Straw Bale Garden Update: Success!

straw bale garden

Ladies and gentleman, straw bale gardening works. I left town for a week earlier this month and, during my absence, the vegetables in the straw bale garden exploded in size. The Tromboncino squash on the left, is threatening to envelop the entire yard.  The tomatoes are equally vigorous and covered in ripening fruit.

straw bale garden zucchini

Zucchini is on the menu.

While it takes an input of outside resources in the form of straw and fertilizer, straw bale gardening is a great solution for beginning gardeners or for those cursed with bad soil. And the skunks that have decimated my previous vegetable gardens are unable to get up on the bales.

I’m considering trying another straw bale garden during our winter season. And I’m also pondering building boxes to put the bales in to make the garden look a bit neater.

Compare the straw bale garden to the depleted raised beds in our front yard:

depleted vegetable bed

I’ve talked to a lot of people about straw bale gardens since we started ours. Some things I’ve heard from other gardeners:

  • Some straw bales may be contaminated with herbicides. Do a bioassay before planting. Here’s some instructions (scroll down to the end of the article).
  • One gardener I met did not know that the bales need to be prepared by adding nitrogen–you can’t just plant straight in the bales.
  • Once the bales have been prepared you need to add fertilizer periodically. I’ve been adding fish emulsion every two weeks.

How is your straw bale garden?

And thanks again to Michael Tortorello whose article “Grasping at Straw” inspired us to try straw bale gardening.

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31 Comments

  1. Just curious–did you put the resources and thought and energy into the depleted raised bed as you did in the straw bale?

    Did you pee on the straw bale or transport urine to the bale? Since human urine repels skunks, do you think that the skunks decided to not bother your grubs or vegetables and go where it smelled better, less dangerous?

    Skunks can definitely get onto a straw bale.

    The vegetables growing there certainly look beautiful.

    • Hey PP,

      No, the raised beds did not get the attention they deserved.

      And I used a combo of blood meal and a bit of human urine. I had a bit of skunk problems at first, but they seem to be ignoring the bales.

    • You were right, though. Vegetable gardening really is mostly about the attentiveness and focus of the gardener. That’s why those front beds look so bad.

  2. Mine are doing great as well. I started mine about a week after you did, but planted in it later than you (I live in Iowa and May was cooler than normal), so my plants aren’t quite as big, but pretty close.

    One thing I noticed, is that your bales do not look as if they are much shorter in height now compared to the start. My bales were leaning this way and that especially on the ends. I gently pushed down on all parts of the bales, making sure the plants went with the straw, which solved the leaning issues. My bales are now about half as tall as they were at the start. I used a combo of blood meal and urine to prep the beds (about 50/50).

    • Two of my bales are starting to lean. The others seem to be holding up better. And I thought they would shrink more too. Might be a factor of climate–don’t know where you are, but it’s pretty dry here and things don’t degrade as fast.

  3. You guys have now convinced me to do this next spring. I am a renter and although I’ve been given permission by our kick ass landlord to dig up as much sod as I want – I SUPER don’t want to. I was gonna do lasagna gardening, but that’s a lot of manure, compost and soil to bring in, as well. Just thinking about it was making my sciatic hurt…

    Straw bales won. And when we move, I’ll just throw them in the back corner of the lot where all the other detritus exists. Problem SOLVED. Beauty, dude.

    • Interesting idea, but I don’t think straw would wick up water as well as peat moss does. But don’t let me stop you from trying it!

  4. This is encouraging. Almost every home I can afford just happens to have a history of lead and arsenic contamination. Another bonus is that leafy greens won’t get muddy during heavy storms. I dread getting lettuce through my CSA for this reason.

    • Arsenic is particularly bad. Lead and zinc are two of the reasons we tried it.

  5. Up here in Michigan my first straw bale experiment is an unqualified success! Wish I’d grown more (I only have six) and planted some squash.
    I am harvesting basil, cilantro, bush beans, baby eggplants and the tomatoes are just starting to ripen up.
    My bales are slumping a bit now too, and not looking quite as tidy as they did two months ago.

  6. Pingback: The Friday Five: My Picks of the Week (July 15th – July 19th, 2013) | Jeff Parker Cooks

    • Unfortunately, no. I asked at the feed stores and they did not no where it was coming from. I guess I lucked out.

  7. After much research (straw bale/vertical gardening)I am finally ready and sooooo excited. I also started vermicomposting a month ago, but that’s a story for another time.

    I am repurposing an 8×10 chainlink dog kennel on concrete slab and will be removing the plastic roof (keeping the 2×4’s). Kennel is in full sun and close proximity to the house/water supply.

    My seedlings are about 3 wks. old and coming up nicely. (Tomatoes, peppers, cuks, garlic and various flowering companion plants and of course, sunflowers.

    I just picked up a dozen straw bales yesterday and will begin the process of conditioning. My biggest question was which way to lay the bales (I believe you addressed this) and decided that the stubby side should go up. In other words, the cord holding the bales together is NOT on the top or planting portion of the bale. PLEASE CORRECT ME IF I’M WRONG!!!

    The other thing I had to finalize was which organic fertilizer to use in the conditioning process. I decided to SECRETLY collect my urine and use in conjunction with a decomposed leaf/grass and daily watering. PLEASE CORRECT ME IF I’M WRONG!!!

    Thanks for all your great information.

    • Peepeeponics! I oriented the bales with the non-string side up. It looks like someone else in this thread tried it the other way and it worked for them. I think the risk is that the bales will loose their integrity towards the end of the growing season. But it looks like we have a report here that it will work either way. Let me know what you decide and how it works for you. My straw bale garden worked really well.

  8. Debbie this is an old blog post so I don’t know how many responses you’ll get.

    My research led me to believe there wasn’t much of a difference IRT bale orientation. (I researched the heck out of this last sporing!) I had a successful straw bale garden last year putting them string-side-up. I don’t think it makes much of a difference, really. The point is to get the bales decomposing and straw blade orientation doesn’t have much bearing on that.

    I didn’t use urine, although my dogs hiked their legs on the bales I am sure. :o) I used organic blood and bone meal and water. I also had controls (plants in the ground and in containers) and with the exception of the okra, the straw bale yield was definitely superior to the controls.

    Don’t overthink it!

  9. We started a Straw bale garden in our community this summer later than we would have liked.That being said, the results were remarkable. Today is Oct.14th 2014 and just put some seedlings in as a second crop.We will be placing a small greenhouse over them,so still playing around with all the possibilities.Its been great not weeding and they hold water for days. The soil they create is just lovely!

  10. Greetings from Texas! I love your blog. I got the address from Amy Stross at tenthacrefarm.com I’m a brand new gardener this year and I decided to try straw bale gardens. It hasn’t gone well so far, but I can see from your posts and many others that it does work good for most people, so I’m not giving up. To start with the bales I bought from Atwoods (farm and garden store) did not have that easily identifiable “cut side” so I set them on the narrow side so the strings went around them instead of across the planting side. I went to a local nursery and bought “high nitrogen” fertilizer and began that process in January. The first problem, when i watered the bales, the water ran to the sides and fell off onto the ground. But I dug holes in the bales, added some soil and planted tomato plants bell pepper plants, then planted lemon cucumbers and yellow and zucchini squash from seeds in March. They sprouted but didn’t look very healthy. Then something started eating holes in them. While investigating that, I realized all the bales had fire ants in them. I don’t know if the ants were in the bales when I bought them or in the soil I used when planting — or if they came up from my yard. Getting rid of them has been frustrating. Leaving them is not an option. As soon as I tap a leaf the little boogers swarm so I couldn’t harvest anything without getting stung. I used a chemical fire ant remedy to no avail, then sprinkled the bales liberally with ground red pepper — which seems to have further damaged the plants. I decided to try another side, so I flipped the bales over onto the wider surface and tested the water flow. It soaked in so I transplanted the tomatoes from one bale to another. Something ate the entire bell pepper plants — all of them in one night. I saw what looked like a “red spider mite” crawl across my hand while working on the bales so I mixed up an “organic garden spray” (even though I ruined the organic status with the ant killer) and sprayed everything. I had planted tomatoes from seeds in planters and I moved them away from the straw bales. The year is young tho so hopefully I’ll get this all figured out. On an up side, the “tote” of lettuce has done great. We’ve harvested it twice and it’s still growing strong. The onions are doing awesome. I pulled a couple of them recently and put them in salads and pan fried taters. Happy gardening!

  11. Fire ants are endemic in Texas if I remember correctly. Sorry about your ant issues. Here in Montana we don’t have many venomous creatures but we do have hungry deer and a 90 day growing season. I figured straw bales would be a way to get a jump on spring. We had a hard freeze May third but it didn’t inhibit my bale prepare. I have raised gardens, covered with frost cloth and peas and radishes, spinach, are coming up in them. More vulnerable veggies, the squash and cucumbers will go in the bales in about 2 weeks and I may cover them as shown on some websites.

  12. This is the first time I tried any gardening so I prepared 6 bales this year, and followed the instructions for prepping the bales. I planted 2 bales of green beans, 2 bales of potatoes, 1 bale of strawberries (from root stock), and 1 bale 1/2 lettuce 1/2 carrots. Only the potatoes are growing (and going like gangbusters I might add). The beans looked to be sprouting and then quickly died and all the rest never showed up at all.

    Any ideas on what went wrong? There was no frost, and I watered almost every day that there was no rain. I have some mushrooms. Thanks!

  13. Michael, I’m going into my third year with bales. I know many of the websites say they’ll be ready in 10 days but I’ve found it to take a bit longer, even using blood meal and/or urine plus lots of soaking. My guess is the bales were a bit too hot still. Or another possibility: they weren’t yet composted. I’ve seen some websites and blogs with very poor instructions, ie using regular garden fertilizer. You need something extremely high in nitrogen.

    Also if you are in a very arid climate, you really have to stay on top of watering them daily, especially when the seedlings are new.

    • Thanks, roma! After I posted here, Joel Karsten told me the same, that the seeds probably got too hot and to reseed immediately, while keeping them watered every day.

  14. Great! Karsten is The Man when it comes to straw bale gardening (it was the 2013 NYT article about him that got me started) so you can’t go wrong with his advice.
    You can use a soil thermometer, but I just slide my hand deep into the bales. If they feel really warm, they’re not ready yet. Good luck with the next go!

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