04 April 2013

Straw bale gardening

Today's temperatures will finally reach the 50s, which will lure me away from my desk to the Arboretum at noon.  It also is a sign that gardening time will soon be here (we have crocuses peeking out of the front yard, but still snow in the shady back yard).  The New York Times posted an article about "straw bale gardening" a couple weeks ago...
It was Mr. Karsten’s clever notion to condition the bale with a little fertilizer and water, creating a kind of instant compost pile. “The crust of the bale decomposes slowly,” he said. This is the vessel. The inside, which decays faster, “is our potting mix.” Stick a soaker hose on top, then plug some tomato seedlings into a hole gouged out of the straw...

The advantages of straw bale are legion, Mr. Karsten said. The straw, having been harvested for its wheat or oats, should be clean of weed seeds. What few weeds do appear in the loose mix — we’re talking one or two — can be plucked out easily. The bale stands thigh-high; there’s no need to bow down before a cabbage. And the residual heat from the bacterial decomposition may allow you to start planting a few weeks earlier than usual. (Just drape some plastic over the top.) At the end of the growing season, you’ve got rich compost to add to your flower pots or beds...

Here’s what else you’ll need: a soaker hose (perhaps on a daily timer) to keep the bale wet, a permeable landscape fabric or heavy mulch to keep weeds from growing between the bales and a bag of sterile potting soil to start seeds or heel in your transplants. Most important is the fertilizer. What kind to use? Well, what kind of gardener are you? “For the organic folks,” Mr. Karsten said, blood meal and feather meal will take care of the nitrogen. (Bone meal and wood ash from the fireplace can fill in phosphorous and potassium.) You’ll want three pounds of the organic stuff for each bale, applied over the course of a week. Water the top (that’s the bristly, cut face, without the twine). And don’t overdo it, otherwise you’re washing the fertilizer onto the lawn or into the sewers. 
I found more information in a thread at the always-useful GardenWeb, and another thread with photos here.

We have good dirt, but I'm wondering if there would be a place for this technique as well.  We use marsh hay (not straw), but only for mulch and compost.  My knee-jerk reaction would be concerns about the amount of watering necessary to prevent what amounts to an raised garden from drying out.  If you have any experience with this technique, feel free to share it with me and other readers in the Comments.

Photo: Tracy Walsh/Poser Design


  1. I am located in Polk County in NW Wisconsin a few miles north of the St.Croix County line. I am going to do create this kind of garden for JUMBO Sunflowers in the center and some other flowers around the edges. Can't wait to start! Lot of snow still on the ground here though.

  2. I know people who have used this successfully for potatoes.

  3. My late mother in law used a similar technique in the arid southwest. Here's how:

    Make a box 4 bales long, 2 bales wide, and one bale high. Fill the space inside with leaves (and horse manure, if you can get any). Add red wriggler worms.

    Use it as a composting bin for a season. Just bury the food scraps and the worms make short work of them.

    Next season, you have a rich raised planting bed and can repeat in a new location. The straw bales act like sponges and keep the raised bed moist. And the worms go deep into the ground during the winter.

  4. I used the straw bales (already older and done with the first heat of decomp - because I'm in FL) as a container for mulch - on the grass, then topsoil, garden soil and Black Cow. Then I plant inside the bales. If this works out I'll be building a bunch of these. I'm not into kneeling at my age. I guess I'm not really doing this the way it was intended. :)

  5. I bought 9 bales and lined them upside-by-side and let them set from Nov to mid Feb to "cure". I would go and throw snow on top so they would slow melt. We started getting rain for quite awhile and I went out with my sawzall and cut 8-9" by 24" or so out of the middle and pulled the guts out down to about 1/2 the bale height. I threw the innard out on around our flower beds to cut the early weeds. I then gathered chicken coop leavings from a local home chicken farmer and used that with all our winters veggie scraps and coffee, and tea. I used a garden trowel/fork to scoop the solids and spread them evenly amongst my containers, then topped off with composted garden soil.I them spread the 5 gallons or so of compost water to wet the whole thing down. I covered the lot with solid boards such as plywood, tossed some tires on for weight and let it bake in the sun for 8 days. When I pulled the tops off the stink was amazing and so where the fungus. We planted our 18 tomatoes and retopped with the soil. I also lined my bale garden with a board structure that was held in place with the posts for the plants. We ended up taking limbs from the winter fall and having to raise our stakes up, we have 6' plants and a robust harvest. The tomatoes are just amazing in their flavor too.


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