CO-Horts Blog

Monday, September 15, 2014

The failed bale experiment. By Irene Shonle, Gilpin County

Try straw bale gardening, they said.  It’s easy, a great way way to overcome poor soils, and anyone can do it, they said.  It’s the next wave of gardening, they said.

Really?  Sounds like it could be a good solution for our mountain gardeners.  Let’s give it a shot!  Since we like to use Extension as a resource whenever possible, we were happy to find several fact sheets on the subject, such as this one from Washington State:

First we bought some bright, shiny bales of straw (this was last year, in 2013).

Then it was time to condition the bales.  We watered the heck out of them and applied nitrogen on days 4-10 as recommended to begin the composting process.   We also wrapped the bales in plastic to help keep in the moisture.

We used a soil thermometer to take the temperature daily, waiting for the spike that indicates the beginning of the compost process.  Nothing happened.  So, we added more water, and more nitrogen.  And kept doing so all summer.  That thermometer didn’t budge. No composting happened at all.  Huh.  Is that even possible?  Apparently, it is.  

We left the bales outside, where we thought the torrential rains of last fall and the winter snows surely would cause some composting.  And this spring, the bales definitely looked more weathered.  Maybe the bales were finally conditioned?

We decided to go ahead and plant,  first adding a layer of compost and potting soil to the bale. We tucked in seeds of nasturtium and swiss chard, envisioning the burst of color and lovely greens.  We watered regularly, and Mother Nature helped us with quite a lot of rain.  We also made sure to fertilize.

How did we do?  Well, here is the sum total of what grew:
Yep. One struggling little chard. And a nasturtium that is so tiny, you can't even see it.

We’re giving up on straw bale gardening. It seems not *everyone* can do it.  Maybe it's our climate.  Maybe it was me.  Has anyone else had success?


  1. I tried bales up in Dillon this year. Got some bales, conditioned them, added water in addition to the rain. Supported 2 sides with the compost bins structure. Planted peas, marigolds, potatoes and tomatoes. My raised garden looked on with envy as I babied the bales. I got a bumper crop from the raised garden. From the bale? I got lots of potato greens an ditsy potatoes, a few marigolds, a handful of peas and if I can get the bees to leave.....some honey. So, raised beds it is. Safer from the bees and more work than I need for a side dish of peas.

  2. I tried a bale garden last year with 4 barley straw bales against my wooden fence. It did compost the center after watering and waiting but I also added a scoop of compost when planting. I put tomatoes in my bale garden and they grew well. They did dry out quicker than soil and also attracted mice which did eat a few of the fruits. It was pretty successful other than the two previously mentioned drawbacks, though!

  3. I tried a whole garden of straw bales three years ago. Pros and Cons: 1) many of my bales had grass seed in them. I was not a happy camper. 2) the insides did compost. Yet, my plants were struggling (but better than yours). 3) the voles LOVED the straw bales! All in all ... I had a pretty decent garden but by the end of the summer the bales were so composted that they were falling down and my veggies with them. Tomatoes were too big for the bales, especially after they started breaking down. At the end of the harvest I composted all the spent bales and they made GREAT compost/humus! Will I do it again? No. I am building trenched hugel kulture beds.