Why I’m Growing Vegetables in a Straw Bale

before and after: straw bale garden

The straw bale garden I planted in 2013: before and after.

I suspect we’re not alone in having tried just about every way to grow a vegetables garden. In the lifelong quest for decent home grown vegetables we’ve tried the methods of every gardening guru with a book: biointensive, biodynamic, raised beds, pots, self-watering containers, straw bales and just plain old by-the-book science-based, extension service advice. Results have ranged from moderately successful to moderately tragic–mostly moderately tragic.

Over the years, our vegetable garden has shrunk from ambitious proportions to a tiny 3-foot by 8-foot raised bed filled with tired and expensive potting soil. This past winter (our best season for veggies here in Southern California) I didn’t even bother to plant anything as I was busy working on the inside of the house. Last summer we tried, unsuccessfully, to grow tomatoes (due to disease problems built up in the soil over the years).

So when it came time to ponder planting something for the summer I reviewed past efforts to figure out what gardening method was most successful. Surprisingly, the two best gardens I’ve planted in the past were either biodynamic or straw bale gardens. I think Rudolf Steiner’s quirky biodynamic technique works not because of any material benefit from his witchy potions, but simply because his philosophy demands that you to focus intent on the garden, thus making the act of gardening a kind of sacred duty. But, this winter, I’ve still got a lot of tasks to complete and don’t have time to develop either a biodynamic compost pile or, gasp, thoughtstyle my way to some new, alternative method of sacramental gardening.

So I decided to try straw bale gardening again. My last attempt, that I blogged about and even did a video of, worked great. If you’ve never tried it, the process is simple. You get straw bales, water them, add nitrogen in the form of either blood meal (organic) or urea (conventional) for a few days and then let them sit for a month while keeping them moist. For the details, download Washington Statue University’s instructions. Growing in straw bales is also a great solution for folks, like us, with lead contaminated soil.

The drawbacks of straw bale gardening are mainly environmental. You have to buy bales and nitrogen and import them in a CO2 spewing vehicle, unless you have a generously sized cargo bicycle. And in my last straw bale garden some of the tomato plants showed signs (a lot of leaves and not a lot of fruit) of too much nitrogen. On the other side of that equation I grew some truly monstrous winter squash, enough to feed all the inhabitants of a generously sized cult compound.

This time around I’m trying an inorganic approach, substituting the blood meal I used last time for urea. I’m curious to see if I notice any difference other than price (urea is a lot cheaper). Should I try it again, I’m thinking of building some simple wooden boxes to hold the bales and keep them moist in our hot and dry summer season.

My previous success with straw bale gardening is perhaps a lesson in the simple fact that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for growing vegetables. Given that we have limited space, contaminated soil and other priorities right now, straw bales make for an easy way to grow a few summer vegetables with a high chance of success.

When figuring out where and how to plant a vegetable garden we’ve got to include both biological and social considerations, i.e. we’ve have to consider both plants and people. If you’ve got more space, time to compost and healthy soil roll with that. If you’re in an apartment grow some herbs in a pot on your windowsill. If you’re a dilettante appropriate technology blogger with limited time for gardening and a long list of chores, a straw bale and a bag of urea might be the best way to keep the kitchen knee deep in pesto.

If you’d like to try straw bale gardening see Washington Statue University’s instructions. Michael Tortorello also wrote a great article about straw bale gardening, “Grasping at Straw” for the New York Times.

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10 Comments

  1. My first garden was a container garden. I’ve been in community gardens, have a raised bed at my house, tried permaculture….and this year I am back to….you guessed it….a container garden. One tomato plant, a pepper plant, and some herbs. I think I have finally learned that a few things done well is better than trying and failing to do a lot of things perfectly.

  2. I also have limited time (3 kids, a job, church, etc.), but I do have health soil.

    So I’m moving toward perennial permaculture: Grapes, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries (in a buried container!) for fruit, runner beans, garlic, chard (semi-perennial where I live), New Zealand spinach, herbs and rúcula (all self-seeding) for veggies/greens. Throw in some fava beans in the winter and tomatoes in the summer (if I have time)… and bang, it’s a garden!

    I will take any and all suggestions for perennial veggies, though. There are plenty of greens, but not much else. (I’m in southern Europe, climate similar to San Francisco area).

    • We have a lot of perennial crops in our yard: New Zealand spinach (!), artichoke, avocados, apples, olives, pomegranates and figs.

  3. First off, big fan of the site. Please keep on trucking.

    I think your decision makes a lot of sense given your priorities. But I do wonder about the mineral content of your plants and eventual fruit. Given that you’re trying to avoid the lead in the ground (solid move), wouldn’t you also be avoiding beneficial minerals as well? Are you able to add minerals via rock dust to a straw bale bed? I don’t know how much minerals are available in straw or urea or blood meal so this might not even be a real concern.

    In any event, hope all’s well with you two and your cats.

    • A good question. Since our vegetable garden represents a tiny fraction of what we eat (by no means are we self-sufficient) I’m not too worried about the nutritional quality of the vegetables. I wish we had a lab and could test this but there’s also the issue of mineral loss when buying groceries that have sat around for awhile since they were picked.

  4. As an LA native, I have loved following your endeavors, even though now in Oregon. My observation about straw bale gardening:

    My neighbor, whose straw bale garden is slightly uphill from my more conventional garden, manages (even with drip irrigation) to thoroughly water my adjacent strawberry and blueberry beds. If building walls around the bales would help retain water, I highly recommend it. Keep it up!

  5. Be careful what hay/straw you use for gardening. Make sure the hay/stray you use is pesticide free. Ariel at her YouTube channel “Fy Nyth” discusses her mistake using hay for mulch in her garden and the damage it did. https://youtu.be/v89oEbKMqAQ
    We live in South Texas and what worked the best for us was mushroom dirt from a mushroom farm (Kitchen Pride) in Gonzales, Texas. One truckload or trailer load of dirt every year has worked wonders.

  6. I too am worried about pesticides on the straw bales. How do you know if it is pesticide free?

    I would love to see some photos of your artichoke plants! I live in southern New England and for the third year I am trying artichokes. They have failed on me before.

    • If you’re worried about it you can do a bioassay. Here’s some directions on how to do that: https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=11017. Of course, if plants grow in the bales that, in itself, is a kind of bioassay.

      As to artichokes we live in almost the optimal climate for growing them (it doesn’t freeze here). I think there are varieties for cold places but I think it’s tricky to grow them without a very long season.

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