Seeds: Straw bale gardens keep growing

Published: Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 - 12:24 am

Slouching like a gardener on a hot August afternoon, my straw bales sag under the weight of their growing load.

Four humongous squash plants form a green umbrella with their large leaves that keep the bales (and their roots) shady and cool. A watermelon vine winds around the base of the bales, depositing its softball-size fruit to rest on straw ledges.

A tomatillo bush with a trunk bigger than my wrist commands most of one bale, draping its odd, lanternlike fruit over the squash plants. The lone tomato vine — a grafted Legend — leans in its cage like the Tower of Pisa at a precarious angle off the back edge.

A sinkhole more than a foot deep in the straw threatens to swallow this little but productive vegetable garden. Despite their cozy raised bed collapsing around them, these plants somehow soldier on. Already prolific with fruit, the squash — two each of golden pattypan and eight-ball — keep producing more flowers, much to the bees’ delight. But the tomato seems to be stuck on green; by late August, it had produced only two red ripe fruit.

Life with my first straw bale garden has been an interesting and productive experiment. The veggies planted in the fertilizer-charged bales grew much bigger much faster than their counterparts in the nearby plain, hard ground. The soil-planted squash are just setting their first fruit now while the bale pattypans have been bearing heavily since early July.

Not surprisingly, strawberries really have made themselves at home in the straw bale garden. I planted Seascape, an ever-bearing variety that relishes the coolness of the straw mulch. A half-dozen plants have rewarded my efforts with about a pint of berries a week.

As designed, the straw bales “compost” as the veggies grow, providing a constant stream of nutrients. The bales also retain moisture, keeping the plants well hydrated even on the hottest summer days.

But the composting has been much faster than anticipated. After just three months, the bales are breaking down almost alarmingly; they look like they may fall apart before the tomatoes ripen. Roots and a chicken-wire girdle hold them together.

Other “straw bale” gardeners report similar experiences. Cucurbites — squash, cucumbers, pumpkins — seem to really love to wiggle their roots in straw.

My colleague Tom Sellers and his wife, Karen, have been inundated with cucumbers from their straw bale garden. So happy in its straw bed, the crazy cuke vine — trellised high over the bales — has shaded an adjacent cherry tomato and kept most of its fruit from ripening.

“It’s cranking out several (cucumbers) a day right now,” Tom said.

The Sellerses actually followed the directions suggested by Joel Karsten in his popular book, “Straw Bale Gardens” (Cool Springs Press, $14.50, 144pages), and built a sturdy trellis anchored in the ground, not the straw. That’s given their vines the support they needed without listing like a sinking ship.

Eggplants and beets also love their bale home, report the Sellerses.

“They’ve grown up nicely,” Tom said. “We’ve also been eating and enjoying the beet greens.”

The biggest surprise: summer lettuce. The Sellerses grew several big, fat heads from seed and enjoyed lots of salads in July and August. Usually, summer heat turns lettuce very bitter in Sacramento. But the straw kept the lettuce roots temperate and the leaves sweet.

“No way these (bales) are going to last two years, but that’s fine,” Tom said. “They’ve proved to be a fine growing medium and easier on the back since they put the plants a bit up off the ground. Also, as per the book, no weeds.”

The bales may be weed free but not necessarily pest free. Some gardeners have reported a problem with earwigs invading their bale beds. Earwigs like cool, dark, moist places to hide, and straw bale gardens can be very inviting, but they attack tender new growth.

As for the sinkholes, I’ve plugged my bales with more straw mixed with planting mix. It keeps the roots covered and the squash happy.

For fall, I poked a few potato eyes into one side of the bale that’s still standing up straight. I hope to coax a little more food out of the straw before it becomes a composted heap.

Now, if only those tomatoes would ripen …

Tell us about your summer

What happened in your garden this summer? Did you try a straw bale garden or experiment with new vegetable and flower varieties? What worked? What flopped?

We want to know! Share your experience. Send us an email (with photos, too) to h&; please put “SacBee Garden” in the subject line. Or mail to: SacBee Garden, Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento, CA 95816. We’ll include highlights of summer 2013 in an upcoming Home & Garden section.

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

Read more articles by Debbie Arrington

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