My straw bale gardening failure

My naked bales did grow the cool ink cap mushrooms called Tippler’s Bane. Don’t eat them if you’re drinking alcohol!

I’m a failure – or, a bailure – at straw bale gardening. It was a failure months in the making when, from all I’d read, I’d anticipated easy-peasiness. Sadly, not so here. Read my bale fail tale and weep:

Two bales of straw, not hay, [Right] were bought at a local independent garden centre [Good girl] last fall [Okay]. I left them out all winter to weather [Uh huh]. This spring, I made sure the strings ran parallel to the ground [Good] and butted them together with the straw cut-side up, folded-side down [Well done]. Then I gave them a good sprinkling of organic fertilizer granules [Right] and watered well [Right], repeatedly [Correct] to condition them. Sticking my finger into the straw, I tested to see if it was wet [Should be] and warm [Yep]. I added a topping of duck manure, just to be sure.

After all danger of frost, I planted ‘Costata Romanesco‘ zucchini and ‘Alaska’ nasturtium seeds, two usually enthusiastic growers. The seeds germinated and looked fine. Then, despite watering and fertilizing with liquid kelp, after producing a couple sets of leaves, the plants halted, dwindled – starting with yellowing then decay. Then the zucchini died; stunted nasturtiums are barely hanging in.

So, what went wrong?  

Maybe bad chemistry. This post from the blog Root Simple warns about fire retardants and herbicides such as Clopyralid in straw bales, especially those sold around Hallowe’en when I bought mine. Clopryalid and its ilk are responsible for so-called “killer compost”, the most frequent victims being unsuspecting folk who want to grow organically with straw. The Compost Gardener tells how to test straw bales for herbicides – although the squash family are said to be less sensitive. So…

Maybe low nitrogen. The leaves were yellow, not cupped as they might be from herbicide damage. With that, and stunted growth, maybe I needed to feed the bales more N. I was worried about over-feeding, but nitrogen is consumed by microorganisms during decomposition. So…

Maybe not enough water. I defer to Pat at Commonweeder whose story of success after failure included daily watering in the start of the process to really break the bales down. We had so much rain in spring/summer 2013, I wasn’t watering daily. But Pat watered even when it rained. So…

I’m going to test my bales to see if herbicide was an issue. If not, then perhaps my failure had to do with something else. I might try again next year. My bales should be well and truly composted then. If herbicide is at fault, I’ll know to buy herbicide-free straw bales. Then I’ll start all over again.

Just to prove I’m not a total failure, my ‘Fanfare’ cukes are looking swell in the water trough we bought as a raised bed.
Grafted ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes are another experiment this year – also planted in a water trough. In our shady space, these are growing in not quite enough sun. But while we don’t expect a bumper crop, our fingers are crossed.
Last year, Mr. TG built me an eavestrough planter on the top of a fence. This year, nasturtiums there give come-hither looks to passing pollinators. Even in shallow soil, these are out-performing the ones in the bales, planted on the same day. So…



  1. I saw a TV show about the staw bale method, being successfully employed in poor soils of S. California. It struck me as only a worthwhile alternative if one's indigenous soil is beyond successful remediation. Jim (horticulture teacher)

    1. Hi, Jim,

      In my case, I had no soil at all — the bales and troughs are sitting on an asphalt driveway. A worthy experiment, I thought. With luck, it will work better for me next time.

  2. oh, i am so sorry to hear of your trouble with this method! i have been enthralled with straw bale gardening, but have not tried it. the straw is so expensive here! good luck, and please do continue until you succeed. it will be fun!

  3. I was going to try straw bale gardening this year, but it's yet another project which didn't get off the ground. Here's hoping I find your post again when I do finally get around to it…

  4. Thanks for sharing. Not a to-do project on my list because I think the bales look too messy. On the other hand, I would love to hear more about your use of that lovely metal trough I see in the picture.

    1. I intend to try again, Janet, and this time I'll be careful to buy herbicide-free bales and will water the heck out of them.

  5. Did you try again, and did you have any better success? I did straw bales this year and had exactly the same experience you reported. Every attempt to add dress the situation (adding fertilizer, more water, less water, calcium foliage spray) failed. We spend over $150 on this garden and got about $10 worth of groceries (five tomatoes, two cukes and four peppers). Even the zucchini failed … the tiny fruits just fell off when they reached two inches. I am disappointed, and planning to try raised beds next year. this labor saving method was a giant disappointment!

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