Try a straw bale garden this year

Published 12:06 pm Wednesday, June 29, 2011

By ANGELA TREADAWAY / Guest Columnist

Want to grow your own vegetables this year but don’t have a lot of time, space or strength in your back? Why not consider trying a straw bale garden this year? Many people have been doing it for years and grow enough vegetables for their families without all that back-breaking work and the aggravation of pesky weeds.

Wheat or oat straw is best, as it’s the stalks left from harvesting grain with very few seed left. Hay bales are less popular, as they are made of whole plants with mucho seeds and often other weeds in.

Use what you can get locally — it may even be lucerne or pea straw bales. Put the bales in the exact place, because it’s too hard to even nudge these monsters once you’ve got your little straw bale garden factory in full swing. You’ll get one good season out of a bale and usually two, albeit with a bit of sag. It makes for great compost or mulch when finished with. Lay them lengthwise to make planting easy by just parting the straw. Make sure the string is running around each bale and not on the side touching the ground in case it’s degradable twine.

Keep the twine there to hold it all in place and if it does rot, bang some stakes in at both ends or chock up the ends with something heavyish, like rocks, bricks, boxes or plant containers. It takes 10 days to prepare your bales before you transplant your plants into them:

•Days 1-3: Water the bales thoroughly and keep them wet.

•Days 4-6: Sprinkle the bales with a half cup of ammonium nitrate (32-0-0) per bale per day, and water it well into the bales. I didn’t have any trouble finding ammonium nitrate from my local ag-supply store. They sold it in 40-pound bags. I have heard, however, that some people have had difficulty finding it in more urban settings. Ask around.

•Days 7-9: Cut back to one-fourth cup of ammonium nitrate per bale per day and continue to water it in well.

•Day 10: No more ammonium nitrate, but do add 1 cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer per bale and water it in well.

•Day 11: Transplant your plants into the bales. I used a spatula to make a crack in the bale for each plant. Place the plant down to its first leaf and close the crack back together as best you can.

How many plants per bale? Try two tomato plants per bale, three peppers, two squash, two sets of cucumbers.

Be prepared to stake the tomatoes and peppers just like you would if they were growing on the ground. You will want to water them in the morning and after sunset for best results.

You can’t over-water because any excess will just run out of the bales. Soaker hoses will work. The main thing is not to let the bales get dried out between watering.

If transplanting plants, start out using some Miracle Gro once a week for a couple of weeks then sprinkle in some 10-10-10. You don’t want to over fertilize. The bales will start to sprout wheat or oat straw, but that is no problem. If the grass gets too much for you, just whack it off.

Angela Treadaway is the Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety Preservation and Preparation with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. She can be reached at 410-3696.