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Welcome to My Jungle - May, 2016

Straw bale gardening has been an interesting project. After reading several books on the topic, I decided I was ready to try my hand at growing "something" in straw bales. My design was simple; four straw bales side by side, set on a weed mat of layered newspapers in the back driveway. Placement is critical; once bales are saturated with water, they become very difficult to move. Orientation is critical too; make sure the bales are placed with the baling twine at the sides and parallel to the ground. The side facing up should be the cut side and the side facing the ground should be the folded side—balers fold straw in half to create this pattern. If you place it backwards, it's not as easy to plant in folded straw as it is into cut ends, though not impossible. The next step is to condition the bales…and you need to do this before you plant or the bales will heat up as they compost and cook your plants. There are multiple ways written about how to condition bales prior to planting (including organic options), but all of them take about two weeks. I started by thoroughly saturating the bales using a water hose. The first soaking took a surprisingly long time, but I kept at it until water started running out the bottom. I next sprinkled two cups of granular 12-12-12 fertilizer on top of each bale and watered it in. I watered every day to keep the bale moist but not so much as to leach out the fertilizer. I also monitored the internal temperature of the bales with a compost thermometer and noticed it starting to rise by Day 2. A meat thermometer would work too or just inserting your hand to discern whether the bale is warmer or colder than your body temperature. Make sure you monitor the temperature before watering or you will get a false reading. In addition to daily watering, I added an additional cup of granular 12-12-12 to each bale every other day before watering. By Day 10, I stopped adding fertilizer and continued to keep the bales moist and monitor the temperature. Incidentally, I started this conditioning process when air temperatures still dropped below freezing at night, so it was really impressive to measure an internal temperature of 120°F when the outside air was in the upper 30's. I waited until the temperatures came down to ambient temperature before safely planting. Don't be surprised if mushrooms and unharvested seed head germinate in the bale during the conditioning period.

I couldn't decide what to plant. I didn't really want to grow vegetables, because my husband pretty much had that covered. Then inspiration hit! Herbs, I would plant the entire bale with herbs and tuck in a few flowers here and there just to add some pop. I acquired around 75 small transplants and started tucking them in quite easily. Although the outside of the bale still looked dry and stiff, the inside was a soft mass of rotting straw. It took me less than 30 minutes to plant the entire bale. I planted fennel, oregano, lovage, parsley, basil, cilantro, rosemary, rue, sage, sweet marjoram, thyme, ornamental sweet potatoes, petunias, marigolds, nasturtiums, patchouli, Swiss chard and a whole hosts of other similar plants. So far, nothing has died and most plants are showing good signs of growth. I only planted into one side wall, in the hopes that the sweet potato vines and nasturtiums would cascade down the remaining three sides.

From my literature review, root crops are mentioned repeatedly as being not as suited to straw bale gardens. I still planted a few onions just to see for myself. Also, seeds can be directed planted on a straw bale by first applying a good layer of potting soil on the top, then seeding into the potting soil. Maybe I'll try this next year, and get more creative with my bale design.