Barbara Whipple, Dundee Horticulturist
Straw bale gardening has been around for a long time, but has recently been rediscovered. I used straw bales to grow potatoes, hoping to fool the Colorado Potato Beetle, way back in the ‘70’s. It worked very well for a few years.
Today what appeals to many people is the raised bed aspect of gardening in a bale of straw. Raised beds save the back! For other people, with very few sunny spots in their yards, putting the bales in a driveway or on a deck, gives them the opportunity to grow fresh tomatoes when they thought they didn’t have the proper conditions. If you’ve thought you couldn’t grow your own vegetables, maybe straw bale gardening will change your mind.
The first step is to place the bales where you want them. They will not be moveable once you begin to water them. A bale could even tear apart if you tried to move it.
Now you can prepare the bales. The easiest way is to just water them for 3-4 weeks. You want the inside of the bale to begin decomposing and as it does so, it’ll heat up, enough to kill off any plants in it. So you have to wait until the bale has heated and cooled before you can plant.
If you want to speed up the time from acquiring to planting the bales, you can sprinkle a high nitrogen fertilizer such as blood meal on the bales and then water them very well. This method results in a wait of about ten days for the bale to cook and then cool. Each day for the first week sprinkle about a half cup of the fertilizer on each bale and water it in. On day seven cut back to one-fourth cup of fertilizer. On day ten, quit the fertilizer but continue to water the bales. From day eleven onward, stick a fist into a bale to take its temperature. Hot! Not ready. Cool? You are safe to begin planting.
If you want to start seeds, you must make a seed bed about two to three inches deep on the top of the bale with seed starter mix. Then just follow the directions on the seed packet for that kind of crop.
If you are planting transplants, make an opening in the bale and insert a small amount of potting soil. Then arrange the transplant in the opening, up to its third and fourth leaf. Ease the roots apart just as you would when planting in garden soil.
You can grow whatever you want in straw bales, but you must water. Straw bales dry out faster than other kinds of containers, especially in hot weather. Through the middle of summer, expect to water twice a day, morning and evening. You’ll also need to fertilize since the bales provide no nutrition. Choose a balanced garden fertilizer such as 10-10-10, which provides all the nutrients plants require. You can also fertilize with products such as fish emulsion, kelp extract and compost tea.
The hardest part of straw bales gardening is hefting the bales into place. The best part is, as with all gardening, the crop: juicy, flavorful tomatoes, fresh herbs for every meal of the day, green beans so delicious a three-year-old begs for them. And don’t forget about the flowers! Grow a few of them too.