One year, three friends and I decided to make a vegetable garden together. It would be built on one of our properties in the suburbs west of Minneapolis, and all of us would help maintain it and share in the harvest.
We built the garden in a mowed area of a field, near a source of water. We made a wire-and-stake fence around it and added an ornamental gate.
The beds were set in place first. We tried a variety of styles and shapes, from home-built wooden sided raised beds to a half whiskey barrel to a long, rectangular raised bed of strawbales.
We filled the various beds with a foot of topsoil purchased in bulk from a nearby landscape center. As the topsoil contained a fair amount of clay, we added several inches of peat moss and mixed thoroughly with pitchforks and shovels to create our growing medium. (I’ve since toured a peat farm and have very few qualms about using it, particularly that close to where it is harvested, but that’s a Rant for another time…)
We spread thick black plastic between the beds, covered with a layer of wood chips, to make weed-free paths. We also discouraged blown-in seedlings by keeping a mowed 6-foot buffer around the garden.
This friend-supported garden (FSG, our alternative to a CSA) included quite a few little experiments, one of which was the raised bed made of strawbales.
Humid midwestern summers ensure that the bales hold water quite well and long, making them useful reservoirs of extra moisture for nearby plants. This seems particularly helpful for growing herbs that appreciate extra moisture — parsley and cilantro, for example — as well as for buffering other plants against drought. After setting our bales in place, we soaked them thoroughly with a hose, and when watering the plants within the raised strawbale bed, we gave the bales extra water as well.
Strawbale also holds heat well, so it keeps soil temperatures warm in raised beds. This helps plants that need certain soil warmth to succeed, such as the pepper/tomato/eggplant family, the squashes and melons, and herbs like basil. Any strategy for warming the soil is a boon in a short northern growing season.
Finally, strawbales make nice walls for sitting, and handy for setting things on too. Wineglasses, for instance, or baskets full of harvest.
Straw is different from hay, hay being the tops of the plants, which include seeds. Straw is the dried stems, and ideally it is fairly seed-free and slower to decompose than hay. Our bales stayed fairly rigid for a couple of years, despite being soaked in summer and having snow on them all winter, and when they were too soft, they could be broken apart and the straw used as mulch.
Speaking of straw mulch, we used it throughout this garden; it makes a great, lightweight mulch that deters weeds and retains heat and moisture in the soil. Fruits and veggies also stay cleaner and drier on top of the straw mulch, so they won’t rot as easily as they would on bare soil.
I hope to make some strawbale raised beds this spring in my new Boise garden, and it will be interesting to see how well they work in a dry climate. Anyone else tried them? What was your experience?