This our first time ever trying straw bale gardening. We had a raised bed, square-foot, extended season garden when we lived up in the high-altitude Rockies. Last June, when we moved to the High Plains, and the property had no garden set up yet, we knew we would need to do a lot of research and try to figure out the best way to garden in this new, surprisingly different, climate. After a lot of research, and taking into consideration our time constraints (as we are working to build up a lot of the farm all at once) and financial restrictions (due to trying to build up a lot of the farm all at once), we landed on a plan that has us trying a straw bale garden this year and transitioning it to a raised bed garden next year, using the decomposed bales as a foundation for filling the beds under the compost.
Last fall, we laid down cardboard, laid out our bales (in a way that is not the suggested way in the straw bale garden book, but is a more efficient use of space). And then we left it for the winter.
Since we have always done extended season gardening by using hoop tents and Wall-O-Waters (WOWs), we decided to try that here as well. It made things interesting due to the fact that you need to prep the bales before you can plant in them.
To use straw bales as a garden, you must first prepare the bales by getting them to begin composting inside, thus creating food for the plants. A straw bale all by itself does not contain food for plants. But by adding fertilizers and water repeatedly you can make the bale begin to break down and compost, providing food for the plants. The book has a suggested 12-day schedule for preparing your bales, and it says that you can plant up to 2 weeks earlier than your average last frost due to the heat in the bales. To get the bales breaking down you need somewhat warm temps, and we wanted to try prepping them in early March so we could do our extended season gardening methods. But at that point we were still getting freezing temps every night and were having storms come through that would be below freezing for a few days at a time. So we didn’t know if it would work, but we decided to jump right in and give it a try.
We watched the weather predictions and waited until we saw a 6-day stretch with daytime temps in the 50s and nighttime temps in the 20s and no precipitation. Then we started the process. By day 6 the bales were starting to smell somewhat, which is a good sign of composting happening. Then a storm on days 7-9 stopped our process and froze everything solid. Day 10, as the snow was melting off, we noticed that some bales were melting off in the middle before the sun even hit them – suggesting that there was some composting going on inside of them creating heat.
As we continued our prepping schedule, starting back on day 7 instructions even though it was now day 10 (we didn’t do any prepping during the storm), we noticed that there definitely was some inconsistency across the garden as to which were composting and which bales weren’t. The areas that were in the shade part of the day were not breaking down as well as the ones getting consistent sun, which makes sense, especially with the cold temps. And some bales were still quite frozen from the storm. Again, we weren’t sure if starting so early was going to work or not, but we pressed on. We did day 7-10 prep instructions, and then got another 2-day storm that stopped us. It took a couple days for things to warm up again after the storm, and then we did the final 2 days of prep, and then it was time to plant.
We used purchased planting mix soil on top of the bales for planting the types of seeds the book suggested needed some soil on the bales, and we planted away. We brought out seedlings from the grow lights inside and got them in the bales. We protected everything with hoops and WOWs and sat back hopefully watching to see how this would all go. The seedlings started to grow.
And then the wind came.
Spring brought crazy wind “events” that even the old timers had never experienced in this area before. We had days on end of sustained 60mph wind coming strong from one direction. For over 6 weeks we were averaging 4 days of this wind every single week. It was crazy. It destroyed our hoop tents, knocked over all the WOWs with seedlings in them, and for lack of any better way to describe it, “mummified” the seedlings by drying them out through their stems and leaves. Despite the fact that the seedlings had plenty of water, their root systems were not developed enough to make up for the loss of moisture through their stems and leaves due to the constant wind. It blew away over an inch of all the soil we had put on the bales where we had planted seeds, and took the seeds with it too. We rebuilt the hoops and tried new ways of stabilizing them three different times, only to have them destroyed over and over again. We finally gave up. By early May our garden was a sad mess of dead plants and lost hope. We had a couple of tomatoes and one pumpkin plant survive it all, though by then they were dried, mummified stems with one or two sad leaves left. We didn’t know if they would come back or not.
Meanwhile, I had started new seedlings indoors as I had seen the rest get wiped out. The winds finally seemed to be done and gone, so we started fresh again. We fertilized the bales once, to give them a boost, and started planting seeds and seedlings. It was very slow going. The seedlings survived, but didn’t really grow much. We fertilized again a couple of times over a few weeks, trying to give the bales a boost of nutrition for the little seedlings. But they still struggled. And we could NOT for the life of us get any seeds to sprout. We did it just as the book said with the soil on top, but nothing would sprout. Hundreds of carrot, beet, spinach, lettuce, turnip, and kohlrabi seeds were planted and never sent up any sprouts. In my container garden the seeds were sprouting, so we know it wasn’t a problem with the seeds themselves. It seemed to have something to do with the bales. We continued to battle through May and June, with seeds not sprouting and seedlings not growing (but not dying either). We also had planted onion plants and potatoes in both the straw bale garden and other gardens. The potatoes and most of the onions in the other gardens have done very well, but all the onions and potatoes died in the bales. So by June, we were having some success in other gardens, and little to no success in the straw bale garden.
Finally, at the beginning of July, we started to see some progress and turn around in the bale garden. We still had terrible germination of beans, and no germination of any of the root veggies nor leafy greens. But the tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, melons, cabbage, and cucumbers have taken off and are doing very well. We are battling a ton of grasshoppers, aphids, squash beetles, and other pests in all our gardens – soil and bales. So far we are winning, and hoping to continue that progress through the season and have something to show for it come harvest time.
We have harvested a couple of cabbage and a couple of purple beans from the straw bale garden, plus one beet (only two germinated out of about 50 that were planted). In the other gardens we have been able to harvest rhubarb, scapes, garlic, kitchen herbs, medicinal herbs, peas, onions, and a couple of strawberries (we are pinching most blossoms to get the strawberries established as it is their first year).
I have no idea whether our bale garden issues had to do with our strange spring (we heard a lot of people that had been gardening for years say they were having a really hard garden year this year). But it couldn’t just be that because we are seeing a difference with the plants that were planted both in the soil gardens versus the bale garden. Obviously the wind set us back, but after that the continued struggles are confusing. It might have to do with us trying to prepare the bales during the cold weather so early in the year. I don’t know if it was the nature of straw bale gardening itself. But it definitely seems like certain veggies do better with straw bale gardens that other veggies do. That has been our experience thus far. We will see what the rest of the season brings us as far as the straw bale garden goes, and update you as we see, in case any of you are considering a bale garden.
Meanwhile, we have built our first raised bed for next year’s garden and will be planting it, along with our cold frame, over the next few weeks with the hopes of a small fall/winter garden. I will share more about that in Part 2 of our High Plains Garden Update.