Growing food at home has never seemed like a better idea.
During World War II, Americans were urged to plant “victory gardens” as the nation faced potential food shortages. Popularized by women’s clubs and patriotic posters, the movement caught on, and an estimated 40 percent of the nation’s supplies of fresh vegetables were soon produced in backyards, front yards, church lots and school grounds. The COVID-19 crisis has yet to seriously threaten the food supply, but the sight of empty grocery store shelves has led to calls for “corona victory gardens.”
Growing food at home is always a good idea, crisis or not. If you’re in a hurry to get a garden in before spring flies by, think about a small-scale straw bale garden.
The good news is that nurseries and garden centers have been designated as essential businesses in most places, so you should have access to the necessary supplies.
Straw bales serve as quick and easy raised beds, allowing you to grow food wherever you have sun, whether on concrete, a lawn or hard-packed bare earth. Be sure to use bales of straw, not hay, as the latter contains seeds that can sprout and become weeds.
Place your bales where you want them, making sure they actually have full-sun.
Place them sheared side up. Your bale will have one side that looks like each piece of straw has been folded over and the other side will look like it has been sheared off. You want the sheared side facing up.
Configure your bales. You can put your bales in rows or create a raised bed by putting them together. Be aware that as the bales decompose they shrink so the spaces between the bales will get larger.
Once they are wet, they are extremely heavy, and you won’t want to move them.
Place the bales with the cut ends of the straw facing up and water them until they are soggy. After the bales are set up, generously spread all-purpose fertilizer on top of your bales. Water in the fertilizer, making sure to saturate each bale daily for a week to 10 days. Put a mix of potting soil and compost on top of the bales so you can plant seeds as well as seedlings on the bales. This layer should be about 2 to 3 inches thick.
Keep tall plants to the back of the bale. By the end of the season, as the bales decompose, the taller plants may tilt. You can either grow smaller varieties of tall plants like tomatoes or keep them pruned and have them grow on wider, rather than taller trellises.
To plant seedlings in your straw bale, simply take a sharp trowel and stick it down into your straw bale, wiggling it back and forth to make room for your seedling. As usual, make sure to plant seedlings no deeper than they sit in their nursery pot.
You can also stick plants on the sides of the bales. If you are planting seeds in your straw bales, just do it like you normally would, following the directions on the seed packet.
While the height of straw bale gardens makes them inhospitable to some garden pests, there are several critters that will not hesitate to scale your bales and eat your entire harvest. A fence may be mandatory or pests like groundhogs will destroy your harvest. An inexpensive wire fence discourages pests.
Water regularly to keep your straw bales moist. In the heat of the summer, this may mean every day. It’s best for plants to water in the morning making sure to water the bale, not the leaves. Excess water will drain out the bottom of your bales so your plants won’t be sitting in water and there is less chance of drowning them.
Even though plants will get nutrition from the internal composting of the bales, you still need to fertilize your plants. At the end of the season, you can let the bales decompose, using the remnants the following season as mulch.
Charlene Thornhill is a volunteer citizen columnist, who serves The Daily Advocate readers weekly with her community column Along the Garden Path. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.