Straw Bale Gardening is an innovative method to grow veggies and flowers. Like all growing techniques it has its pros and cons. Let's take a closer look!
Last spring we finally moved our vegetable "cage" to a sunny spot. Our plan was to start a garden with our kids. Now all we had to do was figure out how to convert an area of lawn into garden beds. It needed to be easy and cheap and Straw Bale Gardening seemed to fit the bill. Now after the first growing season it's time to take stock and talk about whether it's worth continuing.
What's Straw Bale Gardening?
Straw Bale Gardening is a method of growing crops developed by Joel Karsten that uses - you guessed it - straw bales. The idea is that you're planting into a bale of decomposing straw which is essentially compost.
Your plants get their nutrients from the straw that's breaking down. After about two seasons you replace the straw bale and compost whatever is left of the old one.
Now, Straw Bale Gardening is super low maintenance, except for the conditioning period. In order to jump start the decomposition process you have to treat your straw bales with some form (organic or non-organic) of high nitrogen fertilizer.
This will help grow the number of good bacteria in your straw bale exponentially and allow it to "rot" faster. You can actually stick your hand in the bale and feel how hot it gets from all the bacterial activity when it starts to break down. It's pretty neat!
Getting Started with Straw Bale Gardening
In Joel Karsten's book "Straw Bale Gardens Complete" (affiliate link) there is a conditioning chart on how often and how much fertilizer to apply to each bale. I followed his directions pretty closely, but skipped one or two applications toward the end. Since I still had three weeks before putting in my seedlings I figured the bales would mature on their own over time. And they did.
As the organic nitrogen fertilizer for the conditioning process I used Milorganite®(affiliate link). It worked fine except that it kind of settled on top of the bale and never really fully dissolved. This didn't seem to interfere with the conditioning process though. It was more of an "Am I doing this right?" thing for me.
Our growing season is in full swing over here and I'm certainly starting to see some great results from growing in straw bales as well as some drawbacks.
Since this was my first try with straw bales, I was a little more conservative on the number of bales I got and crops to grow. I wanted to see if it would actually work. So, this year I started with 3 bales and planted 9 cherry tomato plants, 20 garlic bulbs and some sunflower seeds.
Thus far my tomatoes are doing great, my garlic plants are slowly coming up (could also be because I put them in too late when it was already pretty hot out) and the sunflowers came up, but then rotted at the base after a period of heavy rain...
Let's start with the pros:
Pros of Straw Bale Gardening
Compared to raised beds, straw bales are certainly cheap. I paid 10 dollars per bale and then another 30 bucks for 32lbs. of Milorganite® to condition the bales. If I had to buy lumber or already assembled raised beds plus the soil to fill them with, it would've been a lot more money.
2. Easy to Set Up
Straw bales aren't light, but they're not that bad to move with a wheel barrow. Getting them to there designated spot will be the most strenuous activity you'll have to do. The conditioning process is easy and consists of sprinkling fertilizer on top of the bales and watering. Keep in mind that once the bales are soaked with water they'll be very difficult to move. So, choose your growing spot wisely and consider sufficient sunlight and protection from critters (eg. fencing etc.).
3. Perfect Height for People (Big or Small)
I don't know about you, but I'd rather not bend down or crawl around on my knees when gardening. These straw bales have made gardening perfectly comfortable for me. Planting, staking, pruning and harvesting all while maintaining a somewhat upright position. This could be a game changer for gardeners that have trouble moving around with ease.
I basically always tend to my plants when I have my kids in tow. And for them the bales are right at eye level. They have easy access to the plants when they help me water. I never have to worry about them stepping on the plants.
4. No Weeds
Some gardeners report that they start to see weeds or grass grow in their bales after a while. Likely because there are weed or grass seeds present in the bales. However, I haven't had to pull a single weed since starting Straw Bale Gardening, which is really quite amazing considering how aggressive weeds spread around here.
5. Perfect Drainage
We've had a pretty wet spring and summer with periods where it would rain a day or two straight. Tomato plants usually don't like to be too wet and overwatering can easily lead to a slew of problems. My bale tomatoes have been very happy so far, their container grown counterparts not so much (they have at some point developed root rot).
I attribute the good result of the bale tomatoes to the fact that straw bales have the ability to drain excess water rapidly while holding on to just enough moisture for the plants to grow.
What's great too is that I don't have to worry about pathogens present in the soil splashing up onto my plants. Especially during heavy rain or when my kids water (which tends to be a rather sloppy undertaking 😉
6. Critter control
Much like everywhere in North America we too have a number of critters that treat our garden as an all you can eat buffet. Deer, groundhogs, rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks are probably the worst offenders around here.
Now, to keep the deer out we have our veggie garden fenced in, our "veggie cage" if you will. But how about those herbivores that tunnel under the fence, like groundhogs? Normally you would have to dig a 2 feet deep trench around your garden and bury cinder blocks under the fencing. Sounds like work...
Well, using straw bales has allowed me to simply line the ground of my small veggie cage with fencing and place the bales directly on top of it. Granted this will only work and be cost effective if you're fenced in area is relatively small. But for me this was the easiest, cheapest and fastest solution.
Squirrels have a hard time digging around and messing up plantings in straw bales as well. I recently installed a raised bed, filled it with good soil and the next day: holes all over from some nosy squirrel hoping to find a nut. This won't happen with bales since the straw is very tightly packed and won't entice critters to start digging.
Straw bale also have certain critter deterring properties when it comes to voles and rabbits. Voles will most likely not tunnel through thick straw. And as far as the rabbits are concerned, they might (if you're lucky) not want to jump onto the bales to get their munch on.
7. No Rotation Planting
In a regular vegetable garden - be it in raised beds or in ground - it's a good idea to rotate your crops every few years. This means that you wouldn't plant your tomatoes in the same spot over and over again since nutrients in the soil are likely to be depleted and crop specific pathogens might be present in the soil.
When you garden in straw bales you don't have to worry about rotating your crops since you're starting with fresh bales every couple of years. There's also no need to let an area "rest" for a season to replenish nutrients. That's good news for anyone with a small garden wanting to get the most out of every square foot.
Cons of Straw Bale Gardening
As you might have guessed from my long pros list - I'm totally hooked on Straw Bale Gardening. Next season I'm planning to add more bales and different crops to my garden. There are only a few cons to Straw Bale Gardening in my experience. They might not even be a big deal for your particular situation.
1. Wasp's Nest
There was an incident last summer when I went out with the kids to get some tomatoes. My then 1 year old got attacked and stung by a wasp. His leg brushed against the short side of the bale. And a wasp frantically started clinging to his pants and stinging him through the fabric.
First, we thought it was just unlucky. But then I noticed drones of wasps flying in and out of the bale. It was clear that they had made a nest inside it.
For the rest of the summer the kids couldn't come close to this particular bale. I was very careful to avoid the entrance to the nest when harvesting.
When I cleaned up the veggie patch this spring, I dug up a grapefruit sized nest.
This one experience shouldn't deter you from starting a Straw Bale Garden not knowing how common this occurrence really is. I simply urge you to closely observe insects flying around your bales. So, you can identify and stay away from any nests.
One big selling point of Straw Bale Gardening is that you can instantly create a garden even in the most unlikely places, like your driveway for example. I have my bales placed in the back where no one can see them. But as the growing season progressed, I couldn't help but notice that the straw bales started to look more like, well, rotting straw.
At times we also had an impressive assortment of mushrooms growing on them when the weather got too wet. Not very attractive. Personally, I wouldn't place my straw bales in my front driveway, but that's just me.
If you're planning your straw bale garden in a prominent spot, you might consider growing flowers along the sides or hide it behind an existing garden bed. Or simply not give a hoot about what front yards are supposed to look like and go ahead with it.
This season I grew indeterminate "sun gold" cherry tomatoes (yum!). They eventually got so tall that they surpassed my 8 feet stakes. When the plants were in their glory and full of fruit, staking became a bit of a challenge. I noticed my stakes in the bales being a little on the wobbly side.
Decomposing straw doesn't provide as strong of an anchor for tall stakes as would garden soil. But on the flip side because of its soft texture, it's very easy to drive stakes into the straw bales.
In the end it all worked out...
Simply be aware that if you're planning to grow very tall and heavy plants, like let's say corn stalks, Straw Bale Gardening might not be the best choice for you.
There you have it. This concludes my pros and cons of Straw Bale Gardening list for now. I'm sure there will be more items to add over the years.
I'm planning to start a few bales again this year. I was very impressed with the harvest we got last season. And also, because I'm tired of squirrels rummaging around and digging up my new plantings.
If your interest is peaked and you want to dig deeper on the subject I highly recommend reading "Straw Bale Gardens Complete" by Joel Karsten. It's full of useful information about Straw Bale Gardening! Joel and his wife also have a great website with lots of free content and instructional videos.
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Until next time. Happy Tinkering!