So, perhaps you’d like a raised bed or two and have limited funds and space. I have good news–there is an economical way that keeps the plants very happy: straw bale raised beds! Straw bales can usually be found for about $8, and the additional costs would be water (if you’re on city water), something to “condition” the bales with and feed the plants, such as fish emulsion, bone meal, and/or compost, and the plants themselves! Now don’t you think that is cheaper and far less back breaking than than buying wood, building a frame, buying topsoil and extra soil amendments and slapping it all together? Yes. Maybe slightly less aesthetically pleasing, but a wonderful, economical and successful concept nonetheless.
What are other benefits of the straw bale beds? As time goes by and the straw composts inside, the bales hold more water and thus require less. Being off the ground and not having imported disturbed soil from an unknown location, they are supposed to be more pest-free. I am going to try this out as last year’s raised beds we built with topsoil we brought in had every garden predator you could imagine come to town. I’ve since read that the first two years of imported soil are the hardest until the little ecosystem balances itself out with the natural predator-prey relationships. Awesome. Companion planting did help, but not until the plants flowered.
I can’t claim to have come up with this straw bale gardening idea, permies have been doing it for years. West Virginia State University has an excellent and informative fact sheet on how to do straw bale gardening that I am referencing for this post.
You first must start around two-three weeks prior to planting by prepping the bales. You want to get them composting on the interior, which gives off heat, but you don’t want the heat to be too hot for the plants. So you wait a few weeks and then shove in your hand to make sure it’s less than your body temperature. You’d kill your plant if you cooked the roots.
To begin the composting I am going to give a direct quote from WVU’s fact sheet, as I can’t put it any better than what they say:
“To start the process, keep the straw bales wet for three to four weeks before planting. If you would like to speed up the process, here is a recipe that works well.
- Days 1 to 3: Water the bales thoroughly and keep them damp.
- Days 4 to 6: Sprinkle each bale with ½ cup urea (46-0-0) and water well into bales. You can substitute bone meal, fish meal, or compost for a more organic approach.
- Days 7 to 9: Cut back to ¼ cup urea or substitute per bale per day and continue to water well.
- Day 10: No more fertilizer is needed, but continue to keep bales damp.”
After that is when you need to do the temperature check to make sure you’re ready to plant. You definitely want to time your bales to be ready for planting when the danger of frost has passed, as with normal gardening. Also, if your bales still have good structure the next year you can use them again and skip the initial “conditioning” process. Nice huh?
I’d personally make sure to add bone meal to the conditioning process as part of my formula because the calcium and phosphorus are important for fruits and flowers, and well, you need flowers for fruit and many garden plants are fruit-ers if you will. Tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, watermelon, blah blah blah.
Since the bales are lacking normal soil nutrition you want to keep up feeding them once a week for mature plants, biweekly for little tender seedlings and youngsters. Compost tea is all you’d need but of course, fish emulsion is always a favorite food of plants too.
WVU gives some growing guidelines for how many plants to a bale. They suggest 2-3 tomatoes, but I’d personally do no more than 2 planted one on either end, since every tomato needs the equivalent radial space of an adult holding out their arms, fingertip to fingertip. Tomatoes love to sprawl over supports, but will tolerate cages if you make them. But they won’t be as happy. In our 5′X8′ raised bed this year I planted 4 tomato plants: 1 at each corner. All four took up the WHOLE bed. My husband put up rabbit fencing around the beds with wooden framing to make it sturdy, and when the plants got crazy I used twine to provide a linear support from the frame to the fruiting branch. The plants loved it and everyone was awed at how huge the plants got. Also, suckering (pruning basically) back leafy, non-fruiting branches around the fruiting ones can help encourage more flowering and helps keep the tomatoes dry and reduce bottom rot by enabling more air circulation. Nice!
Anyway, back to straw bale gardening. You don’t have to plant seedlings, you can direct sow seed. To do that you spread some dirt or compost on top and poke the seeds down in it. Viola! You’re a pro.
Hope all of you join me in some straw bale gardening this spring. I’m going to do a culinary herb bed near my kitchen for quick access!