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The Pros and Cons of Straw Bale Gardening

10/1/2019

If you want to try vegetable gardening, but are short on time or money, then straw bale gardening may be for you! Developed by author Joel Karsten, straw bale gardening is a relatively new growing method that eliminates the need for soil, uses less water and little to no pesticides, requires less bending and no weeding. In his book, Straw Bale Gardens, Karsten claims that his method requires 75 percent less time and costs a fraction of traditional methods. Reasons for this include:

  • Plants are elevated above the soil in straw bales so pests that overwinter in the soil will not be able to reach tender plants, making it ideal for squash, cucumbers, and other cucurbits often plagued by squash beetles.
  • Plants have better access to light and air so diseases like powdery mildew are minimized.
  • Plants are at a comfortable level for monitoring and harvesting and wire frames can be placed over the bales to accommodate climbing plants.
  • You can plant in all areas of the bale. Since the entire bale is conditioned prior to planting, annual flowers, potatoes, etc. can be planted in the sides of the bales
  • Once you have finished with your summer crops, the bales can be re-used for cool weather crops!
  • When you are completely done them, the remaining bales can be torn apart and added to your other garden beds for rich compost.
  • Straw bales are a worm paradise, so worm castings are already included in your bale.
  • All the fertilizer your plants need are in the bale with one exception…..if you want to plant tomatoes, you need to add some crushed egg shells or tomato “food” to the bales.

Sounds pretty great, right? During the 2019 Williamson County Master Gardener program, interns listened to a presentation by class lead, Linda Horton, on the straw bale method and many students decided to try it out for the first time in their home gardens. Here are a few of their comments about the experience:

“I did straw bales this year and agree about the tomatoes. They grew well, but it was hard to stake them up as they grew. I love bales for growing melon and squash and any vining vegetables as they grow down the bale. Going forward I would only plant two squash plants per bale.” – Hertha Hines

“This year, I did straw bale gardening…19 straw bales in all. I got most of my straw bales from Ace Hardware in Franklin, and some from the Williamson County Co-op. The quality of the bales from Ace Hardware was far superior. They were more tightly tied and easier to move around. The ones from the Co-op started falling apart immediately. I suspect this was because the guy who helped me get the bales threw them off of the truck they were stored in, and when they landed a bunch of straw fell out. The ones from the Co-op are just mounds of dirt now, but the ones from Ace can be replanted in the fall. I placed livestock panels above my straw bales mounted on t-posts, to serve as trellises. (see pictures) Since the straw bales are unattractive, I decided to make them more aesthetically pleasing. I went to Grant Cedar Mill and picked up some rough-cut 2”x6”x8’ boards, and built 2’x8’x6” planters to place around the straw bales. I placed two straw bales in each planter. I also created some 4’x4’ planting boxes that I was able to place three straw bales in. Right now, my planters are all 6” high. Next year, I will add 12” more height to all of the planters, so I don’t have to bend over as much.  The decomposed straw bales will be the base soil for my planters. Buying top soil can add up if you are creating a lot of planters like I am. The straw bales are around the same cost, but I get a grow season out of the bales, and a mountain of compost for next year. I had no pest problems, and few weeds. The straw bales from the Co-op had some weed seeds in them, but they germinated quickly and were easy to pull. There were five to six weeds per bale, and this is much less than the hundreds of weeds I had to pull from my raised beds. I say no pest problems, but horn worms did get to my tomatoes late in the season. I grew Sugar baby water melons, pole beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini, and jalapenos. I direct seeded all of the plants by placing an inch of Square foot gardening mix on top of each bale once the bales were prepared. The only one I had trouble with was cantaloupe. It germinated, but the plants never produced anything. I couldn’t get broccoli, brussel sprouts, or cabbage to germinate… since they are all in the same family I am wondering if I should start them indoors first and transplant them next time.” – Brad Sherp

“We grew Roma tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, basil, cantaloupe, tomatillos, zucchini, and yellow squash in six bales we purchased from Tractor Supply Company in Franklin this summer. Overall, we weren’t particularly impressed with this growing medium. We didn’t notice a reduction in pests versus what we’ve experienced with our raised garden beds over the span of five years. It’s also difficult to support certain plants like tomatoes as they grow; we had a tomato and a basil plant topple over before the end of the season – even though we made every effort to support the tomato plant as it grew. We didn’t notice anything growing significantly better in our straw bales versus the raised ones in our garden either. We did like that it’s significantly less expensive to grow things in straw bales versus constructing/adding soil to raised beds. We also liked that you can compost the straw bales at the end of the season. It’s worth trying the method in your own garden for that reason alone. It’s one of the best ways to improve your soil for the next growing season.” – Matt & Kristy Bergstrom

“I used the bales, in a keyhole pattern, for a wide variety of plants as experiments to see what did best. Not surprisingly, squash and cucumbers were healthy (none of the usual pests) and abundant. Lesson learned…..no more than two of these plants/bale or they tend to tip or break apart! I also planted dwarf okra, which was a nice surprise as the plants could be planted six to eight/bale, got no taller than 18”, and produced a good number of pods. Also planted were bok choi, leeks, and green beans. Excellent results, but it’s hard to plant enough beans to get a good harvest unless many bales were going to be used. I wasn’t pleased with the tomatoes! As they began to grow, they caused the bales to weaken due to their huge root system and that caused problems trying to keep them staked.  Several other master gardeners placed their bales against fences, barns, etc., as a more permanent staking method, but as mine were located mid-yard, I was forced to try cages, stakes, etc. And I didn’t want to invest in a more permanent metal/wire frame so I gave up and planted my tomatoes in a raised bed. I did try planting marigolds in the sides of the bales with mixed results. All the plants grew just fine, but often got shaded or overgrown by the bigger plants in the bales (squash & cucumbers especially). But where the plants were growing upright (beans, okra, etc), they were a beautiful addition to the bales and did double-duty as companion plants. In my hands, nasturtium did not do as well. In the fall, all the bales were broken down and used as compost.  I did not plant fall crops this year, but did so last year with poor results. By this time the bales were weak and sloppy so it was hard to get the plants started without adding a good amount of additional soil which seemed to defeat the purpose! I also just don’t like the way they look in my yard.” – Linda Horton

The 2019 Master Gardener program interns also planted straw bales at the Edible Uprising (EU) community gardens at the Factory in Franklin. Class lead Linda Horton shares her thoughts about the experience this growing season:

“We had a total of 10 bales out at the EU. Three were used to separate the various student project gardens and these were planted with veggies that blended with their gardens…….peppers, beans, dwarf okra. The remaining seven bales were used in an area that would have been “unplantable” to show what can be done with this type of garden technique in yards heavy in roots, etc. In these bales, we primarily planted the cucurbits….cucumbers, six types of squash, melons. They produced an abundance of crop without any pest issues. We placed mulch between the bales to provide a “landing platform” for the heavy fruit that spread down the bales. It might have been better to use some type of trellising to allow the cucumbers to climb, but because this location was close to the patio where vendors set up on Farmers Market day, we opted not to invade their areas. One bale, located in the semi-shady end of the garden was planted with three types of basil and two types of parsley. They also did well as they don’t require full sun. Once summer crops were done, we planted annual flowers to hold interest while we were getting the fall crops ready to go in the bales. We’ve planted broccoli and brussels sprouts as seedlings, and seeded spinach and cabbage. Extra dirt was needed for the seedlings as the straw had gotten very loose. Two of the bales were completely broken down so these were used to compost other areas of the gardens. We also broke down the bales, separating the student gardens and spread them out for mulch.”

To learn more about straw bale gardening, you can find Joel Karsten’s book, Straw Bale Gardens, on Amazon or at your local library or bookstore. A brief presentation by Karsten on this method can be found here
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