Older gardeners have practical alternative

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Betsey Thomson

The Well-Tended Garden by Betsey Thomson

Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns on straw bale gardening, and the final column by Betsey Thomson. We thank her for all she contributed. We dug it.

What you have done is created a composted interior in which to plant. Almost anything that can be grown in the ground can be planted in a bale, but some plants are easier than others. Root crops can be fussy. Put a layer of compost mixed with soil on top of the bale when seeding. The roots will soon grow into the bale.

Corn can be top heavy even if the bales are staked to the ground as corn roots are shallow and rely on the heaviness of soil to keep them in place. If you can place a bale along a solid fence, then corn can be grown. Plants such as tomatoes, eggplants and peppers can use a staking. For tomatoes, drive a long stake through the bale into the ground but leave three feet above the bale for tying up the plants. I recommend anchoring all the bales into the ground.

Straw bale growing requires more fertilizer than ground planting. Feed with compost tea or liquid fish emulsion every other week when the plants are small, and increase feedings to once a week as they grow. Water as needed or better yet, use a soaker hose. Of course, a good rainstorm does that job for you.tomato plant

How much can a bale hold? Depending on the type, two to three tomato plants, four pepper plants, five cucumber and squash plants and up to six cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and other plants of the same size. Lettuce and other greens, including beans can be planted as if in the ground. Strawberries are excellent plants for bale growing.

Don’t hesitate to experiment, mixing herbs between taller plants or planting some vines on the sides of the bales. Be sure to give them a nice bed or straw or other clean bedding to sprawl on. Many vine crops, those without heavy fruits, can be trellised.

There are excellent resources available on the Web about straw bale gardening. Joel Karsten has written a wonderful and information-packed book on the subject.  Alexandria Straight, West Virginia University Extension agent, has a fact sheet on the Web that includes before and after pictures from the master gardener I mentioned last month. Just Google straw bale gardening and start reading.

Gardening in straw bales is less expensive than building raised beds for use by us less mobile gardeners.  Most bales will last two years before breaking down completely, but when that happens, we still have compost material for mulching. I do recommend that you obtain the best straw bales you can find. Solidly packed and tightly twined bales are gold.

Betsey Thomson is a University of Rhode Island lifetime master gardener. Contact her at betseythomson@verizon.net.

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