I have clearly been living under a rock for the past few years! I just got finished watching an awesome session at the Homegrown Food Summit (link may not work by the time some of you are reading this) presented by Joel Karsten all about “Straw Bale Gardening” – shockingly, a concept I’d never even read/heard about about previously (remember that rock? It’s a BIG one! lol).
NOTE: Video above is one I found on YouTube (featuring Joel Karsten). As I discovered, there are LOADS of straw bale gardening videos in general, so you may want to do a search there if this is something you want to learn more about. Joel’s “Straw Bale Gardens” website is also an excellent resource.
Interestingly, I have however toyed with the idea of trying something similar, especially after using loads of bales to create a big winter worm bed some years ago, and watching as “volunteer” plants popped up all over the place in the bed during the next growing season.
One thing is for sure – Red Worms LOVE decomposing straw and hay bales. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left bales sitting outside before use (often as cover material for outdoor beds), only to then find them invaded by lots of Red Worms.
So, in a sense I am really smacking myself in the forehead (mentally – lol) for not putting two and two together a lot sooner! Straw bale gardening WITH composting worms would be like the ultimate combination!
The worms would help to accelerate the bale break down process (important for providing the plants with a rich “soil” to grow in). They would also be depositing loads of worm castings – what’s not to love about that?!
There are a variety of ways you could “prime” the bales. Whatever you do, DON’T use the approach outlined in the video above. Fertilizer salts are very harmful for worms, so it would take longer before the bales were worm-friendly if these were used. I would definitely suggest nitrogen sources that are a bit more “natural”.
If you made a “tea” using some really rich, fresh manure, and soaked your bales with it, that would be a great start. You might even try liquifying some food waste and pouring it on the bales.
Don’t add the worms to them right away (should you need to introduce them at all – if you have various outdoor beds already they will likely find the bales on their own). Let the bales age for a week or two outside, and make sure to monitor temps in the bales during this time. Joel says the internal temps can get really high initially, so you definitely don’t want to end up cooking your worms!
I love the fact that you can grow plants (eg herbs) in the sides of the bales as well – meaning you can grow even more plants in less space!
Some may wonder about straw vs hay. The latter will likely offer more “food” value for the worms (and ultimately for the plants) – but as Joel points out, hay can contain a lot more weed seeds. But can you imagine how easy it would be to weed a bale?
Anyway – as you can probably tell, the straw bale (vermi-)gardening concept has REALLY got me fired up. Needless to say, I have plans to try it out in my yard this growing season (which is just around the corner).
Have you tried straw bale gardening with composting worms? Please leave your comments/questions below!
A friend of mine grew herbs and flowers on straw bales and they did great 🙂
Three years ago, I set up three straw bales in a “u” configuration near the garden. Each spring, after I clean out the compost in the bottom and toss back in all the stuff from the top that wasn’t composted yet, I layer in old horse manure (about 7 years old). Then, I re-innoculate the pile with worms from my indoor worm bin.
Its worked so well, I set up two more of these last year. If I am diligent, I can go through up to 10 small wheelbarrows full of aged horse manure a season per “u” and the worms eat all the weeds and household compost I can throw at them. I can’t keep up. The only part they can’t devour is the end-of-season cleanup of the tomato and squash vines. It’s already too cold by the time this stuff is added. I get about three wheelbarrows of compost to put back on the garden each spring.
Last spring, I discovered that the worms had eaten most of the bales too. It’s a great system and it’s the best way I know of to get rid of the piles and piles of horse poop that accumulate from having horses.
I tried it unsuccessfully with hay bales but I know where I went wrong:
1: I was impatient and didn’t let them “cure” long enough so they got way too hot after I attempted to plant things in them…
2: (and this is pretty big) I used bales from my husband’s grandfather and recently found out that the herbicide he uses on them stays on it for up to 5 years (even post composting) so it’s pretty much worthless for planting certain things (like tomatoes, which was my main crop attempt).
So my lessons learned were to be patient, and to verify what was used on the fields while it was growing. A friend used straw and said his were really successful.
Thanks for this post, Bentley. I’d heard of this, but had forgotten and may try it out. Adding in the vermicomposting (and your seal of approval) makes this really appealing to try out, especially as I may not have time or energy to create enough traditional garden beds or sheet-mulched beds.
Regarding the vermiculture aspect, how do you recommend going about introducing the worms to the straw bales (I am in a new house and haven’t vermicomposted outdoors as of yet)? I assume the worms would eventually find the bales anyway, but it sounded as if you were suggesting we could “add them” to the bales.
I also appreciate the above comment about herbicide on the bales — this makes buying from a farmer a lot more sensible as we can ask what sort of treatment the bales have had (I doubt the people at my local hardware store would know!).
I have two bales I bought to try this and will be doing it on my driveway next to my house — the area gets good light for growing veggies. I plan to cure or season the straw with bloodmeal but I know it the bales will get hot inside. I wonder if once they are seasoned if they stay so warm… if so, it might be too warm for worms (?).
About worms finding the bales — not going to happen in my case since the bales are on concrete. I suppose if I learn the environment is not too hot for them I could put a few of my indoor worms in one of the bales just to see if they do OK. I could even hunt them down at end of season (unless the robins find them first).
I need to do a little more research on all this, but trying “a dash of worms” to my straw bale brew might be interesting.
This is year two for me! Last year went rather well but I placed my bales too close to the edge of the yard and didn’t have enough sun. I made a big worm bed with 5 more bales and composted into the middle, well you can imagine what I have… a great big straw colored chunk of worms this spring. I have already started turning that and putting the castings onto my new bales that I put in full sun this year. I started them Feb 1 so they have had a couple of snows, and I am looking forward to this growing season. Wheat straw is what I use, I don’t like mulching with the local hay anyway as it offers far too many weeds and grass. The wheat won’t be invasive so it is the better choice.
This is indeed a great method. The HGFS presentation was truly fascinating.
Straw vs. Hay:
Per what I’ve read, hay tends to have lots of sprouts that you must deal with; hay tends to not have that happen very much. You might have a few. I noticed something yesterday sprouting from one of my bales sitting outside waiting to be seasoned. But, straw is supposed to be less problematic in that area.
I need to begin preparing them for planting in about a week or so.
OOOps. I mean STRAW tends to not have that happen. Sorry!
Wheat straw will have wheat come up. The reason that is not a problem is that it is not invasive to your garden. The bales will green and you can just let it be or pull and mulch out the top of bale.. no problem. Hay on the other hand (at least our local) is full of weed and grass seed. Not what you are looking for.
I have had my 10gal worm bin for couple of months. After adding bedding & food,my bin is about two thirds full. When & how should I harvest?
Thanks everyone for all of the help (for the newbie).
I do seem to have happy worms & have finally spotted some cocoons
I used straw bales to fill the bulk of my 4′ x 7′ x 18″ deep raised bed four seasons ago. Topped it with a few inches of poor homemade compost and planted it a few weeks later. After planted I put a tub of unknown bait “leaf” worms on the top. This was my first attempt with vermicompost. As it turned out it is now a giant worm bin.
Mid way into the second season I didn’t find any more straw in the garden bed.
There was significant settling during the first season and I have kept refilling the bed each fall with chopped leafs and un-composted organic matter.