Straw Bale Gardening: Introduction

Straw Bale Gardening: Introduction

I currently have 21 bales of straw laid out in various configurations in our front and back yards, in which I plan on growing a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables this year. My neighbors ask a lot of questions, because clearly they can tell I’m onto something (if not on something). And I want you in on it too.

But perhaps I should start at the beginning…

Community Gardening

Last year, our family got a large plot at a wonderful community garden on the campus of Kutztown University, and had a fantastic summer working on it together.

The garden was, to put it mildly, very productive.

Garden Bounty

A typical weekly bounty from our community garden plot during August 2012.

It was also a great learning experience for all of us.

Anna discovered the zen of weeding. I discovered I am a staunch tomato suckerer. Tucker discovered he doesn’t have the willpower to let a fresh sugar snap pea actually make it home before eating it. And Coltrane mostly sat in his seat and watched, but still managed to develop an insatiable desire for Sungold tomatoes.

If you’ve ever thought about gardening with your kids, I would highly encourage you to do it. Nothing — NOTHING — has had such a positive impact on our ability to get our kids to eat and enjoy fresh vegetables like letting our kids grow them with us. Even well after the summer growing season, the boys are far more likely to chow down on foods that are the same kinds as we grew.

Tucker helping garden

Tucker helps with the harvest.

Moving to the west coast this past fall, we knew as we were looking for a place to live that gardening space was suddenly going to be much higher on the Want List (and might even belong on to the Need List). Portland has many community gardens, but if at all possible we wanted to see what we could do in our own space, that didn’t require a drive, or need to be a big family outing every time we wanted to go work on it. A garden in our own back yard would mean we could harvest as we needed things, tend to it more closely, work in it at much more flexible times (mostly while one or more of the boys are napping?) and have the comforts of home little boys sometimes require (e.g. “I gotta go potty!”) closer at hand.

The Problem

Thankfully, we found something that suited our family well, was in our budget, and had both a fenced back yard and a good sized front area with plenty of space to do some gardening. And so, as spring started to roll around, I started giving more and more thought to how I wanted to go about doing this. The soil on our property meant that our best bet was almost certainly raised beds of some type. But the more I researched various ideas to go about building your own raised beds, the more I started to get what can only be called “sticker shock.”

At our community garden, we’d paid $50 for a 250 square foot plot. Beyond that, our expenses were mostly just for seeds and starter plants, since good soil and plentiful water was provided. Now I was figuring paying more than that just for lumber for one small raised bed, never mind the truck full of soil we’d need. I played around with a few ideas (cinder blocks seemed my best bet to build something cheap, sturdy, long-lasting, but movable if needed) but was feeling a little stuck.

The Solution

Then one day I was reminded by a fortuitous New York Times article about something that I’d heard about the previous year, called “Straw Bale Gardening,” where a bale of straw is used as its own contained raised bed garden. The idea is that the straw inside breaks down into a moist, loose compost in which to plant, while the outsides act as the “frame” of the raised bed. They have the advantage of being really cheap, require little soil, and need practically no weeding. It sounded perfect.

I did a lot of research (and looked up local straw merchants) and quickly became convinced that this was it — this was how we were going to do our Routly Family Garden for the summer of 2013.

A week later, Arlen the one-legged local farmer pulled his truck up out front of the house and we unloaded 10 beautiful bales. I’d planned out how I would like them set up, and laid down some weed block, so it was as simple as hauling them into place.

Straw Bale Gardening: Day 1

Straw Bale Gardening: Day 1 – The bales laid out in roughly the configuration we decided on for the back yard, with a long section for tall, vining vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini, and larger rectangular areas for everything else.

To be continued in Straw Bale Gardening Part 2 – Conditioning.

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