Welcome Spring Series: My Straw Bale Garden (on the patio) Experiment & How-to

There’s nothing quite like picking fresh, homegrown veggies and herbs right from your backyard garden. Last year…  I finally started (a very small) veggie garden. The best spot for me to put it (i.e. the sunniest spot) was on our concrete patio, which meant engineering raised beds. So… I opted to take what I had on hand and converted an old bookcase into a raised bed that actually worked out pretty well! I had success with tomatoes, basil and kale. Not bad for a first attempt.

THIS year…  I’m adding a couple of straw bales to the mix! Straw bales you ask? Yes! I discovered this concept one evening as I was surfing down the ol “rabbit hole” of the Internet…  apparently there’s quite a resurgence of this ancient, time tested gardening technique. I picked up a great book (which I highly recommend) called “Straw Bale Gardens” by Joel Karsten. I’ve learned there’s a bit of a process to “conditioning” the straw, so I’m following Joel’s recipe step by step. It’s not complicated, but it’s still a 12-day process of watering and fertilizing in order to get the straw “cooking” – or composting effectively.

First things first though…  I needed to find some straw bales. Lucky for me…  there’s a lot of urban farmers and gardeners in the Seattle area so I didn’t have to go far to find a few bales. Just so happens…  we have a feed store right in the neighborhood and long behold, next to the seed potatoes and live chicks, they had straw bales!

The whole idea of using straw bales is they act as their own raised bed and slowly compost over time (a season or two). Because I wanted to put these on our patio,  I didn’t want them composting and falling apart allover the place – so I decided to build open, raised “crates”.  This would ensure enough airflow…  and (in theory) keep things on the neat side. I also didn’t want to spend a lot on wood – because this is an experiment after all, so I used inexpensive 1”x4” utility boards for the sides, and premium quality wood for the 2”x2”s (to better hold the screws in place). I’ll use cedar next time if this test proves successful! The cost for each crate (including the straw bale) came to about $50.00. You can probably do this cheaper by using recycled pallet boards, but I haven’t used a skill saw yet (and really want to keep my fingers) so opted to have the wood cut at the hardware store. 

How to Build a Crate for Your Straw Bale

Here’s what you’ll need to build a single 19.5” x 52” crate*
*Note: The straw bales I purchased are roughly 17"x50." Be sure to pre-measure any bale you plan on using to confirm this plan will work for you as you'll want to provide enough wiggle room around the sides to the bales just slide right in.

Also, safety first! This project is not recommended for anyone not familiar with using basic power tools or for kids without close adult supervision. 

Wood:

  • 1”x4” – cut 6 measuring 18” (for short ends of crate)
  • 1”x4” – cut 6 measuring 52” (for long sides of crate)
  • 2”x2”(premium wood) – cut 4 measuring 18” (for vertical corners)
  • 2”x2”(premium wood) – cut 3 measuring 19.5” (use on the bottom as risers)
  • 1”x2”(premium wood) – cut 5 measuring 19.5” (to support the hardware cloth on bottom of the crate)
  • ¼” Mesh Hardware Cloth: 19.5” x 52”

Screws: 2” and 2 ½” wood screws
Power Drill and wood drill bits
Sturdy Wire Cutter
Staple Gun and staples
Tape Measure
Pen (or pencil) for marking
Work gloves

Step 1. Start by the short ends of the crate. Layout two of the 18” 2x2’s. Take three of the 18” 1x4’s and evenly space them on top of the 2x2’s (flush at corners and edges of the 2x2’s). Screw the 1x4’s firmly to the 2x2’s. Repeat to make the other short end. Tip: I marked and drilled holes using a small drill bit before drilling in the bigger screws. It’s much easier to drill the screws in this way.

Step 2. Prop up each of the short ends you just made in step one and position three of the long 52” 1x4’s on top of the short sides (again matching up corners and edges). Screw these into the corner support 2x2’s. Repeat for the other long side. 

Step 3 - Add mesh hardware cloth to bottom. Decide which side will be the bottom of your crate. If needed, use your wire cutter to cut your ¼” mesh hardware cloth to just shy of 19 ½” x 52”. Take out your staple gun and staple the mesh securely all the way around the bottom of your crate. 

Step 4 - Add wood support slats to bottom. Add the five19 ½” 1x2s (evenly spaced) across the bottom of the crate. This will sandwich the mesh hardware cloth between two pieces of wood and (in theory) support the weight of the straw bale). Screw these into the bottom edge of the crate. 

Step 5 - Add risers to bottom. Place the three 19 ½” 2x2’s over the middle and each short end of the crate. Screw these to the 1x2’s you placed in step 4. (Oops…  you’ll probably notice my middle riser was cut a bit short. Still worked fine though)

The risers lift the crate a couple inches off the ground giving it some airflow.

Step 6 - Add your straw bale. Flip the crate over so the opening is on top and drop in your straw bale. There you go…  simple as that!

If you are interested in learning more about creating your own straw bale garden, check out this book. And, if you're after many more ideas and images for straw bale gardening, top of the check out my “Urban Farm” Pinterest board. I’ll share updates as I get the garden planted… and let you know how it’s working out!