Like many gardeners, I am not always looking for the next best thing, the newest idea or the latest technique in gardening because gardening itself is rewarding. I plant, I piddle around and I harvest. That said, when I stumble across an idea that is a little off-the-beaten-path as well as practical, yield increasing and really cool, well my curiosity is piqued.
If you aren’t aware of the concept of straw bale gardening you’re in for a treat.
What’s in a Name?
Essentially, the name tells you what this amazing method of gardening is all about. It’s about creating a garden (which can be easily expanded) in which you can grow unlimited numbers of fruits, herbs and vegetables from the safety and comfort of your own bale of straw. Sounds crazy doesn’t it? Hold on, it gets crazier.
With this breakthrough method of gardening you don’t need a plot of ground from which to grow your garden because now you can put your garden anywhere you want. You can grow an abundant variety of vegetables, tomatoes or just about anything you wish in an area the size of a bale of straw.
Place it/them in the yard or on your deck or even in a driveway for that matter, as the surface below has no bearing on the bale garden above.
A Straw Bale Garden
This unique method of gardening is the brainchild of Joel Karsten who grew up farming in Minnesota and noticed the fallen straw bales soon had healthy plants growing from them. Since its inception, Mr. Karsten has gone on to perfect this wild way of growing until practically anyone can master this technique and be the beneficiary of all the advantages it has to offer.
My mission here is to introduce you to the concept and let you get a good feel for what is involved. There is much more to learn about the specifics of this unique growing method that time and space simply doesn’t allow for me to cover.
In Joel’s own words, “This is to show you how to turn a few bales of straw into an amazing, productive, bountiful garden for growing your own food.”
I’ll get you started; you get you finished.
It all begins with a bale of straw. Simple as it is, this method can hold distinct advantages over the traditional way of gardening. Especially if one has limited space and finds standard gardening too labor intensive with all the digging, planting, bending and weeding. Those steps are virtually eliminated with a straw bale garden.
Just One Bale
Straw bale gardening is essentially container gardening on a natural level. How many bales one eventually decides to use and what type of design and layout is incorporated (there are many) is totally up to the individual gardener. As with traditional gardening, it can get as complex as you want to make it. I want to introduce to you how to prepare and grow from a single bale, from there; it is merely repetition for each additional bale.
What You’ll Need to Get Started
Getting Started - Conditioning Your Straw
Purchase straw bales that are large, dense and heavy as these will hold up better during the long summer of gardening.
Begin with an inexpensive lawn fertilizer readily found at most garden centers and even hardware stores. A word of caution; avoid using any fertilizer that contains an herbicide (weed killer). If you prefer, organic fertilizer is an easy find these days. If you are going organic, look for bags that are certified such by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).
Caution: If you do go organic, using fresh manure of any kind is not recommended. Before applying manure it must heat-cycle first. Be sure it no longer looks or smells like manure. Use too fresh and you run the risk the manure hasn’t had time to thoroughly break down the harmful bacteria which can possibly harbor deadly E-coli.
Tip: Manure takes about a year to decompose and should neither look nor smell like manure when used. If it does…don’t.
Ready Wet Go!
It takes approximately 2 weeks to condition a bale of straw for planting. The process of organic decomposition continues after that but 2 weeks allows time enough for composting to begin to give your plants a healthy start. If you plant too early you run the risk of poor results along with killing young transplants.
Place your bale in its final resting spot where it’s going to get plenty of sunshine. Make sure the string holding the bale together is running the length of the bale and that the rough or prickly side of the bale is facing up, like a tabletop surface. Sprinkle the surface (top) of the bale with about 4 ounces (half cup) of any nitrogen-rich lawn fertilizer evenly from side to side and end to end. Organic use 3 cups.
Next, using a garden hose, thoroughly saturate the bale with water. This carries the fertilizer deep into the bale. Continue watering until it’s waterlogged with water running out the bottom.
Completely saturate your bale(s) again. If possible, use water or collected rainwater that has had a chance to sit for a day or so to warm up. Warm water (or room temp) speeds up the process of microbial activity whereas cooler water slows it down.
Sprinkle an additional half-cup of the same fertilizer used on day one in the same manner. If going organic, about 3 cups.
Water only, using a couple gallons or until the water runs out from the bottom which shouldn’t take long.
Sprinkle on another ½ cup of fertilizer and wash the bale down with warm water. Organic use 3 cups.
Water each bale again using warm water only! The bales may be emitting a mild effluvium by now as decomposition is beginning but the smell will dissipate shortly. If you like, you can insert a hand into the bale and should feel some warmth. This is the necessary bacteria cooking inside the bale. If it isn’t warmer, no worries. It may just need to heat a little longer…and it will. That’s why warm water is recommended, it promotes bacterial growth.
Sprinkle ¼ cup of fertilizer (only one and one-half cups of organic) on each bale each day followed by a warm watering.
Apply about 1 cup per bale of a balanced 10-10-10 regular garden fertilizer (make sure it has no weed-killer or herbicide in it). Organic folks will use about 3 cups of an equivalent organic source of phosphorous and potassium. Water thoroughly with warm water.
Tip: If you see cracks or fissures in the bales you can fill them straw or sterilized planting soil. Don’t use dirt from the garden as it can contain weed-seeds and many of the soil-borne problems associated with traditional gardening. Additionally, spray water away from the crack so as not to wash your fertilizer down the drain so to speak.
On Day 12
At this stage you’ll have produced an environment that is nutrient-rich and weed free with near sauna-like conditions making it perfect for planting anything you might plant in a traditional garden. This living compost factory will yield an abundance of happy, healthy whatever-you-planted in it and with half the effort of a regular garden.
Assuming you have some plants started already that are awaiting transplant, here’s what you do.
Using a hand-trowel, dig a hole into the bale large enough accommodate the root ball of the transplant. You can make room by working the trowel back and forth to form an opening. You may need to remove some straw to make it right. Some suggest using pliers if necessary to remove tightly packed straw.
You can plants seeds anytime after day twelve but seedlings require a little more caution. Place a meat thermometer into the bale about six inches deep. If the temperature reads 105 F. or above, don’t transplant. That high of temperature can damage the roots of young seedlings. In this case, wait to plant them on a cooler day.
Be sure to remove the plants from their pots before transplanting and any netting that may be encasing them.
The designs, the plants, the flowers, fruits and vegetables and more that can be grown using the Straw Bale Garden technique is virtually unlimited. Combine that with no weeding, no bending and stooping, and no shovels and rakes and…you get the picture.
For the traditionalist, the beauty of a straw bale garden is that you can still have your original garden but can also try a few bales to see how you like it. It’s the best of both worlds.
Admittedly there is much more to know about straw bale gardening than I know or have outlined in this article but what you have read will certainly get you jump-started.
If you’d like to learn more about this efficient, productive and just plain cool way of gardening, I encourage you to do an online search. The cyber world is replete with all kinds of information on the subject and you can even find how-to videos on YouTube.
Moreover, you can visit Joel Karsten’s website. He wrote the book on this method.
Here’s his address. Strawbalegardens.com.