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Building a straw bale garden

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

straw bales beginning

We learned at last year’s Bonnaroo gardening workshop that straw bale gardens are a simple alternative to raised beds. You can place them right on top of any poor soil you may have or – even better – on top of some grass you’re aiming to kill off. Some things to know:

  • Straw is different from hay – Straw bales are made of the dried stalks of grain plants, hay bales are made from cut grasses that still have seed and grain (a nutrient source for horses and livestock) attached. You only want to use straw bales as a growing medium, not hay. Rice, wheat and barley straw is ideal for drainage, but fescue and rye are ok, too.
  • Be sure that the straw has not been treated with anything you wouldn’t want your food growing in and that will not deter the growth of vegetation (herbicides).
  • Straw bales should come bound with rope or twine – this is a good thing. Do not cut off the binding on your bales, it will (as they say) keep it together.

To get started:

  • Lay out a tarp that is a little bit bigger than the straw bales’ footprint and place the bales on top – so that the twine runs parallel to the ground. The tarp makes the soaking process most effective.
  • Soak the bales using a slow stream of water from a hose. This can take a while.
  • Once the bales are moistened, fork in lime (1 pound per bale) and fertilize with a manure or compost tea. The fertilizer will ensure that the bale will really cook.
  • If you’re worried about critters, lay the bales on top of gardening cloth or a layer of poultry fencing.
  • If after about 3-5 days, the bale does not reach an internal temperature of 100 degrees F, add a bit more fertilizer and re-check after three days. You can find a good soil thermometer for under $10 at your favorite garden centers and online.
  • Now you’re ready to plant! Pour about four inches of soil on top of the bale, then create a hole in the soil and the bale for your starter plants. Any vegetable will grow well in straw bales, but stay away from anything that grows too high and may topple over the whole arrangement. Lettuces, tomatoes, potatoes, herbs and peppers are big favorites with straw bale gardeners.
  • Water frequently and weed as necessary. Watch out for slugs as this is moist luxury condo living for them.
  • You can re-use the same bale for subsequent plantings (be sure to fertilize each time) and, once you think you’ve grown all you can in it, compost it for future soil.

Straw bales with growth

Joel Karsten’s book “Straw Bale Gardening” is a downloadable pdf that can be found here. The web site is packed with great information and there is a calendar of workshops for interested Minnesotans, too.

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons on Flickr user RuTemple