By Deb Larking, Environmental Educator, Bluegrass Greensource

The February thaw always puts me in the mood for gardening.  But in recent years, with less time and energy for it, I have gravitated to pots for my herbs and straw bales for my tomatoes and peppers.

I start preparing my bales about two weeks before planting time.  So usually, mid-April.  Purchase wheat straw bales, and place them in a row where they will receive 6-8 hours of sun each day.  I put cardboard under the bales to prevent weeds.  The cut side should be up and the string binding should be around the outside of the bale.  Pounding in stakes at each end of the row and stringing wire between them helps support both the plants and bales.  Add soaker hoses and you are ready to go!

Next, condition the bales.  This process takes 10-12 days and is designed to jump start the decomposition process within the bales, providing a nutrient rich growing medium for the plants.  For the first three days, water the bales thoroughly.  On the fourth day, add a high nitrogen fertilizer (I prefer ½ cup fish emulsion) and water in.  Alternate fertilizing and watering only for the next six days.  The bales should get “hot” inside.  On day ten, switch to an organic 10-10-10 fertilizer to balance out the nutrients and water thoroughly.  Test to see if the internal temperature has cooled.  If not, keep watering daily until it does.  Now you are ready to plant!

I use two tomato plants per bale, or 3-4 pepper plants.  Cut a hole in the straw, add a little soil and the transplant.  Water it in, tie it up as it grows and use the soaker hoses as needed.  Basically maintenance free, the next step is to harvest and enjoy!  And the old bales go into the compost to fill my pots next year!