Straw bale gardening: is it any good?
Easy, economical and efficient, the humble straw bale is raising the stakes for veg production.
Straw bale gardening is not something I’ve tried before, but it is on the cards for this year. The technique has been around since the Sixties, if not earlier. An American horticulturalist, Joel Karsten, has been honing his cultivation techniques using this system for 22 years and now grows almost all his vegetables and herbs this way, using 25 bales to supply his family’s needs.
He is evangelical about the technique. In many ways it is like growing in raised beds without having to make the raised beds. BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time has had numerous queries from schools and clubs hoping to grow crops on hard surfaces or flat roofs, and this is possibly the least expensive and most effective system without having to lift the concrete or tarmac.
Karsten reckons that veg and fruit plants are about 25 per cent more productive in bales than they are in the ground. This can be attributed to more oxygen to the roots (we are increasingly realising the importance of this), together with unlimited water (straw is like a sponge and holds an amazing quantity of water) and nutrients. Added to this, heat from decomposition of the straw means that crops are produced earlier, the cropping period is extended later in the year, too, and the produce is generally larger. Karsten calculates that 75 per cent less labour is involved – bales never need weeding.
The most labour-intensive part is the initial “conditioning” – adding water and fertiliser so the bales start to decompose inside, which takes about 10-14 days. On the first day you spread 4oz of a nitrogen-rich lawn fertiliser evenly over the top before gently washing it in with 1-2 gallons of water (this takes a minute or so). The fertiliser does not need totally washing in. When water is coming out of the bottom, stop. For the next nine days or so you carry on, some days adding fertiliser, some days not. If you are organic, you can add organic fertiliser instead but increase the quantity six fold (and source organic straw). After the fifth day use water from a butt or water that has been left in a bucket overnight so it is not as cold as from the tap. Finally, immediately before planting, add a seep hose along the top (if you don’t want to hand water) and on the 11th day plant or sow.
Sowing involves spreading a 1-2in layer of multi-purpose compost along the entire top of the bale, before sowing the seeds. As for planting, you just stab the immediate area with a trowel to make a hole wide enough to receive the plug/pot and push the plant in. Remove a small bit of straw if necessary. I plan to plant three tomato plants per bale and will probably add some marigolds to help deter whitefly, and might well plant parsley up the sides, too.
Karsten even grows potatoes this way (three plants per bale) – they are clean on harvesting, extremely easy and highly productive, so I am tempted. My thin, limey soil means potatoes are prone to scab, but the bales’ moisture-rich environment will help prevent this. Sweetcorn, however, is not ideal – this is a huge plant and can only be grown two per bale, so it is hardly worth it. Perennial vegetables are out of the question, too, as the bales will last for a maximum of two years. After this they become mushy but are great for compost or adding to borders. Otherwise, parsnips, turnips, lettuce – indeed, just about everything – will grow. As to watering interval, a grower in North Carolina applied only a gallon a week per bale during drought periods and nothing suffered. Soluble fertiliser is added every few weeks.
What to grow
You can grow crops from seed or plant seedlings — just as you would in a raised bed or in the ground. For seedlings, consider tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and spring greens. If you’re planting from seed, start with beans, cucumbers and squash. Carrots, beets, sweet potatoes and potatoes can be grown well but are a bit trickier.
How to prepare the bales
Before you can plant in the bales, they need some special preparation, so buy the bales at least two weeks before you want to plant. Place the bales where you want to grow; once they are prepared, they will be too heavy to move.
Conventional lawn fertilizer (29-0-4 NPK). Make sure it doesn’t include pre-emergent weed-killer. Use 1/2 cup per bale, per application
Blood meal. Use 3 cups per bale, per application.
The first week Water the bale thoroughly, until water runs out the bottom of the bale. Sprinkle the surface with a nitrogen source (see box), applying at the recommended rate. Every other day, add more of the nitrogen source; water thoroughly. Do it a total of three times during the first week. On the days you don’t apply nitrogen, just water the bales thoroughly. The second week For the next three days, apply the nitrogen source daily at half the original rate. Follow up with thorough watering. After three days of adding nitrogen, water daily. At the end of the week, sprinkle each bale with 2 cups of balanced fertilizer, such as organic 5-5-5. Water thoroughly.
Why so much nitrogen? It jump-starts the composting process and creates an ideal environment for plant roots. Over the course of the two weeks, the bales heat up considerably and can reach temperatures of 125 degrees F or more.
After the two weeks of treatment, the bales are ready for planting. The internal temperature should be about 75 to 80 degrees F, which you can verify with a compost thermometer. Probe from side of the bale, about halfway down. Low-tech option: Use your finger. The interior should feel warm, but not hot. If the bale still feels too hot, wait another couple days and check again.
To take back your health by growing your own groceries, and making your own food out of basic ingredients, such as cheese, bread and even chocolate to name a few…
Then you could stockpile the excess produce for dark days… (The shelf life of ingredients is longer than that of the resulting foods, anyway…) So while other preppers pay thousands for overpriced, highly-processed “emergency food”, you’ll build your survival stockpile for free…
It’ll be like having your own personal supermarket just a few feet away from you… Though not the kind that sells processed meat full of hormones and steroids, veggies full of pesticides that have absolutely no taste at all, not to mention and all the other junk full of preservatives…
How to plant
To plant seedlings — tomato, pepper, eggplant and greens — make a gap or divot in the top of the bale and set the roots in place. Fill in around the roots with a good-quality, peat-based potting soil, ensuring that the seedlings are well-seated and level with the surface of the bale. Water gently and, if needed, add more soil to fill gaps and stabilize the seedling.
Just planted: red Russian kale and collard seedlings.
Plant no more than two tomato, pepper or eggplant seedlings per bale. I’ve found that all tomato varieties — indeterminate, determinate and dwarf — work well in bales. Success depends upon the ability to adequately support them. If you can’t provide a tall stake or fencing behind the bale, choose determinate or dwarf varieties. For other crops, use the spacing that’s recommended for the variety you choose.
To plant crops from seed, spread a 2-inch layer of moistened, peat-based potting soil on the top of the bale. Avoid bagged “topsoil,” which is too coarse for good germination and can become waterlogged. Tamp it down, make it smooth and water lightly. Plant seed at the recommended depth and spacing. Be sure to water regularly during germination.
Two prepared bales, top-coated with potting mix. Squash seeds will be planted here when warm weather arrives.
Stakes and supports
A good way to support tall plants, such as tomatoes, is with sturdy stakes hammered through the bale and into the ground underneath. Wire tomato cages work for medium-sized plants, such as peppers, eggplants and compact tomatoes, but taller plants can end up a bit unstable as they become laden with the harvest and the bales soften.
When growing in straw bales, it’s worth considering compact varieties, which can be surprisingly productive.
To support tall plants growing in bales that are placed on a hard surface, anchor sturdy stakes to the back of the bale.SHOP FOR VEGETABLE SUPPORTS
Care and troubleshooting
Bales can dry out quickly because they are above ground and permeable. Be sure to water regularly.Drip irrigation or a soaker hose, draped across the top, work well.
Squash seedlings with mushrooms, which are common early in the season. The harmless mushrooms can be left in place. They will disappear quickly.
Similarly, regular feeding is important, because frequent watering will lead to nutrient loss more quickly. Feed your crops once a week with a balanced, water-soluble plant food.
Because the bales are elevated, it helps deter certain critters, such as rabbits. I’ve found slugs to be a bit of a bother to bush beans. A sprinkling of diatomaceous earth helps with this issue.
By the end of the season, the bales will break down, the extent depends on the crops grown in them and the weather. Some hold up well enough to plant garlic in the fall. Others collapse into a rich mound of compost, perfect for adding to containers, amending garden beds or tossing in the compost pile.
Best Plants to Grow in Straw Bales
The great thing about straw bale gardening is that you can grow just about anything in a bale that you can in the ground; however, some plants grow better in bales than others. In this chapter, you’ll learn which vegetables and fruiting plants thrive best in straw bale “soil” and how many of each you can grow per bale.
Plants that don’t do well in straw
The list of straw-wary plants is pretty slim, so let’s start with the few that should be avoided.
Top-heavy plants like standard corn are too tall and heavy—a straw bale may break apart under their weight, or it may topple over. If you do want to grow corn, choose a dwarf variety instead. As the bales naturally raise the plants off the ground by a foot or two, top-heavy plants are at risk of being blown over by the wind (although good supports should help to avoid this).
Photo by Alternative Heat
Running plants, or plants that spread by growing “offshoots” with their own roots, can be hard to manage in a straw bale your first time around. Save these for your second season.
How to grow tomatoes in straw bales
As a relatively costly fruit to buy, warmth-loving tomatoes are a popular choice with home gardeners everywhere. Tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family and are easy to grow in straw bales. Growing them in straw is relatively similar to growing them in earth.
Tomatoes are fantastic straw bale candidates and come in nearly endless varieties. Photo by knitsteel
Tomatoes need full sun and will need support unless you are growing a bushy or tumbling variety with small fruits.
Planting them directly into the bales
Providing it’s warm enough, you should have no problem getting your tomatoseeds to germinate and grow if you prefer to plant them directly into the bales. Plant the seeds at the depth specified on the pack, or around a quarter of an inch. However, tomato seeds do need a temperature range of 70° to 80°F (21° to 27°C) to germinate so you may prefer to start them off in pots in the house.
Row of straw bale tomato plants. Photo by Laura Hamilton
Planting from pots
If you are planting young plants from pots, ensure you make a hole deep enough to get all of the roots and an inch or two of the stem into the bale. This is because tomatoes have tiny hairs on their stems, called adventitious roots, which can develop into roots if they come into contact with a growing medium. The result for you is tomato plants with a stronger root system, which can only be good.
Best tomato varieties for straw bale gardening
Start small with the cherry tomato varieties (they weigh less) and, if all goes well, install stronger supports for some beefsteak or brandywine tomatoes for your second season.
Some straw-friendly varieties include:
Sungolds (they’re easy to grow and taste extra-sweet, too!) Black cherries (for real tomato flavor in a small package) Carmellos and stupices: they’re great mid-sized varieties that won’t overwhelm your bales.
Root vegetables and tubers
Root vegetables and tubers are two great, low-maintenance options for straw bale gardening. They strive in straw bales because their roots can spread more easily than in dirt and their stems have a much easier time making it to the surface to grow into a plant. Root vegetables of all kinds grow best in loose or tilled soil that retains moisture but drains easily—that’s the very definition of straw.
Reinforce your root veggie bales
Make sure you use reinforcements around the bales (like containers or fencing) as the root vegetables’ growth may weaken the bales over time. Wire fencing, wooden frames, and large containers work perfectly.
Raised beds provide extra support for your bales. Photo by knitsteel (cropped)
How to grow potatoes in straw bales
Potatoes, the world’s most well-known tubers, are perfectly suited to straw bale gardening. The huge advantage of growing potatoes in a straw bale has to do with depth. Because the baby potatoes form on the stem, you would normally need to build soil up around them in order to keep them underground. If you plant the potatoes too deep in soil to begin with, the stem may struggle to reach the surface and grow into a plant.
Skip the scrubbing by growing your potatoes in straw. Photo by J.H. Fearless
Keep them covered
With straw bale gardening, you can avoid this problem because the stems can grow more easily up through the straw. Plant your seed potatoes 4-6 inches deep and make sure they are well covered with straw to avoid any light reaching the tubers, as this can turn them green. Keep covering the stems as they emerge, ensuring that only 1 inch is showing at any time.
If that sounds too much like hard work, you can also plant the potatoes at a depth of 16-18 inches and leave them to it.
Potatoes growing in straw bales without reinforcements. Photo by Terri Bateman
Early-maturing varieties such as Yukon Gold or Red Pontiac grow well in straw. Your crop will need a lot less cleaning than potatoes grown in soil – just wipe off the damp straw and you are ready.
Photo by woodleywonderworks
Carrots, like potatoes, are easy to grow in straw. They come in many colorful varieties, from classic orange to white, yellow, and purple. Plant them mid-spring and give them 2-3 months of growing time before harvesting. Because carrots are easily bruised, it’s better to pick them with your hands and skip any metal tools. To make this easier, wet the bale shortly before harvest and the carrots will slip free much quicker.
Turnips and radishes
The hardy turnip and radish grow well in full sun and can take as little as 30 days to be ready for harvest. Turnips can be grown well into October in most areas, so they’re a perfect crop to keep fresh food on the table as fall’s chill sets in. Radishes in particular need full-sun areas because, if a nearby plant blocks even some of its sun, the plant will use all its energy to produce leaves.
Fruiting plants are excellent candidates for a straw bale garden. Just remember that, if it hangs or climbs, it needs a support. For your first year, avoid extremely tall varieties to avoid the challenge of a weakening bale. Try out the plants below for a great start to your first straw bale season.
Yellow squash, zucchini, and other small summer squash varieties are solid (and colorful) options. Make sure you stake them if you don’t want them growing into your walkways. Squash plants need a lot of nourishment to thrive, so condition these bales thoroughly with compost or other nutrient sources before planting.
Squash will flourish in straw bale gardens. Photo by .matter.
Put their bale in a sunny spot and plant them in the spring, and you’ll have a sweet hay-bale treat waiting for you in a few weeks. Keep in mind that they need eight hours of full sun every day to flourish. For best results in a straw bale, choose a variety that doesn’t produce runners; or, if your plant does, clip back the runners so the original plant can produce more fruit.
Photo by Fabian
Other good options:
Eggplants, peppers, and other nightshades are great choices with a variety of culinary uses. Just be sure to give them stakes or allow them ample room to grow. Eggplants in particular are happiest when they have about three and a half months to fully fruit, so plan accordingly.
Photo by Jim, the Photographer
Greens, like root veggies, are easy to grow and perfectly suited to straw bale gardens. Try the classic and versatile greens below to make the most of your growing season.
Lettuce is the classic salad green and can be grown in both the spring and fall, but stagger your plantings—it grows quickly. For uninterrupted harvests, plant new lettuce seeds every two weeks. Keep in mind that, if you reuse the bales, the straw may become too loose after 3-4 plantings and you’ll need to replace them. Lettuce grows best with a constant supply of compost and nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, so add some to the bale 2-3 weeks after each planting.
Photo by Dwight Sipler
Spinach, kale, and chard
They’re easy to grow and require minimal maintenance. All three can grow well into the chilly months for year-round nourishment. They’re perfect for salad, sautees, and more, and really help you make the most of your straw bale space. Plant spinach and kale in the early spring and then again in the fall; they tend to lose their delicious flavor when summer heat sets in. Chard is the most versatile of the three: a spring planting will keep you busy harvesting until first frost.
Leafy greens are easy to please in a straw bale. Photo by Jason Bachman
Growing your own flavoring and garnish makes the gardening experience all the more fulfilling, and herbs are just as simple to plant and harvest as leafy greens.
Basil can be used to season a variety of dishes—particularly of the Italian variety—but it shouldn’t be planted until after the last frost of the season. It grows best in full sunlight, and is ready to harvest once the plant starts growing buds.
Basil is the perfect garnish for your garden. Photo by Hirotomo Oi
Cilantro (coriander) grows fairly quickly and can usually be harvested four weeks after sowing its seeds. Like most herbs, it will grow into a healthier plant in full sunlight.
Photo by Wheeler Cowperthwaite
Parsley is grown as a spring and summer crop in most regions. The more sun it has, the happier (and more flavorful) it’ll be.
Like herbs, cruciferous vegetables are easy growers with a wide array of applications. They usually produce well into the fall and winter to help you extend your growing season.
Cauliflower and broccoli
Cauliflower and broccoli are great in-between-season crops because they can be harvested until at least the start of winter. Plant them as early as late-spring, give them access to full sun, and keep their bales moist, and you’ll have both delicious and versatile veggies into the winter. These plants grow best when their bales are treated with plenty of nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
Photo by Ting Chen
Cabbage is best harvested in late fall, and looks stunning when its leaves burst from a straw bale. Be sure to plant cabbage where it can get at least six hours of full sun each day. Like cauliflower and broccoli, it does best in bales treated with nitrogen-rich fertilizers.
Colorful cabbages are a great candidate. Photo by ccharmon
How many plants should you plant per bale?
The plants you choose will determine how many you can grow in each bale. The seed packet should give you a guide to spacing but, if in doubt, always allow more space than you’d expect when you look at the baby plants, and you can’t go wrong.
You can also grow a mixture of plants within each bale, perhaps a salad mix of tomato, cucumber and lettuce.
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