Sunday, July 19, 2015

Straw Bales - The Experiment That Was Not


Ok, so let me say right off the bat that this year I cheated when it came to the straw bales & now I'm paying the price.  I made all of these extensive notes and was going to follow a particular conditioning method.  And then it all went out the window when I got bogged down with other gardening tasks.

What I was doing was “choosing” to go with a statement that I found on a website that I can't for the life of me find now.  I'm fairly certain it was an extension services site & it stated that if you leave the straw bales out all winter – which I did – they would be automatically conditioned and ready to go come planting time in the spring.

I did do a couple of things before planting the seedings – I topped the bales with some compost and I added some granulated organic fertilizer.  Then I tried to keep the bales constantly moist - I would stick my finger into a bale & if it felt dry, I watered.  I also fed them once per week with fish emulsion.

I had planned on having 5 straw bales, 4 from last year and I was going to purchase another one.  Then I realized that the recommended number of plants per bale was 3 for summer squash and 2 for winter squash.  Seemed a bit much, considering how large squash are supposed to grow, but since it would make my life easier as I wouldn't need to purchase any more bales, I decided to follow the recommendation.

And these are the bales today:
Straw Bales Planted with Squash
 
Pretty pathetic isn't it.  You would think that I had just planted these out as seedlings, but in fact, they were planted out a month ago.

I planted alyssum & lemon bee balm in the corners of the bales & the squash plants ran down the middle.  When one of the alyssums was on the edge of death about a week after planting it, I knew there was a problem.  I really started to question the whole “the bales will be automatically conditioned if you leave them out all winter” statement.  So I upped the fish emulsion to a double concentration, 2x per week and I also sprinkled the bales with organic fertilizer granules a few times.  That was about 3 weeks ago and although the plants are looking a bit better, they are still miniatures.

Let's do a bit of a comparison, shall we?

The Sweet Mama squash in the bales:

This is the nicest of the straw bale squash plants
 
The butternut squash in the corn bed:

Butternut squash in corn bed
 
Alyssum in the bales:

The largest of the bale Alyssums
Alyssum in the pepper beds:

Single alyssum plant in a raised bed
 
Huge difference, wouldn't you say?  I'm sure had I planted some lemon bee balm in the beds, the difference would have been just as dramatic.  For an annual, the bee balm is looking decidedly small:

Largest of the lemon bee balm in the bales
 
At this rate, I'm doubtful whether I'll even see any flowers from them before the cold weather hits.

I did half-heartedly cover three of the bales with netting to avoid the squash vine borer, but I didn't have enough netting for the last bale, so those went without.  Neither the covered or uncovered plants show signs of infestation, so at least that's one good thing.  I have a feeling that even the borer moths turned their noses up at these sorry plants.

In an effort to get some squash this year, I decided to sow some of the Romanesco squash seeds in one of the raised beds, in the spot that was recently occupied by the shelling peas.  I haven’t done the calculations, but last year I removed the netting from the squash beds in mid-July.  I think it’s late enough in the season that I won’t have to worry about the squash vine borer at this stage so I’m not netting the newly emerged seedlings.

Romanesco Seeding - 1 week after sowing
 
My schedule did have a note to do a 2nd sowing of summer squash at around this time, just in case my first round got infected.  My squash also seems to peter out in late summer even if it does avoid the SVB, as it usually gets taken down by powdery mildew.  A 2nd sowing would hopefully give me some squash in September…or that’s the theory anyhow.  I don’t think I’ve ever sown it this late before, so this will be a good test to see how my timing is.

I’m not giving up on the bale method quite yet and plan to try it again next year, this time doing the pre-conditioning of the bales.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to water & feed the bales, just in case – there’s still a good couple of months until the season really starts to wind down and a lot can happen in that time.

Till next time…

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things” ~~ Robert Brault

18 comments:

  1. That's too bad. I've seen people try straw bales but I've never done it myself. I've always been pretty skeptical about them as I think the soil has the microbes that the plants need to grow, but I doubt the bales do.

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    1. In theory it is a great idea, especially as it gives you a lot of flexibility in terms of where you put the bales, how many you have, etc. Lack of fertility is a definite concern - maybe all that success we hear about can be attributed to the use of chemical fertilizers with high #'s. We'll see how they do next year; unless I get REALLY good results, however, I probably won't do a repeat - I'm finding that keeping them well watered is a bit of a hassle, especially during dry spells as they do tend to dry out much more quickly than the beds.

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  2. That is a shame. Like Daphne, I've seen others do it but I can't recall who it was. Your theory about the chemical fertilizer could be spot on. I would think that would make something grow almost anywhere! But not necessarily the way you want to do it.

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    1. That's exactly right. So unless I'm successful next year using organic methods, I'll have to give straw bales a pass & come up with some other way to grow them squash ;)

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  3. It sounds like an exercise in frustration. I've always been a bit skeptical about growing in straw bales, but more from a standpoint of keeping them watered. Being a dry climate gardener I know how difficult it can be to keep pots adequately watered in warm weather, something porous and exposed like a straw bale sounds impossible to keep moist - kinda like my compost. Maybe in another year when they've rotted a bit more you might be able to get something growing. I wonder if a dose of mycorrhizal and bacterial inoculants would help?

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    1. If it weren't for my issues with squash, I probably wouldn't have bothered with the bales; I do like the simplicity of planting in nice, moist, fluffy beds and, like you said, watering is a real pain.

      If the squash still doesn't grow in the latter part of the summer, the straw would probably still be in good enough shape to use next year. At $6/ea, they can really add up, so it would be nice not to have to purchase any (esp. as whether or not they would be successful is completely up in the air at this point). That's a great suggestion, using some mycorrhizal innoculant. I didn't purchase any this year but will likely get some next year for the beds - it's definitely worth a try in the bales.

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    2. I have grown crops in straw without heavy fertilizers for years, you can see my photos at www.GardenRN.com I have found that conditioning the bales is important but does not need to be followed exactly as stated by Joel Karsten. My friend had horrible results this year and I think there was residual chemicals in the Straw Bale. You might want to pull the squash, put in some natural fertilizer and try planting carrots or Bush beans. They are both fantastic in bales.

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    3. I just hopped over for a quick look at your site and it looks like it has some great information on straw bale gardening. I'll definitely be giving it a much more thorough go through.

      I'll be interested to read how you condition the bales as I did find that Joel's recommendations seemed to be quite high when it came to organic fertilizers - from what I recall it was around 3 cups per bale for one week, etc., When you take into account the purchase of the bale as well, the cost involved would be fairly high, especially as we are talking about costs that would have to be incurred every season.

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  4. Sometimes plants can take a while to get going. Fingers crossed that this is the case with the squash and that you end up with a good harvest.

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    1. Oh, I have serious doubts that that will happen this year. Problem with my squash is it never REALLY gets going - I've never had one of those gargantuan plants that seems to plague so many other gardens. I was just on a garden tour and one of the owners said "take as many zucchini as you want; our fridge is half full". I really wish I knew what that felt like ;)

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  5. l have always wanted to try straw bale gardening. Some people swear by it. I don't know. I guess I have enough problems without adding to it. Sorry it didn't work as well as you had hoped, but at least you tried. More than I can say.......................

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    1. I was actually at a garden this past weekend where the guy used straw bales to grow his tomatoes and I'm still not convinced that it's a great method. His purpose for using the bales was to keep the foliage off the ground as it tended to get diseased. His tomato plants did look nice and green with no sign of yellow leaves - but they didn't really look as lush & full of flowers as one would expect in mid-July.

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  6. Hmmm, I wasn't sold on the idea, and now I'm really not sold. I do the lasagna method in the fall, and then plant directly into the layers of decomposing cardboard, compost, soil, and marsh hay in the spring. It seems to work pretty well. It looks like your raised beds work very well, too.

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    1. I LOVE my raised beds and would likely not have bothered had it not been for my issues growing squash. I also thought it would be a good way of growing veg that needed a lot of room, like pumpkins, where you could place the bales just about anywhere and let the vines roam over the grass. I'll give them one more year to prove their worth - and pre-condition them, so that I have no built in "reason" for them not to succeed - before I give them the final yae or nay.

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  7. That's certainly disappointing. From a quick search, looks like "conditioning" means do a hot composting of the interior. You add nitrogen and water and let it compost for several weeks until it starts to cool down. If you don't do that all you have is straw which is low in nutrients and doesn't hold water very well. Whether leaving the bales exposed over the winter does the same thing is the question. So it could be your squash need more nutrients and watering.

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    1. I'm thinking along those lines as well. Had I not been so busy this spring, I likely would have done the conditioning even after reading the article about leaving them out for the winter. Or I may have conditioned two of them and done nothing to the other two - now that would have been a good experiment.

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  8. Check out this blog: http://chrissysknittimes.blogspot.com/. She writes about knitting but also about her straw bale garden, which is thriving. Maybe she has some good tips for you. Don't give up! Just try again next year. :o)

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    1. Thanks Tammy! I just popped over to her site - can't get over how big her squash plants are! I'll definitely be giving her older posts a look to see how she is so successful; it would be really nice to be able to grow large, sprawling veg like squash in bales so that I could place them in spots where the plants could just roam at will. And I love to knit too, so that's an added bonus!

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