Straw Bale Garden Part II: Watering the Bales

straw bale garden--watering the bales

In case you just joined us, we’re starting up a straw bale garden. I’ve decided to go with instructions provided by Washington State University. The first step is to wet the bales. Here’s what WSU suggests:

To start the process, keep the straw bales wet for three to four weeks before planting. If you would like to speed up the process, here is a recipe that works well.

Days 1 to 3: Water the bales thoroughly and keep them damp.
Days 4 to 6: Sprinkle each bale with ½ cup urea (46-0-0) and water well into bales. You can substitute bone meal, fish meal, or compost for a more organic approach.
Days 7 to 9: Cut back to ¼ cup urea or substitute per bale per day and continue to water well.
Day 10: No more fertilizer is needed, but continue to keep bales damp.
Day 11: Stick your hand into the bales to see if they are still warm. If they have cooled to less than your body heat, you may safely begin planting after all danger of frost has passed.

To make sure I keep the bales wet I’ve also installed soaker lines on a timer.

My straw bale garden is more water intensive than I would like, but I try not to let perfection be the enemy of the good. In the end the compost I make will help conserve water in the garden–at least that’s my theory.

Next step will be to add fertilizer in the form of blood meal (I’m puzzled by WSU’s suggestion of bone meal). More on that subject in three days.

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.

Nursery Customers From Hell


We’ve been going to Sunset Nursery since we bought our house fifteen years ago. The staff has always been polite and helpful and they have a diverse selection of plants. On a whim, Kelly took a look at their overwhelmingly positive Yelp reviews. But some of the Yelpers prove how hard it must be to work in a nursery and deal with a public that can charitably be described as disconnected with the natural world.  Take this Yelper:

I’ve driven by this place soooo many times and really needed some advice on a dear plant of ours. We’ve had it for 5 years and it suffered trauma from our kitty pushing it off the ledge and it’s been stuck at 1 inch tall for years now.

When I arrived with The Gringo (we got the clipping from Dos Gringos in DC) a woman laughed at it and said I should just get a new plant.

What a meanie.

I told her no, I want this plant to grow and she asked if I had been giving it nutrients. D’OH! I didn’t know that was something I was supposed to do. Well, it’s been maybe a month and a half now and The Gringo has grown to about 3.5 inches and is sprouting out.

YAY! It’s alive!

The man behind the counter was much nicer and saw the potential…but The Gringo still needs some therapy because of the mean woman. We’ll work on that though.

Speaking of nutrients, this next comment proves just how good that staff is at Sunset Nursery–they suggest getting a soil test. A bad nursery would never pass up the chance to sell fertilizer. This Yelp commenter doesn’t appreciate this:

Upon entering the office area and asking for some help (I was the only person in the nursery), a large man sitting behind the desk pointed me to a old Asian woman who proceeded to laugh me and my wife off.  She let us know how little we knew, suggested that before we even CONSIDER landscaping that we spend a month paying professors to analyze our soil, and over the course of a 20 minute rambling conversation scared us away from ever wanting to do any landscaping at all.  I am struggling to remember if she was even slightly encouraging about a single topic, but honestly, I don’t think she was.  From a business perspective, I could not have imagined a worse sell.

I am kicking myself, because I tried them once before a year prior (without my wife), and had the EXACT same result.  I even had the same two workers providing the (non)advice. Apparantly, I blocked out it – that one is on me.. . . If you don’t think you can grow plants in Los Angeles, check out the neighbors in your hood.  EVERYONE grows a garden, all it takes is time.  And in the end, I was able to achieve great results!

I’ve always wanted my own staff of academics so, personally, I’m looking forward to spending a month “paying professors to analyze our soil.” As to “EVERYONE” growing a garden in Los Angeles, I suspect this Yelper is referring to the mowed weeds and Home Depot topiary that accounts for most of the residential landscaping in this city?

Our Keyhole Vegetable Bed: What Worked and What Didn’t Work

keyhole garden bed

This is what our keyhole bed looked like yesterday just before I fed the remaining vegetables to our chickens and the compost pile. Ignore the large pot–that’s a future solar powered fountain that will be incorporated in a new vegetable garden we’re working on.


Here’s what the keyhole bed looked like just after I installed it back in October. Note the compost repository in the center of the bed. I used straw wattle (available where professional irrigation supplies are sold) to form the sides of the keyhole.


A month later in November a few seedlings were popping up. I had to robustify the skunk barrier (made out of bird netting) after repeated skunk raids.

What worked:

  • The compost decomposed nicely and seemed to attract insect life.
  • Stuff grew.

What didn’t work:

  • I didn’t make the bed high enough–more height may have helped prevent skunk incursions.
  • The compost bin in the center of the bed should have been sturdier. Skunks got into it eventually.
  • The cheap bagged soil I bought had a lot of wood chips in it. Brassicas did fine but other veggies did not appreciate the high carbon content of the bagged soil. It would have been better to make my own soil with high quality compost, but I was in a hurry.

Clover in the keyhole bed did well and produced some pretty spring flowers.

Despite my mistakes, I heartily endorse the keyhole bed concept. I’d just make the sides higher and take more time putting the bed together. My neighbor Anne Hars layed her keyhole bed out more carefully and, as a result, it was more productive and more aesthetically pleasing. Part of the problem for us is that the keyhole shape, from a design perspective, didn’t work in the space we put it in. We’ll blog about the new veggie garden we’re putting together where the keyhole bed used to be in future blog posts.