So much has already been written about using straw bales as a medium for vegetable gardening, that you will have no trouble finding information about how to create a straw bale garden.
The purpose of this blog article is not to teach you how to create a straw bale garden, but to let you know that if you're thinking about it, now is the time to start! It takes at least six weeks to condition bales to get them ready for planting, so you must to start the process six weeks before you hope to put plants into the bale. The time to do that, is now!
The basic idea of straw bale gardening technique is that you set a bale of straw (not hay) upright, with the cut side facing the sky. Ideally, the bales will be braced to keep them from falling over, and they will also be equipped with soaker hoses so that plants grown in the bales are easily watered. Then, nitrogen fertilizer is applied and soaked through the bale. The nitrogen super-stimulates good bacteria that make the interior of the bale decompose and turn into mulch that plants can grow in. Nitrogen is applied just about every other day during a six week process of rapidly composting the internal part of the bale.
The original straw bale gardening book was written by Joel Karsten. If you are interested in straw bale gardening, check out one of the several books he has written about it. Another book I like is called Straw Bales For Dummies.
(This photo from my home garden last spring shows one row of bales that has already been used for one growing season, and a second row of bales that is newly placed and ready for conditioning.)
Straw bale gardening offers significant benefit for the small scale, urban or suburban vegetable gardener. For one, you don't have to prepare soil, hoe, or till. You don't even need dirt! (You can set the bale directly on a patio!) It also offers automatic weed-free space. A third, fine benefit is that it automatically creates a raised gardening space, so that not nearly as much bending is required to cultivate your plants. (The main drawback is probably cost of materials, which you can learn more about in the books above.)
Straw bales do not last forever. They continue to decompose and, over time, become clumps of mulch. Here is a photo taken this week of what is left of the straw bales shown in the illustration above. As you can see, there is nothing left! However, the remains of the bales do contain lots of earthworms and hummus and greatly improved the soil from the pure sand that was there last year.
It is time to be putting seeds into flats for spring planting, and it is time to be getting your bales ready to receive those little baby plants! Here is a photo of some bales currently being conditioned in another part of my garden:
Happy gardening, everyone!