Tale of a Strawbale Raised Bed

, Feedme

Strawbale raised bed with trellising in place and seedlings planted.

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.

Our friend-supported garden in late summer.

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.

Our strawbale bed grew cherry tomatoes and cukes underplanted with mini-watermelons.

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.

Full-sized watermelons are tough to grow in the short Minnesota summers, but these mini-melons take off in the warm, moist environment of the strawbale raised bed.

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?


Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on January 15, 2014 at 2:54 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Eat This, Feed Me, Real Gardens, Shut Up and Dig.

Comment List

  • Ginny Stibolt 16 / 09 / 2016

    Evelyn, I love the FSG concept and that you experimented with various methods for growing your crops. Would you say that the straw bales worked best, and if so, will you be converting more of the beds to the bales? Thanks for sharing.

  • Lizabeth 15 / 11 / 2016

    My mom used straw for mulch but I love this idea! Will have to find a friend’s yard to try it since I don’t think my condo board will let me try it in one of the parking lot grass islands (although that would be the perfect spot: no trees and plenty of sun)

  • plantingoaks 19 / 11 / 2016

    I’ve heard several variants on straw bale beds. Which method did you use? Did you add anything to the straw other than the plants?

  • Peggy Willenberg 20 / 11 / 2016

    We put a small amount of good soil between the bales. We found the plants started well in the soil and then spread their roots into the moist straw. Unless it rained, we watered down the bales every day.

  • Peggy Willenberg 21 / 11 / 2016

    We had great produce, great gardening days, and great friendships. Some pretty great squash borers, too. But I remember those summers and our garden with great fondness. Glad you do too!

  • Charlotte 21 / 11 / 2016

    I’m in Livingston Montana — a couple of things. Straw out here tends to be wheat straw, and it contains a lot of seedheads. If you can find barley straw, but it — far fewer seedheads. I haven’t done straw bale beds, but I do use a ton of it in my garden to try to hold water in — since we only get 12-14 inches per year in rain, and July-October are hot and dry and windy, water conservation is key. But, I do get a lot of wheat infestation. Luckily wheat is shallow rooted and easy to pull out. I’ve actually had great success with hay in veggie beds, especially among the more tender greens — haven’t had undue weed infestations from local hay, and its a little softer than the wheat straw, which has stems so stiff they can cut up the leafy greens. But I mulch *everything* – -veggies, perennial beds, etc in a couple of inches of straw – helps with water, but I fear it might be contributing to my everpresent flea beetle problems. Good luck gardening in Boise! Completely different climate than the midwest (which is why so many of us fled out here).

  • John by the river 21 / 11 / 2016

    Try reading Ruth Stout’s books. She gleefully threw hay everywhere.

  • Deborah Hudson 21 / 11 / 2016

    Evelyn, i remember when you also took four straw bales and put them back by a south facing patio and put an old window on top to cover. Then you planted inside the raised square and had nice lettuce and salad greens like kale — during the cold winter or spring.

  • Deborah 21 / 11 / 2016

    I used to use “straw” all the time; I loved the look and feel of it in the vegetable garden paths and as a mulch for just certain veges. Unfortunately, what’s available around Seattle is full of seeds, no matter how careful one tries to be in purchasing “straw.” I don’t mind pulling some weeds, but I really hate actually sowing them! No more straw for me.

  • Charlotte 21 / 11 / 2016

    I don’t think it’s that they’re less distinctly labelled. It’s pretty easy to tell straw (yellow gold in color, stiff hard stems) from hay (greenish, softer, but as someone noted downthread, prone to unpleasant degradation in wet climates). But since we have such huge commercial wheat croppage out here, my hunch is that there is simply more chaff in our wheat straw. Mine nearly always contains a considerable number of full heads of wheat. When you’re harvesting thousands of acres at a time, my hunch is this is what happens. Barley straw is noticeably cleaner than wheat, so if you can find it (ask at a ranch store, or someplace that sells bedding for horses) it’s a better bet. I was using a lot of straw in my chicken run, which then went into the compost, so that was a good bet.

  • KarenMcCarthy 21 / 11 / 2016

    Charlotte, I had been scrolling down the posts here hoping someone would chime in re. herbicide carryover. Thanks for mentioning RoundUp (glyphosate) but as you will read, this is one of the lesser herbicidal evils affecting gardens.
    I live on a farm where we produce hay and have horses. I also have a nice organic veggie garden. Over the past two seasons however I have been noticing some problems with my potato crop and to some degree my tomatoes which were amended with our composted manure (1.5 years). We rarely use glyphosate in our fields, but we do use some selective broadleaf herbicides in the spring, containing 2-4-D and aminopyralid to spot treat small areas in the pasture, typically the margins near the highway.
    In our area the farmers also produce wheat and barely, so naturally we have an abundance of straw available, but again, that comes with the caveat that most if not all the farmers broadcast their fields at least TWICE a season with a combination of broadleaf herbicides which have been shown to really affect the plants grown some of the straw bale gardens some locals have set up, due to the chemical residue leaching into the rootzone.
    Here is an excellent paper to read more about this issue:http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher/programs/ncorganic/special-pubs/herbicide_carryover.pdf

  • CottonM 21 / 11 / 2016

    In our area the alternative for straw is marsh hay. Though it does have weed seeds the marsh plants don’t germinate or grow well in the garden. In other words they aren’t competitive. And it’s more plentiful & less expensive than straw (oat, wheat).

  • ET 21 / 11 / 2016

    I wonder about the ecological impacts of harvesting “marsh hay”. It sounds like it would involve heavy equipment on wetlands.
    Do you know how and where it is harvested?

  • Julie 22 / 11 / 2016

    I have been thinking about using straw in the garden both as mulch and a border type thing. I currently live in a north western Minneapolis suburb. Where would you typically look for straw to purchase?

  • Esther Montgomery 22 / 11 / 2016

    I’m gardening in England and I wish I had come across this idea before we gave up our allotment because my husband has back problems. We had considered a no-dig method but our allotment society wouldn’t have liked that. We would have been quite enthusiastic to give this a go.

  • Michelle 23 / 11 / 2016

    This is great! I do not have a green thumb, or the space for a garden of much size so this gives me hope I can use a small space with proper drainage, near a water source and possibly have some success. Thanks so much, Evelyn, for sharing your idea.

Leave a Reply