Straw bale gardening

You can make an easy "raised bed garden" by planting vegetables and flowers directly into moistened straw bales.

CORVALLIS — A lack of space needn’t keep you from a bounty of fresh produce if you turn to straw bales for planting edible gardens.

Straw bales take up little space and produce almost anything you can grow in an inground garden, said Brooke Edmunds, a horticulturist with Oregon State University Extension Service. They provide a raised bed without the materials, labor and permanence of built ones.

When you get straw (not hay!) bales home, locate them where they’ll stay. The bales get quite heavy once watered. For most vegetables, a full-sun spot is required, though lettuces, greens, cilantro, dill and parsley will appreciate light shade during the heat of summer.

“The straw bales will heat up and start to decompose,” Edmunds said. “Don’t plant into fresh bales because it gets hot.”

It takes 10 days to two weeks to “condition” the bale. First saturate with water until it runs out of the bottom. Sprinkle the top with about a cup of high-nitrogen fertilizer like conventional lawn fertilizer or blood meal, and water it in.

When the inside of the bale has cooled down to about the same as the ambient temperature, it’s ready to for planting, Edmunds said. To determine the temperature, stick a soil thermometer into the center of the bale. Or, use your hand to see if it has cooled sufficiently. Don’t get impatient or plants will burn in the hot bale.

Cover the top with 2 to 4 inches of soil. Either seeds or seedlings can be planted in a straw bale garden. Good choices for seeds are cucumbers, beans on a trellis, smaller squash and melons, and annual herbs. Use starts for plants like greens, lettuces, peppers and eggplants. Tomatoes will work, too. For fruit, strawberries are a good option.

To plant seedlings, dig out a little space, put the plant in, add some soil and tamp it down. For seeds, plant the same as you would in the garden, about 2 to 4 inches deep depending on the vegetable. Don’t over plant; you don’t want your small garden to be crowded, which can lead to diseases. Be sure to water after planting.

Check the bale every day to see if it needs water. During the dry summer period, it will most likely have to be watered once a day as you would container plants. Using a soaker hose or drip system makes life easier, but isn’t necessary.

Fertilize as you would container-grown plants using an all-purpose vegetable fertilizer — organic or otherwise. Up the rate when you’re watering more frequently during hot spells as the fertilizer will leach out quicker.

Straw bale gardens are susceptible to the same pests and diseases any garden. Keep an eye out.

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