Straw bale gardens are simple: the bale is the garden. It is the container and the soil, all in one! Straw bales are more convenient than building a raised bed or buying lots of pots for a container garden. You can easily expand your garden by adding more bales. Plus, straw bales are good on the budget.
Choosing Your Bales
- When sourcing your bales, make sure you buy straw and not hay.
- Straw is made from the mostly seed-free stalks of barley, oats, rye, wheat or rice.
- Hay, however, is made from whole grass – seeds and all. If you try using hay bales, it will result in a nice bale-lawn.
- You can get straw at farm and ranch stores, or directly from your local farmers.
Setting Up Your Straw Bale Garden
Your straw bale garden can be located anywhere with enough space to set one (even on the driveway), and enough sun to keep your plants happy – that means at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day. Although it is possible to relocate your bale garden mid-year, the bales will be really heavy by then from moisture and conditioning. It’s best to choose a good spot where you can leave it all season long.
- Put down a layer of weed fabric, cardboard or several layers of newspaper underneath where your bales will rest. This will prevent weeds from growing through the bales and out the top.
- You may need to put down a layer of gopher wire as well, to keep rodents from moving into the bales.
- Position your bales so that the baling twine or wire is on the sides: this will keep you from accidentally cutting them open while planting or harvesting, and help the bales hold their shape through the season.
- One of the long narrow side should be facing up. Compare the two long sides and choose the one with the most cut-straw tips to be the top.
Conditioning Your Bales
About a week before you plant, you’ll need to begin preparing the bales. This process is called conditioning. Place your bales in their final position before you start this! Conditioning jump starts the bales’ decomposition, which causes the middle of the bales to heat up quickly and then drop back to ambient temperature. Doing this in advance prevents your plants roots from getting baked as they would if this process were allowed to happen naturally. Plus, it turns the straw into a nutrient-filled substrate that your plants will be able to use.
- For the first six days, water the bales thoroughly.
- Every other day spread 3 cups of organic fertilizer on the top, such as All Purpose Mix from Down to Earth, and water it in.
- On days 7, 8 and 9, spread only 1.5 cups of the fertilizer on top, and water it in.
- Finally, on day 10, spread the top with 3 cups of a high-phosphorus fertilizer such as fish bone meal.
- Keep watering the bales daily and checking the internal temperature. Your bales are ready to be planted when the temperature in the core is the same as the air temperature, or slightly warmer if you are planting in the early spring.
- You can check this by sticking a compost thermometer in the center, or just estimate by sticking your hand into the bale.
Planting in Your Bales
To plant in your bales, remove straw to form a hole as deep as the roots of your plant will grow. Fill the hole with potting soil, and plant the seed or transplant. Water well.
You can plant almost any annual flowers, herbs, fruits and veggies in a bale that you’d normally grow in your garden. However, tall plants like corn and indeterminate tomatoes can get too big and heavy, causing the bale to tip over or tear apart. Potatoes are great for straw bale gardens: just break the bale to harvest!
It is easy to build a trellis over your bales for climbing plants like peas, beans and cucumbers–just anchor two 7-ft bamboo poles in the ground on either side of the bale and run twine in between. Trailing plants with heavy fruits like winter squashes, pumpkins and watermelons, however, are best planted directly in the ground.
Although the decomposing straw is good food for growing plants, it will eventually lead to the bale falling apart. If you live in a hot, humid region, your bales may decompose too quickly to use them for a full season. If this is an issue in your garden, you’ll need to select fast growing crops such as greens and herbs.
At the end of the year, the straw bale will make great compost material. By spring, it will be ready to spread around your permanent gardens. It’s the ultimate recycled garden!