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.
Setting up the bales
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.
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.
Adding a bit of Flea Market quirkiness
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!
Adding a Trellis to the straw bale garden
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.
Now, after two weeks the bale was becoming nice, soft and sponge-like.
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.
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:
Italian Heirloom tomato
Red Zebra tomato
San Marzano tomato, a Roma.
Sweet peppers ‘Marconi’, sweet with a thin skin
Tomatillo ‘Purple de Milpa’
Tomatillo ‘Toma Verde’ (you need two for fruit)
Bunching Onions ‘Red Baron’
Italian sweet basil
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. .
About the Book
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 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!