Friday, March 29, 2013

Straw Bale Gardens? No Container Necessary? Sweet!

Totally natural container gardening... complete with a natural container?
For large plants?
And it works?

Is that even possible?

Evidently, yes.  It is, and I'm looking forward to trying it as soon as I get my hands on a straw bale or two.  That's right.  Instead of paying $20 for some cheapo thin plastic thing, I'm going to pay $5-6 for something with sturdy edges, and that acts as a growth medium.

Dirt?  Heck, I'll make my own dirt!  Well, potting soil, anyway.

So here's the thing.  While reading about an entirely different subject on the New York Times site, My eyes caught a headline in my peripheral vision:  Grasping at Straw


Well, it turns out that a guy named Joel Karsten, who has sold stuff like blinky pins and funny looking rubber ducks on e-bay since the 1990s, wrote a book called Straw Bale Gardens.

Wait!  Don't run away!

My excitement isn't nearly as crazy as you think... this time.  See, Karsten has a B.S. degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota.  His first business was in the field of landscaping.  The novelty item business wasn't created until later.

So, see?  He's totally ok.

Anyway, I read through the New York Times article, and decided that the idea of creating a straw bale garden was actually a pretty good one.  According to the article,
"It was Mr. Karsten’s clever notion to condition the bale with a little fertilizer and water, creating a kind of instant compost pile. “The crust of the bale decomposes slowly,” he said. This is the vessel. The inside, which decays faster, “is our potting mix.” Stick a soaker hose on top, then plug some tomato seedlings into a hole gouged out of the straw. Time to wash the taint of barnyard off your hands: you’ve got a vegetable garden."
I know... that's a bit simplified.  But it made good sense.  I've composted before, and I'm still doing it.  I know how this works, and the idea is sound.

Indeed, the article pointed out that The Garden Professors, a WSU extension blog, throw their weight behind the idea!
"Dr. Chalker-Scott, 55, often debunks quack gardening advice on a blog called “The Garden Professors,” co-hosted by her extension service at Washington State University. A few weeks ago, for instance, she disputed the virtues of spraying molasses on your plants. (Seedlings also don’t like fro-yo or peanut butter and jelly.) “It seems like we’re always looking for the newest and shiniest way of producing vegetables,” she said.
 Yet she liked straw-bale gardening as a low-cost technique that uses natural waste materials and mimics natural processes. “This is one of those practices,” Dr. Chalker-Scott said, “that disappeared for no good reason.”"
Basically, in order to do straw bale gardening, there are a few key things that need to be ensured:

  • You need a straw bale - not hay.
  • The straw bale needs to be soaked with water.
  • A high nitrogen liquid of some type needs to be poured on top.
  • You need to wait... and wait... and wait for it to be ready.

Let's look at  why these components are necessary:

Straw v. Hay

Hay bales have seeds inside.  Straw bales don't.  Well, they shouldn't, anyway.  A bale full of seeds would probably end up being a pretty frustrating medium, right?

Lotsa water

You want to keep the bale somewhat damp.  We're composting, remember?  This hay bale soaking phase ensures that it'll be nice and ready for the next part:

Nitrogen Party!

A high nitrogen liquid, poured on top of the straw helps composting occur at a fast pace.  Remember when I talked about the composting using old garbage pails that was discussed on the blog In Heels and Backwards?  Well, the writer, Amanda, caught any liquid that drained out, because it could be used to make a liquid fertilizer - just dilute with water and you're good to go.

But!  In this case, when creating your planting medium... don't add the water.  sprinkle it on top and let it do its magic.  Keep it moist.

Wait, then wait some more.

Yep.  There's a lot of waiting involved.  Wait a few days, then... here comes the cool part.  Or... the gross part, depending upon your sensibilities.  You know it's ready when you stick your hand inside and the heat is less than your body temperature.

You've gotta touch that stuff to know if it's done, or if it's still just a bunch of degrading nastiness created by compost waste.  If it's hot, it's not ready.


Those are the basics, extraordinarily simplified.  Another site which has explained the process a bit more in depth is Grow and Make.  

Or you could always buy the book by Joel Karsten.  

That's what I plan on doing, anyway.  He is the guy that brought the process back from the dead, after all!

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