By MAGGIE MCMURRAY
Moapa Valley Progress
If gardening is no longer fun; if you have diseases in your soil that are hindering your crops; or if you have problems with gophers or other pests; then straw bale gardening may be just the answer.
UNCE master gardeners James Rimpau, Ph.D., and Peggy Raines, UNCE horticulturalist, taught a group of interested Moapa Valley residents all about straw bale gardening last week at the Cooperative Extension Office in Logandale.
Straw bale gardening is exactly what it sounds like. It is planting your garden in a bale of straw instead of in the ground. The decomposition of the prepared straw bale fertilizes and nourishes the crops throughout the season, while the bale itself hinders attacks from ground pests and eliminates soil diseases and other problems.
In addition, the garden itself can be placed anywhere, including in a driveway. It requires no soil amendment, rototillers or other machinery. And the naturally raised nature of the straw bales is easier on those with back problems or who dislike bending to the ground.
In addition, a straw bale garden is relatively inexpensive to start. “When I added up the cost of everything you need as if you were going to buy it, I found you could do the entire garden, including straw, watering timers and supplies, fence posts, fertilizer, and plants for about $150,” said Rimpau. “However, if you’ve ever gardened before, chances are you have most of the supplies just lying around, making it even less expensive.”
Surprisingly, finding straw bales may be the hardest part of the whole garden. While many farmers in Moapa Valley grow and harvest hay, few harvest the grain crops from which straw is made.
Straw differs from hay in that it is the part of stalk that remains after the seed heads of grain crops are harvested. The dead stalks have little nutritive value and are cut and baled and sold for animal bedding. Hay, on the other hand, is made from live grasses – alfalfa, or other crops – that are cut at the base, dried, and baled for use as livestock feed.
Straw bale gardeners theorize that using hay bales to garden may cause the seed heads that are naturally included in the hay to sprout along with your garden, creating more weeds. Straw, on the other hand, is comprised of only dead stalks and no seed heads, thus avoiding that problem.
Typically, straw is much cheaper than hay, but because it is unavailable locally, it may have to be purchased from livestock feed stores in Las Vegas or St. George at retail prices.
Rimpau spoke first, showing slides of straw bale gardens that he has planted, as well as others at the Mesquite Heritage gardens that have proved very prolific. He gave detailed instructions on how to set up a garden, as well as hints on how to place the bales and secure them, how to set up a watering system if desired, and how and where to plant in the bales.
Surprisingly, the whole bale can be used for planting, not just the top. “The sides can be planted with flowers to attract pollinators,” Rimpau said. “Or they work very well to plant cascading plants such as pumpkins, cucumbers and melons because the roots grow and are nourished inside the bale, while the vines and fruit cascade to the ground around the bale.”
Raines followed Rimpau’s lecture with actual “how-to” demonstrations on straw bale gardening. Raines showed how to make homemade seed tape with paper towels. The tape can just be rolled out onto the bales at planting time to plant crops from seed.
Raines showed the class a demonstration straw bale garden she constructed on local Cooperative Extension grounds. The bales were at various stages of conditioning, including one ready to plant.
Raines demonstrated how to measure the inside temperature of the bales. She also discussed how to apply fertilizer to condition the bales, beginning 12 days before planting.
She demonstrated how to plant starts within prepared bales. Due to the higher inner temperature of conditioned bales, planting in straw bales can typically occur locally about two weeks before planting in the ground can.
Class attendees were excited to learn about the new method and eager to start on their own straw bale gardens. “I’m glad I attended because now I’m excited to go home and start a garden,” said Logandale resident Becky LaGrow.
Rimpau, who uses several different gardening methods, was optimistic about the future of straw bale gardens. “I tried it this year for the first time and it was a lot of fun,” he said. “It avoids viruses and diseases in the soil and you get really great results.”
“It’s a great option because it doesn’t require soil amendment, can be done in a small space, and at the end it creates wonderful compost that can enrich the rest of your yard later,” Raines added.
For those who are interested in more information on straw gardening, Rimpau recommends the book Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten, which is available on Amazon.