Over the years, I have used all kinds of bales to prepare my gardens. Grass hay, Lucerne mulch, sugar cane and pea straw. A common question I get asked is “what bale is best to use for my garden?” This is what I have discovered over time:
• Lucerne: Lucerne bales are great to use as mulch on your conventional garden beds. They add much needed nitrogen to your soil and are will assist in holding moisture as the weather warms up. Another advantage to using Lucerne on your conventional garden is that it breaks down quite quickly. For this reason, Lucerne is not ideal for straw bale gardening. BaleGrow’s conditioning treatment provides additional nitrogen to your bale, which accelerates the composting process and compromises the life expectancy of your straw bale garden.
• Pea straw & sugar cane: Similar to Lucerne bales, pea straw and sugar cane mulch bales will also break down very quickly when adding a nitrogen source. The structure of the bales is quite soft, so when starting the conditioning of your bales, and activating the composting process, your bales will last only 3-6 months.
• Hay: Again, a bale of grass hay will tend to break down very quickly once the conditioning process has started. Unlike cereal crops, grass hay bales are cut and baled with the seed still attached, so when activating (conditioning) your bales you will find that MANY of the seeds will begin to germinate and you could end up with a tidy square of grass instead of a garden bed!
• Straw: I find that this is the ideal medium for the conditioning process. First, when positioning your bales correctly, with the cut side facing up and the bale standing on its side (with the strings around the belly), the straw cylinders that are created at the time of harvest are ideal to assist in the conditioning of the bale. These cylinders hold the water along with the conditioning treatment inside, for the composting process to work at its optimum level. Also, cereal crops such as oats, wheat and barley take much longer to break down, giving your straw bale garden longevity.
At the end of the day, what we want is a productive garden that is easy to maintain and cost effective. All of the above bales will give you this and using the resource that we have available to us is always the way to go. But I do find that the best results I have had in the past have been with the trusty straw bale!
One of the most frequently asked questions I get when out and about is where can I put my BaleGrow bales?
The simple answer is anywhere. You do want to keep a few things in mind, the most important being sunshine. To have a happy, healthy and productive garden, your bales will need 5 – 6 hours of sun per day. This is the minimum amount of sun that your plants need to grow. If you have the option of full sun, this is even better. Most vegetables grow best with plenty of sun.
Full sun or part shade?
This is, in my opinion, the biggest advantage to gardening in straw bales. Your bales can go anywhere. If there is sun, water and a space a little larger that a straw bale… your bales can go there. This means you can utilise any area in your front or back yard to be productive.
Here are some places you may not have considered:
So…everyone loves a spud, and they are surprisingly easy to grow in a bale. When considering what to do with my composted BaleGrow™ bales after 12 – 18 months of production, growing potatoes are always at the top of my list. In fact, I have a designated area just for my spud production!
But growing potatoes is not only reserved for old bales. Growing potatoes in bales that are still in good shape is also an option.
When planning my planting, I aim to get as much productivity out of my straw bale garden as I can. By conditioning my bales 5-6 months before planting potatoes, this not only leaves me with a nice soft bale to work with but it also gives me a full season's worth of veggies first. So I condition my bales, plant my first crop, then once that first crop has finished, I'm ready to plant some potatoes.
Using a soft bale around 5-6 months after conditioning allows you to place 5 or 6 seed potatoes inside the bale without breaking the strings. This is very important. Keeping the strings around the belly of the bale is holding the composted straw in place. This will nurture the potatoes while growing.
My tips for easy potato growing:
Eating garlic has been linked to loads of health benefits including combating colds, reducing blood pressure and even improving bone strength. For me, I just love to eat it because it’s delicious.
Here’s a fun fact for you: over 80 percent of the garlic sold worldwide comes from China. You know the perfectly formed, perfectly white, non-sprouting heads of garlic in the supermarket? That’s Chinese garlic. It is treated with growth inhibitors to prevent sprouting (thus improving shelf life), bleach to whiten it, along with other dangerous chemical compounds we need to keep away from our food.
But here’s the best bit: garlic is unbelievably easy (and cheap) to grow at home. And it is delicious – so sweet and fresh. I promise you, once you grow your first batch of garlic in your straw bale garden, you’ll never buy it again.
I find older, softer bales are best for garlic, as the softer straw allows the bulbs to form more easily than the tight, compacted straw in a new bale.
The basic rule of thumb for growing garlic is to plant on the shortest day and harvest on the longest day of the year. I like to get my garlic planted around April/May here in Melbourne.
Here’s what you need to do:
By now, you’ve probably got a good idea about the benefits of straw bale gardening: it’s affordable, it’s easy, it yields heaps of yummy produce… the list goes on!
One of the reasons straw bale gardening is so foolproof is because, as the straw breaks down over time, it unlocks all the vital nutrients your plants need to thrive.
When the bale is new it is pale in colour, quite compact, and can easily support its own weight. Over time, the straw softens, becomes darker in colour and stands less upright. It might become necessary to add additional support by way of stakes or trellises as your straw bale garden ages.
This is an exciting time in the straw bale gardening life cycle because the softer straw lends itself beautifully to growing crops such as garlic, onions and potatoes.
But one of my favourite parts of straw bale gardening is what you’re left with once the bale has broken down too much to stand up on its own. Dive into your soft bales and you will discover a lush, fertile compost filled with worms and garden goodies!
Here are some of my favourite uses for old bales:
We all know that plants need a sufficient supply of water to stay healthy. This is especially true of plants that produce fruits and vegetables. Generally, a veggie garden needs watering every day during the warmer months and every 2-3 days during cooler weather.
More than just a drink
Locked within the humble straw bale is a haven of micronutrients and healthy bacteria just waiting to be released. The secret? Just add water! Teamed with BaleGrow’s treatment system, your straw bale garden now has all the goodies to help your plants really thrive.
How much water is required?
A lot of people ask me whether straw bales require more or less watering than a traditional soil garden. The simple answer is both. Certainly, during the conditioning phase – where you are preparing your bales for planting – you’ll need to give your bales a good soak most days for around 2 weeks.
However, once you’ve planted out, your straw bales do a great job of holding water and will require only the same amount of water as a soil garden. In fact, it’s important to not over-water your straw bale garden – we don’t want to wash all those amazing nutrients away.
And in the true spirit of sustainability, eventually your bales will decompose into beautiful mulch, which will help retain water throughout the rest of your garden!
Watering made super easy
While watering your garden by hand with a hose is effective and can be quite therapeutic, you might like to considering installing a simple irrigation system. A soaker hose (available from garden centres) and a timer switch is all you need to create the lowest of low maintenance gardens. Not only will a soaker hose target the water exactly where it needs to go – towards the roots and away from the foliage – using it on a timer provides consistent, regular water to your plants. Somewhere between 8-10 minutes a day during summer and every 2-3 days during cooler weather is perfect.
There really is no sweeter tomato than the one you have grown yourself. No fresher lettuce than the leaves you’ve just picked for lunch. No juicier cucumber than the ones growing in your own garden.
I’d dreamed of growing my own vegetables and herbs for some time but there were too many obstacles in the way and it wasn’t until I discovered straw bale gardening that my dream took off. You see, straw bale gardening overcomes so many difficulties you may have experienced with traditional gardening methods. Let’s have a look at some of my favourite reasons to grow in a straw bale.
You can grow veggies on your balcony! Or driveway, or courtyard, or even rooftop. As long as your bales get around 6 hours of sunlight a day and have easy access to water, your bales can be placed in just about any location.
It’s a simple way to increase your growing capacity during the busy growing months. I tend to grow less in winter than I do in spring. I can easily condition a few extra bales when I need additional growing space for my favourite veggies.
Difficult soil conditions? No problem for straw bale gardening! One of the biggest obstacles to starting my own vegetable garden was the condition of the soil at my house. Compacted clay with dreadful drainage, the work needed to make the soil arable was overwhelming. My solution = pop some straw bales on top of my rock hard earth and get planting.
It’s perfect for those with mobility issues. I have many customers who have taken up straw bale gardening because they are no longer able to cope with the physical demands of traditional gardening. With straw bale gardening, there is no digging required and much less bending involved. And bales can easily be situated to make them accessible by wheelchair.
Of course there are many other reasons to give straw bale gardening a try:
Having had very little experience growing from seed, I was not convinced it was for me. I’ll admit I’m not the world’s most patient person – I love the “instant green” you get from planting seedlings – so it took me a long time to start experimenting with those little seed packets I kept walking past at the garden centre.
But now I’m hooked! I’ve had such great results growing from seed, not only with healthy, lush, productive plants, but also in my back pocket. A packet of seeds costs roughly the same amount as a punnet of seedlings but yields many, many more plants. Sometimes a hundred times more! And I love that I can have different packets of seeds on hand for planting at any time that suits, without the need for a trip to the garden centre.
Raising seeds inside your BaleGrow straw bale garden is easy with the following tips:
1. Condition your straw bale with the BaleGrow™ treatment system
Conditioning your bale correctly is a very important part of the growing process. This will release much needed nutrients to the plant for a healthy production of vegetables for the seasons ahead.
2. Purchase your seeds and some seed raising mix
Selecting the right plants for the season is vital. Be guided by what is on the seed packet. Take note of the area that you live in and the recommended planting season. If you’re still a little unsure ask for assistance or take a look at www.gardenate.com.au. This has been a very useful resource for me over the past 3 years.
You will also need a small bag of good quality seed raising mix.
3. Planting your seeds
This is the fun bit! Once you have completed the conditioning process (step 1 above), it’s time to plant. By taking advantage of the heat that is still within the bale from the conditioning process, this will give your seeds a head start.
Open the bale with a small hand shovel or pull a little bit of bale out to form a hole. Fill this hole with a handful of seed raising mix. Then simply push a small hole into the mix, place a seed (or seeds, check your packet) in the hole and cover with a little more seed raising mix.
This process can be repeated when the plant needs to be replaced. The bale will be cooler so germination make take a little longer but the result will be the same.
4. Water and wait
Depending on what you have planted, you should see the seedlings emerge within 6 – 10 days. If you have planted multiple seeds in the same hole and more than one has emerged, let the young plants grow for a week or so and pull out the weakest one, leaving the stronger one to grow on. Water your bale as needed and feed regularly.
Choosing your seeds
To stay interested in growing from seed I personally like a quick win… I don’t like to wait too long before I see something happening (I did mention I’m not patient, right?). So selecting plant varieties that are quick to germinate and emerge is important to me. Here are some plants that I have found to be fast to pop up and are great to grow from seed:
For those of you that are new to straw bale gardening, you may have noticed that once you have completed the BaleGrow™ treatment system, small grass-like blades could start to appear. The good news is, this is all normal. Wheat grass is a by-product to the baling process which has created the straw you are now growing in.
The process of straw production is achieved in 3 stages.
So don’t panic that you are going to have a bale full of weeds, this is not the case. The small blades of grass are simply a by-product of the production process of your straw bale and won’t stop you growing strong, happy plants in your BaleGrow™ garden.
Feeding your garden…how important is it??
Starting to grow in my straw bales was fun. But having very limited knowledge about gardening and plant health, I looked for information about feeding my plants. I also needed to find out if it was really necessary…and if so why? All I knew is that if I was going to give this gardening thing a try it needed it to be easy. A little reading told me this: you do need to feed your plants… and it is not a scary as you might think.
The three nutrients needed for a healthy crop and thriving plants are:
• Nitrogen (N) - this will promote healthy leaf growth;
• Phosphorus (P) - for root development; and
• Potassium (K) - for fruiting.
Plants also need bacteria and fungi in the soil (or straw in this case) to release food to their root systems. This is the good news, because BaleGrow has loads of both.
Part of the breaking down process in straw bale gardening, is that this is a naturally occurring part of BaleGrow’s treatment system. The bacteria and fungi release food to the root systems. But plants do sometimes need additional nutritional support to be healthy and productive. And the easiest way to do this is by choosing a good fertiliser.
If you’re not sure what it is that your plants and veggies need, go back to what we already know: nitrogen (N) phosphorus (P) potassium (K). There are many fertilisers on the market today that will deliver a good quantity of each. Your local garden centre staff can point you in the right direction. If you know what nutrient(s) your plants might be lacking, here are some simple suggestions to boost the levels in your garden:
• Nitrogen and Phosphorus: Your salads and other leafy crops won’t flourish unless they have enough nitrogen. Composted animal manure is cheap and easy to source. A bag can be picked up for around $5-$10 at your local garden centre. Animal manures also contains a level of phosphorus. So this is a two-for-one option.
• Potassium: Adding potassium to vegetables that produce a large crop will only make production better. Crops such as tomatoes, beans, squash, strawberries and other fruiting crops need additional potassium regularly to get the best yield out of the season. The easiest way to do this is to take some wood ash from your fire (or a friends if you don’t have one) and place about a cup per meter around your garden bed.
Or make it easy on yourself and order some plant food with your BaleGrow delivery! We recommend using a foliar fertiliser such as Powerfeed or Harvest. Both are good all-round fertilisers that I have had great results with.
Tracey is the creator of the BaleGrow treatment system for Straw Bale Gardening