I had not even heard about straw-bale gardening until my editor suggested I do a column on the topic. At my age, I feel no need to keep up with all the latest trends, so let me say up front that I have never engaged in straw-bale gardening and probably won’t in the future.

An internet search didn’t come up with any Maine experts on the topic, so I couldn’t make a phone call to do my research.

So this column is based almost entirely on internet research with almost no personal experience involved – which I think will be a first. The benefit for you is that you can read this column in about five minutes, while I spent more than three hours checking out websites.

First, although it is sometimes called hay-bale gardening, the process does not work well with hay. Hay is feed for horses, cattle and other animals and is made up of different kinds of grasses, which include lots of seeds that may produce weeds. The more accurate name is straw-bale gardening. Straw is the leftover stalks from grain crops, usually wheat, oats, rye or barley after the edible seeds have been removed.

One advantage of straw-bale gardening is that you don’t need soil. If your only sunny space is a concrete driveway or a bare hard-packed patch of clay or sand, you can grow a few vegetables using straw bales. While what goes under the bales doesn’t matter much, what is above them does – they want eight hours of sun each day.

If you want to grow some straw-bale crops this year, don’t delay. The bales must be treated for at least two weeks before anything can be planted – and that takes us to Memorial Day weekend, the recommended earliest time for planting tender crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and summer squash; it won’t hurt much if you go a few weeks later, though.

Decide how many bales you need. You don’t want any leftovers, because they aren’t cheap: bales cost $10 each at Jordan’s Family Farm, near our house in Cape Elizabeth. You should put only two seedlings of tomato, peppers, eggplant or squash per bale so determine how many plants you want as well as how much space you have. And the bales have to be laid out in a manner that will allow easy access to them.

Straw-bale gardens require a lot of water. The gardens will be less work overall if a soaker hose is draped over the bales after they are put down. But for those who want the exercise – Fitbits just demand walking – manual watering works, especially if you have rain barrels nearby.

One or two gallons should soak the bale, but if you don’t want to measure, just water until the liquid starts coming out the bottom of the bale. Water slowly, though, so not much runs off the top or leaks out the sides.

Straw-bale gardening requires a lot of nitrogen-rich fertilizer because the straw itself has little nitrogen. Your choices depend on whether or not your garden is organic. If not, any high-nitrogen fertilizer (the first number of the three on fertilizer packages) will work, and lawn fertilizers typically are high in nitrogen. For organic nitrogen sources, try blood, bone or fish meal.

Once you have the bales placed, preparation begins. The first day you apply three cups of organic fertilizer or a half a cup of lawn fertilizer on each bale, and water it in so that all the fertilizer disappears. Day two, just add water. Days three and five, add fertilizer and water. Days four and six, just water. Days seven to nine, add half as much fertilizer as you did on the earlier fertilizer days and water heavily. Day 10, you add phosphorous and potassium – from wood ash and fish meal if you are going organic. Days 11 to 14, just add water.

The straw will be composting at this point, which will create heat. Stick your hand into the straw, and it should feel warm but cooler than your hand.

Take a deep breath. You’ve done the hardest work. Now it is time to plant.

Get some commercial potting soil, spread the composting straw to create a trough, and add the potting soil to about three inches deep. Then plant your seedlings – which if you are just reading this now, you will buy from a reputable dealer. It’s possible to grow from seed with straw-bale gardening, but this is Maine, and it’s too late to do that this year.

If you are growing indeterminate tomatoes, the tomatoes will need support to climb on. You can grow anything – potatoes, carrots, lettuce, radishes or beets, for example. But I’m a Mainer. You’re spending $10 a bale. Grow the expensive stuff, like tomatoes, peppers and maybe squash.

Personally, I’d advise finding a place for a real garden – on your own property or a community garden.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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