Straw Bale Gardening: An Easy Way To Grow Food

Straw Bale Gardening

Last year I tried a few off-the-wall types of gardens, including a straw bale garden.

Plants growing out of straw bales – I had seen them being done, but I was skeptical of the results it could yield. I decided to try it with one bale. Big mistake! I should have done a bunch of them!

Why Straw Bale Gardening?

Straw bale gardening is very simple system to set up, and there are many benefits to growing this type of garden:

  • Very few weeds grow in straw bale gardens, and because they are elevated, weeding is easier than in a conventional garden.
  • They are also great for seniors who still want to garden but have a hard time getting up and down. The elevated design makes it very easy for them to maintain.
  • Being off the ground seems to deter a lot of pests.
  • Straw bales tend to stay damp longer, so they don’t need to be watered as often.
  • Straw bales aren’t a permanent structure if you decide you don’t like the positioning of your garden.
  • When you’re done for the year the leftover straw can go into the compost.

Starting Your Straw Bale Garden

Choosing a location & setting up

First, you need to find a sunny spot in your yard that won’t be in the way. Last year I only had one bale, but this year I will have at least 10 of them, so I needed to find a large enough space. I put mine along a fence line in the back yard. They will get east and west sun most of the day, at least 6 hours. This is important for most vegetable crops.

Place your straw bales in a row or group them together. Do whatever is easiest for you to maintain. Then, it’s time to get started. The conditioning steps will take about two weeks.

Conditioning the bales

  1. Place your straw bales cut side up. The “straws” will act as tubes, holding water and nutrients for the plants. The twine holding it together should run around the sides of the bale, not over the top and bottom. Don’t cut the twine, you’ll need it to hold the bales together.
  2. On days one through 3 or 4, water the bales well. It’s important for them to remain damp during the conditioning process.
  3. For the next 6-7 days fertilize the bales. You can use a commercial organic water-in fertilizer, but I used compost tea. (Learn secrets to making great compost tea.) Make enough tea so that you have 2 gallons or so for each bale and water in thoroughly.
  4. For the next few days, use only water to moisten bales.

If you check the temperature, you’ll see that bales will heat up quite a bit and then cool down gain. Don’t start planting until the temperature comes down to around 80°F. Any warmer and it could kill the roots of new plants.

During the conditioning process you may notice steam coming from the bales – this is normal as the temperature rises. The straw on the inside of the bale is actually beginning to decompose, much like it would in a compost bin. It is normal to see black gunk making its way to the top of the bales or mushrooms forming. Don’t worry, neither is harmful, and the mushrooms can be pulled out if you wish.

Planting in the bales

  • After the temperature comes down, you’re ready to plant. An average straw bale can handle 2-3 tomato plants or 2-3 pepper plants. Place them in a line on the top, digging into the bale a bit to set the roots.
  • You can also plant seeds – just dig a small trench, fill it in with some soil, add your seeds, and cover lightly with soil. I’m going to try an herb bed this year using this method. The seeds require a small amount of soil to help get the roots started.
  • If your plants need support, you can use tomato cages or poles.
  • The poles or cages can also serve as support if you need to cover for frost.
  • I supported my pepper plant last year and let my tomatoes run over the sides. They were very easy to harvest and pinch off when it was time to do so.
  • Try sweet potatoes or squash on the sides. Let them run and they’ll do really well.
  • Flowers? Sure! Why not? I planted a few marigolds and nasturtiums for color and to detract bugs.
  • Really, the planting possibilities are endless.

Caring for your straw bale garden

  • Water plants as needed. Straw bales stay damp longer, so watering won’t need to occur as often as in a regular garden.
  • You may also need less fertilizer. Decomposing straw creates compost which is usable by plants. This is mostly nitrogen, so you may need a little extra phosphorus for root growth.
  • At the end of the season, you can put the straw in the compost to decompose the rest of the way or pile up in a corner of the yard. You can use most of it in the spring.
  • Then, why not get a few more bales in the fall? You could plant lettuce and kale, maybe even broccoli and spinach! Any cool season crop should do well and you can cover it to extend the season.

Have you ever planted a straw bale garden? Share your experience in the comments below!

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photo credit to Patty Lakinsmith

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Comments

  1. Love this idea! I may do this with my tomato plants this year. What do you think about doing bales for vine type bean plants and letting them run over the sides like you mentioned you did with your tomato plants? Any negatives to this idea that you can think of? There are a couple of types of beans I’d like to try this year, but I haven’t wanted to mess with a trellis/support for them. Thanks!

    • That’s a great idea Barbara! I think it would be fine for most types of beans or peas. If they get too long and start to drag on the ground, you can loop them on top of the bale again.

  2. Do you worry about the fungicide sprayed on the bales? I know with pine straw we avoid store bought for bee smokers because of it.

    • Good point, Ann. The straw I get is from local farmers, ones that I am acquainted with and know they don’t use fungicide. Most wheat farmers around here don’t use it, but it wouldn’t hurt to be sure.

  3. In looking for straw bales in my area, I could only find bermuda bales (for horses). Are there any hay bales that are not good for gardening? Does it matter what type of hay it is?

    • I wouldn’t use grass or any other hay Stephanie. It often has seeds, doesn’t decompose the same way straw does and doesn’t often have ho;;ow tubes to hold water the way straw has. Try your local big box stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot. They usually have it.

    • What you’re talking about is hay, not straw. You’ll best find straw in the fall after harvest. :)

  4. This sounds like a great idea, but I wonder about the chemicals that might be in the hay bales or if they had been grown in soil that had been sprayed repeatedly in the past. Any hints on finding hay bales that are chemical free.

    • I use local farmers that I know Darlene. That way I know what has and hasn’t been used on the ground. In the research that I’ve done, it’s been indicated that even if a field has been sprayed a number of times in the past, a lot of the chemicals break down and are not present or as present as when they are first applied. There is not much of a chance of the chemicals being used by the wheat (for example), surviving through the growing and harvesting process, being broken down by decomposition of the straw and being reabsorbed by any plant that may be growing in the straw bale. I’ve talked to the BioBisuness Network here in Western North Carolina extensively about this, growing in adverse conditions (such as tires or treated wood or plastic pots) and have found there is very little to none of the original chemical present in the food that we eat. I’m very relieved by this as is has been a concern in the past.

  5. I’ve planted a straw bale garden in the past and it worked very well. Don’t use bermuda grass bales or any other type of hay for livestock. Go to a feed store if you have to to find the straw bales. Sometimes you can find them at Home Depot and Lowes. Feed companies have them mostly for lining stalls. Grass bales are too fine and won’t hold the moisture like straw.

    • Thanks, Judith. Any particular type of straw bale you would recommend? The site I found in my area calls all of them “straw bale” then tells from what source (bermuda, etc.).

  6. What a fantastic idea! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this blog. I am a senior with a health condition in which it is so difficult for me to bend, and I have missed having a garden. But, this way, I can actually sit in a chair and garden!

    Thank you so very much!

  7. I did this a couple of years ago for the first time and loved it. So little work for a wonderful harvest. Used only 8 bales the first time but am moving on up to a full dozen this year. Gardening without the work. Who would have thunk it?