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Words: Simon Gibbins
Featured in the May 2020 issue

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There is renewed enthusiasm for home growing vegetables but many of us might feel limited with only a small patch of garden or patio area available. Simon Gibbins says straw bale planting offers opportunities for all.

As I sit down to write this, I have just been getting a straw bale ready for planting. I will be growing four varieties of beetroot, giving me a choice of colours and tastes. Beetroot is so good for you. Roasted with onions, sweet potatoes, garlic, fresh rosemary and olive oil, and served with warm French bread. Delicious!

Everybody at the moment it seems wants to grow at least some of their own produce. I am very pleased to hear it. Home grown is so much tastier. However, not everybody has soil in their garden; for years the done thing was to concrete over everything. This presents a problem for the would-be grower, who has only a patch of grass or a concrete patio area. Okay, you can use plastic pots etc. I happen to prefer the straw bale gardening method. I have been experimenting with this method for some years, after coming across it on an American website.

About 12 years ago we moved to a house in Waddington. To my delight, it had a massive garden. I come from generations of farm owners who lovingly worked the land around the beautiful Lincolnshire Fens. But my mother, who was a land girl during the war, had her first four children and then decided to up sticks and move to Brighton, where my identical twin and I were born. In later years my parents moved back to this beautiful county and we Brighton boys followed. So here I was, with generations of farming experience in my blood, but I knew zilch. So, I read. A lot.

As I said, I came across this method and have since been developing it for our climate. Also, my wife, who was badly injured in a car accident when she was young, was finding that bending was getting to be extremely painful at times. So I thought this method would be suitable for her. I even have followers from as far afield as New Mexico and New Zealand. When I was starting out on my straw bale journey, a good friend suggested I started a Facebook page. I now have 2,500 members and climbing.

Basically it involves planting or sowing into straw bales. Obviously it is not quite that simple; the straw bale must be matured for a period of time. I have devised a three-week maturing schedule to suit the conditions here. This means adding quantities of water and a composting medium to the bale, which gets the straw bale ‘maturing inside’, making it an ideal environment for growing. The bale is then ready to plant or sow.

The advantages of straw bale gardening are:
1. You don’t need soil, so it follows that you can site your straw bale garden on almost any surface, and almost anywhere.
2. It is environmentally friendly. When the bale is ‘tired’ put it aside and it makes for first-class compost. There is simply no waste.
3. The method is well suited to beginners and experienced gardeners alike.
4. Due to the height of the bale it is ideal for people with mobility issues, and because you can site the straw bale garden on concrete, it is good for wheelchair users. A lot of the straw bale systems I use have all-round wheelchair access.
5. A straw bale garden looks great and you can grow a surprising amount of produce in a small space. I have devised certain straw bale systems to suit different garden spaces. For example, with a two-bale system you can have a variety of vegetables growing on the surface of the straw bale. Also, using garden canes, you could have runner beans growing vertically. A three bale ‘u’ shaped system can accommodate two lots of canes, so you can have say runner beans and tomatoes, plus crops on the straw bales. A lot of produce in a relatively small space.

It always amazes me how few schools teach our children how to grow vegetables. Some do and are shining examples, but they are sadly in the minority. What can be better and more rewarding for our young people than to bring to the evening dinner table some vegetables they have grown themselves. This method really lends itself to a class project. If any teachers or classroom assistants are reading, I can help here. Many inner-city schools have no area in which to site a conventional vegetable plot. That’s not a problem with this method. We offer help and advice to schools wishing to ‘give this a grow’.

Using this method I have grown runner beans, peas, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, marrows, beetroot, onions, to name but a few. I mentioned that it’s a very environmentally friendly way to grow. When the straw bale is tired, and it can last up to two seasons, you can split the bale up and use it for compost. It has had nothing but nutrients added to it, so you can imagine how good it is.

Why not try this: Take the baling twine off the straw bale. Then pull the bale apart – it should come away in slices. Lay it on the ground and give it a good soak. Walk over it several times to get any air or bumps out. Mark out three one-foot-square patches and cover them with compost about five inches deep. Water again and plant some marrow or pumpkin seeds into the soil. Marrows love straw bales. Potatoes in straw bales is also a way to get a great crop in a relatively small space. I usually plant about six seed potatoes to a bale. Then when they are ready simply pull the straw bale apart to reveal the treasure. Don’t go for a run of the mill variety, try something you don’t often see in the shops. I like ‘Pink Fir Apple’, great in salads. Another favourite of mine is onions. Plant as per the seed packet instructions.

A lot of people ask me, “Where do I get straw bales from?” Most farm shops sell them, as do many pet shops. I am building a database of straw bale sellers on my website. Remember it must be straw, not hay. Straw bales attract no more pests than conventional gardening does; in fact slug attacks are less frequent. As with all forms of gardening we are slaves to mother nature’s whims and I’m constantly learning and adapting my methods. There are some in my Facebook group who have one bale in which they grow a variety of lettuce; others have big 20-bale systems. Your straw bale garden can be as large or as small as you want it to be.

I know people in many different circumstances who have taken to the method. Inner-city dwellers with a small backyard, communal gardens, warden-controlled sites and people with vast swathes of grass. Some years ago, I realised that this could be more than just a hobby, so I applied for a Virgin StartUp grant. It was rather like going on Dragons’ Den, but with far more paperwork. After a lot of cash flow forecasts and profit and loss accounts, I succeeded in getting the grant. This I used to produce an instructional DVD on the subject and to set up my own website www.strawbaleveg.co.uk. For this I was assisted by the University of Lincoln.

I now also have my own small range of quality organic seeds that I sell through the website. We also run workshops for four or more people, ideal for groups or organisations. Within the last few weeks, I have released on Kindle and on the website my first e-book entitled The Strawbale Gardeners Handbook Volume 1. It covers everything you need to know to get you growing the straw bale way, starting with taking a good look at your straw bale – because there is a right and a wrong way to plant in it. Then on to the all-important maturing schedule, through planting and sowing to finding the straw bale system right for you. Throughout the book you will find my ‘Top Tips’, to help you get the best results. It is packed with pictures and pencil drawn diagrams to assist you on your straw bale journey.

As for the future, I am experimenting with using straw bales under cover in polytunnels. Your average tunnel nowadays can be erected on any surface and the heat from the straw bales should help growth. I do hope that you give straw bale gardening a try. And remember: sow a seed, grow a world.

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