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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.

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.

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.

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

Evelyn Hadden
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.

18 Comments

  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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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)

  4. 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!).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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!

  9. 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).

  10. 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…)

  11. 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.

  12. 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?

  13. 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.

  14. 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

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