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Straw Bale Garden Experiment a Success

Patch writer tries her hand at the newest old garden technique

Although the growing season has ended, some gardeners have already started to plan for next spring. , where bales of straw become the equivalent of a raised beds, without all the work. The advantages; composting bales create their own heat to extend the growing season by more than a month, weeding is minimal, heavy work like roto-tilling is eliminated and bales can be placed anywhere there’s sun, including on poor soil or even concrete.

For the last 10 years, the sunny half of my tiny backyard has been a vegetable garden, with the tree-shaded half reserved for the bulldog. An additional side garden had limited sun and limited growing possibilities, and I wanted to expand. Using straw bales seemed to be an easy way to extend the garden space to the sunniest spot I could find, a far corner of my front lawn.  

Despite the worst vegetable growing season in local memory, with a cool June, July’s blistering midsummer sun and a crop of happy ravenous rabbits, the straw bale plants thrived. Identical plants in the backyard that survived the bunnies and bad weather struggled to produce. Even by late October,  I was still getting a heavy crop of tomatoes from the bales, while plants in the back garden were fading.

The hardest part turned out to be hauling the six straw bales from the garden store. The next hardest was waiting.

Preparing the bales to properly compost by using a nitrogen rich fertilizer takes two weeks and requires patience, something I lack. While many experts recommend using ammonium nitrate, it’s hard to find (since it can be used in making explosive devises) a fertilizer with a 10-0-0 rating works just as well and can be purchased at any nursery.

After the bales are prepped, the rest is easy. My straw bale garden included tomato plants, cauliflower, flowering and Italian kale planted on top, with peppers and various flowers on the sides. You can also plant rows of seed, if you like. I literally tossed a couple of left over seed potatoes under four the bales.

Once planting was done, I spent a total of 10 minutes during the entire growing season clearing out a half-dozen weeds and some stray mushrooms that sprouted during the wet spring. I also spent a few minutes caging the tomato plants, watering and fertilizing the bales when every couple of weeks. That was all the work that was required until harvest.

I hadn’t expected to get anything from the potatoes I’d tossed under the bales in the spring, but when I broke to bales apart to use as garden mulch, I found about a dozen little potatoes, ready to eat. I even found a still producing pepper plant as late as mid-November, warm and protected inside a bale.

So, plan ahead. For those who want to try their hand at straw bale gardening next spring, don’t expect your local nursery to be of much help. While most nurseries had heard of the straw bale technique and all carry the equipment you’ll need (straw bales, a trowel, nitrogen fertilizer and a garden hose) few places are knowledgeable. Look instead to the internet or take a class. Local horticulturist Joel Karsten, author of "Learn to Grow a Straw Bale Garden," gives workshops during the spring in communities all around the metro area. For more information, go to strawbalegardens.com.

Also, expect curious neighbors. Being polite Minnesotans, no one said anything to me as I first worked the bales, but once they’d become green and beautiful, a neighbor approached: “When we first saw you with these bales of straw, we were wondering, ‘What are they up to now?’” he said.  “But these are great. Maybe I should try this next year.”

Jean Fox November 21, 2011 at 02:13 PM
I'm also thinking it would work well if they were put inside a wood frame (raised garden) to make them more 'acceptable" for a front yard. My neighbor tried this straw bale method this year and it was a disaster, but that is because she never follows through on her ideas and simply planted and ignored. She put them on the top of a berm - they fell over, she never watered and never picked anything that grew! Now we just have unsightly bales with rotting vegetables to look at. I am very happy to read this success story!
Caitlin Burgess (Editor) November 22, 2011 at 11:28 PM
Ooooh. That's no good. The whole point of having a garden is to harvest it when it's ready!

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