Misadventures in Straw-Bale Gardening

Have you heard of straw bale gardening?  Are you considering giving it a try?  This has been my great agricultural experiment of the summer!  I will definitely try it again next year even though it hasn’t been all I had hoped.  It all started with a couple of pictures I ran across on the the internet.

They looked something like this:

My curiosity was piqued.  Then at the 2012 Great Minnesota Get-Together, otherwise known as the State Fair, I notice that Joel Karsten was scheduled for a demonstration.  Joel is the author of Straw Bale Gardens.  Positioned just inside the shelter of the agricultural building, his talk included an interesting Power Point and a mini-bale visual aid.  I was hooked.  Within weeks I was shopping for bales.  09.2012.8.pGetting your straw bales in the fall, I am told, gives you the best chance of finding what you need.  Having no previous desire to purchase a bale of straw left me with no sense of where to start.  So I threw a couple blankets in the back of my car, found the nearest garden supply, and procured as many as would fit it my Dodge Neon (four).  They were low-grade bales, but they seemed better than none, which is how many I was afraid of ending up with.

One month later, at an upscale gardening center, I bought a couple of the quality bales for which I had been hoping. This time I lined the back of my car with plastic, making cleanup much easier!

The six bales of straw were covered from the elements and stored for the planting while we waited for spring.

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And waited . . .

poor little seedlings

The seedlings were patient while we waited some more.

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Yet, back in August, Joel had assured the audience that we could start conditioning the straw bales for planting weeks before the gardeners were considering nestling their seeds into the earth.  So I positioned the hay bales and started the conditioning process.

For ten days the bales receive a rigid schedule of fertilizer and water.  On the twelfth day the straw bales should be ready to plant.

Except on the sixth day, I realized I was not using water soluble fertilizer.  There was no turning back, so I let the bales rest for a couple days, found the correct fertilizer and started over on day one.  Again.

05.2013.5 - strawAnd on the twelfth day I planted.  The weather was cooperative and rained . . . and rained . . . and rained!

DSCN1259On May 20th, the telltale mushrooms appeared in one of the quality straw bales I had purchased from the upscale gardening center.  Mushrooms indicate the material is breaking down and becoming rich growing matter.

By June 11th, tomatoes growing in this area were the strongest plants in my little experimental garden.  In other areas, mushrooms and mold spores were occasionally showing up, yet this first area continued to show more plant growth.  Something went right in this straw bale, but what?

Everything else in the garden looked weak.  The transplants all looked yellow and weak.  The seeds were slow to germinate.  I watered with a fertilizer thinking the plants were just “hungry.”  Not much helped.

Click images to enlarge.

Then one day I went to work and left the soaker hose running.  It ran for eight hours straight.  Joel’s statement, “You really can’t overwater straw bale gardens” kept running through my head.  Indeed, nothing had been sitting in puddles of water, as they would have in a traditional garden.

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Two days later my pole bean put out a runner twice it’s height.  I wondered if the plants had just been thirsty.

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Today the marigolds that I bought on clearance and were near dead when I got them home, have perked up and are blooming; good evidence that the bales will support life!

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I decided to run dirt over the top of the two weakest bales, the preferred method for planting seeds.  I will be planting a late summer crop of leaf lettuces in one, and kale in the other.  I left the peppers alone, still wanting to see if the leaves will green up by the end of the growing season.

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Between the odd weather we’ve had this year, and this being my first straw bale garden ever, I really have nothing to compare.  There will at least be a few tomatoes, provided mother nature lets them ripen.

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The advantages of this type of garden are clear.  There were almost no weeds other than the few straw seeds that germinated.  I have had no pests . . . including dogs.  In addition, the gardens are raised and easy on my back, which isn’t getting any younger!

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
–Thomas A. Edison 

In other words, there is always next year . . .

Peace . . .  or in this case . . .

Peas . . .

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30 thoughts on “Misadventures in Straw-Bale Gardening

  1. I have heard of straw bale gardens recently. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try it, but with already tilled beds I went for using what I had. It sounds like it uses a lot of water. Not sure if I will try it based on that issue as I try to use as little water as possible. If you try again keep us posted, who knows maybe you will convince me. 🙂

    1. I don’t think it’s supposed to use as much water as I gave it. LOL But I use the suggested soaker hoses, so it comes out slower. Stay tuned!

  2. Oh … I have never heard of this. I will try this one day … likely getting hay is good right now … but life events will prohibit me at the moment. But I like the no weeds…and naturally raised nod nods.

  3. This is an excellent vegetable garden Jean!! This is the first time ever that I have seen or heard of this and it looks like a great way to grow your vegetables. You have the posts and compost all in one!! I really want to try this out someday.

    1. Check out the link to Joel’s website and/or buy the book. I am excited to watch other people’s gardens to see how they are doing. Let me know if you try it. Also, you are going to get a lot of funny looks and questions from your neighbor. You should be prepared for that! 🙂

  4. I’m what I call an accidental gardener. If I plant it and it grows, thrives even, then it’s the gifts of the gods and nothing special I’ve done. Bravo on your staw-bale gardening adventure and documenting your progress — a growing technique that is worth a repeat. This year has been a difficult one, just ask any farmer, so I’m glad you’re not discouraged from trying it out next season. I should pass this on to my youngest brother. He’s into the virtues of straw-bale home construction. http://www.strawbale.com/ A home build with straw should have a garden to complement it. ; )

    1. Thank you for the encouragement! My house plants live purely by accident. If they can’t thrive on the bare necessities, they can’t live here.

      I’ve heard about straw-bale home construction! And I think you’re right about the garden . . .

  5. How exciting. Many otherwise unsuitable bits of open space can be put into productivity; I’m thinking of verandas and balconies in high rise areas.
    If you only need water and some liquid feed, its a version of hydroponics?
    How clever and thanks for sharing…

    1. I don’t know, but hydroponics is fascinating too, isn’t it? I was wondering about balconies as my daughter lives on the 3rd floor of an apartment. I have seen in pictures where they have utilized parking lots and desert plots. I might add that since posting, my late season lettuces and kale are all popping their little heads about ground!

    1. Thanks, Wendy! I was a little underwhelmed by it. But I am excited to try again next year. In retrospect, I think I did not let the straw bales “cook” long enough. If you try it, make sure to get straw bales and not hay bales. The hay bales have seeds. The straw will sprout a few seeds too. I bet a hay bale really goes at it!

      1. Thx so much for sharing that info! I think it would be the answer to my weeding problem….back can’t take it anymore and mulch is not cheap if you put enough to keep everything out. This year I’m trying to talk hubby into a pyramid of tires so I can grow strawberries. I saw the idea as a play area for kids on Pinterest. If you haven’t checked out Pinterest you should. Tons of gardening ideas!

  6. I’d never heard of straw bale gardening before. You had really good success in your very first year! Loved the illustrated story blog!
    Thanks for coming by to encourage me; I’m a new blogger on WordPress.

    1. I first saw it on Pinterest, then Joel showed up at our State Fair and did a presentation. I fell in love with the idea. I wish quality straw bales were easier to acquire in the suburbs. Because of this rising popularity, I noticed a number of low-quality bales at ridiculous prices. And the low-quality ones just don’t work very well at all.

  7. Interesting concept. I have heard of using straw. I am working on Four Square Gardening this year, raised beds with one plant per square foot. Looking forward to this adventure.

    1. I am very familiar with the square foot gardening. I think I will be going back to that this year because I wasn’t able to get straw bales last fall.

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  9. very cool!
    ive always been interested in gardening but have no green thumb whatsoever! (i was in charge of a hotel-boutiques garden for a while, with the help of somebody else…the only reason why it actually survived!)
    but i would like to try my hand at it again…my project is for a small potted plant to at least survive the next couple of months!
    maybe a sunflower. or basil. no idea whatsoever! LOL

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  11. Kathy3882

    Well, my hubby may have just watered my unplanted straw bales for the past 24 hours, along with rain…..he can’t remember if he turned it on this morning or not. ……pretty sure he sat his coffee down yesterday afternoon and turned them off on his way to work….am I doomed?…..time will tell, I suppose!!! HELP!!!!

    1. Oh my! I remember the time I left the hose running and found a lake in my neighbor’s back yard. I turned it off and wound up the hose to discard of the evidence.

      Well, so much of gardening is one big experiment, isn’t it? Had you finished the conditioning stage yet? It’s possible the chlorinated water could have diluted and cleansed the good composting bacteria. But I’m no scientist.

      Do let me know how it works out!

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