Some gardening tasks (despite being good exercise) are just not very enjoyable. Digging in our red clay, weeding and bending over to pick bush beans come to mind as three seasonal “pains.”
Enter growing in straw bales as a way to avoid them all.
I can still remember the moment that I was led down the straw bale gardening path. My wife and I were on the deck and I heard someone at the back gate. It was a tall, distinguished-looking man in a police uniform. His cruiser was in my driveway. My first thought: Did the neighbors think that our driveway tomato plants were something else altogether?
That was my first meeting with Kent Rogers, a Wake Forest resident who, unknown to me at the time, was a leading authority (and THE local guru) on a technique that was new to me: growing crops in straw bales. But that was then – and this is now. With a few years of experience and having written a book on the topic, I am sold. Straw bale gardening is a great technique to have in the gardeners’ tool kit.
It turns out that Rogers didn’t invent the technique; some references indicate that dates back to ancient times, practiced by both the Aztecs and Egyptians. Commercial companies grew crops such as cucumbers in bales in the 1950s. He told me that he learned about it from an article in a Decatur, Ala., newspaper, which described the practice of an elderly woman. Rogers began using bales in his garden more than a decade ago, and shared his experience widely on websites and online gardening forums, such as Dave’s Garden.
As an avid container gardener, and following my book, “Epic Tomatoes,” I was asked by Storey Publishing to test out the technique myself and write about the experience. My two years of research led to my second book, “Growing Vegetables in Straw Bales,” which came out earlier this year.
I am quite taken with the technique, though as with all gardening techniques, there is learning curve, and for various reasons, it may not be for everyone. Personally, my own quick success with the method places it as an indispensable tool in my portfolio of effective gardening methods.
The process is quite simple:
▪ Locate and purchase straw bales (wheat straw is the type with greatest local availability) at least two weeks before you wish to plant.
▪ Position the bales, using maximum sunlight as your guide.
▪ Water deeply, then begin a regimen of alternating days of application of a high nitrogen source, such as a granular lawn starter food (29-0-4 in Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium, aka the NPK value) or dried blood (for those wishing to go organic) and deep watering. The internal temperature of the straw bale rises dramatically during this time, as the inside of the bale begins to compost and create a hospitable area for plant roots.
▪ After a week, the bales are treated at half strength with the nitrogen source for three days.
▪ One treatment with a balanced fertilizer (such as a 10-10-10 product) comes next. Throughout the treatment period, the internal temperature of the bale rises dramatically to 120 degrees or more.
▪ Water the bales for another week. Check the internal temperature of the straw bales, using the same meat thermometer you use in the kitchen, but be sure to clean it afterward. When the internal temperature falls below 80 degrees, the bales are ready to plant.
▪ Seedlings are planted directly into the bales by creating a divot in the top – insert the root ball of the plant and fill in with a good quality planting medium. It’s best to use a product labeled “soil less mix”; avoid those products simply labeled “garden soil,” as they don’t drain well and will crust over and prohibit germination of small seeds.
▪ For direct seeding, apply a 2-inch layer of the planting medium, water well and plant the seeds using recommended spacing.
In my two years of bale use, I’ve found the best success with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers (two plants per bale, using seedlings), lettuce and greens, squash and cucumbers (direct seeded). Bush beans will do fine, but slugs bedeviled my initial efforts; a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth eliminated the problem. Bales also are great for direct seeding of beets, carrots and radishes, but be sure to keep them well watered early on; the top planting medium layer is quite shallow and will dry out quickly on hot days. Use of a soaker hose is a very helpful solution to this potential issue. Both Irish and sweet potatoes are also very successful in straw bales, but be sure to start them early and keep them watered.
As for care during the growing season, straw bales are similar to containers in that being elevated, they can dry out quite quickly in the midsummer heat. Frequent watering also leeches nutrients out of the bales and away from the roots of the plant. I water daily and feed weekly, resulting in impressive results.
At the end of the season, the bales turn into superb compost, which is perfect for amending the garden or using in containers. Bales that keep their integrity can also be planted with garlic in the fall, which can be harvested early the following summer.
My suggestion, as for all techniques that are new to the gardener, is to start slow – try a few bales and see what you think. It just may end up being one of your favorite ways to grow your vegetables, herbs and flowers.
Reach LeHoullier at craiglehoullier.com