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Can’t Find Straw Bales; Make Your Own From Compostable Leftovers

DIY No Hay Bales – Alternative to Straw Bales

In those locations where straw bales are difficult, if not impossible to find, Straw Bale Gardens Complete author Joel Karsten has recently solved this problem by designing his “BaleMaker 3000,” a pet name for his simple machine, that allows users to make their own bales by multiplying the force of their own weight to compact leftover compostable materials. In the “Making Your Own Bales” chapter of his book, he provides easy-to-follow instructions on how to construct this low-cost (about $25), little-time-to-build (20 minutes or less) and easy-to-use “glorified lever” from just three 2 x 6-inch boards that are 8 feet long and a three-foot length of 1-inch wooden dowel.

“New bales can then be made from leftover old bales or from other sources of compostable organic material—nearly anything that’s easily accessible,” says Karsten, “These homemade bales could completely take the place of straw bales in your future gardens if you have difficulty finding traditional small straw bales. The important thing I’d like to assure you is that they really do work…extremely well, in fact. I am a bit hesitant to say it, but in many cases, I have gotten even better results from homemade bales than from traditional straw bales.”

Understanding Bale Makers

Karsten has designed one basic model, which requires a pre-existing permanent post or tree that you can drill a hole through, although he does provide a slight modification to be used if one has no post or tree. He says an old basketball hoop post or clothesline pole should work fine, as long as there is concrete holding the post down in the ground, because your compacting weight force will be pulling up on the tree or post. A 25-40-gallon, rectangular-shaped storage container to be used as a compression mold for the bales completes the list of materials.

To use the BaleMaker, Karsten says, “First lay two strings down inside the plastic bin. I use little strips of tape to hold the strings in place about eight inches apart and let the ends hang out on each end. Fill the bin with organic matter, such as old straw, weeds pulled from your garden, kitchen scraps (compostable only, no meat, no dairy), your dead flowers from Valentine’s Day, small tree branches pruned over winter, grass clippings, leaves you raked and collected last fall—literally anything that you find, with few exceptions, will work well, and mixing different things together really works best. Some pine needles are okay, but only a pitchfork full per bale, as they are very acidic and the pH level of the bale will be too low if too many are used.

Correctly Building Layers

“If you have a pile of wood mulch, you could use a pitchfork full in each bale,” he continues, “But again not too much because it is really slow to decompose and release nutrients. As you build layers in the bin, mix in a bit of conditioning fertilizer every few layers. You can put the entire amount required for conditioning the bale into this bale. While these homemade bales will likely be smaller than the straw bales you would buy, they are denser and heavier, so don’t cut back on the nitrogen used. Wait to apply the Day 10 application of 10-10-10 or organic phosphorus and potassium until the bales have been kept wet for a 10-day period.”

When the bin appears to be full, Karsten says we should keep putting more on top and squishing it down until it is about level with the top of the bin, which will likely hold much more material than one would expect. Next the strings to secure the bale need to be pulled tight and tied together, and the bin should be pulled to the location where it will be installed and turned over to force it out. The strings will hold the shape temporarily, but to secure it for the growing season, the bale should be wrapped in chicken wire, with both ends fastened to a post driven in the ground.

“I have even made new bales from old bales that were made in the BaleMaker 3000 the year before, but after using them twice, they are really just broken down into beautiful soil,” concludes Karsten, “The chicken wire can be reused, just pull out the staples and unwind the wire. I must emphasize how wonderfully these bales have worked in my experiments; some of my biggest yields over the past two years have come while testing these homemade bales, so don’t be afraid to try making some yourself. Now, you are not limited to using straw, so start collecting anything that is compostable to make your next bale.”

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