Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bale Fail

One of my experiments for this year was growing vegetables in straw bales. It is a pretty simple concept. Instead of planting in the dirt, you add a layer of dirt to the top of an aged straw bale and plant in that. This allows you to grow in areas with bad soil, lots of rocks, or other challenging garden situations.

Since I had a rather "challenged" area near the north fence in the front yard, I thought straw bales would allow me to grow some veggies rather than waiting a year as I beat that spot in to shape. I planted some peas after giving the straw bales time to age, adding good soil and keeping the bales moist.

While a few of the peas sprouted, it wasn't long before I knew something was not right. They grew about 2" and then stopped. Some started to turn yellow. Thinking the frequent watering had depleted the nutrients in the shallow soil layer, I gave it shot of compost tea. It seemed to help a little bit, but only a few pea plants started to grow again. The rest just sat there looking all pathetic.

While I was prepared for extra feedings, the extra time to age the bales, and the possibility of frequent waterings due to the porous nature of the bales, I had not counted on the wind. The constant, hot, annoying, ridiculously strong winds we have been hit with since early in the year. I have lived in this area for over 25 years and I have never seen a year like this. Chicago, often called the windy city, has nothing on Colorado. The whole state is a giant wind tunnel right now.

Even when watering two and 3 times a day did nothing to keep the straw bales moist enough to get many of the plants to sprout or to get them to a productive size even if they somehow did. There was no reason to keep pouring good water and fertilizer after bad. I went ahead and cut open 3 of the bales. They were as dry as dust on the inside when they should have been damp and started to break down and look more like rich soil. Even a bale I had wrapped in plastic as a last ditch attempt to get it to stay somewhat wet for more than 5 seconds was dried out. Straw bale gardening in a hot, dry climate was a total fail.

I did have an area where instead of plants growing on soil on straw, I had soil in an indented area surrounded by loose straw. The straw acted as a wind break and allowed plants to sprout in that dimple that didn't emerge on top of the bales. If you live in a windy area, think of your straw more as a wind block and not as a soil substitute, and you should avoid the bale fail I experienced. Over the next few days I will finish cutting open the hay bales and use the straw to mulch in other areas so it wont be a total waste.


  1. You might try seeding the bales with mushroom spawn instead?

  2. The problem is that the straw (carbon) is robbing the nitrogen in the soil from the plants' roots. That's probably why the compost tea helped for a short period. As an experiment, try tilling in a copious amount of hay into perfectly good garden soil. You will discover that any weeds that sprout from the tillage quickly yellow and shrivel. Why would you want to do this? It is and ideal situation for growing peas and beans or any other nitrogen fixing legume, as in your experiment above. After your bean crop (only harvest the pods and till the rest under to keep some of that nitrogen), fertilize and plant your corn... Oh yeah, I forgot one important point, your soil must be inoculated with the nitro fixing rhizome, which was probably why the peas were unsuccessful in the straw bail (that and there is a myriad of minor and micro nutes that the plant can't gain from the straw...