Lessons learned in preparing a straw bale garden for summer’s bounty

03/29/2014 8:00 AM

04/01/2014 9:56 AM

Nothing beats being bone-tired from hard work.

Hauling 52 straw bales across the yard and lining them up in rows last weekend left me too tired for beer. That’s pretty tired, especially on a Saturday. All I wanted was to lean against the shower wall under a stream of hot water to flush the straw dust out of my hair, then melt into the mattress and sleep the sleep of a farmer.

Farmer sleep is welcome, deep and uninterrupted. Journalist sleep is stolen, tossed and tormented by visions of misspelled names and blank front pages.

April is the month to give your body the gift of deep-tissue exhaustion through hardscaping and bed preparation in your outdoor space. Whether your garden is on acreage, a backyard or a balcony, you get only one shot at laying it out so it is pleasing to look at and easy to work in all summer long.

If you want to experiment with a straw bale garden like the one I had great success with last year, do your homework by getting a copy of the book (which I have no financial interest in) “

Straw Bale Gardens

” by Joel Karsten of Minnesota.

Whether you plant in straw bales, raised or in-ground beds, the first step is to level the site to prevent run-off and erosion. This is exceedingly boring and also difficult if your soil is heavy clay or rocky. But you have to do it just once, and your garden will look nicer and work better for years. The key, if you have never done leveling work before, is that you can level only by digging down, not mounding up.

If you are gardening in the ground, once you have dug down to a level floor, you can add compost or good top soil.

The next critical and boring task is erecting weed barriers. For an in-ground garden, burlap sacks between planting rows and around the perimeter work well. You can also lay heavy-duty plastic (3 mil) over the whole area. This will give your plants a head start by warming up the soil. When it’s time to plant, cut circles in the plastic large enough to collect rain, then cover the plastic with mulch.

Newspapers are also effective weed barriers, but you want to put them in after you plant. Get a large washtub or cooler full of water, dip eight-page-thick sections of paper in the water until they are soaked, then lay them down around the plants, overlapping the edges by an inch or so. Then cover the still-damp newspapers with mulch. Tip: straw or chopped up leaves or dried grass are cheaper than store-bought wood-chip mulch.

For a straw bale garden, you don’t get weeds sprouting inside the bales, but you want to block them from growing up into the bale from the soil below. I cover the entire area, including walkways and a perimeter, so I don’t have to mow or weed-whack close to the bales. I cover the plastic with loose straw.

Last year I used black plastic trash bags because I had some and it worked. This year I bought a roll of 10-foot-wide 3-mil plastic and that went down faster. You can also leave grass walkways between the rows if you like.

You can arrange rows however you want. I made 13 rows of four bales each with 4-foot walkways between rows. For maximum sunlight, the rows should be laid out on a north-to-south axis.

Be sure to position the bales before you begin the 12-day process of adding water and fertilizer, which breaks down the interior into compost. I learned that lesson the hard way.

Last year, I grouped the bales into a large square next to the house by the spigot, thinking it would be convenient for the watering-in process. Twelve days later when I went to move them, I discovered why the bales work so well in drought conditions: they had taken on three times their weight in water.

I had to wrestle each bale onto a hand truck and bump it across the rocky yard to the garden area. That crossed the line from working hard into working stupid.

This year, moving dry bales felt relatively easier. After I got them in place I used a tape measure to guide my spacing at both ends and in the middle. So when I drifted off into my deep, relaxed sleep, it was with visions of perfectly straight rows giving order to chaotic tomato, melon and pumpkin vines come July.

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