Friday, March 21, 2014

Straw Spinning Tips: Conditioning your Bales

The first "issue" I have had with my straw bale garden is not an issue with the garden itself. It's with my water situation.

This is what the tops of my bales looked like. The blood meal had clumped up and acted like a water barrier. That kept the inside of my bales nice and dry... bummer major!

When you get started with a straw bale garden the first step is to condition the bales. You add a high nitrogen fertilizer to the bales about every other day and water it every day, for 10 days. Then you let it rest for a couple of days before you add a well balanced fertilizer (something with phosphorus and potassium, as well as nitrogen) and then you can start planting in your bale some time around day 12. Your bales are supposed to start cooking with in a few days. By that I mean, your bales should be visibly hotter than the air around. I think they are supposed to get up to about 140*F... I'll have to check on that number to be sure. At, or around day 12, your bales should be cooling off, but still warm enough to help seeds start up to two weeks earlier than normal gardens.

Here we are, nearly two weeks after I got my bales and my bales haven't even started "cooking." I have applied the necessary nitrogen, but the last two times I watered, I noticed that it wasn't soaking in to the bales. It was sitting on top and running off the sides. Watching the blood meal run down the sides was like watching someone light money on fire! I paid good money for that, and it was being wasted on the ground around the bales! I had to figure something out.

Yesterday I went out to the bales to water them again. This time I thought that I would help it along by roughing up the blood meal, and forcing it into the bales with my hands. I discovered a few things.

Dry and clean... Bummer major again!

First of all, the water from my watering can is not at a high enough pressure to penetrate the bales and force the fertilizer into the bales. The inside of the bales were dry and as clean as they were when I brought them home.

Second, the bales we got were really compacted. That is a good thing, but difficult when you don't have good water pressure. Like I said, they were dry inside! No wonder my bales weren't cooking.

Third, my hands are not strong enough to force ANYTHING into ANYTHING!

Fourth, 5 gallons of water per bale, for 16 bales is not enough water. The bales

After these discoveries, I decided to take my cultivator (that claw-like garden tool thingy) and break up the tops of the bales. Those bales were so tough to break up that I bruised my hands! (*pout*) I spent a good two hours on 16 bales, breaking up the top-most layers of straw. While I was doing that, I was thinking about how water works, and I decided to make a little trough down the center of the bales. It will hold in the fertilizer and the water so I'm not pouring money on the ground! Just be careful not to break any strings. They are there to help keep your "container" together and if you break them, the bale will fall apart.

You can kind of see the trough in the center. 
Another discovery I made was that bales purchased in the fall, and have been wet all winter, are much easier to work with. We have one bale from our mulch garden bed that was just sitting next to the garden, the strings were still intact, so we decided to use it. It was almost easier to cultivate than my wet spring soil! I'm not sure if it will have the same temperature reaction that the new bales will have, but I'll do my best to find out more info/record my temperatures so that I can share more discoveries later.

I'm restarting my count on the bales with yesterday as Day 1, since my bales weren't even wet inside! What a bummer! It'll be good to keep a better record anyways. So, here we go again!