Straw bale gardening has been growing in popularity. It’s a unique way to garden that honestly, some people swear to… and other swear at. You’ll have to make up your own mind.
The concept of gardening in straw bales wraps the world of raised bed gardens along with container gardening all into one “growing unit.”
In the system the straw bales act or serve as the growing container and soil medium at the same time.
Read on to learn more about the best plants for straw bale gardening.
Sometimes bales get stacked but not always. However, bales need to undergo a conditioning process prior to planting. Over time, the bales gradually break down due to moisture, roots and exposure to the elements.
Susan Carlson, a Master Gardener, provides a good “idea” of what straw bale gardening is.
“The idea is that a straw bale is compost waiting to happen. Before the growing season begins, over a couple weeks, you add water and a little organic fertilizer or inorganic fertilizer and it will activate an army of bacteria. The bacteria break down the straw, turning it into just what plants need. Plants can be inserted into the bale or seeds can be started in a little potting soil placed on top.” Read more…
Why Consider Straw Bale Gardening?
1. Healthier Vegetables And Better Plants
Growing plants in the straw bales eliminate the need for soil as the only requirement is the straw bale, and perhaps some compost and potting mix or planting mix. Since you’ve eliminated soil from the equation, you’ve also eliminated the soil-borne pathogens, pests and diseases that can damage the crops when they exceed the manageable level.
Also, keep in mind that, the less pest and diseases and the less pesticide use. This attracts beneficial insects that normally disappear when we use excessive pesticides. It also means that our plants will be healthier and safer to our bodies.
2. Simplifies Plant Growing
By eliminating the soil means there’s no tilling, digging, raking or hoeing. Now you don’t need to break your back doing all the digging and tilling, or using expensive machines to carry out the task either.
Nor do you have to worry about improving the soil, crop rotation cycles or conditioning the soil. You can simply plant in the bales themselves which you can place literary anywhere.
3. No More Weeds
Straw bale gardening eliminates the need for weeding. Weed seeds don’t thrive well in the straw, and any that do appear can easily be removed. From there on, you’ll spend less time on your bales monitoring the weeds as they barely grow.
Note: We have received comments of some who have had lots of weeds in their bales of straw. This is most likely due to the type of straw and not proper conditioning.
4. Self-Composting Growing Containers
When growing in straw, the bales become your actual growing containers. They’re self-decomposing growing containers that slowly decompose (composting process) on the inside throughout the growing period.
The decomposition process creates some heat that regulates the internal temperature. Thus creates good conditions for roots development.
Straw bale gardening also helps to lessen the impact of sudden cold snaps or any frosts and can extend your growing season.
Therefore, if you grow cold-loving plants in your bales over the winter season, they’ll get favorable growing environment, and there’s a likelihood of getting higher yields. Yeah! The bales enable you to grow crops over the winter.
5. They’re Cheap
Compared to soil gardening, straw bale gardening makes planting easier and lower in cost, even in the city. After it starts disintegrating, you can use it as mulch or dispose the straw in the compost bin or add to the garden soil as compost.
6. Easier And Comfortable Gardening
Straw bales measure approximately 18-24 inches high (2 or 3 stringer) and therefore, you won’t need to bend over much when gardening, similar to raised bed gardens.
It also means you’re going to harvest your crops while standing as you stroll in the vegetable garden. For those who don’t enjoy walking around, bending on their knees or with a bad back, this is great news.
7. Bumper Yield
All these benefits are great but the biggest benefit is: the increased yield you’ll get out from this type of gardening.
All farm inputs remaining constant, many straw bale gardeners experience close to a 25% increase in crop yield. The bumper yield is mainly because of the proper root development and good air circulation facilitated by the straw bales.
8. Save Cost Of Raised Beds And Buying Containers
You don’t have to invest in wooden planks or containers when constructing raised garden beds. Straw bales and straw-bale construction are a cheaper and a much better option. You’ll need to get new bales at the beginning of every growing season, but the bales can be put to better use at the end.
9. Suitable For Any Climate Or Zone
In gardening with straw bales, you can grow any crop regardless of the zone and climate. It’s “works” in the Arctic Circle or in tropical regions. In areas with short growing spells, straw bale gardening extends the season by 1-2 weeks both at the beginning and before the winter period.
10. No Need to Transfer Soil And Compost to Your Beds
Transporting large quantities of compost and soil to your beds in order to grow veggies is both expensive and strenuous. Straw bales are light, and they’re neat, easier to shift, and you can arrange them in your desired design. You require just a little amount of compost to start growing your plants in straw bales.
How Do You Start?
1. Knowing The Kind of Bale for Gardening
You need to know the kind of bale that’s suitable for gardening. Most experts recommend the use of a straw bale because it has the least amount of seeds.
You can also use hay bales from alfalfa, oats, rye, or wheat, but straw bales are the most preferable. Use what is available in your region and be sure to pinch out sprouts as they occur.
What Materials Are Required When Starting A Straw Bale Garden?
a) Straw – You obviously require straw bales. Look for bales tightly held together with baling twine tying the bale in two to three places.
b) Water supply – You require having a regular supply of water in order to keep your bale booming.
Straw bales conserve water, and so the water requirement might be lower than the amount you’d need for growing plants on the ground. Drip irrigation works very well!
c) Fertilizer – The straw bales may provide a steady flow of nutrients to the plants as they undergo decomposition.
However, the nutrients may not be sufficient if you’re growing a large number of crops.
Feed with a liquid fertilizer, liquid fish emulsion, speciality fertilizer or whatever normal feeding you apply in your regular gardening activities.
You should not overuse the lawn fertilizer, though.
2. Identifying the Location
Arrange the straw bales in the location best suited to the crops you’ll grow. Don’t worry about the terrain, you can place straw bales in almost any area and they with thrive.
The only thing you should take into consideration is the availability of water and sunlight as all the plants need these two.
3. Condition The Straw Bales
Before planting seeds in a straw bale, you first have to condition it. The decomposition process starts before planting and the heat generated might damage young plants.
You need to condition the bale to avoid killing your plants; otherwise, your straw will just be too hot on the inside.
Also, the microbes responsible for the process of decomposition might use the plant nutrients if you don’t give them enough time to complete their work.
If microbes are still active when you plant the crops, they’ll use most of the nutrients meant for the plants too.
Water the bale thoroughly to start the decomposition process. The process of decomposition takes about 2-3 weeks to complete.
You can add some fertilizer rich in nitrogen to accelerate the decomposition process. Spread about 4 oz. of fertilizer on top of the bales and water them so the fertilizer sinks in.
Check the temperature of your straw bale after about two weeks; if it’s still hot, give it some time to decompose further.
4. Plant the Straw Bales
There are two methods of planting; the pocket method and flatbed method.
The pocket method involves making small holes in the straw bales for planting. Make a pocket 3-4 inches deep by pressing the straw inside or removing some straw.
Fill the pockets using well-rotted manure or finished compost.
The flatbed method is a slight variation by placing 2-3 inches of composed spread evenly on the straw bales.
After adding the compost, and before planting, pour water on the bales thoroughly to ensure a good rooting environment.
Choosing Between Seeds and Seedlings
When planting you can opt for seeds or seedlings. Many people prefer seeds over seedlings to give their crops a better chance to root extensively in the direction it chooses.
The decomposition process and insulation nature of the straw bales keep the plant roots warm.
This allows you to sow seeds earlier than when sowing them in the ground. Straw bales help to eliminate the transplant shock as you don’t have to plant your seeds indoors during the early season and transplant them into the bales afterward.
You can space bales the same way you would plant a raised bed, or more thickly as straw allows good air circulation. Plant trailing plants that can hang over the sides, and frees the top for plants with an upward growth.
5. Watering the Bales
Bales don’t require a regular supply of water, but they do require staying moist.
When watered quickly, water infiltrates down the straw layers, so you need to have a mechanism for making sure the bales retain their moisture.
Related Reading: Installing Raised Bed Irrigation System
You can use a soaker hose or drip irrigation. For cheaper options, use milk bottles or soda bottles with small holes as water reservoirs near the stem of each plant.
6. Fertilizing the Crops
Plants obtain some nutrients from the decomposing straw, but still need all the required nutrients. Provide them with right proportions of nutrients so that they can achieve optimal growth and produce healthy yields.
7. Always Check Your Crops for Any Nutrient Deficiency
Plants require macronutrients such as phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen in large amounts as well as several minerals in smaller quantities. The most prevalent deficiency being nitrogen deficiency; it becomes apparent when you notice premature leaves turning yellow.
Other common signs of nutrient deficiency include necrosis of leaf margins-potassium deficiency and purpling of leaves-phosphorus deficiency. Take preventive measures rather than trying remedying the deficiencies after they occur.
Those who prefer regular chemical fertilizer should use a NPK fertilizer that matches the specific needs of the planted crops.
Organic gardeners can use natural fertilizers such as blood meal or fish emulsion. You can add good quality compost, or farmyard manure to add nutrients to the straw beds.
Use liquid fertilizers for plants or compost tea as foliar sprays or simply add it to the water meant for irrigation in the appropriate ratios.
No gardener likes weeding, but it has been simplified in the straw bale beds.
The straw bales allow very few weeds to grow, and when they do, they’re easy to pull up. You can tuck them into the bales to add fertility to your straw beds.
9. Pest and Disease Control
Straw bale gardening minimizes pest and diseases since the plants grow without soil.
Without poor soil, these soil-borne diseases like nematodes are eliminated. Using new straw bales every growing season reduces the chance of fungal spore and bacterial infections.
However, beware of undesirable organisms reaching your beds through the farmyard manure or compost you add to the beds.
Also, winged insects may find their way to your crops. Immediately you spot any pest or disease, take appropriate remedial measures by using organic, chemical or mechanical pest control.
What to Plant
Almost anything can grow in the straw bales. The following are common crops planted in straw bales but don’t be afraid to experiment with others.
- Tomato plants – growing made easy!
- Winter Squash
Bales break down over the course of a year. After the growing season add the used bales to the compost pile Or use it as mulch in flowerbeds or the garden. Another option is to just incorporate the bales into your garden soil.