Straw Bale Gardening can be a rewarding way to garden! This tutorial will walk you through the benefits and potential problems as well as give you tips for a successful straw bale garden.
When you think of gardening, you may initially think of the rows and rows of plants in a perfectly tilled garden plot… But that’s often not going to work for everyone! Whether you’re dealing with poor soil conditions, a bad back, a lack of space, or simply the motivation for a large garden, you can consider alternative forms of gardening.
Container gardening can be extremely rewarding and fits the bill for a lot of people! A raised garden bed also has its benefits. However, there’s a third, lesser-known form that you may want to try: Straw Bale Gardening!
Straw Bale Gardening Benefits:
1. A straw bale garden is an inexpensive, productive way to add to or begin your gardening experience and enjoy growing your own food.
–When I built my raised garden bed, I spent a small fortune to fill it. Then two years later, I had to be creative with my trench composting to avoid spending another small fortune to replenish the bed! These straw bales (often under $10 a piece, depending on the size) act as an inexpensive raised bed, and their breakdown process over time nourishes the plants.
2. Access to the plants in a straw bale garden is easier than when you plant into the ground.
–If your knees or back add additional stress to your gardening endeavors, then a traditional garden just may not work. A straw bale garden is basically a raised garden bed that you didn’t have to fill! You can plant, maintain, and harvest without as much pain.
3. A straw bale garden allows you to grow your own food even if current soil conditions aren’t favorable for planting into the ground.
–If your soil is full of clay and rocks, it could take years (and a ton of effort) to turn it into healthy soil that will result in thriving plants. Instead of spending your energy tilling and replenishing the soil, you can easily plant directly into the straw bales. It’s so easy, even the grandkids can help out!
Straw Bale Gardening Problems
1.Straw bales are heavy and become heavier as you add water to them. You may need help setting them up, and once it has started, you won’t be moving your garden.
–If your reasoning for choosing a straw bale garden is because of body aches and pains, moving your bales to create your garden will likely require help. Also, unlike a container garden that can be moved to fit the plants’ changing needs, your straw bale garden will be so heavy, it will have to stay in the same place during the entire growing season.
2.Your plants likely aren’t the only thing growing in your straw bale. Weeds, mushrooms, and sometimes fungus can naturally grow.
–Because you’re planting into this organic matter, it’s very likely that weeds will sprout up around your plants! However, these weeds are often easy to pull because they don’t have strong root systems in the bale. It’s simple to pull them when you’re checking on the plants, but it is a chore that you should be aware of. The mushrooms and fungus usually will not harm your plants so they can often be ignored or easily removed.
3.As straw bales are made of organic material that naturally breaks down over time, they aren’t as aesthetically pleasing as other forms of gardening.
–If you want a picture-perfect garden, this method may not be for you. The straw will decompose, giving those nutrients to the plants you are growing. However, this does mean that the bales can look a bit funky and unstable after a few months. You can easily build a frame or support using pallet wood if you’re concerned about the look.
4.Straw bale gardening may not work as well in locations that start the season with cool temperatures.
–You have to condition a straw bale before planting into it (this starts the decomposing process, allowing it to be a nurturing space for your plants), and this process generally takes about 2-4 weeks. If your location is still very cold a month before you want to plant, the conditioning and decomposing process may take longer, postponing your planting. The warmer the temperatures, the quicker this will be.
How to start a straw bale garden:
1. Source your straw responsibly:
Organically grown wheat straw will not carry the risk of herbicide carryover that can negatively affect the growth of the plants. Check with your Agriculture extension service for a list of organic farms in your area. Nurseries and garden centers often vet their vendors to ensure that herbicide issues will not be a problem, but you’ll want to ask just in case.
Local sources can be found on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or Farmers Market. If at all possible, make sure the twine is plastic; the grass string will rot through before the growing season is over. Do not use bales from craft stores–These are usually sprayed with a fire retardant and will not be good for your plants.
2. Consider placement of straw bales before conditioning
Bales will weigh about 100 pounds (depending on the size) once fully watered. Make sure that water isn’t going to puddle around the bales and they are in a location that receives at least 8 good hours of sunshine. As the season changes, so will your hours of sun in some locations, so keep that in mind.
3. Condition new bales at least 2 or 3 weeks prior to planting
Conditioning will create an environment in which roots will flourish and your harvest will be greatly increased due to conditioning the bales. Follow the steps below to make sure the bales are ready for plants or seeds.
How to condition straw bales for gardening
- Wet the bales thoroughly and keep them watered for the first 3 days.
- Add a nitrate to the bales for the next three days (days 4-6) and water the nitrates. Urea is the cheapest form of nitrate but other sources are ammonia sulfate, bone meal, fish meal, feather meal, or compost. Staging the bale surface with a series of holes prior to applying the nitrates will provide the nitrates access deep into the bale and speed the process along. If using Urea use a ½ cup per day; blood meal will need 2 cups per day.
- The next 3 days (days 7-9) continue with the nitrates but cut the quantity back to ½ of the original amount. Continue watering after applying the nitrates. If using Urea use a ¼ cup per day; blood meal will need 1 cup per day.
- Day 10 you should stop adding nitrates but continue to water.
- Day 11 check the temperature of the bales. Stick a compost thermometer or your hand into the bales. Once the temperature is less than 100 degrees and the threat of frost has passed, the bales are ready to be planted.
- Planting the bales is the fun part. You will need a few tools to help with getting the bales planted: A garden trowel or a garden auger and compost or potting soil. Plant and seed spacing should be the same as planting into the ground.
Transplants vs. Seeds
Transplants: Just like planting in the ground, give them space to grow. Using a trowel or auger, create a space for the transplant deep enough to place the transplant down to the first leaf. Make sure the straw is filled in around the roots tightly up to the first leaf.
Seeds: Planting seeds will require an inch or two of compost or potting soil on the top of the bales to create a seedbed that provides good soil to seed contact. As planting, be sure and water the area lightly (but thoroughly) so minimal soil is washed away.
Which crops are best in straw bale gardening?
Short plants will do better than tall plants. If planting both, be sure to plant the short plants on the south side of the garden and the tall plants on the north side… We don’t want to block the sun from any of the plants.
Tomatoes need some additional considerations. Stake them well; don’t use a cage without several strong stakes. A strong wind gust could tip the bale over if the tomatoes are not staked well. Pruning your tomatoes is also a good idea if you are planting indeterminates. Determinates will not need pruning. Utilizing trellises for the vining plants will make keeping the walkways within the garden manageable.
If you know you’re planting tall plants and are worried that the bales may tip over, building a wood frame can help to add stability.
What kind of fertilizer to use in straw bale gardening
Straw bales don’t provide the nutrients your plants will need as they grow. Liquid fertilizer will be quicker for the plants to take up. Compost tea, fish emulsion, or other plant foods found in your local garden center. There are numerous plant foods that will cover the bases.
Feeding the seedlings and transplants every 2 weeks will be fine until the plants begin putting on some size, then feeding them twice a week will be necessary. The fertilizer ratio will be dependent on the plants you are growing.
Watering your garden early in the season will not feel like a chore, but remember the growing season is 150 to 200 days long and you will grow tired of spending that much time with your plants before the season is over. A soaker hose is a good insurance plan to ensure that the garden gets the water it needs and you can get everything done that your busy life requires.