Cappers Farmer Blogs > Our Fair Field

Straw Bale Gardens

Desperate situations call for desperate measures. The year was 2010. We lived on an acreage in the San Joaquin Valley near Tracy, California. If any of you have been out that way you’ll know this is prime hay country. There’s abundant water and the nice level land of the Delta. When we lived on the acreage, we had fields all around us in every direction. In the spring, we were dive-bombed by low flying crop dusters, and when the farmers were ready to plant, they regularly flooded the fields. That’s my theory of how we came to be overrun by gophers. When living conditions were hostile in the fields, the gophers moved over to our little dry “island.” I even saw a rare California long-tailed weasel pop down a hole one morning and promptly come out with his breakfast. Our medium-sized terrier dog always had something to do. I hardly ever saw his face. Just his rear-end pointed sky high, tail a-switching back and forth his nose down the gopher hole.

You can well imagine this is a challenge for the gardener. It’s also a problem for me because I don’t believe in killing gophers. I think it’s barbaric to kill God’s creatures who are put here for a reason and are just trying to make a living same as us. I also think it’s just buying time to kill them and ultimately impractical. Their relatives will eventually move in to take their place and you’ll have to do it all over again.

So … how to grow a garden in gopher territory? I conjured up all sorts of difficult-to-execute and expensive barriers until one day I was surfing the web and I came upon straw bale gardening. This turned out to be the perfect solution on a number of levels. I’m not going to go into a great amount of detail about how to construct one. This can be found on the web. But I can offer some suggestions born of my trial and error. Some of the problems I encountered have not been addressed anywhere I found so I will pass them on to you to help you have a better experience.


The Straw Bale Garden in May

Basically a straw bale garden is a bale of straw that has been seasoned by making it wet and letting it “compost” for a few days. This makes the straw a better environment for the plants. I read that wetting and letting the bale “compost” for a week or more was supposed to make it easier to dig in between the “flakes” to create room for the sets. However, the oat straw I used was still so “tight” even after the composting period that I had to use a serrated knife to dig a hole in the bale for the sets. You can’t really untie the twine or your bale will fall apart. But cutting a hole with a serrated knife worked out pretty good. Then I added a little soil to the hole and was ready to put in my sets.


The Straw Bale Garden in June

For seeds all I had to do was top dress the bale with soil and sow directly into the soil as you would for any normal in-ground seeding. Then it was time to sit back, watering can in hand and see what sprouted.

Tracy happens to be windy, hot and dry in the summer. Bales are porous, which make them good on the one hand and bad on the other. Good because your roots have breathing room, bad because the bales tend to dry out faster. You can “wrap” cardboard around them or set them in a sheltered place. Of course, you can arrange them however you want so you can set the sides together to keep more moisture in. The fact remains that you are going to have to water them a bit more than you might if you had the plants in the ground. But because it’s all knee high it’s really not that difficult. Just put your drip system right on top of the bales.


The Straw Bale Garden in July

I found that I grew some science experiments. The toad stools and weird fungi I got looked like creatures from another planet. Weeds grew, too, but it’s not hard to deal with them. You don’t have to stoop over. It’s like tending a table garden. Great for folks who have bad backs. I have even heard that people in wheel chairs can now get out and garden because they can access their garden where they couldn’t before. The bales can be placed on cement. Say you have a great sunny place with a water source but it’s untillable. Place your bales there and you’re good to go.

For our situation bales were the perfect solution. I put hardware cloth under the bales and the gophers were completely thwarted. It wasn’t until the very end of the season when I was having cucumbers coming out of my ears that I noticed a wily critter had figured out how to access the bale from the side. Other than that one Einstein we had no other problems.


Garden Bounty

The last great thing about the bales is that once the season is over you can use the now completely composted bale to mulch your ground level garden. As you can well imagine, having a summer of plants growing in your bales makes them very composted. I put my old bales on my harvested corn patch and the next year I had volunteers galore coming up where I threw the leftover Halloween pumpkins.

Have fun!