What is the best organic source of nitrogen to condition my bales? Can I just use manure?
I like to use 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 strong 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 don‘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.
UPDATE: It took several years of requests from Straw Bale Gardeners, and a lot of research and testing, to create this product: BALEBUSTER™ is the perfect conditioning agent to prepare your bales for a bountiful Straw Bale Gardening Season. This custom blend of nutrients is an All-in-One solution that will get your gardening season off to a great start more easily than ever before.