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Straw bale gardening

When I heard about straw bale vegetable gardening, I was immediately intrigued. For us in the Sierra foothills, the clay and decomposed granite is just too daunting and using straw bales means you need no soil. I also looked forward to less work, no weeding and less bending. With straw bales, you can grow a garden in a much smaller fenced area like mine, 16-by-16 feet.

The bales are placed right on the ground, and seedlings are planted inside the bale. When time came to harvest, I could have sat down to pick tomatoes. You can’t over water your garden and there are fewer pests since the plants are up off the ground.

You need only a few things to get started, straw bales, a trowel to plant seedlings and fertilizer containing nitrogen, like blood meal or bone meal, and just a bit of soil if you’d like to sow seed.

To tailor my garden for our foothill area, I added a soaker hose to my list, a roll of hardware cloth for gopher prevention and a couple of “T” stakes and wire to erect a trellis over the bales for the tomatoes.

I learned that bale placement is important and interesting. First I laid down the roll of hardware cloth, a fine quarter inch metal mesh, to discourage any gophers. You can set up the bales in any configuration ... I chose an “L” shape and laid the soaker hose along the top.

I set the bales on their narrow sides and learned that there is a ‘cut’ side and a ‘folded’ side. The cut side goes up so water and fertilizer goes down into the bale like straws. Finally, I pounded in the stakes at each end of the long side and strung heavy wire for a tomato trellis. If there is any frost, it will be easy to lay frost fabric over this sturdy trellis. Don’t cut the twine that holds the bales together because they keep the bales intact all season.

All set up, I became very excited to get started conditioning the bales. I planned ahead a few weeks so the bales could soften up to be planted. To start to process, I applied a one pound box of blood meal to the top of the bales and kept them wet down, as instructed, for three weeks. During this time, the bale heats up and cools down becoming fertile and soft. At the end of three weeks, I could stick my hand right down into the bale.

Now, it’s time to plant. Plant vegetable seedlings just like you would if they were in the ground or raised bed. Follow the same spacing recommended for each plant; it is the same for a bale. I grew two full sized tomatoes and one cherry tomato in two of my bales. Take the trowel and separate the straw, placing the plant, soil and all, down into the straw along with the soil right down to the first leaf and pat the straw around it.

You can grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, bunching onions, lettuce and squash in the bales. I also planted eggplant and tucked basil in between the tomatoes. For seeds like radish and beans, you spread about an inch of soil first, and then sow the seeds as usual, watering them in.

Since the bales contain no soil, you’ll need to fertilize them every two to three weeks. I set my water timer for 10-15 minutes every other day during our hot summer, July, August and September.

Two challenges when setting up the garden are hefting the bales to the location of your garden. They are heavy and it may take two people. Also pounding in the stakes needed stronger muscles than mine and would have gone smoother if I had soaked the ground beforehand.

I was thrilled with my first straw bale garden. I was so glad not to have to buy, till and weed the soil. I was delighted at the novelty of growing right in straw. I spent little time on the garden except to harvest, even leaving the watering in the care of a neighbor for the entire month of August. Now in my fourth year, growing in straw, I’m completely sold on the concept.

Find complete instructions and more photos on my local gardening website, Sierra Foothill Garden, www.sierrafoothillgarden.com or ask me a question at sierrafoothillgarden@gmail.com

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