Straw Bale Gardening update

We experiment with straw bale gardening. I continue to love their convenience and the fact that it’s possible to grow a crop while you improve your soil. Here is some of what I’ve recently learned, some is good some not good.

My peas and bean crops continue to be sensational as long as I use Legume inoculant. The bales don’t have this natural bacteria that fixes nitrogen and keeps the foliage green and plants productive.

Tomatoes and Peppers need steady fertilizing and a planting hole within the bale filled with compost or potting soil to grow a strong productive plant.

Garden greens of all types seem to thrive. I think it takes cabbage family transplants about a week longer to establish than when they are planted in the ground. These plants are often said to prefer a “tight soil” and I think we see an example of that in this case.

Cucumbers have produced moderate results and, again a deeper larger planting hole seems the key to success.

However, beware of finding a possible snake in this Garden of Eden. This is an herbicide sometimes used on wheat, barley, oat and other crops. The substance is Clopyralid, it does not readily break down and passes through an animals gut pretty much intact. The resulting manure will act as an herbicide. Some of the Clopyralid product names are Stinger, Reclaim, and Transline. When purchasing bales ask, if any of these products were used on the field. I think asking questions is your first defense. I live in a farming area and it is possible for me to directly inquire.
The problems with Clopyralid became known when grass clippings and other contaminated plant material went into community composting projects and what was supposed to benefit gardens had a residual herbicide effect. Besides asking about the history I’d suggest sowing some inexpensive sunflower or lettuce seed on the prepared bale before planting. If they germinate, start growing and then show damage it may residual herbicide. Since I recently became aware of these problems I’ve tried to learn as much as possible so I could write and speak about this when discussing straw bale gardening.
If you do find or suspect your bales are contaminated do not add this to your compost. Take photos and plant samples to your local extension office and ask them for a recommendation.
This summer we used our collapsing three year old bales to grow potatoes. We enjoyed a beautiful disease free, clean crop.

Straw Bale Gardening Question

Today, a customer writes: “I’m interested in creating straw bale gardens this year.  Many web sites instruct one to use ammonium nitrate to prepare the bale but
yours does not.  Does your method prepare the bale for planting
tomatoes and eggplant or just mainly salad greens?  I prefer not to
use ammonium nitrate but at the same time want to prepare the bales
properly for tomatoes.”……see my reply below

I’ve seen the recommendations for ammonium nitrate but have never liked the idea or tried it. Place the bale where it will remain and really soak it down and keep it wet for a week to ten days. The bale will heat up and then cool down in this period when it becomes ready for planting. If you are planting eggplant, peppers or tomatoes place a scoop of compost and fertilizer in the planting hole. Cover with a little potting soil to prevent any burning of the roots.
The greens will grow in compost or potting soil on the surface and then send their roots down. Peas and Beans need legume inoculant for best performance. I’ve never tried to plant carrots or parsnips but the third years the bales break down sufficiently to produce  a nice crop of potatoes.
Jeff Lowenfels, author of Teeming With Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web tells me that using an application of compost tea at planting time will produce stronger plants and more nutrients will be released from the straw. I shall be using compost tea this year. Also, I will be fertilizing a little more frequently than in past years.


In My Garden

Suddenly the days are longer, the skies are brighter, and it’s a joy to be in the garden. This week I sowed Cascadia Snap Pea seeds in a straw bale. Legume inoculant will provide all the nitrogen they need. Gardeners in the Pacific Northwest once had to plant peas in January to get a crop because aphids transmit Pea Enation Mosaic virus. Enation diseased plants begin drying out and stop producing as soon as we have a trace of hot weather in early summer. Gardeners would rush to plant in January, no matter how cold and wet the conditions. My mother always referred to early pea planting as “mudding in”.

Plant breeders at Oregon State University began selecting for resistance to this disease over forty years ago. Today, we can plant OSU Sugar Pod II, Oregon Giant Sugar Pod, Cascadia Snap Pea, and Oregon Trail shelling pea, all released from the OSU department of horticulture and bred by Dr. James Baggett. OSU sugar Pod II is now the most widely grown edible pod variety in the world. It has good flavor, is tender crisp, and easy to grow and harvest.

I have grown peas and beans on wheat straw bales for several years with good results. When you sprinkle the seeds with legume inoculant the bacteria enables plants to form nitrogen rich root nodules from atmospheric nitrogen and you will not need to fertilize. You can read more about straw bale gardening on our Nichols Garden Nursery