Our New Straw Bale Garden–Part I

straw bale garden

Straw bales–ready to prepare. Pot in the center will be a solar powered fountain.

We’re going to experiment with a straw bale vegetable garden in our backyard, inspired by Michael Tortorello’s article in the New York Times.

The plan is to grow in the bales and harvest the resulting compost for use in permanent raised beds (that have yet to be built). We’ll keep growing in bales until we have enough compost for the beds.

The problems presented by our property–lead and zinc contamination and a backyard that is up 30 steps–make straw bale gardening a promising solution.

  • Bales and fertilizer are easier to carry up the stairs than bulk soil.
  • It will be cheaper than buying soil.
  • No lead and zinc.

I was also inspired by this attractive straw bale garden in Arizona.

It will be a garden that changes over time. I like the idea of watching the bales turn into compost and their gradual replacement with more permanent structures. I’m hoping that the view from the two Adirondack chairs that face the bales will be like a botanical Robert Smithson piece–a front seat on nature’s balance of entropy and creation.

The next step is to add fertilizer and water. We’ll document what happens so stay tuned.

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26 Comments

  1. What a nice, neat set-up you have planned. Hope it works out even better than you imagine.

    I like the idea of the solar fountain. I have a solar-powered bubbler/fountain that I bought from Gardner’s Supply which I set in a birdbath. It works really well and the sound of the water is so soothing, too.

    • This is version 3.0 of the solar fountain. The first version got invaded by raccoons so many ties I took it out. In version 2.0 I burned out the pump after the fountain went dry. I’ll blog about version 3.0 soon.

  2. Love the set up! I am very curious to see what you’ll experience with the water requirements. I attempted straw bale gardening a few years back, in a somewhat dry summer, and foolishly planted squash. I couldn’t keep the bales wet enough and the feeding requirements were cah-razy! :-) I bet you’ll be smarter than I was and have much better luck. But even though the squash crop was a fail, the following year I had a ton of great mulch for the rest of the garden, so it wasn’t a completely wasted project. Have fun experimenting!

    • No doubt about it, it will require a lot of water at first. I’m installing soaker hoses on a timer. Hope to have a blog post about it tomorrow. Not sure if I’m smarter!

  3. I just set my first strawbale garden up too. May I ask what kind of fertilizer you’re going to use to get your bales composting? I am doing this based on listening to a radio interview with the author, but he was elusive about what product he uses (sounds like he really wanted folks to buy the book.)

  4. Am going to go read the article. One thing about growing in straw… because we lasagna our beds… is that it is already carrying a lot of seeds. Just be aware of that. Over all, I’ve liked it very much, and my veggie beds have a straw layer in them right now.

    • I’ve used straw as mulch in our summer vegetable garden for years. I actually kind of like seeing an occasional grain sprouting up from the straw.

  5. do you worry about what chemicals may and maynot have been used on the growing material? Wish I’d heard of this before hauling all that soil back into my garden. next bed . . .

    • The only thing I worry about are persistent herbicides. Most other pesticides are broken down in the composting process.

    • Funny you should ask this. Kelly was doing a bioassay and I screwed it up by forgetting to water. At this point we’ve crossed the Rubicon straw bale wise, so I’ll do a bioassay only if it doesn’t work.

    • We get ours at DaMoor’s Feed and Tack, which is Glendale, I believe, but on the borderlands of Burbank. Just off the 5, opposite Griffith Park. They’ve got a website.

    • If you’re not close to Da Moors, just find the nearest feed store–will be in whatever horsey neighborhood you are closest to.

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    Just want to make a mention that lead in garden soil isn’t too big of a concern, for those of us that have it. Most plants don’t take up much lead, so the major concern would be root crops.

    I live in Milwaukee, and given my city’s history and the age of my house, there is lead EVERYWHERE and I just have to live with it. Most people in my position would probably build a raised bed, but I haven’t. I’ve no young children and I just wash everything well. And I make sure not to disturb the lower strata of paint on the walls!

    • I agree–indeed most plants don’t take it up. I had my blood tested and there was no problem. But the lab I had do the test noted that the combo of lead and zinc would be a problem for a lot of perennials. I could probably continue to grow veggies in the ground but I think I’ll have more luck with raised beds.

  7. The design of the bales looks great but I wonder if you considered putting all the bales in one clump side by side like a more traditional rectangle. The reason being that 1 mass may be more moisture retentive. I’m thinking that: 1. With less air flow on a sides of the bale it’s not drying out as much 2. With bales next to each other any excess water will hopefully go into the neighboring bale either as spill over or through capillary action. Thoughts?

    • I think you’re right, at least on point 1. Re: point 2, I haven’t noticed much water spilling out the sides of the bales. Our initial plan was indeed to arrange the bales into two long superbeds. But then Erik got all creative and the result was so cute we just had to go with it. But I think it will dry out faster.

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