Yesterday, Plot Against Hunger had its garden tour and one of the plots I was really interested in seeing was the one at Clarendon Presbyterian Church. Last year, Clarendon started a garden for Plot with raised beds and it yielded quite a lot of poundage for AFAC. This year, they expanded their square footage for planting using straw bales.
Gillian Burgess was the driver behind the straw bale idea, simply because she wanted to try something different. She had seen an article in the New York Times about using straw as a growing medium and her fellow gardeners were willing to try it. In a nutshell, what you need for this kind of gardening is a bale of straw, a fertilizer or manure, and water. Place the bale where you’ll want it to be for the growing season, add manure or fertilizer on top of the bale, and soak it with water. In a few days, the bale will heat up, composting from the inside out. The crust of the bale will stay intact while the inside turns into compost.
At Clarendon Presbyterian, they set up two irrigation systems—one for the bales and one for the raised beds—because the straw bales take a lot more water for soaking than the raised beds need. Once the bales had composted for a while, they were ready for planting. In this case, herbs, tomatoes, and squash all went into the bales, And they are doing incredibly well.
Just a note for anyone who didn’t grow up in a rural area. Straw is not hay. Hay is animal feed and contains leaves and seed heads of oats, alfalfa, grasses and other crops. Straw is bedding and contains the hollow tube of the plant left behind after it has been harvested of leaves and seeds. If you try this with a bale of hay, you’ll get a crop of whatever seed is in the bale and you probably aren’t interested in a crop of oats.
While I was there, I noticed that the church garden had yielded zucchini, peppers, and lettuces. When Gillian left, she took them with her for delivery to AFAC. If you have a small space, you could try a bale of straw—24’ x 18’ x 42’—to see how it works without digging up your grass, buying potting soil, or having any soil at all. In and around Northern Virginia these bales cost $6 to $12 depending on where you’re shopping. And if you want to know they don’t have chemicals in them, you could ask at the farm markets. As the New York Times article mentions, the bales are, literally, cheaper than dirt. Just one more way to have a garden adapted to the conditions of a particular space!