Straw bale gardening allows about anyone, regardless of the type of soil you may have to grow a nice garden that can be quite productive and very rewarding. It does not matter if your soil is full of rocks, hard as a rock because of clay or simply nothing more than sand. About anything that can be ground grown can be grown in straw bales if properly done. Straw bale gardening has the added advantage of being much easier for some of us than trying to prepare soil that perhaps has not been used in years and requires “tons” of fertilizer or mulch.
Straw bales are bio-degradable and also take a lot of pressure off our back as well because they are higher off the ground which doesn’t require us to bend so much. Straw bales are pretty much weed free too.
Straw bales do not need to be unsightly. Imagine a double row of bales with tomatoes growing out the top and some cucumber vines sprawling over the side or maybe some marigold plants or other flowers, herbs or mints growing out from the side of the bale. Done right, straw bales can produce as much, if not more, produce from the same number of square feet as conventional gardening by simply taking advantage of the sides and ends of the bales for other plants.
A word of caution before you run out and buy a bunch of bales for the garden. Be sure to get straw-—not grass bales which can often be full of unwanted weed seed.
Plan your layout. If possible orient your bales running north to south to take advantage of the sunlight. If you run the bales east to west, put in plants on the north side that do not require as much sunlight and use the south face for taller more sun loving plants.
Bales measure about 12” x 18” x 36” but it’s not the size that you may need to be worried about as much as the weight. Dry weight is maybe 30-40 pounds but WET WEIGHT is a whole different ball game—possible closer to 80-100 pounds. Not something you want to be moving around. I like laying out the bales string side down. They’re a bit more stable that way.
You can grow just about any vegetable or annual you choose with the straw bale method, however the taller the vegetables the more attention you’ll have to pay to staking or other support. You can plan on two to three tomato plants, four pepper or cucumber plants, or four to six lettuce plants per bale. One of the nice things about straw bales is that it’s easy to drive a stake through it to support things like tomato plants. If you’re going to do something like a bean or pea vine a stake about every second or third bale is recommended. Stretch some wire fencing between the stakes for the vine support—you can use this same method for tomatoes as well. If you use the graduated wire fencing that has the smaller openings at the bottom with large openings toward the top it’s a lot easier to harvest when the time comes. This is often called “range wire” fence. Using a double row of bales for similar plants saves a ton of space.
Always use the longest stakes you can find, the tomatoes or other vines will grow to the top and spread out. If your climate allows, you could grow an early crop of sugar snap peas on the supports before you start the tomatoes. Tomatoes could be used as a shade plant for those plants that don’t like a lot of direct sun.
Get the Bales Ready
Water the bales thoroughly and keep them really damp for 3-4 days. The bales will absorb a lot of water and hold it.
At this point some methods will tell you to start adding fertilizer. I like holding off until I’m ready to start planting—which should be as soon as the bales are thoroughly saturated.
Planning. This is when you want to check the spacing on whatever you’re going to be putting in the bales. Is it 12” apart, 18” apart etc. Gouge out the holes for the plants using a good stiff knife. (an old military bayonet is great for this as they don’t bend) For tomato, pepper and egg plant dig the hole extra deep for planting. You want to be able to put these in 3-4” deeper, than they were in the pot, for good root development.
Use a good planting soil—this is one thing you don’t want to skimp on. Try to get one without pine bark or needles in it as they will raise the acidic content of the soil. But—if the plants call for acidic soil then it’s a good idea.
Straw bales are easy to work with. They’re ralatively light meaning its pretty easy to move them around. You can stack them, run them out in a serpintine line, build a pyramid, form a circle, make a “fountain” style and so forth. Get creative! Gardening with straw bales can be fun, exciting and very rewarding.
You can grow plants from seeds or transplants.
For direct sowing—choose your spacing, make your planting hole and add in some good soil, water down to settle the soil in without air gaps and place your seed. A general rule of thumb is to plant seed twice the depth of the diameter of the seed itself—most of the time it’s nothing more than a matter of sprinkling some soil over the top or pressing in the seed and then lightly covering. When direct, sowing it is CRITICAL to not let your soil dry out. If the seeds are beginning to sprout and then allowed to dry it’s going to kill the plant. Keep the soil moist at all times.
Transplanting: Again, choose your spacing based on the plants needs—gouge out a hole for the soil, water down thoroughly and place the plant with the roots spread out as much as possible. Top off with soil and it’s done.
Don’t let the bales dry out. You may need to water more than once a day in the beginning. As the bales begin to break down they will hold more water and you should be able to water less frequently.
Retaining moisture: In certain areas there is virtually no humidity or rainfall and this presents a particular problem with watering and retaining moisture in the bales—and in gardens as well for that matter.
Paper or plastic: To help keep the bales from drying out you can wrap them with a plastic bag or in several layers of newspaper or cardboard, where there are no plants like along the sides and ends. Hold the paper in place by simply pushing a stick through the paper to keep it where you want it.
A moisture meter bought from places like Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot takes the guess work out of watering. I highly suggest getting one if you don’t already have it.
If you’re not concerned about appearance you can leave the paper or plastic on all season. If you decide to add plants, simply poke a hole through it, gouge your hole, add soil and plant.
Fertilizing: Straw has virtually no nutritional value for plants. You can make your own compost tea and use that but be careful that it’s not too acidic or alkaline. There are simple meters that can be bought to measure this for you thus eliminating the guess work.
Fish emulsion: This is our favorite. It’s all natural, can be bought about anywhere and it’s inexpensive. Be aware though—the pre mixed stuff sold in stores is VERY EXPENSIVE compared to the mix it yourself straight fish emulsion. A gallon of the “concentrate” should be selling for about 25.00 per gallon. A quart of the “pre mixed” sells for as much as 12.00. It takes between 1-2 tablespoons of the “concentrate” to make a quart—do the math.
Simply follow the instructions on the bottle label for fertilizing—about once every two weeks is usually good. The fish can be direct sprayed onto the plant leaves without burning—-just do not spray in the heat of the day, evening is best but early morning before the sun gets high in the sky is ok too.
Blood meal: This is a great additive with the fish emulsion. It helps promote good plant growth all around. You need to be careful though that you don’t use too much as it can result in plants that are nice and tall, bushy and green but not bearing veggies or fruit. About ½ teaspoon per plant mixed in with the soil is usually sufficient.
Cost: A straw bale, depending on your climate, will last 3-5 years and around here sells for about 6.00. At 4 years that comes to 1.50 a year and when the bale has gotten to the point of decomposition where it’s no longer very useful for planting it can be recycled through the system as mulch or used as the base for the replacement bale. Overall, a darn good way to garden.
A word of caution. I mention this based on a comment I got from one of my customers. Straw and hay bales can attract unwanted pests such as mice and even scorpions etc. They’re bad enough but in some areas mice are a magnet for snakes which might be a good thing unless they’re the poisonous kind. Please be aware when you’re working in your straw garden.