Friday, November 15, 2013

My Straw Bale Garden (Part II)

(For My Straw Bale Garden (Part I), please read last week's post)

Kale (center), grown in our straw bale garden, end of summer.

My experience with growing a straw bale garden

I found straw bale gardening to be a fairly productive method of growing a garden.  Although the two-week prep time at the beginning of the season required a lot of initial work, most of the remainder of the growing season was fairly low-maintenance.  The vast majority of the work involved was monitoring for insect pests, watering, harvesting, and of course, eating!  Due to the lower maintenance, I feel that Straw Bale gardening is an especially good way to grow a garden when you are a new gardener.   It is a nice way to grow some things without having to worry much about soil quality since straw bales allow you to start with a clean and uncontaminated growing medium without weed seeds.  It is also a great way for elderly or disabled people to garden, since it provides the same height advantage of a raised bed garden, and avoids the need to excessively bend over to tend to the garden.  

Despite the heavy rains that we received during the spring, we were able to have a fairly successful garden and get a much earlier start than many of our neighbors.  This was because straw bales are great at draining excess water, and thereby avoids many of the problems associated with flooding due to an overabundance of rain.  Many other gardeners in my area were experiencing flooding and had a tough time getting off on the right foot for the season.  

Please note that you need to use straw bales, not hay bales.  Hay is what farmers feed to their livestock, and it contains seeds that provide the necessary nutrition for these animals.  Straw is what farmers often use for their animals’ bedding.  It should ideally contain no seeds.  You want to use straw for your straw bale garden, as this will eliminate seeds from becoming a source of weeds for your garden.  Unfortunately, the straw bales that we purchased from a local garden center did have some seeds remaining, and I found myself weeding a few of these plants as they came up during the season.  Be diligent and ensure to the best of your ability that your straw bales do not contain seeds.

Garden Productivity

Potted plants, such as the peppermint, spearmint, ginger, and
lemon balm plants shown here, allowed for even
greater productivity in our garden.

We were able to grow quite few vegetable plants in a fairly small space.  In our eight-bale straw garden, we grew cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers, broccoli, four cabbages, bok choi, kale, rainbow chard, tomatillos, jalapeños, two heirloom tomato plants, celeric, basil, a few carrots, radishes, beets, and red kidney beans.  Because straw bales allow you to grow things in the sides of the bales as well as on the top, this added to our total available growing space.   In addition, I grew some plants in pots within the fenced in garden area, including peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm, lavender, and an additional heirloom tomato plant.  The trellis wires that we added to the support poles of the straw bale garden were an especially helpful feature for vining plants such as cucumbers, or plants that needed extra support like tomatoes. 

Due to the many resident rabbits that seem to thrive especially well in our neighborhood, I wrapped some wire and plastic cloth around the metal support poles and the outside of the bales to form a makeshift fence, securing it in place with bendable heavy duty garden wire.  This was quite successful in keeping out rabbits, but apparently was not very successful in keeping out all of our neighborhood squirrels, as my next story will explain. 

My "Squirrelly" Story

image by <a href="
squirreljpg-0" target="_blank"> - fmanto</a>

For a couple of weeks during the summer, I noticed that our sweet potato plant that I had planted in a large tall pot was getting the daylights eaten out of it.  I couldn’t figure out what was eating it.  At first, I blamed rabbits, but thought that the pot was too tall for any rabbit to reach.  Out of fear that the entire plant would be decimated, I decided to move the pot within the gated community of our fenced in straw bale garden area.  Then one day, I caught the culprit red-pawed (or rather, "gray-pawed").  

Early one Saturday morning, I looked out of our kitchen window at our garden and noticed a Gray Squirrel climb up the fenced side of one of the bales, into our straw bale garden area, and then proceeded to sit on top of the pot that housed our sweet potato plant and chow down on the sweet potato vines and leaves.  I knocked on the kitchen window and yelled at it in an effort to startle the squirrel and frighten it away.  Unfazed, the squirrel continued it’s ravenous eating of our sweet potato plant vines.  I then ran outside, dressed in a coat and my pajamas and yelled at the varmint, in the process giving my next-door neighbor a show and a chuckle.  Startled, it ran off, leaving the injured plant alone.  From that moment forward, I was on squirrel patrol.  I don’t think that it bothered the plant much after that, but it’s possible that it snacked on a few leaves when I wasn’t at home.  The plant seemed to recover fairly well after that, but I’ve yet to check to see if we’ve gotten many sweet potatoes in the pot.  Stay tuned; I’ll let you know.

A Few Lessons Learned

Our extremely prolific cucumber vines (front) growing on
the trellising wires and the wooden support beam
of our straw bale garden.

Since this was my first season gardening, I must admit that my overzealousness to plant as much as possible within the available space led to some overcrowding and shading of certain plants, and therefore, smaller vegetables in some cases.  The need to follow sun and growing space requirements may seem like an obvious necessity, but at times the excitement of gardening (as was the case for me during my first growing season) may entice you to push the limits that plants can grow in.  I have learned that sometimes, crowding plants may work and you will still be successful, but sometimes you won’t be- your success will depend upon a multitude of factors, including the plant variety, the quality of your soil or growing medium, and the environmental conditions.    

During the preparation of the bales in the spring, we received a lot of rain, and many mushrooms grew out of the bales.  According to Joel Karsten's Straw Bale Gardening book, the sight of mushrooms is actually a good sign that the organic matter is breaking down within the bales and that things are going well with the preparation for growing.  Unfortunately, with the mushrooms also came a particular odor that was somewhat offensive to our neighbors on one side of us.  Although we were aware of this possibility, and we warned our neighbors ahead of time that there might be some odors temporarily, they were less than thrilled about the smell of the mushrooms wafting over to their driveway and backyard.  This was, of course, not the best way to keep good relations going with our new neighbors.  

To try to make amends, I apologized profusely, and on a daily basis cut down the mushrooms with a trowel.  This seemed to help a lot, and soon the odor dissipated significantly.  Throughout the season, I also would give my neighbors a share of the produce that I was growing to show signs of good will.  The lesson learned here:  There can be a temporary odor associated with the preparation of the bales, and you many wish to seriously consider how this may impact your neighbors around you.  Plan for this possibility, warn them about the odor, and take some actions to cut down on the mushrooms if the odor is persistent for a longer period of time.  Because I live in a more urbanized area, my straw bale garden was practically right next to my neighbor’s driveway (we do have some bushes between the two properties, but this apparently wasn’t sufficient to restrain the odors), so this made things interesting to say the least.  You may wish to consider the placement of your straw bale garden to reduce potential conflicts with neighbors. 

One of our heirloom tomato plants, mid-ripening.

Eventually after the air cleared, our next-door neighbors really did find our straw bale garden, as well as our herb spiral (which I will discuss in a future post), to be very interesting.  Our unique garden gained the attention of numerous neighbors on our street, and I had a number of curious onlookers come over and check out the garden.  Our unconventional gardening ways were a great icebreaker in our new neighborhood and helped us to build some valuable relationships with those around us.  In fact, at least one of our neighbors has purchased the Straw Bale Gardens book, and intends to try it next year in their own yard.  Our next-door neighbor’s son also wants to try Straw Bale Gardening when he moves down to Arizona!

End of Season Thoughts

End of season cleanup, with several kale plants remaining and the once bale-covered, 
bare soil revealed.  The landscape fabric has been removed, and the straw bales have composted down
(seen along the sides of the garden area).  The straw-based compost will provide excellent
organic material for next year's permaculture mandala style garden.

Since it is now fall and getting progressively colder, I have harvested nearly everything (except our kale, which is very tolerant of colder conditions), and have taken down the straw bales, along with the landscape fabric that we laid down underneath the bales prior to starting the garden.  I found the landscape fabric to be a fairly successful barrier to weeds underneath the garden, although a few rogue weeds still poked through the fabric, which I promptly removed.  In place of the landscape fabric, I have put down cardboard from boxes that were left over from our move.  This cardboard will continue to block weeds next year and will eventually compost down and make the worms in the soil happy.  

Broken down cardboard boxes with plastic labels and staples
removed will provide a great weed barrier underneath multiple layers
of mulch that will nourish the soil for next year's garden.

On top of the cardboard, I have spread the partially composted straw left over from the bales, added some purchased compost and organic fertilizer for added nitrogen-rich materials, and will be adding some autumn leaves from the trees on our property.  These materials will add important organic matter to the soil and help to prepare the soil for our next garden season in the spring.  I have taken a soil sample from the garden area and will have it analyzed by our local university’s Extension Service for various nutrients and lead (we live on the outskirts of an urban area, so lead in the soil is something to be potentially concerned about).  If contaminants are an issue, we will plan for a raised bed style of gardening next year, if necessary.

Although I had a great experience with growing a straw bale garden this year, I am a scientist at heart and enjoy experimenting with different gardening styles.  My garden plans for next year are to try a mandala-style, sheet-mulched, permaculture garden since we’ve now had a chance to get to know our property a bit.  My husband and I would also like to add some edible perennials to our landscape, such as a couple of fruit trees.  In the meantime, we are currently resting in the joy of our harvest, and a successful first growing season.  We are excited to see what we can grow next year.  Pumpkins, perhaps?  

Pictures From Our Straw Bale Garden

Our two potted lavender plants.
The excellent compost from the straw bales
that was produced by the end of the season.
Green bell peppers, secured to one of the straw
bale garden support posts.
Some organic fertilizer and compost with manure left over 
from the growing season, which add some nitrogen to the carbon-rich 
composted straw bales.  Great mulch for next year's garden soil!

Our huge green tomatillo plant that nearly took over one 
side of our garden.
One of our tasty cucumbers!

One of our four cabbages that grew in a single bale.

Composted straw from the bales, spread out to be used as mulch for next year's growing season.


  1. Hi! I think Mr. Homegrown at Root Simple put your post into his Facebook feed, and I found you. I am going to try straw bale gardening next season, along with my regular beds, and do a comparison study of the two. I love reading about others who have tried it, so thanks for all the good advice. I'll check back to see how your next experiment goes, too!

    1. Hi Mary Ann- Welcome! So glad you found the site. I think that it would be a very interesting comparison between the two growing methods. I have heard that you can get an earlier start on the season with the straw bale growing method because you don't need to worry about planting in cold/frozen ground. I'd be interested to learn about how things went for you, if you'd like to check back in at a later date.

  2. Interesting experiment in my bale garden so far this year--- I have both hay bales and straw bales and have found the hay bales to be prolific with mushrooms and very little grass, while my straw bales have no mushrooms but have a ton of grass growing in them. Very interesting turn of events that I did not expect.