Archive for February, 2009

The Giving Bale

February 19, 2009

With the first snowmelt of the year, I was reminded of the huge score I managed to pull a month or two ago.  I’ve got nearly a dozen straw bales in the backyard that I picked up from behind a church by my favorite library.  They were used for a pumpkin sale in October, and I checked in with them regularly while I worked up the courage to ask if I could take them.  It would have been great if I had asked immediately following the pumpkin sale, because by the time I picked them up, they were waterlogged and frozen together.  It took a great deal of effort to get them into the old hatchback, and I had to use a prybar to get two of them apart.

Even in an urban area, bales of straw aren’t too hard to come by–I’ve picked them up from curbs after people used them as harvest-themed decorations on their porch.  They’re incredibly useful in the garden, and I thought I’d run through the four seasons of straw bales in the garden, starting in the fall, when it’s easiest to pick them up.

Autumn

After they have exhausted their decorative usefulness, straw bales can be useful structural elements in the vegetable garden.  They can be used as ultra-insulated walls of cold frames or hot beds–I’ve arranged them into a rectangle around a few cold-season crops, like lettuce, spinach, or bok choy, and covered the opening with a plastic sheet to keep them available for harvest well into late fall.  A similar structure, filled with fresh horse manure and topped with potting soil, could keep warm (through the fermenting and decomposing manure) through the winter, providing you with fresh lettuce all winter.

I’ve also used straw bales to build a temporary compost bin.  After stacking them into a workable structure (usually a squarish shape, one bale by one bale, with the corners overlapping a little, two bales tall), I fill the center with yard and garden waste, which is usually spilling out of my over-filled compost bin in the fall.  A bit of high-nitrogen material, such as kitchen waste, manure, or grass clippings, will speed decomposition.  I let a good rain get it adequately damp, and put another bale or two on top to cover the opening.  This heavily insulated pile will continue cooking longer than my open-air bin, and when I build it on a garden bed, I can pull away the bales and spread the partly-finished compost in situ.

Bales can also be broken up into mulch, and a thick coat of coarse straw spread in the fall can protect topsoil by slowing and absorbing rain and melting snow  .

Winter

Straw’s insulating qualities are even more important in the winter.  The cold-frame and hot beds build in autumn will continue producing into winter, and there are other uses, as well.  A structure similar to the compost bin can be build for root storage, with layers of carrots, beets, turnips, or rutabegas piled inside and separated with layers of loose straw.  I haven’t tried this method, as I’m not producing enough food to store during the winter, so attempt it with caution.  I’d advise lining the inside of the bale-house with chicken wire to keep out rodents.

Whole bales can also be used to insulate tender plants through the winter.  I grow artichokes, which are not cold-tolerant enough to survive a Michigan winter, but keeping them well-insulated and close to the house seems to work.  If you keep parsnips or carrots in the ground though winter, covering them with strawbales will make harvest a little easier, at least until everything freezes solid.

Spring

Cold frames can be replanted, and hotbeds can have the spent manure dug out and replaced for a fresh start.  Hotbeds are a great place to start seedings, as bottom heating encourages germination.

As seedlings sprout, cool-season plants can be mulched with straw to supress weeds, keep the soil cool, and prevent mud from splashing up onto your leaf crops.

A muddy garden path is easily remedied with the generous application of straw.  I’ve laid it down a foot thick down the middle of the garden so that I could wear my dress shoes out to the compost pile.

If you turn your compost heap in the spring, chances are it’s a heavy, waterlogged pile.  If you’re not ready to spread it, restack it parfait-style with a 4-8″ layer of fluffed straw every foot or so.  This allows oxygen into the pile, and hastens decomposition.

If you’re into nature, there’s some delight in watching the birds steal straw to build nests.  It’s not quite so delightful to find mice using your straw as a nest, but I’ll avoid that digression.

Summer

By summer, last fall’s straw bales will have started to decay, and the string used to hold them together has probably deteriorated to the point that you couldn’t pick the bale up if you wanted to.  They can be used in place, or broken up for mulch.

When I plant corn, I lay on a thick, loose layer of straw.  This keeps the sun off the soil, so I wait until it’s warmed up, but it seems to prevent birds from pulling up the seedlings.  The corn is determined enough to push through a few inches of straw.

If spring’s hotbeds have cooled sufficiently by melon-planting time, put a few melon plants in each one.  The recently-decomposed horse manure will retain a lot of water and provide the plants with the rich soil they need to produce.  If you have any bales placed on the ground sideways (with the individual straws running perpendicular to the ground), you can poke a hole in them for tomatoes.  If regularly fertilized, they do well with their roots digging into the consistently moist, decomposed straw.  Some of the shorter varieties won’t need staking, as they can spill over the sides of the bale.

When the soil has warmed enough, straw is an ideal mulch.  A well-rotted bale can be pulled apart in “pages”, the thick, matted masses of straw.  These pages are laid down between rows of plants, and are pretty well impenetrable to weed seedlings.  Established weeds will push through, but the shady, moist soil under the straw makes it a lot easier to pull these out.  The straw breaks down very slowly, so it’s ideal for retaining moisture, preventing the rain from washing away soil, and slowing the breakdown of organic material.  By midsummer, my entire garden is covered in a thick layer of straw.

By the end of summer, I’ve usually worked through the straw I’ve collected, regardless of how much I started with.  If I’m planting a fall crop, I’ll clear a bed of straw and add it to the compost pile, where it adds carbon and bulk, absorbs water, and admits oxygen.  If I’m leaving the bed alone after summer harvest, I won’t clear the mulch until the spring.  I occassionally have to pull up some wheat sprouts–from seeds stowing away in the straw–but they don’t put up much of a fight.  Should I ever get the rabbits I dream of, I’ll feed the sprouts to them.  I may sing the praises of stealing your neighbor’s bags of leaves in the fall in a later entry, but I’m comfortable starting my tribute to high-carbon organic mulches with straw.