bales composting leaving air pockets under seedlings - help?

Bisbee, AZ

While transplanting my seedlings, I noticed below three inches from the surface the bales are hollow. I could put my fist down 5-8 inches. The plants have severely slowed in growth and are looking a bit yellow. It is like a plant is trying to grow over a gopher tunneled. No I don't have gophers. Caliche soil here. Should I gently smash down my bales? After thinning out the pumpkins, I filled the empty holes with soil and straw and the chosen ones is growing great now.

Question, should I fill in with soil and straw or push on the top of the bales until it feels firm again?

History: I started aging the bales in Jan. and sowed the seeds on top of compost/soil in March. I'm in southern Arizona.

Saylorsburg, PA(Zone 6a)

I think it works better to put in some potting mix (NOT SOIL FROM THE GARDEN as it contains bacteria that might affect the plants) and straw in the hole where you place the transplant plus a little fertilizer if you wish. I use either Pro-Mix or Coir. Bales will have spaces in them and the roots are happier in soil rather than hanging loose! They certainly do well for me. Friends I have tried to teach this method to tend to forget to add soil and wonder why the plants do poorly. If you don't add any fertilizer to the soil then you must use some kind of a liquid fertilizer regularly since the straw bales have no nutrients. Your plants may be hungry at this point so consider adding some fish emulsion like Neptune's Harvest. Good Luck!

Bisbee, AZ

Yes, I'm adding soil mixed with a conditioner in the holes in the new bales (conditioned for a 1 1/2 week) for the transplants. That is working well so far (only a few days now).

Oops, I have been using soil from the garden. I'm trying to condition my native soil that is why I'm trying this straw bale gardening method. I guess I need to learn about this "bad" bacteria that you referred to.

My question is more about the older bales that is composting from the inside/middle rather than what I expected which was gradually from the bottom down. I'm having a difficult time verbalizing the situation. This is my first attempt with straw bale gardening.

I appreciate your reply and I will look for Neptune's Harvest fish emulsion. My partner bought me Alaska fish fertilizer but after reading the fine print, it is not recommended for veggies (high in metals?).

Saylorsburg, PA(Zone 6a)


All soils have bacteria. You just don't want to introduce anything that could be bad like fungus or molds into the bales. Just as you don't use regular garden soil in containers. You could make your own mix of 1 part compost or bagged manure; 1 part coir or peat; 1 part perlite or vermiculite to use for the bales. The bales will break down from the inside out since they heat up in the middle so that's where they start breaking down. It is no problem with this method. Since you are using older bales they will not heat up anymore and damage roots as they might if you were to start them now and plant before they had "perked" enough. Have you read the older straw bale threads on how to do bales? That would help a lot. The straw bales will be great at conditioning your old soil. After the season they will break down and can be mixed with your soil. Of course, I just noticed you are in Arizona, which is so much drier so it will take more time. It is important to keep them wet. Using the fish emulsion will cause the bales to break down even better as well as feed your plants. Never knew Alaska fish fertilizer was bad for veggies but then I have never used it! Neptune's Harvest will be just fine - follow directions on the bottle. I think it is 1 tbs per gallon. Good luck!

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