Saturday, April 14, 2012

Straw Bale Gardening

Many years ago, I heard that straw bales could be used as planting beds to grow vegetables. My first initial reaction was filled with skepticism but the reported successes made the idea intriguing. This year I’ll try my own experiment with type of gardening for the reasons that will be detailed below. I'll admit upfront that it has been great fun from the start and I can’t help myself from having great hopes for the outcome.

The ultimate goal is to begin producing my own food. This is a big step outside of my comfort zone. I have tended to favor low maintenance and drought tolerant species like herbs, succulents, and cactus. Caretaking plants that produce food requires more time, understanding and consistency. I have collected heaps of literature, a little know how and a lot of motivation through out the years.

The motivation comes from the lack of trust and my disgust toward our food system. Growing some of my own food is my way of rejecting the system and offers me the chance to take some responsibility. Compromises are a reality but they will lessen in time. It is about educating myself and for those who I’m in contact with. It’s about the food that nature intended for us. It’s about the earth, the soul and the spirit of life.

Typically, the vegetable garden is relegated to the back yard. Who made that rule? Why is it considered a rebellious act to grow veggies in the front yard? The fact is the majority of the dirt I occupy is situated in the front yard and that is where it makes sense for me to place the vegetables. While I’m being a bit rebellious, I might as well organize the beds in an unconventional way. Front yard landscaping is generally treated as an ornament to enhance the appearance of the home. I decided to view the placement of the veggie beds with the same attitude as I would toward the arrangement of trees, shrubs or flowers. To date, only one observer sounded surprised about growing veggies in the front yard.  The others who chose to make a comment seemed to be pleased and didn’t appear to be shocked.

Here is an updated version of my landscape design with the added vegetable sections included. The Bow and Hairpin fence lines are abstractly repeated in the rows of straw bales.
Why straw bales?

The soil has been supporting Bermuda grass for decades but it doesn’t offer enough life to support a thriving vegetable garden. My best analysis, is the following: 1 1/2” topsoil (grass mulch) followed by a mix of sandy and iron rich soil above a mixture of iron rich clay and rocks ending with a layer (not shown in the photograph because the shovel stops there) of what I would assume is partly caliche.

My first thoughts about installing a vegetable garden were to incorporate raised beds in the yard. That led to my thoughts about the source of the soil to put in the beds. In the past, I have always been disappointed with the quality of commercially packaged soil from local home improvement or even nursery supply stores, especially for gardening in an arid location. My experience has proven that commercial soil is completely useless since it doesn’t hold moisture well. Looking at the quality of my soil, organic matter needed to be added. Also, even after digging and sifting through a screen, it is still going to be compromised with Bermuda grass seeds, rhizomes and stolons. The most practical organic solution to discourage Bermuda grass from returning was to prevent it from having access to the sunlight. After some research on straw bale gardening, I was sold on the idea that the composting bales would enrich the soil for the future. In the meantime, I’m predicting that they will conveniently block the light from the remnants of the Bermuda grass where they stand.

I decided to devote one maybe two years to this type of gardening. There was a lot of information online, some which contradicts each other; hay vs. straw, bale position, soil vs. no soil, methods of bale preparation, etc. From the abundant amount of information I followed my best judgment for my situation.
5 Jan 2012
The goal for this year is to make the center plot productive. The space is approx. 17’ X 17’ (289 sq. ft.). I began by carving out the Bermuda grass to mimic the outside rows in order to get a visual image for how the design would work in the designated space. Converting a design from 2D to 3D could have unexpected results so this method was used to reassure myself before moving forward and installing the first load of straw bales.

A call was made to a friend who lives with horses. I asked about purchasing organically grown bales in the area but she said, “Forget it”. She did have a reference to whom to buy straw bales from though. Here is the beginning of the ethical compromises. The average cost for straw bales in the area was $7.50 and hay $18.00. I was expecting a price closer to $5.00 for the straw. We paid with cash in exchange for the discounted price of $7.00 a bale. Somewhere online the bale price increase was explained by the loss incurred in last year’s fires but I can’t seem to relocate that source now.
How many bales can you fit in a VW bus?

1st Load2nd Load

More to keep me motivated than anything else, I’m digging in stages. At this point a curious neighbor inquired if I was digging a grave for my partner.
19 Jan 2012
The bales were prepared with a dose of human urine and soaked daily for a week. Winter doesn’t typically bring Arizona much precipitation so I had to use city water. During the bale preparation process, the grass seeds, possibly oats, which were lodged in the bales, began to sprout. Ironically, I was complemented on my success but it was not what I intended to grow. My bales looked like giant Chia Pets. After spreading a layer of compost on top, I covered the bales with plastic before going out of town for nearly two weeks. The intended result was that the bales would get hot enough to kill the seeds. Using plastic in the process was my second ethical compromise but for my consolation its use was for a very short period of time and it was reused from the packaging of our mattress.
Note: Buying a commercial gardening product was a huge disappointment. The ORGANIC compost was laced with plastic trash, painted wood chips and about a third of the weight was made up of stones. Ugh! Forest Magic is a product by Gro-Well. Their stated mission “is to provide the North American Marketplace with environmentally friendly, natural and organic garden products which promote the sustainability of our planet.”. From the looks of their product, they scooped up the floor of a picnic area in a public park. I’ve got to get a serious composting system put on place this year. Obviously, simply composting my table scraps is not going cover projects like this.
19 Mar 2012
Southern Arizona had significant winds while we were gone. We drove up to our home with the image of the plastic sheets loosely flapping in the breeze. At least it was not in my neighbors yard. The plastic wrapping procedure worked well enough because the grass sprouts were effectively dead. Since the bales had dried out while I was out of town, I went ahead and watered them daily for another week. After that, I thought I was prepared to sow the seeds when suddenly the weather changed. We experienced a day filled with snow flurries and a couple of nights of near freezing level temperatures. That significantly cooled the bales down.
I promptly ordered hoops and covers to protect the bales from future freezing temperatures, wind, evaporation, and the pesky birds. The Gardenquilt cover advertised that it allows 60% of the sunlight to filter through and it protects plants as low as 24 degrees. The quilt is made of polypropylene so I made another compromise. Alternatives will present themselves in time. Are you getting my point with these compromises? I’ll go insane keeping track of them all. Suffice it to say that I have a greater appreciation for the organic farmers.
11 Apr 2012: April & the Suicidal Winds
Moonshadow rolling in the morning sunshine
The environmentally nasty yet protective cover was installed. I think they look like covered wagons but that fits in with the territory.
So far, the set up is working out as planned except for one overlooked possibility of destruction. That would be my overgrown kitten. He gets filled with that crazy kitty energy now that my morning routine has changed to tending the bales. He has chosen to express his utter delight by tearing through the tents. Early on he attempted to jump on one of the covers but he was startled by it collapsing under his weight. Best laid plans, etc. Since cursing isn’t effective in the moment, I have found what works in my favor is keeping him inside until the water for the hose is turned on. A quick squirt does the trick. The rest of the day, thankfully, he seems to be less interested in playing in the tents.
A thin layer of the sifted dirt was spread over the compost and I followed the package instructions. The certified organic seeds came from a donation basket at the Johnson Farm Pickin’ Party last August. Although they are 2010-2011 seeds, I decided to give them a try. I knew I was limiting myself to what was available in the basket but I’m a sucker for using something that would probably be discarded. There is always next year to buy local AZ seeds. The backup plan is to buy starters to fill in the areas where the seeds fail to root. On the top of my list are poblano peppers. Captured below are some of the seedlings at about 2 weeks after sowing.

Bean Bush Royal Burgandy
Pumpkin Lumina
Nasturtium Peach Melba
Tomato Italian Roma
Corn Sweet Argent
Mustard Greens Ruby Streaks (I think)

Needless to say, the project is drawing attention from the locals. More than one person asked if I was building walls as in straw bale construction. People visiting from out of town and even a member from the Daily Kos have introduced themselves. If you want to get to know your neighbors, start a project in your front yard. In my case, it has been only pleasant, usually educational and rapidly becoming a community builder. The garden has been recommended to be included on the Bisbee garden tour in September. If that actually happens, I’ve got some serious work to do before then. Cheers.
Video links:

Some related links:
Botanical Interests (The company associated with the donated seeds)


  1. Happy to have found you. I live in Willcox Az. I've been in the nursery/greenhouse business for over 50 years. High desert gardening is new to me. So maybe we can swap info.

  2. Welcome to southern Arizona. A great resource is our local Farmer's Market. Our venders provide plants that successfully grow locally and they have a wealth of information.

    Sunsites Farmer's Market in Pearce would be the closest to you. I have never visited it so I can not say what you will find there.

    Tucson has many botanical gardens, nurseries, & various organizations for growers. Our location has a different climate, so I have to be careful to balance their information with what I know about our differences.

    I have two few books that I picked up at a garage sale that I refer to: Plants for Dry Climates by Mary Rose Duffield & Warren Jones and Gardening Success with Difficult Soils/Limestone, Alkaline Clay, and Caliche.

    What is your gardening interest/project at your new home?

  3. Might be too far, but ARBICO Organics makes their own compost up in Catalina, Arizona. You can get a big pickup truck load for $125.

    I also got some bags of absolute black gold organic compost at Silverbell Nursery in Tucson, made in Oregon (carbon footprint issues abound on that bagged stuff), but I must say it reminded me of the soil I grew up with back in central Illinois.

    1. I appreciate you sharing the information about a resource for organic compost in southern Arizona. If I could get access to a truck, I would consider making a trip to Catalina. Our local Ace has (FoxFarm) Happy Frog Organic soil products which I have been using for small scale projects.

  4. Wow! Your landscape design is actually very impressive! You already thought of what to put and where to put it, which puts you in a very good position because you basically have a vision in your head of what the garden will look like when it’s finished. That would make the work easier, faster. So how far into the project are you? I do hope your plants are already blooming in the bale.

    @Katy Eagles

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I'm about 2/3rds of the way towards implementing the landscape design. The straw bales produced amazing results. The July post describes what I learned through the process and shows the progression through the seasons. For the first time, I'm trying my hand at canning to preserve the overabundance of food. My next post will give a tour of the garden. My garden was included in the Bisbee Bloomers Garden Tour this year. I invite you to check in again in a few weeks for the online tour. I had every intention of posting about it sooner but life has a way of interrupting the time I use to blog.

  5. Hello, I just came upon your blog searching for organic straw. I live in Tucson and found a source for pesticide free straw, but it's also not de-seeded and is sprouting. I'm wondering after you planted how many weed seedlings you had to remove? Trying to guage how well the plastic sheeting technique worked. Thanks in advance!

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