Did you try something new in your garden this year? Trying new things is so much fun! This year I tried the popular gardening method, straw bale gardening, for the first time. In a previous episode of The Beginner’s Garden podcast, I introduced the founder of the Straw Bale Garden Method, Joel Karsten. He and I chatted just as I was beginning my straw bales. (You can listen to it or read about it here.)
But now that I’ve finished my first full season with straw bales, what did I discover? Was it hard? Did it meet my expectations? And perhaps most important, will I do it again? Read on or listen to this new episode of the Beginner’s Garden Podcast to find out.
Acquiring Straw Bales
I used six straw bales for my garden this year. I bought these from my local farmer’s co-op. Thankfully, they had been kept in a covered location, which made them easy to transport (wet straw bales are extremely heavy).
I transported them into my garden as soon as I got them home. I wanted to make sure I situated them before any rain came.
From there, I started Joel’s recommended conditioning process, as outlined in his book. (This is what a lot of people get wrong — you can’t just plant in straw bales. You have to condition the bales for a few weeks first. It’s not as hard as it sounds, though. Read on for my process.)
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Organic Straw Bale Gardening — Conditioning Process
When it came to conditioning the straw bales I used organic inputs. For six days, I added 3 cups of a nitrogen source every other day, and on both those days and the off days, I watered the bales.
Here’s where another part of my experimental nature came in. Half of the straw bales I conditioned with blood meal and the other half I conditioned with Milorganite.
(I normally would have chosen an organic blood meal like this one, but when I needed to purchase it, it was at the height of pandemic lockdowns and the only one available was non-organic. I don’t know if this made a difference or not, but in the future I will use organic blood meal.)
When those six days were up, I halved my recipe down to 1 1/2 C of the nitrogen source, daily, for a total of three days — watering after each application. Then, I added 3 cups of balanced organic fertilizer like this one on the final day — again, watering after application.
After the fertilizer applications were complete, I continued to water the straw bales daily for about a week.
Watering Straw Bales
Watering the straw bales jumpstarts the composting process that you’re trying to achieve with the fertilizer applications. Joel recommends a gallon per straw bale each day. Water that is either warm or at ambient temperature works much better than cold water (after all, you’re wanting the bales to heat up).
To make this easy for my six bales, I took six gallon-jugs to my garden and filled them up with water each day. When it came time to water, I emptied a gallon of water on each straw bale. Then I filled the jugs up again, letting them warm in the sun prior to the next application.
How to Know When Bales are Ready for Plants
After about four days of water-only, I started checking the internal temperature of my straw bales with a long-probed meat thermometer. Ideally, the composting process will cause the bales to heat up.
Once the temperature settled down to more of an ambient temperature, I knew I was ready to plant.
The important thing here is this: you don’t want to plant when the straw is too hot. You will damage your plants’ root systems (if you’re planting transplants) before they can get established.
What Vegetables Grow Best In a Straw Bale?
Tomatoes are usually the vegetable most gardeners begin growing in straw bales, and this was also the case for me.
The straw bale gardening method is supposed to help tomatoes with the early blight disease that many plants tend to be hit with. Plus, I chose to plant my tomatoes in straw bales in an area of the garden that isn’t typically as well-drained or fertile.
I planted a mix of Amish Paste, San Marzano, and Juliet tomato plants, among a couple of others like Black Krim and Golden Jubilee. Because I like companion planting, I planted cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon transplants between the tomato plants.
In each bale, then, I had two tomato plants with one melon plant in between.
Planting Tomatoes in Straw Bales
I found that it was harder to dig in the straw than I anticipated, but I used my Hori Hori knife to saw into it. I added compost to the bottom of each hole I dug in the straw, but definitely struggled to dig as deep as I would’ve liked to (tomatoes benefit from being planted deeply). I planted the transplants and filled each hole back up with compost.
Since most of the tomato plants I planted need a trellis system, I added a cattle panel behind the straw bales and fixed them to “T” posts so that my tomatoes would have something to climb when they were ready.
With the six straw bales planted in rows, I planted another row of tomatoes parallel to them in the ground. I used my welded wire tomato cages. I amended this area with a little extra compost, as it tends to be extra saturated in this part of the garden.
How to Keep Straw Bale Watered Throughout Season?
In my garden, I use drip lines. I made sure to have a drip line that covered the top of the bales. I also measured to make sure the flow rate was adequate since sometimes I struggle with the water pressure in this part of my garden. (Learn more about irrigation options here.)
You can definitely water manually; just make sure you do it daily and that you water enough. If you choose this route, you have to keep an eye on it, especially during dry periods. Straw bales can dry out more quickly than garden beds.
Is There A Difference in Nitrogen Sources?
As I mentioned above, I used both blood meal and Milorganite. Let me tell you, there was a HUGE difference in how they performed in the beginning. I ended up losing two tomato transplants that I had conditioned with the blood meal.
This is still a mystery to me, as lots of people have used it with zero issues (and it’s what Joel recommends in his book). But, the transplants that I conditioned with Milorganite flourished immediately, while the others struggled at the beginning.
In the end, though, all the plants settled down. After they all acclimated to their new environment, you couldn’t tell which I had conditioned with which source. Though I didn’t measure precise harvest in pounds, the production appeared equal.
How Did My Plants Perform In Straw?
All of my tomato plants in this straw bale area, once established, were my most healthy overall — not only the ones in the straw but also the ones beside it. Using this method, I saw the most healthy, vibrant, and productive indeterminate tomato plants I’ve ever grown.
Does straw bale gardening preventing early blight in tomatoes?
I also had fewer issues with early blight in my tomatoes planted in straw bales early on in the season.
By the middle of the season, all of the tomatoes struggled with early blight, and I firmly believe this is because the tomatoes in the straw were planted right next to the tomatoes in the ground. I am sure the blight found its way to the ground tomatoes first and the disease spread to the ones in the straw. I don’t believe I would’ve struggled near as much had I planted in straw alone.
Were there weeds in the straw bale garden?
There were very few weeds in the straw, which was nice. Some of the seeds from the straw itself sprouted, but this was minimal and easy to eradicate by a quick hand-pull. The lack of weeds in the straw bale garden was a huge plus.
Blossom end rot in tomatoes grown in straw bales
Somewhat surprisingly, I had zero issues with blossom end rot, which is another plus that I wasn’t expecting from using this method. Since most issues of blossom-end rot occur due to watering inconsistencies, I would have expected to see more of this with the straw bales. Perhaps the consistent drip irrigation mitigated this problem.
Growing melons in straw bales
As far as my melons, this is a bit of a mixed review. The cantaloupe and honeydews produced a bumper crop. I believe this was due to their ability to climb the cattle panels and reach the sunlight in the midst of the tomato vines.
The watermelons, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well. They didn’t climb up the trellis, but instead, they climbed down and spilled over the straw bales. And because on that side of the bales I had a heavy planting of okra, they didn’t get enough light. I only harvested one watermelon. I do believe if the lack of sunlight hadn’t been an issue, they would have grown and produced just as well.
How Did the Yield in the Straw Bale Garden Compare?
In order to test how well this method performed, I planted a separate planting of tomtoes in a different area of the garden. These were the same varieties, planted at approximately the same time.
The results? I harvested double the amount from both the tomatoes in the straw plus the ones beside them in comparison to indeterminate tomatoes planted in the ground in a different area of my garden.
Another interesting observation — the tomatoes planted beside the tomatoes in the straw bales yielded 8% more than the ones in the straw bales.
Why would that have happened? I believe the plants beside the straw bales benefited from the conditioning — flooding them with the water, the fertilizer runoff, the composting process, etc. And because they had access to the ground soil, they were better established and able to access deeper reserves.
Is It Worth it Financially?
Here’s the big question you might be asking. Is straw bale gardening worth the cost? The truth is, the cost of an organic straw bale is not cheap (a non-organic straw bale garden is much cheaper, but here’s why I don’t use synthetic fertilizer in my garden).
Let’s just break down the cost of a straw bale garden. Keep in mind, these price estimates are coming in 2020, when the price of a lot of garden inputs is higher than it might normally be.
Cost of straw bales:
I paid $6 per bale from my local farmer’s co-op and I think this is about average. And in case you’re wondering — no, they were not organic. However, from what the gentlemen at the farmer’s co-op shared with me when I asked, straw is not sprayed with the same killer herbicide that you’ll find in non-organic hay. And my tomatoes did not suffer the same fate as they did when I used hay as mulch one year.
Cost of conditioning:
The largest cost in the organic straw bale garden is the nitrogen input. If you are only doing 1 to 4 bales, you’ll end up paying more in nitrogen, about $15 per bale for the nitrogen added in because you won’t be buying your nitrogen source in bulk. But, if you grow in 6 to 7 bales, your cost for nitrogen may decrease to about $5 per bale, but only if you choose to use Milorganite in the 32-lb bag.
Total cost of an organic straw bale garden:
Adding in the all-purpose fertilizer that you may or may not already have on hand, you can expect to pay about $23 in total per bale if you are only doing a few bales. If you can get above 6 bales, your cost will decrease down to about $13 a bale.
True, this method may not seem like the cheapest option, but when we compare to the cost of a raised bed and soil, you’re saving more than you may realize.
Pros of Straw Bale Gardening
Even though I’ve only grown two crops in straw bales in only one season so far, I’ve seen multiple benefits to this method. First, there’s very little maintenance after the first two weeks of conditioning. Second, if you use drip irrigation or soaker hoses (on a timer), the watering process is also hands-off. Third, there are very few weeds and you don’t need any supplemental fertilization.
Another benefit is that it’s a great option if you have less than perfect soil. You can also use them on a driveway or in a place where there’s zero soil. Another positive is that there is less disease. You can also plant a fall garden in your straw. I didn’t do that this year, but it’s definitely an option.
At the end of the season, you have the straw when you’re done with the garden. You can use that to add to the bottom of a new raised bed. You can use it to mulch, to condition your soil, etc. It’s an additional source of organic material ready to go!
Also, keep in mind that when the straw heats in the early composting process, it provides a little extra warmth for your crops. This provides protection for any late freezes you may have in your climate.
Cons of Straw Bale Gardening
The main drawback of straw bale gardening would, first, have to be the cost, especially if you’re only planting in one or two. One other con is definitely minor, but it’s worth mentioning. In the early stages of the conditioning process, the organic nitrogen sources attract flies. Though this can be annoying, it’s temporary.
Another drawback is that the watering requires more care if you have to water manually. The bales dry out very quickly, so if you don’t have a drip system, this could be very time consuming.
Will I Do It Again?
The easy answer? YES! I plan on doing another 6 straw bales next year. I do love that I have options with the straw and that I can produce in different places in my garden that I have struggled with in the past. Based on my experience, I encourage you to give this method a try!
To learn more about straw bale gardening and follow the method I used, I highly recommend Joel Karsten’s book Straw Bale Gardens.
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