Our gardens in many lights

vendredi 6 janvier 2017

Cultivating vegetables in strawbales - the beginning of an adventure

Louise : 

When we bought the land in the spring of 2013, my most heartfelt project was to start a big vegetable garden. There was a perfect spot where to put it : a large opened, well drained area almost entirely exposed to sunlight from morning to sunset.

I placed the entrance of the garden between a
 clump of french lilacs (photo above) and
decorative red-leafed crabapple (2 picture
down). 2 cedar containers and an arch made
from an old gardrail were placed between these 
two trees. They were part of a small city garden
we presented here in April 2013, in an article
called  Garden, the third.

Despite my enthousiasm though, I had to wait patiently for a whole year, because more pressing matters needed our immediate attention. So I started my project only in the spring of 2014.

However, during all that time I could plan, and I must have changed my mind at least a dozen times before settling on a modus operandi. 

A good amount of work :

If I've found this adventure exciting and the work itself being much more pleasant than plowing an entire field, it was not a negligeable effort either. Just the transportation of materials involves time, patience and muscles. The rotting process of the bales takes a few weeks and involves brewing compost tea, spreading soil-enriching products and a lot of watering. With lukewarm water, if you please. But our well gives us freezing cold water and although pure and delicious, it was impossible to water the strawbales directly from the hose because of its temperature. Instead, I had to fill up several big barrels of cold water to let it sit a whole day before being able to utilize it. At this point, I had to transport it in buckets in order to soak the bales with water warm enough not to interfere with the decomposition process that I wanted to promote inside my bales.

Putting each young seedling in the strawbales is not an effortless task either, because we need to pry open a plantation hole into a compressed mass of stems. Often times, I had to pull off a good handful of straw to make room enough for the rootball not to be squashed flat by the strawbale's internal pressure. Another time-consuming task was to pull off numerous weed seedlings (oats, in fact). On some bales, the amount of grains left attached to the straw was so important that it produced annoying oats seedlings all summer long. 
There was also the regular watering of the garden. Some plant roots reached much deeper than others and some bales were more absorbant than others, but let's say that, anyway, gardening on strawbales is not a water-saving gardening method. 

A pretty large bill :
    I was able to minimize costs in many ways and I estimate my investment at around 450$ for this first year's installation of 150 strawbales. Not that bad, for an all organic vegetable garden of this size. But without recycling and bargain hunting, it could have cost me around 1000$. That's without taking in account an automatic watering system... which we couldn't afford anyway. First, organic, soil-enriching products are not cheap. Luckily, I could reduce my costs significantly by preparing my own mixtures out of worm compost tea, weed teas, homemade compost and horse manure. Regarding the transportation of all our strawbales, we got away with borrowing a huge trailer and a very strong pick-up truck and only paying its fuel. And these strawbales cost me only a dollar a piece, while the average price was around 4$ per bale at that time, in my area.

A rather short list of problems and inconviences :

I think that I already made you understand that installing this kind of garden is not for lazy gardeners, neither for folks always in a rush, nor for people unwilling to make good use of their muscles. 

You also have to devote a lot of time to daily waterings, at least during periods without abundant rainfalls, or time and money to install an efficient automatic watering system. As I explained previously, the watering needs varied from one part of the garden to another, one factor amongst others being the degree of decomposition in each single bale. The more rotten it is, the more humidity it retains. But of course, the deeper the plant roots were reaching, the lesser they were affected.

We must expect another rather minor problem : the ropes holding the bales can break, leading for the bale itself to fall apart. To remedy this, you can either plug the gaping hole with garden soil or compost or you can try to tie the bale with rope again (easier said than done). You can also support the side of the bale by staking it up. Regardless of the choice, the work needs to be done quickly so the roots of your vegetables won't suffer too much especially if they've been exposed. Also, a bale opened thus will loose its water much quicker.

Just as in ordinary soil, there are no guarantee that a perfectly balanced nutrient content will be achieved inside the bales. For instance, at one time, our tomatoes were in dire need of calcium. We quickly corrected the problem by adding four liters of skimmed milk to their ration of water (we had forty tomato plants). One dose like that was enough to bring them back. We did spread crushed eggshells at the very beginning of the season, but they require a year of decomposition to release their calcium, apparently.

     Many types of mushrooms bloomed on the bales throughout their decomposition, but the mushrooms had no ill-effects on our health or on our harvests, as our source of information predicted. Naturally, we were cautious not to harvest any mushroom and we wouldn't eat, for instance, a lettuce leaf if it went in direct contact with one of the mushrooms. It never hurts to be prudent.

     Weeding out the oats seedlings wasn't part of the plan and it took a lot of time, especially during the first month. I mentionned it so much in this article, I think it's because it left me with a poignant souvenir.

     Direct sowing of seeds in straw bales has less chances of success than direct sowing in the ground. For one, straw is less reliable than dirt to keep humidity constant but there's also the problem that seeds can slide far down between the straws and then, the seeds have trouble to germinate and brake through again. It works much better with big seeds (pumpkin or bean seeds, for instance), as one could suspect.

Everything to build up :
     The site we chose was covered by a resilient lawn of quackgrass and relatives, and other tough weeds like dandelion, plantain, burdock, sorrel and curly dock. These plants all have outstanding qualities, but vegetables have no chance to grow well with this kind of competition around. I wasn't ready to wait another year before starting the project, however. 

An old homemade mailbox was found in one of 
the outbuildings. We put it back in service right
at the garden's entrance, near our relocated
arch. It's a nice little space to put away our
hand tools, but a few times per season, we find
unwanted tenants in there : wasps ! And sadly,
they don't seem to enjoy sharing their living 
quarters with us!

     Therefore, I needed to find a quick way to transform this lawn into a decent cultivation space, in order to respect a reasonable plantation schedule. But I have a full time job that keeps me especially busy in spring and fall. I needed both a rapid and thrifty method without any plowing involved. For one part, plowing takes a huge toll on any soil's fertility, but more immediately  problematicis the fact that weeds are not much impressed by a few quick passes of the tiller, quackgrass among them. Another concern was my unwillingness to juggle with the hypothetical qualities of the soil hidden under its green, wild, thick mat. 


       Straw to the rescue :

I will gladly share with you a relatively new cultivation method. Maybe you heard of it. The idea is to use strawbales as an alternative substrate to ordinary garden soil. First, let's recall the difference between hay and straw. Hay is composed of miscellaneous herbaceous plants. It is cut and dry while sporting their seeds, and then compressed and attached in bales. Since the grains are packed inside each bale, hay is a nutritious fodder for cattle, full of proteins. Naturally, these grains are alive and ask only for humidity to germinate. 

Straw is the stem of cereal plants, like wheat, rye, oats, etc. It's a by-product of cereal harvesting. During the harvesting, the grains are separated from their stems (it's the threshing operation). Now the stems are called straw. Just like hay, these seedless stems are formed into strawbales. Straw is much less nutritious than hay, but it's an excellent insulating material, it's useful as litter for cattle and as mulch in a garden. Hay, on the other hand, won't make a good mulch, simply because it is, by definition, full of grains that will take the first opportunity to germinate in the garden, unless it is well rotten hay.

Mr. Joel Karsten, the american gardener who presents himself as the inventor of strawbale gardening, advertise the many advantages of this medium. According to him, it's a very affordable material and, once it has started to decompose, it's a very rich cultivation substrate, warmer than the surrounding earth, since it stands above ground - a plus for your back. Moreover, it doesn't require weeding or tilling and may accomodate a wide array of vegetables. 

Ready to work ? Then, let's start !

For this first season, I had time only to put half of my 300 bales in place. I covered an area of approximately 40 X80 f (12 X24 m). I had to put away the other half until the following spring.

1. Three hundred strawbales to load, transport and unload ! Thanks to family members, friends and to the seller's family. They helped me twice, since it took two trips to take car of it all. We piled them outside and covered them with a tarp, near the future garden. 

     2. I paid countless visits to different businesses' recycling containers in order to bring back on site all the cardboard I needed. It's a free resource, one only needs to ask permission to the owner or manager. Then, the packing tape must be removed, along with the big metal staples that reinforce some boxes. I covered the entire surface of the lawn with three overlapping layers of cardboard. I knew that without this protective barrier, the weeds woud rapidly reassert themselves.

     3. To prevent  the wind from blowing away the cardboard, I proceeded by sections, depositing the bales over the cardboard one by one on each section before starting another section. Despite that precaution, I needed to anchor my work against the wind with rocks, bricks and logs.

        To provide disabled access, I sacrified planting space to make 4 feet wide (120 cm) alleys. On this photo, to the left, we see rubber carpets in this alley and cardboard on the other side. In some other alleys, I used a gigantic industrial sky-blue-felt carpet which was left by the previous owner. I sliced it in strips a little bit larger than my alleys. The felt bundle was so heavy that our Quad could not move it. Was I glad that we own a tractor !
     The bales' most traditional shape in Québec is a rectangular block, and as I understand it, its size and weight may vary, according to the machinery that was utilized and to its specific ajustments. Mine were of two different formats, the majority measuring 12 X 18 X 30 in (30 X 45 X 75 cm), others being a little smaller.

      Strawbales are already quite heavy when dry, but when they were wet after a good rain, I had to roll them on the ground in order to move them around. There is an important detail to respect when we put them in their definitive spot : we must position them so that the straw stems stand upright, otherwise water, soil and nutrients will slip over the bales' surface and won't penetrate the straw from above.

4. Once my bales in place, firmly resting side by side, I filled the interstices between them with composted manure and vegetal compost. I chose to put some of my bales in square shapes and elsewhere in long straight, 24 inches (60cm) lines to make conventional rows. These designs were well adapted to smaller declivities in the terrain, but rapidly came more difficult to stabilize in slightly more sloppy spots.

     Since I couldn't think of a way to form a curved pattern with my rectangular strawbales, I didn't apply an important technique in permaculture : Finding the ground surface's natural contour lines and install curved rows along those lines. This means automatically that the rows are level and always oriented perpendicular to the slope. It blocks the way to running water, keeping it within the rows to be absorbed by the soil (and in my case, by the straw) instead of letting it flow or trickle down the slope. But long after my new garden welcomed its new plantations, I finally found a way to get "around" my problem. It's sad that I didn't think of it sooner. I will come back to this in our next article.

     5. The next step was "treating" the bales to stimulate their decomposition. In fact, it means maintaining the straw moist for a few weeks. In the beginning, you water thoroughly the bales with lukewarm water every day, then every two days, then every three days. You add periodically organic fertilizer and micro-organisms. Gradually, the inside of the bales starts to rot (which produces some heat) and to change into a  form assimilable by plants. To provide the necessary micro-organisms, I prepared  oxygenated compost tea (a brew made of organic green molasses (bought), seaweed extract (bought too), worm compost from my own worm "farm", tea made of burdock, dandelion, comfrey, fresh water algea - all these plants growing abundantly on site). I also sprinkled over my bales ashes and crushed eggshells as sources of phosphorus and calcium. If you think, like Hélène, that this is a loadful of work, then you're right !

Here are two raised beds, each one made of four strawbales put side by side. Growing on them, pumpkins, sunflowers and tomatoes. We can see the layer of soil and compost deposited over the top of the bales. It gives a better environment to seeds and young seedlings. Under the bales and over the footpaths three layers of cardboard were laid down. I spread straw over the cardboard to give a nicer look to the  garden. But that was a very bad idea, since the straw kept the cardboard humid and thus, terribly slippery. Moreover, it rots much faster. After a couple of weeks , I decided to remove the straw. By the way, even without being covered with straw, each time cardboard gets wet, it becomes slippery.
    6. After a few week of watering, I spread on top of the bales a thick coat of gardening soil, mixed with sheep manure. Then I started transplanting and sowing. This layer of soil is necessary to sow seeds that, otherwise, would sink down inside the bales, too deep to emerge after their germination. However, the bigger seeds (for instance, sunflowers, beans, peas and squashes) usually don't sink too deep and are able to emerge on their own.

     7. Each grain of cereal that remains attached to the straws is susceptible to germinate as well as our vegetable seeds, even on some-years-old bales. It's a rare bale which doesn't sport any remaining grain, but quantities may vary a lot and depends, they say, on the quality of work during the threshing process. Judging by this criteria alone, then I may say that the combine harvester which as been used to separate my straw certainly was not ajusted properly ! If some bales didn't produce any oats seedlings, other generously gave me 300 !

I had another use in mind for my strawbales : I erected an insulating wall against the outside of the chicken coop enclosure to protect our chicks from the weather. Here, we see clearly a small mushroom on top of its' lanky stem. To its' right, oats seedlings. This combine harvester of theirs surely did a sloppy job !

     A nice and good result : 

Right from the beginning, this garden had a nice look. Straw is definitely a beautiful material. Once the decomposition process is well on its way, strawbales transform into a very rich growing substrate. Most of our vegetables grew vigourously in there, except for a section which did not receive enough sunshine. I did not dare to plant my garlic in my bales, though, because I woudn't take the risk to lose my crop. And I didn't plant potatoes, that year.

 I'm happy with this first year's results and since then, I discovered that my strawbale garden could evolve to last more than one year. I closed my third gardening season last fall, still using my original strawbales, if somewhat transformed by the passing of time... and the digestive process of billions of micro-organisms. But that's a story that'll have to wait for another time ! 


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