Straw Bale Garden in Michigan’s Thumb

In the movie Dr. Zhivago, there is a memorable quote that goes something like, ”if you scratch a Russian, a peasant can be found”. In our case, the quote is “if you give a suburbanite a cool idea, the frontierswoman come out.” Melissa got the idea of straw bale gardening from a book by Joel Karsten. Joel comes to us from Minnesota where the growing season is incredibly short and the soil tough to cultivate. At the tip of Michigan’s Thumb, the situation in northern Huron County is similar. With a large lot next to our cottage consisting of mostly of sand and a little acidic oak leaf loam the opportunity to put in a really successful garden was remote. So Melissa decided to experiment. 

You Want Straw For What?

Straw Bale Gardening
The book that started it all.

In farm country straw is used for animal bedding. In addition, it’s typically cut and baled in the fall in huge rolls consisting of several hundred pounds. Finding baled straw in smaller bales is proved tough. However, we managed to find a supply near Bayport that delivered a dozen bales to our lot. After heaving them into place and placing a snow fence around the site to deter deer, (good luck with that said a friend), we had an impressive structure of straw in neat rows and surrounded by security. We looked like a Denver based horticulture operation.  Now what.

Straw Bale Gardening – Time to experiment!

Straw Bale Gardening

Our season has not started where someone can be full time up in the tip of the thumb. We still had to go to work. So we decided to get a couple of bales for the suburban backyard and start the 12-week “cooking” process required to break down the fibrous matter into the lush soil-less material in which to plant. This offered us a chance to carefully hone skills required of our 12 bail garden up north. We spent about two weeks alternating between spreading organic fertilizer (pee-you) and watering. By the final days, the bales are now decomposing with an internal temperature exceeding 90 degrees. I sacrificed my digital beer brewing thermometer for the cause.

Straw Bales For a Landscape Effect

Creative gardeners are using their straw bales as part of an overall landscaping treatment. Since the bales create a elevated garden, some use stone, bricks or other reclaimed material and incorporate it as part of their design. The benefit of creating a edge around the bales is that it keeps the straw in place as it breaks down. Especially during a windy rain storm. For more ideas on creative designs and materials for straw bale gardening see the Happy DIY Site’s article A Beginners Guide to Straw Bale Gardening for more tips of the trade.

Transferring this Experience into a Working Straw Bale Garden

Straw Bale Garden

Over a Memorial Weekend campfire and several bottles of Trader Joe’s “2 Buck Chuck,” we convinced our friends and neighbors to at the cottage contribute the effort by hosing down our northern garden each day then spend alternate days of spreading cool smelling chicken poop 10-10-10 onto the top of the bales. With 12 bales cooking I hope that the wind is blowing off the beach. it’s ripe! This 2nd weekend of June is finally planting weekend. Stay tuned.

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