Straw Bale Garden: What I Learned

straw bale garden before and after

Straw bale garden–April on the left, November on the right.

The straw bale garden I started this spring has been one of the most successful vegetable gardens I’ve ever planted. In fact it’s still producing well into November. Here’s what I learned from the experiment:

  • Plants that suck up a lot of nitrogen, like squash, do well in a straw bale garden.
  • My tomatoes flourished but, due to the high nitrogen, made more leaves than fruit. I’m not saying you shouldn’t plant tomatoes in straw bales–results will be better than in poor soil, but it’s hard to regulate the amount of nitrogen when prepping bales.
  • Stake the bales. They will fall over eventually. I knew this but was too lazy to actually do it.
  • Straw bale gardens are a great option for those cursed by poor or contaminated soil.
  • I’ve got lot of bales to compost!

My future in straw bale gardening
I’ve decided to continue straw bale gardening on a smaller scale. I’m going to build some raised beds and fill them with soil, but I’m leaving room for two bales to grow nitrogen hungry crops, principally squash. I’m also planning on building a box to hold those bales so I don’t have to stake them every season.

Like most things in life it’s not an either/or proposition. You can have a conventional vegetable garden and save some space for straw bale gardening. I think the two compliment each other really well.

What Does Tromboncino Squash Taste Like?

Tromboncino as summer squash.

Tromboncino as summer squash.

The short answer (and short is the wrong word for this gargantuan squash) is that tromboncino tastes phenomenal as a summer squash and just ok as a winter squash.

Tromboncino, also known as zucchetta rampicante and Tromba d’Abenga (Albenga is a city on the Italian Riviera where tomboncino originates) is a cultivar of  Cucurbita moschata, a constellation of squashes that includes butternut squash. Trombonchino, as far as I know, is the only or one of the few squashes in the Cucurbita moschata family that is harvested as a summer squash

Continue reading…

Straw Bale Garden Tour Part II

In this video we take a tour of our straw bale garden as it appears this week. The vegetables varieties you see growing are Tromboncino squash, Lunga di Napoli squash (growing up into a native bush), Matt’s Wild Cherry tomato, Celebrity tomato, eggplant and Swiss chard. And just to take down my smugness a notch I also included a shot of an unsuccessful cucumber plant. Other than the cucumber, though, this is one of the most productive vegetable gardens I’ve ever planted. I’m now a big fan of the straw bale method.

The music is by Karaoke Mouse–”Shanghai Reggae.”

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.

Straw Bale Garden Tour Part I

In this vide we take you into the backyard for a tour of our straw bale garden.

We started rotting the bales in late April by adding blood meal. In May we added a balanced fertilizer and started planting the bales. In the video you’ll see the veggies we planted in early June.

The soaker hose you see comes from Home Depot. I’m pretty sure it is this stuff.

Every other week I add some fish emulsion to a watering can and hand water the plants to make sure they have enough nutrients.

Leave your questions in the comments.

Straw Bale Garden Part V: Growing Vegetables

basil in straw bale garden

It’s too early to call my straw bale garden a success but, so far, the vegetables I planted in the bales are growing. I got a late start on planting–I put in the tomatoes, squash and basil in mid May/Early June–just in time for the cloudy, cool weather we have here in early summer.

raised bed vs. straw bale tomato

Check out the difference between the tomato I planted in a bale on the left, compared with a tomato in one of my raised beds. The tomato in the bale is doing a lot better.

mushrooms in straw bale

The bales are home to organisms that support healthy vegetables: mushrooms and worms. When I dug into the bales to plant some chard seedlings yesterday I found a lot of worms. I had thought that straw bale gardening was like hydroponics–essentially fertilizer added to a growing medium. But the presence of worms and mushrooms indicates that well rotted straw bales are more like the kind healthy soil that supports a web of soil organisms that, in turn, help vegetables grow.

squash in straw bale garden

Some of the plants, like this winter squash, I planted as seedlings.

cucumber in straw bale garden

Others, like this cucumber, I sowed directly into the bales by making a little hole and putting in the seed with some home made seedling mix.

Again, the vegetables in the bales are doing better than veggies in my two remaining raised beds. The reason, I believe, is that the beds are depleted and the compost I added to them was low quality.

While more resource intensive than growing in the ground or raised bed, straw bale gardening has a lot of advantages for the beginning gardener. Integrating fertilizers into a straw bale is a lot easier than making high quality compost and a lot faster. While not a long term strategy, I’m looking forward to trying straw bale gardening again.

How is your straw bale garden doing?

Picture Sundays: A Keyhole Bed and Straw Bale Garden in Texas

keyhole and straw bale garden

John W. from Kerrville, Texas sent in some pictures of his garden. John says,

This is my first year to use compost tea.  I am growing plants in two Keyhole Gardens, self watering 5 gal plastic buckets and two hay bales (coastal Bermuda hay) that have a wooden framework on top containing bulk landscaping compost from a local nursery. My plants are growing super fast and my tomatoes are loaded.  This looks to be the best garden I have ever had.

Judging from the fencing it looks like you’ve also figured out a way to deal with the deer. Thanks for the pics John and good luck with the garden!

Straw Bale Garden Part IV: Almost Ready to Plant?

straw bale garden

Over the past fifteen days I’ve been “conditioning” my straw bale garden by adding blood meal and a lot of water. During the conditioning process we had both a freak rainstorm (helpful) and a freak heatwave (not so good).

The bales did not heat up as much as I expected–as of this morning they are around 80° F, around 15° to 20° higher than the ambient temperature. Several sources I checked, however, suggest that this is hot enough. The test will be when I plant seedlings. If they end up stunted, I’ll know that I did not let the bales compost long enough.

One problem I had with the conditioning process is that the straw on most of my bales was oriented with the stem sides facing the wide (vertical) side of the bale. This made it difficult to get the blood meal into the bales. One or two of the bales had the straw oriented with the stems facing up and these bales seemed to heat up faster.

Another problem was keeping the bales moist in our hot and dry climate. Tarps may have helped.

The next step will be to plant seedlings and add a balanced fertilizer (fish emulsion) every other week.

Compost and Pharmaceuticals

happypills

We get this question a lot–will pharmaceuticals end up in my compost if I use human urine or animal manure? This is really three questions:

  • Does composting break down pharmaceuticals?
  • Are some pharmaceuticals worse than others in terms of their ability to survive the composting process?
  • If pharmaceuticals persist after composting do edible plants uptake them in sufficient quantities to effect humans?

A look at what science has to say
We really need a Root Simple research department! I was able to find a few studies that, at least partially, address these questions. If you know of more please leave a link in the comments.

A 2010 study looked at the degradation of salinomycin, used on chickens to prevent coccidiosis. The study concluded,

On the basis of the results obtained in this study, it appears that the composting technique is effective in reducing salinomycin in manure.

Another 2010 study looked at the composting of sewage sludge containing fluoroquinolones (broad spectrum antibiotics),

The concentrations of pharmaceutical residues in compost were significantly lower, if compared to the relevant concentrations in sewage sludge . . . It is concluded that before using the sewage sludge compost as a fertilizer it should be carefully tested against the content of different pharmaceuticals. The content of pharmaceuticals in the compost made from sewage sludge may easily lead to the elevated concentrations in food plants, if the compost is used as a fertilizer.

A slightly contradictory Estonian study concluded:

In the current study, uptake of ciprofloxacin, norfloxacin, ofloxacin, sulfadimethoxine and sulfamethoxazole was demonstrated in lettuce. The uptake of fluoroquinolones and sulfonamides by plants like lettuce does not seem to be a major human health risk, as the detected levels of the studied pharmaceuticals were relatively low, if compared to their soil concentrations. Further studies are needed to determine the uptake of different types of pharmaceuticals and other organic pollutants by various crop plants.

What about hormones? A paper in the Journal of Environmental Quality concludes,

composting may be an environmentally friendly technology suitable for reducing, but not eliminating, the concentrations of these endocrine disrupting hormones at concentrated animal operation facilities.

But we’ve got a lot of hormones making their way into the environment due to agriculture, according to a study done by Temple University,

Animal manures (poultry manure and cow manure) contribute to a significant load of estrogen hormones in the natural environment.

Conclusions
Clearly we may have some big societal problems caused by the overuse of pharmaceuticals and waste generated by industrial livestock operations. Those issues are beyond the scope of this blog.

But what about home composting? Should I pee on my compost pile if I’m on lots of pills? Maybe not. But I think there are a few common sense guidelines we can follow when working with human and animal urine or manure at home:

  • Don’t use municipal compost that is made with sewage sludge, though I’m more worried about heavy metals in that compost more than I am about pharmaceuticals.
  • Since I’m not on any pharmaceuticals, I’m not worried about my own urine in the compost pile.
  • Joel, who commented on an earlier Root Simple post about using urine in compost, had this to say, “The main thing I’d worry about is radionuclide therapy, such as treatment with radioactive iodine vs. thyroid cancer. I guess I’d also worry a little about people who are on chelation therapy to flush toxic heavy metals from their system. If it’s not concentrated enough to harm your kidneys, though, I’m thinking it’s not enough to worry about in soil…perhaps that is me being naive.”
  • If I were collecting pee soaked straw bales at a French heavy metal concert (unlikely!),  I might have the resulting compost tested if I were going to use it on vegetables. But composting those bales would be better than flushing all that urine down the sewer system.

As to the bigger environmental issues, the good news is that some of the research shows that composting can help reduce pollution. And, since some of us have the space to compost at home, we can all contribute to a cleaner planet.

What do you think? Leave a comment . . .

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