Category: Vegetable gardening

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.

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.

Where do the plants get nutrients from, when they are planted in a Straw Bale?

Feb 25 2015


One of the biggest misconceptions about the entire concept of Straw Bale Gardening, is that we plant and grow vegetables in straw.  Let me explain what is really happening.  We do start with a straw bale but we don’t plant anything in the bale for several weeks, until we first “condition” the bale.  This conditioning process builds up the bacteria level inside the bale until the bacteria completely colonize the bale.  The bacteria begin to consume, and digest the straw, breaking down the cell walls, and releasing the molecules inside those stalks inside the bale, essentially creating “soil.”  All productive soil that covers the surface of the earth is made from decomposed organic material.  Whatever has ever been alive, eventually dies and is decomposed and ultimately becomes soil, which is then the source of nutrients for the roots of new plants to adsorb and grow.  When Mother Nature grew the oats or wheat, it took a variety of specific nutrient molecules to create the cells of each plant.  Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the three key nutrients, the basic building blocks of most plant life on earth, then there are a large number of micro nutrients, those molecules that are required for cell construction, but only needed in very trace amounts.  These trace elements might include iron, calcium, zinc, etc.  The cells expand and divide and expand and divide, growing an oat or wheat stalk and seeds.  The seeds are harvested, but the stalks are baled up and now arrive in our gardens.  It is now up to Mother Nature to help us decompose these cells that she constructed (grew) last summer using soil, and deconstruct them back into soil once again. This happens naturally, but much more slowly than we need it to happen for our purposes.  We can help speed up this deconstruction process by feeding the naturally occurring bacteria in the bales, in order to speed up the process.   Mother Nature haso-sandy-golay a tool box of decomposers that she uses for this intricate job of deconstructing every living thing on earth.  She uses insects, worms, fungi, mold and the real heavy lifter, bacteria, too perform this amazing task.  These little workers get busy digesting our straw bales, and very quickly break down the cells of the wheat, oats, barley, rice, grass, alfalfa or whatever substrate we have in each tightly bound bale.  The brand new soil created by this process contains all of the micro nutrients and trace elements as well as the Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium that were contained in the stalks.  So when someone sees a bale of straw in your garden and says “you can’t grow plants in straw”, you’ll need to explain that they are exactly correct but the bales are not really straw, they are simply quickly decomposing sources of virgin soil.

Why can’t I find fertilizer that doesn’t say “slow release” on the bag?

Feb 25 2015

“Slow Release” has become a marketing gimmick for fertilizer sellers.  They will all try to tell you that there product is “slow release” 260-1595_lawnfoodbecause in most consumers minds this adds value.  So they splash it all over on the front of the bag.  To really get the real truth, you should look carefully at the analysis label on the bag.  The truth lies within this labels information.  It will always disclose what percentage of the nitrogen contained therein is slow release.  The cheap fertilizers will say 20% or less of the nitrogen is slow release, but the more expensive types will say 50% or more is slow release.  The reason they are more expensive, is that they have to create some type of coating or mechanism around the fertilizer particles to slow down the distribution of the nitrogen.  We don’t want that, we want the cheap stuff for our purposes.  If the nitrogen isn’t soluble it will not be available to the bacteria and this will make the conditioning process happen more slowly.  Look for the least expensive bag of fertilizer, then double check the analysis tag and make sure it has 20% or less slow release nitrogen, or 80% or more soluble nitrogen.  Whatever amount of phosphorus or potassium is included doesn’t really matter much, as most of it will simply wash out, until we begin to build up soil particles in the bale.  At that point, usually day 10 in the recipe, the Phosphorus and Potassium will have something to bind with as it makes its way into the heart of the bale.

I like to use Ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate, but these are usually sold at the farmers coop, or farmers elevator and they come in a plain brown bag.  It is likely you won’t find these for sale at your garden center, but you could ask.  Otherwise, just go to the cheap lawn fertilizer section.  Do not use any fertilizer that contains herbicide.  Do not buy weed and feed.  Do not buy fertilizer with preemergent crab-grass-preventor.  Just buy plain old fertilizer, usually a store brand works great.

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