With my hard red clay, breaking ground without a tractor is a lot of work. Not being 100% sure where I wanted to put a large garden, putting straw bales around the chicken runs would in theory serve two purposes. It would make the ground underneath softer and at the end of the season make a nice "bed" around the chicken coop without a lot of digging. And, it would give some much needed shade to the chickens, especially once the plants were nice and tall.
Because the chickens are a fair way away from the house, we have no running water near the coop. We transport fresh water via five gallon buckets for the animals. I figured that putting the straw bales around the coop and run would also give me the opportunity to recycle the not-so-fresh water and have a watering source for the plants close by. So as usual, I started researching the internet and came up with a plan.
My folks helped me locate a local source for straw and 24 bales later, I had nice tight straw lined up on both sides of my 30' run. I soaked the bales and added fertilizer as recommended by Modern Farmer. Then after a few weeks, the twins and I planted squash, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. We also made some potato towers with the composted straw from the chicken runs and planted a whole bunch of seeds in cups to hopefully transplant.
Unfortunately, our seedlings didn't make. Our May was very dry and even though I tried to stay on top of watering, the seeds nor plants stayed damp enough. Then we noticed the seedling cups were turned over and larger plants that were nipped off. What no website mentioned was that I had basically setup the perfect habitat for mice.
I gave the little rodents dry homes of straw right next to a food source of chicken feed. They tunneled under the fence and straight to the feed. They ate all the cucumber and squash plants and nipped off leaves of nearly all the others we had planted. They also ate all the seeds in the seedling cups, germinated or not. Luckily we haven't seen any snakes and we haven't tried to poison the mice because we don't want to affect a chicken that may catch one.
Now the chicken's get a bale of straw to play with every week which my little Snaggles (above) approves of. The bales are breaking down and full of grass seedlings which they love not to mention, the chickens get to play with any mice that don't escape. Also, thanks to a rainy June and July, a few of the tomatoes and pepper plants have bounced back.
So before you invest the time and money into straw bale gardening, be aware of the pest problem that may come along with them. We will not be attempting this type of gardening again. Not only do the bales bring in the mice, but they do not, as advertised, require less watering than traditional gardening. In fact, in our experience they may require more water. For us, the expense of the straw, plants and soil were by no means worth the few tomatoes and peppers we may harvest.
On a positive note, the potato towers weren't affected as much by the mice and produced a basket full of pretty new potatoes that were delicious. Had we focused more on watering the towers, I think we would have doubled our harvest. The potatoes are super easy to harvest and the kids also loved hunting through the straw and soil. This method of planting potatoes is definitely something we will try again.