Minutes May 17 — Straw Bale Gardening

May Meeting at Ranson Old Town Community Gardens with Dr. Bill Gregg on Straw Bale Gardening

Bill GreggOur Garden Exchange Group met in the gardens behind the Baha’i Center in Ranson. We did things a little backwards this time because the coffee wasn’t ready and everyone was eager to learn about the gardens. So everyone brought their exchanges and we did that first.

Our presenter, Bill Gregg, an ecologist, said he was a Humble Gardener who is learning and doing new things thru trial and error every year and was delighted to share the things he has learned. The gardens are supported by the Jefferson County Community Ministries (JCCM) which offers a variety of opportunities to the community including cooking classes and how to grow and use the vegetables around us. The community of Ranson has been a wonderful support in this project. They have allowed us access to the unused planned right-of-way to establish the public garden and a neighbor has allowed them to use additional property. They also have a garden nursery by the Ranson Community Center where trees are grown to be planted in areas to beautify the community. The area that we were standing in is now a Garden Park Center where everyone can come and participate in growing for the community. There is someone available to tell you about the garden every Wednesday and Saturday at 10 am. The JCCM provides the water and a place to store supplies. It is hoped that through training and education, people will take the time to have their own little gardens in their back yards. All of the excess food goes to the Food Pantry.

straw bale gardeningThis is a multiple faith Community Garden supported by grants from BB&T and Kitchen Garden International with the help of the Jefferson County Community Ministries, neighbors helping out with heavy equipment, JOB Corp, and many, many families. Even West Virginia University Extension Service has played a major role in making these gardens possible and productive. The gardens are now in the beginning stages of a much larger and beautiful picture. This is a place where we will try your ideas. Remember how Grandma and Pa use to do it. Well, let’s try that again. It’s a hands-on experience for the novice. Someone remembered and we are going to try to grow corn in 5 gallon buckets. Put gravel in the bottom, put holes around the bucket, fill it with compost and spread your seeds. Should work! Let’s try it!

The only problem they had with bugs in the garden last year was with cabbage butterflies; light-weight fabric netting should solve that problem this year.

raised beds - highBefore we moved to the bales of straw, Bill showed us where the major production of food came from. They cleared the land of all foliage and rubble and laid landscape fabric down. On top of that (with the money from the bank), they purchased cinder blocks and stacked them three high and four feet apart. Each raised bed was about 15 feet long. In some of the top blocks, they poured cement and put a ¾ inch PVC pipe. Half-inch electrical conduit was bent to create a dome and fit inside of the cemented PVC pipes. They used a bender to make the conduits uniform. You can go on line and find benders in a wide range of prices. These hoops can be covered with all kinds of fabric, heavy plastic for winter, light fabric to deter the bugs, straight poles in place of the hoops for tomatoes, etc. If you extend two layers of plastic over the conduit, it makes the area two zones higher. They are building more of these types of raised bed but not going as high as three blocks. They lined the inside of the raised beds with landscape fabric which helps hold everything in the blocks that are just stacked. The block absorbs heat and water. You can’t plant in the holes of the cinder block because they just dry out too quickly. It was suggested that they paint the inside of the block before they put the landscape fabric in so that it doesn’t absorb water. Another thought was to just use heavy plastic on the sides instead of landscape fabric. Soaker hoses have been a frustration so they are going to try another suggestion and buy regular hose that has a line down it. After your plants come up, lay the hose alongside the plants and drill a hole with a 32nd drill bit on the hose line, close to where the plant is. Lay the hose with the line – and holes – facing down. You wouldn’t believe the things that were already well established in the raised beds – peas, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and much more. They were all planted close together so that there wasn’t any room for weeds.

The next thing that they really need to do is study composting. There are a lot of problems with farm waste and we need to find a way to avoid it. If anyone has a suggestion or is willing to help in this area, please contact Bill Gregg. Someone suggested the Master Gardeners.

There were a lot of pallets that weren’t being used. They were going to put them on their side, nail them together in squares and plant fruit trees in them because they were fearful that the land was full of landfill waste. It turned out that the soil was fine so the fruit trees are planted in the ground. Maybe they will use the pallets to create compost bins in the future.

Bill Gregg and straw balesTo grow vegetables or anything in straw bales you will need the bales, fertilizer, lots of water and your garden tools. Before you start, decide where you want the bales because you won’t be able to move them once you soak them with water. There are many resources for straw bale gardening online, including StrawBaleGardens.com. Bill Gregg suggests the WVU Straw Bale Gardening handout.

It takes about 10 days to condition the bales by adding nitrogen and water to build up the levels of bacteria that feed the plants. The general idea is to soak the bales and add nitrogen fertilizer (one fast-acting type is urea). Around the 10th or 11th day, stick your hand down in the bale and to see if it is hot or not. When the bale stops heating up, you can plant. Make about a 4” hole in the bale. This can be difficult — one suggestion is to cut a pvc pipe at an angle and pound it in with a pstraw bale hole pipesiece of wood and a hammer; see the photo. Add a little compost to it with the seeds or plants. Plants that grow above ground do best. If you are going to plant something that needs support put your bales near a trellis or fence so that they can climb. Things like corn don’t do well because they topple over. You will have to fertilize your plants weekly for them to survive. It is possible to use the bales a second time but they get very messy and the strings that hold the bales break away.

Bill suggested that we come and see him in January when he is starting the seedlings. He has a different and unique way of getting everything started. So plan on meeting up with Bill and seeing where it all begins.

Sharing: Jane Wagner — foam flowers and lemon thyme, Meg sent huge Brandywine and Rutgers tomato plants, Jane Blash — yellow sundrops, Holly — forget me nots, and Dom Palmer — tansy. The food was spectacular and it was so nice to sit and have a video presentation about the plans for the beautification of Ranson and the Garden Park Center.

Our next meeting will be at the home of Jane Blash where Mary Palmer will tell us about Rain Gardens. See you there.
Carole Brooks