Poor soil? No soil? Or do you have a hard time bend downing/over to garden? If any of these sound familiar then straw bale gardening is a fantastic gardening alternative! Straw bale gardening uses decomposing straw bales instead of soil to grow vegetables. It’s similar in concept to raised bed gardening with a much cheaper price tag.
These tips will help you set up and garden successfully using straw bales!
1. Use straw bales
Bales come in two varieties: straw and hay. Straw is the byproduct of the grain industry and contains only the hollowed out stem of plants such as wheat, barley and oats. Hay bales often contain a variety of dried grasses and many seeds; hay bales are usually cheaper but they will become weedy and break down too quickly. Bales can be purchased at some garden center or sourced directly from farmers. They are more available for purchase in the fall after grain harvest.
2. Position bales
Lay a couple layers of newspaper or weed block fabric under the area you plan on putting your bales, to prevent weeds from coming up from the ground. Bales can be placed on your concrete driveway, on top of your existing garden soil, or anywhere else you’d like to garden. Keep in mind the wetness of the bale can damage wooden decks and the bales become quite heavy, a concerning aspect if rooftop gardening.
Bales are held together with 2 or 3 strands of baling twine, keeping the bale in its telltale rectangular shape. Make sure this twine is not severed as it will allow the bale to fall apart. Bales should be laid on their sides with the narrow side up so the twine is parallel to the ground.
4. Condition bales for growing
One of the most important steps is prepping, or conditioning, the bales for growing. You will need approximately 2 weeks for this. Conditioning jump-starts the breakdown process; microbes in the straw will generate heat as they work. The key to conditioning is to watch and wait until the temperature of the bales stabilizes.
Day 1 to 3: water the bales heavily, until water runs out the bottom.
Day 4 to 6: sprinkle 1 cup of high nitrogen fertilizer (urea, ammonium sulfate, blood meal, lawn fertilizer) across the top of each bale and water well.
Day 7 to 9: sprinkle 1/2 cup of high nitrogen fertilizer across the top of each bale and water well.
Day 10 until completion: stop fertilizing, but continue watering.
Bales are ready to be planted when they are no longer hot to the touch. They should be about as warm as your body temperature.
If you are using seedlings, use a garden trowel to create a hole in the top of the straw bale, between the pieces of straw, slightly larger than the seedling. Then plant seedlings, one per hole, per recommended spacing. If you are planting seeds spread a 2″ layer of peat based potting soil across the top of the bale. Sow seeds into the potting soil. Root systems will grow downward, making their way into the bale over time.