I'm an experienced gardener, but my first attempt at a straw-bale garden was certainly a learning experience.
My Garden Experience
I live in a senior apartment complex that has a community garden. I have had a garden here for the last four years, and before that, I helped my elderly mother-in-law with her garden and canning. Though she was in her eighties, she planted gardens that were 1–3 acres.
In the community garden, our spots vary in size depending on how many people sign up. This year, my garden spot is 23 x 13 ft. I read about straw bale gardens last summer about mid-season, so I decided to give it a try this year. I intend to update this article on the progress of my garden and my experience with this type of gardening.
Why Make a Straw Bale Garden?
I am disabled, and I cannot handle a lot of bending and weeding without finding myself out of commission a few days. The straw bales provide a raised bed type situation, where I can't have one permanently. With me being in a community garden, at the end of the season I can cut the twine on the bales and spread the straw before they plow it under for winter.
We also have poor soil that doesn't drain and with this method, you fertilize the bales and they drain water so if we have a wet year, the plants won't drown.
Step 1: Acquire the Straw Bales
Once I found out what size garden spot I had, I got on Craigslist and priced straw bales. They seemed to range from $3–$5 at farms and $5–$12 at garden centers.
If I could score some for $3, I had some elaborate plans to use 21 bales with three rows of bales in my garden space. Reality set in when I actually went to purchase the bales. The farmers that had bales for $3–$5 wanted me to buy at least 100 bales and didn't want to mess with my piddling garden needs. I don't have the funds or storage to buy more bales, so I was back at the garden centers to find my straw.
My first target was a farm store where they advertised $5 a bale. I called before I left home, and they had 44 bales in stock and would not hold any. The clerk commented they had sold over 300 bales in the last week. I drove the 40 miles to that location and found that they sold out 10 minutes before I arrived. The clerk said they had a clinic on straw bale gardening the previous Saturday so they had many people buying bales.
Next, I went to a garden center a few blocks from home, and they wanted $11.50 a bale. That was really outside of my budget, so I went looking further. I found another garden center that had 10 bales of straw in stock that were guaranteed to be clean, organic and $8 a bale. I decided to scale back my grand plans and bought seven bales, leaving me a single row of bales in my garden. It took me two trips to get the bales home in my minivan.
Tips on Hauling Straw
- Straw bales are like some dogs and cats. They shed. If you are hauling bales in your car or van, take 55-gallon trash bags to put your bales in. Otherwise, the inside of your vehicle will look like a barnyard.
- If you have a pickup truck or a friend with a pickup. No worries. The wind or a broom can clean out the back and you don't have to bag your bales.
- No truck or friends you can ask to haul bales? Home centers such as Lowes, Home Depot, and Menards often rent trucks that can be used.
Step 2: Condition Your Bales
Your straw needs to be conditioned to support plant growth. What does that mean? You have to fertilize and water the bales for a couple weeks so they break down and compost inside.
Why can't you plant first and fertilize later? The bales get very hot when this process happens, and it kills any seeds or plants in the bale. This is what keeps you from having to weed your straw.
Every day you have to water the bales to encourage the growth of the nitrogen and other byproducts of composting. Pretty much every other day you have to apply fertilizer. You have to decide up front if you want to have an organic garden or use chemical-based fertilizer on your straw.
Organics methods are usually more expensive, but shop around. The same blood meal that I found for $30 at a local garden center was $7 at my local farm store—same brand and same product.
If you don't care about going organic, you can use plain old lawn fertilizer. Make sure it doesn't have any weed preventer in it, or it will kill your garden plants along with weeds.
If you look at my bales, I have buckets of water beside my bales. Those are to warm the water. Once composting begins, heat builds in the bale, and you don't want to water it with cold water and slow the process down.
I don't have a meat probe thermometer to measure the direct temperature of bales, but last night I went out and stuck my shovel in a bale and wiggled open a crack, and steam came out of it. It is nice and toasty inside.
Step 3: Decide What to Plant
I am on day 11 of conditioning my bales, so that means tomorrow I can plant! Very excited to get this going. Been getting lots of negative comments from my naysaying neighbors regarding this method. Hopefully a month from now they will be eating their words and I will be eating fresh produce.
I plan to plant onions, cucumbers, peas, green beans, strawberries and squash tomorrow. We have a freeze warning tomorrow night so I am counting on the heat from my straw to keep the plants warm.
Straw Bale Garden: April 4, 2016
Step 4: Plant Your Garden
I don't have any transplants yet to go in the garden so I planted seeds.
- Bale 1: 60 red onion sets and marigolds on the outside of the bale
- Bale 2: peas and lettuce
- Bale 3: 40 green bean seeds
- Bale 4: cucumbers
- Bale 5: zucchini
- Bale 6: tomatoes
- Bale 7: 10 strawberry sets and marigolds on the outer edge
I have watered for about 30 minutes each day since, as we have had zero rain.
Day 14: I planted in the sides of the bales white and yellow onion sets, as well as various wildflowers. The onions will give me green onions in a few weeks, and the flowers will pretty up the garden a bit without taking up any extra space.
We have received two nights of rain in the last four days, and the garden is really taking off. I am also coming to realize something. The straw that I paid extra money for because it was supposedly sterilized and seed free was anything but. I have wheat coming up all over my bales.
My cabbage and broccoli are looking pretty good. Seeds that I planted in the bales are coming up nicely, and I seem to have a great crop of inedible mushrooms.
April 26: Hailstorm
Last night we had a round of severe weather. We got a total of four inches of rain and had small (pea-sized) hail for about 20 minutes. Between the wind and everything, I didn't know how the garden would fare. Anyway, everything looks a little beaten, but nothing in the garden seems to be destroyed.
We were lucky, a tornado passed over but never touched down.
May 13: Garden on Hiatus
My wife was in CCU for a week, so the garden took a back seat to real life. In that time we have been getting rain every other day, and unfortunately a bit of hail.
Luckily most parts of the garden fared pretty well with the hail. Some things just look a little beat up. I am guessing the broccoli will be ready to harvest in a few days.
Nothing happened at all with the strawberry plants I started, so I have pulled those out and replaced it with tomatoes and basil.
Since the latest round of pictures, we have had 4 more rounds of severe weather with hail and high winds. Once I got into the garden, I found that most everything was intact, but two tomato plants broke off, and one tomato plant that had nine little tomatoes on it was now stripped of tomatoes. There are still some blooms on them so there is still hope for fruit from them.
May 18: It Was Raining Cats and Dogs!
Well, garden fans and followers, over the last three days we have had a frost, as well as three inches of rain that I really wish we had gotten in a week or two. But that is Mother Nature. The only thing is, the forecast for the next week has the possibility of rain in it every day.
Another community garden nearby released 5,000 ladybugs this past weekend, and today there were ladybugs crawling on my plants. I have always taken this as a good sign, but the elderly man whose garden is next to mine is angry that they release the bugs. He says a pest is a pest.
Today looks like it will be sunny, so hopefully I can get in the garden later and maybe grab a few pictures and do some weeding, The only item I have been able to use out the garden so far is a little Genovese basil that I added to spaghetti sauce the other night. I thought it added a nice touch to the sauce, while my wife was more impressed with the ability to hold down food.
After my wife's hospitalization, I really can't leave her alone to work in the garden, so we have had to hire an aide to help her around the apartment as well as watch her while I am in the garden.
I figured this out after thinking my wife was deeply asleep Sunday, going to the garden and then coming into the bedroom and finding her on the bedroom floor. I feel horrible about that.
I cut all my broccoli this week, and we ate well on it for a few days. I planted three times what I did last year, but some kind soul here on the property sprayed weed killer on a windy day, and it stunted the growth. I was hoping to have enough to freeze, but there was just really enough for a couple meals.
It rained several days this last week. The cabbage is looking beautiful. It is probably a week away from cutting. The green beans are going insane. They are blooming. The zucchini is going nuts, and just starting to bloom. The tomatoes that survived the hail are doing great. Okra is doing well. The only thing that I am a little concerned about is the cucumbers which are really stunted.
Picked all the lettuce and a handful of onions. I replanted that bale with green beans. Also harvested two heads of cabbage, and have had those cooking in the crockpot since 6 a.m.
Put a smoked sausage in with the cabbage, along with a large potato, a couple white onions and a bit of garlic.
Picked my first tomato today. It was mostly red and tasted bad. Wait for them to ripen dummy! I thought as I bit into it.
The cucumbers that I was so worried about have now started to bloom. They are still short, but I don't care, as long as I get some cucumbers from the garden I am happy.
Tomorrow will be my first picking of green beans
The last few days the temperature has been pushing 95–100˚F with no rain in sight. I have been watering daily using the soaker hoses on the bales and a hose and nozzle on my cabbage and broccoli. Tomatoes seem to be growing several inches a day and setting more blooms. The beans and zucchini continue to grow and bloom. No fruit on the zucchini yet, but the beans are setting new bloom and beans every day.
Today I harvested one quart of green beans and a gallon of broccoli. I suspect that may be the end of the broccoli, but I will give it a little more time. I thought it was done for two weeks ago and like I said I got another gallon out of it.
Rain and hail overnight, hail was marble sized. Can't tell there was much damage except to a pea plant that was broken off. I lucked out.
Got another quart of green beans, and should have some zucchini tomorrow.
Well, things have been busy with grandkids and the holidays. We had a major storm last night and about one-third of my garden took damage. When I say damage, I mean the Zucchini was ripped out of the ground and broke off. A fair share of tomato plants have broken off at the ground where the high winds blew the trellis down.
But not all is lost. I have been getting about one quart of green beans a day, and tomatoes are starting to turn red. Cucumbers are getting ripe. I have a bowl of cucumbers and onions soaking in vinegar in the kitchen and in a while I will finish the dressing and make one of my wife's favorite salads out of the garden.
I planted more green beans where the zucchini were ripped up and hopefully they have time to mature and harvest before the first freeze. If I remember last year, we have about 60 days generally at this point.
March 23, 2017 (Later Start This Year)
At this time last year, I had my garden growing. This year, there are two things slowing me down. The building management hasn't gotten around to putting up the signup sheet for the garden, and in spite of a warm winter here, we had our first measurable snow of the year last weekend.
I am hopeful management has the signup sheet soon, because I rented a pickup truck for next weekend so I can go pick up my straw bales.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Mitch Bolen