City dwellers need vegetable gardens, too. When soil is at a minimum, consider starting your seeds inside or on top of a regular old straw bale. You can even force your seeds and extend your growing season using a combination of straw bales, covers and a mild heat source, such as grow lights. The energy cost to run the lights is minimal compared to the bountiful harvest you’ll yield, but you can always compare electricity rates if energy costs are a factor.
Plants grown on a straw bale are less susceptible to infestation because they never touch the ground. They’re grown at an easy level for gardeners with back problems to reach and to tend, and the bales are fully recyclable once your growing season has ended. Weed control is another great reason to plant inside straw bales.
Straw bale gardens are also easily grown on patios and in small lots such as those that often accompany urban homes— making them ideal solutions for city gardeners.
Prepping a bale requires a process called conditioning. To condition your bale, you must first water it and keep it damp for a minimum of three days. Have it where you want it before you begin the watering process, because afterward it will be too heavy to move. Use a bale that’s bound tightly together with twine or plastic banding.
On the fourth day, begin sprinkling a fertilizer that’s high in nitrogen, such as a half-cup of urea, on your bale. Do this for three days straight and then, for the next three days, cut the fertilizer application back to half.
On the tenth day, stop adding fertilizer. By this time the decomposition process inside the bale should be in full swing. You’ll be able to tell by laying your hand atop the bale and feeling the heat it generates.
From this day on, you’re waiting for the bale to cool back down to about 99 degrees. Keep watering while you wait, but not excessively. Once the bale reaches the appropriate temperature, it’s ready to plant. If you’re using new bales, the whole conditioning process typically takes 3-to-4 weeks.
Cut holes about four inches deep in your bale and pour in your potting soil. You can also spread the soil 3-to-4 inches deep across the entire top of the bale if you wish. Water the whole setup thoroughly.
Transplanted seedlings tend to grow best in a straw bale garden– tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers and melons are all viable options. You do need to avoid root-crop vegetables such as carrots and potatoes, because they don’t form well inside the straw bale.
Tend to your straw bale garden in much the same way as you would any other type of garden— by watering it regularly and ensuring it gets enough sunlight.
Image by Flickr user Ruth Temple