by Joel Karsten
Are you sure that’s a garden?… It looks like you’re bringing goats into your backyard!
What do you suppose your neighbors will say when they see you watering a bunch of straw bales lined up in your back yard this spring? The first question is usually, “Are you feeling okay?” or even, “Are you planning on bringing home a goat or a horse, or what EXACTLY are you doing?”
You explain somewhat hesitantly that you’re planning to grow vegetables by planting directly into the straw bales. Your neighbor, a long-time gardener, tells you “that is never going to work, because vegetables require specific nutrients and those nutrients can only be derived from the soil, and anything that grows from a straw bale will be lacking in nutrients… if you can get anything to grow in the first place.”
It is at this point when you become a teacher.
You calmly explain that while it may sound crazy, the science behind straw bale gardening is incredibly simple and straightforward. And its success rate is undeniable, taking out so many variables that would otherwise impact traditional soil gardening.
For two weeks prior to planting in the bales, you will be “conditioning” them. Conditioning is a process where nitrogen and water are applied to the bales to feed the (naturally occurring) bacteria inside the bales. These bacteria, when given a food source (nitrogen) and water over a few warm days, will replicate every 15 minutes until they colonize or saturate the bales.
Once the bacteria have completely colonized the bale, during which time the bales get very warm, they begin to consume and digest the high-carbon cell walls of the oats, wheat or barley straw in the bales, and quickly break down those cells, releasing the molecules that created those cells, turning what started as straw into brand new “soil” inside the bales.
The previous summer, Mother Nature constructed the straw by taking from the soil nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the three fundamental building blocks of all plant life on earth, along with a variety of micronutrients or trace-elements like iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc, and then organized them to construct cells that expanded and grew the oats or wheat.
Everything that has ever been alive on this planet is eventually decomposed back into soil, deconstructing cells and releasing molecules, which can then be absorbed by the roots of a new plant and transformed into a new organism.
This process of deconstruction, digestion or decomposition is accomplished by five main decomposers including insects, worms, fungi, mold, and the heavy lifter of all decomposers, bacteria.
The smallest, microscopic in size, but the most effective of all decomposers, bacteria is the engine of decomposition that allows all forms of life to exist, by “recycling” the molecules from one organism so that they can be used again to grow another plant.
The bales will be a host for all of these decomposers, filling with insects, worms, fungi, mold and bacteria, all of which work together to create beautiful virgin “soil” inside every bale.
Once the bales have been conditioned they are ready to plant. There is no lingering disease or insect infestations in this virgin “soil.” Last year’s garden soil lying just below the bales may very well be harboring disease or insect issues, and certainly contains thousands of weed seeds in every cubic foot.
It is important to never introduce existing garden soil into the new Straw Bale Garden, because many potential issues may ride along. Weed seeds, which often harbor in soil for years before getting the right conditions to germinate, would be spread on the surface of the Straw Bale Garden if soil were introduced, along with potential fungal spores, insects, or other diseases that may be lingering in that existing garden soil.
Choosing what to plant is really easy, because almost anything with roots will thrive in these newly conditioned bales. Stay away from the few plants that like extremely acidic or alkaline growing media, because the bales will produce a “soil” that is nearly neutral.
Avoid planting corn, only because the roots are huge, and even the biggest bale would only have room for a few stalks of corn. Other perennial rooted vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb, which take a few years to get established, will never be harvested from the raised height of the bales. The bale decomposes and will collapse and disintegrate right on that spot within three years for sure, leaving behind a little lump of soil, and an asparagus or rhubarb patch in that spot.
Beyond that, plant everything else that you like to eat. Leafy greens love the bales, as do root crops, vines, cucurbits, herbs and even flowers. If you normally plant using seeds, then use seeds in your bales as well, but create a seed bed on top of the bales first using about an inch or two of sterile planting mix.
Soil-less mix, with no potential to harbor disease, insects or weed seeds, spread on the surface of the straw bale will hold moisture around the seeds until they germinate and send a root shooting down into the bales. Or if you are planting using bedding plants or transplants, just make a hole in the bale and tuck the rooted plug down into the bale. Pretty simple!
It is at this point when you become a preacher about the method!
Straw Bale Gardening provides many advantages over traditional soil gardening, some of which have already been alluded to: no weed seeds, no disease or insect carry over, and a neutral pH which allow you to grow essentially anything with roots.
There are many other advantages to this method, which have made it so popular among brand new gardeners, and those gardeners that are well seasoned and may be nearing the end of their gardening careers. The raised height of the bales is a big advantage, eliminating the need to get down on the ground level to plant and harvest. Soil is heavy and moving it around is labor intensive, while straw bales once in place eliminate much of the physical requirements of traditional gardening.
Straw Bale Gardening provides at least ten other distinct advantages as well, which you can learn more about by visiting www.StrawBaleGardens.com or our Facebook page. Get your hands on a copy of the comprehensive guide to growing in straw bales, my book titled “Straw Bale Gardens” which is filled with specific details on the entire process, garnered from my 22 years of research on this amazing method called Straw Bale Gardening.
Copy and use this Gardening Channel coupon code 4G8Z2HFV31LG to receive a discount on your purchase of the book. You can also learn more about me, Joel Karsten, or send questions you might have about Straw Bale Gardening.
Enjoy trying and sharing this revolutionary method and all the crops it will yield!