New Straw Bale Garden

Straw bale garden
Bales with espalier for climbing vegetables.

Last week, I attended a presentation on straw bale gardening with my friend, Penny. We both left Joel Karsten’s talk very excited to try this new type of container gardening. So over the weekend, I located a farmer near New Trier who had some big, beautiful bales of wheat straw that I used to set up my straw bale gardens.

The concept behind straw bale gardening is fairly simple. You “condition” the bales by flooding them with water and fertilizer (you can go organic or traditional — I’m trying both ways) for 10 days. During the conditioning, the inside of the bales starts to decompose and within a couple of weeks you have a very fertile medium inside the bales. You can plant seedlings directly into the bales or add potting soil or compost to the top of the bale and use seeds. When the season is over, you harvest your crops, take the twine off the bales and knock them over. Viola! Compost!

That’s the simple explanation, but there is a recommended process for doing this, so check out Karsten’s website or take one of his many classes around Minnesota before you get started.

I had a spot in our meadow area that was very prone to ragweed and other nasty business. I’d already cut the weeds down so I covered the area with a couple of large appliance boxes. I’m hoping that the cardboard will smother the weeds while I grow cutting flowers and vegetables in four of the bales, which are sitting on top of the cardboard with some additional wood mulch surrounding them for paths. I had one additional bale that I put on cardboard on top of one of my regular raised vegetable beds. This bed seemed a little depleted last year, so I’m giving the soil a break. I plan to grow potatoes in this bale, then after the potatoes are harvested, I’ll leave the bale/compost on the bed.

I’ve done a bit of research on straw bale gardening and the only concerns I’ve heard about it are that, if you do not get clean straw, your bales end up looking like chia pets with lots of little weeds sprouting out of them. The farmer I bought my bales from assured me they were “very clean.” I’m trusting him on that. The other concern is aesthetic. As the season progresses, not surprisingly, the bales start to sag and sometime look a little scraggly. Given that the alternative in the location I’ve chosen is a huge stand of ragweed, I’m not that concerned about looks.

We’ll be running an article on one person’s take on straw bale gardening in the July/August issue of Northern Gardener. Have you tried this method yet? Did it work for you?



20 thoughts on “New Straw Bale Garden

  1. I have tried it – but it didn’t work very well. That is probably my fault, though. First off I didn’t condition the bales properly. I started too late in the season so kind of rushed the process and hoped for the best. Second they recommend that you water the bales a lot and I know I didn’t water them enough.

    I now have six bales in my garden from last year that are probably very well conditioned – but I don’t know if I should try to use them again this year or if that’s a bad idea.

  2. Myrna — Have you peeked into the bales? If it looks like there is compost (or composting) material in there, it might work. Depending on how dry the bales are, you might also find mice (EEEK!). My understanding is that most bales are so decomposed after the first year that they are only good for compost/mulch, if the straw is clean. Let me know what happens!

  3. Mary, beware of unwanted critters in the bales. I ended up providing a home for earwigs and slugs…both of which cause me to question my desire to be completely organic.

  4. Thanks, Marcia. I have noticed the bales I am doing organically (with composted poultry manure) seem to be very popular with some kind of fly. I’ll let you know how the experiment goes!

  5. I went to a class on straw bale gardening about a month ago, and am very intrigued by it. Haven’t found any straw bales yet, but want to try it a.s.a.p.

  6. I found your blog doing a twitter hashtag search and excited to follow another mn straw bale garden! You are further along than i am though….no mushrooms for me yet. They’ll come eventually….this is my fourth garden using Joel’s techniques and a few i’ve of my own i’ve figured out over time. Best of luck and happy gardening!

  7. I’ve done it two years in a row and have had great success. I do all my tomatoes in the bales, and have not had any issues with flies, bugs and no wilt issue either.

    The challenges I’ve had is keeping the bales together, I would definitely recommend adding additional support to the bales. And the staking of the tomato plants can be a challenge as well. 2 foot high bale, and 6 foot high tomato plant. I usually do the California weave for support, and it has worked, but as I said, staking can be a challenge.

  8. Thanks for the comment, Pat. I totally agree about the supports and staking. Even though I staked per the instructions in Joel Karsten’s book, my tomatoes were floppy and I had to add support. I’ve never heard of the California weave, but will check it out.

  9. Oh! I had mushrooms last week, after a couple of days of clouds and rain. I worried that was bad. The shadow side of my bale, one of them, was also growing something white. It freaked me out, because I thought it was mold. This was right before the mushrooms.

  10. This is my 3rd yr. in the mid-west, bale gardening. We put our bales side by side 5 bales long and put a cattle panel between the bales. Tomatoes/vines/beans get tied to the cattle panel. We also use a soaker hose down each side and soak for an hour every day or the plants go very thirsty! Love love love this method cause well, I’m a bit lazy…:)

  11. Cathy — Thanks for the comment. Soaker hoses seems to be the way to go with bales.

  12. This is the second year I’ve tried straw bale gardening in San Jose, CA area. The first year, one of my bales didn’t get enough morning sunlight, and disease can occur on leaves. This year, I put the bale on a flat dolly, so I could move it around on the driveway, and it’s a little off the ground too. That seems fine. For convenience, I went the non organic route, using Miracle Grow to condition it. I’d like to try more organic methods though. My lemon cucumbers, peppers, and butternut squash are growing but I’ve needed to add chicken manure to them. I think it might work better as a planter, carving out larger holes with potting soil around the plants. It’s a work in progress, but the best alternative for gardening on my driveway! Let me know if there’s a source of organic straw bale in SF Bay area!

  13. I’m in my second year of straw bale gardening in northern New Mexico. Year one was such a success I was excited to begin my bales again this year. Tomatoes especially did well, and lettuce! I know now not to plant everything at the same time, tho. This year I’ve got mushrooms in all 7 bales but know this just means my bales are in prime condition. I love my “raised bed” straw bales!

  14. This is my first attempt. I planted seeds directly into the bales. Has anyone done that before, and did it work? Thanks.

  15. usamama, I planted lots of squash type seeds and they work well. I transplant my brassicas from a raised soil bed into the bales. I find that brassica seedlings are a bit lanky and do best with transplanting.

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