• Trying out a straw bale garden

    by  • May 23, 2013 • Edibles, Garden

    A Straw Bale Garden?  Sure, I love experiments!

    Recently I decided to try the technique called straw bale gardening, after an online chat with the author, Joel Karsten, who wrote the book, Straw Bale Gardens. My garden is on a mountainside in Central California. See the steps I took in this experiment!

    My Ranch Gate garden

    I had plans for fencing in a garden finally, so the deer would be discouraged. Our property is right next to the National Forest and deer cross through daily. I had found three old gates on our property and we staked them together first on this sloped piece of ground.

    Starting the Ranch Gate garden.

    Starting the Ranch Gate garden

    Setting up the bales

    First square formation.

    First square formation

    I timed my start date for four weeks from the day I wanted to plant, first week of May.  The straw bales need that long to be ready.  At first, I wanted to set the bales on their flat sides, like I had in my experimental bale at the nursery. Then I learned that you needed to set then cut side up so water runs through the bale through the ‘drinking straw’ straws.  The nylon strings go around the sides.

    Straws channel water to keep the bale moist

    Straws channel water to keep the bale moist

    We settled on three in a row and one crosswise like an “L”. We had to level the sloped ground here just so the bales would stand up right. I knew from the experimental one, that the bale would eventually compost down and fall apart, so ‘T’ stakes at either end would be needed.

    Raking the area level

    Raking the area level


    The final 'L' shape

    The final ‘L’ shape

    Adding a bit of Flea Market quirkiness

    Flea Market garden 'gate.'

    Flea Market garden ‘gate.’

    Next comes the Flea Market part. We needed a fourth side and I have a stack of old doors to use somehow, so I took this old screen door and we cobbled together the enclosure.  The ground is so sloped that the door frame is the only level thing about the enclosure.I planned little flower beds on either side. It looks pretty bare at this point and someone even said ‘ugly,’ but I have a vision!  I’ll get the practical part done, then decorate!

    Here's the view from the inside looking out.

    Here’s the view from the inside looking out.

    Adding a Trellis to the straw bale garden

    Trellis strung and soaker hose pinned down

    Trellis strung and soaker hose pinned down. Maggie is attracted (yucky!) by the blood meal sprinkled on top.

    Next, we staked the ends of the bales to hold them together and I strung 16 gauge wire to act as a trellis. I laid out a soaker hose for watering and added a timer. I have no idea yet how much water will be needed as the bale hold moisture so well.

    Conditioning the straw bales

    The bales need to be watered for 21 days at least. You also need to add nitrogen, as in a 10-10-10 fertilizer, or an organic option like blood meal that I used.  This process starts the bales composting and becoming soft and workable.  The nitrogen acts to combine with the decomposing straw to make a complete soil for the plants to grow in.

    This process takes a few weeks, so you will want to plan ahead and do this before you plant. Bales held over from the year before will not need to go through this step.

    To start the process, keep the straw bales wet for three to four weeks before planting. If you would like to speed up the process, here is a recipe that works well.

    • Days 1 to 3: Water the bales thoroughly and keep them damp.
    • Days 4 to 6: Sprinkle each bale with ½ cup urea (46-0-0) and water well into bales. You can substitute bone meal, fish meal, or compost for a more organic approach.
    • Days 7 to 9: Cut back to ¼ cup urea or substitute per bale per day and continue to water well.
    • Day 10: No more fertilizer is needed, but continue to keep bales damp.
    • Day 11: Stick your hand into the bales to see if they are still warm. If they have cooled to less than your body heat, you may safely begin planting after all danger of frost has passed.
    Nitrogen was added to start the conditioning.

    Nitrogen was added to start the conditioning. I used the whole box on the four bales.

    Sticking a hand in

    Sticking a hand in

    Now, after two weeks the bale was becoming nice, soft and sponge-like.

    Planting time!

    Plant seedlings just like you would if they were in the ground. If it says to plant 18 inches apart, then that is the same for the bale. Take a sharp trowel and separate the straw. Place the plant down to the first leaf and let the straw fill in around it. Be careful not to cut the twine while planting.


    Planting the bales

    Planting the bales

    If you want to plant seeds, like beans, place a small layer of compost mixed with soil on the top of the bale, like icing on a cake, and plant the seeds directly into the soil. Cover the seeds with a light dusting of soil or peat moss and water in well.

    When planting tomatoes, you will want to stake them with a 6-foot stake because cages do not work well to support the plant because of the way the bales break down as the season goes by.  You want the support to last until December!

    In my Straw Bales:

    Cuostralee tomato
    Italian Heirloom tomato
    Red Zebra tomato
    San Marzano tomato, a Roma.
    Sweet peppers ‘Marconi’, sweet with a thin skin
    Anaheim peppers
    Fresno pepper
    Tomatillo ‘Purple de Milpa’
    Tomatillo ‘Toma Verde’ (you need two for fruit)
    Bunching Onions ‘Red Baron’
    Italian sweet basil
    Cucumber ‘Diva’
    Strawberries ‘Fresca’

    Planted bales

    All planted for now, but will add lettuce in the shade of the cherry tree and “straw”berries! Notice the ‘fancy’ carpet…

    Watering wisely

    Timer wired to the fence for easy reach.

    Simple crank timer wired to the fence for easy reach

    I set up the timer for the soaker hose and it waters the two little planting beds on either side of the gate as well as the mound, the Hugelkultur. Hugelkultur? (More on that later, but it’s another gardening technique,…gardening in a mound or hill.) I tried it for 10 minutes and directed the water here and there around the garden, so things would drain well.

    10-15 minutes twice a week was ideal and well within any local water restrictions.  If the bale don’t get wet enough, keep to twice a week and water for longer or adjust the hose to wet the areas needed. .


    Setting for the Ranch Gate garden next to the meadow.

    Setting for the Ranch Gate garden next to the meadow

    About the Book

    Straw Bale Gardens

    Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten

    Straw Bale Gardens: an imaginative way to upcycle straw bales and grow all the vegetables you need,…easily!

    Flea Market gardeners love to repurpose things and use ordinary items for creative projects. This type of creative inspiration hit Joel Karsten after seeing hay and straw bales grow sprouts as they decomposed on the farm. He also found himself with a yard full of heavy clay and was disappointed that he’d have to replace all his soil to grow a garden. That’s when he remembered the straw bales of his youth, growing healthy thistle weeds!

    Joel Karsten, conditioning the bales

    Joel then tried growing vegetable plants in the straw bales purposely and it worked! After some experimentation, he found easy techniques for using straw bales as a growing medium for tomatoes, squash, beans and lettuce to name a few of the veggies that can be grown successfully this way. What I like best is the way bales can be laid out in a neat formations, use less soil,…way less… and best of all, are raised beds,..up off the ground.

    Joel’s experiment led to a book and a website , Straw Bale Gardens and he has an impressive speaking schedule explaining his easy, fun and productive gardening method. Would you like to try this method of vegetable gardening? I would!


    More of the story:

    Part 2: Summer progress on the straw bale garden

    Part 3: Straw Bale gardening in the Sierra foothills: Harvest

    Part 4: Growing veggies in the remnants of a straw bale garden


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.