The Straw Bale Raised Bed

Faith Peterson
Adams County Master Gardener

If you read my article last fall entitled "Which Raised Bed is Best for your Garden?" you may remember that we decided to install a straw bale bed as a second pollinator garden in our meadow; and that I would follow up with an article about the results.

We put our straw bale garden together late last fall. We placed three bales along each side; and two bales at each end. The resulting area available for planting is 3 feet by 8 feet. We placed 4 heavy metal fence posts at the corners to hold the structure together. I had full intentions of adding the soil mix into the new bed before winter, but it got cold awfully fast last year, and it did not happen.

Early this spring we layered top soil and mushroom soil into the bed, mounding the soil up in the center, to allow for the inevitable settling, and I discovered that I cannot step on the bales like I could last fall, since they have started the decomposition process. I waited a week or two to plant the new bed, and it was watered very well by rain prior to planting.

I planted tithonia (Mexican sunflower) in two of the corners. These plants become very large, and attract all kinds of insects and birds as well. Now, as I write this, the American goldfinches are busy eating the seed heads, while the continual supply of bright orange flowers are full of butterflies and insects. Also included were salvia, tropical milkweed plants, a few oxeye daisies, with pretty trailing lavender and sedum along the edge. I added an annual reseeding verbena, a mint, Russian sage, and gaura.

Some of the plants that I placed in the bed have died off or been eaten by rabbits or deer, including Johnny jump-ups, larkspur, marigolds and verbascum. When something died, I just stuck another tropical milkweed in its place.

I watered the bed using a watering can for about two weeks after planting. The rainfall I recorded in our area was a paltry three quarters of an inch in June; and two inches from 5 rains over the entire month of July. Since the plants have been established, I have watered, rarely more frequently than once a week, with about 5 gallons of water. The straw seems to hold the moisture in the bed quite well.

I had not anticipated the great drought resistance of a straw bale garden. With the extreme heat, the full sun in our meadow, and the hot blasting wind we have experienced this summer, I believe that a traditional bed in this setting would be a barren plot of soil at this point.

Other results, in addition to the drought resistance of the bed are as follows. One of the tithonia, when it reached over two feet high, blew over in a windstorm, and did not survive being replanted, staked and tied to one of the posts. The metal posts have been great perches for Eastern Kingbirds, catbirds and bluebirds as they hunt insects in the meadow grass. I have had no weeds come up in the bed. One problem is that voles appear to like the garden as a home site. I hope that the two local tomcats who visit the garden during the day; and the foxes and owls that visit our natural habitat at night will take control the vole population.

The attached photo was taken in late July. All in all, I would recommend a straw bale raised bed as an inexpensive, easy to build alternative to a traditional raised bed structure.

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