straw bales gardening


This will be the first year gardening at the Star House.

Last year we planted a few things, mostly bee friendly perennials plus a few shrubs. To date, the Mountain Ash has survived, in spite of constant nibbling by the deer. The Russian Sage is making its first leaf buds and Iris are up. The weather is a challenge (20 below in October followed by a mostly warm and very dry Winter),  the "soil" more so. These dryland hills are alkaline and clayish with little topsoil. The area around the house is hard pan - not conducive to planting much of anything. Being impatient, we thought to build raised beds. That would entail constructing the sides and then hauling tons of topsoil and compost in before we could plant.

In my quest for information I came across a lot of information on straw bale gardening. Intrigued by the possibility of combining a number of gardening stategies, I pursued every link available. It seemed that thinking about this approach as a combination of raised beds, square foot planting, and intensive techniques would be productive. The garden beds could go in almost immediately. There'd be no need to build frames, no need to have tons of topsoil hauled in, and no need to wait for all our time restrictions to be eased.

My thoughts: bottom line - if it did not work out for whatever reason or combination of reasons, at least we would have fabulous compost to begin with next year. That is not a bad worst case scenario. Meanwhile I'd have the sheer pleasure that comes with dirty fingernails. So we began.

Last year the bee hives and "can-o-worms" were insulated with straw. Bingo, an immediate source of bales. Following instructions, or rather, averaging instructions from a variety of sources, we followed this process. I'm not going to presume to be an expert. This is my first year, my first attempt at this process (but I am a gardener with 40 experience in this region). I'll share what we did and how it worked for us, but highly reccomend you do your own research and combine what you gather with your to-date knowledge of gardening.

The steps:

Positioning the bales - All sources recommend placing the bales for full sun. Depending on your micro climate you might also want bales in part sun for plants that can't take full sun later in the season.

Conditioning - Straw bales are mostly carbon. The goal is to speed up the composting process while creating a healthy growing medium for the plants. The jump start is a very high nitrogen fertilizer, applied on alternate days for about 10 days. The bales are watered well, every day, to soak in the fertilizer and speed up the composting. The internal temperature of the bales can reach up to 120 degrees F during this time. After day 10, watering is continued and the bales are allowed to cool. This might take 5-7 days. Ideally, one waits until the internal temperature cools down to the ambient temperature of the air. Too hot a growing medium and tender roots will burn, too cold and seeds will not germinate. We use a long kitchen thermometer and wait for an internal temp of 50 or so.

After day 10 apply a layer of compost to the tops of the bales and about an inch of topsoil on top of this.

Planting - As with any gardening technique, there are options. Depending on your location and your intentions, both seeds and starts can be used.

For seeds, follow planting instructions for direct sowing on the topsoil. For sets, open a part of the soil down into the straw, add a handful or so of soil and set your plants in, tamp in, mulch if you choose, water in. The sides of the bales can be used as well.


Maintaining - It is recommended to fertilize about every two weeks. Bale gardens are very intensive. A lot is growing in a small space, feed your plants well. We use organic approaches as much as possible. Side dressing with compost, a bi-monthly application of fish emulsion will keep our plants healthy and happy.

Straw bales do dry out quickly. Mulch the plants and consider setting a soaker hose in place for when the plants are larger and thirsty. Weeding should be a minimal task. Grasses might show up. They can be clipped back or pulled.

Tomato cages are used to provide vertical growing space. Trellises would work as well. I'm "cheating the season" by creating little cloche or greenhouse structures to enhance the temperature around warm weather plants and seeds (pole beans, cukes, tomatos). It's a simple approach: contractor's plastic wrapped around the cage, held in place with binder clips. Low tech!

We have set some barriers in place to keep the pup off the plants. So far the deer have not shown any interest in  what is growing. Since the "beds" are raised, bunnies and rodents aren't an issue.

Next up: our calendar record to date and current images.