Straw bale gardening

My boss could have a lot to answer for here.
Last week, knowing how much I love gardening – and how little exposed dirt I have in my tiny city garden – he sent me a link to a site plugging a book on growing stuff in straw bales. That’s right, you apparently just pop the plants’ roots right inside the straw and they’re happy as San Marzanos on an 85-degree day.
Well, I didn’t buy the book, but I did snoop around some gardening blogs looking for advice from other people who’ve tried it. And in a twine-tied nutshell, I learned that:

  • Straw bales (preferably wheat or oat straw – not hay) are good for annuals only since they last a  year, two at most.
  • They provide a good structure for plant’s roots, but need a little additional fertilizer and lots of watering.
  • They need to be ‘conditioned’ – basically, encouraged to start to compost – for a few weeks before they can be used.

So I figured, why not? It’s a lot easier than building more raised beds and filling them with soil. So I called around and found wheat straw for sale at Allie’s Tack and Feed in North Kingstown. At $7.75 a bale, it’s also a whole lot cheaper. And, tra la la, much messier.
Obsessed as I am with growing tomatoes – I grudgingly allow the odd herb and veggie so as not to appear too totalitarian – I looked at each bale and thought "two tomato plants." (Or, if you’re so inclined, four peppers, two or three cukes or squash, or six to ten lettuces in the average 2 by 2 by 4 foot bale.)
A friend got three, I got seven (we had transportation limitations, thank god, or I’d have got even more) and we trucked them home. I arranged mine in a grouping (see above) that my boyfriend immediately mocked upon getting home that evening. I then informed him that the new configuration meant he was going to have to help me dig up and transplant a large buddleia and potentilla. That shut him up, especially since I’d already soaked the bales with water and they now weigh too much to be moved. 
For the next few days, we continue to water them. Then we’ll put some nitrogen-rich fertilizer on and water some more. They should start to get pretty hot inside, then cool off, at which point we’ll be ready to plant. I’ll keep you posted.
And don’t forget, fellow gardeners, if you’re interested in trying this, you have a week or two to buy and condition the bales before early June planting! Just enough time for me to sneak back and buy another seven bales…