Straw Bale Gardening: My Favorite Gardening Method

Despite the fact that we just received over a foot of snow, gardening season really is right around the corner. Catalogs have been arriving in the mail for weeks, and before this most recent snowstorm, we had a warm spell which sent bulbs peeking out from underground. (Big mistake, guys!)

We have perennial beds at the front and side of our house, and in our backyard, I grow cut flowers – mainly different varieties of zinnias, but also cosmos and a handful of other varieties. I love having cut flowers in the house all summer, but what I really love is vegetable gardening. There simply is nothing like the flavor of a freshly picked tomato!

My Gardening Challenges

The growing season in our part of upstate New York is pretty short. The average first and last frost dates are October 11 and May 6, giving us about 150 to 160 frost-free days per year. While that sounds like a big chunk of time, many of my favorite summertime veggies, like tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers, won’t grow until temperatures are very warm. This essentially limits their growing season to late June, July, August, and part of September.

In addition to our short growing season, the soil on our property is terrible for gardening. Our house was built in 2004, and the builder clearly used a lot of sandy fill to create our backyard. There are barely any nutrients to fuel plants, so we would need add a tremendous volume of good quality soil and organic matter to make it hospitable. Needless to say, this could be quite costly.

My Solution: Straw Bale Gardening

A couple of years ago, I came across this article in the New York Times about an unusual gardening method. Rather than growing plants in the ground, you grow them in straw bales. I had never seen anything like this before, and I found the straw bales to be kind of ugly. But what really caught my attention and convinced me to give it a try, was the science behind straw bale gardening.

About ten days before you plant your plants in the bales, you begin a process of conditioning them with fertilizer. This gets the inside of the bales to start decomposing, creating a lovely base of compost for the plants you grow in them. And as the bales decompose, they heat up, which lengthens the growing season of the plants you plant in them. It’s genius!!

I immediately purchased what I lovingly call “the straw bale gardening Bible”, Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding, by Joel Karsten. It includes very clearly written directions for selecting, placing, and conditioning straw bales, as well as charts outlining how many of various types of plants can be grown in a single bale. (The latter is very helpful when planning the layout of your  straw bale garden.)

I’ve grown veggies in straw bales the last two summers, and the results have been astonishing. My plants absolutely flourished in the bales! However, they were more productive and grew more quickly the first year, when I followed the book’s conditioning steps to the letter. Last year I got a little lazy, and improvised the conditioning process a bit. While my plants eventually took off, they clearly did better the first year.

What I’ve Grown in Straw Bales

According to the book, all kinds of plants can be grown in straw bales, including annual flowers, strawberries, pumpkins, and most veggies. In my straw bales, I’ve successfully grown:

  • Eggplants
  • Tomatoes (many kinds)
  • Romaine and other types of lettuce
  • Basil and parsley
  • Summer squash (zucchini, yellow, and patty pan)
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Butternut squash
A young butternut squash in one of my bales last year.

If you live in an area with a short growing season, or with terrible quality soil, (or even no soil at all!), straw bale gardening is a great, inexpensive way to grow a thriving garden.

Have you tried straw bale gardening?

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