Yep. That’s right. With little money, construction skill or time to spare, you can set up a straw bale bed or two and begin growing food anywhere there’s enough sun and water. Forget digging or rototilling. Forget building wood-sided beds (if you’ve ever seen my attempts at building anything you know why I love this method). Forget removing the grass that’s standing in the way. Forget permanent. You can try out a garden anywhere and then move it anytime you want.
The straw (not hay which contains weed seeds) bales should come from a local source such as Fletcher Lawn & Garden, Southern States or Reem’s Creek Nursery. Call first to ask if their straw is locally sourced. Two years ago, during a drought, many box stores were buying straw from out West where a family of herbicides, pyridine carboxylic acids to be exact, was being used. These were persisting in the straw for years and killed crops when the straw was used for mulch or compost. There have been no such problems with locally (Eastern U.S.) grown straw.
First, note that you can plant directly into straw bales though this is not the method I’m describing here. You can easily find that information online. I have used this method successfully and recommend it. The other way to use straw bales though is to turn them into the walls of a bed which you will then fill with a planting medium. Using any amount of bales simply create the size and shape bed you want. These can be rectangular or serpentine, free-form or grid-like. Check out Google and Google Images for ideas.
Once you’ve settled on a shape for your bed and the bales are in place, water them, place cardboard or newspaper on the ground inside to thwart weeds and grass, and then fill your bed using one of several methods. The easiest, cheapest and slowest way of doing this is to make compost right inside these straw walls. By adding grass clippings, leaves, garden waste, small amounts of kitchen waste (plus soil and manured bedding from livestock if you have those) you will eventually create a rich planting medium. Mel’s Mix, the growing medium made famous in the book Square Foot Gardening Method, is another choice. Mel uses 1 part compost, 1 part coarse vermiculite and 1 part peat moss to fill his beds (more information online). I prefer to add to that a bit of garden soil, a bit more compost and use coconut coir instead of peat moss. (Coconut coir and coarse vermiculite are only available at 5th Season Store on Banks Avenue in Asheville). I have also bought screened top soil and mixed it with AMY Mix from Asheville Mulch Yard which works well too. It helps to add a bit of all-purpose organic fertilizer which you can find at many of the above-listed stores.
At The Lord’s Acre, we plant into the soil medium the first year and then plant into the bales and the soil mixture the second year. The third year, we pull away what straw is left and use it for mulch. Then we get new bales and start all over. If you’re going to only be somewhere a short time, this is an ideal way to have a garden and yet not have to leave anything but the soil and memories of fresh vegetables behind.