Last spring, Joel Karsten wrote a book called "Straw Bale Gardens" that has taken the gardening world by storm and given growers a new media to grow vegetables, herbs and annuals.
The science behind the decomposition of the straw bale is what makes it the ideal growing media for vegetables. Nitrogen added to straw -- “green manure” -- feeds bacterial growth. The bacterium then break down the straw, releasing nutrients. After a 10-day recipe of cooking your bales, you are ready to position them anywhere in the landscape for less than the cost of building a raised bed, starting a garden bed or even a bag of high-quality soil.
Look for organic yellow straw bales, and avoid green hay bales. Prepare the site by putting newspapers or landscape fabric under the bales and place the bale on its side so the wire is on the side.
- On Day 1, water and add 3 cups of organic fertilizer.
- On Days 4-6, water and add 1 cup of organic fertilizer per day.
- On Days 7-9, water and add ½ cup of organic fertilizer per day.
- On Day 10, add 3 cups of fish or bone meal.
During the cooking process, the bales will form dark soil clumps known as peppering. Mushrooms will form and can be removed or left but not eaten. However, Karsten discovered that it didn’t matter what recipe was adhered to, it all worked.
Do not plant in the bale until the top 4 to 6 inches cool down. If planting seed, place a 2-inch layer of topsoil on straw bales. If planting vegetable transplants, dig a hole, fill it with soil and plant. Plant two tomatoes, four cucumbers, four peppers or two squash per bale of straw and add supports and drip irrigation for worry-free gardening. Add flowers to the sides of the bales for decoration and throw on the compost this fall.
The question of the summer for straw-bale gardeners will be if straw grows produce differently from soil.
For information on straw bale gardening classes offered through Extension, go to http://web.extension.illinois.edu/lmw.