Saturday, May 18, 2013

Straw Bale Gardening: A Suggestion for Suburban and Urban (rooftop) Gardeners

This spring after reading an article about it in NY Times, I was inspired to learn more about the concept of straw bale gardening.  I ordered and read the book
Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding by Joel Karsten.

This book provides complete step by step guidance, including great photographic illustrations and all equipment needed, for growing a garden using rectangular straw bales.  In fact, the book is so well written and presented, and so thorough in detail, that it could almost be called "Gardening for Dummies."  I believe the instructions are so clear that they could be followed successfully by someone who had never raised a garden at all.

The basic idea is that while the straw bale is held together by the twine on the outside, fertilizer is added to the center of the bale causing the straw to compost into perfect medium for the plant roots. This in effect converts the straw bale into a raised bed which is clean and weed free (for this reason it is important to use straw bales and not hay which would have grass seeds in it). The bales are positioned to catch maximum sun.  Soaker hoses are used for water, and trellises are erected to support the plants. At the end of the growing season, the bales themselves are composted.

The author is a degreed horticulturist who has experimented with many methods. He appears to have developed a very nice system which will work well for people who have poor soil, location issues, lack of soil, difficulty bending or plowing, etc. The book is easy to read and practical. It includes lists of all materials needed and where to find them, about how much they should cost, and then illustrates how to use the materials. Chapters on setup include step by step instructions for how to install soaker hoses and how to build trellises. Later chapters also include suggested plant layout and garden designs for planning gardens meeting specific size requirements or to feed x numbers of people.

Being a suburban gardener with shade, poor soil, and limited space, I've always been on the "lookout" for ideas that would work in challenging conditions. I've made particular use of space efficient plants (especially herbs and smaller varieties), plants that could thrive in less than ideal soil conditions (eggplant and peppers for example), and plants that could tolerate my lazy gardening ways (insufficient weeding, erratic watering). Karsten's book does not address these challenges directly. For instance, his photographs are taken in a large space where there is good sun and there would be plenty of space for a traditional, tilled garden (as opposed to a square foot garden, for example). The planting examples he mentions do not specifically favor space-saving plants such as dwarf varieties. Additionally, the staking, trellising, and watering methods are closely akin to techniques used in traditional plowed gardens.  (For instance, stakes for trellises are anchored in the ground and thus require dirt to sink stakes into.)  On the other hand, the fact that this technique requires only a bare minimum of dirt (potting soil to get the seedlings started) can provide a basic starting point for those who have no soil at all -- for instance rooftop gardeners and people for whom the only available space is a parking lot.  It seems to me that if the basic dilemma of no soil is resolved, staking and watering can be improvised.

I found the book so inspiring and simple in presentation that I decided immediately to follow this nice instruction book and plant a straw bale garden. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate the required rectangular straw bales in my near vicinity this spring! So, after getting all inspired and making the decision to try it, I was unable to put his guidance to the test this year. I still think it's a great idea, however. The system looks very good and I will attempt it at a future time (if I can ever find the required square bales)!

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