Do you have difficulties stooping or bending to plant, weed, and harvest your garden? With a straw bale garden, you will have the equivalent of a raised bed garden made from biodegradable material, which is weed free and turns to mulch after one-two growing seasons. You are basically growing a garden while composting the straw for the next growing season. The straw bale sets on top of the ground which creates a entire new range of possibility for those who have rocky, sandy, or clay soil. They can even be used on concrete.
Wet straw bales are extremely difficult to move, so plan carefully. Take into consideration what will be grown in each bale and leave adequate walking space between the bales. Most veggies require 6-8 hours of full sun. If you will be placing the bales on grass or weeds, it helps to lay down a couple layers of cardboard and wet well. This will kill the grass and weeds, and also attract earthworms.
How to Prepare
Many gardeners suggest placing the bales with the cut side up so compost and other nutrients can be easily added to the entire bale. Others say to use the bale on it’s side so the compost doesn’t get washed away too quickly. It’s a matter of choice and how much you like to water. Water will drain through the ends much quicker than the sides. Experiment to see which works best for you and your area.
Consider yourself lucky if you can acquire a bale that has been sitting out for the past 3-4 weeks. If your straw bale has not been sitting out for several weeks, you will need to make sure the bales are past the initial heat of decomposing, before continuing. The simplest way is to keep them wet for 3-4 weeks.
To speed up the process, follow this schedule:
First 3 days – water thoroughly and keep damp.
Next 3 days – sprinkle the bale with approximately 1/2 cup blood meal, or high nitrogen fertilizer, and water to work in.
Next 3 days – cut back to 1/4 cup blood meal and water.
After the 10th day, keep the bale moist and check the internal temp daily. Once the temp is below body temperature, it is safe to continue.
Dig a few shallow holes where you are going to plant your seedlings. Add a bit of finished compost (compost from last years’ straw bale garden works well) and plant your seedlings. If you are sowing seeds in your straw bale garden, cover the entire bale with 2-3 inches of top soil or finished compost, and plant seeds according to package directions. Do not let the bales dry out. The straw bale garden will need frequent waterings at first until they start to decompose, eventually they will retain water longer and will not require as much. A soaker hose, with a timer, can be laid across the top of the bale under the top soil or finished compost.
What and how much can you grow in a single bale?
You can gown almost any vegetable or annual with the straw bale method. Taller veggies will need staking for support. Follow the planting guide on the back of the seed packet for spacing, but on average, you can plant 2-3 tomato plants per bale, 4 pepper plants per bale, and up to 6 lettuce plants per bale.
Plant a few marigolds and other annuals around the edge to make the straw bed more attractive.
Be sure to purchase straw and not hay, which has many seeds that will grow and compete with your veggies. Straw is the hollow plant tube left behind after the seed is harvested. Most home and garden stores that have mulch carry straw bales. Ask for older ones that may be discounted.
Straw bale gardening is easy, fun, and inexpensive – straw is usually cheaper to purchase than organic dirt, and you will have wonderful compost at the end of the growing season to top off next years straw bale garden.