If you’re a traditional gardener, then there’s a better than average chance you’ve never heard of “straw bale” gardening. If you’ve heard of straw bale gardening, then you are probably just as skeptical as I once was when the idea first found its way across my desk. When I first read about straw bale gardening I was more than a bit skeptical. The piece was so well written I thought it must’ve been done as part of a prank to get unsuspecting new gardeners to buy “plans,” or “blueprints” depicting how to perform this magical feat of producing a surplus of food. I never, in my wildest dreams, expected this to work, even though there was plenty of evidence to the contrary right in front of me.
Truth be told, a friend of mine stumbled across the straw bale gardening solution about a year ago, and unbeknownst to me began using it to grow enough food for him and his family. He had mentioned researching various container gardening concepts to deploy around the yard in an effort to begin producing a surplus of healthy food. As luck would have it, he lived in a nice ranch style house with a huge backyard, the problem was, he was renting rather than buying the home, and the owners were opposed to digging up the backyard for gardening. Lo and behold, this was the solution he decided to go with, and I am thankful that he did because I will be using it this coming spring and for future seasons as well.
The Reasons Straw Bales Work:
The straw bale gardening solution works for a number of reasons. One of the biggest reasons is the transition that takes place when straw decomposes. As straw decomposes it goes through a conversion process that converts it into arable soil, but not just any arable soil, it converts into almost a super soil full of beneficial nutrients that are necessary to any garden.
Prior to seeing this concept with my own eyes, I was a firm believer in neutralizing bad soil conditions for rapid improvement. When people asked how to make their soil better, my canned response was; grab a bag of lime and neutralize the soil. It wasn’t until Fred, the friend mentioned above, showed me the food he was growing out of straw bales that I began to take a more serious look at this concept, which led to doing the necessary research to determine why it worked so well.
Straw contains an enormous amount of micronutrients, such as iron, manganese, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous, all of which are essential to growing healthy crops of edible vegetables. These micronutrients remain locked into the straw bale until such a time as it begins to decompose and release them. Straw is also a great medium for water absorption and retention, so gardeners will require little more than a drip line to water the plants.
Straw is a very lightweight material which means it is rather easy to transport, weighing roughly 1/10th that of soil used to support the same quantity of plants. Straw bales are lightweight enough they can be used to establish rooftop gardens in urban/suburban areas where space may be limited or regulations restricting the use of land for gardening exist.
Straw bales are not buried in the ground; therefore, the surface structure of the garden will be elevated to the height of the straw bale, thereby making it easier to access for gardeners who are handicap, or who have difficulty bending down to ground level. Due to the arable structure of straw bales, roots will grow more rapidly here than they would in good ground soil.
As straw bales decompose they release heat, which provides “warm soil” for the plants being grown in them. This may be important depending on the plants you intend to grow. Straw bales are constantly changing throughout the decomposition process, converting the straw into virgin soil that nothing has been grown in before. Organic straw bales will also be free of plant diseases and pests. For instance, blight devastates tomato plants all the time; however, blight is carried in ground soil, so if the tomato plants are grown in straw bales, and never allowed to touch the ground, blight should stay away and the fruit from the vine should be plentiful and pleasant.
What Can You Grow in Straw Bales?
The short answer is “anything!” Almost every vegetable, fruit, and flower can be grown in straw bales. This does not necessarily mean that they all should be grown in straw bales. As is customary with gardening concepts, some plants will produce much better in straw than they do in soil, and others will do much better in fertile soil than they ever will in a single straw bale. Sweet corn, or any corn for that matter, should be grown in the ground rather than in a straw bale, as they will not produce sufficient ears of corn.
Salad greens, such as spinach, lettuce and beets are pretty hearty plants that can withstand a bit of cooler temperatures, and since straw bales produce heat during decomposition, these greens can even be planted early. These crops are also referred to as “clip and come back” crops, meaning you can snip off a few leaves when you need them and the plant will keep producing until the weather gets too warm. Straw bale gardening also goes hand in hand with “succession planting,” which consists of planting new seeds as soon as ripe plants have been harvested.
When it comes to making a decision on what to grow in your straw bale garden, the single biggest rule is; GROW WHAT YOU LIKE TO EAT! If you grow crops you do not consume on a regular basis, your efforts and surplus food will go to waste. Grow food you can process and store for future use, otherwise you will have to sell off surplus, or let it go into the compost heap, which may be beneficial for future crop cultivation, but will amount to wasted time and effort during the growing process.
Straw bale gardening instructions, the small details on working with straw bale gardens, and harvesting vegetables from the straw bale garden will be in a future post later this week, so be sure to stop back by in a few days and learn a little more, especially if you are considering this type of unconventional gardening concept.