Gardening can be a huge hassle when you are first getting started. Not only do you need to find an optimal location with adequate sun, but you need prepared beds and decent soil conditioned with plenty of organic material. Preparing the beds is not difficult but it can take time and significant expense, especially if you are starting from scratch.
As a result of my recent move, I faced the prospect of building beds, bringing in soil, and doing the arduous work of getting my food garden ready for to go in time for spring time planting. All of this was complicated by my lack of familiarity with the area as well as need to assess fencing given the local wildlife. As I like to say, it is “all too much” to do at once and so I considered going with container gardening this year.
Luckily, serendipity stepped in and a long-time reader and author in her own right, Susan Perry, wrote to me about her great experience with a straw bale garden. I was hooked and invited Susan to share her expertise with us, including the steps needed to get started.
For the Easiest Gardening Ever, Try Straw Bales!
Last April, after many years of gardening, my enthusiasm was starting to wane. I still had that rush of Spring Fever gardeners always get, imagining handfuls of perfect, fresh green beans and huge, ripe tomatoes infinitely better than store-bought. But memories of the effort involved kept sneaking in. Did I really want to be out there watering and weeding all summer long?
Thank goodness I came across an article about a growing method called straw bale gardening. The article claimed that after a simple initial setup, there was very little maintenance for the rest of the summer.
By the time I finished reading, my enthusiasm was back! I was out the door heading for Lowe’s that afternoon to get some straw bales.
What Is a Straw Bale Garden?
It’s a container garden, using a straw bale as the container!
Here are the steps:
1. Set the bales in a sunny spot with the cut edges up and the strings on the sides. They can be in straight rows, angles, a big circle; you can have one bale or ten, whatever fits your space.
2. Sprinkle about two cups of nitrogen fertilizer over the top of each bale.
3. Water the bales to saturate them and work in the nitrogen. Check them every day and add water as needed to keep them wet.
4. In about two weeks, the straw on the inside starts to turn into compost. Now you’re ready to plant!
5. Tap in your seeds to their proper depth. For started transplants, use a pointed stick or tool to make a small opening and tuck in the roots.
Group plants together that need similar amounts of water. For example, tomatoes, peppers, and leafy greens like a lot, while most herbs like to get a bit dry between watering.
To add to the fun, you can plant small herbs and flowers down the sides of the bales.
6. As your plants grow, keep an eye on them for how much water they need. If your area tends toward hot, dry weather, a soaker hose makes it easier to keep things moist. If leaves start turning yellow, add a bit more nitrogen.
To support tomatoes, cucumbers, and peas, you can pound a fence post into the ground at each end of a row, then attach heavy string or wires to each post, stringing the wires down the row above the bales. You can also stake plants individually.
What I’ll Do Differently Next Year
For the most part, I was thrilled with the results. The no-weeding claim was not an exaggeration! I harvested twice the cucumbers from one-fourth the space of previous years, and the grape tomatoes just wouldn’t stop. They spread over their stakes and out into the yard so far I had to set up benches for them. Even with only three plants, we couldn’t eat them fast enough, and I froze the extra.
But there were also a few things I could improve on. Next time, to prevent water from running through the bales and onto the ground, which happened most times I watered, I’ll lay down some black plastic to go underneath, and wrap some from the base to about halfway up the sides. This would also reduce how often the bales need water. And to hold back the grass, I’ll put down mulch around the edges.
By mid-summer, several bales had collapsed when the string disintegrated. The plants keeled over, their roots were exposed, and they never quite recovered. So, next time I’ll wrap a wire around the sides of each bale to reinforce the string.
The seeds that were supposed to be planted one-half inch deep were difficult if not impossible to cover with straw. I eventually sprinkled potting soil on them, but some were already dead, so it would be better to do this at the start.
What Plants Can Be Grown In a Straw Bale?
Vegetables, flowers, herbs, even potatoes can be grown this way! There is one exception: don’t plant perennials like asparagus or rhubarb, since the bales can be used for only one year, two at the most. (After that they make excellent mulch.)
Which reminds me, the other thing I’ll do next year is plant strawberries! In the past, I’ve had terrible luck with diseases, but with the berries so high off the ground, they should do much better.
What Equipment is Needed?
Basic: straw bales, nitrogen (ex. Organic Blood Meal)
Optional: soaker hose, plastic sheeting for ground cover, stakes, fence poles & wire
What are the advantages?
1. Less work.
With the bales above ground, there’s less stooping and bending, and no digging, aerating, or tilling. Your knees and back will thank you! You can even place the bales on a pallet for additional height.
2. Weeds are virtually a thing of the past.
Any lurking in the straw are killed by the heat the first two weeks. The few that might appear later can be plucked right out with your thumb and finger.
3. It’s economical and healthy.
Going organic has never been easier! Straw bales cost about $5, and a bag of Organic Blood Meal is less than $10. You’ll also avoid spending money on soil amendments, fungicides, and disease and pest control.
4. Plants grow faster.
Straw decomposition in the interior of the bales provides a warmer environment. This fosters quick root development and faster plant growth.
5. Gardening is possible even if you have poor quality soil.
Your plants will have no idea that you could never garden before!
If you’ve been wishing you could be on the cutting edge of something, a straw bale garden may be just the thing. It greatly reduces the work of growing fresh produce and increases the yield in a small space. And as an added bonus, you’ll have a fresh topic of conversation for your next social event!
I’m sending all gardeners out there best wishes for happy garden times and a lovely harvest!
For more information, this is the book I recommend: Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten.
The Final Word
About the same time Susan contacted me, a number of Facebook fans started chatting about their success with straw bale gardens. I literally did a little dance. A straw bale garden is giving me the life raft I need to get a garden going quickly, easily, and within budget this year. I am so excited!
How about you? Have you used the straw bale method of gardening and if so, do you have tips and strategies to share? I would love to hear about them!
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!