Don’t bail out on gardening; turn to straw

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Betsey Thomson

The Well-Tended Garden by Betsey Thomson

Straw bale gardening. It’s an excellent method of gardening for those of us who can’t bend or get on our knees, for anyone with limited space or for people that have horrible soil. When I say horrible soil I really mean that nasty red clay in West Virginia. Even the earthworms hate it. Up here I purchase bales of straw to tear apart and use for mulch. Down there, the bales are kept whole, treated and used to grow tomatoes, potatoes, peas and lots of other veggies.

A couple of summers ago, a handicapped master gardener from a neighboring West Virginia county showed a group of us how to use straw bales and what is involved. When she showed us pictures of her lush garden, with her sitting in a chair watering it, I was hooked. Besides the higher beds to work with, there is hardly any insect damage compared to what we battle when growing directly in the soil. Weeds? What are those!

Bales of straw, not hay, which is weedy, set into any pattern you can work with can become a lush vegetable or flower strawgarden. It is important to place them where you want to garden because once they are wet they cannot be moved.  Also, keep enough space between rows or singles to maneuver. Forget trying to keep enough space in order to use the riding mower. Vines sprawl and nobody wants to chop cucumbers before they get to the kitchen.  Putting newspaper or weed cloth beneath the bales deters weeds from stretching out beneath them.

Purchasing bales in the fall and leaving them out over the winter gives you a head start, providing the bales are tight and placed with the twine on the sides and end. Some people say it doesn’t matter how they are laid down, but it makes sense to keep the twined or folded sides outward and the cut portion of the bale upward. That is where the plants go.

Bales have to be conditioned prior to planting. It takes a few days and lots of water. Conditioning can start as the last frost occurs or even a week or so prior.

This is a portion of the method I was taught. I will share the rest of the information in next month’s column.

• Days 1 to 3: Water bales thoroughly and keep them damp. It usually takes about 1 to 2 gallons per bale.

• Days 4 to 6: Daily, sprinkle each bale with ½ cup of urea (46-0-0) and water well to force it into the bales. You may substitute bone, fish meal or just compost. If using organic fertilizer, increase treatment to 2 cups per bale.

• Days 7 to 9: Cut back to ¼ cup urea or ½ cup of substitute per bale per day and continue to water well.

• Day 10: Add no more fertilizer but keep bales damp.

• Day 11: Stick your hand into the bales to see if they are still warm. They are ideal for planting if the temperature is around 70 degrees.

Betsey Thomson is a University of Rhode Island lifetime master gardener. Contact her at

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