Start a New Garden by Directly Planting Seedlings into Straw Bales
Most people who have wanted to start a garden are reluctant to do so because of all the digging involved to replace part of a lawn with a garden bed.
Some people have started a new vegetable garden using potatoes planted directly into a thick layer (2 ft; 60 cm thick) of straw and fertilizer, spread onto the lawn on a thick layer of newspaper. This method works very well and you can soon sow other seedlings into the new garden bed one the potatoes have been harvested.
But what about other vegetables and even flowers? Is there a good non-dig way of establishing gardens for these plants?
Well, the good news is that you can sow seedlings directly into straw bales aligned into rows on an old area of lawn.
This article shows you how easily this can be done and how it can be used to establish a large area of garden for flowers and vegetables with non digging - Ever!
How to Design a Straw Bale Garden
This is not rocket science. Simply decide where you want your new garden to be. If it is part of an existing area of lawn, think carefully about the final shape and form of the raised garden beds. Designing a garden is quite simple as long as you allow for access.
Allow space for borders and paths.Border design is also quite simple to do
Despite the temptation to turn a huge square or rectangular area into a garden, this raised-bed garden is different.
You want to be able to weed and tend to the plants by reaching into the raised garden while standing outside of it.
Long narrow garden beds about 3 foot (1 metre) wide, maximum width, work best.
This is about 2-3 bales wide, depending on the width of the bales.
Once you have outlined the location and design for the final bed you can start with the first row of bales for each of the beds (as shown in the diagram below).
Make sure you allow room for the bales to spread as they break down and for the borders and paths than can be added later. During the next season, or perhaps in autumn, if you start in Spring you can add the next row of bales in front of the first row and plant it with other seedlings.
The first row can be allowed to break down as compost ready for the final garden.
Site Preparation and Choosing the Straw Bales
Do not be tempted to use hay.You need densely packed, good quality bales with good quality wheat straw and strong bindings. Hay is too soft and will break down too quickly and will produce inferior compost. Try to get weed-free straw. This may be virtually impossible, but try to minimize the seed content as this will minimize problems you will have later with weeds.
To prepare the ground, simply place several layers of newspaper on the lawn or ground area where you want to establish the garden. This will help stop the grass from growing up into the bales, but will allow moisture to drain through.
You can secure the bales and top them toppling over before they become heavy and soaked with water by driving several garden stakes through the bales into the ground. The stakes can be used to provide trestle structures and frameworks to support tomatoes and climbing plants such as peas.
Before planting the seedlings all you need to do is to make small holes in the straw into which is placed small amounts of compost and fertilizer. This material does not need to be deep as the straw will quickly begin to compost and break down when it is moist.
You can install a soaker hose or drip irrigation system to make watering easier, but simple, frequent hosing will do.
Planting Seedlings into the Straw
Once you have installed the small patches of compost and fertilizer over the upper surface of the straw and thoroughly watered them, the seedlings can be planted directly into the compost. The reason why you need firmly packed, tight straw bales is because they retain their shape for longer and hold water better. As the plants grow, the straw will break down as it composts providing ideal condition for the roots.
Some of the compost and fertilizer will percolate down through the straw adding to the root environment. It is wise to add more compost and a slow-release fertilizer as a mulch around the plants as they grow, to replace the material leached into the straw.
Adding More Rows of Straw Bales and Borders for the Raised Bed
While the straw bales will last for a year of so, eventually they will break down and form compost. During the second year you can add a second row of bales in front of the first set.
At some stage you can add raised borders around the two or three rows to form the final permanent garden bed structure that you designed at the outset. Allow plenty of space between the beds for pathways that can be made from paving stones or gravel. The garden borders are important to contain the straw and stop it spreading out and becoming a mess.
Once the initial plantings of tomatoes and peas have been harvested, and the straw has broken down to mulch, the garden beds can be planted with virtually any type of vegetable or flowering plants.
Plants with large seedlings, grown from large seeds are best because they can tolerate the conditions much better than the smaller and more delicate seedlings.
The straw bale gardens are generally not suitable for direct planting with seeds, except for very large seed varieties such as beans and peas. You can plant seeds into various mini-compost containers that are available from your local nursery
You can plant herbs and strawberries into the side of the bales during the few season or two until the straw breaks down.
Care and Maintenance of Straw Bale Gardens
Extra watering is required, especially during the initial stages.
It is a good idea to plunge the bales into a tub of water before you start are this ensures water gets right into the center of the bales. Watering the outside may not get water right into the center of the bale.
Remember that the garden and roots are suspended above ground and so extra watering will be required. Regular weeding will be required depending on the extent of weed contamination. Adding extra mulch and fertilizer is also a good idea to replace the material that leaches into the bales.
Are Straw Bale Garden Methods Suitable for Wall and Vertical Gardens?
The simple answer to this is "Yes". Provided the bales are well supported and secured against a wall, straw bales are and ideal way to get started as the base for wall and vertical gardens. You will need to plan ahead and prepare the design for eventual addition of borders and more permanent structure to support the plants as they become more established.
© 2013 Dr. John Anderson
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