Straw Bale Gardening

How to make a raised bed garden using straw bales and a little compost

Straw bale gardening is ideal for growing vegetables and a quick and cheap way to create raised bed gardens when your soil is poor. You can even place the bales on concrete or asphalt and have a garden in those spots as well. Just think, an old tennis court or basketball court that no one uses anymore can be converted to a raised bed garden with bales to become a productive part of the yard once again.

Straw Bale Gardening Techniques
Photo courtesy of Laura Hamilton on flikr.

Here's what you need to begin your straw bale garden.

  1. Purchase straw bales in fall when they can be easily found at farmer's markets, farm co-ops and garden centers. If growing organically is important to you, try and find bales right from a farm where you can find out how the straw was grown. Call around or ask vendors at your local farmer's market where they get their straw bales from. Straw bales generally measure 12" wide x 24" high x 39" long.

    Ideally you want barley, oat, rye or wheat straw bales. These bales will contain less seeds that could sprout in your bale and should last up to 2 years.. Avoid bales of alfalfa, hay, lucerne, pea straw, or vetch. These bales contain not only the stem of the plant, but tons of seed heads as well and will likely only last 1 growing season. The one advantage to using these bales is that they have more nitrogen that will be readily available to the plant once composting has started inside the bale.
  2. Position your bales in the fall so that they are ready to plant in the spring. You don't want fresh bales that have not been wet or started the decomposition process yet. When the bales first start to decompose, they get hot inside and you don't want to cook your plants, so play it safe and place them in the fall. If that is not an option, place the bales in early spring or late winter so that they are outside in the elements for at least a month before you plant in them. Sprinkle three cups of an organic fertilizer, high in nitrogen, on each bale and water it in. Blood meal is excellent for this. This will help get the bale composting. You can also use poultry or rabbit manure if you have it available. A 2" layer on top of the bale should be sufficient. Keep the bale evenly moist for the next month until you are ready to plant. If the temperature of the inside of the bale seems hot to the touch, wait a couple of more weeks before planting. Warmth is fine, but you don't want the roots to cook if the bale is too hot.

    Choose a spot that gets 6-8 hours of sun a day, if growing vegetables, otherwise, place them in a spot that has the right amount of sun for the plants you are growing. For instance, leafy greens and some herbs require less sun than a tomato or cucumber for example. Once the bales are wet, they are not easily moved, so make sure you have them where you want them.

    Place your bale on it's side so that the strings holding the bale together are on the side and not touching the ground. This will keep the string from rotting away too quickly and will allow you plenty of places to put your plants on the top of the bale. The top of the bale should be about 24" off the ground, making it pretty easy to work garden in. You can add several layers of black and white newspaper under and around the bale to keep weeds at bay. Mulch the newspaper with additional straw or grass clippings to keep it from blowing away.

    Remember when placing your bales that you leave room between the rows so that you can pick your harvest when the time comes.

Straw Bale Gardening Instructions
Photo courtesy of Kirsten Skiles of flikr.

  1. You will need to water your straw bale garden more often than a traditional garden. There are some things you can do however, to help retain moisture in your bales.

    - Place several bales together to help retain moisture.
    - Avoid putting plants near the edge of the bale where it will be more dry.
    - Set up a soaker hose on top of the bales at planting time.
    - Set up drip irrigation on top of the bales at planting time.
    - Use a layer of mulch on top of the bale, such as grass clippings.
    - Build a wall of wood around the bales to help prevent moisture loss.
    - Water the bales well before planting.
    - Use bales that have already started the decomposition process.

  2. Planting your bales is easier than you might think. Start with smaller plants when possible. They will be easier to find a space in between the straw and will suffer less transplant shock than larger plants.

    Simply pull the straw apart, put in a couple of handfuls of compost in the hole along with a granular fertilizer, such as Garden-tone, and place the plant inside the hole. I also like to put a little compost on top of the bale just around the plant. Water well.
  3. To sow seeds on your bale, first put a 2" layer of compost on top of each bale and sow your seeds according to the package directions right in the compost.

    Spacing for each bale should be as follows:
    - 2 tomato plants per bale
    - 4 cucumbers per bale, trailing down or trellised
    - 2 squash or pumpkin plants per bale
    - 2 melon plants per bale

    - 4 pepper plants per bale
    - 10 bean/pea plants per bale
    - fill entire bale with leafy greens or herbs

    Avoid large top heavy plants such as okra or corn and choose dwarf varieties when possible to make the plants a little more manageable.
  1. If you need to stake or trellis the plants you will be growing, remember that your stake or trellis will need to be much taller than normal. It will have to not only go thru the entire bale, but also a few inches into the soil below to be sturdy. If your bales are on a solid surface, use a trellis with three or four legs, as it will be more stable than just a single stake. Generally, you shouldn't need to stake anything other than a tomato or pole beans. Trellising cucumbers will prevent them from trailing on the ground. Using dwarf or bush varieties also don't usually require staking.

  2. Fertilize your plants just as you would normally. Using a fish emulsion mixture or compost tea every week is necessary. Liquid fertilizers are more readily available to the plants roots and can be soaked up quickly. Granular fertilizers, such as Garden-tone, will be absorbed as it breaks down in the bale, which will fertilize the plants more slowly but over a longer period of time. Follow the directions on the fertilizer package based on the size of your plants you will be fertilizing.

Have fun with your new straw bale gardens!

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