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Straw bale gardening: no weeding, no hoeing, no tilling

Wake Forest, NC

I've been a traditional gardener all my life, but tried straw bale gardening last year as well.

I tried several varieties of tomatoes, peppers, cukes, squash, and zucchini in the bales and they all did outstanding.

You can start your garden with seeds if you use some topsoil on top of the bales, but I transplanted all of my vegetables from flats and trays purchased from local nurseries.

I initially used 20 bales of wheat straw. The plants in the wheat straw were doing so well that I got 10 more bales of oat straw to see how that would do. (Pine straw wonít work.)

I recommend getting bales that have been tightly baled. The oat straw bales I bought were lighter and baled looser than the wheat straw, and I learned that they donít hold as much water. I paid about $2.50 for each bale.

Use bales that have synthetic twine if you can find them. The twine wonít rot and it will hold the bales together longer. If the bales use regular twine, thatís no problem. You may have to put a stake at the end of the bales. The bales I used had regular twine, and they started to rot and break, but I arranged 10 in each row, so the bales tend to hold each other together.

I oriented my bales with the strings off the ground. You can do it either way, but I like the twine off the ground. The transplanting seemed easier with the bales oriented with the strings off the ground. You can decide which way to orient yours.

If you make more than one row of bales, put them wide enough apart so your lawnmower can get between them. And because youíll be watering them, I recommend placing the bales where the water will drain away from your house or away from where youíll be walking.

How many plants per bale? Try two tomato plants per bale, three peppers, two squash, two sets of cucumbers.

Be prepared to stake the tomatoes, peppers and any tall growing plants. I recommend 6-foot stakes for the tomatoes. I used tobacco sticks last year, but they are too short. My tomatoes grew way over the tobacco sticks. This year I'll be using stakes and a horizontal trellis and arch way-type trellis.

I didnít plant any okra last year, but they will probably do well. Youíll definitely have to stake them. I donít think corn will work too well. The plants will be too top-heavy. I water the bales in the morning and after sunset. You canít over-water because any excess will just run out of the bales. Soaker hoses will work. The main thing is not to let the bales get dried out between watering.

I started out using some Miracle Grow once a week for a couple of weeks. Then I sprinkled in some 10-10-10. You donít want to over fertilize.

The bales will start to sprout wheat or oat straw, but that is no problem. If the grass gets too much for you, just whack it off with a knife. I give my bales a ďhaircutĒ every so often with a steak knife. It takes no time at all.

One thing Iíve noticedóand this could be just a flukeóis I have not had to spray my plants with any pesticides such as Liquid Sevin. I havenít had any worms, bugs or other pest bother my straw bale garden. Maybe it has something to do with the plants being off the ground.

Be prepared to use new bales each year. I donít think they will be suitable for two years in a row. You can burn them, use them for mulch or bust them up and set new bales on them next year.

Preparing Your Bales

It takes 10 days to prepare your bales.

Days 1Ė3: Water the bales thoroughly and keep them wet.
Days 4Ė6: Sprinkle the bales with 1/2 cup of ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) per bale per day, and water it well into the bales. I didnít have any trouble finding ammonium nitrate from my local ag-supply store. They sold it in 50-pound bags. I have heard, however, that some people have had difficulty finding it in more urban settings. Ask around. (See more about ammonium nitrate at the bottom of this page.)
Days 7Ė9: Cut back to 1/4 cup of ammonium nitrate per bale per day and continue to water it in well.
Day 10: No more ammonium nitrate, but do add 1 cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer per bale and water it in well.
Day 11: Transplant your plants into the bales. I used a spatula to make a crack in the bale for each plant. Place the plant down to its first leaf and close the crack back together as best you can.

Other straw bale references:

www.nicholsgardennursery.com/strawbales.htm
www.county.ces.uga.edu/chatham/hay_bales.htm
www.co.clay.mn.us/Depts/Extensio/ExAPHydr.htm


For those of you who may have physical problems doing tradtional gardening, you may want to try this method. Even wheel chair-bound folks could garden with this method.

I didn't invent this method, but I have become an avid proponent of it.

I'm adding a photo of a portion of my garden.

Regards and have a blessed day,

Kent Rogers
Deputy Sheriff
Wake County, NC
kent.rogers@earthlink.net

P.S. - the recipe for preparing your straw bales calls for a little Ammonium Nitrate (34-0-0). Because of some Homeland Security concerns, you will probably have to give your name and phone #/address to the Seller. Ammonium Nitrate is just a fertilizer-type catalyst that acts like vitamins for the microbes that help decompose the straw bale to make it a great host for the vegetables you're going to plant. Farmers/gardeners have been using this product for years. However, if you can't find any Ammonium Nitrate or don't want to purchase a 50 lb bag, just add a week or so weathering process to your bales before you add your transplants. Be sure to wait until all danger of frost is over for your area.


This message was edited Mar 20, 2006 3:30 PM

This message was edited Mar 20, 2006 3:40 PM

This message was edited Mar 20, 2006 3:44 PM

Thumbnail by KentNC
Bloomingdale, NY(Zone 4a)

Welcome to the forum.

Yours is not a method I would care to try myself due to the heavy dependency on chemicals fertilizers, but I'm glad its working for you.

Wayne



Wake Forest, NC

Hello, Wayne.

I wouldn't say this method is dependent on ANY type of chemical fertilizer. As I stated in my post you can forego the ammonium nitrate and just let your bales weather a little longer before you do any transplanting. I've heard from many others who use all organic fertilizers from tea, to fish emulsion, to whatever. I just don't have any experience with those types. I just happen to love Miracle Grow and grew up on 10-10-10. But I appreciate your comment. I've also included another photo of my garden.

This message was edited Mar 20, 2006 4:37 PM

Thumbnail by KentNC
Braselton, GA(Zone 8a)

Straw,
Wow is all I can say! Thank so much for showing /telling us about this. I have a bad back and cant bend over a lot and also I can't afford to buy or haul in the huge amounts of dirt to fill raised beds. This might work for me. I think I might try a few this yr w/ tomatoes and peppers in them.

A quick Q: to prevent the wheat from sprouting in the bales and growing, could I cover my bales in newspaper or black mulch fabric?

Wake Forest, NC

Berrygirl, you could take measures to stop the wheat or oats from sprouting but I think it'd be more trouble than it's worth. First off, I'd think the wind would have an adverse effect on your cover. Secondly, it's really not that much trouble to just give your bales a quick hair cut. Most folks won't have 30 bales like I did, and I could shave the tops off my bales in about 15-20 minutes with a steak knife every couple of weeks. Also, your cover may affect how long it takes to water your bales. Experiment on a bale or two and see if your cover is worth the effort. Very good question, though.

Braselton, GA(Zone 8a)

Strawman,
I guess I was mostly thinking about aesthetics- as I hate weeds. If the wheat/grass doesn't adversly affect the plants, then I see no need to stop them. Or....I guess DG could use his weed-eater on them- LOL!!

THANK you!

Wake Forest, NC

A photo of me giving my bales a "haircut".

Thumbnail by KentNC
west Houston, TX(Zone 9a)

I'm impressed. The pictures are worth a thousand words. I've got good soil because I've been sheet composting for 12 years; but if I were ever forced to relocate, I would sure give this a try. If you let them rot in place, put new bales on top every year; in 4-5 years you would have made yourself really good soil. Let's see some more pics this year!
Debbie

PS: Nice looking tomatoes, I see no reason this method couldn't be kept all organic. Do you have an Ag or some other Science degree? I applaude your innovative, sustainable thinking. I think it could help alot of people just starting out.

This message was edited Mar 20, 2006 6:25 PM

Braselton, GA(Zone 8a)

Good point, Debbie!
Boy, folks named Debbie sure are smart- LOL!

Debbie

Wake Forest, NC

To both Debs:

Yep, the bales will definitely help recondition the soil and I also got a great crop of fishing worms under my bales for the entire summer. Another good thing about bale gardening is there are NO weeds. I've seen where several bale gardeners just let their wheat grass just flop over the side of the bale uncut. Some planted flowers in between the vegetables to add some color to their garden.

Flanders, NJ(Zone 6a)

Kent, they look great, and they get a haircut, ya gotta love that!!! You also have a beautiful yard with plenty of land, keep up the good work, I love new ideas. Danny

Wake Forest, NC

Appreciate that my Garden State friend. My bales just gotta have a haircut. No "hippie" bales in this LEO's garden!! :-)

High Desert, NV(Zone 5a)

This sounds very interesting! I have a couple of questions for you. I have several bales of straw that are already a year old, but are in good shape. Would they still need to be 'conditioned'? Also i live in a very hot dry (often windy) summer climate, do you think that the rate of drying would be so much that this would be more trouble than it is worth? Thanks for the info,
Melissa

Rutland , MA(Zone 5b)

that is such a great idea. thanks

South Elgin, IL

I would love to try this but have much easier access to hay rather than straw. If hay would work, what about alfalfa mix ? I could also get straight grass hay if the alfalfa would burn the seedlings. This looks like great fun, I could grow in places I normally couldn't.Thanks!!

Southern Mountains, GA(Zone 6b)

Very interesting idea. I would not have believed it would work so well, in fact I'm sure I posted my unfounded advice against it some where. I will definitly be giving it a try for a few things, but will go the organic method. As was mentioned, pictures are worth a 1000 words. Seems like it would make a great temporary fence of flowers too.

Wake Forest, NC

Melissa: If the bales have already been weathered/conditioned, then I'd soak them for about a week before transplanting. I read a couple of stories about others who had used their bales for 2 years in a row without any problems if the strings stay together. The main thing is to always keep your bales from drying out.

Herbie: give it a try and enjoy those vegetables

jslocum: I only have experience with wheat/oat straw, but other articles about bale garden used anecdotes from others using hay, etc. As long as the host bale is some sort of organic matter, then it should work. That's why PINE STRAW won't work. Wheat straw is very plentiful in my area.

Here's another pic of young tomatoes in wheat straw bales.

Thumbnail by KentNC
Wake Forest, NC

Roseone, my wife has asked me to get 10 bales for her so she can plant some flowers in them. Others have planted petunias, etc between the young vegetables to give the bales some color while waiting for the veggies to mature.

Pic of young pepper plant. I see it's almost time for that bale to get a "trim". A little off the top, please.

Thumbnail by KentNC
Southern Mountains, GA(Zone 6b)

I think you're on to something here, especially for us back yard gardeners who aren't as agile as we used to be and don't have big fields and tractors and are only looking to grow small amounts of produce for home consumption. I've already got 7 bales weathering out there with plans to use them for mulch. I may go to the feed store later and get another 7, ( that's all my old pickup will hold). IMO, This is good and helpful information.

Benton, KY(Zone 7a)

First of all...a great big welcome to DG!

I've been curious about this method for several years now, but was wanting to hear from actual gardeners who were successful with it. This is great!

I've got a spot that I've been eyeing near my greenhouse that is a prime candidate for this type of garden and I'm headed to the co-op to get me some straw. I don't see why organic methods wouldn't work just fine...just start a little earlier to get the straw breaking down....and fish emulsion is wonderful stuff.

Tomatoes look like thy could be an ideal crop, because lots of soil borne diseases get hold from splashback from watering. If there's no splashback, there will be fewer diseases. This will give the 'old fellows' at the coffee shop down the road something else to discuss...(I'm usually pretty high on their list during garden season anyway)

I've got some heirloom melons that I'll give this a shot with too. I'll just have to start plants inside rather than sow in place...but that's not an issue.

Wake Forest, NC

Roseone, sounds good. My truck has a camper and I can't haul many bales, either. I'm having my 60 bales (50 for me, 10 for the missus) delivered.

I'd soak your new bales for a good 2 weeks, at least, before transplanting. You probably already know this, but you can put put your hands down inside the bales as they are "cooking" and feel the heat generated from the decomposition. After the bales "cool" down, that's the time to transplant. If you do it sooner, the heat from the bales could damage the tender roots on the transplant.

This is why we never put up hay/straw in the barn if it got wet while I was growing up. The heat from a bale stored in a barn could spontaneously combust and burn the barn down.

Now, for you inexperienced ones, don't worry about your bales going up in flames out in your yard!!! :-)

Wake Forest, NC

Melody, good morning and thanks for the welcome. I'm enjoying this site and the new friends I'm meeting. As I said earlier, I didn't have to use ANY pesticides or fungicides on my bale garden last year. I had a great crop of lady bugs doing their thing.

Also, due to the development in my community, deer are running out of places to go. I'd come home from a night shift and there would be 5 in my yard, but they never messed with my bale garden. Maybe they don't like the vegetables I grow.

Also, rabbits didn't bother the bales and of course, the terrapins can't reach the tomatoes now.

The melons sound good. Once they start to run off the bale and out on the ground, are you going to mulch around the bales so grass won't get too thick?

Benton, KY(Zone 7a)

I'm going to put down black plastic. Where these are going, it was an old gravel parking lot and there's only a few weeds that show up anyway...don't have to mow it but a couple times a season. I'd thought about raised beds....but the straw bales really sound less labor intensive.

Frederick, MD(Zone 6a)

Welcome to DG Kent - this is excellent ! Thanks for sharing your info and photos and yes, this will be something my husband and I will try for sure this year. Wow !

Dea

Shenandoah Valley, VA(Zone 6b)

How would strawberries work? Say, the dayneutral kind you harvest the same year you plant?

SARANAC, NY(Zone 4a)

Hey Straw:
Perry Lawrence here - Retired State Trooper from the frozen north - Zone 4a - Adirondack Mtns of NYS - Obviously our growing season is a bit shorter than that in NC - and from the pics I can tell you don't prune your tomatoes - You have a long time to wait for them to ripen - I do not - So, here is my question - up here we have to be careful with the nitrogen to ensure we don't raise "plants" instead of fruit - I am looking at your pics and look as hard as I can, I only find one green tomato - So how was your crop? The peppers are obviously fruiting okay, as are the squash - but what about your tomatoes? How much season did you have left when the pics were taken? Thanks Perry

Wake Forest, NC

Melody: 10-4 on the plastic; got a neighbor who has raised beds; they are permanent which is fine if that's what you want; bale gardening gives me alot more flexibility to move things around, etc.

Dea: try it this year and tell us what you think.

Zeppy: no experience with berries, but it sure looks like anything that you could grow in the ground would be OK for bales. You may have to experiment with your fertilizer amounts and times, though.

Perry: ah, the beautiful Adirondacks! I spent alot of time in those mountains years ago; north of Glens Falls, Lake George area, and a little town called Chestertown.

The pics I have didn't capture all the tomatoes that were hanging on the vines; they bloomed and produced well all the way up until frost; I only use the ammonium nitrate for the initial preparation of the bale and then watch how much Miracle Grow, etc I use. I historically haven't suckered my tomatoes but this year I think I'm going to do it on some of the vines. I tried German Johnsons, Better Boys, and Celebrity and they all did well.

Looks like the latest pics I have posted are June 27th, so I got a couple more months of fruit from the peppers and tomatoes.

I don't why I quit taking photos after 6/27/05. I must have been too busy eating tomato sandwiches!!

This particular pic is from 6/09/05

This message was edited Mar 21, 2006 10:11 AM

Thumbnail by KentNC
Southern Mountains, GA(Zone 6b)

Strawbaleman, it looks like you're starting a firestorm here at DG's. This is going to be fun. Thanks to Melody's input, I think I may give melons a go. I usually run out of space and give up. And why not try some golden bantam corn? I might ask at the feed store how much to have a big truck load of wheat straw bales delivered.

Shenandoah Valley, VA(Zone 6b)

I heard about this a few years ago and started getting a couple bales ready for greens, but then we moved, oops. Now I've got more space than I need. But I'm thinking about those strawberries...

Southern Mountains, GA(Zone 6b)

Zeppy, re: the strawberries, what do you think they would do as time went by and the bales broke down? I've been wanting to grow stawberries ever since I moved to this location 9 years ago but I don't have a good place for them. I wonder if as the bales broke down the plants and runners would just stay established as a sort of mini raised bed?

Shenandoah Valley, VA(Zone 6b)

Yeah, that's why I'd try the day-neutral ones like Tristar that you can basically raise as an annual. I don't think it would work with the 2-5 year old beds.

Wake Forest, NC

Roseone: truck load, huh? Sounds great. Can't wait to see how it does. I'm getting a few good ideas myself.

Zeppy: I believe the internet links on my first post has a pic of greens in a bale; and the stawberries sound good also. Hmm, maybe I ought to increase my bale alottment for this year.

NOTE TO ALL: the plants I grew had a marvelous root system that stayed in the bale, but the bale just isn't strong enough to anchor the plants from a strong wind or storm, especially the peppers, tomatoes, anything tall. The bales won't blow over or anything; the plants will just need to be staked or tied to a lattice, etc., to keep them from breaking.

The squash and zucchini did pretty well but they may even grow/flop over the side of the bale.

Burlington, NC(Zone 7b)

This method strikes me as really similar to the Ruth Stout no work method of gardening. She used straw to keep weeds down and to nourish the compost as it broke down.

Perry, have you tried topping off your tomato plants after a certain height? That should redirect the plant energies into fruiting rather than growing taller. Seems that it would let your growing season do a bit better for you... Just a thought.

Turlock, CA(Zone 9a)

This is great!! I have about 25 tomato seedlings and 15 pepper seedlings under lights that will need to go outside in a couple of weeks, and I still haven't started my raised beds!! I just feel overwhelmed with the task, though I do have the connectors for the boards. But this way sounds so much better!
I just called my local feed store, they sell wheat straw bales for $ 5.50, seems kinda high, [ but I DO live in 'Cantaforrdya' ;) ]
But even so, the cost of the lumber and all the soil I was going to have to truck into the back yard I'm sure would be much more!
I definitly want to be as organic as I can, so I'll do the seaweed, and organic fertilizer I have.Thanks so much for posting this Straw!!!

Turlock, CA(Zone 9a)

I forgot, how long are bales? If anyone has a guesstimate it would really help me decide how many I can squeeze into my back yard! TIA

Wake Forest, NC

kimmers: l look forward to hearing how your bale garden turns out. Wheat straw bales in NC usually run about 2.50 each if you get 100 or more. I'm paying 3.00 for the 60 I'm having delivered. I want some with plastic string but it's kinda of pot luck.

Typical bales are a good 3 feet in length give or take. Try to get some with the strings kind of tight. If the straw acts like it wants to fall out of the strings, I'd try another source.

Fairmont, WV(Zone 6a)

I'm very excited about this idea...I'm expanding my garden but was dreading the breaking-of-sod-and-turning-over-of-clay that it would normally entail. Thanks for your suggestion!!

pam

Bethelridge, KY(Zone 6a)

Very interesting post, Strawbaleman and welcome to DG's!

Hmmmm, I may try a couple of these myself, just to see how the 'maters fare in comparison to my in-ground plants. ☺

Shenandoah Valley, VA(Zone 6b)

Strawbaleman, do you have a website of your own where you post pics of this progress? I think that would be a great idea; those photos are what have convinced me to try this with my peppers and squash and maybe even tomatoes. YEE HAW

Wake Forest, NC

Pam & Big Red: looking forward to hearing how your bales do

Zep: nope, no website of my own, but I guess that's an idea; but hopefully it looks like we're going to have quite a few pics to see this year from you and others based on how this thread is going.

I'm looking forward to seeing how all the rest of you do with your bales, especially those going the totally organic method and the ones who may be using hay or alfalfa bales. Plus, it's going to be great seeing the variety of vegetables/flowers that we're all going to try.

P.S. - everybody can call me Kent. Strawbaleman is too long to type. :-)

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