My hillside terrace system and concerns over strawbales

Discussion in 'Members' Systems' started by Brian Knight, Apr 4, 2015.

  1. Brian Knight

    Brian Knight Junior Member

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    Here is how Ive been retaining my hillside garden for 7-8 years. I have to replace the strawbales every 2nd year. The straw decomposes into nice soil but I have concerns over the long term effects of so much straw. I know its mostly silica but does anyone think that whatever they are spraying the grain crops with (grasses) could have negative effects on my vegetables (broadleaf)?

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  2. songbird

    songbird Senior Member

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    if that is your concern you can try to find some source of strawbales that is known to be clean.

    another approach would be to find some other way to make the area more stable so you don't need the strawbales. either growing something that holds the area or building some sort of retaining wall...

    i cannot tell from your picture what your intent or use of the area is like, i.e. why you would want to dig out a trench and replace the strawbales every other year, instead of planting something more permanent to hold... can you explain the area more?
     
  3. Brian Knight

    Brian Knight Junior Member

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    Good suggestions. Its sure tough to beat the farm supply store 2 blocks from my house! I wonder if there would be any commercially available sources. Iam in the city and dont know any farmers. Maybe I can start asking around though.

    As for something more permanent, the main issue is the old, clay sewer pipe that runs through the area. It gets clogged with roots pretty often and its only a matter of time before it needs replacement. My fruit trees and blueberries are already encroaching. I think I might have pierced it with one of my tomato cage stakes too.. woops.

    Replacing the strawbales is actually pretty easy. It was tough work digging the original "trench" into the native clay/loam but now all I have to do is shovel out and up the remains and spilled dirt and pop in the bales. I think the drainage characteristics are better than more permanent options too.
     
  4. pebble

    pebble Junior Member

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    Nice system.

    Re pesticides, it's really going to depend on the crop and what the farmer did. Some crops are more sprayed than others. Where I live sometimes peastraw is spray free, but I think that means they didn't use spray on the crop. The ground would still have been sprayed prior to sowing. Occassionally I see organic peastraw for sale but not often. Best thing is to ask the people you are buying off and trace it back to the growers if they're retailers.

    Also ask around the organic/permie circles in your area, you might come across some bales that are better than others.

    The other way to look at it is, what are your concerns? Direct affect on the vege plants? I think you would see this (it happens with some pesticides in commercial compost where they've used grass clippings from lawns that have been treated with chemicals. But the vege plants either don't grow, or they look sick).

    If it's the pesticide residue affect soil microbia, then can you do some things to increase resilience in your garden (eg innoculate the bales with fungi?).

    If it's concern about the vege plants taking up chemicals that you then eat, you could research the pesticides used in your area and see if this is a problem.

    Mostly I think work with what you've got with a view to improving over time eg connecting with farmers might be a good place to start and had multiple benefits.
     
  5. S.O.P

    S.O.P Moderator

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    Interesting system. Inventive too.

    Personally, I'd move to a more permanent retaining system like songbird mentions and use the labour for the 2-yearly replacement elsewhere in the garden. You say the drainage is better with the straw, what about rock-filled gabions? A wire cage, holding a myriad of rock size and shapes, allows free-flow of water but is a long-term structure. You could grow local, native grasses along the top and bottom to reduce the utilitarian look. I've been seeing varied cage sizes for gabions lately, you could find one that would slot into your pre-dug space surely. Pictures here in the first site I could think of: https://www.milkwood.net/2011/05/06/rock-science-building-our-gabion-wall/

    Woodchip, particularly sourced from the energy linetrimming companies, will be superior for growing perennials and trees and last longer too. Keep the straw for your high-turnover annual beds and like pebble says, more research may help by narrowing down the production methods.
     
  6. sweetpea

    sweetpea Junior Member

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    Brian, it looks like a really good system to me. The way you fill into the hillside with dirt and compost, the plant roots will stay in that, and not so much the bales until the second year? So it won't matter what's in the bales. By the second year they will have rotted and probably broken down whatever is in them. Although most straw is dead field stuff, or chaff from a crop that may have been spray many months before. Straw I get has weeds in it, so it hasn't been sprayed, but I'm sure you can ask.

    If you want to introduce some more biodiversity you could plant annual grains into the bales, harvest some and let the rest rot, barley, oats, amaranth, then chop and drop what's left. Plant annual herbs and trailing flowers like sweetpeas, nasturtiums, things that will rot over the winter.

    I don't think I'd dig into that hillside and change anything. You don't want water running down it any faster. If you want to try a small section with a more permanent wall, do it on a small scale in case it goes wrong, or leaks too much, or starts to lean the wrong way.

    The freedom you have from perennials to get those bales into place is a good thing. And if you haven't had any hillside issues, maybe you've got a proven system. It only takes one crazy rain storm to send a ton of water down that slope into whatever matters to you below those bales, and so far it's worked?

    I personally don't think there's any nutrition in bark and wood chips, and it takes way too long to break down. :)
     
  7. Brian Knight

    Brian Knight Junior Member

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    Great advice yall, thank you! I cant take credit for the idea, saw it somewhere else in asheville. The straw holds strong the first year, its nice to be able to kneal or even walk on it with the help of a board or plank. The second year its much too soft for that but still has enough volume to retain. By the end of the second winter its mostly collapsed and broken down with the garden soil spilling into the trench. Its pretty easy though to shovel that back up to put the new bales in. The replacement doesnt bother me so much but it would be nice to avoid the added costs of buying the bales. I do think the bales offer a different or dryer layer for earthworms as the garden soil becomes too saturated for them after heavy rains. Havent noticed any negative effect of all the straw but pesticide residue was/is my main concern.

    I agree with Gabions being the preferred more permanent solution. If I ever take care of the sewer pipe through there I might consider it more. I also want to expand some beds so maybe that would be a good thing to try. Ive had mixed experiences with the grassed berm solution. In the top photo, below the bale wall, its not quite as steep so I retained it with that method. The mix of grasses (love grass, bluegrass, clover) do ok but depending on time of year, they dry out and die and have lead to too much erosion. I just packed in by hand and foot and did not use any soil stabilization like straw blankets with staples.

    Here is a better, more engineered attempt in my front yard:

    [​IMG][/URL][/IMG]

    This was done both to reduce the amount of water getting into my walkout basement and create another parking spot on our parking challenged street. I used a wacker packer, some great packing clay and benched it in. I covered it with some leftover straw blanket, the kind with the plastic netting, and used loads of sod staples to secure it.

    For seed I used the southeast mix (purpletop, VA wildrye, little bluestem and broomsedge) from outside pride and its done quite well. The few upright, broomsedges were transplants.

    I was definitely going for the weeping grass look and have been weeding out what I think to be the purpletop and virginia wildrye. The "weeping grass" sure looks like what we call lovegrass but Iam pretty sure I didnt plant any. Does anyone know if this appears to be little bluestem or broomsedge? Where the long, uncut portions of the weeping grass laid over the winter, it killed the grass there and the picture is after I trimmed alot of it out. Looks like I took my own thread off subject but it would be nice to hone in on a native variety that I like the looks of and requires little maintenance. I like the meadow look and idea of only cutting once or 2x a year. Maybe not possible with such a steep slope.. All these retaining walls face south so are at high risk of drying out in periods of little rain.
     
  8. sweetpea

    sweetpea Junior Member

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    The evening of Halloween the grocery stores and malls that used straw bales for decoration would give them away free. They would even load as many of them as my truck would hold, I just had to hang around until they started to dismantle their display. There are probably other events that will use straw bales for parking or decoration that will give them away when the event is over if you ask soon enough. :)
     
  9. Brian Knight

    Brian Knight Junior Member

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    Love it! Ive been wanting to try some for composting too but can never justify spending money on ingredients. Now all I need is a city barn :) Surely my neighbors wont mind more tarps..
     
  10. sweetpea

    sweetpea Junior Member

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    They started dismantling quite early, before dark, which in October is rather early for us. I guess they figure if people need stuff late afternoon on Halloween they will be desperate enough not to be lured by decorations!
     
  11. Bryant RedHawk

    Bryant RedHawk Junior Member

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    Great plan sweetpea, we also have Christmas, so many of the churches do a nativity that has straw bales in place. I can get 20-30 just by going in early and asking to pick them up when they are done with them.
     

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