plant to put plastic over to protect your young plants and seedlings if you get a cold snap, it will act much like a greenhouse. And since the interior of your bales are still "cooking" the plastic will help hold that heat in and protect your plants even more.
This is where you need to make the decision whether you want to put an irrigation system in or not (before you plant). Many use "soaker hoses" and run them down the center of each bale and plant on either side of the hose. I enjoy the "watering" so I just water with the hose as needed (know that at the beginning you'll need to water more often). So, you have to decide for yourself how much time you wish to devote! If you DO choose to water by hand remember it is vitally important that you never water from the top of the plant down...always water right at the surface of the bale. This prevents the plants from holding water droplets on their leaves all day which makes them more susceptible to the dreaded white powdery mildew!
There are a couple ways to plant in a straw can plant seeds and transplants. Transplants or plants you purchase are the easiest way to get started if you are new to gardening....once you start to develop that "green thumb" you can start all your crops from seeds....I utilize the seeds from my strongest and best producing plants from the year before.
When your planting seeds if you were to just drop them on the bale they may not germinate, they'll get lost in the bale or some scavenger birds could come along and grab them up from the bale! So the easiest method is to put about 1-2" of potting soil on TOP of your bale and plant your seeds directly into that. Plant according to the package directions and keep the soil moist until they germinate.
When planting your transplants you'll want to "well" out a hole to put your plants into. You can use a hand trowel or even an old steak knife to hollow out a hole for your plant. I put a handful of soil in the hole just to help hold the water in while the plant takes hold.
Here are some tips for a variety of vegetables and how many you can plant per bale to maximize your yield yet leave the ability for air to move through the plants and not choke them out: Also, I do not recommend trying to plant just isn't worth wasting the bale!
Arugula or lettuces (leaf not head) about ~60 seeds per bale
Green Beans-Pole ~16 per bale
Green Beans-Bush ~30 per bale
Beets ~40 per bale
Broccoli ~5 per bale
Brussels Sprouts ~4 per bale
Cabbage ~4 per bale
Carrots ~48 per bale
Cauliflower ~4 per bale
Peppers ~4 per bale
Chard (Swiss) ~12 per bale
Cucumber ~4 per bale
Eggplant ~3 per bale
Green Onions ~60 per bale
Kale ~4 per bale
Lettuce (head) ~8 per bale
Melons ~3 per bale
Onions ~40-60 per bale
Peas ~30-40 per bale (climbers)
Pumpkins ~2 per bale
Radishes ~60 per bale
Spinach ~30 per bale
Summer Squash (yellow crook neck) ~3 per bale
Winter Squash ~ 2 per bale
Tomatoes ~2-3 per bale
Zucchini ~3 per bale
**Potatoes are unique in that their crop grows off the root, the deeper the seed potato is in the bale the more potatoes you'll harvest! This, by far, is my favorite crop....just because it's so cool! I shove a broom stick way down to almost the very bottom of the bale and plant my seed potatoes there. Then on the surface of those bales I plant my lettuce, spinach and other leaf vegetables because by the time the potato plant actually comes out the top of the bale your leaf crop has already grown and been harvested! It's awesome! And in the Fall all you do to "dig up" your potatoes is to cut the twine or wire holding your bale together and pick out your potatoes. No digging to harvest them!

Straw Bale Gardening ~Tips, Tricks and Pests" -Part 4
Got it all planted, your noticing your seeds starting to poke up their little heads and your thrilled! Congratulations! You are now a SBG or a Straw Bale Gardener! It's so easy, it's satisfying and it will be the easiest garden you've ever grown! And one more thing....don't limit yourself to the "tops" of the bales! I stick marigolds and basil, Thyme and Oregano in the SIDES AND FRONTS of the bales too!. Just dig a hole into the front or sides of your bale, put a handful of dirt in there to help establish the roots and stick your plant in! You get to utilize a lot more than just the tops!
And in the end, when the frost has nipped your plants you can do a couple different things with the remaining bales. If your bales held up well enough you might be able to plant them again next season. Mine were SO "composted" by the end of the growing season that part of them went into the compost pile and the rest went to cover all my flower beds to enrich that soil and protect my bulbs that will come up in the Spring. Oh, and the twine that held them together? I clipped them, tied them all together to make a huge ball of twine and I'll be using that this year to put between my stakes to help support my plants! Nothing went to waste.....your potatoes you just cut the twine and let the bale fall apart and pick up your potatoes...NO digging!
I thought I would just pass along some tips and tricks that I learned along the way:
* It seems, at least in my area, that the Japanese Beetles love my plants. I can't say they are drawn to the bale gardens but I've gardened here for 7 years and never had a problem with them. Last year they were horrible. I found a great Japanese beetle trap that truly did the trick. Once I set it up in the yard I had literally 100's of them in the trap just 48 hours later. The one I used I found on Amazon and it's called "Rescue JBTZ-DB12 Japanese Beetle Trap", it's about $7. There are no chemicals and your not putting anything on your plants. It works by attracting them to the trap and once in they cannot get out. I loved that it did NOT have chemicals. When they died I simply took the trap down to the dock, unzipped the bottom of it and fed the fish! The catfish loved them!
* Snails....we have a snail problem here in Missouri. While I've read snails don't like to crawl up the bales I sill had some trouble with them. I just took a couple pie pans and filled them with old beer (got it from the local bar for free). No chemicals and the snails are very attracted to it...they go quickly and happily! LOL
* Tomato DO they find my plants? When I see them I just pluck them off, they are pretty big...then I dust the plants with a fine covering of wood ash. It works pretty well without using chemicals. I put it through an old flour sifter from a yard sale!
~Your pollinators!
* You have to have a lot of happy bees to make sure your crops that need pollination get what they need. I planted a LOT of wildflowers this past year because the honey bees are in trouble environmentally. The year before I had to pollinate my cukes and squash plants with a small paint brush and my yield was very low. I found they bees really liked Zinnias and Black Eyed Susans....any wildflower mix will be good. You can even find some that are specifically for butterfly and honey bees and some that also attract hummingbirds. Just remember, if your putting chemicals on your plants you are also eliminating the "good" bugs too!
~Watering. Always, always water your plants on top of the bale. Do NOT water from the top of the plant down. Because you are putting plants in closer quarters your setting yourself up for "white powdery mold" which once your plants get this...they are done. You can slow it a bit but it will just overtake your "climbers" in as little as 24 hours. If your afraid of it or you have dealt with it in the past you probably know that watering that way is the end! If you have had it before and you'd like to be "pro-active" as far as NOT getting it in the first place do not bother with the "fungicides" they sell for it in the stores. They don't work, they are expensive and you don't need chemicals on your plants! The best "preventative" I found was buttermilk...let it "sour" for a day or so outdoors, put it in a spray bottle, add 2 drops of Dawn and lightly spray your leaves, tops and bottoms. If you need to you can thin it out with water. Do it in the morning so it can dry all day.
Your SBG will need less watering eventually but until your seeds/plants develop a good root system you will want to water daily.
~Fertilizer. Organic is best, there are a lot of organic "teas" you can make to feed your'll want to fertilize organically each week for about a month to a month and 1/2 until those plants are really raring to go! I also save all my egg shells, pull the membrane out of the inside and dry them. Once dry I crush them up and save them in an air tight container. When my tomato plants are up about 12" I put the egg shells into an old blender and add some water and blend it up. I take a couple of tablespoons of the liquid and pour it around my tomato plants...they love it. I also use Epson salts...the tomatoes LOVE it! Here is a link to everything you need to use Epson salt on your garden!
ng-with-epsom-salt.asp It's cheap and plentiful and won't harm your plants OR the bees and butterflies!
~Wind. We get some really strong winds here so I stake my bales on each end and put twine between them. That way I can "weave" my plants as they grow. I "weave" just stops them from being blown over here.
Enjoy! I hope you have fun with your Straw Bale Garden this year...if you ever have any questions you can message me. Also there are all kinds of great videos on SBG on YouTube.
Happy Straw Bale Gardening!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Guide To Straw Bale Gardening

Today we have a great article by a wonderful friend of mine, Melana MacLeod.
For anyone who has wanted to know how to or is curious about straw bale gardening then you will love this post!

Straw Bale Gardening by Melana MacLeod
Straw Bale Gardening...Part 1

I had been asked to blog about Straw Bale Gardening. Can you say "easier than dirt"? In fact, you do NOT plant in the plant in bales of Straw. It's easy, you can garden anywhere and in any climate. It's also great for those that are not physically able to "garden" in the traditional sense of the word. No bending, no hoeing, no weeding! And, if you grow in Straw Bales you can get your things in and growing several weeks sooner than planting in dirt which lengthens your growing season. Here are the basics with some pictures from last years Straw Bale garden.
1. The bales must be STRAW, not HAY. While it may not appear to be that much different it IS. Straw has almost all of the "grain" removed while hay is filled with seeds from weeds, grains and grasses. Think about it, if your watering a bale filled with seed what's gonna happen? Yup, you'll have a beautifully green, lush bale filled with weeds! Straw still contains a few pieces of grain here and there but you don't even need to pull them if you don't want to...they die off quickly.
2. There is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to set your bales down. Straw is banded with either nylon twine, coarse twine or wire. You do not want to lay your bales down with the twine on should be on the sides of the bale. And which end you set it on also matters! One end of the bale will have the straw that looks smooth and bent over the other end will STRAWS. It will be cut and you'll see down into the straw pieces. This allows more water to get down into the bale vs. running off.
3. Location, make sure your bales will receive at LEAST 6 hours of bright sunlight a day. This is especially important for tomatoes. So, choose wisely and know that once you start to condition your bales they will become super heavy because of the watering...and you do not want to try and move them then. Believe me, they weigh a ton!
4. Rows....straw bales should be set in rows running lengthwise north and south. This helps a great deal to make sure your bales are getting equal sunlight and not blocked light. It's important for all your crops to receive FULL and direct sunshine.
5. Keeping weeds down....I save cardboard from boxes etc and put the cardboard down on the ground and then place my bales on top of it. While it looks a bit "messy" at first once you start conditioning your bales the cardboard that is hanging out from under your bales will just pull up and you can either toss it in the compost pile or use it for something else. I try very hard not to use cardboard that has ink writing on it, especially colored ink. You can put your bales anywhere. There is no need to dig up grass or bring in dirt. Just plunk those bales down anywhere! You can put them on a driveway, patio or out in the middle of your yard! I do not, however, suggest you put them on a wood deck as it will stain/rot the wood eventually.
To are the basics:
~Choose your location
~Plants should have a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight daily
~Be sure you have STRAW NOT HAY
~Put down cardboard or newspaper to prevent weeds from growing through your bale
~Set your bale rows to run in a North to South direction, end to end.
~Make sure you have your bales facing up the right way with the cut straw end UP
You can find straw bales from farmers in your area, livestock feed stores and some hardware stores. Google it for your area if you don't know where to go or let me know and I can try and find a location for you to purchase your bales. Sometimes even the big box hardware stores carry straw bales for landscaping purposes.
You are now ready to start conditioning your Straw Bales! That will come in "Straw Bale Gardening...Conditioning your bales". Part 2
In the pictures below you can see the "end to end" North/South orientation of the bales. You can also take note of the cardboard under the bales. Notice the nylon twine as it goes AROUND the bales and the cut/straw end facing UP.

Straw Bale Gardening - Conditioning Your Bales - Part 2

Conditioning your Straw Bales is easy. It takes about 12-14 days to do so but really only takes 15 minutes or so each day during that time. "Conditioning" the bales means you are composting internally to the point where the inside of those bales will support root growth. There are tiny microbes inside the bales and you are "feeding" them with fertilizer which steps up the conditioning process. You are instantly composting your bales to be simple about it.
If you want to plant by the middle of May you will need to start conditioning your bales about 2 weeks before that. Find the average "last frost" date for your area and go back 2 weeks...this is a great time to condition those bales!
What do I need to condition my bales? Water and fertilizer....that's it. Your fertilizer should have a nitrogen content 20% or more higher than the Phosphorous and Potassium. Look at a bag of'll see 3 numbers like 20-0-4. The first is always Nitrogen, second is Phosphorous and the third Potassium. In some areas, if you in or close to a farming community, you can get pure Nitrogen fertilizer that is 30-0-0 or higher! Your fertilizer must NOT be a "time released" fertilizer or contain a "pre-emergent". A pre-emergent is nothing more than a weed killer. So, if your using that to condition your bales it will kill off your transplants and seedlings! You can use just a plain lawn fertilizer.
The process of "conditioning":
Day 1 - Spread 1/2 cup (4 oz) of fertilizer over the entire top surface of each bale. Use a hose with a strong stream of water or a hose with sprayer end to push the fertilizer down into the bale. You'll know your done when you can no longer see the fertilizer. SOAK that bale, your doing it correctly when the water is exiting the bottom of the bale.
Day 2 - All you need to do today is water the bales. Make sure they are completely saturated.
Day 3 - Sprinkle another 1/2 cup of fertilizer on each bale top and water.
Day 4 - Today is a just water day once again!
Day 5 - Sprinkle another 1/2 cup of fertilizer and water completely.
Day 6 - You might be able to start smelling an "odor" of decomposition in your bales...that's GOOD, if not try using a bucket of warmish water over the bales to water today.
Day's 7, 8 and 9 . Apply only 1/4 cup of fertilizer to each bale and water till running through the bottom. Use warm water if you can, if you cannot that's fine too!
Day 10 - Apply one cup per bale of a "balanced" 10-10-10 general garden fertilizer. The job today is to get some Phosphorus and Potassium into the bales and get it into the root zone area of the bale. Again, no weed killer, pre-emergent, crab grass killer etc. should be in the fertilizer.
Day 11 - Water completely water is fine.
Days 12, 13, 14 - What you have created is a rich, nutrient packed area deep within your bales that is slightly composted organic material. You can even tell that it is MUCH warmer then the air or soil's "cooking", it's filled with worms and good bacteria and disease free! You have essentially created a mini "greenhouse" inside your bales. Seedlings and transplants will thrive in the warm bales early in the season and your seeds will germinate quickly! On these days you do nothing but stand back and appreciate all you have accomplished!
Your bales are ready to plant....but ONLY if the internal temperature of your bales have dropped to 85-90 degrees.....NOW you are ready to plant!
** Just a couple notes here. Your going to freak out when you see mushrooms sprouting and covering your bales. But, this is a GREAT thing! It means your bales have composted to the point that they are a perfect medium for growth. Congratulate yourself "you done good"!! You can make yourself crazy by pulling them out OR leave them, they will die off and just provide more compost material for your plants!
Watch for "Straw Bale Gardening....Getting Ready To Plant! ~ Part 3

Thank you Melana for this wonderful, informed article!
I don't know about the rest of you but I can't wait to try this form of gardening.
Look for the final segments of Straw Bale Gardening to be posted in a couple of days :)