Straw Bale Gardens, Part Two

Recently, I wrote about
my new experiment in vegetable gardening. The idea was to build raised beds out
of rice straw bales, creating a no-dig bed that would basically turn into one
giant compost pile at the end of the season. I heard from several people who
were interested in trying the same thing themselves, so I told them I would
report back and let you know how the setup went.

I ended up buying four rice straw
bales and arranging them in a square, with an opening in the center that I
filled with straw and compost. Most of the instructions I’d read about straw
bale gardening said to place the bales on the narrower edge, so that the cut
end of the straw was facing up and the strings were running around the sides of
the bales. The rationale for this arrangement is that it is easier for plant
roots to work their way down into the straw if the straw itself is running
perpendicular to the ground rather than parallel.

But I didn’t like the way that looked, so I did it
the other way. With the straw bales sitting on their edges, the whole thing
seemed unreasonably tall. This might be a good thing if you’re trying to avoid
bending over too much, but I liked the look of the bales when they were flat on
the ground, and besides, they covered more ground that way. This is exactly the
sort of approach that gets me into trouble with experiments like this: I am
always disregarding the advice of others who have gone before me and making
impractical changes for impractical reasons.

So I set my bales down the ground and, without
cutting the strings to loosen the bales, I roughed them up with a spading fork
and pulled out enough loose straw to fill in the hole I’d left in the center.
Then I topped the whole thing off with a couple inches of compost and watered
it thoroughly.

At this point, according to the directions I’d read,
the bales would start to heat up like a compost pile and would decompose a
little. After about ten days of this, they would cool off and be ready for
planting. During those ten days, I added a little more compost, continued to
water every day, and poured in organic liquid fertilizer to help infuse the
straw with beneficial microbes and nutrients. And it did cook: according to my
soil thermometer, temperatures inside the bales reached a hundred degrees. A
true hot compost pile is supposed to reach 160 degrees, but I was happy just to
see it get hot enough to produce a few wisps of steam now and then.

As predicted, after about ten days, the bales cooled
down. By then, the straw had decomposed enough that I could easily rake more of
it out of the bales, fill those holes with compost, and plant right into them.
I ran a soaker hose back and forth across the bales so that they would be easy
to water, and then I planted all the vegetable starts I bought at the farmers
market: tomatoes, beans, peas, herbs, squash, and broccoli. In all, I put about
40 plants into a 36 square-foot vegetable bed.

Many of you are probably looking at the photograph
of my little garden and wondering how I could plant a vegetable patch with such
an obvious flaw: it is inaccessible on two sides. To get to the opposite corner
of the bed, I have almost no choice but to step right in the middle of it. This
is indeed a foolish design, but it represents a compromise. This is the only
spot in my garden that gets full sun, and I’m hoping that the heat bouncing off
the fence will keep the tomatoes happy. It’s also convenient to have the
chicken wire that encloses my chicken coop as a trellis for the beans and peas
to climb up — as long as the chickens don’t reach through the wire and eat
every pod before I do.

My plan is to continue feeding this straw bale
garden with organic liquid fertilizer and a very informal sort of compost tea
made by mixing worm castings with water and pouring the mixture straight into
the garden. The plant roots will eventually grow right into the straw bales, so
they’ll need some extra nutrients.

Meanwhile, it’s a relief to know that I won’t have
to bother with pulling weeds, and it’s nice to have such a small, densely
planted vegetable garden that is easily watered by soaker house. With any luck,
I’ll have a harvest in a few months. I’ll keep you posted.

3 thoughts on “Straw Bale Gardens, Part Two”

  1. How expensive and time consuming is this method in comparison to other no-till systems? How much did you pay for the bails and the fertilizer? I have mulched with a lot of straw, but never used intact bales, it seems a little excessive.

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