• Straw Bale gardening in the Sierra foothills: Harvest

    by  • September 12, 2013 • Edibles, Garden • 7 Comments

    Harvesting the straw bale garden

    I call this experiment a success!   After reading and reviewing the book Straw Bale Gardens sent to me by author, Joel Karston, I became intrigued by the concept of growing a garden in straw instead of soil.  I wondered if this would be a good idea here in the Sierra Foothills, since our soil can be difficult and usually we have the best success with raised beds and purchased soil.

    So, last Spring in mid-May, I decided to give it a try with a modest four-bale garden. Tractor Man had just helped me enclose a garden area with some old ranch gates we found on the place. The bales were bought and ready to go!  If you know me at all, you know I love garden experiments!

    The cost was modest. Instead of soil you buy straw, long metal stakes and some wire. A little fertilizer in the form of bloodmeal is the only other thing purchased. See the links at the end of this post for the step by step instructions.


    Ranch Gate garden in Mid-June

    Ranch Gate garden in Mid-June 2013

    August vacation leave

    Leaving home for three weeks is risky at any time when you’re a gardener and with my straw bale garden in the experimental year, I admit I was nervous! So far, I had harvested a pound or two of tomatoes and had the pleasure of giving some away, I had made a tomato, pepper and eggplant soup and frozen four large tomatoes in a gallon sized freezer bag. I was thrilled to have gotten this far, so I thought if there was nothing left, if a deer jumped in and devoured everything or heavens, it dried up and rotted away, I wouldn’t be heartbroken. This is my first real vegetable garden that actually produced food for the table. So, I told myself not to worry…


    Last year, I had a tomato and onion garden in galvanized tubs, unprotected from deer and although I didn’t notice any nibble that year by four footed animals, I did notice the devastation caused by the footless pest, the tomato hornworm! Bad luck and I didn’t have enough tomatoes planted that I could agreeably share with a worm. He wiped me out.

    Five galvanized tubs with drainage holes hold tomatoes, green onions and jalapeno peppers

    Last year, five galvanized tubs, with drainage holes, held tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, green onions and jalapeno peppers.


    First week of September

    Harvesting the Straw bale garden

    Harvesting the Straw bale garden

    So, back to today, the first week of September. After returning from vacation, I was delighted to find that the garden had not only survived, but flourished, big time.


    In front the mini gardens maxed out

    In front the mini gardens maxed out…Black eyed Susans and golden Pineapple salvia. Deer abound on our place and nibbled the tomatoes through the fence, but the flowers were deer proof!


    Lush and green with less water

    The garden stayed lush and green even with less water… the black eyed Susans were volunteers.

    I noticed that the left end of the bales, due to it being on the end where there’s the most water, I think, is sagging and tilting down. I was hoping to plant winter vegetables in the bales once the tomatoes were done, but I may have to change those plans, especially if the tomatoes keep producing this Fall. I’m thrilled with how it’s producing and there must be fifty more tomatoes on the vines.

    About the Book

    Straw Bale Gardens

    Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten

    STRAW BALE GARDEN:Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding by Joel Karsten   an imaginative way to upcycle straw bales and grow all the vegetables you need,…easily!



    Today, I just harvested:

    • Two pounds of Japanese Long Eggplant
    • 10 pounds of tomatoes
    • A handful or two of basil
    • One pound of green peppers
    Heirloom Italian, Early Girl, San Marzano and Red Zebra

    Some of the harvest…Heirloom Italian, Early Girl, San Marzano and Red Zebra

    No sign of hornworms

    The entire garden was lush and green with half as much water given (Our neighbor watered every other day, instead of every day, for 20 minutes.)

    The rug prevented weeds in the center of the garden.



    First of all, the top wire of the trellising sagged a foot under the weight of the tomato vines

    The deer did find the vines and fruit that grew through the gates

    Some tomatoes vined all the way to the ground where they were attacked by gnats.


    Sagging trellis wire

    Sagging trellis wire…I imagine this would happen with many tomato cages, too. These vines are heavy and healthy!



    Nibbles by hungry deer. The bales were set a foot inside the fence to discourage them reaching in too far


    Better Belles and Japanese Long Eggplant

    Better Belles and Japanese Long Eggplant


    Just add lettuce, red onion, avocado and walnuts

    Just add lettuce, red onion, avocado and walnuts


    Favorite salad for when Tractor Man is at softball

    This is great for a light meal with or without the chicken or shrimp. When you have a bite with all the ingredients on it, it’s heavenly!

    On leafy greens, add:

    • Shrimp or chicken
    • Chopped tomato
    • Kalamata olives, halved
    • ¼ med clove of garlic, for 1 salad
    • Chopped green onions
    • Crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
    • Coarsely chopped walnuts or sunflower seeds

    Serve with chunky Bleu cheese dressing for richness or easy vinaigrette:


    Tomato salad with a little lettuce

    Tomato salad with a little lettuce

    Easy Vinaigrette

    For 1 salad

    Whisk in the bottom of the salad bowl:

    • 4 T olive oil
    • 2 T white wine vinegar
    • 1 t mustard
    • Salt & pepper to taste

    Preserving the extra

    Did you know you can freeze tomatoes whole? It’s easy.

    Just wash the not-so-pretty tomatoes and in this case the Heirloom Italian and San Marzanos, meant especially for sauce and pop them in one layer in a large freezer bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible and freeze flat. When you’re ready to cook, just thaw and the skin just peels off easily. Simmer, season, reduce and then blend to make a wonderful pasta sauce.

    Freezing the harvest for sauce

    Freezing the harvest for sauce


    Reader, K Sage Buffington asks: I wonder how many nutrients the plants/fruits can have? Does the straw have bio-available similarity to growing in the earth? :::wondering:::

    ‘Straw Bale Gardens,’ Author, Joel Karston: The fruits will have exactly the same nutrient content as traditionally grown vegetables. The straw as it decomposes, is becoming soil inside the bale, thus you are growing in “soil”, however it is brand new soil, just created by mother natures helpers. Bacteria, worms, insects and fungi all team up to make soil from the straw.

    My question was, ‘Can I plant winter vegetables in the same straw bales if they are in good enough shape? I imagine that they may become mounds instead of ‘bales.’

    Joel Karston: You can use the bales that remain for planting fall crops. If they are still in good shape, they work well. This is often predetermined by how large and compact the bales are that you purchase at the beginning of the process. Bigger and more compressed, thus denser and heavier is a good thing, all-be-it they are harder to move around, they do tend to last two seasons.


    More on Straw Bale Gardens

    You can catch up on the early progress of my wonderful straw bales here:

    Part 1 Creating a straw bale garden

    Part 2: Growing a straw bale garden!

    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.

    7 Responses to Straw Bale gardening in the Sierra foothills: Harvest

    1. October 4, 2013 at 5:09 pm

      I’ll be honest, at first I thought this sounded crazy! However, the proof is in the harvest. Around here the price of potting soil, and the price of a bale of straw is roughly the same, so it’s not like it would be an inordinate expense, except of course that the bales will have to ultimately be replaced. Interesting though, and the advantage I can see is the height of the garden. To fill a raised bed to that height with soil would cost a small fortune!

      • Sue Langley
        October 6, 2013 at 4:10 pm

        It does sound trendy, but it’s been an interesting experiment. I was especially glad to hear about the nutrient content from the author of the book. Only one bale, with strawberries planted too late, is disintegrating , because it’s the closest to the water spray. I may be able to fit in another bale in that spot. I’m planning to divide the healthiest strawberry roots like you did last time.

    2. Lynda
      October 5, 2013 at 10:07 am

      Good Job!! I had a large strawbale (15 bales) in SoCal in 2010 and it was VERY prolific, particularly in tomato harvesting. I believe I had 6 bales (2 tomato plants per) dedicated to tomatoes.My daughter installed 7 ft T posts between the bales after the tomatoes starting growing. We then attached 5ft high field fencing between the posts and on top of the bales. The tomato plants got even higher than that and I harvested through November. I had to use my wagon when I harvested and I made big batches of yummy roasted tomato sauce to freeze. Gophers and rabbits were my garden nemesis and while the gophers were kept at bay, the rabbits were able to jump up on the bales and loved eating melon flowers. I ended up fencing the non-tomato plant (the leaves are poisonous and bunnies seem to know that) bales with 3ft rabbit fencing and that worked. We are now in northern AZ and my strawbales were not only much more expensive, but harder to cure (soften before planting) AND the tomatoes were not particularly prolific and I had tons of squash beetles that invaded the zukes, cukes, melons and pumpkins in the bales and the one concrete block high raised bed.

      I long for the growing of tomatoes in strawbales in CA!

      • Sue Langley
        October 6, 2013 at 4:14 pm

        Very interesting to hear your experience, Lynda. Wow, lots of tomatoes you harvested and I imagine ours will ripen until we get our first freeze as well. I’ve promised to let my Sierra Foothill Facebook group know for how long I can harvest them. Fun to experiment.

    3. Bre
      October 6, 2013 at 2:40 pm

      Hi I have been living in the Coarsegold area for the past year and have had bad luck with my gardening efforts but your blog is inspiring me once again! If you don’t mind me asking, what nurseries do you get your plants from!?

    4. Sue Langley
      October 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm

      Thanks, Bre, for your kind compliment. There are three main plant sources up here. Closest to you are the two True Value stores. Good for many drought tolerant and veggie plant as well as annuals and gallon sized perennials.

      Next is Western Sierra Nursery in Oakhurst. More expensive but good quality and full service.

      For native and Mediterranean plant, the ones perfect for our area is the Intermountain Nursery in Prather. It’s a wonderful nursery with the most knowledgeable staff. They have a Harvest and Peace Festival next weekend, an event I never miss if I can help it.

    5. Marie Lewis
      December 3, 2013 at 5:01 pm

      Hi. Thinking about the straw bale garden and your mention of possibly using them for a second season. You mentioned that the ends of the bale were breaking down. It occurs to me that you might wrap the bales with aviary wire or poultry wire from the beginning. That might give each bale more support during the the first growing season, through the winter season and into the following spring and summer growing season.

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