As promised, it’s finally time to talk about some actual hay bale gardening! I know I’ve been pretty focused on the worm beds in all the updates so far.
Just to review here…
With any sort of bale gardening, for the best chance of success, you will need to create a rich, fertile environment in the bales before you start planting in them.
Straw bale gardening expert, Joel Karsten recommends the use of water-soluble, inorganic fertilizer to stimulate an intense hot composting phase inside the bales for a week or two before planting.
My “wise idea” was to attempt more of a slower, “natural” approach, and (hopefully) to establish a vermicomposting environment in the bales as quickly as possible.
In theory, I still think this is a sound idea – but in practice, I’m realizing that it’s the “as quickly as possible” bit that may have been a bit too optimistic on my part! It is definitely looking as though the bales should undergo a much longer priming period when planning for “vermigardening”.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here! We’ll certainly come back to this discussion, but for now let’s look at how the bales were primed and planted.
In my very first hay bale vermigardening post I wrote about a strange liquid concoction I brewed up – using comfrey concentrate, soy milk powder, rabbit pellets, rock dust etc – to help kickstart the composting process in the bales
I poured this magic brew over the bales I had in place and, as an afterthought, also covered the bales with coarse vermicompost and watered again (to help kickstart microbial activity).
Early on it looked like everything was working out quite well. The treated bales seemed to heat up to about 55 C (131 F) for at least 2-3 days before cooling down. We also received quite a lot of rain. So, I assumed this would work wonders in terms of creating a moist, worm-friendly environment inside.
Just to be on the “safe side”, I held off a little bit longer than originally planned, before finally planting my first 6 hay bale tomatoes (3 Grape, 2 Tumbling Tom, 1 Tiny Tim) on June 9th. Incidentally, this was the same day I completed the excavation of the long bed.
Rather than bore you with every little detail about the rest of my bale planting – here is a quick summary:
June 12 – Another 10 tomatoes (1 Tiny Tim, 7 Grape, 1 Lemon Boy, 1 Cherokee Purple)
June 17 – Ground Cherry (railway tie bed – under bush in unused bale)
June 18 – 14 more tomatoes – including all the plants in the new bale rows (2 Sun Sugar, 1 Sugary, 2 Tumbling Tom, 6 Grape, 1 Cherry Falls, 1 Cherry Red, 1 Chadwick’s Cherry)
June 21 – 3 Cantaloupes + 1 Sujo Long cucumber
June 22 – 2 Armenian cucumbers + 2 Sujo Long + another Ground Cherry
July 8 – 4 Blondkopfchen tomatoes (had grown from seed so pretty small)
As of this writing, there are only two bales currently without any plants in them. I actually removed two bales from the long bed a little while back so I could use them for mulching, and these were replaced with newer bales once I received my second load.
Planting methods have varied somewhat, but my main strategy has been to work quite a lot of vermicompost/soil into the bales, especially in the zone below each planting hole. I figure that even if the bale itself isn’t quite “ready” for roots, the added soil material would at least provide the plant roots with more space to spread out in.
On June 18th, many of the bales received an additional treatment with compost/soil + blood meal + rock dust (this was the day I was planting in the new untreated bale rows – so I felt this was extra important for those bales).
Overall, growth in the bales has been quite variable. I think it’s safe to say that, on average, the plants have done considerably better in the worm bed bales (those around the railway tie bed and the long bed) than in the newer bale rows. Of course, this isn’t too surprising, since the worm bed bales have had a much longer priming period.
Early on, I was actually ready to yank out what I assumed were basically dead tomato plants in some of the row bales.Thankfully, I decided to just leave them be – and some of them have made a pretty amazing recovery.
Here’s probably the most dramatic comeback. The “before” image is terrible, but basically all that was left was a dead looking stem. Gradually new leaves started to grow back, and as you can see on the right, the plant is looking much better now.
What’s interesting is that mushrooms have been growing out from most of the bales any time I’ve watered or it has rained. This is a pretty good indication of the fact that there is still a lot of decomposition going on inside the bales.
Any of the semi-treated bales I’ve pulled apart (to use as mulch etc) have been loaded with fungal growth. They’ve also been surprisingly dry inside. This certainly helps to explain the lack of stellar plant growth in the bales thus far.
I actually conducted a little experiment to see what the worms thought of this material once well moistened (and kept moist) – but I’ll tell you about that in another blog post.
All things considered, I’m still pretty happy with the way things are working out so far.
Not TOO bad considering it’s my first year trying out this method!
My (optimistic) hunch is that it’s only going to improve from here – as these bales continue to break down and soak up more moisture. This is especially true for the bales surrounding the worm beds. Once those beds are actually “full”, the plant roots will have much more room to spread out – and there will likely be more nutrients available as well.
In other vermigardening news…
With the surplus of hay I’ve had on hand, I decided to also test out the “deep mulch gardening” method (with a vermi-twist) – yet another approach I was introduced to thanks to the Homegrown Food Summit. This method is a lot closer to my own comfort zone, and I’ve been pleased with the results thus far!
But of course, you’ll have to stay tuned for another blog post all about that!