Banner image courtesy of James Paris at PlantersPost.com
For approximately 6,000 years, humans have farmed and gardened much the same way: turning over soil, planting seeds, pulling weeds, and overcoming weather, pests, and diseases. All that can change with a few bales of straw. And as an added bonus, it's a great activity for children.
What is Straw Bale Gardening?
There's an important difference between straw and hay. If possible, use bales of straw.
In order to become a growing medium, the bales must be conditioned by wetting them every day. You can add a water soluble fertilizer at this time if you wish. Once that’s done, they're ready to plant. Make sure your straw bales are located in a sunny location and kept well-watered. If so, you can grow almost anything in a straw bale.
Why Use This Method?
Straw bale gardening is one of several options for dealing with poor soil. You can have your soil tested by a local Cooperative Extension Office, or you can do it yourself. These tests determine the pH level of the soil, assess its fertility and the health of microorganism colonies, and provide information about which amendments are needed.
Some gardeners live in areas of the country where the soil consists of heavy clay or sand that’s difficult to amend. While it's still possible, it may take quite a bit of work to create good loam soil.
Raised gardens are constructed with boards or rocks shaped into a box filled with soil. The problem with raised beds is the expense of building and maintaining them. You need to purchase materials to build the bed, and if you have poor soil, you’ll also need to buy good bagged soil and compost to fill them. Costs can mount quickly.
Straw bale gardening, sometimes called hay bale gardening, utilizes the bales as both garden bed and growing medium. The result is an inexpensive method for growing vegetables.
Where to Buy Straw Bales
Straw bales should be used for your vegetable garden. Hay bales are usually grown and sold as horse or livestock feed and contain seeds that can later sprout into plants. You’ll end up with hay instead of vegetables.
Straw is a by-product of the grain industry, free of weeds, and formed into square bales just like hay. The grain has been removed from the stalks, which are then bundled into bales. It's 100% natural and composts over time, feeding your plants.
Since many farms use crop pesticides, you might want to consider organic straw bales.
When to Plant
Straw bale gardens can be started in early fall; however, spring is the best time to plant vegetables. Plant after the last frost date for your area. Most vegetables should be planted after this date.
Choosing a Location
You'll need an area that receives full sun, which is six or more hours of direct sunlight a day. Although some vegetables, such as lettuce and green beans, will grow in part shade, most require full sun to thrive.
Another important consideration is access to water. Once bales are in place, they’re too heavy to move. Placing them near a water source or within reach of your garden hose makes it much easier to keep them watered.
In addition to straw bales, you will need tools and supplies. Purchase the best gardening tools you can afford. They're well worth the investment.
For a garden of average size, you'll need:
- Sheets of newspaper or cardboard to place under the bales
- Hand trowel
- Garden hose
- Fertilizer, especially bone meal or blood meal
- Straw bales
- Soil or compost if you are direct-sowing seeds
Place a couple of sheets of newspaper or cardboard on the ground where you want the garden. They should extend several inches beyond the edge of each bale. Cardboard or paper prevents weeds from growing up into the bale. Put the bale on top.
Make sure you arrange the bales to leave space for a lawnmower or wheelbarrow to pass between them, if necessary. Once in place, they're heavy when water-logged and difficult or impossible to move.
How to Condition Bales
In order to prepare the straw bales for vegetables, you must condition each bale to turn it into a growing medium. This is the most time-consuming part of the project. Fortunately, nature does most of the work.
- Days 1 to 3: Once your straw bales are in place, take the garden hose and water each bale thoroughly. Soak it with water. You need to do this once a day for three days to start the conditioning process. The bales begin to decompose. As the microorganisms start to work, the inside of the bale heats up.
- Days 4 to 6: On days 4, 5 and 6, you will need to sprinkle the top of the bale with fertilizer. Sprinkle each bale with one cup of ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) OR half a cup of urea (46-0-0). The numbers after the name of the material refer to the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash in the fertilizer — an industry-standard measurement. These are high nitrogen sources, and they also speed up decomposition and conditioning. After sprinkling the fertilizer onto the top of each bale, water it thoroughly into the straw. Repeat this process each day on days 4, 5 and 6.
- Days 7 to 9: On days 7, 8 and 9, continue using the fertilizer, but cut the amount in half. Continue watering it into the straw bale.
- Day 10: On day 10 of the process, stop adding fertilizer, but continue watering the bale to keep it moist.
Check the bales on Day 11. If they feel about the same temperature as your hand, plant your vegetables. If they feel hot to the touch, water them another day and check again on Day 12. The bale should feel warm, but not hot to the touch.
What to Plant?
Once your bale is properly conditioned, it's ready to plant. Each bale can be planted with:
- Tomatoes: 2-3 plants per bale
- Peppers: 4 plants per bale
- Squash: 2-4 plants per bale
- Zucchini: 2-3 plants per bale
- Cucumbers: 4-6 plants per bale
- Strawberries: 3-4 plants per bale
Dig into the top of the straw bale and make a hole about the size of your plant's container. Gently slide the plant out. If necessary, tap the sides and back of the container to loosen the plant, but don’t pull it by the stem since that can easily damage the plant.
Place the plant into the hole and gently push the straw back in place around the soil and roots. Water well.
What Not to Plant
Some vegetables don't do well in straw bales. Corn is usually too tall and top-heavy. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, turnips, and other root crops also won’t do well.
Special Considerations for Tomatoes and Vine Crops
Tomatoes and other vine crops such as cucumbers, squash, and zucchini may need additional support. Tomatoes should be staked so they grow upwards with plenty of air circulation around the leaves. Tomato cages don't work in straw bale gardens. You'll need to drive stakes into the ground using a hammer. Don’t use metal stakes; they can become hot in the sun and scald tomatoes. Fabric ties are gentler on stems than twist ties.
If you’re growing cucumbers or beans, select bush varieties instead of pole or vine types. Beans and bush cucumbers grow low and don’t require staking. If you have seeds for pole beans, you can still grow them in a straw bale if you stake them like tomatoes.
Cucumbers, squash, and zucchini usually spread down and away from the bales. That might create a problem if you need to cut the grass between bales. Provide them with a stake or support so they grow upwards instead of onto the grass.
Tips for Success
Straw bale gardens can dry out easily. Keep them well-watered. The straw should remain good for one complete growing season. Make sure you water your garden every day except when rainfall is sufficient.
Because straw contains no nutrients, you need to feed your plants frequently. Straw bale gardens should be fertilized every two weeks while plants are young and weekly once they start bearing crops.
Most straw bale gardens have very few problems other than dry bales. You must keep watering, especially during summer heat.
Mushrooms indicate the straw bale garden is slowly decomposing and working as it should be. If bothersome, pick them off. Never eat mushrooms growing on a straw bale unless you're an expert at identifying edible mushrooms. Some are poisonous. Don’t take that risk.
You can easily scale your garden's size up or down every year depending on the amount of plants you want to grow. Once the garden is done for the year, spread the used straw on your compost pile and let the nutrients return to the soil to be used again. It's a win-win.