Straw Bale Garden Adventures

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August 1, 2015

There it is. Not long after planting. Having plenty of room for a small farm, let alone a garden, some thought I’d lost my mind when I set about growing in straw bales instead of the ground this spring. Not that my soil is anything wonderful, but some of it is greatly improved from decades of cows in residence. It’s sand. In some spots water literally runs off of it, which is because eons ago the land was underwater. It’s high and dry… but why would I bother with all this space?

Warmth.

The quest for a tomato harvest in the North that isn’t lost to blight and early frost. It’s also intriguing. Like, seriously? You can stick a potato in the bottom of a bale and they grow? My dad, the farm boy, told me it was never going to work.  Totally nutty. But he must have asked some farmers what they thought about my departure from sanity, because he informed me that this is highly experimental stuff… maybe to them, but there’s a lot of people doing it, just not on farms, which I’m surrounded by. Others found it a fascinating idea, though I have to say more thought me loony than didn’t.

So in the beginning I spent a lot of money on straw, fertilizer, clamps, posts, fencing wire, and ‘cheap’ plastic drop cloths. But it meant that I could plant weeks ahead of June 1st, which is still a frost-gamble here. Once again, people shook their heads and looked me in utter disbelief. The lady at the ag supply place wanted to know if I was building a bomb when I asked for water soluble nitrogen. When I explained that all I wanted it for was conditioning my bales (though blowing up a few marauding deer has a nice ring to it) she rolled her eyes and said people really need to stay off the internet, there’s nothing but garbage on there. (I didn’t ask if she learned this on the news.)

Tomatoes 1 Week After Planting In StrawBut growing in straw works. My tomatoes haven’t looked this good in years. Dad’s, on the other hand, are more pitiful than usual. Cold spring = cold soil = poor tomato plants… even if you do cover them, the soil is still cold. Which is why I decided this was the thing to try, because for at least the last 6 years our season is colder than it should be.  I’m in a never ending battle with blight, which usually wins.

It’s not for the faint of heart – at least not when you plant a sizable garden. If you’re just doing a few bales then it won’t take over half your life for several weeks, but it did here. Conditioning 45 bales is time consuming. Working fertilizer down into the fresh straw takes forever! It also takes a lot of fertilizer before you’re can even plant. You have to do it right though. Don’t try cutting corners. You’ll burn up your plants, like my neighbor did. He had an easier way to do it.

So after working about 35 pounds of nitrogen and balanced fertilizer into the bales, I had a crop of wheat growing. Some bales looked like chia pets. Talk about upsetting! This is supposed to be ‘weed-free’, and wheat growing where it’s not wanted is definitely classified a weed. Pulling it proved impossible. The shoots were tender and broke right off. Okay – we’ll figure this issue out later. It’s time to plant!

Wheat crop and all, the bales were planted on May 18th, but just the tomato and pepper plants started indoors. A pack of rain days interrupted the conditioning schedule. The wind was horrendous. It actually worked a pepper plant out by the roots and took it to parts unknown, broke the tomatillos up, snapped off some other peppers… and I decided we weren’t going to try sowing seeds in there. No way that was going to pan out. Stick to plants. So, off I went to the garden centers for some replacements and additions.

Straw Bale Garden Frost Protection

The wind finally died. Then frost returned. It was a crazy Sunday spent creating protection, and figuring out how to keep the plastic frost covers from blowing against the plants. The original idea was to bend PVC pipe over the wire and make a small hoop house around each run of bales. Right. Schedule 40 isn’t that flexible, so I cut them up in thirds, and stuck them into the strings on the bales. Looks ridiculous, but it did the trick. Covering 60-some plants took all day, but it was worth it. No frost damage, and the warmth inside these little greenhouses made the young plants quite happy – as opposed to the issues in the ground in previous years. So far, so good!

After about 2 weeks of moving the garden center haul of flowers and veggies in and out of the shed to protect them from cold too, it finally warmed up again. Its a normal springtime activity in the North. Arriving in the garden with the new plants I was surprised at how anemic they were, while the ones I grew under lights are rich green, and much more robust. I don’t know what kind of fertilizer these places in the area use, but it’s awful. Lack of sun might be part of it, but their plants were still pretty pathetic compared to mine.

Greenhouse Grown Pepper Plants vs Mine

Look at the difference. And they’re the professional growers. I’m just on a mission to fill the pantry and freezer. It was the same with the tomato plants I bought because the wind did in a few of those too.

But this is just the first part of my journey as a straw bale gardener…

Stay tuned for the next chapter. It’s an adventure that’s way to big for one post.

 

Tammy Clayton

Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.
Tammy Clayton

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