Last week I posted a link to a post on Root Simple about straw bale gardens and I have watched as the concept has seen a lot of press online. As I was perusing the book table at the Costco in Coralville, Iowa—which always seems to have one or two books on gardening that pique my interest—I ran across a copy of Joel Karsten’s Straw Bale Garden: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding.
It was an easy choice to grab a copy because this book has been on backorder at several outlets and my local bookshop does not have any copies. Heck, I even went into Barnes & Noble to search for a copy which is something I am loathe to do recently because the store has become a showroom for Nooks.
Like people who cannot resist the siren song of fad diets, I am a fad gardener. Whatever new idea comes along in gardening I am quick to think that it will revolutionize my outdoor endeavors. Too often I end up disappointed due to my lack of diligence and the new method’s payoff being less than advertised. Trust me, I am still hoping that upside down tomatoes will work for me.
So many of the benefits of this type of garden really speak to me. First, the straw bales act like raise beds. This makes the process of gardening easier because things are higher up. I may not be old yet, but gardening is something I would like to continue well into my retirement. Setting up a system that allows for this and learning the ropes now just means it will be more sustainable come my retirement in thirty-odd years.
By being raised up out of the ground the straw bales also allow me to utilized a part of my yard where water sometimes accumulates if the rains are heavy. Granted, during the drought last year this was never a problem. If I gardened at ground level with traditional tilled soil this area would be off-limits.
Second, the use of straw bales means that soil borne disease should not be a problem. Why? Because you replace the straw bales every year which means the soil borne pathogens are not present. It’s like crop rotation by default. Plus, the straw that is left over at the season’s end is like ready-made compost starter because it is already well into the process of decay. You can utilize that material to build the soil quality elsewhere in your yard or neighborhood while starting the process over with new bales in the spring.
Third, the straw bales are your growing medium so the quality of your soil—whether poor or polluted—is not so critical. My yard is essentially a sandbox. If I dig down past the first few inches where grass has taken root the soil is pure sand. It is great for drainage, but it sucks for planting. Every tree I have planted takes extensive soil amendment to make the conditions livable. Heck, I am going to spend a good part of this summer amending the soil so that it holds more moisture in case we end up with persistent drought. Foregoing large scale soil amendment for a garden seems like a dream.
Fourth, potatoes. Why potatoes? It’s nice to grow tomatoes and herbs to make your own spaghetti sauce or grow peppers and garlic to spice up your food, but to really drive toward some measure of self-sufficiency and resiliency you need to produce calories. Potatoes are a great source of calories, but the crop is problematic. Repeatedly planting potatoes in the same soil will lead to an accumulation of soil borne pathogens and a decimating of your crop. Potatoes also require well drained soil that is mounded. Hmmmm, straw bales eliminate soil borne pathogens by replacing the growing medium annually and the bales are naturally mounded. I know people who grow potatoes using stacked tires and a growing medium of straw and compost. This process just eliminates the tires.
The biggest obstacles for the adoption of straw bale gardening are access to bales and reimagining the concept of what it means to garden.
Granted, I live in an area where Craig’s List has many postings for straw bales at a price that is on the low end of what Karstens describes in the book. If you live in a more suburban or urban area this might be a real impediment, but considering how much soil amending will likely have to be done there is probably a zero net cost difference.
Reimagining what it means to garden is the larger obstacle. There is something primal about the tilling or turning of soil in the spring. It represents rebirth. It’s a break from the long winter. I get it. But, there might be a better way and straw bale gardening is one of those options.