Mary Jo Oakes of Bartlett believes that her love of gardening began as a young girl when she would visit her Grandmother’s large vegetable garden in Wauconda. This joy she finds in gardening led her to become a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener volunteer in 2006.
At her vacation home in Wisconsin, Mary Jo has plenty of room to grow vegetables. Yet, maintaining her northern gardens can be a challenge because of the limited time she has to spend there. Grass and weeds can take over quickly during the summer and amending the very sandy soil on the property for new gardens is difficult and time consuming. Oakes was excited to read about straw bale gardening and believed it could be a solution for her gardening challenges in Wisconsin.
Straw bale gardening turns any sunny spot into a garden by placing a bale there, even on gravel or concrete. Think of it as container gardening using an inexpensive, organic vessel that ends up turning into compost. On Oakes’ property, it meant placing bales on overgrown grassy areas that were good sites for vegetable growing without doing any soil amendments or grass removal.
Early this spring Oakes bought fifteen bales of straw from a local farmer for $5 each, delivered. The bales had been outside through the winter and, because of that, were already conditioned, an important step in straw bale gardening. Plants and seeds can’t be placed into a fresh bale. Gardeners must wait to plant until after an initial composting process has taken place during which the center of the bale will reach temperatures that are high enough to damage plant roots or seedlings.
To plant, Oakes dug holes and placed in soilless potting mixture, and then the plant or seed and watered well. She stressed not to use soil from the ground, as you may introduce a soil borne disease into the bale. Oakes found her bale garden plants to be quite disease and insect free and was pleased with how vigorously everything grew. The straw that is left at the end of the season can be further composted or tilled into the soil.
Mary Jo plans to continue with her project next year.
“Gardening is a solace, a very peaceful, spiritual time for me,” she said.
To view web sites on this topic go to Cooperative Extension Search, then enter Straw Bale Gardening. Many universities have posted articles on the topic.
Julie Moore is a Master Gardener volunteer with the University of Illinois Extension in DuPage County.