Monday, May 16, 2016

2016 Northern California Straw Bale Garden Update

First day after nitrogen application, and things are heating up nicely.
Happy Spring! This is a big year for my Northern California straw bale garden (Year #3), as it's the first time that I've switched all of the bales out for new ones. The first year I started with 12 bales, and at the end of the season most of them looked good enough to use another year, so I kept them in place. After the winter, at the beginning of Year #2 it looked like three of them would not in fact make it through the summer, so I replaced them. Very shortly after the summer growing season started it became obvious that the bales were not structurally sound and my plants were headed for a rough and tumble time. My tomatoes leaned, my potatoes spilled over the edge of the hardware cloth installed to keep moles and gophers out, and it was not pretty.

Former potato row. Note collapsing bales behind the wheelbarrow, and new bales to the right of the wheelbarrow.

 Fast forward to this spring when I decided to replace all of the bales, and started trying to remove them. All of the bales that had been there since Year #1 were firmly rooted to the ground, and it was backbreaking to get them out. The bales that were only a year old were not quite as infested with roots, but the invasion was clearly starting. I used a hand tool to slice along parallel to the hardware cloth and cut the roots. Then came the back breaking process of hauling the soggy, heavy decomposed bales out of the enclosed garden area to a place where they could continue to compost. It took a good long while and several soaks in the jacuzzi to convince my body to keep at it.

Front: 15 decomposing bales. Rear: 12 brand new bales just starting the conditioning process.
What am I going to do differently this time? Well, for starters, I'm not going to reuse bales from one season to the next. I'm also putting some leftover pond liner (heavy gauge black plastic) down under the bales, on top of the hardware cloth, as a deterrent to the roots. 

I've also decided to grow potatoes, a crop that likes to reseed itself from year to year, in a raised planter box. This spring I built one out of cedar and redwood and I'm hopeful the potatoes will like it. The bonus was that I could use some of the partially decomposed straw as a growing medium, which the potatoes love, and was much lighter than potting soil.

New potato bin. I found a set of plans on eHow and abused modified them to make this. Let's just say that "lessons were learned" and I'll do better next time.
The other new thing in the straw bale garden this year is an arched tunnel where I will grow green beans, cucumbers, and squash.  The wires run between the fence posts were just not tall enough for those things, and I needed more height. My neighbor was using some of these panels, known as "stock panels" or "cattle panels" and she told me I could find them at our local feed store. Brilliant! They are made from very rigid 4 gauge wire, and make a very sturdy trellis no matter how you install them. She and her husband were kind enough to haul some home for us and after a brief, slightly bloody struggle they are installed over two rows of the bales. It was definitely a 2 person job, and would have been easier with more. Once these panels are bent they really want to bend back, and if you're not ready for it they will spring back with a vengeance and get you. Caution advised. But I'm so looking forward to seeing green beans twining up the sides, with fruit hanging down inside the tunnel. These panels are 14' long x 5' wide, although other configurations are available. My tall husband can walk under it with just a slight hunching over.

It's still early in our coastal mountain growing season here, but I'm impatient to see what this new crop of bales can do. The sunflowers and zinnias are in the ground for summertime cutting, and the marigolds will go in the bales. Some of the nasturtiums I planted the first year have naturalized on the ground, and I'm hoping they recover from the beating they took by the wheelbarrow during the removal process. I had also planted some dahlias and rudbeckias, in the bales and they are in temporary pots until the new bales are ready for planting in a couple of weeks. They definitely loved life in the bales.

I hope to keep you updated as things progress this year!


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