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Granny’s straw bale garden adventure


I am a retired granny with four grandchildren who loves gardening. I spend half my life in a small apartment in Wellington and the other half in a converted bus on my son’s property in tropical Northern Queensland.

The North Queensland property is surrounded by cane fields and is a garden paradise except for the high temperatures. This triggers rapid evaporation of water in the soil, insects wanting to share all the vegetable seedlings and bandicoots digging up new plants each night.

There is a constant need to protect plants from the hot Queensland sun and while browsing in the library I came across a book ‘Straw Bale Gardens Complete’ by Joel Karsten.

The book caught my attention as it displayed lush very healthy vegetables growing in a bale of straw. It seemed to be claiming to solve some of my garden challenges.

On our Queensland property there is a stack of sugar cane straw bales at the end of our road so I decided to try this gardening method out.

Stack of sugar cane straw bales at the end of our road, a few days after harvest

Step one           Placement of the bale

First consideration was where to place my straw bale garden. I wanted partial shade, close to a water hose and conveniently placed to keep a close eye on progress.

My son, who knows quite a bit about gardening and had his own plant nursery, was quite scathing about growing plants in a bale of straw. He suggested I would never be able to keep a suitable growing moisture content in a bale above ground.

However, the book referred to people getting good results during droughts and the bales staying moist as long they  were watered weekly using half a bucket of water per bale.

On hearing this my son grudgingly placed my bale near a tree for partial shade and some afternoon sun.

Straw bale placed in partial shade

Step two          Conditioning my bale

Now it was time for the conditioning process, to encourage the bale to begin composting internally so it can support root growth.

The book said it will take 10 days to get the fertiliser and water deep down inside so they can start to ‘cook’. I’m feeling quite excited about doing something new after gardening most of my life in very traditional ways. 

Day one

I completely soaked the bale through with water then I poured on half a cup of all-purpose soluble fertiliser I found in the wash house.  I made up two litres in a bottle to use every second day. The book said alternatively you can use three cups of organic fertiliser.

Day two

As soon as the sun had warmed up the water in the hose I was saturating my bale. Joel Karsten’s book says that warm water stimulates bacteria to grow, that’s what I want and fast…..

First mistake:

Wait a minute, just checked the book and already I have made two bad mistakes.

On pages 48-49  of the book I did not heed two important points in my haste to get started.

I grew up on a farm and every summer helped Dad with baling the winter hay to feed the sheep and cattle.

I never realised until I read Joel’s book that, bales have two distinctly different sides. One side is the cut side and looks like the ends of the straw are aligned and have been sliced off with a knife.

The other side of the bale is the folded side and appears as if the straw stems have been folded over in the baling process.

Joel says, “ It is ideal to orient the bale cut side up because this allows much easier penetration of water and granular fertiliser into the bale during  the conditioning process.”

Also just as important, “the strings on the straw bale should be around the sides of the bale and not on the top and bottom surfaces of the bale. Strings hold the bale compressed which is essential to quick decomposition.”

I correct both mistakes and realise I will need to read the book more carefully if I want to do this right.

Day three

It’s fertiliser day again so I poured on half a cup of fertiliser and added warm water from the sun soaked hose to wash in the fertiliser just as the book said.

I’m a little worried about the position of my  Straw Bale Garden as Joel said, “ it must have six to eight  hours full sun every day.”

My son retorted, “ We live in Northern Queensland with temperatures over 35 degrees every day in full sun, you need partial shade.”

So I am going with my son and leaving my bale near a tree for partial morning shade and full afternoon sun.

Day four

Today warm water only, Joel suggests about five litres and the water should be running out the bottom of the bale.

Today I also shifted my bale around the other side of the tree so it gets a few hours of morning sun.

I did give it the ‘finger test’ suggested by Joel, i.e.  pushing your finger down into the bale to check the temperature, and yes it is getting a little warm inside and the straw is starting to change colour slightly.

Pushing my finger down into the bale to check the temperature

I think my conditioning is going well, it’s starting to ‘cook’.

Day five

Half way through the conditioning process and poured on half cup of fertiliser washed with some warm water. Bale feeling a little bit warmer today.

Day six

Only warm water applied today plus a little shower of rain.

Some people set up water sprinklers over their straw bale garden but I like to stand and water and see what’s happening. I‘m never in a hurry these days.

Coolish day but bale slightly warm.  I hope it starts to cook tomorrow.

Today I bought some parsley, basil, tomato and capsicum plants so keeping them in a shady place until day 11….. can’t wait to plant.

The parsley, basil, tomato and capsicum plants ready for planting

I want to plant seedlings that will be happy to grow close together on my straw bale garden.

Day seven

I only need ¼ cup of fertiliser today and some warm water to wet the bale.

Unusually, we have had five days of overcast weather and cooler temperatures.

I am worried my bale is not getting hot enough so I’ve shifted it again out from the shade of the tree into full morning sunlight.

That’s the best part of this garden, you can reposition with a sack barrow anytime.

It must be working  as I can  see two tiny sprouts of weeds on top of my bale, life sustaining signs I guess….

Day eight

¼ cup of fertiliser and a small amount of warm water as the bale feels quite wet, is heavy and smells a bit musty.  My small plants are waiting impatiently to be planted.

Day nine

¼ cup of fertiliser and a small amount of warm water.

I turned my bale up-side down as it seemed too wet on the  bottom. I think I have been over generous with the water. Only really need enough water to wash in the fertiliser.

Day 10

 I need one cup of soluble fertiliser which must have both potassium and phosphorus in it. I used a small amount a warm water to wash in the fertiliser all over the bale.

Joel says I need these minerals to penetrate into the root zone of the bale.

My bale smells sweet at last … well compost sweet and using my ‘finger test’ I can definitely feel warmth inside my bale and my bale is cooking.

Joel is right, it does work you just must be patient.

Yes ….. my straw bale garden is almost ready to plant.

Two more days and it will be ready to go.

Day 11

Do nothing, day off  …. but wait until tomorrow.

I did check my bale for worms but haven’t spotted any. Worms are great in the garden as they help break down the complex organic material back in food which can easily be taken up by the plant roots.

I’ve been trusting the worms, insects and bacteria have been at work eating, digesting and decomposing dead organic matter inside my bale. Go hard you little critters, I appreciate you.

Day 12

Must consult the book for this crucial next stage.

Step three        Planting

My straw bale is moist, warm with some obvious decomposition happening . It is slightly brownish with tiny black flecks everywhere which are the first signs of straw decomposing to make soil.

I am sure those bacteria have begun digesting the straw and giving back nitrogen.

I carefully removed the basil, tomato, parsley and capsicum plants from their trays, parted the straw with my hands and placed each seedling well down into the moist bale.  Squeezing the straw around each one and pressing down firmly.

Basil and tomatoes were made to go together, not only in sauces but in the garden too.

Basil is a good friend to peppers, helping repel aphids, spider mites, mosquitoes, and flies ..

Unfortunately, the parsley seedlings look a bit wilted and yellow. I think I left them too long sitting in water in my garden shed with wet feet. Hopefully they will recover in the full sunlight.

I watered all the seedlings lightly with warm water.

Day 13

We had a cold night but all the seedlings look  good. The parsley even looks better this morning.

The seedlings planted in their straw bale all look good

I also pushed in some bamboo stakes beside the tomato plants for support later on.

Day 14

I moved my straw bale back into semi shade to its final resting place. It will still receive a few hours of full morning sun but the temperatures are starting to climb and will be too hot for the survival of most plants.

Days 15 and 16

Very high temperatures i.e. high thirty degrees centigrade over these last two days. The plants remained strong and did not wilt as the lettuce plants in the garden did.

I am impressed with the way my straw bale retains moisture and sustains my seedlings.

All I need to do now is to keep the sprinkler handy.

My straw bale garden should retain moisture much better than normal soil so will need less watering, no weeding, no bending, no digging….. BUT  I will keep  a check on how things are going and water on a regular basis.

Joel suggest five litres of water ( one bucket) per week in most moderate climates but on the first sign of wilt, apply water.

I will plant some petunias around the sides of the bale to look nice and also as a wilt test. If I see any part of the petunias wilt I’ll know water is required immediately.

Have a go making your own straw bale garden.

It’s been a great experiment and  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process.

It seems to work really well and I’m now a straw bale garden convert.

The tomatoes have thrived in the straw bale garden

Can’t wait to start my next one.

Maybe my balcony in Wellington would be worth a try, bit windy but would be great to have parsley, basil and tomatoes flourishing right outside my door,  instead of having to go to the market.

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Joel Karsten’s book Straw Bale Gardens Complete

Sustainable Gardening Australia presents the most comprehensive companion planting chart in the known  universe (maybe)

Check out this website, and this awesome list, it certainly makes gardening so much fun when you think about planting different types of plants which actually like each other and promise to get on well together and not fight and be good neighbours.

Looks like my choice swill be ok although it does say not to plant parsley and tomatoes too close together.


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1 Comment

  • What an inspiring account, with its lively diary entries. It would be interesting to read a similar account from various parts of New Zealand.

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