The garden Siri built: straw bales lift vegie production to new heights

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Kate Aley

Those who love summer veggies know that raised gardens are easier to tend and that heavy mulching with straw helps to keep weeds down and hold precious moisture in the soil… but what happens when you build your raised beds with straw? This year Siri Ingebrigsten, of Avant-Garde Equestrian Farm in Luskville, found out. Pontiac 2020.ca asked her about her horticultural adventure.

Pontiac2020.ca: (P2020.ca): Where did you first see the idea for a straw bale garden?

Siri Ingebrigsten (SI): I saw it for the first time maybe four years ago when it popped up on my Facebook feed. I’m not sure what group was talking about it but it looked like such a brilliant idea, especially the fact that there was little weeding and bending involved with taking care of it. 

P2020.ca: Describe how the garden was put together.

SI: I have twelve bales placed in three rows of four. Each row is supported by T-posts on both ends and I ran hay-bale twine between the T-posts along the rows to support the plants. The centres of the bales are ‘conditioned’ using a natural fertilizer made of high nitrogen content solution made with plenty of water.

P2020.ca:  Is rotting down the center of the bales difficult?

SI: No, I don't believe it is. The original conditioning of the bales takes some time and, despite wanting to try this every summer, this was the first year I actually got around to it. The exact way and time frame will depend on weather and reaction within the bale. Basically, you start decomposition by adding the nitrogen and water. This causes high temperatures in the straw and you can only plant once the internal temperature has lowered to the temperature in the air. The directions said it should take two weeks, but it took me closer to four due to the cold, dry spring. 

P2020.ca: Were you impressed at how many plants you could get in such a small space?

SI: I was impressed and I have kept adding things on the sides of the bales. It’s really neat how many things you can squish in there. I planted root veggies between above-ground fruits and veggies. It's a learning experience, as some heavier and taller plants tend to 'slide', so the garden has required extra bracing.  

P2020.ca: Have there been drawbacks to gardening like this?

SI: The time and energy it took to get it going surprised me, plus it is pretty water intensive especially as the summer has been so dry and hot. But it has been lovely with the last days of rain…The bales keep the moisture quite well so, once they are soaked, they stay humid longer than the ground garden. Apparently you can also use hay bales and they are supposed to provide even more nutrients to the plants, but there is also more growth from the hay seeds so I’m not sure if it's worth the extra effort. I might try both types next year. 

P2020.ca: What happens to the bales at the end of the season?

SI: The bales go right on our compost pile and will be a super addition to the pile. They can also be left in a heap and allowed to break down further during the fall/winter and then used in the spring to nourish the ground garden or the next straw garden. I did end up adding some soil to the bales on top of them to create a better base for the seeds.  

 P2020.ca: Would you recommend trying a straw bale garden?

SI: For sure. It's relatively easy and would be great for any age group. Kids would love it and elderly would have an easier time maintaining this kind of garden. I will become braver with different types of plants as I gain experience. This year I have potatoes, carrots, sweet corn, three varieties of tomatoes, ornamental eggplant, green and purple basil, edible flowers, cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, leeks, different types of lettuce and peas. I'm sure there are more things but can't remember off-hand!