Bales are tightly packed bundles of dry grass. As such they are completely natural, with the exception of the twine/wire that keeps them in shape. Remember – grass is a key ingredient of compost as dry grass (brown) is high in carbon and fresh grass (green) provides nitrogen (see a separate post on composting) and both are available in most gardens with a lawn – compost, literally on your doorstep. So with using the bales to make beds, we provide a slow release of nutrients.
Bales are used in different ways for raised beds. Our original idea was to replace the traditional plank/stone/brick surround of the traditional raised bed with something more organic – thus we chose bales. The idea of the bales was appealing in part because it would allow us to kneel and sit on the bales while gardening. In theory. In practice, they are a little prickly to be honest. In addition, bales should break down, providing more nutrients for the vegetables. The fact that the bales would break down was appealing as it did not restrict us to committing a particular spot to a permanent concrete and brick raised bed. Post applying this method, we came across other methods of using bales, but I’ll get to that later.
Bale bed with soil filler
The first raised bed we tried was to be surrounded by bales and filled with soil.
- 10 Standard grass bales approximately 1 meter long (R35 each from the local farmers’ market),
- 2 wooden shipping pallets (R10 each from the local nursery),
- cardboard boxes (free, plain brown cardboard boxes),
- 4 poles around 10-15cm thick, and 1.5m long (free, a couple of invasive black wattle/gum trees we cut down),
- 3 poles around 4cm thick and 2m long (free, more wattle/gum we cut down),
- sisal string (R80 per roll – used a fraction of the roll),
- binding wire (cost negligible – we always try keep some around, or scavenge it),
- nylon rope (R15 each x 2. Our only concession to non-organic for this project, at it should serve a purpose and be reusable afterward),
- grass clippings from the garden (free),
- about 50 wheel barrows of topsoil dug out of the garden (free, from digging out a pond – which in turn is a great way to save water for drier months!),
- composted horse manure (about R50 per bag – approx. 60dm – and we used half a bag).
- pick axe,
Full sun all day (September) except for first thing in the morning. Level, with about a wheelbarrow’s width of walking space around the bed.
Peas, pole beans, mouse melons, kale, radishes, lettuce, green pepper, chilies, carrots
- Our soil is clayey, with lots of stones.
- Bales would push apart from the pressure of the soil.
- We needed a LOT of soil to fill the bed.
The bales were laid 5 on a side, slightly narrower apart than the pallets are wide – about 1.2m in this case. The 4 poles were used to keep the pallets up straight.
We started by laying out the bales, pallets and poles in their places. Holes were dug for the poles and the poles were planted. The first pallet was wired to the poles on either side of it, but the other side’s pallet was left off to provide access for the wheelbarrows. The cardboard was used to line the bottom of the bed to suppress weeds and grass – and lined the pallets to prevent sand from falling through the slats. When we were planning the bed, I had one concern – how were we going to keep the bales from pushing apart from the pressure of the soil? Our solution was to use nylon rope around the outside of the bed and bound across the middle.
As we progressively filled up the bed, we removed the bigger stones and added partially composted lawn clippings to the mix to make the soil more loamy. The thinner poles were placed one in the middle of the bed and one in the middle of each pallet. These would be the support poles for the sisal strings that would allow the peas and pole beans to climb.
Before the bed was completely filled, the second pallet was put in place and the remaining sand was added over the top of the bales.
I was a little compulsive about not getting too much soil onto the bales as, in my mind, the bales would break down too quickly. I needn’t have worried. The bales lasted two summers before they were at the stage that they needed to be replaced.
We mixed well-composted manure into the top 10 or so centimeters of the bed and mulched with another layer of grass clippings. Once we were finished, we estimated that we had carted about 100 wheel barrows full of sand to the bed. That was a LOT of hard work.
Sisal twine was spanned across the middle of the bed as a support for the peas.
Finally, irrigation was installed. We chose the micro-sprayer system often used in gardens, due to the variety of nozzles available.
Planting was attempted according to the square foot method for most of the veg. Peas were planted under the twine rows in the middle of the bed as vertical gardening. Purple pole beans were planted along the pallet on one side. Mouse melons were planted along the pallet on the other. We planted lettuce varieties, radishes, carrots, kale and spinach.
As the season progressed, we constantly made sure the soil was mulched, but we added no further fertiliser or manure. Planting the first half of the bed was done immediately. We wanted to see what was successful before we planted the next half. We needn’t have worried. To start filling the other half of the bed we transplanted NuMex chilli and a couple of green peppers from saved seed germinated in seed trays. After a slow start, we got some nice peppers.
Later we emptied some pots of potting soil into the bed. The pots had contained borage that had not grown well, and gooseberry plants that never made it over 20cm tall. The borage that survived rapidly grew huge (photograph to the left was taken in the August after we built the bed), and a cape gooseberry bush grew out of the potting soil. That soon took over one whole corner of the bed!
The method was so effective, that the square foot method became the intensive method! As you can see in the picture below (taken in May), the summer plants grew way beyond their expected subdivided areas and season despite constant harvesting. This photo was taken around the first frost of the season, and most plants survived the winter.
Effectiveness (compared to similar projects with rating 1 being planted straight into the ground with no nutrients added, and rating 10 being the best we have seen):
Effectiveness rating of 7 – even though it worked beautifully, it was very labour-intensive to fill.
Cost of project: R450 and lots of labour
What would we have done differently?
- Started in winter, not spring, and prepared the bed for longer.
- Sifted the sand better – carrots and radishes were a little deformed.
- Added more organic matter while filling it up. The soil had a high clay content that caused it to compact a little even with the added organic matter.
- Used wooden stakes to keep the bales in, instead of the nylon rope.
- The sisal string did not last as long as I hoped – only a little more than one season, but at least it was organic!
The second summer
We continued to use the bed throughout summer with surprising results. Winter continued to deliver results without much of the veg dying down. Peas died down and re-seeded in place, as did the pole beans and lettuce. The Mouse Melons, in typical cucurbit fashion died off after the first frosts. The kale carried on into the next summer. The borage kept growing, as did the gooseberry. The chili and green pepper survived right through winter. Granted, it was a warm winter, but the surrounding vegatables seemed to provide some shelter.
In its second summer, we transplanted the chilies, borage and peppers into plain bale beds (see more in a later post). We left the gooseberry and kale in place, then removed all the soil not binding the roots of the plants that had been left. The void was refilled around 20cm deep with the removed soil – now sifted – to plant two varieties of potato. As the potato plants grew, more sifted soil was returned to the bed, progressively filling to the top of the bales. We had a return of around 4 times the potatoes we planted.
Modifications on the next bed
The main difference in the second bed of this type was that we treated the top layer of soil differently. In addition to mixing a lot of partially composted grass clippings to the soil as we carted it in, we prepared the bed surface well in advance. Composted manure and bone meal was spread over the surface, then a layer of grass clippings was added for mulch. This was watered regularly to keep the soil damp. As the mulch showed signs of breaking down, it
was dug into the top ten or so centimeters of soil and mulch was layered on. This was repeated about 3 times over the period of two months. Regular watering helped the mulch break down.
We planted different brassicas (Romanesque cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage) that had been germinated in seed cell trays first. Lesson: let seedlings grown in green houses acclimatise first! It turned out they did better planted directly into the bed.
Between the brassicas we planted garlic and onions. In all, this was a little more successful than the last bed, but it wasn’t a huge improvement, and still quite labour-intensive.
Come summer, the brassicas had all been eaten. We added a little more manure and bone meal then planted peppadews, cucumber, chives, cress, tomatoes and brinjals once the garlic and onion had been harvested.
To be continued in Part 3…
Bale bed filled lasagne style