With fall coming on so quickly, I’ve finished with the straw-bale gardens for the year. I had good tomato harvests from the bales, and I can see where in certain circumstances bales would be the way to go with vegetables.
The vegetables grew well, were disease-free (one of the biggest benefits of the bales, in my opinion) and had good harvests.
I did have one of the typical problems with my bales, however — mice!
I had one bale in my main vegetable area that I used to grow potatoes. I harvested the spuds early, broke the bale up and used large chunks of the straw to mulch around some of my tomato plants that were sprawling a bit. A part of the bale (not more than 9-by-9-by-6 inches) was left where it had been. A few weeks later, while working in the garden, I saw three mice emerge from the bale. Eeek!!! I dispatched (what a nice, clinical description) two of the mice with a garden fork I happen to be holding and the third scampered off.
That event prompted some aggressive watering of the remaining bales. If you do straw-bale gardening, you must water the bales regularly to keep them growing and to avoid infestations by mice. I watered my bales every day or every other day, depending on rainfall and how hot it was.
With some trepidation, I approached the remaining four bales this weekend to dismantle them and spread the straw around other parts of my garden. Happily, the watering worked, and there were no signs of mice in the four bales that had grown tomatoes and zinnias.
Will I do straw bales next year? Maybe. They work, especially if you want to give your soil a break. I like the idea of using stock tanks, which we described in the July/August issue of Northern Gardener, as a container for the bales. I think the tanks are not only more attractive, but could be used from year to year as the bales slowly decompose.
I still get a mushroom or 30 in my straw-bale gardens from time to time, but overall, I am really pleased with how they are growing. The four tomato plants I put in two of the bales are getting tall and sturdy. The zinnia seeds I spread across another two bales have all germinated and are putting out leaves, and the potatoes planted in the last bale are growing so tall I’m trying to figure out a way to add more soil around them, so I can get more potatoes.
It probably helps that the bales are watered every day (or at least every other) and that, per the instructions, I poured a weak solution of diluted fish emulsion over all the bales for fertilizer a couple of weeks ago. While I’m not thrilled by the appearance of the bales (and, just to tease you a bit, there will be a great article on how to improve their appearance in the July/August issue of Northern Gardener), I love their productivity. The rabbits haven’t figured out how to get up on them, either. So, go bales!
I haven’t planted anything in the straw bales yet, but something is growing! I have a big crop of mushrooms in one bale and a smaller crop of grass popping out of some of the other bales. Both of these are expected events, though still a bit surprising. The mushrooms are “inky cap mushrooms,” which are mushrooms that dissolve into a black goo after a day or so — I noticed the goo pretty heavily on one of the bales.
Cornell University’s mushroom blog has an interesting post on inky caps and their tendency to destroy themselves. In addition to sprouting mushrooms and grass, the bales are definitely heating up and I expect to be planting them out within a week or so.