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Straw bale gardening, is it still organic if…..

 
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I have a question that I can’t seem to answer for myself.

I have a friend who is about to retire and wants to do a sort of permaculture-ish homestead on some land he recently acquired.  The land is about 30 acres but has a significant drawback—it is almost entirely strip-mine tailings covered with a thin layer of clay for “topsoil.”  There is almost no organic matter in the “soil” and it shows.

Part of his plan is to build a huge, almost 1/4 acre garden, but he is planning on generating his own soil.  The idea is to buy a trailer full of straw bales and line them up in rows and do a huge straw bale garden for one season, maybe two.  At the end of 1-2 seasons his plan is to use the resulting compost as garden bedding for a raised bed right where the bales sat.  The thinking being that as the bales decompose they will make the ground beneath more fertile, attract worms, generate soil biology, etc. etc.  He is well aware of how much work is involved.

Generally I love his plan if  it were not for one complication.  He is generally very organic/permaculture minded, but he needs a nitrogen source for all those bales.  His plan is to reluctantly use balanced chem fertilizer a single time to get the decomposition started and then never  use it again.  He would like to use an organic fertilizer but he can’t find one that he can afford at the scale he needs.

Is it still organic/permaculture if he went the chem route for the single instance?

Secondly, is there another, cheap, bulk source of organic nitrogen?

I am curious on my friend’s behalf.

Eric
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Is there any cattle or pig ranch around?
On the other hand to put chemical fertilizer first and do something with post mining land is still better than doing nothing. Our actions are never perfect. The following years he will have more organic matter produced and will find places that can provide some manure.
 
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I'm not certain, but I believe to be organic, the area cannot have used chemicals, including fertilizer, for at least the past three years.  Personally, if I had no soil, I wouldn't care and I would continue on his plan.  As Cristobal said, at least he is working in the right direction.  The other choice is if he can find manure from an organic farm.  That would be preferred of course, but if I couldn't, I would do the one time nitrogen addition to get some soil building.
 
Eric Hanson
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Cristobal,

There are no major animals operations nearby as far as I am (or he is) aware.  I agree with you and him that he will be helping the land in the long run.  In fact, it would actually be hard to harm this land as it only minimally fits the definition of soil.  And I am certain that in the long term he will be adding carbon and microbes to the very soil that he is creating.  The only downside is that the first step includes using an ingredient that is not organic, though he will be making organic material.  And he is not using a ‘cide.  But he is sensitive to the non-organic step he might have to take and is looking for options.  He did say that he would even use urine if he thought he could get enough (but that much might really stink.).

Eric
 
Eric Hanson
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Trace,

Yeah, I hear what you are saying.  I don’t think he plans to sell his produce.  He seems more interested in self-sufficiency.  But I guess if he changed his mind in 3 years he could go ahead and do so.  As it is he just needs that N boost quickly.

Eric
 
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Eric, there are a lot of ways to fertilize without buying something.

First I would like to warn your friend about knowing the source of the straw bales and what was used on the fields where they were grown:

https://permies.com/t/223199/grow-Fertilizer#1908399
https://permies.com/t/154485/Straw-herbicides

Here are a couple of threads that might be of interest to you or others:

https://permies.com/t/121930/free-organic-fertilizer

https://permies.com/t/185538/composting/Liquid-fertilizer-Compost-Compost-tea
 
Cristobal Cristo
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He also has to haul the fertilizer from somewhere. So for example maybe the fertilizer is 20 miles away, but manure 100 miles - so comparison can be made.
If not I would just use the industrial fertilizer the first year. I would try to keep planting remaining acres with nitrogen fixing plants. Maybe rye would forgive the marginal "soil".
 
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Personally, I would go ahead and do it. I think the long term impact will be effectively nil. Those straw bales might not be perfectly organic either. Time and living soil will sort that out.

If we wait for perfect, we'll never get anything done. Continuous improvement is good enough.
 
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  Is it still organic/permaculture if he went the chem route for the single instance?



No

His choice though.

I follow organic standards and for me those things are off the table and not even considered so it's easy or me to look in other directions instead of a conventional  quick fix...like maybe starting smaller?
 
Cristobal Cristo
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Judith Browning wrote:...like maybe starting smaller?



I think starting with 1/4 acre out of his 30 ac property is quite small. I think that one time using chemical fertilizer is not in the same league as constantly using pesticides that are found in human milk. It may have less general impact than for example using some not organic strawbales with non compostable herbicides. Holistically speaking - the outcome of him converting some waste land into future natural/organic farm is greater for all beings than some perfectly natural small plot of a garden.
 
Eric Hanson
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Yesterday was the first day back for teachers, today was the first day for students.  My friend is starting his last year and we got to talking.  I did mention all the gick that can be in straw and not only was he aware of it, he seemed confident that he had steered clear.  I didn’t get specifics there, but he seemed to have that base covered.  

I was fascinated by his plan to create his soil where essentially none exists at present.  I saw pictures of his land and he has his work cut out for him.  My first house was built on strip mine tailings with a covering of clay subsoil.  It was odd land—I had random pieces of shale that poked up in the yard.  I am sympathetic to his challenge as his clay “soil” covering is even thinner than mine.  He does plan to use legumes and deep rooting grasses etc. to help build soil across most of his land.  It is the garden area that stumps him—and me.

Eric
 
Eric Hanson
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Cristobal,

The 1/4 acre is just the garden area.  And to be clear, that was not a measurement, but rather more of an estimate my friend gave me.  Also, most of that area will be walkway space so it is not like the entire 1/4 acre will be covered in straw bales.  The rest of the acreage he is tackling more slowly but with a deliberate seed mix.



Anne,

Actually I like links about making the various liquid organic fertilizer.  My friend has not begun fertilizing yet, nor even placing straw bales, so maybe he will be amenable to these ideas.


Eric
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Eric Hanson wrote: I did mention all the gick that can be in straw and not only was he aware of it, he seemed confident that he had steered clear.  I didn’t get specifics there, but he seemed to have that base covered.  


It's quite possible to find straw that didn't have fall "dessicant" applied. Usually that's barley straw, since brewers and craft bakeries will not buy barley that was sprayed in fall -- it interferes with the action of their yeasts. Oat straw too, for pony oats with picky pony owners.

I'm trying to work out how many bales would be involved in this. Because IF the rule was "organic only" I can think of a couple of options. They are more labour intensive and may require a small tractor or a quad with wagon/sled, but I think they would work.

1. Create an artificial pond or a soaking tank. Add water and all the natural compost and fertilizer you can lay your hands on. Pond muck from a dugout would also count. Soak x number of bales for a day or so. Then yoink them out (heavy!), let them drain to recover fluid, and place them in the garden. Repeat.

(Aside: I do the above with straw bales of unknown origin, to activate all the bacteria that will break down any dodgy residues. It seems to work -- never had a problem.)

2. Truck in topsoil and compost, and put a layer on top of the bales so both nutrients and soil bacteria can move down with the rain. Ideally it would be thick enough to form a cap that holds moisture in the bales. This will get the ball rolling.

 
Judith Browning
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Cristobal Cristo wrote:

Judith Browning wrote:...like maybe starting smaller?



I think starting with 1/4 acre out of his 30 ac property is quite small. I think that one time using chemical fertilizer is not in the same league as constantly using pesticides that are found in human milk. It may have less general impact than for example using some not organic strawbales with non compostable herbicides. Holistically speaking - the outcome of him converting some waste land into future natural/organic farm is greater for all beings than some perfectly natural small plot of a garden.



In my opinion that sort of thinking can be used to justify all sorts of bad practices.
The question was, "is it still organic?"...I say no but that's just where I'm at and have been for fifty years
And, yes, a quarter acre is small compared to 30 acres but if he is feeling like he's compromising his principles to make it work maybe it's still too much to take on?
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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To my mind, building any sort of meaningful soil on top of mining tailings is a substantial "win." This is disaster recovery, slowly building a vibrant ecosystem that will take a century to complete its work. Official reclamation is usually minimal, serving the almighty dollar.

But still, if the land owner is uncomfortable with the artificial option then that should be respected. I tossed out a few ideas about inoculating straw bales above, in a way that will speed decomposition. It might be a slower process, but it can be done.
 
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PEE! Lots of pee, pee, pee! And get a flock of chickens too.

I had told all the boys in the neighborhood (my son and his friends) they could pee on my straw bales throughout the winter. It was enough to get them to start the break down process. I added composted chicken manure at the base of each plant I planted in the bales in the spring and that was it. My straw bale garden looked like a jungle that summer.

I had put my bales straight into my raised beds. That next year I cut the strings and let my chickens loose in to the garden to till it. The next year, the soil (and it was soil, not bits of rotten straw) was gorgeous, full of life.

My raised beds were placed over a compacted gravel pad that had been used for an RV.
 
Cristobal Cristo
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I like the chicken idea, but it's a closed system. Chickens have to eat first to produce feces, so the organic matter has to be brought first to them, because they will not find any nutrition on the barren land. Some of the nitrogen will go towards their body tissues. Peeing on bales (by visitors) is better, but not feasible if you are in a remote area and we are talking about 1/4 acre area.
 
Jenny Wright
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Cristobal Cristo wrote:I like the chicken idea, but it's a closed system. Chickens have to eat first to produce feces, so the organic matter has to be brought first to them, because they will not find any nutrition on the barren land. Some of the nitrogen will go towards their body tissues. Peeing on bales (by visitors) is better, but not feasible if you are in a remote area and we are talking about 1/4 acre area.



If he starts small, I think it's doable. A new gardener shouldn't start with a whole 1/4 acres usually. Stuff is going to have to come from off site at first but it doesn't have to be yards of dirt and compost.

The straw bales don't need gallons of pee. Just enough to jump start the decomposition process, especially if he gets the bales a season or two before he wants to plant in them.

Feed a few chickens with food scraps and organic feed and get a meal worm and fly larva farm going on with food scraps to possibly take the place of the store bought feed.

The more animals (not necessarily livestock, but also wild animals) he gets on the land, I think that'll help with regenerating the land.

Another thing that doesn't have to do with straw bales is that whatever volunteers grow on his land can be allowed to grow and then chop and drop to build soil that way too.
 
Jenny Wright
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Eric Hanson wrote:
 He did say that he would even use urine if he thought he could get enough (but that much might really stink.).



I didn't notice any pee smell starting my straw bales with urine, though my raised beds were only 250+sf when i did it.  

(I didn't notice you had already mentioned pee before I left me pee comment above.)
 
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Hi Eric,

To address a couple of concerns if organic is important.  First, the straw. Most likely a chemical fertilizer was used on it. Given our region, I assume winter wheat.   This alone messes up the organic issue. The work around is to use hay. But someone needs to do the research first.  Hay comes with its own problems regarding weeds and water absorption.  But I have used it without serious issues.  Some water and vinegar in a spray bottle can address the problem as the weeds emerge….if they emerge.  Be sure to check out the source of the hay, but in our area farmers are not known to apply chemical fertilizer to the hay fields.   Now, if the farmer is rotating the hay fields with other crops,  then there can be an issue; but, there are hay fields near me that have not grown other crops in over 20 years.  As for the fertilizer, I have not seen fish oil/emulsion mentioned.  The fish emulsion I have seen is around 5-1-1.  Of course, read the label carefully.

I have done straw and hay bale gardening for many years.  It takes a good deal of fertilizer.  I have goats and pigs that help the process.  I set out the new bales in the fall and let the winter rains help with the decomposition of both the straw and fertilizer.  I have not counted lately but I have about 30 raised beds. They average about 32 sq ft each.
 
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Don't overlook the power of fungi to get the system moving. Lichens form topsoil out of bare rock. Oysters and other generalist mushrooms will start breaking down that straw without needing any N addition.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Phil Stevens wrote:Don't overlook the power of fungi to get the system moving. Lichens form topsoil out of bare rock. Oysters and other generalist mushrooms will start breaking down that straw without needing any N addition.


I think that would be effective in a warm, moist climate. In my dry, cold climate it would take 4-5 years.
 
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I am not a purist when it comes to organic/permaculture but I try to utilize the best inputs with the goal of creating and progressing towards a self-sustaining system.

Your friend wants to create 'soil' out of the layer of clay he has and build upon that. Utilizing hay bales to start a garden is awesome, but I think if possible he should be approaching this from multiple angles.

In one years time, I have watched my hardwood/pine mulch go from a foot thick down to a few inches. If he could get arborists to dump chip on the ground and get a layer starting to break down he would be adding organic matter while his haybale garden is working. If I have weeds, I just toss them onto the woodchips and watch them disappear. If he wants to speed this up even further, buy a couple sawdust spawn bags of winecap or perhaps a bollete to help chew down some of the wood. It would eventually spread to the hay and gobble it up quickly turning it into rich organic matter. A layer of woodchip on that clay will encourage what earthworms might be around to eat and multiply.

If its possible, I would also start setting up nitrogenous plants such as Comfrey that send deep roots and make a lot out of a little so you can harvest it for chop and drop or creating liquid fertilizer in the following years.

I wouldn't view this plot as a problem but rather an opportunity. An amazing opportunity to really revitalize some land and get something out of it.
 
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A couple of things I have learned in straw bale gardening ~

- You MUST know for certain that the farmer you buy bales from is not using persistent broadleaf herbicides. I ~think~ that stuff is more commonly used on hayfields rather than grain fields from which they bale straw, but you really have to do two things:
Ask the farmer, making sure he understands the grave implications of aminopyralids ending up in your garden,
And test the bales. I do this whether I believe the farmer or not. After I’ve broken them down over a winter, I sow sensitive plant seeds in them. Peas, beans, etc., and look for signs of poisoning as the leaves grow.

My usual straw source is an oat farm. They’ve said “no herbicides”, and I have never had contamination, but I test. EVERY TIME.

Another little bale trivia, which you probably know, is how it’s baled. It’s crimped. One side has the crimped, or folded stems showing, the other has the open ends of the stems showing. That side goes up. Seems obvious, but still…


Back to the original question, I suppose industrial chem fertilizer would be better than nothing, but I prefer an inch of horse manure on too of the bales (again, no herbicides in the animal’s pasture!).

If nanure is unavailable in quantity, I often use blood meal. A two or three pound bag of OMRI certified blood meal costs me $6 or $7 at the store. At about a cupfull per bale, this is likely cheaper than commercial fertilizer. Bone meal, too.

Another suggestion would be to start the whole area with 3-6” of woodchips.
If you have the time, try to make your first crop in the bales a good cover crop blend.

You will likely get two growing seasons out of the bales before it’s time to cut the twine.

Good luck!
 
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This is the proverbial Rock and hard place. We all have to make decisions we can live with.  I think where there's a will there's a way. I haven't done straw bale gardening so don't know the particulars, but it seems like there are organic options that might not be too expensive. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. A box of blood meal, some organic alfalfa, pee. Fill some buckets with water and weeds.  Start a worm bin now to add to the planting hole.
So for what it's worth I think chemical fertilizer is better than not doing anything, but I think there are organic options especially if combined with urine, and weed and or compost tea that would work just as well for about the same expense.
I wish your friend luck. It sounds like he is taking on quite a difficult adventure.
 
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I would use the chem fertilizer, but I am in no way a purist on the issue. Rather than straw, hay (as someone above mentioned) might work a lot better. Much better balance of nutrients in hay than in straw.
 
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