Today's temperatures will finally reach the 50s, which will lure me away from my desk to the Arboretum at noon. It also is a sign that gardening time will soon be here (we have crocuses peeking out of the front yard, but still snow in the shady back yard). The New York Times posted an article about "straw bale gardening" a couple weeks ago...
It was Mr. Karsten’s clever notion to condition the bale with a little fertilizer and water, creating a kind of instant compost pile. “The crust of the bale decomposes slowly,” he said. This is the vessel. The inside, which decays faster, “is our potting mix.” Stick a soaker hose on top, then plug some tomato seedlings into a hole gouged out of the straw...The advantages of straw bale are legion, Mr. Karsten said. The straw, having been harvested for its wheat or oats, should be clean of weed seeds. What few weeds do appear in the loose mix — we’re talking one or two — can be plucked out easily. The bale stands thigh-high; there’s no need to bow down before a cabbage. And the residual heat from the bacterial decomposition may allow you to start planting a few weeks earlier than usual. (Just drape some plastic over the top.) At the end of the growing season, you’ve got rich compost to add to your flower pots or beds...Here’s what else you’ll need: a soaker hose (perhaps on a daily timer) to keep the bale wet, a permeable landscape fabric or heavy mulch to keep weeds from growing between the bales and a bag of sterile potting soil to start seeds or heel in your transplants. Most important is the fertilizer. What kind to use? Well, what kind of gardener are you? “For the organic folks,” Mr. Karsten said, blood meal and feather meal will take care of the nitrogen. (Bone meal and wood ash from the fireplace can fill in phosphorous and potassium.) You’ll want three pounds of the organic stuff for each bale, applied over the course of a week. Water the top (that’s the bristly, cut face, without the twine). And don’t overdo it, otherwise you’re washing the fertilizer onto the lawn or into the sewers.
I found more information in a thread at the always-useful GardenWeb, and another thread with photos here.
We have good dirt, but I'm wondering if there would be a place for this technique as well. We use marsh hay (not straw), but only for mulch and compost. My knee-jerk reaction would be concerns about the amount of watering necessary to prevent what amounts to an raised garden from drying out. If you have any experience with this technique, feel free to share it with me and other readers in the Comments.
Photo: Tracy Walsh/Poser Design