Straw Bale Gardening: First in a Series of Three Posts

By Cyndy Crist

Resource on Straw Bale Gardens
Resource on Straw Bale Gardens

I don’t know if this is true where you live, but here in the Twin Cities, straw bale gardening is taking off big time. Nurseries are finding it difficult to meet customer demand and articles are popping up in various media about something that for many of us is a new way to grow. As an urban grower with very limited growing space, I’m intrigued by this approach and have decided to give it a try this year. Here’s the first of what I expect will be several posts about my first attempt at straw bale gardening.

Getting Started with Straw Bale Gardening

Despite my enthusiasm, I decided to be wise and try just one bale this year. But I want to do it right, so I also decided to buy the book, Straw Bale Gardens, by Joel Karsten, the person who seems to have first developed this approach. A farm boy who missed gardening after moving to the Twin Cities to attend college and start a career, he experimented with straw bales after buying a house which proved to offer poor growing conditions. He has now collected what he learned from years of experience into a guide that can be used by those with enough space for a single bale as well as those wishing to create a whole straw bale garden. The book is clear and concise, and I think it was a wise investment.

Straw Bale Pre-Conditioning (by Cyndy Crist)
Straw Bale Pre-Conditioning (by Cyndy Crist)

Once I had read it, my next step was to determine where to put my bale. Although I’ve lived and gardened at this house for many years, I realized that I needed to pay a little more attention to the amount of sunlight received in the several spots I had in mind before choosing one. Karsten cautions that it is important not to move the bale once its conditioning has begun (more on that in a minute), so for several days, I checked periodically to be sure I had a good sense of how much sunlight each spot would get across the arc of a day, including some guesses about how the light would change as trees leaf out and the sun’s path shifts in the sky.

Because preparing the bale for growing requires deep and regular watering, and since one never knows whether rainfall will be sufficient to give plants the moisture they need throughout the growing season, it was also essential to consider how easy it would be to get water to the bale before settling it in place. As a result, I dragged the hose out of the garage sooner than I ordinarily would in the spring, hooked it up, and pulled it off the reel to be sure it would reach even the most “remote” spot.

Conditioning the Straw Bale

straw bale conditioning
Straw Bale Conditioning (by Cyndy Crist)

Once I had confirmed a location for my bale and moved it into place, I was ready to start the conditioning process. This consists of a specific pattern of fertilizing and watering the bale in order to prepare it to host plants. The book clearly describes the process and summarizes it in a chart, so it could hardly be easier to follow – in fact, the only little challenge is keeping track from day to day of where one is in the process (I wrote my start date by the day one description in the book). Since the fertilizing starts on day one and because the amounts of fertilizer to be used and total conditioning time vary by fertilizer type, it is essential to decide up-front whether to use a “conventional” or organic product. I plan to grow edibles in my straw bale, so I decided to purchase a bale from an organic grower and to use organic fertilizer.

I am now one week into the conditioning process that, for organic growing, requires 15 days. This is essentially a process of sprinkling on fertilizer and watering one day, only watering the next, and continuing to alternate these steps for a week before a few days of daily fertilizing and watering, and finally planting. Ideally, I might have started the conditioning a couple of days sooner than I did in order to be ready to plant over Memorial Day week-end (the timing often recommended in my neck of the woods as being safely past the last frost), but I’m not really concerned. One of the advantages of straw bale gardening is that the bale warms up more quickly than the soil in a garden bed, a particular advantage for plants like tomatoes and basil that sulk if planted in cool soil. As a result, when I am ready to plant, my vegetables should get off to a good start.

Other Steps and Strategies for Straw Bale Gardening

The book offers other ideas for success in preparing for straw bale gardening, such as setting up soaker hoses if that will be essential to growing success; providing supports as needed to keep multiple bales firmly in place and/or to secure plastic sheeting or other covers or protections; and garden designs and plant selections. It also provides information about options for fertilizers and strategies for planting seeds directly in the straw bales. In short, it’s a good resource that I’ve already consulted multiple times, but there’s plenty of good information on the web about growing in straw bales for those who don’t want to add to their gardening library.

I think I know what I’m going to plant in my straw bale, but I still have a little time to finalize my plan. I’ll let you know what I end up planting and how things are going throughout the growing season. For now, I’m excited to be well on my way to a new way of growing!

Growing Vegetables in Containers – Gardening in Small Spaces

By Cyndy Crist

Small Contained Garden with Currant Bush Border
Small Contained Garden at HeathGlen with Currant Bush Border

A rectangular space with neat rows of plants in a backyard or community garden – this may be the image that first comes to mind when you picture a vegetable garden.  But for many of us in urban settings, this kind of garden isn’t an option because we may lack sufficient space or sun to grow vegetables. And you don’t have to live in an urban area to lack the time or physical ability to tend such plots.  Happily, a wide array of edibles can be grown in containers of various shapes and sizes. With a little attention to the choices of plants, pots, and growing medium as well as growing conditions, anyone can produce tasty vegetables in containers.  Here are some tips to help guide your planning.

Why Grow in Containers

A lack of space for a vegetable garden isn’t the only reason to grow edibles in pots, although it is a big one.  Some of us, especially in older urban neighborhoods, have little space that gets the 6-8 hours of sun daily that most vegetables and herbs require, but we probably have small, sunny spots here and there big enough for a container or two.  And we may be able to take advantage of shifting sunlight over a day or the season by growing edibles in movable containers.

In addition, growing vegetables in a container or two lets those who have little time to spend tending plants or who don’t want to devote much energy to gardening grow their favorite vegetable or herb. Finally, individuals with limited mobility or strength can often manage to tend a few plants in pots or containers placed on raised surfaces.

There are also a few botanical benefits for growing edibles in containers.  Karl Foord from the University of Minnesota Extension Service has identified three:
They’ll be less accessible to animals that like to munch on them.
Growing in containers reduces soil-borne disease problems.
Vegetables grown in pots tend to suffer less from leaf diseases since the water on leaves in pots tends to dry more quickly.

Choosing Plants

Some have suggested that nearly anything that can be grown in a garden can also be grown in a pot.  While that is generally true, you can increase the odds of success by carefully selecting what you grow.

Starting with tomatoes, many identified as the best choices for growing in pots are a dead give-away because of names that include words like patio, tiny, pixie, small, or toy.  Specific varieties frequently mentioned as good choices for containers include Patio, Tumbler (a cherry tomato), Bush (Dorothy’s number one choice for containers), Fourth of July, Purple Cherokee, Toy Boy, Tiny Tim, Gardener’s Delight (an heirloom cherry tomato), Tumbling Tom, Beefmaster, and Silver Fir Tree.

For other types of vegetables, a little common sense and attention to growing habits will go a long way in making good choices. For example, some varieties of cucumbers and pole beans can be grown successfully in pots but they’ll need support for their vining habits. Small to medium-sized root vegetables like radishes, carrots, turnips, and beets can be grown in containers, as can green onions, peppers, eggplant, and broccoli.  Just about any herb or salad green (lettuces, spinach, and other leafy greens) can be grown in containers and, in fact, well-placed pots of these edibles can make them handy to harvest for regular use in the kitchen.

White Plastic Bench, Bookended by Two Large Containers
White Plastic Bench, Bookended by Two Large Containers (and the Lab, of course)

Choosing Pots

When selecting pots for container gardening, there’s more to think about than color, shape, and design. At least three practical factors need to be considered.

Drainage is arguably the most important consideration. If you’re going to grow edibles in containers, your pot must have good drainage so that your plants never sit in water.  Sitting water in pots will kill plants; it’s that simple. And don’t forget about the water that may run out of the bottom of the pot.  If this water accumulates, you’ve defeated the purpose of drainage holes.  Either make sure you can lift the pot and dump out any water that does accumulate in a pot tray or keep your pot raised an inch or more off the surface on which it’s sitting.  You can also reduce the chances of root rot by putting an inch of gravel in the bottom of the pot to hold excess water away from roots.  I know gardeners who put a layer of packing peanuts in the bottom of large containers to provide drainage and reduce the weight of big pots.

Wood Barrels Do Not Have a Long Life in Minnesota
Wood Barrels Do Not Have a Long Life in Minnesota


The kind of pot used is also important. You’ll want to keep a few things in mind before you make your choice.  Wooden containers (half-barrels, for example) may offer a look, size, and shape that you like, but they will rot over time and need to be replaced.  The porous nature of unglazed terra cotta pots will make it difficult to keep your pots sufficiently watered since water will evaporate through the pot’s surface. Better choices are pots made of nonporous materials like glazed ceramic, plastic, glass, and metal, though at the risk of sounding like a broken record, don’t forget that good drainage is essential.


Variety of Attractive Plastic Pots for Growing Tomatoes
Variety of Attractive Plastic Pots for Growing Tomatoes


Size is the third factor to consider. Most tomatoes require pots that hold at least five gallons of soil or potting medium, although some varieties can be grown in two gallon containers.  Vegetables that remain smaller can obviously do well in smaller pots, though less than one gallon is generally not recommended except for herbs and small salad greens.  A few plants have specific requirements. For example, carrots need to grow in soil that is at least two inches deeper than their mature length, and green beans need to be spaced at least three inches apart.

Choosing a Growing Medium

Many experts recommend using a soilless potting medium for container growing because it drains well and is lighter weight (especially important if your pots are large and require lifting or moving).  With soilless mixes, however, it is especially important to fertilize your plants regularly, since these mixes generally contain fewer nutrients.  If you choose to use potting soil, make sure that you use a sterile soil mix, not soil dug from your yard or garden.  This will reduce or eliminate the chances of introducing soil-borne diseases into your containers.  You can make your own potting mix with equal parts of soil, compost or peat, and either sand, perlite, or vermiculite, but again, be sure to use sterilized soil.

Planting Container Gardens

Planting containers is the easy part.  Generally speaking, you’ll want to settle in your plants in pots just as you would in the garden.  For most plants, this means planting  them so that the level of the soil in the pot from which they’re being  transplanted is at the surface of the soil or potting medium in the container.  One exception to this rule is tomatoes, which can nearly always benefit from being planted so that the first set of leaves is below the soil line; this allows the tomatoes to grow additional roots and be both more stable and able to take up more water.  And be sure to follow directions for spacing if you’re growing seeds or using more than one plant per pot.

Maintaining Container Gardens

A key factor for successful container gardens is watering.  Because the soil in pots can heat up more quickly than soil in the garden and has less overall capacity to hold water, containers generally need to be watered daily.  In fact, in especially hot and windy weather, you may need to water more than once a day.  Some growers recommend that at least once each week you water deeply enough for water to run through the bottom of the pot, but be sure the excess drains away. As with gardens, you can help maintain moisture in your pot by putting a layer of mulch on the surface of the soil.  Finally, if you are concerned about not being able to keep up with daily watering, you may wish to try one of the water-holding gels now on the market; these should be mixed into the soil at the time of planting.

Proper and sufficient feeding of container plants is also essential for plant health and robust production.  For me, it’s easiest to use a time-release fertilizer like Osmocote Flower and Vegetable Smart-Release Plant Food, which should be worked into the soil at the time of planting in the amount recommended on the package.  With this approach, a single application will carry you through the whole summer.  However, there are many options for those who want to grow organically.  Just be sure you choose a fertilizer that’s labeled for your vegetables and follow directions carefully for the correct amounts, method, and timing of application. I still remember an early attempt at container growing when I inadvertently “killed with kindness” the plants I had purchased because I used much too much fertilizer.  That’s one lesson I’ve never forgotten!

Mint growing in Tin Container
Mint growing in Tin Container


So, for those of you with little or no garden space to call your own, take heart.  You can grow an array of fresh veggies on your patio, porch, balcony, or in any little sunny spot you may have.  Just choose your pots and your plants wisely, water and feed them regularly, and make sure they get plenty of sun.  If you do, they’ll reward you with tasty treats all summer long.  Now, how easy is that!

The Container Garden Book
The Container Garden Book