Chow Town

Straw bale gardens provide alternative to soil

If you read the New York Times


about straw bale gardens and were thinking about trying it this spring, the good news is, you still have time.

It takes 12 days of “conditioning” the bales with water and fertilizer (see below) before you can plant in them, so if you want to set out tomatoes on Memorial Day weekend, get your bale(s) in place by Tuesday.

You can put a straw bale garden anywhere that gets a lot of sun: an apartment balcony, a driveway or your yard. If space is tight one bale will hold one tomato plant and smaller plants such as peppers, herbs and carrots around it.

My yard in Matfield Green, Kan., is big and sunny, so I set up 20 bales.

I positioned the bales according to guidelines in “Straw Bale Gardens” (

) by Joel Karsten of St. Paul, the subject of the Times story.

As you can see, I made five rows of four bales tipped so the strings run around the sides. The rows are four feet apart.

Four rows have trellises for vining plants such as tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and pole beans: 7-foot T-bars at each end with 4- by 6-inch spreaders at the tops. Next, I’ll attach double strands of wire between the T-bars at 10-inch intervals.

The fifth row, with no trellis, is for herbs, cantaloupes, watermelon and pumpkins.

I laid out the rows from north to south so the sun hits both sides of the trellis equally. I covered the ground between rows with landscape fabric and more straw so I don’t have to mow.

I am halfway through the conditioning process, which is critically important to cause the bales to break down into a growing medium in the centers. You water each bale daily to the saturation point (1 to 2 gallons) and on some days apply 10-10-10 fertilizer on top of each bale before you water as follows:

• Day 1: 1/2 cup fertilizer per bale and water

• Day 2: Water only

• Day 3: 1/2 cup fertilizer and water

• Day 4: Water only

• Day 5: 1/2 cup fertilizer and water

• Day 6: Water only

• Days 7-9: 1/4 cup fertilizer and water

• Days 10: 1 cup fertilizer and water

• Days 12: Plant

Sounds simple, huh? Check back here on Thursdays to follow my progress. If this works, I may never go back to soil.

Cindy Hoedel writes for the Kansas City Star Magazine, grows food on a half acre of land in the Flint Hills, bakes her own bread, makes killer dill pickles and sand hill plum jelly, and blogs about sustainability.