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STRAW BALE GARDENING IN THE TRI-CITIES

written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA

Last year I got very exited about an article I read in the June issue of ‘Fine Gardening’ magazine. It was titled ‘Build a Garden Out of Straw,’ by Amy Stewart. Straw bale gardening is a hot new trend in many areas, but gardeners like Stewart that have successful straw bale gardens are located in areas with much cooler summer climates. I wondered if they would work here in the Tri-Cities.

First, what’s a straw bale garden? A straw bale garden is a ‘conditioned’ bale of straw where plants are growing in the straw bale, instead of in the soil. All sorts of vegetable crops can be grown in the bales, including garden favorites like tomatoes, peppers, squash, and melon.

Why garden with straw bales? Straw bale gardens are inexpensive, they don’t require any digging, they can be placed on a patio or driveway, and they’re temporary. Also, the bales create a raised bed situation, making gardening easier with less bending.

A number of local gardeners have adopted square foot vegetable gardening where intensive methods of growing vegetables are utilized. However, square foot gardening requires building structured permanent beds, dividing the beds into one-square-foot grids, and carefully following a schedule for planting, harvesting, and replanting for successive cropping in each square. It takes an attentive gardener to manage a square foot garden well.

In addition, the recommended soil mix used in the square foot garden beds is prohibitively expensive for many. Oat or wheat straw bales are inexpensive ($3 to $5 a piece) and no building materials are required. The only other expenses include a bag of inexpensive fertilizer, such as 21-0-0 to condition the bales before planting, a complete water soluble fertilizer for fertilizing the growing veggies, and some quality potting mix.

To condition the bales and get them ready for planting, they’re first watered thoroughly and then fertilizer is spread across the top of the bale. This jump starts the decomposition of the straw. After two to three weeks the bales are ready for planting. Transplants or seeds can be used for planting in the straw bale. After planting, regular watering and fertilizer are needed to keep the veggie plants healthy and growing.

The bales only last one season, two at the most. When they no longer have integrity as a bale, the partially rotted straw can be composted or tilled into the soil.

This spring, one of our local Master Gardeners, Eileen Hewitt, decided to give straw bale gardening a try. Her home sits on very hard, rocky ground in Kennewick where just digging a hole is a monumental task and tilling the ground for a garden is a virtual impossibility.

Hewitt found a source of oat straw bales ($3 a piece) and placed several in her back yard. She followed the step-by-step instructions for building a straw bale garden and planted tomatoes, squash and melons in her bales and now she’s happily harvesting fruit from all her ‘straw bale’ plants.

With such hard soil Hewitt doesn’t plan to use the disintegrating bales of hay for tilling into her yard, but gardening friends have already asked her for the straw when she’s done with the bales. Can we successfully grow straw bale gardens in the Tri-Cities? Hewitt answers, ‘Yes!’ and she plans to grow in straw bales again next year.

A handout on ‘Straw Bale Gardening’ is available by calling the Benton County WSU Extension Office at 735-3551 or on-line at http://benton-franklin.wsu.edu/.

Published: 8/27/2011 11:33 AM

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