I am excited to report that my straw bale garden yielded some very nice vegetables! If you read Part I of my article, you know that I decided on straw bale gardening so that the garden soil could be conditioned and amended this year. I am glad that, after the disastrous first year of gardening, progress has been made!
As with every gardening approach, there are “upsides” and “downsides” (to use a play on plant life for pros and cons). Here are the things I learned about the straw bale approach.
The upsides of straw bale gardening
Weeding is nearly eliminated in straw bale gardening. The bales I had were directly from our farm fields, so I didn’t have grasses and weeds that others have apparently found in commercially purchased straw bales. This is a real time-saver when trying to balance numerous summer activities while maintaining a garden.
The height of the bale makes it akin to raised beds so it’s easy to plant and harvest. This is no small thing when age makes bending and kneeling a little more challenging.
Since straw retains water, it’s easy to keep plants hydrated, especially later in the summer. Since water in straw bales tends to saturate the bottom of the bale, as the plant roots grow longer throughout the summer, you don’t necessarily need to water daily in the hottest summer weeks.
The roots of the plants establish themselves quickly and easily in the relative looseness and airiness of the bales, especially in contrast to the heavy clay soil which is characteristic of the soil in my area.
Most important, I enjoyed many tasty meals from my garden and that is the best “upside” of all! There aren’t enough excess vegetables to carry me through the winter, as the pioneers managed to do, but that will be next year’s goal. One step at a time!
The downsides of straw bale gardening
Over the course of the 12 days of conditioning the bales, mushrooms begin sprouting from the bales. The mushrooms are a sign that the bales are composting, making nitrogen and other nutrients available for plants. For several weeks after conditioning is complete and the vegetables have been planted, the mushrooms, called inkpot mushrooms, continue to appear. In “Straw Bale Gardens Complete,” author Joel Karsten says that the mushrooms, though not edible, are harmless to the plants and to simply plant vegetables among them. I found, however that the inkpots, aptly named for their wet, black underside, leave black, inky spots on the vegetable leaves.
Leaves that brush against these inkpots began looking less green and more unhealthy. (Another reason for the name being apropos is the mushrooms leave inky black all over your hands and clothing should you brush against it.) I weeded out the mushrooms — the one weeding chore I did have for a couple of weeks. As the vegetable plants became more established and taller, the inkpot mushrooms disappeared.
The first week after planting vegetables, I noticed gnats rising from the bales. This, too, according to Karsten is normal and not of concern. However, the gnats feasted on the young, green foliage of the plants. I wasn’t about to surrender my produce to the flies! Two applications of Neem Oil Max, two weeks apart, resolved this issue in my favor.
When planting the vegetables in the bales, I pounded holes and added gardening soil with a slow-release fertilizer in each hole before planting. While the plants established themselves nicely in this soil, I did find it necessary to fertilize on a regular basis to assure a good, continuing balance of nutrients as the plants grew.
Following instructions would have helped
One issue I encountered could have been avoided had I followed the advice of Joel Karsten in the book cited above. At the end of each row of four or five bales, Karsten advised pounding in fence posts and then running wire across the bales between the posts. The first wire should be 10” from the top of the bale and then every 10” apart to the just below the top of the fence post. Throughout the summer, my straw bales eventually got “mushy” and sort of “squashed down.” The weight of the growing plant was sometimes too heavy to withstand the sinking bale and the plant “sagged.” Had I strung the wire between bales as instructed, this problem would have been avoided.
As the growing season comes to an end, I have the bales that served as the planting bed for my garden ready to be incorporated into the garden soil. They have the nutrients to enrich the soil and loosen the heavy clay. While I will plant some of my garden in the soil next year, I plan to combine it with straw bale gardening. There are certain vegetables, such as eggplant, lettuce and green peppers, that grew well in the straw bales, so I plan to continue exploring this approach.
Meanwhile, I end the summer feeling that perhaps my thumb is getting greener.
Joyce Konieczny is a Master Gardener with the Ohio State University Extension Offices in Sandusky and Ottawa counties.