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Straw-bale Raised Beds (February 2017)

Have you ever experienced trying to explain to someone else exactly how you want your raised beds placed? No? Well, count yourself lucky. Yes? Then you understand, oh yes, you understand.

For years, I have been hounding my hubby to get raised beds constructed from the salvaged wood off of the south porch/deck. The problem is basically this... I have it envisioned in my mind where and how I want them and when I try describing it verbally, or drawing it on paper, or even using grass paint, it just simply has not translated to actual raised beds being built.

Then I learned about straw-bale gardening. I decided to give it a go.

Here was my first attempt... a test garden, 2 years ago.

There are several things I absolutely LOVE about this:

  • I don't have to sit or kneel on the ground to plant or harvest.
  • There is very little weeding necessary.
  • You can put supports in and even use poly film to make a cold frame very easily.

The trouble is, as you can obviously see, it slumps. It is difficult to mow or weed-whack around without cutting into the bales.

(See below for my overall take on strawbale gardening.)

I was slow getting straw (since I didn't need it after having gotten out of chickens) and so ended up without straw to make my garden last year.

Here is what it looked like after only a year! Wow, the worms et al must be well fed in that patch of soil.

And so I thought, hmm... if I had put my raised bed boards around my strawbales, I could have avoided the headache of the slump et al (from the test year) and I could either put new bales on top of the decomposed bales the following year or simply add some soil.

This would give me the best of both worlds!

This is the remains of the turkey coop: my little hoop house. The hubby helped me move it into the yard for the raised beds last spring. I put layers of paper and landscaping material under it to prep it for planting (not seen in this photo).

Then I decided I could put raised beds on the outside.

I did discover a source to get straw this fall! He is a what we consider out here to be a neighbor (his house is about 5 miles away). He delivered 50 small square bales of wheat straw to the farm on September 2, 2016. The only application of herbicides was a product called Harmony the previous March. My research shows a fast breakdown so the straw shouldn't be a problem for growing stuff/cover. Obviously, it doesn't qualify for organic certification but it does work for what I want.

Below you see the beginning of my straw-bale raised beds.

They work perfectly to demarcate where I want the hubby to build the wooden raised beds. Do you see the board leaning on the bales in the center of the picture? He had already started pulling the lumber out of the old stable.

On the right you see the little hoop house with three bales on the either side. I also used straw from one of the bales to cover the landscaping material. Just to the left of that is the original straw bale garden with it's nine new bales in place.

Then there are four more sets of nine bales to make beds without supports built in.

Not only can the hubby see exactly where to build the raised beds, I was able to test my placement using the riding mower to be sure I had left enough room between and around them for mowing.

It's just about time for me to be adding the fertilizer and water to jump start the microbes to turn the center of the bales into nutrient rich compost!

More photos once the wood is in place.

People often ask about this type of mushroom growing in the straw and if they are dangerous.

The answer is: no, but don't eat them.

Fungi (mushrooms) are a good sign that the straw is breaking down and creating nutrients. These tiny guys are NOT edible and you don't have to remove them. They don't live very long and add to the nutrients as they too compost in the straw.

Yes, you can plant into the straw while they are present.

Strawbale Gardening Review (January 2023)

I recommend strawbale gardening whole-heartedly. Especially if you have poor soil conditions and are going to have to make extensive effort to improve the soil before you can grow anything. I also think it is perfect for anyone who wants a garden and has only an old parking lot (for example) to create one. Buying soil is expensive and hauling it is back-breaking.

For anyone who is willing to do the work of applying the appropriate amounts of fertilizer and water (whether automated or very diligent visits with a watering can) this is an excellent method of gardening. You will find MANY videos on YouTube about strawbale gardening these days. When I tried it there weren't any. I always seem to be ahead of the curve/trend and have to find out the hard way what works and what doesn't.

I didn't go into the mechanics of strawbale gardening here back in 2017 because I didn't think I knew enough to 'teach.' I found a book and followed the instructions. I'm sure there have been advances since then so there is no reason for me to tell you what I did back then when you can get better info now.

The situation here at the farm was (and is) such that we really don't NEED to do strawbale gardening. We have PLENTY of land and good soil so there really isn't any reason for me to make extra expenditures in the way of buying the straw, the fertilizer, etc. to create an oasis to grow food.

While we still had animals, I was already buying straw to help deal with winter feed and shelter so using it again made sense.

For the future, it makes sense for me to purchase bales in order to show the hubby where I want new raised beds and how I want them configured. But, unlike before, any future use of strawbales for the purpose of creating new raised beds will find me removing the bales after the wood is constructed, taking off the wire or twine holding them together and spreading the loose straw over existing (and newly soil-filled) beds to add carbon to the soil, protect plants, and minimize weeds.



Wood Perimeter Raised Beds (January 2023)

The following photos are from 2017 through 2022. (You know how it goes... you collect things to do when you have time and then lose track of those things. Hey, I'm human too, big surprise. LOL)

In 2011, I purchased a bunch of second-hand lumber to make raised beds. This time I found someone selling lumber on craigslist that they had been given permission to remove them from a construction site. The 12-foot long 2x10s had been used to hold down tarping that covered materials waiting to be installed. Normally, because they are subjected to all the weather that what is under the tarps is not, they are sent to the dump as construction waste. Keeping stuff out of the landfill and getting it for a really low cost is win-win-win for everyone! Yippee!

When it arrived, we realized the 2x10s were in much better condition than the 2x6s installed on our south deck/porch. Happily, there was enough to replace the deck and so we switched gears and used the 2x10s ON the deck and the 2x6s FROM the deck for raised beds instead.

The plan was to use two (2) 2x10s to acheive a height of roughly 18-inches (as you may know, lumber measurements are not accurate so a 2x10 is closer to 1-3/4 inches by 9.5 inches. To achieve about 18-inch sides, we had to use three (3) 2x6 boards. Since we had enough lumber to cover the area of the deck with either size lumber, we knew we had enough boards to make the raised beds regardless of whether they were constructed with the 2x10s or the 2x6s. Math -- don't you just love math!

You can see all about the replacement of the south deck in an archived PDF found in the Merchandise section of the website.

This photo is from the Fall which is why there are frost-killed plants in the near bed. The hoop house wood beds took the longest to be constructed primarily because of the dilemna of the metal on the inside of the bales. We would have had to remove the bales to put wood against the wire and I had already planted the bales. So we did a three-sided wood bed on both rows of straw bales.

At first this partial construction was not a problem; but as time passed, the straw that turned to humus fell through the wire as rain moved it and that left a layer above the landscape material for weeds to take hold.

Also, I wished I had extended each bed with partial bales so that the wood would have reached the entire length of the metal instead of leaving that 'corner' on the outside. It is a pain to mow/weed whack and while I tried planting things directly into the ground, the weeds always out grew everything.

Here is the U-shaped bed fresh with wood perimeter.

The 2x6 boards had been painted and I didn't want the painted side on the outside which was just as well, because the process of removing those boards often required the hubby to hack into the wood around the screws in order to remove them.

By putting the painted side inward, we also ended up with a smooth, relatively uniform face. I had planned to paint the wood, but gave up on that very quickly. Yes, the water and soil and all will eat away at the wood, but they will last a good, LONG time before they need to be replaced.

And I like the look of the weathered wood (you'll see that in the later photos).

This also explains why you see green and white paint on the top edges and on the inside of the top boards.

Here is the U-shaped bed in the Fall. Already the straw has composted and sunk quite a bit.

I prepped and used this bed again for personal food plants.

I don't know if it is visible in the photo, but the 'arms' of the U sank less than the 3-bale end. I surmise that being one bale wide kept the temps and moisture less comfortable for composting.

Here are the four (4) long/wide beds; three (3) of which have wood perimeters. I'm don't remember why the hubby wasn't able to get the fourth bed encased... time or lack of old deck wood (or both).

Originally, the hubby was using support stakes on the outside of the beds since soil is heavy and pushes OUT against the boards. (See the beds in the back yard by the porch for examples of this.) But those outside support stakes are a pain to work around, so he agreed to put the supports on the INSIDE and the boards are screwed into the supports. There are also corner stakes that the boards are screwed into.

These beds are very sturdy and, since they are screwed together, they COULD be deconstructed and moved if we wanted to do that.

This is the closest long/wide bed (to the U-shaped bed) in the Fall of 2017 (also know as bed 1).

I decided that I would use these long/wide beds for strawberries. Since strawberry plants self-reproduce using runners, it would be difficult to add soil as the bales compressed/decomposed. I decided I would simply wait for the beds to settle before transplanting the strawberries. And since I was waiting, I decided to NOT water and fertilize the straw. This made a HUGE difference in that the straw took SO MUCH LONGER to decompose and I ended up waiting several years instead of being able to transplant the following year. I tell you this so you can learn from my mistakes.

There is a different page about transplanting the strawberry plants. Click here to go there.

Here are the other two long/wide beds in the Fall of 2018. The hubby (as you can see) was once again working on encasing that last bed. (We had wood from replacing the north porch this time.)

Unfortunately, there was definitely not enough wood and he was not able to finish that bed. The wood you can see sitting on top of the finished bed ended up staying there for a couple of years and that was problematic. Wasps made nests, weeds took over and that made working around bed 3 difficult.

The straw bales of the UNencased bed (4) simply decomposed and I had to be careful mowing and weed whacking around it. This bed taught me that I should have removed the wires holding the bales together early on. Rusty wire in soil that you are trying to plant into is like asking for tetanus. I decided to use tools to find and remove those wires (in all the beds) before we added soil.

This image was taken in the Fall of 2019.

We ended up with a nice pile of soil from the dig around the garage to put in french drains (click here to go there). It was saved in a big pile just this side of that large white ShelterLogic structure on the right side of this image specfically because I wanted to use it to fill the raised beds.

So in the spring of 2019, I (and eventually the hubby) moved about a quarter of the pile into the beds that have wood perimeters.

I planted into the hoop house and U-shaped beds and that made it easier to keep those weed free. Unfortunately, this was not the case with the long/wide beds. There were seeds in that dirt and the weeds and grasses took over and I abandoned the beds for another year while the straw continued composting and everything settled.

In 2020, the hubby finally accumulated enough wood to enclose the fourth bed but we did not get around to putting dirt into it at that time, so it sat for a year hosting lots of weeds.

Also in 2020, I added dirt to the long/wide bed closest to the U-shaped bed and transplanted about 1/8th of the strawberries. I did it the usual way: one plant at a time, nicely spaced in the new bed with straw all around to keep the weeds down. That was a HUGE undertaking for me (because it required a great deal of stooping and bending over, both of which are really hard on my body -- which is the reason I wanted raised beds in the first place) because the original strawberry bed was only two (2) 2x6 boards high and I had to get on my knees to remove the plants from that bed. I decided we needed to figure out a different way to transplant the rest of the strawberries. We did the rest of the tranplanting in 2021 and you can see that process here.

This is what the raised beds looked like in the Spring of 2021. The hubby had finished moving the strawberries.

In case I neglected to mention it already, I refer to the long/wide raised beds as beds 1, 2, 3 and 4 (going outward from the U-shaped bed toward the small ShelterLogic at the left of the image).

You might also note in this image that we cut out all the wood supports from between the beds of the hoop house. The wood supports caused major headaches to control the weeds and, since the soil filled beds keep the hoop in place, they were no longer necessary.

With the area under the hoop house clear of obstruction, I can drive the riding mower under and through it to keep the grass/weeds down.

This image shows you the two remaining beds that the hubby built INSIDE the hoop house in 2022. These beds resolve the problem with the exposed wire and losing soil. Because the bittersweet provides shade most of the year, I can plant early-morning-sun and otherwise shade-loving plants in those two beds.

FYI - I can still drive the mower through with the new inside beds in place. (YIPPEE)

I also thought you might like to see the American Bittersweet growing on the hoop house. It is planted on the inside on both sides at the north end.

You can also see the strawberries in bed 1 in this image.

And here (finally) is bed 4 completely filled with soil ready to be planted.

Ironically, the wood we scavenged for this bed from the north porch rebuild is 2x10s and you can see what the rest of beds would have looked like if we had stuck with the original plan.

Final thoughts about raised beds... I love them!


I invested in a rolling seat that puts me at exactly the right height to work in the beds without having to kneel or bend over so far.

This green rolling seat is actual my second rolling seat. The first one was red and an impulse purchase at a tractor supply store. I did not investigate the strength of that product and while it was great for a couple of years, the seat broke off from the screw/bolt and made it unusable. (Off it went for metal recycling.)

This green one I researched and made sure of the quality before I ordered it. It is the same design (mostly) but more sturdy and with better wheels.

Here you see the hubby has just finished inflating the tires and I have put the (luxury purchase, LOL) cushion on the seat.


This rolling seat is 'steerable' because the front wheels are maneuverable by the handle (which in the photo is extended, but it can slide down to get it out of the way). I make sure the wheels are properly situated so I can move it along without having to get up (for as long as possible.) The key, I have found, is to figure out how far away from the side of the bed the seat needs to be so my legs have enough room.

An extra feature is the round wire 'basket' on the back. A 5-gallon bucket fits into it nicely so you can put stuff you want to move around in it (too much weight will topple it).

And here you see one of very few photos of me. Even rarer than a photo of me is one where I am wearing shorts to work outside, LOL. I'm pretty sure I just threw my hat, boots and shirt over my inside summer clothes so I could see how the construction of the seat was coming along.

I am 5 ft 5-1/2 inches tall and I've found that the seat at the lowest setting is just perfect for me while working on the raised beds. The seat rotates on a screw/bolt to raise or lower the height.

Why the shirt? I have problems with sun on my skin so I wear a woven cotton long-sleeve shirt which also helps to minimize the need for sunscreen and bug repellent. Normally when I work outside, I also wear long pants, five-finger aqua footwear and gloves.


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