Friday, July 31, 2009

Straw Bale Gardening

Limited space? No soil? Toxic or rocky ground? Spare corner? Edge of drive or yard? Here's bales of advice for you on the straw bale gardening way.

Especially good for those with dickey backs, straw bale gardening needs only someone to lug the jolly bales into place and with a minimum of effort you'll have a marvel of bounty and beauty indeed.

We can learn from others here. There are timely tips on straw bale gardening that will save you angst.
Here's the hoedown:

The bale is the garden. Put it on your balcony or path if you want to.

Use one or umpteen bales as you need and in any pattern. Because straw bale gardening is raised, it's easy to work with, so make sure you allow for handy access.

Wheat or oat straw is best as it's the stalks left from harvesting grain with very few seed left. Hay bales are less popular as they are made of whole plants with mucho seeds and often other weeds in. Use what you can get locally - it may even be lucerne or pea straw bales.

Put the bales in the exact place, because it's too hard to even nudge these monsters once you've got your little straw bale garden factory in full swing.

You'll get one good season out of a bale and usually two, albeit with a bit of sag. It makes for great compost or mulch when finished with. Straw bale for garden

Lay them lengthwise to make planting easy by just parting the straw. Make sure the string is running around each bale and not on the side touching the ground in case it's degradable twine.

Keep the twine there to hold it all in place and if it does rot, bang some stakes in at both ends, or chock up the ends with something heavyish, like rocks, bricks, boxes or plant containers.

Starting off with slightly aged bales of about 6 months is best, but if they're new, thoroughly soak with water and leave for 5 or so days whilst the temperature rises and cooks the inside, then they will cool and be ready for planting. They won't be composting much inside yet, that takes months, but you don't want that initial hot cooking of your plants.

Some sneaky people speed up the process of producing microbes and rot by following a 10-day pre-treatment regime of water and ammonium nitrate on the top of each bale. But, hey, organic gardeners are a patient lot aren't we, so let's follow nature?

Keep watered. That's going to be your biggest task. Straw bale gardening uses more water than a normal garden, so set up a system now. It may be that swilling out the teapot on it each day is enough in your area, or you may need to keep the hose handy.

Straw bale gardening - plants to plant

Annuals of vegetables, herbs or flowers will love it. Remember your bales will be history in 1-2 years. Young plants can go straight in. Pull apart or use a trowel and depending on the state of the straw, put a handful of compost soil in too, then let the straw go back into place.

Seeds can be planted on top if you put a layer of compost soil there first.

Top heavies like corn and okra, are not so good, unless you grow dwarf varieties. With straw bale gardening it's hard to put solid stakes in so big tomato plants are out, although they will happily dangle over the edge.

Each bale should take up to half a dozen cucumbers, trailing down. Squash, zucchini, melons - maybe 3 plants, or a couple of tomato plants per bale with one or two herbs and leafy veggies in between. Four pepper plants will fit or 12-15 bean or pea plants.

There's no limit and why not poke in around the side a plant or two of some flowering annual for colour and companion if you like.

Once every 1-2 weeks water in a liquid organic feed, such as compost tea or fish emulsion. Tip some worms on top if you want to use your bales only one season.

It's simple to pull out any wayward grain seeds with straw bale gardening, but with hay bales you may need to occasionally give them a haircut rather than try and pull the tenacious new sprouts out.

Article & Picture © no-dig-vegetablegarden.com

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Composting Fundamentals

Good composting is a matter of providing the proper environmental conditions for microbial life. Compost is made by billions of microbes (fungi, bacteria, etc.) that digest the yard and kitchen wastes (food) you provide for them. If the pile is cool enough, worms, insects, and their relatives will help out the microbes. All of these will slowly make compost out of your yard and kitchen wastes under any conditions. However, like people, these living things need air, water, and food. If you maintain your pile to provide for their needs, they'll happily turn your yard and kitchen wastes into compost much more quickly. Keep in mind the following basic ideas while building your compost piles:

AIR
Composting microbes are aerobic -- they can't do their work well unless they are provided with air. Without air, anaerobic (non-air needing) microbes take over the pile. They do cause slow decomposition, but tend to smell like putrefying garbage! For this reason, it's important to make sure that there are plenty of air passageways into your compost pile. Some compost ingredients, such as green grass clippings or wet leaves, mat down very easily into slimy layers that air cannot get through. Other ingredients, such as straw, don't mat down easily and are very helpful in allowing air into the center of a pile. To make sure that you have adequate aeration for your pile and its microbes, thoroughly break up or mix in any ingredients that might mat down and exclude air. You can also turn the pile to get air into it, which means completely breaking it apart with a spade or garden fork and then piling it back together in a more 'fluffed-up' condition.

WATER
Ideally, your pile should be as moist as a wrung-out sponge to fit the needs of compost microbes. At this moisture level, there is a thin film of water coating every particle in the pile, making it very easy for microbes to live and disperse themselves throughout the pile. If your pile is drier than this, it won't be very good microbial habitat, and composting will be slowed significantly. If your pile is a great deal wetter, the sodden ingredients will be so heavy that they will tend to mat down and exclude air from the pile, again slowing the composting process (and perhaps creating anaerobic odor problems). If you are using dry ingredients, such as autumn leaves or straw, you'll need to moisten them as you add them to the pile. Kitchen fruit and vegetable wastes generally have plenty of moisture, as do fresh green grass clippings and garden thinnings. Watch out for far-too-soggy piles in wet climates (a tarp may help to keep rain off during wet weather). In dry climates, it may be necessary to water your pile occasionally to maintain proper moisture.

FOOD
In broad terms, there are two major kinds of food that composting microbes need.

'Browns' are dry and dead plant materials such as straw, dry brown weeds, autumn leaves, and wood chips or sawdust. These materials are mostly made of chemicals that are just long chains of sugar molecules linked together. As such, these items are a source of energy for the compost microbes. Because they tend to be dry, browns often need to be moistened before they are put into a compost system.

'Greens' are fresh (and often green) plant materials such as green weeds from the garden, kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps, green leaves, coffee grounds and tea bags, fresh horse manure, etc. Compared to browns, greens have more nitrogen in them. Nitrogen is a critical element in amino acids and proteins, and can be thought of as a protein source for the billions of multiplying microbes.

A good mix of browns and greens is the best nutritional balance for the microbes. This mix also helps out with the aeration and amount of water in the pile. Browns, for instance, tend to be bulky and promote good aeration. Greens, on the other hand, are typically high in moisture, and balance out the dry nature of the browns.

Article and Picture © VegWeb, LLC

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