Straw Bale Gardening

ChiloquinNews article 10/24/2011

I was down visiting friends in the San Francisco Bay Area recently, and read the garden section of the local newspaper, which had a series on gardening successes by area residents. One article really caught my eye, because it began with ‘Gophers everywhere’. This chap lives in a rural area and the gophers decimate everything he tries to plant. Hmmm, sounds familiar. On looking into his options, he discovered straw bale gardening. Just lay wire mesh on the ground, stack straw bales on top, condition the bales and plant. He had a pretty successful garden and didn’t have to lean over very far to reach it either. ‘Good for old codgers’, he said.


What a tantalizing concept. It needed more research, so next day I googled it, and came up with the website, which says:


Why plant a straw bale garden?

  • Can’t do heavy lifting? If you are less capable or less interested in doing the heavy work of traditional gardening, such as tilling the soil, constant weeding, unending insect battles and persistent disease spraying, Straw Bale Gardening virtually eliminates these challenges.
  • Can’t bend over? If you have a physical limitation or handicap that restricts you from getting down on the ground, you will appreciate the easier access to the higher surface of a straw bale.
  • Poor soil or limited space? If you have a low soil quality, or if you have limited space that you can devote to a garden, you will love Straw Bale Gardening with its low cost, and flexibility in placement.
  • Tired of fighting critters? Wire under the bales will stop the gophers, and a tall 2-tier garden will slow down the rabbits and the ground squirrels (but not the deer).
  • Interested in broadening your gardening horizons? If you are a seasoned gardener looking for a fun new method, you will be amazed at the results!


Other tips I found on the internet:


Purchase wheat straw bales, as they will have the least weed seeds and no perennial weeds, but oat straw, rye straw, and hay will work. Putting your bales either way up works fine but with the strings on the ground, and the straws horizontal, the water doesn’t run through the bales nearly as fast. Put them where you won’t have to move them because once wet, you won’t be able to move them. The bale is the garden. Put it on your balcony or path if you want to. Just like a normal vegetable garden, your straw bale plants need sun; 4-8 hours if possible. Deter those moles, gophers, or whatever thieves populate your area, by first laying down wire netting.


Water the bales and they will heat up. Thoroughly soak them and add more water so they don’t dry out at all for the next 5 days whilst the temperature rises and cooks them inside. They will cool over the next 1-2 weeks and then be ready for planting. You can start in spring and plant when the bales are still warm which promotes root growth. The bales won’t be composting much inside yet – that takes months. Just don’t plant while they are still hot enough to cook your plants. Some people speed up the process of producing microbes and rot by following a 10-day pre-treatment regime of water and ammonium nitrate on the top of each bale. More natural ways that help speed up that all important burn out, are to spread on a high nitrogen organic fertilizer (fresh chicken manure) just before the start of your watering process and water in each day. If weeds sprout, just cut them off.


What can you plant? A wide variety of vegetable crops including, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and greens. Annual flowers and herbs will also be fine. Root crops, such as carrots, parsnips and onions don’t seem like good candidates because the roots might be too crowded by the straw and would be hard to harvest. Young plants can go straight in. Pull apart or use a trowel and depending on the state of the straw, put a handful of compost in too, then let the straw fall back into place. Seeds can be planted on top if you put on a good 2” layer of compost first.


Keep it watered. That’s going to be your biggest task — twice a day if necessary. Straw bale gardening uses more water than a normal garden, so set up a system before you plant. A soaker hose or drip system is perfect.


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