New concepts, products and ideas for the garden

You can use it on the barbecue or break it into smaller pieces and add it as a soil amendment. All natural hardwood lump charcoal is another name for biochar, which is being researched to increase soil fertility and reduce water usage.

Growing a garden on a straw bale might be a good option for those who find it difficult to bend. According to proponents of the practice, watering needs are reduced and weeds are non-existent. Conditioning the bale by giving it a thorough daily soaking prior to planting for at least 12 days prior is vital.      Courtesy photo

Gardening may be as old as dirt, but that doesn’t mean that gardening methods, tools or ideas are equally aged.

Although it’s possible to grow a garden using the same practices used by your dear old granny, new research, new ideas and new discoveries may make it possible to grow more of what you want without moving to Iowa for the sake of growing better sweet corn.

Researchers and enthusiasts alike are singing the praises of biochar, a type of charcoal that’s produced when biomass is burned without oxygen.

There is evidence that native people in the Amazon rain forest made a type of biochar by setting plant material on fire and then smothering it with dirt.

Evidence suggests that biochar increases soil’s productivity and reduces the amount of water needed to produce a good crop. Locally, Dr. Carl Hochmuth, an advanced master gardener with Colorado State University Extension, has been experimenting with biochar in his own vegetable garden and house plants. His resulting lemons from an indoor lemon tree and huge lettuces and other leafy greens out in the garden suggest that something influenced plant productivity.

Although biochar isn’t sold anywhere in the valley as a soil amendment, biochar is available anywhere 100 percent pure charcoal, with no chemical additives, is sold. It’s also possible to build a home-retort system for converting branches and other woody material into biochar.

With the salty and alkaline soils that can be found in many places throughout the Grand Valley, it can be difficult to grow a traditional garden. Some gardeners opt for a raised bed garden as a solution. To keep salts from seeping into the raised bed, it’s important to put a barrier down between the native soil and the soil brought in for the raised bed.

Building a raised bed can get expensive by the time a homeowner purchases the materials for the beds and then purchases enough bags of soil to fill them.

Growing a garden in a straw bale could be a solution to the problem of poor soil and the expenses of a raised bed.

“I’m a big promoter of the concept,” said Joel Karsten, author of ‘Guide to Growing a Straw Bale Garden’ and certified Nursery and Landscape Professional through the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association.

“It’s an easier method of gardening than traditional soil,” Karsten said. “You can put this on top of a parking lot.”

Conditioning the straw bale is paramount to growing a successful crop. Conditioning involves soaking the bale on a daily basis for about 12 days, as well as adding a nitrogen fertilizer somewhere around day four. It’s important to place the straw bales where you want the garden, once they’re soaked they become heavy and impossible to move.

According to Karsten, the straw bale will begin to decompose, creating the perfect medium for successful growing. It’s possible to plant seedlings or seeds on top of the straw bale and Karsten advocates using a soilless mixture or a fine compost for planting in order to eliminate weeds that may be in garden soil. 

Karsten teaches classes on straw bale gardening in Minnesota, but believes the concept will work anywhere. In Minnesota, straw bale gardens require less water than traditional gardens. It’s also an inexpensive way to install a raised bed garden, although the bale will decompose in a season, which will create a good compost material for planting the next year’s straw bale garden.

Traditional compost piles, which have been a mainstay of rural gardens for centuries, may not be appropriate in an urban setting. It’s possible to buy compost tumblers or large plastic compost bins which can speed up the process and disguise the decomposition process.

There are also new methods for composting like the Bokashi bucket, which promotes fermentation rather than decomposition.

“When fermented with microbes, food scraps can be broken down in two weeks,” said Glen Pritchard, owner of Bokashi Life, a company that sells the materials for successful Bokashi fermentation, which breaks down food scraps and plant material without air or water and which doesn’t produce heat, carbon or nitrogen.

The Bokashi bucket also produces a tea that can be drained via a spigot built into the container.

The success of the Bokashi method relies on the bucket itself, as well as effective microorganisms that convert kitchen and garden scraps into fertile garden soil in weeks, not months.

With more than seven billion people living on the planet today, it’s going to take new and innovative methods to feed them all. A straw bale garden, even if it’s fortified with biochar and nutrients straight out of a Bokashi bucket, probably won’t feed more than your family.

At least your family will enjoy some great tasting produce without depleting the world food supply.


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