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My Fall Experiment

Gardening in bales of straw

     As I prepare my fall garden, I’m walking in the footsteps of an Ohio gardener with poor soil who planted in bales of straw rather than install raised beds. He found his solution in a British gardening magazine on growing vegetables. Now I’m trying it, starting with four bales of straw that I placed in full sun along the edge of my vegetable garden.
    To minimize weed problems, use straw rather than hay. Straw is the residue after the grain has been harvested. Select bales tied with plastic string and not sessile. Both sessile and jute string will decompose and the bales of straw will fall apart. Those tied with plastic string will remain whole because plastic does not decompose. Place the bales of straw on either black plastic or non-woven geotextile ground cloth.  
    Before planting, prime each bale to initiate the composting process. Spread two and a half cups of high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer — not mixed with herbicide — over each bale. For organic preparation, spread three pounds of organic fertilizer over each bale. Next wet the bales thoroughly and insert a long-shank thermometer to monitor temperature changes within the bales. The fertilizers will initiate composting in the center of each bale, raising the temperature. Sprinkle the bales with water daily to keep them moist so composting will take place. When temperatures again equal ambient air, the bales are ready to be planted.
    Within five days after I applied the fertilizer on each bale, temperatures within the bales fertilized with Holly Tone Organic reached 120 degrees. The bales treated with 10-6-4 fertilizer increased to only 100 degrees. It took nearly three weeks for these bales of straw to achieve the Holly Tone temperatures.
    By the end of the third week of priming, the bales treated with Holly Tone Organic started producing inky-cap mushrooms; the bales treated with chemical fertilizer followed one week later.
    At the end of the fourth week of priming, temperatures dropped to between 95 degrees and 100 degrees in all of the bales of straw.
    When the internal temperatures are the same as the ambient air, I will plant the bales with broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale and collards. My Ohio model claims to obtain at least two years of growth, sometimes three, from each bale.
    Regardless of the results, I will write about this new method of growing vegetables and share my results and photos. I write now in hopes that you will also try so that we can compare results.
    As my dad always said, “You will never know until you try.”

Outmaneuvering Stem Borers in Zucchini
    Every year, readers complain that stem borers have killed their zucchini plants only after a few weeks of production. I have had the same problem. To enjoy zucchini for most of the summer, I make repeated plantings.
    I’ve tried with no success spreading wood ashes around each hill as recommended by organic gardening magazines. I’ve had moderate success spraying under the foliage with the insecticide Sevin starting as soon as the leaves appeared and repeating weekly.
    This year I sprayed only the stems — not the leaves or petioles — with a jet stream of Sevin, starting under the flower bud farthest away from the roots. I am still harvesting zucchini squash from the original planting with no sign of borer injury. Protecting the stem with Sevin keeps the borer from gaining entry.  
    This year’s succession of plantings resulted in a surplus harvest, which I take to the SCAN food bank at St. James Episcopal Church on Rt. 2.