Taking the Straw Bales’ Temperatures

I have been checking the internal temperature of my straw bales to see if they are starting to decompose inside. According to the information from Joel Karsten at strawbalegardens.com, the bales should start to heat up about now.

thermometer in straw bale
Taking the straw bale’s temperature

I checked yesterday — in the 40-degree cold rain — and found that most of the bales were only about 60 degrees internally. Today, some were even colder. Because we have had a lot of cold rain and weather affects how quickly the bales start decomposing, I decided to put on the recommended plastic sheeting to warm the bales more.

I’m on the seventh day of the 10-day conditioning program, and the bales still need to heat up (they are supposed to go as high as 145 degrees F) and then cool down before I can plant. Hopefully, the slightly warmer weather this weekend and the much warmer temperatures next week will get things cooking.

Have any other straw bale gardeners had similar experiences?

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?