As the deer munch away on the buds off my saplings and new shoots as they poke through the ground, I am heading into the vegetable garden. Here, in the midwest, it is still way too early to plant. We are still bouncing between snow with mid- 20 degree temperatures and suspiciously Spring-like weather. What I can do is prepare the straw bales. We have heavy clay soil so I've been taking it a step further and setting up the soil underneath the bales for future planting, once the bales have decomposed.
Gathering my Supplies:
The heavy winds have brought down a lot of dead wood. The stick pile in the back provides the rest. For the bottom layer, I like using branches about three inches in diameter that are nice and brittle, no green wood because it would take much longer to decay. If you don't have a supply of dead wood check with friends and neighbors. Try to avoid wood from diseased trees, though. I'm hoping that with a little help from my friends, the decomposers http://www.the-compost-gardener.com/decomposers.html , I'll have richly enhanced soil in a couple years. They're the same ones that help breakdown kitchen and garden waste in the compost pile. By that time these bales will have been completely depleted.
I've also gathered plenty of last year's flower stalks and any green material available. The voles have wreaked havoc with my yukas once again and I have gathered the leaves that they've chewed off to get to the core of the stem. Since garlic mustard and other weeds seem to be the first plants up and thriving, I'll use them, too. There are no seeds on the newly emerged weeds and I try to avoid using the seed heads on any of the dry plant material so I don't have any surprises later on. Some seeds can remain viable in the soil for many years.
I like to use straw bales instead of hay bales because I do have such a problem with rodents, here. Though the straw has been known to provide housing for them, at least it doesn't double as dinner!
Layering the Materials:
I create a modified hugul kultur or hill permaculture To begin, I dig down at least five inches in an area slightly larger than the bales I'll place on top. http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/
Pick a day when the soil is moist but not wet. You want to avoid using mud which will cement the layers and deter beneficial decomposers like earth worms. This can be a real problem with clay soil.
I've learned to pack the branches in rather tightly as to not create any nooks and crannies into which the little critters could burrow. In the past I had thrown things in pretty haphazardly and had created lovely condo units for rodent families to set up housekeeping.
Next, I fill in with some of the soil I removed and tamp it down a little to allow it to fill in the cracks between the branches. This will serve two purposes, once again to eliminate spaces for unwanted guests and also to help avoid too much settling later.
The next layer is smaller branches, bigger than twigs but smaller than the branches in the first layer. My reasoning is that these dry branches will break down faster and be closer to the surface for future plantings as the upper layers break down.
More soil and then plant material and small twigs are layered on top. Use a rake or your hands to spread it evenly. Poke the spade into the pile to eliminate any larger air pockets.
In my next blog entry I will show just how I position the bales. It's not difficult, but the positioning can be the key to success.
April in Wisconsin... ...Sigh...