Do you have a hankering for fresh vegetables but lack the space or equipment for a big garden?
Do not fret.
Help is on the way.
Cherri Hankins, of Buckeye, gave a demonstration on straw bale gardening Saturday at Buckeye Home, Farm, Lawn and Garden Center’s open house.
Her set-up that day was small compared to the 68 bale garden she and her husband, John, have at their home – but it could be just the right size for a beginner.
Bales were set on edge, and using t-posts and a 16 foot fence panel, this combination could double as a low tunnel in early spring or late fall with the addition of plastic.
“It is a no-fail gardening technique,” Hankins said. “The only thing that would limit your success is lack of watering or if the straw or hay was grown in a field where herbicides were used.”
Hankins uses square bales of hay that she gets from Jerry Duncan. Those bales after the growing season, are turned into compost or mulch for soil building on the couple’s property.
While bales of hay will decompose and can only be used one year, Hankins said gardeners who use straw can get two or three seasons out of the “beds.”
Using t-posts at the edge of the bales allows gardeners to stretch wire three-to-five inches above the plants providing a means to tie up crops such as cucumbers, beans, etc. More strands of wire can be added toward the tops of the posts as plants grow.
What are the benefits of such a method?
You can plant earlier.
Gardening takes less time, less water, less bending, and results in fewer weeds.
No need for pesticides.
Bale gardening can be done nearly anywhere.
It’s a great option for folks on a limited budget.
No tilling; no crop rotation.
It creates new soil for other areas of your landscape.
It provides a warmed medium for starting seeds.
Hankins offers the following information on materials you’ll need and step-by-step instructions on how to get the job done.
Square bales of straw.
A source of nitrogen, such as manure or fertilizer with a higher than 20 percent nitrogen content.
Hankins uses urea:46-0-0.
Whatever you use, it cannot be slow release, she said.
10-10-10 fertilizer – small amount for final conditioning and fertilizing throughout the growing season.
Water – approximately five gallons per bale to get started.
Sun – at least six hours a day.
Support – t-posts and wire.
When to Begin?
It takes approximately two weeks to condition the bales, Hankins said. You can generally start your garden two weeks earlier than normal because the warmth of the bales will protect your seedlings. Be sure to have plastic on hand to cover them to hold in the warmth if planting early.
Conditioning should begin in mid-April or early May.
Hankins said she starts her bales in late March so she can plant in mid-April.
1. Place the bales cut side up, strings on the sides of the bales. Keep strings intact. Place bales north to south.
2. Condition the bales with nitrogen each day for 11 days. Schedule to follow.
3. Water the conditioning agent into the soil each day for 11 days.
4. Plant and water throughout the growing season.
a. For seeds, use a seed starting medium on top of the bale
b. Starter plants may be placed directly into the bale.
For special circumstances:
Growing on concrete: use 2 x 4s to make end posts and trellis rather than t-posts.
Single file rows are best, Hankins said. In any garden, plants have to have space between them to grow. Placing bales too close together hinders growth, or wastes the straw that is in the “grow space.” If your space is limited, you can put bales together, but since you can grow on the top and the sides of the bale, you would be wasting space. The single file method is also one of the best methods of planting because it allows you to run your soaker hoses continuously along the bales.
Four feet is the recommended distance between rows. It is helpful for keeping the plant leaves dry, for being able to get between what will be lush rows of vegetation and it will allow you to fit your wheelbarrow or garden wagon between the rows for harvesting, or for hauling water if you aren’t close to a water source. It also allows for better sun exposure.
While soaker hoses are not mandatory, they are recommended. Using soaker hoses allows for minimum water use, healthier plants and drier garden paths.
You can mow between the rows, or use grass clippings for mulch, or put down landscaping material.
Do not use plastic and it causes high humidity in the garden because water sits on it, rather than soaking into the soil – and it gets very slippery!
So here we go.
Day 1 – add 1/2 cup nitrogen product per bale and water the bales until water flows out the bottom.
Day 2 – water thoroughly
Day 3 – 1/2 cup nitrogen product and water until water flows out the bottom of the bale.
Day 4 – Water thoroughly. At this point, you may have quite a fly infestation and the ink cap mushrooms will make an appearance. Do not eat them, but don’t hesitate to plant around them when the time comes.
Day 5 – 1/2 cup nitrogen product and water until water flows out the bottom of the bale.
Day 6 – water thoroughly
Day 7 – 1/4 cup nitrogen product and water until water flows out the bottom of the bale.
Day 8 – water thoroughly
Day 9 – 1/4 cup nitrogen product and water until water flows out the bottom of the bale.
Day 10 – apply 1 cup of 10-10-10- to the bale in preparation for planting the day after tomorrow.
If you are going to use soaker hoses, you should put them in after day 5 and prior to day 11. They need to be installed before you plant.
Day 11 – If you are using plant starts – using a trowel or stick, poke a hole in the bale and wiggle the planting stick until the hole is large enough to accommodate the item being planted, including all soil that the seedling is planted in. Remove the seedling from its container and place the plant and soil into the hole in the bale, gently snug the straw around the new transplant. Water gently, but fully.
If you are planting seeds – spread a one inch layer of potting soil or seed starter on top of the bale to hold the seeds in place. Plant the seed in the appropriate spacing pattern on the bale and sprinkle additional potting soil or starter to cover. Gently water. Or, you can use an alternative method of placing a single-ply paper towels or bathroom tissue on the bale, spread your seeds on this and add another layer of paper on top. Then sprinkle with potting medium. This will keep your seeds from sinking into the bale and yet they will still absorb water.
“You probably don’t need sixteen heads of cabbage on September 1 or twenty zucchini on August 1,” Hankins said, “so don’t plant all of your seeds at once. I plant what I’m going to need for a given week – either to eat or to can – and do the same each week of the planting season. Each Monday I go down to the garden and replant lettuces, carrots, beets, chard, spinach, cilantro, arugula and other short-term crops. Additionally, once the weather is warm enough, I plant squash on Mondays for about five weeks and beans for three weeks. I usually plant three flights of tomatoes. I only plan the brassicas three or four times.
“Onions, potatoes, and long season crops I only do one planting, but Mondays involve adding a layer of soil, compost or other growing medium to the potato mounds.
“Parsley, garlic and chives and other multiple season crops get one generous planting.”