Have you ever noticed that some plants grow best in places where they shouldn’t be growing at all? I have some bare spots in my lawn that I can’t get to grow grass, but at the same time I grow a bumper crop of grass in the cracks in my driveway.
Joel Karsten noticed the same thing when he was growing up on a farm. They stored straw bales in the barn, but any broken bales got stacked outside next to the barn. Joel noticed that weeds that took root in the straw bales outside grew twice as big as the same weeds growing in the dirt next to the bales. Curious, eh?
Fast-forward several years. Joel grew up, left the farm, earned a degree in Horticulture Science, and moved into a house in the city. He wanted to plant a vegetable garden in his back yard, but he discovered that he had no usable topsoil. It would cost a bundle to truck in the amount of topsoil he would need to do the planting he wanted. What to do?
That’s when he remembered the straw bales from the farm, and the rest (as they say) is Making Gardening Easier history.
An afternoon we spent at the local Home & Garden Show last month included a seminar by Joel as he taught us about straw bale gardening method. I’d never heard of it, but now I can’t wait to try it. We’re planning to include about twelve bales in our garden this year. In those twelve bales, we’re hoping to grow beans (both bush and pole), brussel sprouts, carrots, cucumbers, okra, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, and strawberries. Hmmm… sounds like a lot of plants to this old boy – but that’s how excited I am about this concept. We’ll see what works best and report back to you. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
How Do Straw Bales Make Gardening Easier?
We have previously blogged in this series about raised bed gardening, square foot gardening, and container gardening. Straw bale gardening bundles all of these methods together and accomplishes it with bales of straw. The bale is the container in which you plant and, by its very nature, is a raised bed –one that is much higher than your typical raised bed. It doesn’t adhere to the square foot grid, but conceptually it is more like square foot gardening than traditional gardening because you will be thinking about planting in rectangles instead of rows. So you are getting the best of all three worlds along with the additional advantages of using straw as your growing medium.
Straw bale gardening evangelist Joel Karsten lists the following advantages he claims his method offers:
- 75% less labor – of course this is somewhat dependent on how extensive your garden is
- No weeding
- Low start-up costs
- Doesn’t require crop rotation
- Is “green” – as the bales are used, they degrade, creating rich compost for the next year
- Holds moisture well, yet is impossible to over-water
- Prevents disease and insect issues
- Extends the growing season because the temperature within the bale will become warmer than the outside air
That’s a pretty impressive list, and one that caused us to take notice. You can learn more from his website, by attending one of his seminars, or by reading his very thorough book Straw Bale Gardens. Or do all three like we have!
For our city friends – straw and hay are not the same thing. Both are baled and to the non-farmer are easily confused. Hay is usually baled alfalfa or grass. The whole plant is cut down (grain heads and stalks), baled, and used to feed animals. Hay will have the heads of grain in it (which become weeds in your bale garden) and won’t hold water as well. Hay usually costs more than straw.
Straw is the dried out stalks of various grains (so it has little nutritional value) with the heads of grain removed. It is baled, then used primarily for animal bedding. Straw stalks are like little drinking straws – that is, they are tubes that hold and conduct water. What a great idea for gardening, right? [FYI, if you like the science of gardening, Karsten’s book is great. He fully explains the science behind the method, including how the straw pulls the water into the tube instead of just letting it run out. It’s kind of geeky and kind of fun.]
So hay is for eating, straw is for sleeping…and planting. For straw bale gardening, you want (… wait for it …) straw bales.
Container Gardening with Straw Bales
So think of your bale of straw as your container. That means, first and foremost, that you will NOT be un-baling or un-bundling the straw. It will stay in its nicely bound rectangular shape. Turn your bales so that the wire or twine that bounds the bale should be on the sides of the bale, parallel to the ground. Once the bales have been placed, you can plant both the tops and sides of the bales. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Once you have your container (in this case, the straw bale), you need soil, right? Well, sort of. If you do your container gardening in buckets, you have to fill the bucket with some kind of soil or growing medium. With straw bale gardening, the straw bale becomes the growing medium. To make this happen, you’ll be doing a process Karsten calls “conditioning” your bales.
Conditioning the bales transforms the dry straw into a fertile growing medium. You don’t scoop straw out of the bake and fill it with dirt. The bale becomes the dirt. And pretty darned good dirt, at that. More like compost, really. But to hasten the process of straw becoming compost, you need to condition it.
Conditioning is accomplished by soaking the bales with water and treating them with fertilizer over a period of several days. As the fertilizer is pushed by the water into the center of the bale, the internal temperature of the bale will rise as it begins to decompose. After about 12 days of the treatment process, the bales will have cooled down to an appropriate planting temperature.
Tips for Successful Straw Bale Gardening
Throughout the straw bale gardening process, you’ll need to keep the bales watered sufficiently. If there is one downside to straw bale gardening, it’s the amount of water that’s required. This will be a deal-breaker for those living in a drought-stricken area. Even for the rest of us, using water from a rain barrel or catchment system of some sort will help to keep our water bill down. A soaker hose is the ideal means of watering bales. Putting a hose timer on it makes it even more low-maintenance.
Joel stresses on his website that another key to making the straw bale method work is the use of a good trellis system. He recommends installing steel posts at either end of your row of bales and stretching wire between the posts. Space rows of wires 10 inches apart as you go up the posts. This gives your plants the support they’ll need as they grow and provide maximum exposure to the sun and air. (More about this in next week’s blog about vertical gardening.)
A straw bale can be used for up to two growing seasons, depending upon how well they hold up. After they have deteriorated to the point where you can’t use them as a growing container anymore, you can then use the entire bale (or what’s left of it) as compost in some other area of your garden.
We’re stoked on straw bale gardening and look forward to trying this method as another way of making gardening easier.
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