( by Cyndy Crist) My experiment with straw bale gardening continues, and at this time I can report “so far, so good.” Here’s a bit more about what I’ve learned about getting started with straw bale growing along with an update on my own little bale.
What to Expect in the Early Stages of Straw Bale Gardening
As my 17 day conditioning period was drawing to a close (the timing recommended for those using organic fertilizers), I was pleased to discover that it was easy to stick my finger into the top of the bale. Clearly, the conditioning was working! When I started to plant (more on that shortly), I was a bit concerned that the insides of the bale still looked like straw, but after consulting my guide, “Straw Bale Gardens” by Joel Karsten, I learned this was as it should be. He says that the bale will “continue to cook” and that in this stage it offers a “plant seedlings’ paradise.” I was relieved.
I was also briefly concerned to discover a light layer of mold growth on the top of the bale in some spots. Although this didn’t seem surprising, given the required deep, daily watering and this spring’s gray and wet conditions, I wanted to be sure this wasn’t a sign of trouble. According to Karsten, it wasn’t. He says that the growth of molds and/or mushrooms is natural and that, based on his consultations with medical professionals, this isn’t a problem for most people. Since the bales are not in enclosed areas, the wind will carry away most spores. He also says that any mold that does grow won’t last long given how rapidly straw decomposes. Mine seems to be gone already, so that’s one more potential worry laid to rest.
Because our air temperatures this spring have been pretty consistently below average, I suspect my bale isn’t heating up as quickly as it might have some years, but I’m certain it’s still warmer than the soil. Karsten recommends watering with warm water, so I have tried to keep a large watering can full and have primarily used that for my watering, but the cool air temperatures haven’t allowed it to warm up much. In general, Mother Nature has been giving me plenty of assistance in the watering department, and although I’d love to be out in my garden more than I’ve been able to be, I do appreciate the help with my bale watering tasks!
Since my bail is fairly close to one set of neighbors, I was a little concerned about possible odors. Karsten suggests that by about day six, a “sweet aroma will begin to emit from the bales” and says that neighbors can be reassured that the smell doesn’t last long. I was aware of a bit of an odor from my bale once or twice, but it wasn’t unpleasant, and I suspect the cool, wet weather may have limited the odor just as it slowed decomposition. In any event, this potential problem never materialized.
Finally, I noted that some of the straw was germinating, sending up little grass-like blades. This may mean that my bale is not actually straw, since Karsten suggests that hay is sometimes mistaken for and/or sold as straw and that a key difference is that the hay will sprout growth while straw will not. The growth I got was far less than what is pictured in the book, however, and since I bought it from a very reputable garden center, I’d be surprised if it’s something other than straw. In any case, he says any such growth won’t last long, and in my bale, the growth was pretty minimal. I just plucked any green sprouts out and I don’t anticipate having any problems going forward.
My Straw Bale Garden is Now Planted
I was really excited to reach the planting stage, and my bale is now planted. I ended up planting it in stages because I wasn’t able to get everything I wanted at the same time. On the first day, I planted my tomato – my favorite heirloom, Matt’s Wild Cherry – in the middle of the bale with six Empress of India Nasturtiums along the sides and front. Later, I planted four basils – one Aristotle, one Red Rubin, and two Sweet – between the tomato and the nasturtiums.
The planting was very easy, since the top layer of the straw was pretty well broken down and the inside had clearly begun to be loosened by the process of decomposition. I was able to keep the soil around each transplant largely intact, so I didn’t need to use any soil to fill in, but Karsten suggests using a handful of sterile planting mix to cover exposed roots if needed. He reminds readers not to use garden soil since that can introduce weed seeds that otherwise will not be present in the straw. He also notes that, if needed, a small amount of straw can be removed to accommodate a larger root ball, but I didn’t need to take that step.
And Now, Maintenance of the Straw Bale Garden
With my straw bale fully planted, I can now move into a normal maintenance phase. I’ll water regularly as needed, be attentive to any signs of insect infestations and disease (I will be especially watchful for the newly arrived basil downy mildew), and fertilize the bale on a monthly basis throughout the growing season (for organic growers like me, Karsten recommends using foliar fertilizers like fish emulsion or kelp emulsion).
I’ll also watch to see if any critters are attracted to my mini garden. I’m certain that rabbits won’t be able to reach the plants on top and hope they won’t be drawn to the nasturtiums once they’re tumbling down the sides. Squirrels may be another matter – they seem to be able to tackle any and every outdoor challenge! But I haven’t noticed them bothering any of these plants when I’ve grown them in the ground, so I’m hoping they’ll leave my bale garden alone, too. Finally, because I seem to have loosened one of the pieces of twine tying the bale just a bit when I moved it into place, I’m going to pay attention to the bale’s stability and will fasten some garden edging around it if it starts to come apart too soon.
Now, if Mother Nature will sweep away the clouds and give us some extended periods of warm sunshine, I feel certain my new little straw bale garden will really take off. And gardeners like me will applaud her as well! I’ll check back in with you in a few weeks to let you know how things are going.
Amazon link to Joel Karsten’s book: Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding