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No Space to Grow Food? Why Not Try Bale Gardening (VIDEO).

Tomato seedlings transplanted into straw bales.
It is no hidden secret that the cost of living, especially the cost of foodstuff in the country, has in the recent past skyrocketed. Many families are hardly able to afford more than one meal a day. This has seen so many people seek ways to beat this surge and one way being to grow a few grains and vegetables within their areas of residence.

However, in reality and particularly for those living in urban setups, there is hardly any space to do home gardening, save for some small space for a few pots of salad by the back door. For majority of these people, growing their own food is practically impossible. 

So, what do you do if you want to grow more food but don’t have the space? 

One option that is becoming increasingly popular elsewhere in the world is the idea of gardening with straw bales. Straw bales can be used like raised beds in the yard so that no additional soil is needed.

Straw is stalk from grains like barley and wheat after the harvest. Straw bales are good because unlike hay, straw does not contain seeds.

Where to start

For beginners, it is always advisable to start small. That way you can see if the technique works well for you. 

Here are some tips to make your harvest bountiful via the straw bale gardening technique....

1. Choose a sunny spot.

Since once that bale gets wet, it will grow much heavier and harder to move, it is advisable to locate it where you want it to stay. Before you set up your bales, lay down landscape fabric to prevent weeds from growing up through the bales.

2. Position your bales.

Arrange the bales side by side in rows, with their narrow side up, so the strings holding the bale together are now on the sides. On one narrow side, the straw will be folded over; on the other, it will be cut. Make sure the cut side is up, as the hollow straws will allow moisture to penetrate better.

The strings that bind the bales should run across the sides, not across the planting surface. This will help keep the shape of the bales as they start to soften and decompose.

Straw Bale Gardening (video)

3. Condition the bale.

As soon as moisture hits the bale, it will start to decompose, and the inside will heat right up – definitely not a good thing for the plants.

The solution? Condition the bale before you plant. This process usually takes around 10 to 14 days. 

For the first 3 days, simply water the bale thoroughly so it stays damp. For the next 6 days, in addition to watering the bale, use a liquid fertilizer like Bonnie Herb, Vegetable & Flower Plant Food to add nitrogen to speed the decomposition. Simply add a capful to a gallon of water and pour it all on the bale. (Another option is to sprinkle a cup of ammonium sulfate on the top of the bale on days 4 through 6, then a half-cup on days 7 through 9. Each time, water the fertilizer in.)

If you stick your finger into your bales, they’ll be hot and moist. You’ll start to see some “peppering” — black soil-like clumps that signal the beginning of the composting that will continue through the growing season. If mushrooms sprout up, rejoice — they won’t harm your plants; it means the straw is decomposing as it should.

4. Choose your plants.

On the 10th day, return to simply watering the bale, and continue doing that until the temperature inside the bale starts to reflect the temperature outside. Use a compost or meat thermometer to keep tabs. Once it reaches ambient temperature, the bale is ready to be planted.

You can grow just about anything in a bale that you can in the ground except tall plants like indeterminate tomatoes and corn that get too tall and heavy and start to break the bale apart. Running plants like sweet potatoes are also not ideal to grow in a bale.

A good way to support tall plants, such as tomatoes, is with sturdy stakes hammered through the bale and into the ground underneath. Wire tomato cages work for medium-sized plants, such as peppers, eggplants and compact tomatoes, but taller plants can end up a bit unstable as they become laden with the harvest and the bales soften.

Whichever plants you choose, space them the same as you would in the ground.
To support tall plants growing in bales that are placed on a hard surface, anchor sturdy stakes to the back of the bale.

5. Time to plant.

Remove straw to form a hole that is as deep as root ball of your plant (though if you’re planting a tomato, of course, you’ll want to go deeper.) Place the plant in the hole, add some quality potting soil around it for extra nutrients and stability, then fill the rest of the hole in with some of the straw you removed. Water well.

If you are planting seedlings, use your trowel to separate the straw in the shape of a hole and add some sterile planting mix to help cover the exposed roots.

If you are planting seeds, then cover the bales with a one to two-inch layer of planting mix and sew into this seedbed. As the seeds germinate, they will grow roots down into the bale itself.

While you are at it, plant some annual flowers into the sides of the bales, or some herbs — it’s otherwise underutilized growing space, and will make the garden a whole lot lovelier.

6. Care and troubleshooting.

Your plants will receive less nutrition from the bale than they would from soil, so it’s important to fertilize them every week or two. You’ll also want to make sure not to let the bale dry out.

Bales can dry out quickly because they are above ground and permeable. Be sure to water regularly. Drip irrigation or a soaker hose, draped across the top, work well.

Similarly, regular feeding is important, because frequent watering will lead to nutrient loss more quickly. Feed your crops once a week with a balanced, water-soluble plant food.

You are done! You can create your garden out of as many bales as you want, arranged in whatever shape or style you like. 

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