Q: What is straw-bale gardening?
A: Innovative and easy, straw-bale gardening uses bales of straw as garden beds. The technique is especially great for urban gardeners who don’t have the space for a traditional garden.
Building a garden with straw bales means you’ll never have to dig into rocky, uneven or unyielding clay soil. With straw, you create the biodegradable equivalent of a raised bed in a mud-free, weed-free medium that turns to mulch after a growing season or two.
You can grow almost any vegetable, herb or annual flower in a straw bale, although taller vegetables like tomato plants will require staking or other support. Typically, you can plant two or three tomato plants, four pepper or cucumber plants, or four to six lettuce plants per bale.
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The straw bales can be placed along the side of your house or garden wall, or even along a parking strip — wherever you get plenty of sun.
If you are concerned about how attractive your straw-bale garden will be in front of the house, tuck a few marigolds around the base and sow nasturtiums on the corners of the bales.
You could also plant several varieties of colorful lettuce, squash or pumpkin vines to spill a few fall fruits over the side.
Straw bales are great for kitchen-herb gardens — they can be placed next to the house or on the porch or patio for easy access. Herbs like parsley, cilantro, basil, arugula and sweet marjoram grow happily in a straw-bale garden.
Bales of grass hay can be used as well as straw, but be prepared to do more initial weeding as some grass seeds may sprout.
The first step in creating a straw-bale garden is to carefully plan your layout. Once you soak your straw bales, you won’t want to move them. If you are laying bales in side-by-side rows, leave enough space to mow between them.
Next, develop a plan for what you will plant in each bale. Whatever you plant will want all of the sun exposure you can find.
Here’s how you prepare your straw bales for planting:
Days 1-3: Water the bales thoroughly and keep them damp.
Days 4-6: Sprinkle each bale with a half-cup of high-nitrogen fertilizer (such as ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate) per day, watering it well into the bales. Blood meal may be used as a substitute for nitrate.
Days 7-9: Cut back to a fourth of a cup of fertilizer per bale per day and continue watering.
Day 10: No more fertilizer, but continue to keep your bales damp.
Day 11: Stick your hand into the bale. If it has cooled down to less than your body heat, it is safe to begin planting.
HomeWork is the weekly column by the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties’ Remodelers Council about home care, repair and improvements. If you have questions about home improvement, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.