Recently I partnered with Adamaah of Adamaah's Bedouin Farm to present workshop on straw bale container gardening. There are a lot of great resources on this topic on the web, but here is our take on it!
Why straw bale container gardening?
Inexpensive - low cost to create especially if you are sharing cost with a friend!
Compact - Can garden in as little as space as one storage tub
Light, easy to move
Grow anywhere - deck, balcony, fire escape, concrete, bare ground, etc.
What materials do I need?
Let's talk a little more about the materials. You can purchase a storage bin at a local store or use a storage bin that you already have and no longer need. If you are using an existing bin make sure that it doesn't have significant cracks that may cause issue with moving the container after the straw, soil and plants have been added. Make sure to keep the top as well as it can used to catch the water overflow if needed.
You can get landscape fabric from your local garden center or hardware store. Often times it comes in large quantities, so you may want to share with friends and family. I have also seen landscape fabric in Dollar Tree! If you prefer to try and used recycled materials you can use an old, thin cotton sheet or thin cotton t-shirt as well. Any material you decide to use should be made with natural fibers and allow moisture to pass through freely. Another option is to use coffee filters over the drainage holes as well.
You want to make sure that you purchase straw bale and NOT a hay bale. Hay is a food source that contains grains. You don't want to grow grain! The straw bales are the remains of the plants and contain no grain.
The options for fertilizer are many. In many straw bale gardening guidelines they use a combination of fertilizers that include blood or bone meal. If you are vegan you may not want to use those options. Other options include purchasing fertilizer with nitrogen at least of 6 on the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) scale. If you use alternative methods for menstruation such as cloth pads or a diva cup, you can use the discharged blood. Another method is to collect urine. All of these options require dilution.
Fish emulsion can be purchased from your local garden center. You can also make it as follows:
One part fresh fish/fish parts
Three parts saw dust
One bottle of unsulfured molasses
A little water
Mix the ingredients in a container with a lid. Stir/turn it daily for two weeks. If you follow vegan practices you may opt out of this method of fertilizer.
We create our "compost tea" with 1/2 cup of blood/bone meal, a cap of fish emulsion and a gallon of water. If you use a compacted nitrogen fertilizer make sure to follow the directions for dilution.
The soil you use is up to you. I have used dollar store soil, name brand organic soil and recycled soil. I think it is important to understand the difference in the terms organic and non-organic so that you can make an informed decision. Whether a soil is organic or not refers to the processes and the chemicals used to maintain the soil. Organic uses only natural and non-engineered materials for amendments and managing disease and pest. Non-organic uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. You choose what's best for you and your budget.
You can use a regular household meat thermometer to measure the temperature during the processing of the bale which we will talk about shortly. If you are a serious gardener or you are sharing cost with a friend/family member it is more beneficial to have a compost thermometer. It has a longer stem to reach the middle of the bale and it can register higher temperatures.
Adamaah and I used a drill with a spade bit to make quarter sized holes. You can also use a hammer, a large nail and patience.
How do I put it together?
Drill holes in the bottom of the container. If using the drill, 3 holes along the perimeter of each of the long sides of the bin for a total of 6 holes will work. Make sure they are evenly spaced. If you are using the hammer and nail method you will need at least twice as many holes (12) evenly space over the entire bottom of the container, not just the perimeter.
Line the container with landscape fabric or your recycled natural material of choice
Place the straw in the bins needle (pointy) side up.
Soak the straw with water for 3 days.
On the fourth day pour the compost tea over the bale. Spread as evenly as possible and water the bale to help the compost tea sink into the bale. Cover the container with the top. This will increase the temperature in the bale and speed decomposition.
On day 5, 7 and 9 water the bale to ensure moisture and re-cover.
On days 6, 8 and 10 repeat day 4 and pour compost tea over the bales, water and cover.
By day 11 you should see the temperature rise to about 100 degrees internally as the decomposition process is in full play.
Continue to monitor the covered bale. When you see the temperature drop at least 10-15 degrees or you see mushrooms appear, then you are good to plant.
Create a pocket in the straw for your seedling and line it with dirt. The size of the pocket will vary, but generally 6-8 inches is a good measurement.
Plant your seedling in the pocket. You can also create a soil hole and direct sow your seeds here.
Water the seedlings/soil lightly to set it into the straw.
Water daily or twice in extreme heat. It is recommended to water early in the morning prior to the full sun.
Watch your plants grow!
Here are some pictures from a previous straw bale garden:
This is the method developed and used by Adamaah and I. This is by no means the only way or the perfect way. You may find other methods and suggestions on the web. Some fertilize more days or even consecutive days. There is no one right way. Also, we do not advocate using Miracle Grow on any edibles as our personal preference, but you can certainly choose what works for you.
How can I reach you?
References and resources:
This article was adapted from Adamaah's handout for straw bale gardening workshops. You can download a copy of that handout here.
If you are interested in purchasing a straw bale container for gardening you can purchase it in Bytes and Buds Garden Shop.