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I'm gonna try a straw bale garden

 
Will Holland
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Location: CT zone 5b
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Since I'm starting over completely after moving, I'm going to try doing a straw bale garden this year. At our old place, I had basically unlimited access to waste hay, and I used a TON in the veggie garden, so the idea of a straw bale garden somewhat appeals to me. It took a little convincing to get my wife interested in the idea though. She got a book from the library to read up on it, and pointed out that it calls for LOTS of chemical fertilizer. I had planned on soaking the bales in a chicken bedding solution, duck pond water, and human pee.

What have been your experiences with straw bale gardens? Have any of you found them to work without using a ton of chemical fertilizers?
 
Dillon Nichols
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Hi Will, you know about testing for persistent herbicides in the straw, right?

Info here: http://www.the-compost-gardener.com/picloram.html
Unfortunately the bioassay link provided on that page is dead... We used this test when planning to do a strawbale garden, and found our first batch of straw was indeed contaminated. The peas were very visibly stunted and had cupped leaves, if I recall right.

Beyond that, once we did procure some organic barley-straw, we had trouble with it sprouting rather a lot of barley, even though it was straw.

We also had horrible slug issues, far worse than the rest of the garden. We had the bales directly against each other, so perhaps they were hiding between the bales? Not a problem we foresaw.

Between the prep time, the slugs, the herbicide risk, the chemical fertilizers, the high price of organic straw, and the not-very-impressive results, I'm not sure if we'll try again.


Maybe slugs aren't a big issue there?

Would be interested to hear how your non-chemical-fert version fares. Are you going to do a chemical-fert control bale for comparison?
 
Brenda Freeland
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The whole purpose of using the RS method (alfalfa hay) is no weeding, no bed prep, no chemicals. The hay serves 3 purposes, mulches, keeps soil from drying out, feeds the worms, which in turn enriches the soil. I have used this method for years .
I am totally organic and use Howard Garrett's method using lava sand, dried malasses, corn glutton meal to fertalize. In recent years the price of alfalfa hay has really gone up so that would make the bed you are talking about really expensive.
 
Will Holland
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I'm not referring to the ruth stout method, but straw bale gardens, where whole bales of straw are "charged" in high - nitrogen solution and planted directly into the straw in its baled form.
 
Brenda Freeland
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Will Holland wrote:I'm not referring to the Ruth stout method, but straw bale gardens, where whole bales of straw are "charged" in high - nitrogen solution and planted directly into the straw in its baled form.

Sorry....misunderstood.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Hau, Will,

I do strawbale gardens with no chemical fertilizer at all. For nitrogen, used to get the bales heating up in the interior so it becomes more like a compost, use coffee grounds, if you want more N in there, urine is really good as are chicken droppings. The new bales we are using this year have been charged over the winter with the above condiments and they are now perfectly soft in the center and ready for spring planting. I even watered in some compost after the first three weeks.

The biggest thing to do is keep them wet through while you're charging them with the Nitrogen carriers. Once they heat up and start to cool down you can begin spreading some compost on there and water it in well, this helps the roots and keeps the bales able to hold moisture for quite a while. Don't be surprised if the bales sprout some mushrooms. Also make sure they are straw bales not hay bales. I get mine from an organic wheat farmer, he happens to be fairly close to my location and the bales are nice and solid, this makes them last for around three seasons of growing before they are used as compost/mulch.

I also water in some composted cow manure during the start up phase, this goes on after the heat up and around the same time I water in the compost but I do it separate. When you plant the bales, just use a hand trowel, poke a hole and put the transplant in place. I like to use some potting soil when putting in the transplants. If you want to direct seed; poke the hole, fill it with potting mix, plant the seed(s) and water.
 
elle sagenev
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Location: Zone 5 Wyoming
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I hated it. I did a blog post about it.
http://peacockorchard.com/2015/02/27/experimenting-with-various-garden-techniques-triumphs-and-failures/

I won't use straw bales again. I got nothing out of them.


I used chicken waste as my started for the bales. I got a ton of mushrooms. They heated up. They just didn't grow anything.
 
Ryan Skinner
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I did it last year... I suspect the persistant herbicides to be the downfall. Everything I grew in the bales was dwarfed and slow growing. I wouldn't discourage you from doing it as it does have some real advantages in certain conditions. I almost never had to water the things and at the end of the season I noticed mushrooms popping out everywhere! Try and be certain you are using high quality organic straw... I was thinking about doing alfalfa in the future because that helps with the nitrogen. I have heard that since it is a broadleaf plant that alfalfa is less likely to have any herbicides used on it at all. I liked how quickly you can create a raised bed and a mini greenhouse with the bales.
Have Fun.
Good luck.
Post pics.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau, elle, sorry the bales didn't work out for you. One of my neighbors tried it last year and he, like you had limited growth.

When I asked him how many days he infused his bales with the chicken poop, it turned out he only put it in three times over the three week inoculation period.
I do mine every day for three weeks, I also keep them soaked through during that period and I water in compost every day for two weeks after the first three week period.

Not every method will work for everybody, Nature is just like that. I did see that you had success with some of the other methods you tried out. At least the bales will compost nicely and help your garden soil that way.

I use a set of bales for three years, the first year we only grow shallow root crops, the second we add squashes, the third we can grow potatoes in them since they are fully broken down. After that we use them as compost or mulch and bring in new bales.
One of the things I have noticed is that you really need to know what the straw that makes the bales went through before being cut and baled. I know an other farmer that tried it with his own, chemically grown wheat straw and they functioned like your trial bales.
I get mine from a registered organic farmer, he uses no till holistic farming methods so there are no adverse chemicals of any kind on his straw bales. That probably has a lot to do with the success we have with this method. It isn't the only way we grow gardens though, we have raised beds, growing mounds, kiddie swimming pools for herb growing and huge containers with potatoes. Some of the raised beds are actually tray type so the wife doesn't have to bend down (just over).

Kudos to remaining open minded and trying new things out. I really like your site too.
 
elle sagenev
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Location: Zone 5 Wyoming
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:hau, elle, sorry the bales didn't work out for you. One of my neighbors tried it last year and he, like you had limited growth.

When I asked him how many days he infused his bales with the chicken poop, it turned out he only put it in three times over the three week inoculation period.
I do mine every day for three weeks, I also keep them soaked through during that period and I water in compost every day for two weeks after the first three week period.

Not every method will work for everybody, Nature is just like that. I did see that you had success with some of the other methods you tried out. At least the bales will compost nicely and help your garden soil that way.

I use a set of bales for three years, the first year we only grow shallow root crops, the second we add squashes, the third we can grow potatoes in them since they are fully broken down. After that we use them as compost or mulch and bring in new bales.
One of the things I have noticed is that you really need to know what the straw that makes the bales went through before being cut and baled. I know an other farmer that tried it with his own, chemically grown wheat straw and they functioned like your trial bales.
I get mine from a registered organic farmer, he uses no till holistic farming methods so there are no adverse chemicals of any kind on his straw bales. That probably has a lot to do with the success we have with this method. It isn't the only way we grow gardens though, we have raised beds, growing mounds, kiddie swimming pools for herb growing and huge containers with potatoes. Some of the raised beds are actually tray type so the wife doesn't have to bend down (just over).

Kudos to remaining open minded and trying new things out. I really like your site too.


I watered as much chicken poo in as I could every day for that 3 week period. I did have tremendous fungal growth and when I tore the bales apart to use as mulch they looked very well composted. I don't know why they didn't work. I even used various organic fertilizer methods as suggested by the internet. Epsom salts, eggs, compost tea. Nothing.

I have no idea if my bales were infused with herbicides. So there is that part of it.
 
M Johnson
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I had great luck with straw bales last year. I followed the watering schedule pretty close and being organic chose the blood meal and bone meal for amendments. I top dressed with compost as I planted in starts. I believe the watering schedule and amendment schedule makes it work, assuming you don't have herbicides in there.

It was a quick way to add to my garden. I will be using it again this year. I have to move the garden this year so it will be a bit of a pain to move the bales without them falling apart but it will be worth it.
 
Nicole Alderman
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Dillon Nichols wrote:
We also had horrible slug issues, far worse than the rest of the garden. We had the bales directly against each other, so perhaps they were hiding between the bales? Not a problem we foresaw.

Between the prep time, the slugs, the herbicide risk, the chemical fertilizers, the high price of organic straw, and the not-very-impressive results, I'm not sure if we'll try again.


I just wanted to thank you for info about slugs and strawbales! We have a large slug population, and I had been considering trying strawbales. Hearing about your slug fiasco, I definitely won't be investing time and money in it! Thanks again!
 
Bryant RedHawk
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We just finished our year of one straw bale gardening, We used cardboard to lay out the space then set the bales on top.

The bales were watered once a day for one week, this saturated the bales with water.
To get these bales started heating we used spent coffee grounds and grass clipping tea.
When planting in the bales we cut holes for the transplants and filled these holes with soil.
We got bumper crops of strawberries, peppers, tomatoes and squash from these bales.
Once the first crop was harvested, the blank spaces left from the squash and peppers were planted with broccoli and Brussel sprouts, these are coming on strong.

We are going to use this system more and more since my wife loves the ease and harvest but she wants me to build wood rims and put landscape cloth on for a bottom.
The one issue we had this year was collapse of the bales (caused by my guard dog loving to rub along the sides of the bales).
We also plan to set bales two wide since the single bale row was not able to fully support the squash plants, resulting in cascading that hid several squash from our eyes for quite a while.

Our method of bug and slug control was to use DE around and over the bales, we had not slug issues at all and only one infestation of squash beetles.

I can highly recommend the use of straw bale gardening with this cavet: you have to prep the bales for three weeks, if you don't your success rate will be poor.
Next year I will be using a manure tea, spent coffee grounds and some fish emulsion for the heat up phase of the new bales.
Our plan is to have 4'x4' boxes of bales set up between the orchard trees so we make full use of the orchard.
Strawberries do so well with this method, we will most likely never put any in the ground again, the runners took off an produced a secondary crop of berries like I've never seen before.
If you use DE as a dusting powder, you will keep the pest down enough so that normal non poison methods will keep the situation under control.

We have already used the first set of bales we tried as the compost for the root vegetable beds, the composted straw seems to be very rich and ads quite a lot of humus that will keep on decaying.
We also have some bales that are filled with spawn, can't wait to get those incorporated into some garden spaces.

Once the bales are heating, you just need to water them once a week, even in the drought conditions we had this summer on Buzzard's Roost, everything did quite well with the once a week deep watering.
This was not the case for our soil gardens, they had to be watered twice a week over the same drought period. and that was will a three inch mulch layer.
 
Randy Darrah
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Tried some straw bales this year. Remember to place them with the open, cut side up. Conditioned mine with soil from my compost pile, fish emulsion, coffee grounds and bone meal. Watered daily and had good heat for about a week and a half. One bale was set at the north end of a hugel and the top was again layered with more compost. Pole beans were direct seeded and are still producing well. One stem is a good 3/4" in diameter out of the bale and there's a very healthy volunteer eggplant as well. This bale turned out to be a blessing, because a very wet spring drowned my beans multiple times in my main garden.
Another bale was used for heirloom tomatoes in the main garden and has done very well also. A benefit to the bale was the plethora of "kitty grass" that came up, my cat is so demanding.
Honestly, I don't think my bales will survive to be used a second year.
 
Patrick Bonneville
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Writing this, I thought- wow I hope this doesn't sound kinda too know-it-all or over-opinionated
There are my personal experiences though so, maybe we can help one another
The short version:
hugelkulture on hill, making heavy mulch with terraces and swales on contour, using rocks as borders and planting in a food forest method to retain water and nutrients

The long version:
I have a hugelkultur bed at the top of a hill that I started a while ago when I was trying to do something hands on but really hadn't visited permies in a while (I know, shame on me)
I have this issue where I have a hilly backyard that slopes down and flattens out into my neighbor's lovely, flat, green monoculture lawn. I've known for quite some time I was letting minerals and nutrients leach downhill with the rain.
I have decided that at the low end of the yard I'll make a small pond with tamped clay and rocks. It will go from humid and hot to cold and dry here back and forth so I would like to build something to trap the rainfall coming downhill.
My first attempt to capture the rain and keep all the nutrients in my yard was a small berm of compost shoved under dug up pieces of turf. This created the base of what I will use to build a small, shallow pond that will likely ebb and flow
with the rainfall / seasons. I don't plan to use it for fish, nor to let it become a mosquito bed in warmer seasons.
Midway down the hill, I began to dig a 8" deep ditch, using large rocks to cover the ditch and leaving the soil in front (uphill) of the little trench. I then covered it all in a mix of straw and compost, sweeping off the rocks so they can catch sunlight.
I am slowly but surely flattening about 4 layers of height on this hill into 4 terraces, with the bottom all naturally flowing into a pond.. but I'd love to build a water fountain in it if I put enough work into it.
I am home almost all the time and give my growing areas that I tend to a quick rake/sweeping over the top, heavy mulch and it prevents anything from getting too stale or stagnant. My backyard has tons of worms in it these days. Frogs like to hang
out in the heavy mulch and eat bugs, you can really see the difference of richness of life in the soil compared to my neighbor's yard.
I am building this in a way, with my heaps of straw intended to degrade over time with weathering, raking and the application of microbes, although instead of planning out a boxed up garden, I have begun to create cobblestone pathways in something
that is beginning to resemble a fruit forest.
One really great thing about the incline of the hill is that the bottom of it collects dead leaves and soon-to-be-compost things pretty well. Also, I have a bad habit of over-watering plants so the mulch and me keeping an eye on them daily helps me gauge what
is generally going on. I like to go out in the early mornings when the sun is just rising and tend to my yard/garden (yarden?) with a rake and small utility knife, it's a good time of the day to get a feel for things, whatever the season. I don't have any livestock
and my cats and dog ignore me when I ask them to help me with slugs, but since it's a space I can manage on my own I have just sprinkled 'strategic' parts of my yard with diatemateous earth and a daily check of things together seems to keep most of the
slugs and ornery lil critters at bay.
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://richsoil.com/email
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