Create a Straw Bale Garden in Your Backyard

Updated on September 30, 2018
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Mike is an author of tales, tastes, and fun in northern Michigan. When he is not messing around on the Great Lakes, he is writing about them

Gardening Frustration Leads to a Change in Tactics: Straw Bales

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In the movie Dr. Zhivago, there is a memorable quote that goes something like, “If you scratch a Russian, a peasant can be found." In our case, the quote is, “If you give a suburbanite a cool gardening idea, the farmer comes out.” We got the idea of straw-bale gardening from a book by Joel Karsten entitled Learn to Straw Bale Garden.

Joel comes to us from Minnesota where the growing season is incredibly short and the soil tough to cultivate. The situation in northern Michigan is similar. With a large lot next to our cottage consisting of mostly sand and a little acidic oak leaf loam, the opportunity to put in a real successful garden was remote. So we dedicated to experiment ourselves with this unique raised garden technique.

You Want Straw For What?

Beet Top Plantings on Straw
Beet Top Plantings on Straw | Source

In the Northern Thumb of Michigan is farm country. Straw is used primarily for animal bedding. In addition, it is typically cut and baled in the fall in huge rolls weighing over several hundred pounds. Finding baled straw in smaller bales proved tough. However, we managed to find a supply near our cottage that delivered a dozen bales to our lot. After getting them into place and placing a snow fence around the site to deter deer, (good luck with that said a friend), we had an impressive structure of straw in neat rows and surrounded by security. We looked like a Denver-based horticulture operation. Now what?

Benefits of Straw Bale Gardening

Easy to Work With - The raised bed of the bale means no hands and knees in the dirt.

Cheap Alternative - The bales range in cost from $6-8 each. Compare to $10-15 for equivalent of potting soil and peat moss.

Place Them Anywhere - Bales can be placed anywhere sunny. A driveway, along a fence or even a patio.

Novel Way to Garden - We ended up touring the bale stacks numerous times with friend and neighbors checking progress of the plants.

Fertilizer and More Fertilizer

Backyard Garden
Backyard Garden | Source

The process to create an environment to grow plants in straw bales starts with water and fertilizer. We started with inexpensive organic chicken droppings and a commercial 10-10-10 blend of fertilizer. Consult with a reference guide available on-line on the best mix depending on your target crop. We alternated between watering one day, followed with a sprinkle of a small amount of fertilizer, 2-3 cups per bale, the next. This process begins to break down the fibers and soak in moisture and nutrients of the fertilizer. You begin to smell your progress in about a week.

If you stick your hand inside the bales, they should be warm and wet. You may also start seeing breakdown of the straw into grey or black. This is a great sign. The start of composting has started and will continue through the season.

In Straw Bale Gardens, the Initial Heat Is the Key

Green Beans Do Well on Straw
Green Beans Do Well on Straw | Source

Our season had not started, so no one can be full-time up at our cottage in the spring and early summer. We still had to go to work. So we decided to get a couple of bales for the suburban back yard and start the 12 week “cooking” process required to break down the fibrous matter into lush soil-less material in which to plant. This offered us a chance to carefully hone skills required of our 12-bail garden up north. We spent about two weeks alternating between spreading organic fertilizer (pee-you) and watering. By the final days, the bales are now decomposing with an internal temperature exceeding 90 degrees. I sacrificed my digital beer-brewing thermometer for the cause.

Transferring this Experience into a Working Garden

Small Eggplant Growing in Straw Bales
Small Eggplant Growing in Straw Bales | Source

Over a Memorial weekend campfire and several bottles of wine, we convinced our friends and neighbors at the cottage to contribute the effort by hosing down our northern bale garden each day, then spend alternate days of spreading cool-smelling chicken poop and 10-10-10 onto the top of the bales. With 12 wet bales cooking, I hope that the wind is blowing off the beach. It was ripe! By the second weekend of June, we were able to plant several trays of seedlings from the nursery.

We bought a soaker hose to place on the bales. This reduced the evaporation of the sprinkler and directly watered each plant. We also noticed that some of the bales started spouting other plants. This was because some of the bales were contaminated by weeds or were really hay sold as straw. However, weeding is easy.

Mixed Results From Our Straw Bale Garden

Straw Bale Early Harvest
Straw Bale Early Harvest | Source

Our overall results for the season where less than expected. We planted a variety of vegetables. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant and even pole beans. While everything grew, the overall yield was less due to the lack of direct sun and the drying of the bales by the breezes coming up from the beach. The stress that the plants endured from the dry-wet cycle gave rise to some blight. The bean leaves had black spots from fungus.

During our initial planting in the early summer, I planted a row of beans along the snow fence. I loosened the sandy soil and mixed in a little peat moss. Then fertilized with the 10-10-10 mix that we used on the bales. In no time, we had beans with each of our weekend meals. In this case, the juice was not worth the squeeze.

Was Straw Bale Gardening a Failure? No, We Learned A Lot

Straw Bale Garden in Europe
Straw Bale Garden in Europe | Source

Sun Is Key - We thought that the soil condition was the primary success factor to a good garden. It is not. It turns out that as the summer season progresses the leaves from nearby trees had an impact on the amount of sun our bale garden was getting. The morning shade meant that moisture did not evaporate from nighttime dew until late in the day. This heavy moisture content and rich nutrients gave rise to spore growth on the plants. Full sun would have helped.

Time Is Key - We found that straw bales are plentiful and cheap in the fall. By placing the bales winter the breakdown process will begin and you will be more ready to plant in the Spring.

Is Straw Bale Gardening For You?

Young man watering. Note the Deer Fence
Young man watering. Note the Deer Fence | Source

Would Your Consider Making a Straw Bale Garden?

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    © 2018 Mike Hardy

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