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Farm Management
First Posted: Apr 30, 2008
Apr 8, 2012

Strawbale Gardening

My dear fiend, Margie, has been extremely successful at strawbale gardening. I asked her to please provide me with how she does this gardening so that I could put it on HorseHints and share with my visitors. I am amazed by this and plan to do it at my home. Under Snippets of My Life, I mention that Bill and I live in downtown DC, just 10 blocks from the Whitehouse. We have a postage stamp front yard and enough room in the back to park two cars. I am going to try this with hay bales that were bad and have been thrown away. It should prove to be a fun experiment.

The following is what Margie sent to me in an e-mail:

Our yard is a lovely, shaded end unit townhome that, sadly doesn't provide a good location for growing vegetables. In past years we have tried hanging tomato plants in bags, growing them in pots on the patio and planting them directly in the soil against the side of our house to no avail.

Ever optimistic, last year I searched the internet hungrily for heirloom tomatoes and stumbled across a site that spoke of the marvels of growing plants in rotting straw bales.

Being a horse owner who does self care at a private barn, a light went off over my head. Here was a way for us to have a garden without disturbing the soil at the barn, a way to grow vegetables in full sun, within reach of the water hose and in a spot not used by the horses. Straw bale gardening also allowed us to use our ready supply of well rotted horse manure for fertilizer! Our friend and fellow equestrian and frustrated city gardener, Sarah, eagerly joined us in the venture and we soon acquired 8 bales of straw, a roll of wire fencing and posts and a flat of tiny seedling plants.

Our riding ring is cut into the side of a slope, leaving a steep bank with a good sized flat spot along the top alongside the fence that divides the ring from our pony's paddock. We rolled out heavy clear plastic and placed the bales on it single file like a little train with the cut side of the straw facing up and the twine horizontal. Behind the bales, we unrolled square mesh fencing and pounded angle iron posts in to hold the fence and bales in place. We allowed enough plastic to wrap up the side of the bales between them and the fence. This placement of the bales and plastic helped the straw retain moisture. To get things to grow in straw bales, you need to get the bales to begin rotting well before you plant. As the bales first begin to decompose, they generate heat which would kill tender plants if you put them in too early. Assemble the garden, then water the bales every day (unless it rains) for 4 - 5 weeks. This can be sped up by applying chicken manure (source of ammonium nitrate) or well rotted horse manure.

Applying ammonium nitrate (fertilizer) in granular form can speed the process up considerably but Sarah and I quickly found that inquiries about purchasing that fertilizer gets some suspicious looks, despite our protestations that we had no terroristic inclinations.

Once our bales were ready, we planted about 10 tomato plants of various heirloom types. Deemed successful were Sweet 100 and Black Cherry of the cherry tomato kind, Brandywine, BrandyBoy, Mr. Stripey and Green Zebra for slicing and eating. We also planted a Principe Borghese which was recommended as good for sundrying. That one was excellent sliced on pizza but didn't get a lot of fruit. We also had a yellow pear cherry tomato that was stunning in looks but lackluster in taste but we deemed it beautiful enough to plant again. Both Mr. Stripey, Green Zebra and the cherry tomatoes produced in vast quantities and lasted right up until the first frost. We then picked all the unripe tomatoes and brought them indoors where they ripened right up until Thanksgiving!

We were disappointed in Mortgage Lifter, Black Brandywine and one other variety that I have since forgotten. Those were not in the next year's list of varieties to plant again. Lime Green Salad tomato was a beautiful, chunky dark green plant that was more suited to growing in a pot on a patio or balcony.

We also planted three bell pepper plants, a cucumber and a basil plant of which one pepper and the cucumber didn't survive. Our efforts were so rewarded by copious quantities of fruit that we plan to double the size of our strawbale garden in 2008. Our co-workers and families benefited from the huge amount of tomatoes we harvested.

Along with the successful plants from the previous season, we have added San Marzano paste type, Black and Red Zebra, Cherokee Purple and a bunch of heirloom tomato varieties we hadn't located the year before. Our peppers are up to two hot varieties and four kinds of sweet bell pepper. We also have two kinds of eggplant, five varieties of lettuce and three of swiss chard. Sarah has sweetly requested that we try cucumbers again and I would like to attempt green beans as well. A trip to DeBaggio's Herb Farm in Chantilly, VA netted me an entire flat of little vegetable seedlings at a great price. Last year's efforts showed us the attraction of our garden as, right before the first anticipated glut of harvest, we arrived at the barn to discover that deer had eaten the tender tops of our plants and squirrels and ground hogs had made off with the almost ready to pick fruit. Fortunately, we had portable/temporary electric fencing we had used at our old barn and quickly put up a protective barrier to save our crop. This worked well and will be assembled around the 2008 garden to prevent a repeat assault by the local wildlife!

Here are photos of our garden last year not long after we planted our vegetables and prior to the installation of the electric fence tape. We watered the garden every morning when we hadn't had a good rain but soaking the bales was enough, we didn't have any run off, the straw holds the water like a sponge. Along with applications of horse manure, we sprinkled Tomato Tone fertilizer on several times over the season.


We wove the growing tomato plants through the fence mesh for support and it wasn't long before the plants grew much higher than the fence! We had "volunteer" plants that were an added surprise. We feed black oiled sunflowers to our horses as a source of additional fat and lovely flowers grew where we had applied the composted horse manure. Here is a link to Sarah's photos of the Incredible Straw Bale Garden. You can see the white electric tape in her photos of the garden in mid-summer. We only installed the fence with enough room for us to comfortably walk around inside. Too much room and the deer would have just hopped right over!

Picture Trail for Strawbale Gardening

Here are some of the websites that I found while researching strawbale gardening:

Vegetable Garden/Strawbale Gardening
No Dig Gardens
Strawbale Gardening
Nichols Garden Nursery

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