The Straw Bale Experiment

Straw Bales

I am a learn-as-you-go kind of gardener, but I love producing and preserving as much food as I can during the season. Each year I try something new. This year, I rebuilt my raised beds increasing the depth to 16 inches to accommodate this aging back! But the big experiment is using straw bales. My neighbor is also experimenting with straw bales on a much larger scale.

Using straw (not hay) bales dates back to the Aztecs and Egyptians. In recent times, Kent Rogers, is thought to be the person who has led the modern fascination with this method. So why is it gaining popularity? Straw is a compostable product that releases nutrients for plants, resists pests and disease, dries out more slowly than pots and is raised for easy planting, care and harvesting. Each bale is generally good for two years of planting but can then be used as a base for pots, mixed in the compost or for covering plants such as strawberries.

The key to straw bale planting is conditioning the bales for at least 10 days in advance of planting. Conditioning kick-starts the decomposition of the straw creating an ideal planting environment. During the 10 days, high nitrogen fertilizer or organic equivalent is watered into the bales, alternating one day with fertilizer and one day with just water. The bales will start to heat up as decomposition happens. By day 10 – 12 check the temperature with a kitchen thermometer to see that it is not too hot (less than 26 C). At that point, you’re ready to plant.

Just about any plants are suitable for straw bales including lettuce, beans, peas, potatoes, and strawberries. Tomatoes, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, and peppers are very good options. Seedlings can be directly planted and large seeds like beans, simply pushed into the straw. For small seeds, lay a thin layer of planting soil on top of the bale and sow into the soil. Feed occasionally as you would in raised beds or pots. Watering is important but the bales retain moisture which is an advantage.

My experiment: I planted red cabbage, broccoli and zucchini in the straw bales and equal numbers in my new raised beds. At this stage, the plants in the raised beds are at least double the size of those planted in the bales. We will see how things grow as the season progresses and I will reflect on whether I correctly conditioned the bales. I will report back later to share my experience and that of my neighbors.

People are using straw bales in green houses, on existing gardens and even transforming their driveways into gardens. Ingenious! Straw bale vegetable production is being used around the world in countries that struggle with drought and floods. It is an efficient and effective way to plant in a rich compostable environment. Worth trying!

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