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For vegetable gardeners, straw bale gardening may be the best innovation since sliced bread.

Straw bale gardening essentially turns a bale of straw into a raised bed. It requires no digging or soil preparation. Because you’re not planting in the ground, you don’t have to worry about soil-borne diseases, and weeding is minimal. It doesn’t even matter if your soil is crummy or if the sunniest place in your yard is covered in concrete. You can achieve optimal growing conditions for a vegetable garden in a humble bale of straw.

Straw Bale Basics
Straw bale gardening is one of those old notions that fell by the wayside for a while. Minnesotan Joel Karsten resurrected the concept with his self-published pamphlet “Straw Bale Gardening” and later his book Straw Bale Gardens published by Cool Springs Press.

Tom Wilson of Berlin, Wisc. heard Karsten talk about straw bale gardening on public radio. After trying to grow vegetables for six years with mixed results, Wilson was intrigued by what he heard. “It just sounded easy,” he recalls. “Plus, I figured if I put the bales on my raised beds, I wouldn’t have to bend and stoop to work in the garden. It would be almost at table top height. Plus no weeding.”

Maybe you’d like to give straw bale gardening a try this year? Be forewarned: this could lead to bigger things. The six long-time veggie gardeners I talked to about this approach were wildly enthusiastic. All planned to greatly expand their straw bale gardens the following year. Wilson, for instance, was so impressed that he plans to expand from his original six bales to 30.

With that disclaimer in mind, start with a bale of straw – or if you’re like Jud Swenson of Arena, Wisc., make that 20 bales. Find a site that gets at least six hours of full sun a day. If you’re putting your bales on the ground, it’s recommended that you put down cardboard or a thick layer of newspapers first to keep grass and weeds from growing up through the bale. A word of caution: make sure you’re happy with the placement of your bale(s) before you proceed. The next steps will make it heavy and more difficult to move.

Conditioning
Before you can plant, you must devote two or three weeks to “conditioning” the straw bales – which basically means you start turning them into compost. The conditioning process involves a schedule of watering and fertilizing. (See box on page 24.) The bales heat up as the inside of the bale begins decomposing. Planting can begin when the bale is once again cool to the touch. You should be able to plant on the 13th or 14th day.

Planting
You can transplant veggies into the bale by making a hole in the straw and inserting the plant. Fill in around the plant with potting soil. Wilson transplanted tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, cabbage and annual flowers. For seeds, you can create furrows of potting soil or cover the bale’s surface with potting soil. Plant your seeds directly into the potting soil following the seed packet directions for depth.

Growing
Straw bale gardening has its strong advocates. “It was a huge success,” Wilson says of his first experience with straw bale gardening. “I had more tomatoes than I knew what to do with. The bales are like sponges. They hold water, so I’d say it takes less than half the watering [that I did before]. I had no bugs or disease, and no weeds. You gotta like that.”

Swenson had a similar experience. “The plants were healthier and bigger. Stuff grew like crazy,” he reports. By mid-season, he was wishing he’d made two more rows of straw bales for growing cucumbers and potatoes. In late August, he still hadn’t needed to do any weeding.

Fertilizing
Of course, fertilizer is an important factor during the conditioning process. Thereafter, Straw Bale Gardens author Karsten recommends regularly fertilizing the plants. Wilson followed that advice, using a liquid fertilizer he sprayed on with his hose. Swenson, on the other hand, said he only fertilized sporadically because the plants were already growing so vigorously. “They never looked like they needed it,” he says.

A Word about Those Bales
If there’s a drawback to straw bale gardening, it’s that as the bales decompose, they begin to slump. That may mean a bit more bending, and, aesthetically, it’s not as pleasing as those tidy rows of bales you have in the beginning.

Jean Porter of Spring Green, Wisc., enlisted her husband, Clay, to help. Before the conditioning process, Clay used 1,000-pound-test pole line wrapped over the baling twine to compress the bales and keep them from falling apart. To increase the aesthetic appeal, Porter added sweet potato vines and lantana to the three tomatoes she planted. The sweet potato vines not only attractively concealed the bales, they drooped to notify Jean when the bales needed more water.

Afterlife
At the end of the season, cleanup is easy. Simply toss the bales into your compost heap. Or not. Wilson heard he could grow potatoes in last year’s bales if they were still held together by twine. “I spent a whopping $1.50 on seed potatoes, divided them up and plugged them into the mostly decomposed, year-old bales. We got two milk crates full of beautiful, Yukon Gold potatoes,” he reports exultantly.

Just as impressive as the yield was the ease of growing. Wilson reports that he watered the potatoes once when he planted them and once in August. He didn’t fertilize, and – his favorite part – he didn’t have any weeds.

If less cultivating, bending, watering, weeding and more produce sound good to you, give straw bale gardening a try. Bet you can’t plant just one.

Patrice Peltier is a freelance writer in southern Wisconsin who loves getting to visit other people’s gardens.

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