Easy, eco­nom­i­cal and ef­fi­cient, the hum­ble straw bale is rais­ing the stakes for veg pro­duc­tion

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Gardening -

Straw bale gar­den­ing is not some­thing I’ve tried be­fore, but it is on the cards for this year. The tech­nique has been around since the Six­ties, if not ear­lier. An Amer­i­can hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist, Joel Karsten, has been hon­ing his cul­ti­va­tion tech­niques us­ing this sys­tem for 22 years and now grows almost all his vegetables and herbs this way, us­ing 25 bales to sup­ply his fam­ily’s needs. He is evan­gel­i­cal about the tech­nique. In many ways it is like grow­ing in raised beds with­out hav­ing to make the raised beds. BBC Ra­dio 4’s Gar­den­ers’ Ques­tion Time has had nu­mer­ous queries from schools and clubs hop­ing to grow crops on hard sur­faces or flat roofs, and this is pos­si­bly the least ex­pen­sive and most ef­fec­tive sys­tem with­out hav­ing to lift the con­crete or tar­mac. Karsten reck­ons that veg and fruit plants are about 25 per cent more pro­duc­tive in bales than they are in the ground. This can be at­trib­uted to more oxy­gen to the roots (we are in­creas­ingly re­al­is­ing the im­por­tance of this), to­gether with un­lim­ited wa­ter (straw is like a sponge and holds an amaz­ing quan­tity of wa­ter) and nu­tri­ents. Added to this, heat from de­com­po­si­tion of the straw means that crops are pro­duced ear­lier, the crop­ping pe­riod is ex­tended later in the year, too, and the pro­duce is gen­er­ally larger. Karsten cal­cu­lates that 75 per cent less labour is in­volved – bales never need weed­ing. My reser­va­tions are the aes­thet­ics – bales do not age grace­fully. Oth­er­wise, I think the sys­tem is im­pres­sive, es­pe­cially where you have no soil or poor soil. You can­not over­wa­ter and there are no prob­lems with soil-borne dis­eases. Com­pared with the cost of a grow bag, at about £1 for a small bale (source them lo­cally on­line), it is about half the cost. In re­sponse to my reser­va­tions, Karsten says that he grows herbs and an­nu­als up the sides of the bales to dis­guise them. Al­ter­na­tively, many grow­ers par­tially con­ceal them. Pan­els of reed fenc­ing are es­pe­cially rea­son­able (4x1m panel, £9.99; uk­gar­den­fenc­ing., and can be cut down eas­ily to fit and con­ceal. Some have sim­ply slot­ted the bales into gal­vanised wa­ter troughs. For my first year I will use them for half my toma­toes and cu­cum­bers in the green­house. The in­crease in hu­mid­ity should help with red spi­der and, as I usu­ally grow toma­toes in base­less pots on soil, it means the ex­ist­ing soil will have a rest. I am fol­low­ing Karsten’s in­struc­tions to the let­ter. The bales (straw, not hay) will be po­si­tioned ver­ti­cally with the string still in po­si­tion. I will move them into place about two weeks be­fore I in­tend to plant them, bear­ing in mind that the heat gen­er­ated by de­com­po­si­tion al­lows you to plant be­tween two and four weeks ear­lier than in the ground. The most labour­in­ten­sive part is the ini­tial “con­di­tion­ing” – adding wa­ter and fer­tiliser so the bales start to de­com­pose inside, which takes about 10-14 days. On the first day you spread 4oz of a ni­tro­gen-rich lawn fer­tiliser evenly over the top be­fore gen­tly wash­ing it in with 1-2 gal­lons of wa­ter (this takes a minute or so). The fer­tiliser does not need to­tally wash­ing in. When wa­ter is com­ing out of the bot­tom, stop. For the next nine days or so you carry on, some days adding fer­tiliser, some days not. If you are or­ganic, you can add or­ganic fer­tiliser in­stead but in­crease the quan­tity six fold (and source or­ganic straw). After the fifth day use wa­ter from a butt or wa­ter that has been left in a bucket overnight so it is not as cold as from the tap. Fi­nally, im­me­di­ately be­fore plant­ing, add a seep hose along the top (if you don’t want to hand wa­ter) and on the 11th day plant or sow. Sow­ing in­volves spread­ing a 1-2in layer of multi-pur­pose com­post along the en­tire top of the bale, be­fore sow­ing the seeds. As for plant­ing, you just stab the im­me­di­ate area with a trowel to make a hole wide enough to re­ceive the plug/pot and push the plant in. Re­move a small bit of straw if nec­es­sary. I plan to plant three tomato plants per bale and will prob­a­bly add some marigolds to help de­ter white­fly, and might well plant pars­ley up the sides, too. Karsten even grows pota­toes this way (three plants per bale) – they are clean on har­vest­ing, ex­tremely easy and highly pro­duc­tive, so I am tempted. My thin, limey soil means pota­toes are prone to scab, but the bales’ mois­turerich en­vi­ron­ment will help pre­vent this. Sweet­corn, how­ever, is not ideal – this is a huge plant and can only be grown two per bale, so it is hardly worth it. Peren­nial vegetables are out of the ques­tion, too, as the bales will last for a max­i­mum of two years. After this they be­come mushy but are great for com­post or adding to bor­ders. Oth­er­wise, parsnips, turnips, let­tuce – in­deed, just about ev­ery­thing – will grow. As to wa­ter­ing in­ter­val, a grower in North Carolina ap­plied only a gal­lon a week per bale dur­ing drought pe­ri­ods and noth­ing suf­fered. Sol­u­ble fer­tiliser is added ev­ery few weeks. The other straw-re­lated prod­uct that I am try­ing this year (after glow­ing ref­er­ences from Ara­bella Len­nox-Boyd) is strulch ( This mulch was de­vel­oped at Leeds Univer­sity and patented by soil sci­en­tist Ge­off White­ley in 2004. Jackie, his wife, runs the business. Strulch is made from chopped and treated wheat straw, with added iron min­er­als that pre­serve it so that it lasts a good two years. Strulch is light in weight and re­duces weed growth dra­mat­i­cally, block­ing the light to pre­vent weed seeds from ger­mi­nat­ing. It also de­ters slugs and snails as the iron sticks to them. Trevor Jones, head gar­dener at Al­nwick, is a fan: “Each year we ap­ply a layer of strulch over beds to pro­tect the emerg­ing del­phinium shoots and leaf spikes of our hostas. Our del­phini­ums grow away to make strong healthy plants and our hosta fo­liage re­mains in­tact through the sum­mer rather than look­ing like lace cur­tains by early sum­mer. Strulch also helps to re­tain mois­ture in the beds and im­proves the soil as it de­com­poses,” he says. Worm pop­u­la­tions in­crease markedly, as with many or­ganic mulches. Strulch is also ideal for last-minute titi­vat­ing to bor­ders be­fore a gar­den open­ing or party.

Bal­ing us out: straw has many uses in the gar­den, in­clud­ing beds in Chau­mont, France, above; in Joel Karsten’s veg plot; and for plants grown on bales topped with soil

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