Urban gardening is all about making the most out of the space you’ve got. All it takes to turn your outdoor balcony or back porch into a full-on garden is a pinch of creativity and a dash of strategy. Rather than planting one crop in one small pot, we are going to focus on planting […]
It’s a lot easier to have soil problems than soil perfection. But whether you’re dealing with pH complications, drainage issues, rocky or cold soil, or perennial pest and disease concerns, Joel Karsten has a solution for you…Straw Bale Gardening!
As the culminating event of this year’s Home Grown Food Summit. Marjory interviewed Joel about the innovative straw bale gardening method he created more than 20 years ago.
If you have soil concerns, this method is worth considering. (Be aware, however, that there are some hidden dangers to keep in mind.)
The following article provides a summary of highlights from Marjory and Joel’s conversation.
And If You Missed the Podcast, Click Here to Listen Now!
Straw Bale Gardening—What Is It and How Does It Work?
First, let’s talk about what straw bale gardening isn’t. You aren’t growing vegetables in straw. What you’re actually doing is growing them in very recently decomposed straw.
And it doesn’t have to be straw. It can be any tightly compressed organic matter. Use whatever you have available in your area: oat straw, wheat straw, barley straw, rice straw, hay, grass clippings, etc.
Depending on how large and tightly compacted your bales are, you may be able to get a couple of growing seasons out of them.
But even when the bale has lost its shape and decomposed extensively, you can still take that same straw, put it in a large container, and compress it. If needed, add additional organic matter such as fresh grass clippings and leaves, and just make a new “bale” yourself.
The Soil-Making Process
Essentially, you are creating virgin soil within the interior of the bale—soil that is free from lingering disease or insect problems, and which provides the nutrient capacity the roots need to grow. To create this decomposition, you encourage the rapid reproduction of naturally occurring bacteria by “feeding” them nitrogen.
Now, depending on which kind of straw you’re using, you could be starting with as much as an 80:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. What you’re aiming for at the end of the conditioning process is a 20:1 ratio. So, you’ll need to add a significant amount of nitrogen. (This process is called “conditioning” the bale.)
You’ll spend several days conditioning the bale, although exactly how long it takes depends on what type of nitrogen you choose—traditional or organic.
Either way, you’ll want to start the conditioning process 20 days before your area’s average last frost date.
This will help ensure that the temperature outside isn’t so cold that it inhibits bacterial growth. (If, however, you get a cold snap during this time and the daytime temperature stays below 45°F one day, just pretend that day didn’t exist. Don’t treat your bales at all that day—no fertilizer, no water. Simply start the conditioning process up again the next day.)
Conditioning With Traditional Fertilizer
If you condition your bales using traditional fertilizer, such as lawn fertilizer, the process will take 12 days from start to finish. Choose a lawn fertilizer that has at least 20 percent nitrogen. (Nitrogen will be the first of the three numbers on the bag.) Make sure it’s not slow-release nitrogen.
Use 1/2 cup on days 1, 3, and 5 of this process. Simply spread it on top of the bale. (You’ll add water afterward, which will help push the fertilizer into the interior of the bale. More on this in a minute.)
Then, use 1/4 cup on days 7, 8, and 9. On the 10th day, add the phosphorous and potassium by applying one cup of 10/10/10 garden fertilizer to each bale.
By day 12, you’ll be ready to plant.
Conditioning With Organic Fertilizer
You’ll need 18 days to complete the conditioning process if you use organic fertilizers such as feather meal or bone meal, both of which have about 12 percent nitrogen. These fertilizers work because they are high in protein, and as it decomposes, protein becomes nitrogen.
(Some people even use urine, which has between 9 and 12 percent nitrogen, but keep in mind that you’ll need about 3-1/2 gallons of urine per bale per day!)
If you use an organic fertilizer, use 3 cups per bale on days 1, 3, and 5. Then, use 1 to 1-1/2 cups on days 7, 8, and 9.
On the 10th day, it’s time to add phosphorous and potassium. Do so by applying 1 cup of bone meal and 1 cup of wood ash to each bale.
You’ll be ready to plant in the bale by day 18.
Irrigating Your Bales
Whether you use organic or traditional fertilizers, you’ll need to water your bales every day—during both the conditioning process and the growing season.
Every day during the conditioning process, add one gallon of water to each bale. If you’re watering on a day when you also fertilize, add the fertilizer first, then top it with water to help push it into the bale.
It’s okay if the fertilizer doesn’t completely wash into the interior. The bacteria will actually come up to the surface of the bale to access the fertilizer when they need it.
Ideally, use water that has been warmed to air temperature so you’re not inhibiting the decomposers with frigid water straight from the spigot. Simply fill a bucket with water today, then use it tomorrow so the water has had a chance to warm up a bit.
Once the conditioning process is complete, you’ll still want to water your bales each day.
There are two options that Joel recommends:
- The cheapest, easiest, and quickest method is to use a soaker hose. However, the UV light from the sun breaks them down fairly quickly, and you’ll end up having to replace the hoses eventually.
- Once you know straw bale gardening is for you, he recommends upgrading to a drip system. It’s a little more expensive up front, but due to its adjustable nature, a drip irrigation system allows you to save money on water long-term since you are able to water each bale only as much as the plant needs. For example, your tomatoes are going to need more water than your potatoes. With a soaker hose, you have to water to your least common denominator—meaning your potatoes are going to get overwatered so that your tomatoes can get enough water. Drip irrigation solves that problem.
The Benefits of Straw Bale Gardening
This unique gardening method offers many benefits:
- The virgin soil within the bale has a very neutral pH, so depending on your water, your soil will be about a 6.8 to 7 on the pH scale. That’s an ideal range for most edibles.
- Straw bales both drain and hold moisture exceptionally well. You can’t flood a straw bale garden. No matter how much you water it, it will only hold three to five gallons. The rest of the water will run right out the bottom of the bale.
- Since you are creating virgin soil during the conditioning process, you don’t have to deal with perennial insect or disease problems.
What Grows in a Straw Bale Garden?
Most plants will thrive in a straw bale garden.
A few won’t.
Personally, Joel has had trouble growing onions and rosemary in his.
He also doesn’t recommend trying to grow sweet corn in straw bale gardens, because their height and big root structure make the process inefficient. (You’d only get about four good stalks of corn per bale!)
And perennials like asparagus and rhubarb aren’t ideal since the bale will break down before those plants really start to produce well.
How Many Plants Per Bale?
Space your plants in the bale as you would if you were planting them in the ground. You might even be able to space them a little bit tighter.
In a bale, though, what you’d usually plant in a row you’ll plant in a checkerboard pattern, instead.
You can also build a trellis above the bales to allow your larger or vining plants—such as green beans, tomatoes, sweet potato vines, cucumbers, and squash—to grow vertically instead of horizontally.
It’s a very productive method, and you end up with a lot less disease and a lot fewer insect problems.
Any Special Instructions for Planting Seeds?
If you’re going to plant tiny seeds, you’ll need to make a seed bed on top of the bale with some really clean compost or potting mix. Spread it into a half-inch layer and put your seeds in that. They’ll root right down into the bale.
If the seeds you’re using are big, such as peas and beans, you can use your finger to push them right into the bale.
What If My Bale Is Full of Mature Seeds When I Get It?
While you are conditioning a bale, its interior will reach approximately 140°F or 150°F. This heat is going to kill most of the seeds that may be present at first.
But it won’t reach the outside of the bale, so it’s still possible to end up with a “chia pet” growing out in your garden.
If you do, simply head outside with a sponge mop and a cake pan filled with vinegar and a squirt of liquid dish soap. Dunk your sponge mop in the liquid, and wipe down the outside of the bale.
When those sprouts first emerge, they have very limited energy reserves. The vinegar solution will knock them back. And, since they won’t have enough energy in the seed to regrow, you’ll only need to use the vinegar solution on them once.
What if There Are Latent Herbicides in the Bale?
It’s true that many fields are sprayed with broad-leaf herbicides, and that it can take some of these chemicals a pretty long time to break down naturally. It’s one of the reasons we are often cautioned against using straw or hay as mulch in our gardens. After all, most of our edibles are broad-leaf plants, too.
However, one of the great things about a straw bale garden is that it takes the guesswork out of whether or not your bales contain latent herbicide. The truth is that, if they do, your plants simply won’t grow.
If you’re concerned about it, though, Marjory recommends a simple test. (This test also works for manure.)
- Grow a flat of legumes.
- Mix the straw or hay with water in a five-gallon bucket and stir frequently for a day or two.
- Then, use the water on the legumes.
- Keep an eye on the legumes to see how they respond. If the second and third set of leaves look normal, the straw, hay, or manure is probably safe to use.
How Do I Keep Mice From Nesting in the Bales?
A properly conditioned straw bale really isn’t going to make an attractive home to rodents.
Since the straw itself has been harvested, it shouldn’t contain many oats or wheat seeds. That means it doesn’t provide much of a food source for rodents.
Also, during the conditioning process, the bale gets really hot inside and the interior starts to turn into a big, mushy pocket of soil. Neither of those conditions are attractive to mice or rats.
That said, there are a couple of things you can do to further discourage rodents from taking up residence in your straw bale garden:
- First, make sure there aren’t any bird feeders nearby. Those really tend to attract rodents.
- Second, make sure you’re watering your bale appropriately—on a daily basis, with the water fully saturating the bale.
It’s always important to do your research when embarking on a new gardening adventure. But once you do, you may find that straw bale gardening is the solution you’ve been looking for—no matter where you live, what your soil is like … or whether you have soil at all!
Are you excited about Straw Bale Gardening, or have a burning question? Tell us in the comments below!
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This is Marjory Wildcraft, and in today’s Homesteading Basics, I want to show you a unique container planting system that I use to grow turmeric — one of my favorite home medicines.
This container gardening system is called the Urbin Grower, and it’s a small bed that has a trough bottom for water, creating its own self-watering system.
The thing that I really look for in all my planting systems is that it doesn’t involve electricity, or pumps, or things, ’cause, believe me, that’s just beyond my technical capability.
I’ve been working with this Urbin Grower for several months now, to grow turmeric in it. Turmeric is an amazing medicinal plant. I’m sure you know all about it. Here’s the photo of when I planted this where I just got some turmeric root that I picked up from the grocery store and planted it in here. This is how it’s growing.
I have to say that I love this container. I just checked to make sure that the water is always in the bottom here. That water is a natural moat that keeps ants and other insects out, and it’s also a buffer, so if I’m gone for a week, this planter is going to be fine.
So far, I have to say, if you’re growing in small spaces, on patios, or for those precious plants that you want to have by your house, the Urbin Grower is really working out well for me.
I do want to let you know, I’m going to be doing a whole series on other container gardening systems, so stay tuned for more reviews.
This is Marjory Wildcraft with The Grow Network.
Want to read another article about how to grow turmeric? Check out Learning to Grow Ginger and Turmeric in the Midwest.
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With a good-sized pot (at least 45cm deep and wide), good compost and some trusty bamboo, you can soon master the hobby. The right watering patterns, fertilizer treatment and placement will vary from crop to crop. As the seasons turn and you switch one vegetable for the next, you will find that the transition process is also nuanced but achievable — great if you want to challenge yourself, or get the kids’ green fingers working.
To get started, try referring to this new info graphic which makes clear how simple this most natural of hobbies can be, and it won’t be long before you’re enjoying a rich and varied vegetable diet from just that one unassuming container. Bon appétit!
Info Graphic provided by Pound Place for your educational purposes.
Most gardeners call it quits in the winter. After all, how are you supposed to have a garden when there’s several inches of snow covering your backyard? Simple. You start an indoor container garden. Even in the winter, you can grow plenty of vegetables as long as you park them in front of a south-facing […]
We all know that growing vegetables in containers is a great way to provide you and your family with fresh fruit and vegetables all year long – and it is especially useful for those who don’t have the space or who might otherwise have difficulty managing a full-size garden.
If you’ve decided to try your hand at container gardening, you’ll be happy to know that there are many tricks and tactics you can use to simplify the process and get better results.
Here are a few ideas for your next container garden:
1. Use a soilless mix.
Many people are surprised to learn that a bag of potting soil actually does not contain any field soil. Instead, it is a mix of organic and inorganic matter that is lighter than actual soil, thus making it easier for plants to grow inside a container.
There are many commercial potting soils, but it is also possible to make your own. For most container garden plants, the ideal mix is comprised of peat moss (about 40 percent), pine bark (20 percent), sand (20 percent) and vermiculite (20 percent).
2. Keep plants sheltered from wind and excessive rain.
Plants grown in containers are not typically the strongest of plants, and you may need to baby them a bit more than ones planted directly in the ground. Find a place for your containers that is sheltered from strong wind.
And if you get a summer thunderstorm or downpour, you’ll most likely want to pull them inside a shelter to avoid damage. And while we’re on the topic of downpours, make sure your containers aren’t left sitting in a puddle of water, either.
3. Place herbs around your vegetables.
Most herbs have strong scents and flavors that are wonderful for keeping bugs away. Use this to your advantage and surround more vulnerable plants such as lettuce, peppers, etc., with herbs.
4. Have proper drainage.
One of the trickier aspects of container gardening is to make sure that that roots are not sitting in water. Make sure that the containers you use have proper drainage holes, or if not, provide another means, such as adding pebbles to the bottom of the container or lining it with sheet moss.
5. Plant quick-growing vegetables.
Any vegetable that you can grow in the ground also can be grown in containers. But it’s usually best to steer clear of anything that has a long maturation period – such as corn.
6. Practice succession planting.
Many of the principles that apply to a regular garden also apply to container gardens. It’s still a good idea to plan your vegetables in succession.
For example, quick-growing crops, such as lettuce, radishes or snow peas, should be planted a little at a time so you don’t end up with more than your family can reasonably eat.
7. Make use of hanging baskets.
Container gardens are a favorite with many gardeners because of their compact nature. But remember that you can make them even more space-efficient by including hanging baskets. Plants like tomatoes and strawberries make good choices for hanging baskets.
8. Stake at the start.
If you are planting something that is going to need a little extra support, be sure to stake it at the beginning. Trying to stake it later could end up damaging the roots.
9. Give plants plenty of water.
Container plants can dry out quickly during dry, hot summers. While most of the time daily watering is sufficient, consider watering twice a day when the temperatures climb higher.
10. Pick off dead leaves.
Removing dead and dying leaves from your plants doesn’t only make them look better, but it also helps protect them from bugs.
Remember these useful strategies and you will be well on your way to having a beautiful and thriving container garden.
What advice would you add? Share it in the section below:
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Container gardening has exploded in recent years. People everywhere want to have access to fresh produce and save money on groceries, but not everyone has the yard space to put in a garden. Even if you only have a small patio or deck, you can still grow plenty of fresh, organic herbs, fruits, and vegetables in that small space.
Herbs are the easiest plants to grow in pots, and you will have year-round access to those fresh, vibrant flavors because you can move the small pots of herbs from your patio or deck to the kitchen windowsill. You will find that freshly grown herbs have much better flavor than those supposedly fresh herbs you can purchase at the grocery store. The same goes for the fruits and vegetables you can grow in containers. And since you will know exactly what goes into growing them, you control what is put on your plants.
There are a few things you will need to think of when deciding whether to put in a container garden, though. First, does your deck or patio get enough sunlight? As long as it is not situated facing north (in the Northern Hemisphere), then it should get enough sunlight for your plants to grow. Of course, south-facing exposure is ideal. Second, what plants are you wanting to grow? This will affect the third consideration, which is: How much space do you have with which to work? The type of plants and the space you have to work with will determine the types and number of containers you will use for your garden.
Many websites will encourage you to use a specific container to grow a specific type of plant but, truthfully, I’ve used everything from empty butter tubs to high-end pots, and they all work the same. As long as they hold soil so that the plant can grow and you add a couple of holes in the bottom so you don’t end up over-watering, you’re pretty much good to go.
Any plant that grows in the ground can be grown in containers, and you don’t even have to use the “dwarf” plants that have been developed for limited-space gardening. You might want to steer away from pumpkins or corn, since they’ll not give you the harvest you want in containers, but nearly all other fruits and vegetables can be grown in your container garden.
Common Herbs Grown in Containers
Containers for these herbs will need to have between 6 and 12 inches of soil depth. Many of these herbs can be grown together so long as the container is large enough. If you do plant different herbs together, remember you’ll need equal space inside so that you can move the container there during the cold months.
Common Vegetables Grown in Containers
Containers for vegetables will need to have between 6 and 18 inches of soil depth. Leaf plants like lettuce and spinach don’t need very deep soil, while tomatoes will need the larger soil depth. Root vegetables, with the exception of potatoes, need between 12 and 14 inches soil depth. Your plants will get root-bound if the container isn’t large enough and they won’t grow the produce you are wanting to harvest.
Remember that cucumbers and squash are vine plants; they will need a little room to sprawl so that they can properly grow. You will also need to invest in tomato cages for your tomato plants to keep the vine from bending and breaking with the weight of the fruit.
Common Fruits Grown in Containers
Containers for these plants should be about the same size as the container from which you are transplanting. Many websites say not to grow blackberries in containers, but there are thorn-less varieties available, so grow those blackberries!
Some fruit plants may need some form of support, although you won’t want to use a tomato cage; a trellis or something similar will work for the bushes and vines to grow on. There are special pots developed for growing strawberries in containers, and I have to admit that those are the best I’ve found. Strawberries have the added advantage of growing best in hanging baskets. If you don’t have anywhere to hang your strawberries, though, you need to remember that they are invasive and will send out runners anywhere they can reach soil. This could have the effect of strangling other plants you are trying to grow. But this also means that you have ready-made starters for a new pot of strawberries. Just carefully remove the runner, prune it off the main plant and gently transplant it to a new pot for a new plant.
Once you’ve decided on the plants you want to grow in your container garden, purchase your seeds or plants as well as the containers you will be using and plant! In just a matter of weeks you may be enjoying a bountiful harvest!
Have you ever gardened in the city? Share your tips in the section below: