Final Thoughts on Straw Bale Gardening Project of 2013

By Cyndy Crist

November 26, 2013

Matt's Wild Cherry Tomato
Matt’s Wild Cherry Tomato

The straw bale that once hosted a Matt’s Wild Cherry heirloom tomato, four assorted basil plants, and four Empress of India nasturtiums now stands bare. In fact, at this very moment, soft snowflakes are starting to drift down on it. With the gardening season at a decided end in my northern garden, it seems like an appropriate time to share a few final thoughts about my first experience with straw bale gardening and about this year’s garden.

A Decided Success of the Straw Bale Gardening Project

I was very satisfied with my first-ever straw bale garden. Although I think the changing angle of the sun left more unripe tomatoes at the end of the season than I might have had if it had been in a slightly different spot, I still harvested a terrific number of tasty red orbs. As anyone who has read other posts of mine about growing tomatoes knows, I am a huge fan of Matt’s Wild Cherry. I love the small clusters of deeply flavored fruits it produces, and its indeterminate nature means that once it starts producing, it doesn’t stop until the first hard frost kills it off. In my straw bale, it grew at least as large as any I’ve grown in the ground, and I found it a little easier to harvest the fruit since the whole plant stood a couple of feet above the ground.

Nasturtiums in Straw Bale Garden
Nasturtiums in Straw Bale Garden

The only problem was that it grew so big that it eventually completely overwhelmed everything else in the bale. I harvested the basil early, since it was no longer getting any direct sun, and the nasturtiums didn’t produce many flowers toward the end of the season. Frankly, I had not chosen the best nasturtium for the bale, since I had hoped they would spill over the edges and cover much of the bale, but they never did. Next year, I think I’ll try planting sweet potato vines instead for the decorative element. Another straw bale in our neighborhood became a big rectangle of purple as the vines completely covered the golden straw. And I did get to enjoy the nasturtiums and basil before the Matt monster took over. As a result, despite this year’s outcomes, I’ll likely follow a pretty similar planting plan next year.

Strategies that Worked in Straw Bale Gardening

Matts Wild Cherry in Straw Bale Garden
Matts Wild Cherry in Straw Bale Garden

One thing that I think contributed to the success of my straw bale garden was that I tried at all times to keep at least one large watering can full of water and standing next to the bale. This meant that I didn’t have to take the time to drag a hose all the way around to the side of the house where the bale was placed whenever it needed watering. I think I headed off potential problems by always having moisture at the ready.

My huge tomato plant required several stages of staking to support its size and weight, but I found it easy to add more structure as needed. Since the tomato was already situated well above the ground, I didn’t have to worry about as much staking as I’ve used in the garden because there was little danger until quite late in the season that the branches would lie on the ground. At one point, I worried that my failure to put a larger cage in at an early stage in its growth would be a problem, but in fact my piecemeal approach worked just fine and the plant never suffered for its haphazard support.

I also did a better job of fertilizing the bale according to the recommended schedule than I had thought I might. Feeding my garden is frankly the garden task to which I most often fail to attend. Whether it was the newness of the project or the self-contained nature of the bale, it just seemed easier to remember to feed it regularly. I feel certain that following the appropriate schedule also contributed to the lush growth of the plant. I used organic fish emulsion, which was quite easy to apply as part of my regular watering.

End of the Season

Water Garden
Water Garden

And so another growing year in the garden is over. This was a year that kept Minnesota gardeners on their toes, with the weather varying from cooler and wetter to hotter and dryer than average. A wet spring meant that we were plagued by lots of mosquitoes, which always diminish one’s pleasure in the outdoors a bit, but it also helped bring an end (temporarily, as it turned out) to drought conditions. For reasons that are far from clear, much of the Twin Cities saw a huge drop in the Japanese beetle population, which meant that many trees, shrubs, and vines were spared the damage caused by their voracious appetite.

I was pleased to find a better spot this year for the water garden container that my sister-in-law gave me a couple of years ago, the one “up side” of the removal of an old, ailing elm tree from our neighbors’ boulevard. As a result, I got two flushes of blooms from both my yellow water lily and pale purple water hyacinth. Several shrubs that had sustained so much rabbit damage last winter that I was afraid wouldn’t survive came bouncing back. Sadly, like many Minnesota gardeners, I lost some favorites in my garden to late freezes and heavy, wet, late spring snows, including several unusual Hellebores, lambs ears, and most of my Brunnera. But, as a wise observer once said, the loss of plants in the garden just means one has some spaces in which to try new plants.

As I look forward to the 2014 growing season, and ending this post where I began it, I will definitely plant at least one, and perhaps two, straw bale gardens next year. I will definitely situate one where this year’s stood, and I will spend some winter planning time identifying other options. I’d love to be able to grow at least one more tomato and perhaps some shallots, green onions, or eggplants. I’d also love to grow some squash or melons, but I’m pretty certain that would require more straw bales than my little urban garden could accommodate. But I have a long winter ahead of me during which I can dream. And when is one’s garden ever more lush and beautiful than in one’s winter-time imagination.


Straw Bale Gardening: Chapter Two

Straw Bale Garden
Straw Bale Garden – Early Summer (by Cyndy Crist)

( 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

Straw Bale Garden - early
Straw Bale Garden- Early Summer (by Cyndy Crist)

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

Straw Bale Garden - #3
Straw Bale Garden – #3

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

Straw Bale Garden #4
Straw Bale Garden – close up (by Cyndy Crist)

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.

Resource on Straw Bale Gardens
Resource on Straw Bale Gardens

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

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!