First time strawbale garden: not thriving

Mount Joy, PA(Zone 6a)

Hi, this is my first time ever growing a vegetable garden, and my plants are not thriving or getting any bigger after transplanting them into the bales weeks ago. I'm in South central PA.

I did the research last year for strawbale gardening so that I could get started this season. I read a lot of different articles online on how to start the bales, and somewhere got the (wrong?) advice that if the straw bales seasoned over the winter, it would not be necessary to treat them with nitrogen regimen, just soak them and plant them. This was appealing to me, because I am not very good at following complex instructions.

I got 6 bales from one source that seemed to be already aging, and 12 more from another, also harvested last fall, but seemed fresher and drier. We got a lot of rain before I planted, plus on days we didn't get rain, I watered them. I put a combination of potting soil and bagged organic compost in a 1 inch layer over the tops of the bales, and dug out a 3 inch by 3 inch hole (bigger for the larger seedlings) filled with potting soil and compost for each transplant.

I started seedlings indoors in a very sunny southern-facing window in this: (cherry tomatoes, paste tomatoes, bush cukes, bush pickling cukes, bell peppers), and when that was full, used a bunch of peat pellets in an egg carton for the rest of the seeds (marigolds, basil, dill, squash, more cherry tomatoes). The first problem with the transplant was that the Burpee seed starter compartments were very narrow, so on Mother's Day, when I went to plant them in the bales, many of the root systems just broke off as I was trying to gently remove them from the starter trays. The peat pellet plants were easier to transplant and seemed to survive the transplant. I also got some heirloom tomato and hot pepper seedlings from a farmer friend, and at Home Depot picked up a cuke (all my starters failed) and an early bell pepper and a hot pepper. Almost nothing from the seed starters thrived, which I thought was because of the roots breaking during transplant.

But even though the other (peat pellets and larger potted seedlings) are alive, they haven't gotten much bigger in weeks. My largest transplant, a Howard German tomato, is starting to yellow and wither, even though I water the bales daily unless it's rained heavily. My squash plants are small (about 12 inches long and only a half dozen leaves), but already have giant blossoms. But the other tomato plants and peppers and herbs look exactly like they did when I transplanted them, which can't be a good thing after 1 month. My neighbor has a small in-ground bed a few feet from mine, and her tomatoes and pepper plants are bigger every day. My bales do get a few hours less of full sun per day than her garden.

I am concerned that because I took the wrong advice and didn't treat my strawbales with the nitrogen regimen, that nothing will grow. I can't believe how much time and money I have spent on it, and it doesn't seem I'll get anything out of it. Is there any way to save this garden?

Northeast, MO(Zone 5b)

As far as the breakdown of the bales, I did mine naturally over the winter and did not use chemical. They were ready with grass growing and mushrooms popping out. I don't think that is the problem. I couldn't ask for a better start this year.

Not sure on the planting method you used and if that makes a difference. I was told to pull or spread the bale apart and put the plant in it. Kinda like you would do when you pot a plant that already has soil in it. I had big problems with mine taking off last year and the DG members here are awesome!! I am hoping the ones that have had more experience will jump in and hold your hand so to speak like they did for me. You are never alone on this forum and you will end up claiming them as family :)

Good luck,


Mount Joy, PA(Zone 6a)

Thanks, Connie! Yes, I also have the mushrooms popping out, and the bales have gotten darker with time, as I expected. At first, I used a pointy trowel to spread the straw to make the hole, but the larger seedlings I made the hole by actually digging out some straw to make the hole, which was easier and made a bigger hole. I am just heartbroken that my Howard German plant is dying: they are my favorite tomatoes and I was so looking forward to them.

Wake Forest, NC

Dilettante: if you have sprouts and mushrooms coming from the bales you prepared them just fine. They are a good sign, especially the mushrooms.

I haven't used ANY nitrogen for a couple of years for bale prep.

Tomatoes should be planted deep because they sprout roots from any part of the stem that's in the ground/bale.

The bales do not have to be watered daily in most cases. Test them with your hands stuck down inside the bales.

You didn't mention anything about how you are feeding your plants.

It sounds like they are nitrogen deficient.

I recommend getting some Miracle Gro and cut the recipe in half and water your plants with it daily for the next few days, leaves and all, and see how that works for you.

Or you can get some Fish Emulsion and use that full strength.


Mount Joy, PA(Zone 6a)

Thank you, Kent! I was thinking they needed fertilized, but was confused about so many options. Prior to your reply, I picked up some Organic Fertilizer (Miracle Grow Organic Choice 7-1-2), and worked that in around the base of the plants. There are no instructions for mixing this particular one with water, so I wonder whether it could be used on the leaves, and if so, what proportions to mix it with water? I'm trying to stick with organics (though I did use some Miracle Grow Potting Soil along with the organic compost soil when transplanting the seedlings).

I checked out fish emulsion, I think I'll try to find it locally tomorrow when I am running my errands.

I used to joke that I had a "black" thumb because of my poor luck with plants, but decided I wanted to change that a few years ago and started putting in flowers in my yard, mostly successfully. The vegetable garden is proving to be much more challenging than my roses and herbs....

I appreciate your help!

Wake Forest, NC

Don't water the leaves, especially at night.

Just water/fertilize the roots.

The Miracle Gro 7-1-2 will do just fine.

The "usual" amount seems to be a tablespoon/gallon, but it's almost impossible to burn the plants with the MG.

Pipersville, PA(Zone 6b)

Dilettante: I've found that one of those bottles (they come with Miracle Gro- you can add stuff to and then hook them to your hose) not only gives a perfect level of spray, but I put fish emulsion in mine (about 1/2 cup) and then water with that - it smells like the ocean and does a nice steady job of feeding the plants. about 1 or 2x per week, and just water with no additive the other days - see if that helps. This year, some of my plants have done next to nothing and some are really thriving - I'm baffled. Did you use compost/soil when you planted? If some of the plants don't grow, just let it go and replace them with new, healthy plants. (I started all of mine this year, too, and it's hard to let them go . . )

Northeast, WA(Zone 5a)

I started all of mine too, but I think a lot of people that do start them and keep them until it is time to plant them, don't fertilize. Well, that little bit of soil you put them in is not enough to get them growing. Half strength MG when they have their 2nd set of REAL leaves gives them a boost.

Just remember that every gardener has their own way of doing things and what works for one might not work for another. I think this is due to the different parts of the country we live in and the weather.

Good luck, you will succeed.

New Bern, NC

Dilettante wrote:
I am concerned that because I took the wrong advice and didn't treat my strawbales with the nitrogen regimen, that nothing will grow. I can't believe how much time and money I have spent on it, and it doesn't seem I'll get anything out of it. Is there any way to save this garden?


What ever you do... don't give up!!

Kent and others here are the pros with this type of gardening.

I had to "tune out" advice given by the big-box store persons and frankly, packaging advice on the products you buy there is given not knowing the type of gardening you are attempting.

One question that I have for you is are your bales hot to the touch if you dig your hand down in them? If so, the roots could be cooking?!?

Also, turn to folks in your same growing zone. I moved from "Nippy - New England" to "Steamy - Coastal North Carolina" saying it is a "big difference" is an understatement!

You may also be trying too much too fast? Starting veggies from seed is "harder" than starting flowers from seed in my opinion. Go to a "real" local garden or hardware store that gets local started plants. I have had the best luck when I did that. There is a local hardware store in my town that gets local plants in the spring here and they have done the best of all my plants.

I started plants from seed as well and most of them were so frail that they ended up in the compost bin!

It would be great to see some pictures too! The guru's here can help!

I want my garden to look like Kent's when I "grow-up!" He is about 100 miles inland from me but he is just as steamy. I am in the "coastal plains" as they call it. (read sand and bugs... and 'gators)

Good Luck - and remember, "Gardening is a marathon not a sprint."

Mount Joy, PA(Zone 6a)

Hi, thanks for all the helpful replies. We were out of town for a few days.

The bales are definitely NOT hot. I wasn't too careful about checking them before planting them, so I don't know if they ever got hot during the prep/watering time.

I didn't get a chance to get the fish emulsion yet, but did put some of the MG organic fertilizer 7-1-2 around the base of the plants according to the package instructions before I left. Nothing is dead, but I see no improvement. My tiny frail cukes have more blossoms on them, even though I pinched off the blossoms last week in an attempt to bolster the leaf & vine development. I will try watering with the MG solution today. I think I might have been overwatering, though, because the strawbales weren't watered while I was away, and they are still quite wet even though we only got a bit of rain in the last week.

It's hard to give up on the plants I started from seed, but at this point I think I need to just pitch the weak little cucumbers because they are so depressing!

I will try to get a few pictures up soon.

Bardstown, KY(Zone 6a)

After doing this for 3 years now it still amazes me just how little watering they need. The tops of the bales look and get dry but if you stick your hand down inside they are still moist and slimy. I think they use less water than growing in dirt.


Northeast, WA(Zone 5a)

Doug, are you using straw or alfalfa? I am trying alfalfa this year, due to Suz' SHOUTING, LOL, and do see a difference in how much water they take. Much less than the straw. I would like to tell Dilettante that I put my tomato plants, started from seed, out too soon and the frost hit them. They looked so sad that I tossed them and went down and bought some. Not a lot 'cause they were $3 and $4. So, when I got home and went to put them in, I still had more bales than plants. So, I went to where I had thrown the ones I grew and picked out the ones that didn't look as bad. Not good either. I planted those too. Well, now they are almost caught up with the ones I bought and paid $4 for. So, you see, if you don't give up, I guess depending on the reason they are not doing well. Now, if it is a problem with the roots, then I would toss them. A problem like I had with the tops, then that is not too bad.

If plants get stunted roots in the pots too long, they may never come out of that. If you planted them when the bale was too hot, you may have cooked the roots. Things like that are a killer. Maybe not dead, but won't do well. Those bales, by the way, will not stay that hot more than a day or a few days and it could be that they were hot when you planted them and left and when you got back they had cooled down. So, you would not have known they were too hot. When you plant the plants you need to check the heat in the bales before sticking those plants in there.

Toss the cuke plant and go buy one.

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