Page 2 of 2 Previous
Bales are also sold at many garden centers, although you’ll pay a bit more, assuming you can find them. “I can’t keep straw in stock,” said Paige Pelini, co-owner of Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis. “People are intrigued” by the straw-bale method, she said, which appeals to customers whose only sunny spot is in a driveway or a place where they don’t want to dig up the lawn and plant a garden. Pellini hasn’t tried it herself, “but it makes sense,” she said.
How much straw do you need? About 15 bales will provide the same production as a 20-by-20-foot traditional soil garden, according to Karsten. “A good rule of thumb is five bales per person you want to feed,” he said. “It’s not enough if you’re big into canning, but if you’re just looking to eat out of it all growing season, that’s plenty.”
One and done
Bales are used for only a single growing season, since they’ve usually broken down and shrunk by the time fall arrives. But rotting straw is still useful to you as a gardener, Karsten said. “At the end of the season, pile it in the corner in a separate compost pile, and finish composting it over the winter. Turn the pile with a pitchfork, and add nitrogen. The following spring, you have a pile of the most beautiful compost you’ve ever seen. You’ve created your own high-quality potting mix, weed-free and well-drained. It has all the same great character you pay $12 for at the garden center.”
Straw-bale gardening has its virtues, but it’s not perfect. If your goal is an edible landscape that’s as pretty as it is productive, there’s no getting around that a bunch of shaggy straw bales are not likely to win you a spot on the neighborhood garden tour.
“They weren’t beautiful, especially toward the end,” admitted Michele Manion, who tried straw-bale gardening in her Bloomington back yard a couple of years ago. Her neighbors were “curious but not critical,” she said. “We tried to keep them as neat and organized as we could, and we planted ground cover on the bales” to camouflage the straw.
People, especially in urban neighborhoods, sometimes worry that their neighbors won’t like the looks of the bales, said Karsten, who recommends planting colorful annuals, such as petunias, impatiens or marigolds, into the sides of the bales. “ Herbs look nice, too,” he said.
Ullmann uses impatiens to beautify his bales. The notoriously thirsty plant also serves as a moisture gauge, he noted. When the flowers start to wilt, it’s time for him to water. His neighbors haven’t said anything negative about the bales in his driveway, he said, although, “I’m sure people look and think it’s the dumbest thing they’ve ever seen.”
Straw-bale gardening also isn’t ideal for all vegetable crops. Manion had great success with tomatoes and cucumbers, less with peas and carrots, she said. She’s planning to grow in bales again this year, but will concentrate on crops that performed well for her, while planting others in the ground.
Perennial vegetables don’t grow well in straw because they tend to break down as the bales break down, Ullmann said. “Asparagus is a waste of time.”
But for most vegetables, straw-bale gardening is the best method he’s tried, he said. “I used to grow vegetables in pots, but I can grow a lot more in a straw bale. We like it a lot.”
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784