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Finally a Beautiful Day in Chicago’s North Shore- Time to Plan the New Garden

April 26, 2013

At last, the sun is shining, and looks to be for longer than twenty minutes.  The warblers showed up and took their time as if they weren’t in a feeding frenzy that could soon end with a cold snap any minute.  Flowers are out, the first pollinators whizzed by my head as I walked my dog!  It’s here!  For someone coming from California the last few years this last two months has been like coming home to a two month long dreary nightmare.

We have had colder than average temps the last sixty days, combined with a record setting 8.5 inches of rain in the month of April alone.  I heard from some of my family and friends that braved the winter here that it was nicer in January and parts of February than it has been the last few months.  How strange, than again how nice it makes it to finally get a day like today.  Our climate throws us curve balls every year here, and this will go down as “one of those years…”  This has been the only spring I haven’t had an already planned out vegetable garden in sometime, but it’s not too late.

This year, because of time constraints, I’m going to try something a little different.  It’s still not too late for starting tomato and pepper seeds, not even close to being behind schedule for my favorite brassicas like leaf broccoli, and cabbage, and it’s never too late to throw down a row of arugula or mixed salad greens.  That being said, it would still be nice to give them a bit of a head start for when they finally get outside to face their arduous Chicagoland summer.

Enter straw bale gardening.  There’s a lot of proponents and a lot of critics of this technique, but besides the fact that it uses a little more water than a traditional garden (not really a concern when your hose pumps out Lake Michigan water,) I think that there aren’t many other down sides worth noting for a vigilant gardener.  I’ve been hearing about this for a few years now, have seen a few examples in urban areas where space is a concern, and now think I have found an appropriate setting for this type of experiment.

A brand new yard where no one has broke ground yet is the perfect spot.  Rather than spending money and time ripping off the sod, tilling in organic amendments, etc. I’m going to take the path of least resistance.  I have found a hay/straw farm up at the Illinois/Wisconsin border that has a ton of straw lying around that got wet all winter long.  Ah the wonders of industrial agriculture’s waste!  A word of caution: make sure you are buying straw and not hay!  Hay will sprout into god knows what as it contains a ton of “weed” seeds.  For more info visit

By strategically placing the bales where I eventually want my vegetable beds to end up in a few years, I’m killing two birds with one stone.  Over the spring/summer the bales will kill off the underlying wasteful grass, and eventually break down in to organic matter that can be easily tilled in at a later time.  Since my bales are wet, and have been wet, I’m already at a huge advantage.  This has allowed microbes to begin breaking the straw down and develop a more appropriate “cooled down” environment.

Straw that has not gotten wet needs to be treated differently, I’ve borrowed the steps from website for purposes of time (I tend to run on.)  Please see below.


You’ll have to prepare the bales to make sure they’re past the initial heat of decomposing. With the proper fertilizers and water your straw bale should warm up to a temperature of about 100 degrees. As in many gardening techniques, there are proponents of several different methods. You can prepare your bales by just keeping them wet for three to four weeks prior to planting. If you prefer a more proactive approach, here’s one widely recommended method.

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

Days 4-6: Sprinkle each bale with a 1/2 cup of a high nitrogen fertilizer like ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) or ammonium sulfate per day, and water it well into the bales. If you’d like you can substitute blood meal for the nitrate.

Days 7-9: Cut back to 1/4 cup of fertilizer per bale per day, and continue to water it in well.

Day 10: No more fertilizer, but continue to keep the bales damp.

Day 11: Stick your hand into the bale. If it has cooled down to less than your body heat, you may safely begin planting as soon as all danger of frost has passed.

Organic gardeners often follow a similar method to condition the bales, substituting a natural fertilizer such as fish oil or compost tea.

NOTE:  I’ll be using bat guano, earth worm castings for amendments, and a little soilless mix in the planting holes to give the roots something familiar when they first venture out. I don’t think you need to go chemical on this one!  Also, I might try incorporating some mychorizal fungi pellets, once established the colonies they develop will really help the roots retain moisture as the straw bale breaks down.  These bales will be alive with beneficial microorganisms that exist in a symbiotic relationship with the plants roots. This may also cut down on the watering requirements, I will defininetly be doing a comparison.

I will post pics of my set up next week.  I’m picking up my bales on Monday and I’m ordering seeds now to avoid sell outs.  On a sad note, my favorite variety of habanero, Italian sweet pepper, and tomato are no longer for sales unless I buy them through Tomato Growers Supply Company They are now a subsidiary of Monsanto and have forever lost my business.  Anyone out there reading this who saved seeds from the Jamaican Hot Chocolate Habanero please contact me!  This plant was the reason I got into gardening.  Stay posted.

  1. Can’t wait to see the set-up. I just planted my first batch of spinach in my raised beds today.

    • I think I’m going to get my straw tomorrow! So excited, I hope I can cut a few of the buckthorn trees down that are shading my post 3:00 sun right now. I really have a vendetta against those things, they have caused havoc on our local ecosystem.

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