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Garden flourishes in recycled square bales

You’ve heard of bale grazing. How about bale gardening?

Leanne MacKay standing beside potatoes she has growing in straw bales. photos: Joan Airey

Leanne and Ed MacKay have found a new use for old square bales. They’ve turned them into a garden.

The couple lives and gardens near Lake Wahtopanah at Rivers, which first of all meant enclosing their garden area within a 12-foot-high fence to keep the deer from feasting on their produce.

“When touring Winnipeg Conservatory I saw bales positioned in squares with compost piled in the middle and vegetation growing in them,” Leanne said. She began to research the idea on the Internet and found a book by Joel Karsten on Straw Bale Gardens.

Her neighbour was only too happy to give her bales that had been used to protect her trees over the winter. “They wanted to get rid of the bales and I needed bales to try out this idea, so I thought it was a win-win situation for both of us. I placed them strategically in the section of my garden that was covered with landscape fabric,” she said.

Leanne said anyone trying this idea needs to start early as the bales must be “conditioned” for 10 to 12 days prior to planting. This involves placing the bales cut side up so they can absorb applications of water and granular fertilizer.

Lawn fertilizer that has at least 20 per cent nitrogen is required for conditioning bales — not the slow-release kind, she said.

“To start conditioning the bale, you sprinkle half a cup of high-nitrogen fertilizer over the top surface of bale then water by hose until it disappears into the bale,” she said. “Second day water bale only and third day fertilizer and water; alternate this process on four to six days.

“Days seven to nine you add a quarter-cup of fertilizer and water. Day 10 use one cup of 10-10-10,” said Leanne, noting she recommends anyone planning to try it, to download the book.

After 12 days, the bacteria inside the bales starts digesting the straw, making nitrogen and other minerals available to the plants you grow in them.

Squash and tomatoes don’t get dirty because they are high off the ground, which also makes picking easier.

Next year, she plans to leave more room between the bales to give plants such as squash more room to spread.

“Rebar at the ends of the rows would be perfect for making a trellis or staking,” she said. “I used landscape fabric under flax straw between the rows in my raspberry patch but you still have to pull weeds between the plants.”

The bales should be located in a sunny location with access to a water supply. A soaker hose running along the rows would be the ultimate way to go, but we managed with an overhead sprinkler system,” said Leanne.

Ed and Leanne constructed some raised garden beds, in which she grew beans and perennial herbs, but she said she prefers the straw bale approach.

Another gardening idea found in the area was an easy way to make a pea fence using electric fence posts with chicken wire attached to them. Anyone can build a fence this way as the posts have a spike on them that easily pushes into the ground. The electric fence posts should be placed about 28 inches apart at the most. The posts have hooks on them on which the wire can be hung.

The MacKays had everything from apples to zucchini growing in their garden. Leanne had planted new varieties of raspberries which were producing tasty fruit.

“Next year I hope to plant at least 25 bales,” Leanne said. “This method of gardening means less weeding and (it is) easier on the back.”

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