Introduction: Straw Bale Gardening
A few years ago when I was searching for a gardening method which avoids bending down, weeding or backyard animals eating the plants or fruits, I found Joel Karsten's book: Straw Bales Gardens, Complete Breakthrough Vegetable Gardening Method. I immediately gave his method in the book a try. The result was fair enough for me to keep modifying the method. This is my fourth year using straw bales in my garden and so far the most successful year too.
This instructable is a documentation of my straw bale gardening from year one to year "now"-four, including the steps, lessons and successes. If you are looking for a backyard gardening method that truly avoids bending down, weeding or backyard animals eating the plants or fruits, maybe you want to go through this instructable for once.
Note: This article contains affiliate links as references for the same or similar products used in this project. If you click on the links and make purchases I could receive a small amount of commission from the affiliate company with no extra cost to you.
Step 1: Year One: Steps
For the first year, I followed almost exactly the steps and details in the book. These are the backbone of the steps:
1. Lay out the straw bales.
2. Condition the bales.
4. Water plants, watch them, and wait for results.
Step 2: Year One: Lessons and Successes
Overall, I felt I harvested more lessons than successes.
1. Straw bales: It's hard to get good clean straw bales with no chemical residues. I transplanted zucchini seedlings. They survived and produced. I planted a few other vegetables seeds directly in the potting mix heaped on top of the straw bales, they germinated but the new seedlings did not grow and died. I suspect the straw bales I got had insecticides residue in them. Very likely chemical residue in the bales killed them.
2. Fertilizers: I tried both water soluble all purpose lawn fertilizer and organic fertilizer based on the recommendations in the book. It took long for organic fertilizer to dissolve and it smelled and attracted tons of flies. I do not recommend using organic fertilizer in your backyard.
3. Mushroom and wheat: That was not a weeding free gardening year. For a while, one kind of mushroom and wheat kept popping out everywhere on the bales overnight. The mushroom was disgusting. They stained my hands black.
Zucchini, tomato and beans seemed to grow really well on straw bales. That is, if they were transplanted as seedlings or if the seeds germinated and did not die later.
The success could be greater if the bales are clean and free of chemicals. However, that was out of my control as I got bales from a local farmer. The condition of them is determined by local farmer's practice.
Step 3: Year Two: Steps
Based on the lessons and successes of the first year, mainly the issue caused by non-optimal straw bales as direct growing medium, I decided to plant directly in garden soil plastic bags, using the straw bales only as a raised bed not as the direct growing medium.
1. I straightened the half decomposed straw bales from the first year.
2. I placed soils bags on top of the bales on the long end, cut a few slits about 2" each on the bottom as drainage holes and cut open on the top as opening.
3. I planted two plants in each bags.
4. I watered, watched and harvested the garden as usual.
Step 4: Year Two: Successes and Lessons
With consistent and well spread out rain and my diligent watering when there was no rain, the success is greater the second year than the first year.
I harvested many and much vegetables. I not only made significant fewer trips to grocery stores in the summer, thus reduced grocery bill in the summer, I was inspired to make zucchini bun, eggplant fries, zucchini and tomato chips as snack for well into fall and winter with extra vegetables on hand.
I do not think there was a lesson the second year. However, I think the second year's success led to the third year's lesson. So keep reading.
Step 5: Year Three: Steps
Basically year three was a repeat of year two. Besides I was bolder than year two with year two's success, maybe a little too bold. What do I mean? Keep reading.
1. I composted the almost completely decomposed straw bales from year two and replaced them with new bales.
3. I still placed the bags on the long end, cut A FEW LARGE SLITS(3rd photo, it's a big mistake. Keep reading to next page) on the bottom as drainage holes and cut open on the top as opening.
4. I planted two plants in each bags.
5. I watered, watched and harvested the garden..
Step 6: Year Three: Lessons, Causes and Successes
Lessons and causes:
1. Tomato flower end rot(1st photo): I have mentioned that I cut A FEW LARGE SLITS on the bottom of the soil bags. Also there was a period of consecutive raining days right at the tomato's fruiting time. Nutrients, especially water soluble minerals, of which especially calcium, have run off. One day I found all tomatoes except cherry tomatoes had flower end rot, of which the most common cause is calcium depletion. There are remedies for that. I used Jobe's Organic Garden Lime which helped somewhat. Overall, I lost the majority of expected tomato yields to flower end rot. I had to toss them in compost pile.
2. Zucchini flower end rot: Zucchini suffered the same fate as tomatoes. They rotted on the vine soon after fruiting. And the plants were not as healthy as the zucchini that I grew years before. The season ended earlier than expected.
3. An embarrassing scene: Because I started with new bales that year, the bags sat on the very top of the bales. After a period of consecutive raining days, both the bales and soil bags became very heavy. As a result, the bales and bags that were not at perfectly level ground fell to the side with the plants growing horizontally. It was such an embarrassing scene that I could not wait for the season to end.
I did harvest a few tomatoes and zucchini here and there. Also I had a few cherry tomato plants which were not affected by flower end rot. Peppers, eggplants, and other vegetables produced an average yield.
The biggest success probably was that I know the lessons would lead to the fourth year-this year's better result.
Step 7: Year "now": Steps
As far as steps are concerned, this year is basically a repeat of year three with improvements made from lessons learned in year three.
1. I used the old bales this year, straightened them, re-pounded some posts to make the hardware cloth support the bales better.
2. I only poked a few tiny holes with an awl on the bottom of each soil bags(a change in detail from year three).
3. The bags were placed on the short end on top of the bales(a change in detail from year three).
4. Only one plant in each bag(1st photo, a change in detail from year three) .
5. I used the plastic rope recycled from the old completely decomposed bales to tie each bag to the fence or post on two sides to prevent it from falling to the sides(2nd photo, a change in detail from year three).
6. I chose to grow climbing plants on one section of my straw bale garden this year. And I use #24 nylon utility rope to make the trellis(a change in detail from year three).
7. I'm currently watering, watching, and tending to my garden closely.
Step 8: Year "now": Lessons and Successes So Far
Waterlogged: Until a recent rain storm, my plants look really healthy this year. I was very excited. However, after two consecutive days of wind and rain storm a few days ago, (It's the tomato plant again!), the tomato plants do not look completely right. The stems of the leaves are growing downward. The plants don't seem to want to grow upward any more(1st photo).
After searching the internet, I think it is called waterlogged. According to the internet, waterlogging happens when the soil and root zone around plants become saturated. Basically, the water can’t drain away fast enough. This occurs when more rain falls than the soil can absorb or evaporate into the air.
I'm administering the following remedies:
1. I used a chopstick and poked through the loose straw to the bottom of the bags to make a few more and larger drainage holes than the few tiny holes made by the awl in the setting up of this season.
3. Stop watering for a few days (For me, this is harder than you think :-)).
4. I will consider covering the tomato plants with plastic when there will be rain storm on consecutive days.
So far, I'm really encouraged and hopeful for a great harvest this year. At least there was no sign of flower end rot(2nd photo). Some climbing plants are shooting up one foot in a day(5th and 6th photo).
If you are interested in the later development and result of this year's gardening or have a question, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me.
This instructable is an entry for Backyard Contest, please give it a vote if you think it's good. Thank you.
P.S. I succeeded in helping my tomato plants start to grow again after waterlogged by the following actions:
1. Stopped watering for a few days (although they looked like they really needed watering).
2. Opened the entire bottom of the soil bags and clipped the top opening with slotted clothespins to prevent too much storm water getting into the soil, which can cause further water and nutrients problem. (last photo in this step.)
3. Applied diluted seaweed plant food(3rd photo) and Hydroponics plant food(4th photo) solution on top of the soil. I think this step is crucial. These plant foods help plants' root grow, which in return helps the foliage, flower and fruits grow again. My tomato plants are growing upward again. They have more flowers and fruits now than a couple of weeks ago.
I'm grateful for these lessons my plants teach me every year.
Participated in the