A vote for straw

Linda Antonacio-Hoade tends to basil growing in her demonstration straw bale garden at Penn State Cooperative Extension in Collegeville.
Linda Antonacio-Hoade tends to basil growing in her demonstration straw bale garden at Penn State Cooperative Extension in Collegeville. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Growing plants in some old stalks? The straw bale method is a sort of natural container gardening, compact, fertile, and simple.

Posted: August 04, 2012

About 15 years ago, she can't remember where or how, Linda Antonacio-Hoade heard the term "straw bale gardening" and thought the idea fascinating.

So she bought a bale, dug a pocket in the middle, and planted flowers in it. "Unfortunately, they just kinda sat there, living but not thriving," she recalls.

Her latest attempt at this unusual growing system is not only thriving, but public proof that "you don't need 40 acres to grow vegetables" - right in the middle of the parking lot at the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Collegeville, where Antonacio-Hoade works as educational outreach coordinator.

It's no mere hole in a bale, but the system is surprisingly simple: Six bales are arranged in a rectangle and held together with strong twine. The middle of the rectangle is filled - and the flat tops of the bales are covered - with compost, though potting soil or a combination of the two works well, too. The whole surface is planted with trellised tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, basil, and bush beans.

"Basically, this is a container garden," Antonacio-Hoade says.

Except the "containers" are 3 feet long, 2 feet high, and 1 foot deep. And in this extremely hot summer, they get a good soaking with a hose every day, which starts the decomposition process, which in turn warms up the bales and releases nutrients that are absorbed by the plants.

"The soil's beautiful and herb-y, dense and moist, and it's chock-full of worms," Antonacio-Hoade says, meaning, for the uninitiated, that it smells like the forest and is very fertile. Which is not too shabby, given that here on the macadam, surrounded by parked cars, we're about as far from the forest as a garden can get.

The bales' fertility is obvious. The plants are green and happy and blessed with excellent air circulation, which helps keep vermin, insect pests, and diseases at bay. And because the "soil" is straw, there are few weeds.

(Quick note: Hay, a grain used for animal feed, is notorious for harboring weed seeds. Straw, on the other hand, comprises the dead, hollow stalks of oats, barley, wheat, rice, and other grain plants whose nutritious seeds have already been harvested. The stalks are used for animal bedding and erosion control, while the bales are sometimes made into benches and even houses.)

Today, Antonacio-Hoade finds one large weed, which she pulls quickly. "Really, I rarely weed. You might get one here and there. Talk about low-maintenance," she says.

Yes, let's: At season's end, the bales are well on their way to becoming compost. Just take off the twine, let the bale fall apart in place or, if it needs a little help, chop it up and throw it onto an existing leaf or compost pile. (You can also mulch the lawn and perennial beds with it.)

Next year, you buy new bales to plant in - they cost from $5 to $10 at garden centers and feed stores - "and your old bales, now compost, become the new potting medium," Antonacio-Hoade says. "It's a perfect little cycle."

Joel Karsten, a horticulturist and onetime landscaper, discovered this by accident on his family's 600-acre farm in southwest Minnesota.

"When I was a kid, you'd be baling hay and straw. You'd get a bale or two fall off the rack so you'd throw it up next to the barn and, sure enough, forget to put it in storage.

"It'd get rained on, you'd leave it alone, and by midsummer, you'd see all kinds of weeds and seeds of things that had fallen on top of the bale growing like crazy in there."

That memory popped into mind about 15 years ago, when Karsten was trying to figure out how to set up a garden in the depleted soil at his new home in Roseville, an inner-ring suburb between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"My soil was not going to be super-productive without lots and lots of modification, which costs a lot of money," he says.

Karsten figured that straw bales would be cheaper than modifying the soil or buying raised beds and, over time, they'd more than pay for themselves by turning into compost.

To see just how well they'd work, he and his father planted 50 bales at the farm and measured the results. "We got an extraordinary rate of growth, especially early in season because the compost inside the bales heated up. It's a little heater in there," says Karsten, who has self-published a booklet called "Straw Bale Gardening: A complete guide to growing in bales without soil or weeds," and has a website called www.strawbalegardens.com/.

He has since figured another way to keep the "heater" going: He drapes heavy plastic over the bales to create a greenhouse effect. Works well against the chill of early spring and fall.

Cynthia Van Druff learned about straw bale gardens when she heard that the cooperative extension in Collegeville was giving out $50 grants to start one. She used it to buy four bales to create a traditional American Indian Three Sisters garden - corn, squash, and beans - at Upper Moreland Primary School in Hatboro this past spring.

Van Druff, food services director for the Upper Moreland School District, also used grant money for seeds, transplants, twine, and organic fertilizer, which is used, with ample water, to condition the bales for 12 days or so before planting.

Van Druff says she never imagined such a small configuration would comfortably support four bean plants and three each of pepper, squash, and tomato.

"It's great in an urban setting where land is tight, and it's very accommodating for people who have to sit in a chair. It's definitely the right height," she says, noting that the design is simpler and less expensive than raised beds, "and the straw bale garden is a very big conversation piece, especially with the kids."

In early summer, Japanese beetles dove into the bean leaves, but, Van Druff says, "We sprayed the dickens out of them" with an original concoction of lemon peel, water, and baby shampoo. It worked.

Rose Marie Nichols McGee, owner of Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Ore., and an expert on container gardening and straw bales, first did a bale garden with edible greens at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle in 2004. It won a gold medal.

Since then, she has expanded her bale-garden repertoire to include chard, lettuce, peas, beans, tomatoes, and peppers, with nasturtiums trailing over the sides. The mix is boosted regularly with liquid seaweed fertilizer.

"I'd never heard of straw bale gardening before Seattle, but the system's kind of a natural," she says.

Asked what's she's growing in her bales this summer, McGee giggles. "Nothing," she says. "I didn't have time."

Which just goes to show: No matter what form your garden takes, some things never change.

Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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