As the name suggests, this is a method of gardening that allows you to grow plants in bales of straw instead of growing directly in the soil.

Why?

The first question to answer is, why? It may not seem obvious at first, but there are some definiate advantages of using this method:

  • Bales are easier to work with, since your garden is immediately elevated instead of planting directly into the soil. You don't have to bend over as much as working at ground level, which is an advantage for those with back problems or other physical challenges. The aproximate size of a average strawbale is about 24 inches long, and 15 or 16 inches high and wide.
  • There is no need to till the soil before planting, and little to no weeding required.
  • It is much more cost-effective than using commercial potting soil in containers. In my area (Michigan) the average cost of a bale is about $4.50-$5.00.

When shopping for straw, ask about spoiled bales. They are bales that have gotten wet or can't be sold as "good" for some other reason, but they work fine for growing. If you drive out to a rural area you might find them much less expensive.

If you have soil that is not fit for a traditional garden, this is the perfect answer. Bales are more fertile than garden soil. I can attest from experience. The tomatoes grown in bales had roots 3 to 4 times larger than plants grown directly in the ground. I attribute this to the decaying straw providing nutrients to the roots. (See figure 1. The plant on the left was grown in a strawbale the one on the right grown directly in the soil. Note the difference in root growth.)

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Figure 1

Bales are excellent for retaining moisture and reducing the need for frequent watering.

Bales can be located anywhere, (even on concrete). The only requirement is to make sure they are in full sun.

Do not use hay bales since they may have seeds attached, which can be a major problem. You can pull out the grain seed relatively easily from straw bales, but grass is much tougher to remove.

What's the difference between straw and hay?

Straw is the stem of a grain plant. Harvesting removes the grain, and leaves behind the dried stems. This is baled, and mostly used as animal bedding. Hay is a grass - for example rye, timothy, or orchard grass. It is grown to be used as livestock feed.

I've been growing in straw bales for the past 5 or 6 years years. I first learned about it in the Strawbale Gardening forumn on davesgarden.com. I do a lot of lectures at garden clubs. Every chance I get, I promote this method of gardening. Folks are very intrested in it, and once they try it, they are hooked.

How?

The first step is to obtain your bales, and set them in their permanet location. Once they get wet they become heavy and are hard to move. I like to put mine out very early in the spring, and let mother nature begin the decompostion process.

In order to speed up this process, you need to apply a high nitrogen fertilizer. You have several choices: if you want to go organic you can use blood meal (15-0-0,), fish meal (5-2-2 or urea (46-0-0.) Otherwise you can go with ammonium sulfate (21-0-0). For the past couple of years I have used urea with excellent results.

Approximately two weeks before planting you need to prepare the bales. Here's how I do it:

Days 1 to 3: Water the bales thoroughly and keep them damp.

Days 4 to 6: Sprinkle each bale with ½ cup of the fertilizer and water well into bales.

Days 7 to 9: Cut back to ¼ cup fertilizer per bale per day and continue to water well.

Day 10: No more fertilizer is needed, but continue to keep the bales damp.

Day 11: Insert your hand, or a soil thermometer into the bales to see if they are still warm. If they have cooled to less than your body temperature (98 degrees F), you may safely begin planting after all danger of frost has passed.

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How many plants per bale?

  • Tomatoes - 2 (I place a tomato cage for each plant in the bale for support)
  • Cucumbers - bush-type 4 and vining types 2-3 ( Support or trellis needed for vining plants)
  • Peppers - 3 to 5
  • Squash - 2 or 3 ( There are some compact squash on the market this year where you should be able to add more plants to each bale)
  • Cantaloupe - 2

How to plant?

Using a trowel, make a hole in the bale as if you are planting into the ground. This might require a little effort if the bale is tight. Insert the plant and squeeze the hole together.You can top dress each plant with compost if desired.

Fertilization

I fertilize my bales with a 20-20-20 water soluble fertilizer every 4-5 weeks. I also give the plants a drink of compost tea once a month.

Watering

ToImage make watering easier, you can lay a soaker hose across the top of the bales. Straw bales retain moisture very well so they only need watering a couple of times a week unless the weather is unusually hot.

At the end of the season, cut the string on your bales and spread the straw around your garden. It also makes excellent winter mulch. Check the number of earthworms in your bales when you spread the straw at the season's end: they love the decomposing straw.


I hope you'l give straw bales a chance and I'm sure you will be impressed with how well the plants do!