Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Eat This, Feed Me, Real Gardens, Shut Up and Dig

Tale of a Strawbale Raised Bed

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Strawbale raised bed with trellising in place and seedlings planted.

One year, three friends and I decided to make a vegetable garden together. It would be built on one of our properties in the suburbs west of Minneapolis, and all of us would help maintain it and share in the harvest.

We built the garden in a mowed area of a field, near a source of water. We made a wire-and-stake fence around it and added an ornamental gate.

The beds were set in place first. We tried a variety of styles and shapes, from home-built wooden sided raised beds to a half whiskey barrel to a long, rectangular raised bed of strawbales.

We filled the various beds with a foot of topsoil purchased in bulk from a nearby landscape center. As the topsoil contained a fair amount of clay, we added several inches of peat moss and mixed thoroughly with pitchforks and shovels to create our growing medium. (I’ve since toured a peat farm and have very few qualms about using it, particularly that close to where it is harvested, but that’s a Rant for another time…)

We spread thick black plastic between the beds, covered with a layer of wood chips, to make weed-free paths. We also discouraged blown-in seedlings by keeping a mowed 6-foot buffer around the garden.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our friend-supported garden in late summer.

This friend-supported garden (FSG, our alternative to a CSA) included quite a few little experiments, one of which was the raised bed made of strawbales.

Humid midwestern summers ensure that the bales hold water quite well and long, making them useful reservoirs of extra moisture for nearby plants. This seems particularly helpful for growing herbs that appreciate extra moisture — parsley and cilantro, for example — as well as for buffering other plants against drought. After setting our bales in place, we soaked them thoroughly with a hose, and when watering the plants within the raised strawbale bed, we gave the bales extra water as well.

Strawbale also holds heat well, so it keeps soil temperatures warm in raised beds. This helps plants that need certain soil warmth to succeed, such as the pepper/tomato/eggplant family, the squashes and melons, and herbs like basil. Any strategy for warming the soil is a boon in a short northern growing season.

Finally, strawbales make nice walls for sitting, and handy for setting things on too. Wineglasses, for instance, or baskets full of harvest.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our strawbale bed grew cherry tomatoes and cukes underplanted with mini-watermelons.

Straw is different from hay, hay being the tops of the plants, which include seeds. Straw is the dried stems, and ideally it is fairly seed-free and slower to decompose than hay. Our bales stayed fairly rigid for a couple of years, despite being soaked in summer and having snow on them all winter, and when they were too soft, they could be broken apart and the straw used as mulch.

Speaking of straw mulch, we used it throughout this garden; it makes a great, lightweight mulch that deters weeds and retains heat and moisture in the soil. Fruits and veggies also stay cleaner and drier on top of the straw mulch, so they won’t rot as easily as they would on bare soil.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Full-sized watermelons are tough to grow in the short Minnesota summers, but these mini-melons take off in the warm, moist environment of the strawbale raised bed.

I hope to make some strawbale raised beds this spring in my new Boise garden, and it will be interesting to see how well they work in a dry climate. Anyone else tried them? What was your experience?

 

Posted by on January 15, 2014 at 2:54 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Eat This, Feed Me, Real Gardens, Shut Up and Dig.
Comments are off for this post

32 Responses to “Tale of a Strawbale Raised Bed”

  1. Evelyn, I love the FSG concept and that you experimented with various methods for growing your crops. Would you say that the straw bales worked best, and if so, will you be converting more of the beds to the bales? Thanks for sharing.

    • Ginny, I think the strawbales were handier, serving as shelves and seats in addition to their primary function of holding in soil. They also added warmth and a cozy aroma. However, I certainly wouldn’t replace permanent raised beds with strawbales, not if the beds are in good shape.

      Unfortunately, two of us have since moved, so our little FSG was only a temporary (but fulfilling) collaboration.

  2. Lizabeth says:

    My mom used straw for mulch but I love this idea! Will have to find a friend’s yard to try it since I don’t think my condo board will let me try it in one of the parking lot grass islands (although that would be the perfect spot: no trees and plenty of sun)

    • That median WOULD be a perfect spot, Lizabeth! For anything but lawn. Too bad the board wouldn’t go for it… though maybe if you presented them with a plan? My new book Hellstrip Gardening will be published in May, and there’s an entire chapter about dealing with HOA/condo/city regulations; I see lots of potential for big changes if we can share and imitate some of the success stories from around the country. Those little fragments are perfect areas to make a change from lawn to something more useful or more carefree (or both!).

  3. susan harris says:

    Great post! So in your new location, will you be veg-gardening alone?

    • Susan, my sis here in Boise manages a community garden, and she has spent years figuring out how to grow food, so I’m going to be getting lots of help from her.

  4. plantingoaks says:

    I’ve heard several variants on straw bale beds. Which method did you use? Did you add anything to the straw other than the plants?

    My wooden raised beds have rotted out, and you make straw a tempting alternative for round two.

    • We put a small amount of good soil between the bales. We found the plants started well in the soil and then spread their roots into the moist straw. Unless it rained, we watered down the bales every day.

      • Peggy, thank you for chiming in… I didn’t know if you would want to be “outed”! But I wanted to share our great little garden because it turned out to be so successful. Much of that success was due to your hard work. Thanks for the memories, and the produce!

        • We had great produce, great gardening days, and great friendships. Some pretty great squash borers, too. But I remember those summers and our garden with great fondness. Glad you do too!

  5. Charlotte says:

    I’m in Livingston Montana — a couple of things. Straw out here tends to be wheat straw, and it contains a lot of seedheads. If you can find barley straw, but it — far fewer seedheads. I haven’t done straw bale beds, but I do use a ton of it in my garden to try to hold water in — since we only get 12-14 inches per year in rain, and July-October are hot and dry and windy, water conservation is key. But, I do get a lot of wheat infestation. Luckily wheat is shallow rooted and easy to pull out. I’ve actually had great success with hay in veggie beds, especially among the more tender greens — haven’t had undue weed infestations from local hay, and its a little softer than the wheat straw, which has stems so stiff they can cut up the leafy greens. But I mulch *everything* – -veggies, perennial beds, etc in a couple of inches of straw – helps with water, but I fear it might be contributing to my everpresent flea beetle problems. Good luck gardening in Boise! Completely different climate than the midwest (which is why so many of us fled out here).

    • Thanks for the pointers, Charlotte. Hope I can find some good strawbales out here. I am loving this mild winter and looking forward to learning firsthand about gardening in a summer-dry climate. I’m a big fan of mulching everything too; you should see all the bags of leaves I’ve collected! (Another future Rant topic…)

  6. John by the river says:

    Try reading Ruth Stout’s books. She gleefully threw hay everywhere.

  7. Deborah says:

    I used to use “straw” all the time; I loved the look and feel of it in the vegetable garden paths and as a mulch for just certain veges. Unfortunately, what’s available around Seattle is full of seeds, no matter how careful one tries to be in purchasing “straw.” I don’t mind pulling some weeds, but I really hate actually sowing them! No more straw for me.

    • Hmmm, sounds like straw and hay may not be as distinctly labeled here in the Northwest as they are in the Midwest. If so, that is a shame. But I imagine you can get pine straw and other good stuff there, Deborah?

      • Charlotte says:

        I don’t think it’s that they’re less distinctly labelled. It’s pretty easy to tell straw (yellow gold in color, stiff hard stems) from hay (greenish, softer, but as someone noted downthread, prone to unpleasant degradation in wet climates). But since we have such huge commercial wheat croppage out here, my hunch is that there is simply more chaff in our wheat straw. Mine nearly always contains a considerable number of full heads of wheat. When you’re harvesting thousands of acres at a time, my hunch is this is what happens. Barley straw is noticeably cleaner than wheat, so if you can find it (ask at a ranch store, or someplace that sells bedding for horses) it’s a better bet. I was using a lot of straw in my chicken run, which then went into the compost, so that was a good bet.

        I like hay, and might well go back to it this year, but I always feel guilty because it’s both expensive, and in terribly short supply out west. We’ve had such droughts, that I hate to use good animal forage in my garden if I can help it.

        The other issue with straw is that it can infect an entire garden with Roundup. So ask when you buy it. If the wheat crop was sprayed, then you can kill your whole veggie garden. I’ve known a couple of people who had to dig out and replace all of their soil in the raised beds.

        • KarenMcCarthy says:

          Charlotte, I had been scrolling down the posts here hoping someone would chime in re. herbicide carryover. Thanks for mentioning RoundUp (glyphosate) but as you will read, this is one of the lesser herbicidal evils affecting gardens.
          I live on a farm where we produce hay and have horses. I also have a nice organic veggie garden. Over the past two seasons however I have been noticing some problems with my potato crop and to some degree my tomatoes which were amended with our composted manure (1.5 years). We rarely use glyphosate in our fields, but we do use some selective broadleaf herbicides in the spring, containing 2-4-D and aminopyralid to spot treat small areas in the pasture, typically the margins near the highway.
          In our area the farmers also produce wheat and barely, so naturally we have an abundance of straw available, but again, that comes with the caveat that most if not all the farmers broadcast their fields at least TWICE a season with a combination of broadleaf herbicides which have been shown to really affect the plants grown some of the straw bale gardens some locals have set up, due to the chemical residue leaching into the rootzone.
          Here is an excellent paper to read more about this issue:
          http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher/programs/ncorganic/special-pubs/herbicide_carryover.pdf

          One other small issue with the garden described in this post is the use of plastic underlying a walk-on mulch. In my former landscaping career, I found any garden with plastic mulches to have some weird disease, insect & root rot issues as the soils/root zones cannot respirate, for want of a better description.

          • Karen and Charlotte, I didn’t experience problems with chemical residue, but was aware it is a risk. I’m not sure that garden center staff would be able to answer a question about what chemical treatments the straw they are selling might have received. To be certain, you’d probably have to get your bales straight from the farmer.

            We didn’t have noticeable issues with the plastic under our mulch paths, but again, this was a new garden. If we’d kept it, we no doubt would have either upgraded the paths to more durable material or replaced the layer of wood chips within a few years, and in that location, that may have been enough to prevent fungal buildup due to trapped moisture.

            In a kitchen garden devoted mainly to annuals that are getting enough nutrients and water, I’m guessing the roots probably wouldn’t need to extend into the area under the paths. If they did, they would not find it damp enough to rot; in fact, that plastic keeps moisture out of the area under the paths, which really deters weeds well.

  8. Ivette Soler says:

    LOVE using straw bales! I always encourage renters who want raised veg beds to go the straw bale route before they build anything expensive so they can see if they have the “stomach” for vegetable gardening (alot of people in my world like the idea of it way more than they can deal with the reality of the work it takes). Nine times out of ten, they keep the bales and never build anything permanent. They can look really great, too. One of my favorite vegetable gardening tricks! YAY!!!

  9. CottonM says:

    In our area the alternative for straw is marsh hay. Though it does have weed seeds the marsh plants don’t germinate or grow well in the garden. In other words they aren’t competitive. And it’s more plentiful & less expensive than straw (oat, wheat).

    I’ll sure give this a try but wonder if our marsh hay will last more than a season. The lignin in the straw stems break down slowly. The marsh hay has a fair amount of leafy material.

    • Sounds like a reasonable assumption that hay would break down quicker than straw, CottonM. In which case, maybe you have a nice one-season garden that you can dismantle in early fall and compost it all!

    • ET says:

      I wonder about the ecological impacts of harvesting “marsh hay”. It sounds like it would involve heavy equipment on wetlands.
      Do you know how and where it is harvested?

  10. Julie says:

    I have been thinking about using straw in the garden both as mulch and a border type thing. I currently live in a north western Minneapolis suburb. Where would you typically look for straw to purchase?

    • Some garden centers have strawbales. Seems like Fleet Farm does too. Maybe they are only available at certain times of year. I used to drive those country roads just outside the burbs and find farmers selling strawbales from their driveways. I would just make a few calls before going somewhere and assuming you could find them.

  11. I’m gardening in England and I wish I had come across this idea before we gave up our allotment because my husband has back problems. We had considered a no-dig method but our allotment society wouldn’t have liked that. We would have been quite enthusiastic to give this a go.

    I’m wondering if it would work to put straw bales in bale-sized raised beds so they look neater for the sake of ‘regulations’. This would save people’s backs because digging wouldn’t be needed.

    I’m having a language problem. Your other readers have commented on the different kinds of straw they are finding in their home areas. Here, straw is the stems of crops like wheat and barley (as with you) but hay is made from tall grass grown specially for the purpose, mown and left to dry in the fields before baling. It is sweet smelling when new but goes black and slimy and horrid when left in the damp. Straw, I think, lasts longer but . . . would you say this idea is suited only for a dry climate? Our summers have been swinging around recently, very dry periods and very wet periods in sequence instead of warmth and refreshing showers mixed.

    Oh – how much nutrition did the plants get from the straw? Did you have to feed them more than you might have done if they were in the ground?

    Sorry for all the questions but the idea has quite gripped me!

    • Hi, Esther. “Dryness” is relative, I suppose. My Minnesota garden received on average about 28 inches of precipitation in a year. However, the veggies in the strawbale bed were watered regularly, so they were definitely not living in a dry microclimate. Therefore, I’d say strawbales can be used in a wetter climate as well. They may not last as many seasons, but organic material breaks down faster in a wetter climate, so that might be a benefit as you’d have new partly decomposed straw with which to replenish your mulch every year.

  12. Michelle says:

    This is great! I do not have a green thumb, or the space for a garden of much size so this gives me hope I can use a small space with proper drainage, near a water source and possibly have some success. Thanks so much, Evelyn, for sharing your idea.

  13. Deborah Hudson says:

    Evelyn, i remember when you also took four straw bales and put them back by a south facing patio and put an old window on top to cover. Then you planted inside the raised square and had nice lettuce and salad greens like kale — during the cold winter or spring.

  • Follow Garden Rant

    Follow Me on Pinterest RSS