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November Gardening Tips- #2

Nov 22, 2019
As we look into the ongoing educational aspect of new ideas and maybe better ways of making your gardening experience a much more delightful experience, we will look at resources as the primary aspect of this discussion. Some new aspects will be introduced as well.
In the past discussion, I introduced the idea of straw bale gardening. This is an idea that works very good for a number of people. The name might be somewhat misleading as it is not limited to only bales made of straw. Straw from grain is usually a desirable medium of choice. But in some parts of the world and even in this country a small bale of straw is not available.  In some parts of the world, they will use rice straw. This works very well.  Some people will make a simple compactor and press leaves together and wrap strings around them and just like that they have their blae growing medium.  One can use almost any kind of fibrous type of easily bio-degradable plant material. However, some of them do present some minor issues if not known about beforehand and taken into account. For example, fresh cut alfalfa hay can be very tricky to work with.  The fresh-cut "hay" as it is formally called, and fresh-cut grass can sometimes present this issue as well, is that when you wet it down to facilitate the "rotting" down process, they have the tendency to mold and get all slimy. If you don't keep them wet enough they will get all mildewy and all funky.  So you really have to be on top of those situations to get where you want to be with the planting medium. However, older hay and grass, aka; older than 1 year, will tend to not manifest this issue as acutely. IE: you have a great margin of error.  In any case, this method presents a very effective way to work with a garden, especially for people with limited physical abilities. Also, these types so systems tend to actually use less water over the growing season than other methods.
Many of the bale gardening ideas will call for using new bales each year or every other year. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it can be taxing on some people and in some cases, if the old bales are just trashed, as being wasteful.  The beauty that I see in the bale type guarding is that you can do a lot with it.  As the growing season progresses, some people will fashion a wall around the bales, usually using repurposed pallets, and turn the bales into the beginnings of a raised bed garden. This works very well as the bales will provide a good medium to allow for adding various supplements, such as manure, soil, clay, or whatever is needed for your specific needs.  Also, if doing bales, you can drape some plastic or other material over the bales, usually with a rope, wire, etc, running above the plants to fashion a "greenhouse" of sorts, then remove the covering when frost danger is past.  This is a very effective greenhouse of sorts as the bales will be giving off heat, not much, but enough for the needs of protecting the plants and encouraging them to grow and the covering material protects them from frost danger. It is easy to gain at least 3 weeks and in some places even maybe 5 to 6 weeks more of an earlier start in some areas.  Many people that have done this system and figured it out will claim that 3 weeks advantage in the spring is akin to 2 months of an extended growing season at the end of the cycle.  This means that you can enjoy the equivalent of 2 more months of your garden producing produce. If you choose to boomerang the bale system into other mediums, then this system makes perfect sense.
In doing the bales system, it does not require you to use only a bale system for your garden. If you choose to remove the bales after a season or two, then you can move the material to a composting situation.  By doing this you can further comp[ost the material and add other soil amendments as your situation might dictate.  Then you can use this compost in other settings, even for plants that you are growing in typical fashion, ie; ground planting, flower beds, etc.  One type would be to do the raised bed systems, but another type is to do the bathtub system. Now, this system would be great for the new ager type people or the hype holdovers. I saw this type of a system being used in Southern Missouri about 20 or so years ago. It might look a little funky to us straight-laced, social compliant types, but it is a good idea and works great. With this system, you would acquire as many old bathtubs as you can beg, borrow or steal.  Lay them out into any layout that you want, then fill them with a plant growing material and grow your little hearts out. But the drawback to this system is that it can be very expensive to go out and buy all the material that you would likely need.  So if you did the bale system, then over a few years, you could build up some material and gather old bathtubs and then make this system work for you at a reasonable cost.  You can use old tractor tires as well.  I have used these before, but I did meet a lot of resistance from some of my kids (and wife) as they felt it was too red-neck and they felt embarrassed. So I was regulated to the back yard, and I mean the back end of the back yard.  So if you don't have any social type hangups, many options are available for your use. So the bale system can be used to boomerang a low-cost plant bedding material into other gardening systems.
When we refer to "bales" we are referring to the typical bale that is known as small bales on a farm. Usually, these bales are 14 inches high by 18 inches wide when viewed from the end of the bale and will run between 3 and 4 feet long. Depending on the size, material of the bale and how densely the material is packed, they can weigh between 40 pounds and 100 pounds. So, in theory, they can be moved around by an individual.  If you can't lift them, then you can roll them into position. But, there is a chance that you can talk to people in your social groups, church groups, or whatever groups or circles, you might be able to recruit some help. Believe it or not, but many of these young people are willing to help people with these types of projects. So there is a possible resource for physical help if you need it. I am at an advantage because I have tractors, loaders, etc.
Anyway, back to the bales. In some areas, the small square bales are hard to get or even non-existent. The most popular bale type in many regions is the round bale. I love these types. But in doing the bale system, you will need to be a little creative and resourceful. But in the end, it will provide for a really cool garden. So with round bales, as they set when they are in the typical position as when coming out of the baler are usually between 4 feet and 6 feet wide, but the typical is 4 to 5 feet wide. They will be usually 4 to 6 feet tall, with the typical being 4 feet to 5 feet tall. My one son has a small round baler and it makes a bale that is 4 feet wide and 4 feet tall. It will make a bale that weighs around 7oo pounds. So by the round baler standard, it is a small bale.  Most round bales will weigh in the 1600 pound range. They use 2 different types of material to hold the bale together. One type being a very thin twine that is wrapped around and around and around and around the bale.  The other type is what they call net-wrap. This is a very thin plastic fishnet type material.  The older round balers will use only the twine while the newer machines will use either the twine or net-wrap, with many of them using both types. So if you only have round bales, talk with a farmer and see if he would make a few bales fro you that are smaller in diameter. Usually, the baler will go down as small as maybe 2 1/2 feet in diameter. These ould be easier to roll around by hand. But if using round bales, you would need some mechanical assistance when first installing the bale system using these types.  To make the system work better for you, you could use these bales, and this is where I think it would be really cool, is to cut them in half. Then lay them on their side.  Then you would have these round garden planters that would be from 3 to 5 feet in diameter and 2 to 2 1/2 feet high.  To do this one would decide where the middle is, take a chain saw and cut the bale. Then roll it a bit and cut. It won't take long to cut the bale in half, then roll into position,  push it over onto its side then go about your business of bale growing your garden. I would think that if you supported the sides a little bit, you would get 3 years out of these or even 4 pretty easy. But before you take the chain saw to the bales, make sure you cut the net-wrap or twine from the area that you are going to cut. Maybe a 4-inch section, ie; 2 inches on either side of the cut. The twine and net-wrap will get caught up in the saw and it would not be a pretty sight, especially from the chain saw operator. That would educate you on a new vocabulary of words that you may never have thought of. In short, not good.
If you have a problem with using plastic twine or net-wrap in your garden, as many people would likely have, you could use some small sisal rope. or other bio-degradable  rope or twine.  In doing this you would secure the bale with the rope, then remove the twine or net wrap. Simple solution, problem fixed.  There are other types and sizes of bales. There are various sizes of "square" bales, anywhere from the 3 twine/wire bales clear up to the 4 foot by 4 foot by 8 feet long bales that weigh a ton, literally. These are the typical bales you would see on trucks out on the freeways being transported over long distances, at least out here in the Western US and western Canada areas.  You will also find these in the mid-west.  But any of these would be very hard to work with and somewhat expensive for this purpose. But with some creative, who knows what a person could come up with.
One of the key ingredients in starting the decomposition process on any of these bale systems is Nitrogen.  I checked some farm supply stores that also sell gardening supplies. They carry a wide range of natural nitrogen sources and generally they range in the 1 dollar to 2 dollars per pound range.  The synthetic/non-natural sources were more money per pound, and usually in the 2 times as much as the natural types.  Many of the non-natural types that contained herbicides had a price range of up to 10 dollars per pound and in some cases beyond the 10 dollars per pound basis.  They also carry a wide range of natural and synthetic sourced types of fertilizers and amendments with a wide range of prices.  So you can likely get whatever you need for your gardening applications. The farm stores will always usually be much less costly than the chain stores that carry gardening supplies as a sideline or seasonal item. Some of these stores carry straw or hay that can be used for bale gardening. If they don't many of them might be able to help connect you with one of their customers that might have what you need.  Also, because of animals being more prevalent in suburbia or suburban areas, you should be able to find someone to help you find the bales that you need and that would work with you.  Also, you might be able to get some sources of manures, such as horse manure for your garden. and for your lawn.  I recommend horse manure as it is safe and contains a lot of clean material. It does have a slight odor, but it is mild and for many of us, we enjoy the aroma of horse manure. It reminds us of happy times. Nothing like having a horse. Other manures that work well are rabbit manure.  It is very high in many of the micronutrients that are hard to find or get from other sources.  Another medium that is fantastic is work castings. This is a medium that has been worked over by worms, such as nagle worms, red worms, nightcrawlers, etc. It is a sought after material and can be sort of pricey.  Another fantastic medium is mushroom compost. This is the material that can no longer be used by mushroom growers. Usually, the nest type of this stuff is when they have taken the material and further composted/processed it (processed means, in this case, to mix other necessary materials with it to make a more useable plant growing material). Usually, this is a lower cost growing medium.  Another source of nutrient-dense material is fish effluent, hog effluent, etc., plants sourced from the ocean, etc.  The prices for these items will be all over the board and in some cases very hard to get in some areas. I mention all of these amendments because you will need to use some of them. You will add some of them to the bales system, by top dressing the bales. So the sources for feeding your garden are many and diverse. Most of them will work in most settings, with some working better in some settings than others.
Some people have reported that they have found the roots of some plants have grown the full thickness of the bale and into the soil under the bale. I think this is a very good thing and an excellent indicator of plant health.  Many people will use a cover on the ground such as wood, cardboard, etc. I prefer to not use this type of cover.  I feel that grass in the space between the bales is best. If you don't want to plant grass or have grass already growing then I would suggest that you plant grain. Oats or wheat would be an excellent choice.  It will provide for a medium to fixate carbon into the soil. It will help to create a better moisture microclimate for the other plants. Plus you will be mowing it anyway. It is nicer to walk on with bare feet and it makes you politically correct. Lots of upside to it.  When you irrigate the area, you can sprinkle it like you do your lawn.  Or you can just use a soaker hose to even further conserve water.
The bale system will work well for most people. The key to bale gardening is to not get emotional about it, don't just use it as your only gardening method. Use it as part of the overall system. The bale system is likely the easiest gardening system for many people and perhaps one of the lower-cost methods.  One does not need a wide range of tools. Perhaps a shovel, a fork, a trowel and a hose to water with is about all of the tools necessary to do a good job and not spend more than is necessary for your gardening program.
So there you have it. Bale gardening systems. It might just work for you. If you have questions, feel free to ask. Next time we will likely discuss seeds and maybe answer some questions. Thank you for your time and consideration of these ideas.

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