Cindy Hoedel

Straw bale gardening: Cindy Hoedel’s tips for getting the most out of it

How to set up a straw bale garden

Cindy Hoedel demonstrates how to set up and condition straw bales so you can grow food in them.
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Cindy Hoedel demonstrates how to set up and condition straw bales so you can grow food in them.

This time of year, I spend a lot of time apologizing for the dirt that lives under my nails.

In blindingly white art galleries and ultrahip hotel bars where the people look airbrushed, I notice — too late! — reaching for a microroasted espresso that my nails look like I got a reverse French manicure: pink with black tips.

I babble an apology and try not to touch the walls or the shared bread basket.

But I’m too elated for shame. It’s planting season, so there’s probably straw in my hair as well.

This is my fourth year of straw bale gardening. Repeat 11 times: straw bale … (not hay). See my online video about how to condition the bales — I have tweaked the instructions in my favorite reference, “Straw Bale Gardens” by Joel Karsten.

But before you pay $6 or $7 for straw bales (if you are ever in the country, you can find them cheaper by asking around in farm stores), ask yourself if this is the right technique for you.

If you have good soil or grow delicious tomatoes in pots on your deck or driveway, I say stick with what works.

Straw bales have no magic powers; they are a soil substitute. If your soil is hopeless or you have none, but you have a sunny deck or driveway or balcony, a straw bale garden might be just the ticket.

I live in the Flint Hills, where if you thrust your spade a couple of inches into the heavy clay — CLANG! — you realize Zebulon Pike coined the area’s name for a reason. I don’t have soil, I have rocks with clay frosting.

Here are the key things I have learned through trial and error:

▪ Stick to hot weather, long-season veggies: Tomatoes, pole beans, melons, cucumbers and peppers have worked the best in bales for me. Using costly, heavy bales for fast-growing, short-season crops like lettuce or peas is more bother than it’s worth.

▪ Forget root crops. I have tried and had poor results with carrots, potatoes, onions, beets and sweet potatoes. I ended up with long, fibrous roots that raced down to the ground and never filled out. I now grow those crops in a mounded bed I created last fall with compost, leaf mulch and chicken poop.

▪ Set the 4-foot-long bales so the baling wire runs around the sides, with the cut side, not the folded side, facing up to better catch the rain.

▪ Line up your bales in rows 4 feet apart or in a U shape. Don’t try to get more room with double rows. By July you will have a jungle neither you nor sunlight can penetrate.

▪ Critical: Put a weed barrier such as heavy cardboard, plastic or burlap under your bales, or weeds will invade from below.

Prep the bales for two weeks before you want to plant. Give them a thorough soaking daily. Every three or four days, work a handful of fertilizer down into the bales with a hand rake or trowel to speed the breaking-down process inside the bales. I use Milorganite; Karsten recommends grass fertilizer, but it produced excessive leafy growth.

Your bales will probably sprout mushrooms; they are harmless and a sign the bales are properly breaking down.

Set up supports for tall crops before you plant. Karsten suggests 8-foot metal T-posts at each end of a four-bale row with horizontal support wires; you tie the tomato vines to the wires as the plants grow.

For pole beans and cucumbers, I cut a length of 4-foot-tall welded wire fencing with 4-inch holes and stand it between the T-posts instead. The plants can climb it themselves.

Watermelons, squash and cantaloupe don’t need supports, but it’s nice to put down pallets, cardboard or burlap covered in straw where the vines can run to keep the fruit out of the dirt.

After two weeks of conditioning your bales with water and fertilizer, you can plant. Pry open a slit in the bales with a trowel and shove the seedling in. Do not add soil.

For plants that grow best from seed — cucumbers, pole beans, cantaloupe and watermelon — buy a small bag of sterile potting mix and make depressions in the bales with the back of a melon baller or spoon that you fill with just enough starter to cover each seed. Space the seeds according to package directions and keep moist until they sprout.

That’s all there is to it. Water daily until seeds have sprouted and seedlings are well-established. After that a good soaking twice a week is adequate.

Read my column here from last year or watch the video for my favorite varieties of my main crops for ideas about what to plant.

Cindy Hoedel: @cindyhoedel