Starting seeds directly in a straw bale garden requires the use of a soil-less growing mix to keep small seeds from falling too deeply into the bale, and to provide young plants a jolt of nutrients until their roots grow deep enough to reach the nutrient-rich interior of the bale.
A compost bin facilitates making compost mainly because it keeps the composting materials in a compact, tidy pile while beneficial microorganisms break down the wastes into usable compost. It makes little difference what type of bin you use, so long as it holds a sufficient amount of materials for your needs. You need about a cubic foot of growing mix for every two bales in your straw bale garden that will be used for direct seeding. A bin that holds a cubic yard of compost makings will yield only two or three cubic feet of usable compost.
Make a simple bin from the wire by driving two posts into the ground about three feet (1 m) apart. You can use steel T-posts, or wooden stakes. The post should protrude above the soil about three feet (1 m). Attach galvanized livestock fencing to one post, bend it around in a wide arc, attach to the second post, and then bend back to the beginning point, creating a circular cage three feet in diameter. This will hold plenty of compostable materials.
You can make a bin out of wood, simply by stacking three-foot lengths alternately to form a square box. Build up the height as you add composting materials.
For the quickest solution, purchase a plastic compost bin at a garden center or DIY store and set it on a level spot in the garden. Most commercially available bins are in the one cubic yard size range.
What to Compost
Composting works just like conditioning a straw bale. You have the dry “brown” organic matter—such as straw, autumn leaves, or dried grass clippings – and to this, you add wet “green” organic matter, such as fresh grass clippings, faulty tomatoes, vegetable trimmings, and eggshells. When these materials are combined in approximately equal quantities by weight or about three volumes of brown matter for each volume of green matter, they will begin to compost spontaneously. You can jump-start the process, if you wish, by adding some of the same fertilizer you used for conditioning straw bales. A cup of 20 percent nitrogen fertilizer will get a full bin of compost going in no time.
Use Spent Bales
At the end of the season, add the remnants of your straw bales to the compost. This will provide additional beneficial bacteria, and help to keep the composting process going at a fast pace. As with the conditioning of a straw bale, the composting process generates a considerable amount of heat. Enough heat is produced, in fact, to kill many disease organisms and weed seeds that may have found their way into the compost.
Water the compost bin thoroughly each time you add material. As with straw bale conditioning, water helps the process, and it is difficult to apply too much. Pay special attention to watering after you add nitrogen fertilizer. You want to wash the fertilizer deep into the compost pile in order for it to have maximum benefit.
Oxygen is important to the bacteria that will decompose your garden and kitchen wastes into compost. Bins and compost enclosures are made of materials, such as wire mesh, that permit air to reach the interior of the pile. You can facilitate this process by turning the pile with a garden fork every week or so. When you do this on a cool morning, you should see steam rising from the interior of the pile, a sure sign that the process is proceeding according to expectations.
Depending upon the nature of the materials you add, your compost can be ready for use in a couple of months, but more likely if you start a compost bin at the end of the growing season, the compost will be ready to use about the time you need it the following spring.
The Ultimate in Recycling
Finished compost should be dark brown to black, crumbly and moist in texture, and free of any foul odors. Sticky, smelly compost has too much water and too much green matter. Mix it with dry brown organic matter and let it compost a while longer before using it. Properly made compost should be mixed with perlite or sand, about 25 percent of either additive, to improve its drainage characteristics before using it to start seeds. The compost-based growing mix can be used either in pots for starting transplants or directly on top of bales for sowing seed.
Using kitchen and garden wastes to produce compost for next season’s garden activities is the ultimate in recycling.