Category: Straw Bale Gardening

What is the best organic source of nitrogen to condition my bales? Can I just use manure?

Feb 25 2015

I like to uBM418se blood meal as an organic nitrogen source for conditioning the bales.  Another option that works well is feather meal.  Whatever source is used, it should have a minimum of 5% active nitrogen content.  Manure will just not work quickly enough, it doesn’t have enough concentration of active nitrogen.  With manure it becomes physically impossible to drive enough material into the bale to feed the bacteria enough nitrogen to allow them to colonize the bale.  The only exception to this no manure rule is with chicken manure that has been collected without any bedding material or wood shavings mixed in.  The manure must be composted for a short 6-12 week period and covered during this time to avoid having rain leach the nitrogen content from the manure.  Use this chicken manure in combination with a known concentration such as blood meal or feather meal, and the chicken manure can prove effective and s07810__62877.1407758361.1280.1280trong enough in nitrogen concentration to achieve the objective of feeding enough nitrogen to grow bacteria quickly inside the bales.  DO NOT USE any other manures, they are simply not high enough in nitrogen content and the bales will not condition quickly enough to be ready for planting in the 18 day period of time we are allowing for this to happen.  If you want to add a nice layer of weed seeds to your bale surface just use some horse manure or cow manure on top of your bales.  Compost has less than 1% nitrogen content, compost tea has less than 1% nitrogen, so donSBG2TracyWalsh67-XL‘t try to condition the bales using either one.  Fish emulsion is great but not economical to use in large quantities for bale conditioning, it also stinks horribly.  My suggestion for anyone who wants to do Straw Bale Gardening organically is to stick with blood meal or feather meal.  One tip is to use a sharp stick or pipe to make holes in the bales when you apply the blood meal, so it works quickly down into the interior.  This trick will make the blood meal available to the bacteria more quickly and it will keep the smell at a manageable level.  The blood meal will stink a bit like dead animals, since it is made from the blood of dead animals I guess this kind of makes sense doesn’t it.   Look for blood meal at a farm supply store where a large bag will cost much less per pound than a small bag at a garden center.  You will need a large amount to do the job, and don’t skimp on the amount you apply or your plants will suffer.

What side of the bale goes up? What if my strings are on that side?

Feb 25 2015

We prefer to have the cut side of the bale facing IMG_2824up.  The open stem ends allow easier penetration of the granular fertilizer and the water is better able to carry the fertilizer into the bales that way.  But if the cut side isn’t up, it isn’t a deal breaker, it may just take a bit more time to work the fertilizer in.   I think it is important to keep the strings on the sides of the bales.  If the strings are made of sisal or hemp twine, this is really key, as if the natural fiber is touching the soil it will likely decompose and break, allowing the bale to loose its compression and even fall apart.   One key to the quick decomposition of the straw and the conditioning is that the bales must be compressed.  If the straw is loose or not well compressed it will decompose much more slowly, possibly too slowly for our purposes.  If the strings are running along the top side of the bales, and you are stabbing into the bales with a sharp planting trowel to make holes for planting bedding plants, it is likely that a string could easily be cut.  If that were to happen it would be important to retie that string as tightly as possible.  Most bale makers, or balers, will make bales with two distinct sides, the cut side, where a knife simply shears off the straw stalks on one side and the other end of the bale is folded over inside the baler.  It is easy to see the difference, and any farm kid who ever stacked bales oIMG_1539n a baling rack knows the difference is distinct.  If you pick up the bales with the cut side bouncing against your leg when you stack them, it hurts, and you’ll have a serious rash on that leg before you know it.  If you are a city kid, then you might not realize there is a difference, but once you see another bale, you will see the difference, so remember to put the cut side up.  If by chance the cut side is also a side with the strings, then turn the bale to keep the strings on the sides of the bale.  You’ll also see that the strings on the side help to hold the poly tents from the straw bale greenhouse covers in place.

What about mold on the bales, isn’t mold bad?

Feb 25 2015

No, mold is simply one of the tools mother nature uses to decompose organic substrates.  Mold growing inside a confined space, where we breath in the conceIMG_4190ntrated spores, is very potentially harmful.  Absolutely mold growing in your home is not healthy.  Plants growing in a bale with mold on it are completely unaffected and actually benefit from the mold as mold is a decomposer, helping to break down the substrate into soil.  Plants don’t breathe in and out like we do, so the mold doesn’t affect them at all.  Mold growing on a bale will usually be attacked and consumed by the bacteria present in the bale shortly after it gets established.  If a gardener has serious allergies to mold, then I would recommend wearing gloves, and a mask when gardening period, with bales or regular soil.  If allergies are bad enough then maybe gardening in general just isn’t for you, stay indoors where your less likely to suffer any encounters with mold spores.   Soil generally contains lots of mold spores as well, as does most air outdoors in the summer.  The concentration is much lower than indoor air can be in a moldy house however and the lower concentration of spores is typically never a concern fGorgonzolaCheeseor most people.  I would not recommend eating vegetable leaves with mold on them, for instance if a lettuce leaf came into contact and was smeared with mold prior to harvesting it, then I would suggest washing it well before consuming it.   We eat moldy cheese all the time, they even charge extra for the moldiest of cheeses.  Most mold itself is pretty harmless, but less than tasty to eat.   Think about your straw bales like cheese, the moldier the better.  Stop worrying about what you assume is going to go so terribly wrong with your Straw Bale Garden, and just get started.  You’ll see that most of these concerns you have about moldy bales are completely unwarranted in the end.

Bales are so expensive how can this be an economical way to garden?

Feb 25 2015

The most expensive input cost in any traditional soil garden is LABOR.  Your time to weed, water, weed, plant, weed, harvest, weed, water, weed and pull weeds adds up.  If you had to pay yourself for the hours you put into your garden, you’d soon see how much money goes into a traditional soil garden.  Straw bale gardening eliminates the vast majority of weeding, and if set up properly, also eliminates watering by hand as well.  A simple hose end digital timer turns the water to an irrigation drip system or soaker hose on and off with a preprogrammed schedule eliminating the need to stand around holding a water hose for half an hour every day.  As the bales go through the conditioning process it is very common for them to heat up and this heating process sterilizes any viable weed seeds inside the bales, rendering any potentially viable seeds inert and unable to germinate.  You may invest in bales, but you’ll also free yourself from your second job this summer, and spend your time doing something more productive and enjoyable, instead of weeding and watering your garden.

Shop around, using craigslist.com or our website www.StrawBaleMarket.com you might find a farmer direct source for bales making them less expensive.  Always ask if the farmer has any wet bales, because wet straw bales are completely useless to a farmer planning to use straw as livestock bedding material.  Those bales that were rained on are likely to be on sale for a discount price.  Shop in the fall, because if a farmer has to store the bales after they come directly off the field in the fall, he will likely want to charge more for them in the spring.  Fall bales are normally easier to find, less expensive, and will begin to condition a little bit if you leave them outside in the weather over the winter.

Make your own bales.   In the newest book I have written “Straw Bale Gardens Complete” you will find a step-by-step method for assembling a simple lever system, I call the BaleMaker3000, which you can use to compress and make your own bales.  The material you can use to make your own bales can be any compostable organic material from your property.  Grass clippings, leaves, tree and bush trimmings, garden trimmings, vegetable peelings from the kitchen, weeds pulled from other areas, flowers that have expired, etc.  Literally any organic matter that would normally go into a compost bin, can now be used to make bales for your garden.  If you have straw bales from last year’s garden and they are half decomposed, you can use them in the new bales as well.  Pile everything into a 40 quart plastic or rubber storage bin, use the BaleMaker3000 to squish down the material tightly into the tub, then tie it up with strings pre-positioned in bin.  Drag the bin to the location you want your new bale, dump it over, and wrap it with chicken wire.  Staple the chicken wire on a 2×2 about 24″ long with a sharpened end.  Twist the 2×2 until the chicken wire squeezes the new little bale you made nice and tight, now pound the 2×2 into the ground to hold the wire in the compressed position.  SBG2TracyWalsh05-XL SBG2TracyWalsh35-XL TracyWalsh065-XL     TracyWalsh089-XLTracyWalsh092-XLTracyWalsh100-XLTracyWalsh096-XLTracyWalsh104-XL

My bales are not getting hot, am I doing something wrong?

Feb 25 2015

You started conditioning your bales, but were interrupted by Mother Nature.  Snow, rain, cSingle leftover container on refrigerator shelfold, whatever has thrown a twist in your progress and you are now concerned that the bales will not be ready to plant on time.  Relax, and just pick up wherever you left off or were interrupted, and continue the process.  One tip for speeding up the process if you are concerned that the bales are not conditioning quickly enough for your planting schedule, is to cover the bales with some black plastic sheeting.  This will help adsorb heat energy from the sun and hold in the heat promoting the growth of bacteria in the bales. This isn’t required but can be helpful if you are on a strict schedule and need to plant on a particular date.

It is true that if the air temperature is cooler, the bacteria will not grow as quickly.  This is why we refrigerate our leftovers from dinner, or put stuff we want to preserve in the freezer.  When bacteria are cooled or frozen they will not reproduce as quickly and their effective rate of decomposition of any substrate will slow dramatically.  If the bales warm up to even a slightly higher than air temperature level, this means the bacteria are growing inside.  Bacteria reproduce by expanding to a certain size and then splitting.  During this magical splitting process, the cell will shake and vibrate and create friction, which raises the temperature inside the bales.  If the air temperature outside is 40 degrees but the temperature inside your bales is 45 degrees, this is a great sign of bacteria development.  If the air temperature is 75 then the inside of your bales may be 130 degrees or hotter.  The differential in temperature will increase as the air temperature increases.  Don’t expect too much if your bales are in the “refrigerator” or the “freezer” outside.  When the days get warmer the bacteria will grow quickly.  Plan to plant after you have been conditioning the bales for 12 days (when the temp is over 45 degrees).  If you get a few colder days, just add a couple more days to the c1129_thanksgiving-leftoversonditioning period, or cover with black plastic.  A sunny day will really get things cooking under that plastic.  It is NOT necessary for your bales to ever get HOT.  Sometimes they don’t get so hot, but they will always get warm.  If you measure the temp every day and the temp never goes above 80 or 90 degrees, don’t worry, they will be fine.  If you put your hand into the bales and they feel cold, don’t worry, if you followed the conditioning recipe then the bales are ready to plant after 12 days (18 days for the organic treatment), so plant or seed right away.  Don’t worry if it seems like the bales still look the same, they will not have changed much in appearance, but the bacteria will have grown and colonized much of the bale by then, so it is time to plant.