Straw Bale Planter

Here's a clever idea for planting a few veggies or flowers in your garden.  It's a raised bed made out of straw bales.  It's a great method for people with limited space or mobility and once you are done with the garden, this whole thing can go in the compost bin!

All you need to get started is a straw bale, water, an organic, high-nitrogen fertilizer such as fish emulsion or blood meal, humus or compost and plants.

Here is how you do it.

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Steps for Making a Straw Bale Garden

Straw Bale Selection
I selected a bale of wheat straw, but oat and alfalfa will work, too.  Hay is acceptable, but the seeds may sprout. Pine straw won't work because it sheds water and is slow to break down.  A bale bound with synthetic twine is ideal because it won't rot.  If the synthetic twine isn't available, give the bales extra support with wooden stakes.

Arranging the Bales
Use as many bales as your space allows.  Even a single bale can be productive.  Arrange them end to end in a line or side to side making a square.  If the bales are placed with the straw standing vertical, they are easier to plant.  The bales will be heavy once you begin the curing process, so place them where you want them before you get started. 

Curing the Bale
This step breaks down the interior of the bale to create a soil-like environment, composting the inside.  This process takes 3 to 4 weeks if you use an organic source of nitrogen.  You can cut the time down to about 10 days if you use ammonium nitrate, but it's not organic. 

Step One – Soaking the Bale
Soak the bale with water and keep it wet for 3 days.  It will heat up as it begins to compost.

Applying Fertilizer
After the 3 days sprinkle the bale with blood meal, fish emulsion, compost tea or another organic, high nitrogen product and water it in thoroughly to facilitate the decomposition.   I used fish emulsion, undiluted, and poured about 2 cups evenly over the top of the bale and then watered it in.  As mentioned earlier, you can accelerate the decomposition by applying ½ cup of ammonium nitrate per bale. You can find ammonium nitrate at a farm supply store.

Cool Down
Composting inside the bale really heats things up.  The temperature needs to come down before you can plant.  Keep the soil moist and re-apply your organic nitrogen periodically until you can feel that the bale has cooled off.  This should take about 2 to 3 weeks. 

Topping with Compost
Once the bale is cool you are ready to plant.  A two or three inch layer of compost or potting soil on top of the straw bale will help keep your plants moist until they become established.  This is especially helpful for sowing seeds.

Planting
The number of plants per bale depends on the size of the mature plant. Four small vegetables, such as peppers, per bale will work and for large plants like tomatoes, plant two per bale. Vines are particularly suited to straw bale culture, as the bales keep the plants away from ground dwelling pests.  For most spreading vegetables, such as squash and cucumbers, each bale can hold two plants.  More plants will fit when using smaller plants like greens or herbs.  Avoid root crops, and if you grow tall crops, such as corn or pole beans, be sure and use a support system such as staking the bale.

Smaller plants are easier to transplant into bales, so go for younger seedlings than you plant in regular soil.

Use a trowel to pry apart a planting crevice in the bale for garden transplants or you cut quart-sized holes in the bales themselves with a keyhole saw and fill those with a mix of compost and soil. 

Fertilizing and Water
 Keep in mind that, unlike traditional gardening, your plants will be getting next to no nutrients other than what you add to the straw.  Fertilize with a liquid, organic fertilizer at half strength with each watering.  And sprinkle and water in mineral powders such as bone meal or rock phosphate and greensand to add nutrients.  Keep the bales moist throughout the growing season and keep an eye on your plants to make sure that they don't dry out between watering. 

After the Growing Season
You should be able to use your wheat straw bales for two years.  After that you can compost them, or just break them up where they sit and put new bales over them.  This will enrich the soil below and encourage worms to come in and improve it.

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