Category: Vegetable gardening

How did Cambodian rice farmers react to a 6’4″, 280 pound American guy trying to convince them to grow vegetables in Straw Bales?

Mar 10 2017



Below are a few pictures from my trip showing the Cambodian adaptation of the STRAW BALE GARDENS® method. To explain how important this method of growing can be to this population, it is key to first understand a few important things about Cambodia and the issues they face in providing year-round food supplies for their population.  Cambodia is a very big producer of rice, it is grown in rice paddies all over the countryside.  The rice harvest is usually done in July/August and most farm families own and till about 2.5 acres of land. Approximately 75% of the population still works in agricultural production.  The biggest agricultural production difficulty comes each fall when the floods arrive.  Beginning in September and persisting for about three months or until late in November, it rains daily.  During this time, most of the country is ten feet under water, and thus growing anything during this time is traditionally impossible.  Once the flood water recedes, the drought comes and there is no rain for the next three months.  This means essentially no water to irrigate crops which often see 100+ Fahrenheit temperatures every day during this time. There are few wells available, and most are not capable of irrigating a large area.  This combination of weather and climate issues is the root cause for an unsustainable food production and storage system for all 12 months each year.


The Korean Trade Partners (KOTRA) and several Non-Governmental Organizations who have a significant presence in Cambodia and provide much assistance to the agriculture industry in Cambodia, have created a plan to help individual farmers become more self-sufficient and their farms more sustainable.  The goal is to extend their growing season throughout the flood season and the drought season without interruption.

DIG A HOLE:  The first step is to use a large backhoe to dig a large hole, 15-20′ deep, 30-40′ long and 30-40′ wide somewhere on the farmers 2.5-acre plot.  The excavated soil is piled up next to the giant hole to create an artificial plateau.  The soil excavated is not conducive to production of plants, it is heavy clay, and once packed down cannot easily be turned.

BALES ABOVE THE FLOOD LEVEL:  This plateau area provides a great location, above the flood water level, where the farmer can set up a straw bale garden.  Straw is plentiful, because the plentiful summer rice fields produce a large amount of chaff after harvest.  Currently most farmers simply burn the empty fields after the straw dries out, and this causes a great deal of pollution in the air and CO2 release into the atmosphere. This is a problem, and a big one which the STRAW BALE GARDENS® method can help to alleviate.  Farmers could generate an additional income source if they had a market to sell or utilize this straw in a better way.

HAND MADE RICE STRAW BALES:  The locals do not have mechanical balers, so they must make the bales by hand using a homemade wooden baler.    The straw bale garden will allow the farmer to grow crops even during the flood period, especially since the straw bales provide excellent drainage capacity and easily drain away excess moisture, so daily rainfall isn’t a problem.  Crops thrive, including dietary necessities that until now they have not been able to grow, and instead they have relied upon outside government and other charitable organizations for food.  Starches such as potatoes, squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, and other legumes like green beans and peas, and many other crops are now able to grow year around in the tropical climate of Cambodia.

WATER ACCESS CONTINUES DURING THE DROUGHT PERIOD:  When the drought season comes, those deep holes left by the backhoe remain filled with flood water and ground water that seeps into the holes.  It is non-potable water, but can be used to irrigate crops, and this allows the straw bales to be watered even during the dry season and continue to produce.

FLOATING GARDEN:  For those who cannot dig a deep hole, there is another great option and that is to build a garden that will float.  We have endeavored to build a large platform of bamboo or other material that is buoyant and will support the weight of a bale of straw which is also going to be soaked in water.  When the floods arrive the garden floats up with the flood water, then down again when the rains leave.  It is a simple way to use the plentiful supply of bamboo that surrounds them everywhere, to make these floating gardens.

WE CANNOT SIMPLY MAIL OUT LITERATURE:  Pol Pot (1925-1998) and his communist Khmer Rouge movement led Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During that time, about 1.5 million Cambodians out of a total population of 7 to 8 million died of starvation, execution, disease or overwork.  Many of the poor farmers who lived through this period cannot read or write, so to teach them the STRAW BALE GARDENS® method, it must be done in person, by example, so that is what we are doing.  The people from local Non-Governmental Organizations, as well as regional agriculture specialists from Cambodia attended my classroom presentations, and will go back and teach their local farmers these techniques.


We have all heard it asked a million times “why can’t we solve the problem of world hunger?” and the best answer most people arrive at is to send grain or food from one part of the planet to another.  The problem is this, the people with guns and power take the charitable gifts meant for the people, and divide them up to the hungry populations as they see fit.  The ability to control a population through their stomach and keep the population under their thumbs is as old as man.  This solution, our solution, using a hole in the ground and the STRAW BALE GARDENS™ method, does the job of helping these people to feed themselves so much better.  Not only does it prevent hunger it also allows the population to stand up to the government if needed, and avoid ever being at the mercy of others for food.


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.