Something has never sat quite right with me about straw bale gardens in a place where soil is available. Like hydroponics, I can envision it for places that lack soil and ground space: rooftops, driveways, parking lots, and the like. Then, I’m not sure if it’s the purist in me, but the generally movement towards focusing on soil repair and permanence (my interpretation of what permaculture ideally does) rings much truer to my goals. In other words, I’m not against straw bale gardens as a viable technique, but as with anything, I would prefer them to be moving towards permanence and into a cyclical system.
So, I started thinking about how straw bale gardens might translate into this mode of thinking, and I’ve just about convinced myself that it is a fine way to begin cultivating on a property, especially one with no established systems. It started when I wrote a basic how-to article for One Green Planet, and from there, my imagination roamed to the hypothetical homestead that my wife and I hope to buy in the near future. What I realized is that straw bale gardens might make a lot of sense during the observation phase, that first year, on a property, and at the end, they provide a wealth of quality organic matter to put to use.
How Straw Bale Gardens Work
Let’s begin with the basics of gardening in straw bales. Like with mulches, it important to either find square straw bales, which are intrinsically without seeds, or seedless hay bales as the base. These can often be purchased more readily and cheaply during the fall, when grain harvests are at the high point, and they’ll wait patiently for the spring. Obviously, finding an organic source is a good idea, and purchasing the bales directly from small farms is economically ideal.
One of the things I really like about straw bale gardens is that they can be arranged in just about any shape one can envision. They can be set out (cut side up) on contour as double-reach beds would be, or they can be intricately patterned in a series of keyholes as a mandala garden. They offer all the benefits of a raised bed: good drainage, protection from pests, warmth earlier in the season, less effort for harvesting and weeding, and so on. Like with raised beds or lasagna gardens, it good form to put down some weed blocking at the base, either cardboard or thickly layered newspapers or a very thick pile of shredded leaves.
Ten days before planting, the bales should be conditioned. This consists of daily watering and adding fertility to the bale. During the first week, cups of compost tea or organic fertilizer should be added to each bale every other day. After six days, one and a half cups of fertilizer should be added daily for three days, and on the last day, special attention should be paid to phosphorus and potassium (banana tea or dried banana peel fertilizer could work for this). Basically, this gets the bale decomposing, which heats it up and adds fertility.
Planting in straw bales is much the same as planting in a dense mulch pit, which involves simply clearing out a little divet where the seed or seedling is to be planted and adding rich soil or compost to plant in. Annual crops can be planted in the top and culinary herbs at the sides of the bale, taking advantage of the vertical space and adding pest repellent and beneficial insect attractors. A soaker hose can be stretched along the top for easy, efficient watering. If the bale is seedless, weeds should be minimal to none. And, It’s easy to set up trellises for climbing crops. They can even be turned into mini-greenhouses by adding a little plastic over the top, which will keep plants safe until the frost are well and gone.
How Straw Bales Work Well for Permanence
Where I’ve really begun to see more potential, a time-sequenced plan, for straw bale gardens is including them in the earliest stages of designing a property. Often we have a general idea of where gardens might go, but we aren’t quite ready for permanent earthworks or, perhaps, not yet in possession of compost and/or topsoil, which are expensive to bring in. Straw bale gardens are perfect at this time because they are completely impermanent if we need them to be, or they are absolute fantastic for soil-building, like sheet-mulched beds, and even more so if they are placed correctly to leach nutrients into the topsoil already in place.
If we’ve positioned the straw bale garden atop a potential garden space, then we’ve hopefully put it on a weed barrier of cardboard or newspaper, snuffing out weed problems early on. Then, once we’ve made it through the growing season, the straw bales are nicely broken down as a great mulch-compost mix. We can put all of the vegetable waste beneath the broken down bales and spread the largely decomposed bales into actual sheet-mulch garden beds. The soil beneath them should be more fertile, having soaked up the nutrients of a composting, fertilized straw bale for months, and the bales themselves will have produced much of that compost and mulch material needed for starting beds.
Otherwise, if the bales were put in the wrong spot or on top of a concrete slab or tarp, then they have still provided an abundance of useful organic material, with which garden beds can then be constructed. Doing it this way wouldn’t condition the soils of those beds for us, as a well-positioned straw bale garden would, but the organic matter could easily transition us into creating more permanent beds. In the end, a new garden site (or any site for that matter) would likely have had to import some kind of mulch and/or compost anyway, so the straw bale acting a productive garden beforehand just adds an additional function to said mulch.
Furthering this theory, I can see this methodology being used similarly to animal tractors, where small sections of a site, particularly vegetable gardens, are conditioned in a timely, productive, cost-efficient manner, with the end result being fertile, mostly weed-free gardens with an abundance of organic mulch in place. Developing in this manner would reduce costs to straw bales while other fertility systems—on-site composting, green manure and chop-and-drop mulches, humanure, and so on—are being established over the first couple of years. If bales are readily available, I can’t see where this isn’t ideal for small gardens.
Other Things I Like about Straw-Bale Gardens
I like that straw bale gardens are relatively cheap to build, requiring very little in the way of costly materials, such as those required to build raised boxes and the accompanying truckloads of compost or soil. I like that they aren’t permanent, so they are forgiving of placement, allowing us to move them early on or realize some of the characteristics of a potential garden space. I like that they are raised and easy to harvest, and that they also have vertical space to utilize at the sides. I like that they yield more than just the crops growing in them, providing rich compost-mulch for the next planting season. And, when they are utilized with future seasons in mind, they seem a very viable and sensible way of building a garden system.
And, check out that quick, temporary cold-frame design up above. What a great idea for those bales that are waiting over winter to be used for spring gardens!
Feature Header: Straw Bale Garden (Courtesy of knitsteel)