I work closely with the Effingham Master Gardeners and they have a wealth of knowledge to share from their personal experience and from what they have learned. Today I wanted to share one of our Master Gardeners’, Mr. Mark Anderegg, experiments for growing tomatoes.

Straw Bale Gardening Tomatoes – Mark Anderegg

“I became interested in the method of planting in straw bales whereby the bales are kept wet and become a moist compost for the plants to grow in.  I found a step by step procedure to prepare the bales.  However, tall plants were not recommended for the method because they were more difficult to support, so my plan included making stiff tomato cages made from galvanized stockade fence which I had learned about on TV.  The cages were bent into shape but were much harder to bend than expected.  I drove stakes made from 2X4’s down about 8 inches next to each corner of the bales and the cages were tied to the stakes with double tie wire.  The idea was to build sufficient support for tall cages and tomato plants.   Since this was pretty much an experiment, I decided for fun I would go with a fun tomato variety as well, Purple Cherokee Heirloom, which we had grown in the garden.  They made delicious tomatoes before and produced a good harvest.

Set Up

I followed the step by step procedure for the first nine days, laying the bales on their side on layers of newspaper, trying to keep the bales wet all the time and pouring granular fertilizer over the bales each day. A quick guide for set-up can be found at https://homeguides.sfgate.com/grow-tomatoes-straw-bales-39376.html.


I found quickly that I needed a water system on a timer that would keep the bales wet and so I set that up.  Fortunately, I only had four bales with three plants for each bale so it made easier to use the spray head on a spike type system using on ¼” hose, mounting two spray heads opposing each other on each bale.  I started out running the irrigation every 6 hours for about 5 minutes, and then tried some other combinations but finally set it to run every 4 hours for 10 minutes.  This kept the bales wet while I fed each bale almost daily with a combination of bone meal and blood meal, about two tablespoons around each plant.  It actually took about 3 weeks before the bales started to soften up and I could scoop out enough to put each plant with compost and potting mix around it. 


After the first week and a half I started to use blood meal and bone meal along with the granular 21-0-0 as I had read that tomatoes in straw bales had been known to fail due to a lack of nitrogen.  Every week I would add granular calcium, some potting mix, and Epson salts, usually in the evening when the plants were not under stress. 

Pest and Disease Management

 I did run into some pest issues. To help with this I treated the plants once a week with, a spraying of a Thuricide solution and removing many of the damaged leaves and disposing of them.

Threat of Horn Worm or Caterpillars– I knew what damage these pests could do as I have a lot of tomatoes in the past in the garden. I had learned recently that Carboryl was the best treatment for older stage caterpillars and that is the active ingredient in Sevin dust.  I checked the label to be sure to get the one with that in it because I had read the active ingredient in Sevin varies sometimes.  Nevertheless, I found the right Sevin dust and kept the plants dusted, repeating after rainfalls.  This has worked well.  I also continued spraying Thuricide solution every couple weeks.

First Setting of Fruit – Around June 20

First Pinking of Fruit – Finally the plants became bushes with nice size green tomatoes without any sign of bottom end rot.  At the first sign of ripening I found two tomatoes which I thought were either wormy or had some pest problem, so I picked about 6 gallons of green tomatoes, planning to ripen them inside where the worms could not reach them.  I laid them out on a plastic tablecloth as I knew from experience they could still have a problem and start running. This is an example of what started to happen as the tomatoes began to ripen.  As far as I could tell from the UGA website on tomato diseases, they would develop a soft spot, and then start to run the liquid which had a bad odor.  Fortunately, this did not last and ruin the whole bunch, although it did affect about 75% of the first picking. The others which did not go bad were used in chow-chow, and we did have some fried green tomatoes.  From then on I have only picked them after they had ripened about half way, and then they have ripened inside and have been delicious. 

Fungal Problems– I continued to use Daconil to control the fungal damages the plants continued to grow and produce, and I cut the damaged leaves off where I could and disposed of them.


In summary, I would recommend trying this method if you’re an avid tomato gardener.  You will have to keep them furnished with an ample supply of nitrogen and water, as well as other daily care for them.   Find a good level spot, lay out some newspaper, and get started.  I plan to do this again next year but start earlier in the Spring!”

I do not know about y’all but this article had me dreaming about some hot and crispy fried green tomatoes! I want to thank Mark for an awesome experiment that is easy to do. I look forward to sharing more topics and tips from our awesome Master Gardeners in the future!