Saturday, April 19, 2014

Straw bale gardening, Day 7

Tonight it will be a week since Don delivered our straw bales.  Things are cooking along now as I loosely follow the bale conditioning process from this blog.  I'm keeping the bales moist and applying about 3/4 cup of ammonium sulfate very other day, and then watering it in.  Temperatures in the bales are varying a bit, with the lowest being around 90, and the hottest around 110 degrees F.  The bales are still very firm, and I can't imagine trying to plant in them.

I'm watering by hand after nitrogen application to make sure the crystals dissolve into the bales.  Then, for deep watering I'm using a temporary drip hose setup, to be replaced by a cleaner design later.

Temporary watering setup.
I'll admit right  now that I have not bought the Straw Bale Gardening book, and I probably won't, because I think my training as a Master Composter taught me the skills I need to get this going. The bale conditioning process is basically just "hot" (rapid) composting, which is a process where you add nitrogen to carbon, keep it moist as a wrung-out sponge, and aerate it periodically.  Aeration is something I do when I hot compost with dead leaves and grass clippings by turning it over, but is not possible to do with a straw bale because of it's tightly compacted form.  I may be tempted to stick the bales with my pitchfork at some point, just to see what happens.  I love science!

Anyway, what's going on in there is that a heat-loving family of bacteria called actinomycetes (a fungus-like bacteria found naturally in the environment) is multiplying and helping the decomposition process.  There are mesophilic bacteria that are most active from 70-100 degrees, and thermophilic bacteria that thrive from 113-160 degrees.  The bacteria have an earthy, forest floor kind of fragrance, and looks white or grey, like a fungus.  When these organisms are done decomposing the straw and the nitrogen (which won't be finished by the end of the 10 day conditioning period, but much later), there should be a rich humus replacing the straw.

With that scientific digression, here are a few things that are helpful to remember:
  • Keep the bales moist, but not dripping wet or dry.  Your mantra should be "moist as a wrung-out sponge".
  • Check the temperature with a composting thermometer (photo below).
  • Outside heat has nothing to do with this process - it can happen in the middle of winter, or even in a shady area.  It's a chemical reaction.
  • Make sure you add some form of nitrogen to the straw.
You can get a long composting thermometer like this at your local home improvement or garden store.
If you're interested in learning more about composting, here are some great links:

University of Illinois Extension Service
Santa Clara County Recycling and Waste Reduction Commission

My clematis this year are outRAGEOUS!   And yes, if you were wondering, they grow in a container on the deck, and I do fertilize them with worm poo...

 Now, off to the studio to melt some glass!

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