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Straw Bales: The Perfect Home Garden

Innovative and easy, straw bale gardening uses bales of straw as garden beds. The technique is especially great for urban gardeners who don't have the space for a traditional garden. Building a garden with straw bales creates a whole new range of possibilities and alleviates numerous problems from having rocky, uneven or unyielding clay soil to a bad back that makes it difficult for you to stoop or bend to garden. With straw bale gardening, you basically create the biodegradable equivalent of a raised bed in a mud-free, weed-free medium that turns to mulch after a growing a season or two.

The beauty of this technique is that you can grow almost any vegetable, herb or annual flower in a straw bale; although taller vegetables like tomato plants will need staking or other support. Typically you can plant two or three tomato plants, four pepper or cucumber plants, or four to six lettuce plants per bale. The straw bales can be placed along the side of your house or garden wall or even along a parking strip; literally wherever you get good sun. If you are concerned about how attractive your straw bale garden will be out in front of the house, tuck a few marigolds around the base and sow nasturtiums on the corners of the bales. You could also plant several varieties of colorful lettuce, squash or pumpkin vines to spill a few fall fruits over the side.

Straw bales also make wonderful kitchen herb gardens and can be placed right next to the house or even on your porch or patio if it has amble sun. Herbs like parsley, cilantro, basil, arugula, sweet marjoram and more grow happily in a straw bale garden.

Bales of grass hay can be used as well as straw, but you will need to be prepared to do more initial weeding as some grass seeds may sprout. Your first step is to plan your layout carefully, because once you soak your straw bales, you won't want to move them. Bales can go string side on the ground or string parallel to the ground, whichever you prefer. If you are laying out a number of bales in side-by-side rows, leave enough space to mow between them. Next, develop a plan for what you will plant in each bale, and don't forget; whatever you plant will want all of the sun exposure you can find.

Here's how you prepare your straw bales for planting:

Days 1-3:
Water the bales thoroughly and keep them damp.

Days 4-6:
Sprinkle each bale with a half a cup of high nitrogen fertilizer, like ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate each day, watering it well into the bales. Blood meal may be used as a substitute for nitrate.

Days 7-9:
Cut back to a fourth of a cup of fertilizer per bale per day, and continue watering.

Day 10:
No more fertilizer! But continue to keep your bales damp.

Day 11:
Stick your hand into the bale. If it has cooled down to less than your body heat, it is safe to begin planting.

With the right preparation you can have a vibrant, colorful and delicious garden without the sore back!

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