Use this method to get a bale ready for planting
Straw bale gardening is all the rage this year and since I’ve started my new garden from scratch I thought I would give it a try. There are several benefits to this specialized kind of garden. It requires less weeding, it takes less space than a traditional garden and you can plant earlier because the bale decomposition warms the plant roots.
There are a few things I have learned about the process as I was experimenting with how to condition straw bales. On a weird note – they don’t have straw bales in my part of Texas (something about the wheat not getting high enough for a second cutting) so I’m using a hay bale. All the literature I read said that hay bales were not desirable for this project because of the seeds. The guy at the feed store promised it will not have any more seeds than straw – we shall see. My hay bale was not green and freshly cut, and after a month of conditioning, the bale has not sprouted any wheat. I don’t know if purchasing it fresh would make a difference.
You should place the bale where you will use it for planting, because once it gets waterlogged it will be heavy and impossible to move. Maybe not for you muscle gals, but it was for me.
Put several layers of newspaper or cardboard under it. This helps with water retention. I actually used a cardboard box big enough to turn up the sides and help with retaining water. That cardboard kept the water from running out the bottom at the beginning of the process and has worked well.
Place the bale on its side with the twine going around the bale. This will keep it intact while it is decomposing.
Make sure the cut side (not the folded side) is placed up. This will allow the water to reach deeper into the bale and keep it moist longer. Just do your best with this. It really is evident which side is the cut side, and which is the folded side, once you look at it that way. The cut side has more “straw tubes” showing.
You need to condition the bale
Have you ever placed your hand into a compost pile, one that is working properly? The inside can be downright hot, even getting up to 200 degrees. when its in the process of creating that wonderful product for your garden. Straw bale gardening works off that same idea and the processes that creates compost. You are going to use conditioning to quickly speed the decomposition of your bale. If you skip this part your plant roots will be affected by the heat created from the compositing process and it will kill the plants.
During the conditioning process my bale went from 136 degrees at day four to 63 degrees at day eleven. For the first three days all you have to do it water the bale thoroughly, from the top. Here’s the watering schedule:
Day 1 – water the bale and make sure it stays wet. I just went out in the morning and gave it a good dosing. If you have a really hot day, you should check it again in the evening.
Day 2 – water the bale and make sure it stays wet.
Day 3 – water the bale and make sure it stays wet.
Add organic fertilizer
For the next 6 days you are going to add organic fertilizer. I used a 5-5-3 dry mix that I got from Old Farmhouse Feed before I left Oregon, however any nitrogen rich fertilizer will work. Some people use their own natural nitrogen and send their husband out to pee on it. I think I’ll pass! Anyway, I just used 1/3 of a cup of the dry fertilizer and put about half a cup of hot water into a big container till it was mixed and somewhat dissolved. Then I added cold water to make 12 cups and poured that over the bale. Then I gave the bale a good watering.
By the end of the 4th day there was a noticeable difference in the bale. The nitrogen has really started the compost process and it smells earthy. I could visibly see the decomp beginning. Our Black Lab is attracted to it (probably because of the fish bone and feather meal in the fertilizer) and it has been almost impossible to get her to quit rubbing against it. I did eventually build a better fence!
Day 4 – add liquid nitrogen with the watering to speed up the decomp process
Day 5 – add liquid nitrogen with the watering to speed up the decomp process
Day 6 – add liquid nitrogen with the watering to speed up the decomp process
Now you will cut back on the nitrogen by half and continue as above for three days. Fertilize and water…
Day 7 – add half of the liquid nitrogen and water thoroughly
Day 8 – add half of the liquid nitrogen and water thoroughly
Day 9 – add half of the liquid nitrogen and water thoroughly
Day 10 – Water thoroughly and continue to water the bale until the internal temperature reaches the temp outside. You can use a thermometer or put your fingers inside and gauge how warm it is.
Once the temperature has stabilized you are free to plant in it. Some people just push aside the straw, make a hole and plant. Others remove a few inches of straw and add potting soil to plant in. I think this will certainly work best if you are planting seeds directly in it – the soil will give it something to grab.
The only things you need to do after planting is continue with occasional watering and give it a weekly (or maybe even semi-monthly) fertilizing with liquid nitrogen at half strength. You will know when you need more nitrogen if the leaves of your plants start to turn yellow.
Truthfully, I kind of fudged my nitrogen days. We had a few nights of freezing weather in the middle of my experiment and I didn’t water. We’ve had some heavy rain days and I didn’t check on the bale at all. Even still, the transformation over a two week period has been dramatic and my bale is now ready to plant. First up? Cherry tomato and basil.
You have effectively created a quick mini compost pile from a $5 straw bale! I hope this post will inspire you to try straw bale gardening. I will continue to update as the season progresses. Please check out my series of posts about creating a small garden from scratch and six planning tips for creating a garden from scratch.
UPDATE: April 2016 – I now have 2 seasons of straw bale gardening under my belt. The bales last a surprisingly long time and if you can keep them bound together, there is a possibility of using the bale for succession planting. This year I planted broccoli and then once it was harvested I planted snap peas.
Straw bale gardening really is easy!
Related: Why your garden needs a straw bale | PrepaprednessMama
Please share your straw bale gardening success in the comment section below.