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  • Tom Sellers /

    Karen Sellers checks on seedlings she started in planting mix spread over the straw bales. The sturdy trellises are ready for tomatoes and cucumbers.

  • Tom Sellers

    Mushrooms have sprouted often; the book says not to worry – but don't eat them.

  • Tom Sellers

    Karen Sellers, plants flowers into the sides of the straw bale garden. That's a benefit of this raised bed method: more surfaces for plants.

Seeds: Straw bale gardens take shape

Published: Saturday, Jun. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3CALIFORNIA LIFE
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 9:09 am

We're making hay with straw bale gardens.

Two large bales sit squarely in the middle of my community garden plot. They cover a space that had been death to any plant that tried to grow. My intention is that the bales will form a perfect raised bed, full of nutrients for fast-growing summer vegetables.

Joel Karsten, the nation's straw bale garden guru, warned me: "Planting a vegetable garden is like adopting a pet," he said. "Gardens need daily care, water and feeding – just like a pet. When you create a straw bale garden, you're getting a new pet."

My pet project has turned into a daily commitment. I've never been so tuned in to my garden's needs. Are the bales getting enough water? Will the new plants survive?

I'm not alone in my straw bale angst. In a test of this "new" old method of raised bed vegetable gardening, Bee copy editor Tom Sellers and his wife, Karen, devoted a large section of their Tahoe Park backyard lawn to a straw bale makeover. They carefully followed the guidelines in Karsten's book, "Straw Bale Gardens" (Cool Springs Press).

Over about three weeks, the Sellerses set up five bales in a U-shape and "conditioned" them for gardening. That's a 12- to 14-day process of supercharging the bales with water and high-nitrogen fertilizer. Conditioning prompts the bales to start composting internally and releasing nutrients for plant roots.

After a week of conditioning, the interior temperature of their bales reached 108 degrees – well before last weekend's heat surge. That triple-digit measurement showed the bales had started composting.

We've posted several photos of the step-by-step process online at the SacBee Garden's Facebook page. (See for yourself at

The Sellerses did everything by Karsten's book, including digging a trench to hide the hose leading to the garden. They constructed a heavy-duty trellis to support tomato and cucumber vines. They also installed soaker hoses and a timer to keep the bales evenly moist all summer.

A 2-inch layer of planting mix over the bales gives seeds and transplants a place to take hold before their roots reach down into the straw.

Total price tag: About $250 including straw, plants, seeds, fertilizer, planting mix, trellises, poles, hoses, drip lines and other equipment.

The straw itself is the cheap part – about $7 a bale. The original bales should last about three growing seasons, if not more. The straw slowly breaks down into compost – an added benefit of this technique. Then, it's replaced by fresh bales. The hoses and trellises can be reused for several seasons.

In their bale test garden, the Sellerses planted one cherry tomato, two eggplants, two cucumbers and two peppers, all from transplants. From seed, they planted carrots, radishes, beets and lettuce. All should benefit from the even, moist, nutrient-filled straw.

There have been some surprises, such as a sudden outbreak of mushrooms. But in recent heat, the fungi died back quickly.

To make the bales look nice and attract beneficial insects, Karen Sellers added flowers along the edges and sides. That's another advantage of these raised beds: The sides can become growing space, too.

Now, they enjoy watching their vegetable garden grow. Irrigation is all automated, thanks to the soaker hoses, drip lines and timer. Their garden has become less needy of attention.

And the best part? No weeds!

Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

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