Straw bale gardening easy, but jury still out on water usage
In the Spring Home and Garden section, which came out in April, I wrote a story about new gardening methods and products and mentioned straw bale gardening.
As a gardener, the idea intrigued me, and I decided to see if the concept would work in hot, dry western Colorado. My source for the April story was a gardening professional, Joel Karsten, who lives, works and teaches about straw bale gardening in Minnesota, where it is humid and rain actually falls from the sky on a regular basis.
I set up three straw bales in my front yard and encouraged a few more people to try straw bale gardening at a new community garden at Northeast Christian Church, 2001 Patterson Road.
For ease of harvesting and in order to create a greenhouse effect to hasten seed germination by placing plastic across the tops of bales, Karsten recommended placing bales in a single row. I often deviate from written directions if I think of something better and I chose not to follow his advice about laying out my straw bales.
At home, I didn’t want a single row simply because of the area I was using - it’s a weedy wildflower patch out by my mailbox, and I wanted to make good use of the space and get the best afternoon sun. I also surrounded my bales with the silt I dug out of my irrigation cistern. Since it’s very clay-like and tends to retain water, I figured it might help keep the bales moist.
Because evaporation is a huge concern in our arid climate, we decided to experiment with nine-bale rectangles in the community garden. We thought the bales might not dry out so quickly if they were next to each other.
Although I don’t usually add fertilizer or use pesticides in my garden at home, I’m not a die-hard organic grower, so I conditioned the straw bales by watering heavily, with a dose of ammonium nitrate every other day to encourage the bale to begin to decompose. In spite of the cool water, the bales were probably a warmer temperature than the soil, so my seeds sprouted a little quicker than normal when it was finally time to plant. That was not the case for everybody at the community garden, and I have no idea why.
I chose to plant mostly seeds in my bales, although I did stick a few spare pepper plants in some bales, along with a sweet potato, an eggplant and potatoes in the bales at the community garden. I planted melons, pumpkins, cucumbers and squash by seed. They tend to wander and take up a lot of room, so I figured they could grow over the sides of the bales. I watered on an almost daily basis until the seeds germinated.
Sweet potatoes are new for me this year, and I planted them in five other places in my regular garden in addition to the plant in the straw bale. Four have died. The one in the straw bale at home is looking fabulous. Almost everything else in the bales is also looking good although I lost a melon plant and have no idea why.
At home, I’m watering the bales with micro-sprayers that are part of my gardening zone. Every bale has its own sprayer, and the bales get watered when the garden gets watered, which is every two or three days.
At the community garden, we have irrigation water and gravity on our side, but we have no pump or filter. Just multiple spigots for hoses. Most of us have chosen to attach hoses we don’t care about to the spigot, which we then snaked across our bales. Then we took something sharp and pointy and punched holes in the hose, giving us a cheap drip system. According to experts in straw bale gardening, drip irrigation works best for straw bale gardening.
Because our irrigation system at the community garden is a cheap, DIY contraption, with dirty, unfiltered water, the flow is inconsistent. Usually, it’s a tiny trickle and we’ve discovered we can leave the water on overnight to give the bales a thorough soaking. Not a good option for anyone using domestic water.
It’s only June, and the hottest part of the summer is still to come. I think in our climate, straw bales will require more water than a normal garden. In more humid areas, I’ve read that they require less.
Straw bales are very accessible, requiring no bending, shoveling, hoeing or kneeling. Although the bales all started to sprout and now look like chia pets, it’s not difficult to pull the shoots off and it’s a lot easier than weeding dandelions, bermuda grass, Russian olive shoots, elm trees and the hundreds of other weeds and plants that tend to sprout in a traditional garden. It was also a lot less expensive than building planter boxes, adding soil, amending the soil and developing a more modern irrigation system at the community garden.
If you’ve got access to a hose bib and a long enough hose, irrigation is pretty easy, too. I think this could be a good solution for people who want to garden but can’t do the physical labor or for those who have poor soil, no soil or are in a rental house and don’t want to spend the money to build a garden or an irrigation system in the landlord’s yard.