by Connie Oswald Stofko
If you are using a straw bale in your autumn decorations, don’t throw it away! You can grow tomatoes and other vegetables in it next spring.
I saw photos of the technique called straw bale gardening on the Vegetable Gardeners of WNY Facebook page. I was delighted that Gina and Tony Kruzel allowed me to visit their Kenmore home early in October to see what they had done.
They decided to try straw bale gardening because their backyard is all shade, and vegetables need a lot of sun. The straw bales can be placed on any surface, so you can grow vegetables wherever you have sun– even in your driveway.
Another reason the Kruzels tried straw bale gardening is because they’re renting. They didn’t want to invest a lot of time, energy and money creating new garden beds that they would have to leave behind if they move. Straw bales are inexpensive; they cost $7 at Goodman’s Farm Market in Niagara Falls and are available throughout the year.
The straw bales are easy to move when they’re dry, but once they get wet, they’re quite heavy.
Tip: If you want to move the straw bales, Tony suggested setting the bales on pallets when they’re still dry. Then, when they’re wet, you can move them using a dolly or hand truck. How cool is this– Even if you moved to a new town partway through the growing season, you could take your garden with you!
Before you plant into the straw bale, you have to “condition” it. Two to four weeks before you want to plant, water the bale until it is soaked through. Then sprinkle the top with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. The idea is to get the bale to start to decompose, the Kruzels said. You want to leave enough time for this step because the bale will get hot as it decomposes, and you have to wait for the bale to cool. If the temperature in the bale is too high when you add your plants, it could damage the plants.
Dig down into the bale just enough to make room for the root ball of your plant, Gina said.
Add a little soil. The Kruzels used about a third of a bag of soil for each bale. The roots of your plant will bind around the straw.
Feed the plants with fertilizer once a week.
You can find detailed instructions in a fact sheet on straw bale gardening at the Washington State University Extension website.
The bales will get weedy, sprouting grass and mushrooms, but they’re easy to pull out, the Kruzels said.
Gina thinks that mice may have been attracted to the bales, so that’s one downside to straw bale gardening.
You might get just one season out of the bales, but Tony thinks he will be able to reuse theirs again next year.
“We were looking for different ways to do container gardening,” Gina said.
In addition to the straw bales, the Kruzels have pots and plastic totes filled with vegetable plants lining their front steps. With just those containers and the straw bales, they harvested enough tomatoes to eat, use for sauce and freeze. They also harvested peppers, cucumbers, beans, dill and green onions. They even grew one watermelon, which is quite a feat with our short growing season.
“That’s not too bad for a container garden,” Gina said.